Disclaimer: Jim, Blair, Simon, et al are not mine -- they belong to Pet Fly Productions so I end up borrowing them now and again. (But I always give them back. Drat!)

Category: Drama, Angst, h/c.

Notes: I want to thank the SentinelAngst list for deciding to have the Creative Endeavor contest and for voting this story their favorite! Thanks, listsibs -- this one's for you!

Acknowledgments: For Kathleen, my wonderful and enthusiastic beta -- without her, this story wouldn't have been written. Thanks!!

Rating: PG-13 for language

This story takes place after S2P2.


BLAIR'S CHOICE



Fidus Amicus






PRESENT

"Damn him to hell," I swear softly, but with enough vehemence that it resounds within the confines of the ICU room. I cringe at the outburst, but the fear and anger remain.

I try to tune out the beep of the heart monitor, the siphoning of the IV into the too-thin arm, and the whoosh of the respirator as it breathes for the pale figure lying atop the bed, but I can't. In my mind the medical instruments are chanting the countdown, mocking my failure to protect that which I care for most in this world... where only the good seem to die young. It may be a cliche, but in this case it fits all too well.

"I'm sorry, Chief. I tried--" My voice breaks. It feels like I've swallowed broken glass and my eyes tear. I rub them with one hand while I cling to my guide's wrist with the other.

I force the horrible suffocating emotions down, afraid to lose even one precious moment with my guide... my best friend. I reach up and notice my fingers are shaking but I don't fight it. My fingertips brush a sweat-dampened curl back from Blair's forehead and the moisture stings like acid. I try to dial down my sense of touch, just like Blair taught me, but it's no use. Everything is out of control. Without my guide I'm once again drowning in these senses I had once managed with little thought, thanks to the man lying on the sterile hospital bed.

Heat rolls off Blair in waves. I know it's the fever that's been slowly invading him, ravaging his body and forcing him into a coma for these last few hours left on earth. If only he would open his familiar blue eyes one more time, I could tell him what he meant -- means -- to me. I've never been very good at articulating my feelings -- hell, since I was a boy I was told it wasn't manly and I've always been cowardly enough to believe it. But now I want to speak the words out loud. I need my best friend to hear them so he truly understands how much I care for him -- the brother of my heart.

I rest my palm against Blair's cheek and the whisker stubble surprises me. I guess I've always looked at him as a kid, even though I know he's not. Still, he's so young and he wouldn't be dying if not for me.

"Please, Chief, don't leave me. I can't do this sentinel thing without you." I pause and my throat is so thick, for a moment I can't breathe. "I can't do this living thing without you." My voice breaks and a tear trickles down the side of my face, burning a trail across my skin but the physical pain is so much less than I deserve. I should be the one lying here, not Blair.

He seems to press his face against my palm, but it's probably only an illusion created by my desperation. Another tear follows the first down my cheek but at the moment I could care less about some stupid tough cop image. There's only time now to hold my friend until his heart stops... and mine shatters.


THREE DAYS PREVIOUS

"Damn it, Jim, I'm not some snot-nosed kid you need to check up on every other hour," Blair said, waving a two-bite-size piece of bagel to emphasize his point.

"Quit exaggerating, Sandburg," Jim growled. He finished his toast and carefully brushed the crumbs from the table onto his plate. "So I call a couple times a day. What's the big deal?"

Blair ate the rest of the bagel and picked up his own plate, though there was still food left on it. He rinsed it off in the sink and used the disposal to get rid of the uneaten egg. "Ever since Alex, you've been acting like my mother, except even Naomi was never this bad. Look, it's been three months. Alex is in a psych hospital and things are back to normal, right?"

Jim ran water over his plate and set it in the sink. "Whatever you say, Sandburg."

Frustration lit Blair's expressive face. "Damn it, Jim, don't shut me out. I'm just telling you I'm fine. You don't have to worry about me."

"I gotcha loud and clear." Jim glanced at his watch. "I have to go."

The detective strode to the door, grabbed his jacket and was gone before Blair could say anything more. Blair threw his hands in the air. Why the hell hadn't Burton warned him about sentinels and their overprotective streak? He hadn't meant to piss off Jim, but he was getting sick and tired of being treated like a kid.

He glanced at the dirty dishes in the sink and sighed. He didn't have to be at the university for another hour. It wouldn't hurt to wash them and maybe, just maybe, it would make Jim a little more bearable to be around this evening.


Jim Ellison glared at the pile of reports in his in-box, but the same look which had criminals quaking during an interrogation had little impact on the papers. In fact, they seemed to be taunting him. He glanced around the bull pen, noticing that Megan, H and Rafe were studiously ignoring him. Good thing. He wasn't in the mood for social chit chat -- he'd exhausted his vast repertoire this morning with his exasperating roommate.

Okay, maybe he had been a little overcautious lately, but damn it, he had a right to be. Once Alex Barnes' influence had been lifted, his eyes had been opened and what he saw scared the hell out of him. If only he hadn't thrown Blair out of the loft; if only he had talked to his roommate; if only Blair hadn't died.

He rubbed his throbbing brow as he tried to thrust aside the memory of seeing Blair's body floating face down in the fountain. God, he had never known fear until that moment -- even when the helicopter had gone down in Peru he hadn't felt the same horror and helplessness.

He had to respect Blair's wishes even though he chafed at not knowing where his guide was every minute of the day. He trusted Blair, though God knows the anthropology student had little reason to believe that now. But, Jim vowed to himself, he would make him believe it -- one way or another, he would convince him.

He looked again at the paperwork, but it was all still there. No sentinel abilities could make it go away. With a snarl of defeat, Jim reached for the first piece of paper on the intimidating mountain.

As he booted up his computer for the proper form, an uneasiness wafted through him. His skin tingled and the hair at the nape of his neck rose. He glanced at his hands, startled to see them trembling. He quickly looked around, but didn't see anything amiss in the Major Crime bull pen. Rafe was taking a witness' statement, while H was typing with the hunt-and-peck method. Megan was studying a file as she drank sludge-like coffee. Joel was in Simon's office and Jim tilted his head slightly to listen to their conversation -- they were only discussing a case. He tuned them out and concentrated on the feeling of dread which lingered.

Blair. He was the only one missing. Without thought, he picked up the phone and dialed the anthropologist's office phone. The memory of the morning's heated conversation made him slam the receiver back down after only one ring. Blair had been right. He was acting more like the father of a teen-aged daughter than a friend or partner.

Jim took a few deep breaths, determined to thrust the irrational feeling aside. Blair was an adult. He didn't need Jim checking on him like he was a latchkey child. He forced himself to concentrate on the report in front of him and set to work catching up on the backlog of paperwork.

An hour later, a patrol cop entered the bull pen carrying a small brown package. Jim watched him approach his desk and the foreboding he'd shoved aside earlier returned tenfold.

"Somebody dropped this off for you downstairs. I had the bomb guys check it out first but it's clean," the cop said, then grinned. "Maybe you got a secret admirer."

Jim managed a slight smile as he accepted the box. "A guy can dream. Thanks, Max."

The patrolman left, whistling an off-key tune that reminded Jim of fingernails on a chalkboard. Grimacing, he turned the package over in his hands, noting the brown paper and the block letters of his name on one side of the box. He tuned up his hearing and detected the faint ticking of a clock or watch, and even though the bomb unit had declared it clean, he expanded his sense of smell. There was no scent of explosives.

Puzzled, Jim used his letter opener to slice the clear tape holding the paper around the box and unwrapped it. Inside was a watchcase and he opened it slowly. He stared at the face for a moment, then realized it wasn't a normal watch. It was a stopwatch and it was running. It showed one hour, twenty-four minutes and ever-increasing seconds.

"What the hell?" he mumbled to himself. A small slip of paper jammed behind the stopwatch caught his eye and he carefully tugged it out. He unfolded it with trembling fingers.

His heart pitched into his throat and he wasn't even aware he had stood until he was striding toward the elevator and punching Blair's office number into his cell phone.

"Hello," came the faint reply after nearly ten rings.

Jim leaned against the elevator wall and closed his eyes in momentary relief. "Where the hell have you been?" The words came out harsher than he had intended and he mentally cringed, waiting for Blair's sharp rebuttal. Only it didn't come. "Chief? Are you there?"

"Ah, yeah, Jim." His voice sounded disoriented.

Jim's panic slammed back. "What's going on? Are you hurt?"

"I d-don't think so." A long pause. "I must've fallen asleep."

"Don't move. I'm on my way."

"Jim, I'm all right."

"Humor me. Sit tight. I'll be there in fifteen minutes."

"Okay, but you'd better have a damned good reason."

The familiar irritation made Jim smile slightly. "I'll see you in a few." He slapped the phone shut and slipped it into his pocket then gazed at the stopwatch. His smile faded. "I hope I don't have a damned good reason."


Jim was lucky enough to find a parking slot in front of Hargrove Hall and he hurried toward the building, forcing himself not to look at the fountain which had nearly taken his guide's life. No, it had taken his life.

Shuddering from the memory, he took the steps two at a time and followed the familiar route to Blair's basement office. The musty scent of mildew and eons-old artifacts assaulted his nose and he quickly lowered his smell dial.

The door to Blair's office was open and Jim went inside after a quick knock on the door frame. When Blair looked up from the paper he was grading, he automatically pushed his glasses up on his nose. The typical Sandburg scowl made Jim feel a little sheepish for his earlier melodramatics.

"Hey, Chief," he said.

"So a phone call wasn't enough this time? You had to come all the way over here to check on me?" Blair demanded without preamble.

Jim gritted his teeth at his guide's annoyance and his own irritation rose a couple notches, but he fought it down. "This was delivered to the station a little while ago." He handed Blair the stopwatch and note.

Baffled now, Blair took them and read the note. His face paled and all signs of impatience disappeared. "What does it mean?"

"I don't know." Jim removed a pile of books from a chair in front of the overflowing desk and sat down. "Have you seen anyone suspicious around here today?"

"Other than the typical overworked grad student and frustrated undergrads, no." Blair leaned back in his chair, but the forced casualness didn't fool Jim. He could hear the younger man's increased heartbeat. "The note obviously came from someone who knows what you are."

"And what you are," Jim added quietly. "Maybe it's a bad joke."

"From who, Simon or Megan?" Blair raked a hand through his curly hair. "I can't see either of them doing something like this."

Jim rested his right ankle on his left knee and tapped an uneven rhythm on his leg with two fingers. "There's one other person who knows."

"Alex Barnes? But she isn't sane enough to remember who she is, much less anyone else."

"I wasn't thinking of her."

It took a moment for Blair to recall the three-year-old case. "Brackett. But he's in prison."

"He's supposed to be," Jim said grimly. "But with the Feds, you never know." He eyed Blair. "Are you sure you're all right? This note's a threat against your life."

"We don't know that for sure. He could be after you."

"He's after both of us, Chief."

Jim heard footsteps a second before a young man poked his head in the door and stiffened instinctually, his hand going to the gun at his back.

"Hey, Luke. What's going on?" Blair asked after casting Jim a frown.

"I was just checking to see if your friend found you," Luke replied.

"Who was it?"

"He didn't say. I sent him down here to your office."

"How long ago?" Jim demanded.

Luke glanced at Jim in surprise. "An hour and a half, maybe two."

Jim reached for the stopwatch lying on Blair's desk. It read one hour and fifty-six minutes. His blood chilled. "What did he look like?"

"I don't know, kinda average. Well, maybe better looking than average. Brown hair, six feet tall, in good shape -- looked like he was into running or something," Luke said.

Jim glanced at Sandburg and caught the anthropologist's wide eyes. Blair stood and walked to the door. "Thanks, Luke," he said.

"No problem, man."

Blair closed the door behind Luke and turned slowly to face Jim. "It could've been Brackett."

"Or one of a thousand other men," Jim argued. He didn't want to contemplate the possibility of the ex-CIA rogue loose and holding a grudge.

Blair rubbed his forearm absently and grimaced. "Ow."

"What is it?"

"I'm not sure." Blair pushed up the sleeve of his plaid flannel shirt. He spotted a newly formed bruise with a needle mark in the center and his heartbeat skyrocketed. "Shit."

Jim jumped to his feet. "The hospital. Now."

"I need my backpack and papers," Blair said, moving around him.

The detective grabbed his arms. "Damn it, Sandburg, we don't have time to worry about that."

Blair's blue eyes flashed. "I have to correct those papers and get them back in three days."

"You could be dead in less than seventy-two hours."

Blair's face lost all color.

"C'mon." Jim hustled him out of the office as his heart slammed against his ribs. If Brackett had injected Blair with something, Jim had no doubt it would kill the student in the time indicated in the note.


Two hours later Blair sat while Jim paced, looking too much like his animal spirit. Blair could almost see a long black tail swishing behind him as he stalked back and forth in the hallway.

"How long does it take to analyze some blood?" Jim demanded, his icy gaze drilling a hole through the walls.

Blair watched the sentinel tip his head to listen to something only he could hear. Jim's nostrils flared slightly. "Simon's coming."

Captain Simon Banks, coat flowing around his lanky frame, rounded the corner at the end of the corridor. Jim had called him as he sped to the hospital with sirens blaring and lights flashing. As Simon drew nearer, Blair could see the tension in his dark face and the set of his broad shoulders.

Simon's gaze settled on Jim for only a moment, then flickered over to Blair. "Hey, Sandburg, how are you holding up?"

He lifted his hands in the air, realized he was trembling and quickly dropped them back into his lap. "Same old, same old."

Jim's concerned gaze slid across him but Blair refused to meet it. "What'd you find?" he asked when it was obvious the two older men were paying far too much attention to him.

"Max said the package was delivered by a man matching Brackett's general description," Simon replied.

"And nobody stopped him?" Jim demanded.

Banks held up a hand and scowled. "How were they supposed to know who he was? Besides, Brackett was supposed to be in prison."

"So why the hell isn't he?"

"Let the man talk, Jim," Blair said calmly.

Jim's clenched jaw didn't relax, but his blue eyes lost some of their icy fury.

"Brackett was released six months ago. The order was signed by a federal judge," Simon continued dryly. "Brackett disappeared shortly thereafter."

Blair laughed harshly. "Federal, huh? The company probably wanted to recruit him. The perfect killing machine -- no morals, no ethics."

"Did anybody catch a license plate or see which direction he went after he left the department?" Jim asked.

"No." The one word answer was spit out by the captain. "I have an APB out for him, and H, Rafe and Megan searching for him."

Jim spun around and stalked away from Simon, coming to a stop ten feet away and returning. "If he doesn't want to be found, he won't be."

"We'll have to wait for him to contact Jim," Blair said quietly, his fingers curling and uncurling into his palms.

Jim stared at him, a mixture of fear, anger and concern rolled into his expression. He crossed the area between them in two steps and gave Blair's shoulder a reassuring squeeze. He opened his mouth as if to say something, but jerked his head up. "Finally," he murmured.

A nurse came out of the back room and called Blair's name. Jim didn't even ask, but followed his friend into the same room where they had drawn Blair's blood.

"I'll call in and see if they've come up with anything yet," Simon called after them.

Jim sent him a wave before the door closed behind them. Dr. Feldman was already there with a clipboard in his hand. His expression was grim. The nurse retreated, leaving the three men alone.

"Well?" Jim demanded.

"It is a toxin," the doctor stated.

Blair's heart thundered in his chest and terror climbed into his throat. He wanted nothing more than to find someplace quiet and have a nice little panic attack, but knew that he wouldn't... not as long as Jim needed him to be strong. "What kind?" he asked quietly.

"We don't know. It's of a type no one has seen before."

"Which means there isn't an antidote," Blair finished.

"On the contrary, there probably is, but only the person who manufactured the poison would have the antidote," Dr. Feldman explained. "We've tried to break down each component but even with today's technology, it's impossible to discover every element in it."

"Then what good is all your goddamned technology?" Jim demanded, his hands balled at his sides.

Blair laid a calming hand on his forearm and spoke softly, "It's not the doctor's fault, Jim." He forced his own hysteria back. "How long?"

"It's hard to say. We need to take another sample and compare it to the first to get an accurate picture of how fast the poison is progressing in your system."

Jim pulled the stopwatch from his jacket pocket and said hoarsely, "Sixty-eight hours and twenty-one minutes."

"Tell me what's going to happen so I can be prepared," Blair said.

"Damn it, Chief, how can you be so--"

"We have to know, Jim," Blair said firmly. He gave his attention to the doctor again. "Tell us."

"From what we've been able to ascertain, it's a poison that works on red blood cells, the ones which carry oxygen." Dr. Feldman paused, his expression grim. "The first indication will probably be general muscle discomfort, like you would get after a severe physical work-out. The next symptom will be an increased difficulty in breathing and an elevated heart rate as your heart struggles to get more oxygen out into your body. You'll experience lightheadedness and nausea, too, as your body tries to counteract the effects of oxygen deprivation. Towards the end, your organs will start shutting down, unable to operate without oxygen." The doctor took a deep breath. "When that happens, death will occur soon after."

Blair glanced at Jim and wondered if his own face was as pale as the older man's. He managed a weak smile. "We all gotta go sometime, huh?"

"Damn it, Sandburg, you're not going to die," Jim stated, his eyes flashing blue fire.

"You may not have a whole lot to say about it, big guy."

"As long as Brackett's alive, there's a chance."

"We're not even sure it was him."

"It was," Jim said, his voice deadly serious. "I know it was."

"I'll have the nurse get you admitted," the doctor interjected. "That way we can monitor your condition and take steps to treat the symptoms."

Jim nodded. "Good idea."

Blair scowled. "But you can't stop it, right?"

The doctor shook his head. "I'm sorry, but only an antidote can do that. We can only prolong your life by maybe an hour or two."

Blair jumped off the bed where he'd been sitting. "I'm not staying."

Twin looks of outrage targeted him, but Blair was only concerned with Jim's. "Look, you need my help out there."

"I can--"

"No, you can't," Blair cut him off. "I'm your partner, your back-up."

"Mr. Sandburg, I strongly advise you to stay here at the hospital," the doctor interjected.

The younger man shook his head. "Thanks for your help, Doc, but I'm not going to lie around waiting to die." He turned to his sentinel. "Come on, Jim. We have work to do."

He strode out the door, afraid his knees would collapse at any moment. He spotted Simon on a phone by the admitting desk, but didn't have the strength to tell him what the doctor had said. Jim could fill him in. Blair managed to make it all the way to the truck before dropping into the passenger seat. Jim joined him a few minutes later, his expression as dark as a thundercloud.

Blair held up his hand as a preemptive strike to ward off his friend's arguments. "Don't say it, Jim. I'm not going to change my mind."

Jim clutched the steering wheel, staring out of the windshield at the gray sky. "Damn it, Sandburg, you're a stubborn SOB."

Blair grinned cheekily. "I learned from the best."

Jim closed his eyes and Blair's moment of bravado disappeared.

"You're going to die, Chief, unless we can track down the antidote," Jim said, his words strained.

"I know." His voice was barely above a whisper. "But our best chance at doing that is me sticking with you. You know it, too, Jim."

Slowly, Jim turned his head and caught Blair's gaze -- silent words were exchanged between sky blue and midnight blue eyes. Anguish and desperation underwrote their mute dialogue, but there was also hope. Always hope.

Jim's cell phone rang, breaking the spell. "Ellison," he barked.

Blair watched the older man's expression fill with anger and hatred.

"What if I don't do it?" Jim asked the man at the other end of the line. The answer made his eyes turn to icy shards. "You bastard."

"Wait--" Jim swore and slapped the phone shut. He continued to stare straight ahead. "That was Brackett. He has the antidote."

Blair's chest constricted as their guess was confirmed. "What's the price?"

Jim turned slowly. "I have to assassinate Asid Sahir."

Blair's mouth fell open. "The prince visiting from the Mideast?"

"One and the same, Chief."

"Why?"

"Brackett didn't let me in on his reasons, but I can guess," Jim answered grimly. "There's been a lot of turmoil in their country. If Prince Sahir is dead, that leaves the king without an heir and the throne is open to whoever holds the most marbles. And there's a rumor that the king's been sick."

Blair pressed his fists into his thighs. "Looks like my CIA guess wasn't so far off the mark after all."

Jim gritted his teeth. "It wouldn't surprise me. Brackett was damned good at what he did and he had the conscience to go with it, or maybe I should say, lack thereof."

"Why you? Why doesn't he just do it himself? Why go through this whole poison-Sandburg thing?" Some of the hysteria which Blair had tried to keep inside escaped but he quickly clamped down on it. Losing it wasn't going to help the situation.

"Security is going to be tight on this one, Chief. In fact, Simon asked me only yesterday to coordinate CPD efforts with the Feds." He smiled coldly. "Looks like the fox is going to be guarding the chicken coop."

"You can't kill him!"

"I don't plan to," Jim said. "But I may have to make it look like I do if we can't find Brackett before show time." He started the truck. "First thing is to drop in on your friend Jack Kelso."

Blair nodded. "If anyone can help, it's Jack."


"I haven't heard anything, but then I haven't been looking either," Jack said. The wheelchair-bound ex-CIA agent punched in some commands on his keyboard. "Why do you think Brackett is planning something?"

The question was asked casually, but Jim heard the curiosity behind it. "He called me."

Jack jerked his head up to look at Jim. "Why would he do that?"

Jim exchanged a look with Blair, letting his guide make the decision. As he studied him, he listened to his heartbeat and respiration. So far, they remained normal, but Jim had no doubt that wouldn't continue for much longer as the red blood cells began to lose their effectiveness one by one.

"He poisoned me, Jack," Blair explained. "He'll give us the antidote if Jim carries out an assassination."

He spoke so evenly that Jim wanted to shake him. It was irrational, but Jim couldn't understand how Blair could appear so unruffled, when all he wanted to do was punch something... make everything and everyone around him hurt as much as he did.

Jack's eyes widened behind his glass lenses. "Damn him."

"Already did that," Jim spoke up. "You got anything yet?"

Jack's gaze lingered on Blair a moment longer. "I'm sorry, Blair. You know I'll do everything I can to help." He shifted his attention back to the computer screen. "Looks like Brackett was released into the custody of a federal agency. It doesn't say which one."

Jim swore quietly, but forcefully. "I suppose they needed a hit man to take somebody out, then kept him on the payroll."

"It's possible. You know as well as I do how the system works, Jim," Jack said. He glanced at Blair. "Once a company man, always a company man."

"What about you and Jim? You two got out of it," Blair asked.

"For now," Jim replied bluntly. "But if they wanted us back, they'd find a way to do it. In fact, that's what all this could be about."

"That's violating your rights," Blair argued.

Jim smiled without humor. "Welcome to the real world, Sandburg." The crestfallen look on Blair's face made Jim grasp the back of the younger man's neck gently. "I'm sorry, Chief. You've had your own rude awakening to their world."

"I'll keep digging and see what else I can find," Jack said. "Shouldn't you be in the hospital, Blair?"

"I'm right where I'm supposed to be," Blair said firmly, glancing at Jim.

The warmth in Blair's eyes thawed a piece of the ice which had settled in the center of Jim's chest.

"Let's get back to the hospital and have them take another blood sample so we know for sure what kind of time table we're looking at," Jim said.

"I'm beginning to feel like a pincushion," Blair complained to Jack.

"He's right, Blair. You need to find out all you can about this poison," Jack said, not taking the bait. "Could you possibly get me a copy of the lab results? I'd like to compare it to some of the known toxins in the company's inventory."

"Would that inventory include a cure?" Blair asked, feeling the first sliver of hope.

"Maybe, but I don't want you to get too excited. From what we know of Brackett, he always uses the latest technology. This could be a toxin only recently created."

After getting Jack's fax number, Jim guided Blair out of the office and back to the truck. "Let's grab some lunch then go back to the hospital."

"I'm not hungry," Blair said.

"You may not be hungry, but you're going to eat something, Sandburg."

Blair glanced at the stubborn planes of his partner's face. "Going Neanderthal on me, Ellison?"

"Whatever I have to do to get you to eat." Jim paused, gathering his thoughts. "Look, Chief, you're in for a rough time ahead and you're going to need your strength to get through it. You quit eating and you aren't going to be able to fight this thing."

Blair stared straight ahead, his gaze unfocused. "If we don't find the antidote, it's a fight I'm eventually going to lose anyway." He turned to gaze at Jim. "And we both know it."

"Damn it, Blair, we don't know that for sure. Brackett could be bluffing. Maybe the poison isn't actually meant to kill you."

"And maybe the tooth fairy will drop a load of nickels under my pillow tonight." Blair smiled. "Let's hit Wonderburger."

Jim appreciated Blair's attempt to lighten the atmosphere in the cab and kept his own tone indulgent. "I have a better idea. How about that deli you like so well?"

"You promise to behave yourself?"

Jim raised his right hand. "Scout's honor."

Blair snorted. "Should've known. 'Always Prepared Ellison'."

Jim swallowed against the sudden tightness in his throat. "Not always, Chief."

The drive to the deli was a silent one.


Reluctantly, Jim stopped by the university so Blair could pick up his backpack and papers which needed grading. Afraid to let him out of his sight, Jim accompanied him and was glad when Blair didn't tease him about being a blessed protector. It was a title he had failed to live up to. Again.

The second trip to the hospital went much smoother as Dr. Feldman immediately had the nurse draw blood and send it to the lab with a label marked Urgent. Instead of waiting, Jim left his home, office and cell phone numbers for the nurse to call them as soon as they had the results.

As the elevator at CPD climbed to the seventh floor, Jim noticed Blair's heartbeat increase. Was the poison already affecting him? "Are you all right Chief?"

Blair raked his fingers through his unruly curls. "Do you think Simon told everyone?"

"I asked him not to," Jim said softly. "At least not until he had to."

Blair's shoulders slumped in relief. "Thanks, man. I appreciate it. I don't think I could handle everyone treating me like I'm about to die or something."

Jim's heart pounded against his ribs. As badly as he wanted Blair to be safe in the hospital, he wanted his friend at his side more. God, I'm a selfish bastard. If the doctor could give Blair a few more hours, maybe that would give Jim additional time to find the antidote.

The elevator slid to a halt at the seventh floor but before the door could open, Jim pulled out the stop button, effectively locking them in. "Maybe you should take the doctor's advice and be admitted to the hospital."

Blair's eyes flashed angrily and Jim could see him wage and win the battle to rein in his temper. "If our positions were reversed, what would you do?"

"That wouldn't happen. Brackett needs my sentinel abilities and my experience at... at killing." He closed his eyes as memories of his days with black ops assaulted him. Blair's warm grasp on his arm made him open his eyes.

"Would you go into the hospital if you'd been poisoned?" Blair pressed.

Jim wanted to say yes, but didn't want to add lying to his already long list of transgressions. "No."

Blair drew away from him. "Okay. Then it's settled."

Relief washed through Jim, followed closely by disgust. Blair's needs outweighed his and he had to make his friend see that. "But I'm not the one who was poisoned. You were. And if you can gain two or three or four more hours, you need to take them, Blair."

"Why?"

"So you can live a little longer," Jim replied without hesitation, but was a little surprised that the answer wasn't as obvious to his partner.

Blair made a face. "You can be so dense sometimes, big guy. I'm not going to lie in bed for three days just for an extra couple hours of lying in bed." He grinned cheekily. "Besides, I have a whole list of tests you still haven't taken and if you think you're going to get out of them, you can think again. I'm not going to let a little thing like an unknown poison stop me."

Jim barked a short laugh. "I'll bet you could convince St. Peter to send you back down here just so you could make me take those tests."

"Damned right." He pressed the emergency stop button back in and the doors slid open. "C'mon, we have work to do."

Blair's jaunty stride made Jim smile and he quickly caught up with his partner. "You win, Chief, but you tell me when you need to rest or when you're feeling lousy. Deal?"

"Deal." Blair snorted. "Except that you, great sentinel of the city, will probably know it before I do."

With a grin, Jim followed his partner into Major Crime.


Five hours later, Jim slammed the telephone receiver onto its cradle and glared at it.

"Hey, man, I have a feeling that isn't going to change anything," Blair said from his chair pulled up beside his partner's desk. "What's up?"

"We've got nothing!" Jim clasped his hands and planted his elbows on the desktop as he gnawed at his knuckles. "I've contacted everyone I can think of who might have some ties with the government and nobody knows a thing about Brackett or the hit on Sahir. It's like he's working in a vacuum."

"Or on a very hush-hush project," Simon said as he joined them. He glanced around at the nearly deserted bull pen then motioned for Jim and Blair to follow him into his office.

Simon poured them each a cup of Kona coffee -- pure, not a blend -- then waited until they were settled in their usual chairs in front of his desk. "I called someone who has access to a helluva lot of things I don't even want to know about and he confirmed the assassination is an internal action but he wouldn't tell me by whom or why."

Blair sputtered on the coffee he'd just swallowed and Jim slapped his back. "You okay, Chief?"

"You mean someone in our government is planning to murder a visiting dignitary from another country?" Blair demanded, ignoring Jim's question.

Simon glanced at Jim. "Haven't you taught him about the real world yet?"

Jim shrugged. "I tried, but he slept through most of the lecture."

"Doesn't surprise me. I've heard you lecture."

Blair glared at each man in turn. "I can't believe you two are joking about this."

"What do you want us to do? Assassinate them before they assassinate someone else? We'd be no better than they are," Jim said.

The anger fled, leaving Blair deflated. "What happened to the good old days when we knew who the bad guys were without a script?"

"I'm sorry to burst another of your balloons, Chief, but this has been going on ever since the end of the second world war. Sometimes the means are justified by the ends." Jim shrugged. "Sometimes they're not."

Blair stared into his coffee cup for a long moment. "No wonder you two are always treating me like a kid."

Jim opened his mouth to argue, but Simon held up his hand. The captain leaned forward. "You may be a little naive Sandburg, but that's one of your good qualities. You keep us old jaded cops from getting too apathetic. And if I have ever made you feel like a kid, I want to apologize. Your assistance with Jim and in Major Crime has been invaluable. I know I've never said it in so many words, but I hope you've understood."

A half smile graced Blair's face and the twinkle returned to his eyes. "Be careful, Simon, or I may think there's a pussycat under that gruff exterior."

Simon's eyes narrowed in mock irritation. "You'd better hope that pussycat isn't a lion, Sandburg."

The tension leached away in the office, leaving the three men sipping their coffee in companionable silence.

"What's our next step?" Blair asked.

"Right now all we can do is wait to see if any of our sources can give us anything," Simon said. "Jim and I have gone over the security detail for the prince's stop here in Cascade and it seems to be tight. We'll take a run through tomorrow, then a final one Thursday afternoon."

"When does he speak?"

"Thursday at eight p.m." Jim rubbed his furrowed forehead, hoping to ease the headache which had taken up residence there. "That'll be thirteen hours before our seventy-two hours are up."

"Long enough for you to kill the prince, get the antidote from Brackett and administer it before I run out of time. Theoretically," Blair said, his voice catching on the last word.

"That's right, theoretically," Jim reiterated. "We're not even sure this thing will kill you."

Blair laughed, but there was no humor in the sound. He stood and began to pace. His arms moved with his words. "You heard the doctor when he called with the results of the second blood test. The poison has already begun to affect my red blood cells. At the rate it's going, seventy-two hours will be pushing it."

Jim concentrated his senses on Blair and smelled his fear, heard his heart and respiration increase, and with his sentinel vision saw the red flush in his face, one of the first visible signs of the toxin attacking his system. He stood and captured Blair's shoulders. "Settle down, Chief. You're not doing yourself any good by getting all worked up like this." He backed the younger man up to a chair and gently but firmly pressed him into it. "Sit. Do some of those breathing exercises you're always making me do."

Jim sank into the other chair and kept his senses focused on his roommate as Blair inhaled deeply, then exhaled slowly. After a couple moments, his friend's pulse evened out, though Jim could tell there was a slight elevation from its normal rate. He had a feeling it was just the beginning.

"Better?" Jim asked.

Blair nodded. "I'm all right. Sorry I freaked like that, but you can't keep denying it, Jim. Brackett isn't bluffing."

Jim looked away, unable to face the truth in Blair's eyes. He hated feeling so damned helpless. If the enemy was a living breathing person, Jim could physically combat it, but this poison reminded him too much of Golden and how he'd been unable to help Blair in his fight for survival that time, too.

"Why don't you two go on home?" Simon suggested. "There's nothing else you can do here and if I hear anything, I'll call you."

Everything in Jim demanded that he keep searching, but what could he do? He'd exhausted every avenue. The only thing left was to wait and hope one of their contacts came through with something.

"All right," Jim finally said, nodding tiredly. He stood and crossed to the door. "You hear anything, call me, no matter what time it is."

"I will," Simon promised. "Get some rest. Both of you."

Jim glanced at Blair. "We will, sir."

Blair scooped up his backpack from behind Jim's desk and accepted his jacket from Jim's outstretched hand. He shrugged into the coat and followed his partner out of the dim, quiet bull pen. He slung the backpack over a shoulder and his muscles protested slightly. The first evidence that the poison was real. For all of his brave words, Blair didn't want to face reality either. As long as he couldn't feel the effects of the toxin, he could pretend everything was okay. Now that defense was being slowly stripped away.

They decided to pick up Chinese at their favorite take-out on the way home. Once back in the loft, Jim and Blair moved about the kitchen with a familiarity borne of three years of living together. Jim placed plates on the table while Blair grabbed the silverware and set it beside the plates. Blair opened the fridge and pulled out a half bottle of wine left over from four nights ago when they'd had pasta.

"Want to finish this?" Blair asked, holding up the bottle.

Jim began to nod, then stopped himself. "Do you think it's a good idea?"

Irrational anger flashed through Blair but he tamped it down. "I'm sure a little wine won't help or harm."

Jim looked like he was about to argue, but finally said, "Sounds good."

The meal was spent discussing the Jags' chances of making the play-offs, and the Mariners' new manager and the season they might have coming up. Neither of them brought up the fact that Blair may not be there to see either one. Blair told Jim about one of his students who had turned in a paper discussing the relevancy of the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote within the moral fiber of today's society. Jim laughed as he was swallowing wine and the drink came out his nose, and Blair laughed at his partner until both of them were gasping for air.

After the dishes were cleaned and the leftovers placed in their proper color-coded containers, Jim retired to the sofa where he plopped his stocking-clad feet on the coffee table and turned on the tv. While he channel surfed, Blair pulled the students' tests from his backpack and joined Jim on the couch, red pen in hand.

"Can I help with that stuff, Chief?" Jim asked, glancing away from the hockey game on the screen.

Blair grinned. "Since when?"

Jim put on a mock look of wounded dignity. "Hey, I've helped you before. Remember last year when you had the flu? I helped correct some papers."

"And the students are still talking about your comments."

Jim grinned widely. "I was that good, huh?"

"Good isn't exactly the word I'd use." Blair shook his head in tolerant amusement and set to work reading the five essay answers that were the sum of the test. As he worked, he was aware of Jim's gaze coming to rest on him often, but he didn't dare meet his eyes. He knew what he'd see and he couldn't handle it. He was barely handling his own fear. In fact, if he thought about it, he would probably have an anxiety attack and that was the last thing he wanted to do, especially in front of Jim.

He forced himself to concentrate on the words scrawled in the blue books, allowing Jim's presence to make him feel safe even if it was only an illusion.

"You ready to call it a night, Chief?"

Blair blinked and glanced over at Jim, barely stifling a groan at the ache in his neck and shoulders. Were those aches from his position on the couch or the poison? He clamped down on the thought. "What?"

"It's eleven thirty. You should get some sleep."

"I'm okay. This won't be the first late nighter I've pulled."

"But it'll be the first while you have some unknown poison in your body," Jim shot back. His expression crumpled. "Damn. I'm sorry, Chief. I promised myself I wouldn't bring it up."

Blair removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes, not because he needed to but because he needed time to think about what he would say. He turned back to Jim and nearly caved in at the compassion -- and guilt -- he saw in his friend's face. "Ignoring it won't make it go away, although I'm doing a pretty good job of trying to make that happen." He laughed weakly. "We have to face it, Jim. I may not be here three days from now."

Jim jumped to his feet and strode to the balcony windows. He gazed outward as he dragged a hand over his hair. "You'll be here, Chief."

Blair stood and joined him. "What if I'm not?"

"Damn it, you will be, Sandburg. I'm not going to let you die from some goddamned poison."

"I hate to tell you this, but you don't have a whole lot of say in the matter." He smiled gently. "What's wrong? Are you worried about your senses? Don't be. You've got a good handle on them and I'll give Megan and Simon my notes. They can help you."

Jim froze, shock emblazoning his features. He grabbed Blair's shoulders tightly. "Is that what you think I'm worried about -- my senses? Damn it, Sandburg, I could care less about them."

Blair grasped Jim's forearms firmly. "C'mon, Jim, you have to think about them. I don't want to have to worry about you zoning someday and getting yourself killed because of them. Besides, if you reject them, my last three years will have been for nothing."

"Jesus, Blair, not everything revolves around my senses. Damn it, you aren't going to die," he stated as he tightened his hold on the student.

Blair had never seen Jim so irrational and it frightened and frustrated him. Even when Jim had come to see him in his office for the first time, while he was struggling to make sense of what was happening to him, he hadn't been so close to the edge. "It's all right, Jim," Blair said, automatically switching to his guide voice. "I'm not going anywhere for a little while so you can relax. Easy, Jim, just take it easy. We'll get through this."

Abruptly, Jim's grip loosened and his hands fell to his sides. "I'm sorry, Chief. I-I just don't want to think about it right now, okay?"

Blair studied his friend, noting the slump to his broad shoulders and the crease between his eyebrows. Jim Ellison, the master of denial and repression. Blair knew the conversation couldn't be put off much longer, but for now he would allow Jim his illusory peace. "How's your head?" he asked quietly.

"Fine."

"Bullshit," Blair said, though his tone held no vehemence. "Go to bed, Jim. I'm going to stay up a little while longer."

Jim's tortured eyes captured his and Blair wished he had words to comfort his sentinel, but how did someone soften death?

He watched Jim shuffle down the hall to the bathroom then settled back on the couch. Five minutes later, he felt Jim's hand give his shoulder a gentle squeeze.

"Good-night, Chief," he said softly. "Don't stay up too late."

"Night, Jim," Blair said huskily.

He listened to the hushed swish of Jim's stocking feet on the stairs followed by the sounds of him undressing and sliding into bed. Blair closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the couch. The everyday creaks and rustlings of the loft eased his tumultuous thoughts. He ignored the ever-growing muscle twinges which signaled the poison's growing dominion over his body, knowing this was barely a taste of what was to come in the hours ahead.

He didn't like pain -- never had -- and could be pretty much of a wimp when it came right down to it. Recalling the doctor's words, Blair shivered with apprehension. Five years ago if he had been poisoned he would have checked himself into the hospital immediately and taken whatever comfort he could get. But that was before he met Jim. Now, he had a responsibility to Jim -- to guide him until he was physically incapable of doing so.

The detective put on a big bad front, but Blair knew too well the vulnerable heart which beat beneath it -- filled with too much compassion and empathy. He also knew Blair Sandburg was James Ellison's Achilles' heel. If anybody wanted to get to Jim, they could do so through Blair. Brackett had been the first to discover the weakness. Now he was exploiting it again with far too much success.

Blair forced the useless thoughts from his mind and concentrated on the task of grading the tests. He wanted to finish them and enter the scores into the computer before...

No, he wouldn't think about it -- couldn't think about it.


Jim went from a deep sleep to complete awareness in a split second. He knew without a doubt it was Blair who had awakened him. His hearing reached out instinctively to the heartbeat he knew better than his own and was surprised it wasn't the slow steady rhythm of slumber.

Damn it, Chief, you have to take care of yourself.

But it was more concern than anger which brought Jim out of his bed. He padded down the steps, intent on forcing Blair to retire to his room and get some sleep.

He caught sight of Blair and froze. His roommate sat on the sofa, his head and torso listing to one side. A blue test booklet in his lap with a red pen lying on it told him that Blair had fallen asleep in the middle of correcting a paper. So why didn't his heart rate reflect his slumber?

The answer made Jim's belly cramp with dread. The poison. Hadn't the doctor said it would make his heart work harder and faster?

His heart in his throat, Jim slipped over to the couch. For a moment, all he could do was stare and try to imprint upon his memory the familiar and endearing picture of his sleeping roommate. He swallowed the block in his throat and leaned over, carefully removing his glasses. He set them on the coffee table and laid the test booklet and red pen beside them.

Jim took a hold of Blair's shoulders and gently laid him on the couch, resting his head on a pillow. He lifted the student's legs and arranged them on the sofa, and waited a moment while Blair murmured and shifted to a more comfortable position. Then he covered him with the afghan from the couch and another blanket he retrieved from his bedroom. He knew how much Blair hated being cold.

Jim clicked off the lamp, bathing the room in inky night. The moonlight shafted in the balcony window, giving the sentinel more than enough illumination to study his guide. Squatting down beside the sofa, Jim placed a hand on his best friend's curly head.

"What am I going to do without you, Chief?" he asked in a voice so soft only another sentinel could have heard him. "You gave me back my life in exchange for your own. That's a sacrifice you gave freely because of who you are... what you are." He closed his eyes against the onslaught of emotions and breathed deeply until he was in control once more. "And I was a selfish son-of-a-bitch to accept it. But even if I had known everything that would happen in the years ahead, I don't think I would have been strong enough to force you out of my life." His sensitive vision blurred. "I'm sorry, Chief, for being so weak." He leaned close and lightly pressed his lips to Blair's smooth brow -- something he could never do in the revealing light of day. "Forgive me," he whispered.

Then Jim rose and returned to his bed. He remained awake the rest of the night, nearly zoning on the beat of his guide's heart.


The smell of coffee roused Blair and he opened his eyes. He shoved his hair out of his face and tried to figure out where he was. The couch. He must have fallen asleep while he was working. The pillow beneath his cheek and the covers atop him told him Jim had once again taken care of him, just as he'd done a hundred other nights. He smiled to himself -- the big guy was such a marshmallow.

Leveling himself to a sitting position, he groaned aloud at his muscles' protests.

"Breakfast will be ready in ten, Sandburg," Jim called out from the kitchen.

"Gotcha," Blair mumbled, still half-asleep.

He trudged into his room, grabbed a clean set of clothing and stumbled into the bathroom. After relieving himself, he stripped and stepped into the shower. Holding his face up to the warm cascade, the morning began to coalesce... and yesterday slammed back with all the subtlety of a freight train. His breath stammered in his throat and his gaze flew to his arm, the faint needle mark and surrounding bruise confirming that the nightmare was real.

"Chief, you okay in there?" came Jim's worried voice from outside the bathroom.

Not even close.

"Uh, yeah, I'm fine, Jim. Just give me a few more minutes," Blair managed to call out.

Poisoned. The concept scrabbled around in Blair's mind, searching for a handhold, but Blair resisted. God, he didn't want to die. Not yet. There was so much left to do; the most important being Jim's guide and back-up. He couldn't leave his sentinel. Not again. However, Blair knew without a doubt the jaguar and wolf would be unable to bring him back this time.

"Blair?" Jim's voice sounded closer this time. He must have entered the bathroom and stood on the other side of the shower curtain.

"I'm all right. Really." The lie came easily because it was an obfuscation created to protect his sentinel.

"If you're sure..."

The uncertainty in Jim's usually confident voice gave Blair the strength he needed to reassure his friend. "I'm sure. Go on, Jim."

After Blair heard Jim retreat he allowed his entire body to sag with weariness. He could be weak here when he was alone and nobody could see him. Outside of this small sanctuary, he would have to remain strong. Under the cooling water, he prepared himself for the day ahead.


When Blair emerged from the bathroom, his damp curls bounced along with his stride as he entered the kitchen. "Need some help?" he asked brightly.

Jim handed him a cup of coffee. "You timed that just right -- everything's done," he teased.

"Timing's everything, man," Blair said. His smile faltered for only a moment, but Jim recognized the crack in his overly cheerful facade.

Hiding his own anguish behind routine, Jim growled, "Including breakfast time. Sit down and eat before it gets cold."

"Aye, aye sir," Blair bantered back.

Jim smiled and the two men ate, interspersing the meal with small talk, pretending it was just like any other day.


PRESENT

I hate this crap.

It seems like every time I've made a trip to the hospital in the past three years, it's been because one-half of my best team is lying here with the other half firmly entrenched in a chair at his bedside. Whether it be Golden, an accidental opium overdose, a gunshot wound, or a concussion, Ellison and Sandburg have run the gamut of injuries and have survived.

But this...

I remove my glasses impatiently and rub my tearing eyes. Doesn't anybody dust hospital waiting rooms?

I peeked into Sandburg's room a few minutes ago and saw something I never thought I'd see even if I lived to be my grandma's ripe age of ninety-five. Hell, I didn't even think the man was capable of crying. Jim Ellison and tears... the two were so incompatible I almost didn't believe what I was seeing.

I replace my glasses and decide sitting might be safer. My knees aren't as young as they used to be. Sinking into the chair, I try not to remember Jim sitting close to Blair, clinging to the kid's hand like the Titanic had just sunk and the kid was his life preserver.

I saw that movie -- hated it. Two people finding each other right before the damn ship sinks. Stupid. Would've made a great book, like the kind Rhonda reads in the break room when she thinks nobody sees her.

Love. Right. Except that nothing else can describe what I've witnessed these past three years. Unless the word is "miracle."

Jim Ellison used to be one cocky bastard. I remember talking to Captain Harris, the man who ran Major Crime when Jim first joined, before I took over. Harris told me Jim wouldn't last more than a year. Ellison was too much of a lone ranger -- didn't trust anybody but himself. Well, I got him to trust Jack Pendergrast, only to have Jack disappear six months later. I thought Ellison would disappear, too, only everyone would know where he went -- fired from the force.

Then this student tagalong shows up -- long curly hair, jeans I wouldn't let my own son wear out of the house and two earrings in his left ear. Earrings, for God's sake. And Ellison stood behind this kid, supported him. I figured Ellison had finally gone over the deep end.

I didn't get it at first. Even after Jim told me about his abilities and how Sandburg was going to help him, I didn't get it. But as time went by, I finally got it.

Hey, just because I'm old doesn't mean I can't admit when I'm wrong. It's just that I never admit it to anyone but myself. Safer that way. Easier on the pride, too.

Sandburg changed Jim. It was so damned subtle, I didn't even know it until one day I suddenly thought, "Jim isn't a son-of-a-bitch anymore. People actually like him. I like him." Hell, he even became my most trusted friend.

Later that same day I realized I liked Sandburg, too. Not just because he turned Ellison into a human being, but because Sandburg was intelligent and an asset to the unit. He made me laugh and helped me bridge the generation gap with my son. But most importantly, Sandburg made me question what I had come to take for granted. He gave me new eyes to see with.

At first I didn't want him "contaminating" the other detectives, but Sandburg is a lot like that pink bunny. He just kept going and going, pushing and pushing, until he invaded every part of Major Crime -- and made it better.

If I had any faith left, I would get down on my knees and pray. My mama would be real upset if she knew I didn't go to church anymore. It's not that I don't believe in some higher force, but I just got tired of watching Him/Her let all the shit happen down here among us mere mortals. In my job, I see a lot of shit. Too much shit. It makes me mad. Damned mad.

Then a team like Ellison and Sandburg come along and I start to wonder if maybe He/She does allow for checks and balances. When those two started working together, they got some real bad bad guys off the street. Now it looks like the team is being recalled.

Yeah, I know Blair is only half the team, but I know with absolute certainty that if he dies, the Jim I call friend will, too.

I stand and go in search of the chapel. Maybe a little faith and prayer would come in handy about now.


TWO DAYS PREVIOUS

"How are you holding up, Sandburg?" Simon asked as he closed his office door behind Jim and Blair.

"Hanging in there, Captain," Blair replied with a crooked grin.

Jim narrowed his gaze, hearing another increase in his friend's heartbeat. If he concentrated hard enough, he wondered if he could actually hear the red blood cells dying in Blair's body. The temptation was too great and he opened his hearing, aiming it at his guide. He had to block out Blair's hammering heart so he could hear the whoosh of blood through his arteries and veins. It sounded like the rush of a river and Jim forced himself deeper where he could hear the equivalent of water moving over rocks and around obstacles in the stream; cells bumping each other and against the veins' walls. Focusing even tighter, Jim recognized the difference in the size of the streams through the blood vessels and a part of him knew there were dead cells starting to clog the body's pathways.

"Jim, c'mon man, don't do this. Come back to me, Jim. Listen to my voice, let it bring you back."

He became aware of Blair's husky voice calling him back and he responded without hesitation. If Blair wanted him to come back, he would. He didn't even consider not obeying him. Jim blinked, becoming aware of how dry his eyes and mouth were.

"Shit. I zoned," he stated, scrubbing his face in his palms.

Blair's deep blue eyes peered at him in concern. "You were gone for nearly fifteen minutes."

"Scared the hell out of us," Banks added, chomping on an unlit cigar. Only someone who knew Simon would know how worried he was -- the end of his cigar was nearly bit in two.

"Sorry," Jim said quietly.

"What happened?" Blair demanded, still on his knees in front of Jim.

The sentinel's face burned with embarrassment. "I was listening to you, Chief. To the blood going through your veins."

Simon leaned back in his chair, his body language clearly stating he didn't want to hear any more.

"And?" Blair prompted, his intellectual curiosity getting the better of him.

Jim stared into the sparkling blue eyes, so alive and vibrant now, and was unable to deny him. "I could hear the cells rushing through your blood vessels, and I could sense the red blood cells struggling to move. Some have already given up."

Blair's excitement faded, replaced by shadows, but his voice was enthusiastic. "That's amazing, Jim. Your sentinel abilities must be even more extensive than we thought."

Anguish burned in his belly, but Jim forced a smile. "Must be." He glanced at his watch. "We have an hour before our first run through the prince's security plan. What do you say we grab something to eat?"

"Sure," Blair said. As he pushed himself to his feet, Jim noticed his thinned lips and flared nostrils. He extended a hand to help him, but Blair waved it aside. "I'm fine."

Over Blair's shoulder, Jim exchanged concerned glances with Simon.

Once standing, Blair took a step toward the door and almost collapsed with a loud moan. Jim grabbed his shoulders, kept him on his feet long enough to settle him in a chair. He squatted down in front of Blair. "What is it? What's wrong?" he demanded.

Blair grasped his lower right leg. "Muscle cramp... f-feels like it's going to snap."

Jim used his sentinel-sensitive fingers to massage the tight calf muscle. Even with his sense of touch at normal, he could've felt the knot back there. Damn, the student must have been kneeling the whole time he had worked to draw him back from his zone. Blair's hands fell away from the painful leg and he leaned his head back, closing his eyes to breathe deeply and evenly. As guilt filled him, Jim kneaded the flesh beneath the denim, working the cramp out in slow increments.

Blair concentrated on moving oxygen into and out of his lungs in long draughts. He inhaled, counted to ten, exhaled on another slow count to ten. Jim's fingers worked magic against the sharp ache, seeming to know exactly how deep to sink his thumbs into the flesh and rotate around the rigid tissue. He could have sat there for hours, losing himself in the pleasure of the masterful massage. It wasn't only the leg cramp that hurt, though it was the most painful by far. Every single muscle throbbed, some faintly, some more vociferous about their complaints. Thirty-six hours hadn't even passed yet and already Blair was wondering if he had the strength to face the demons racing through his body.

Rousing himself from his semi-stupor, Blair found two pairs of eyes -- one blue, one brown -- aimed in his direction. He grinned. "I think I know what Jim can do if he ever gets tired of being a cop. I know this great massage place on Sixth -- caters to both men and women." He looked at Simon. "Can't you just see Jim in one of those white skintight jumpsuits giving society dames their weekly massage?"

Simon barked out a laugh which quickly disseminated into flat out hilarity. "Prices would probably double when they find out what he can do."

"Those women will be scheduling two or three appointments a week just to be massaged by Fingers Ellison," Blair added.

Jim straightened and rose to his full six feet one inch and angled a mock glare at each of them. "If you two are about finished with the Macho Comedy Hour, we need to get something to eat."

Simon and Blair only chuckled harder, causing Jim to roll his eyes. He wrapped a large hand around Blair's arm. "Come on, Chief, before I have to call in white-coated men bearing straitjackets."

Blair was glad of Jim's support as he helped him to his feet and said sentinel-soft, "Thanks, man."

Jim merely gave his arm a gentle squeeze and turned to Simon. "Want us to grab you something, sir?"

Simon shook his head and scowled. "Already had my sprouts and carrots." He patted his stomach. "Been putting on a few pounds lately."

"You know, I was just telling Jim that he should stop with the Wonderburgers for a month or -- hey!" Blair's flippant comment was ended abruptly as Jim tugged him out of the office.

"Nobody messes with my Wonderburgers," Jim said, then called over his shoulder to Simon, "We'll meet you at the auditorium."

They stopped by Jim's desk to nab their jackets and Blair picked up his backpack, biting his lip to hold back a groan when he tossed it over his shoulder. Another twelve hours and he would be dragging the damned pack behind him like Linus and his blanket.

"Want me to carry that, Chief?" Jim asked casually, pointing to the backpack.

"It's all right."

He knew that Jim knew, but they were both determined to play the game, and Blair refused to call a time-out.

After catching a quick lunch at a deli on the way, Jim and Blair walked up the long flight of stairs to the auditorium's entrance. Halfway up, Blair had to slow down. His lungs burned as he struggled for air. He gripped the railing, using it to help him climb the steps. Jim paused, waited for him to join him, then stayed close to his side, matching Blair's sluggish pace. Blair knew Jim wanted to help, even to carry him the rest of the way if he would allow it, but he had no intention of giving in or giving up.

At the top of the stairs, Blair braced his hands on his thighs as he tried to reestablish his breathing pattern. His head pounded and lightheadedness assailed him. The firm pressure of Jim's hand between his shoulder blades grounded him and gave him a center to focus on. The croissant he had eaten half an hour ago threatened to make a reappearance but Blair forced it back down where it belonged.

All he wanted to do was curl up in a corner and hide away until it all went away. But guides didn't have that option when their sentinels needed them. Still feeling queasy, Blair managed to stand upright without the world doing a jig beneath his feet.

"Let's go," he said in a near-normal voice.

"We can rest another minute or two," Jim replied, his hand now making little circles on Blair's back.

"I'm all right."

Jim's argument was interrupted by the chirp of his cell phone. Without losing contact with Blair, he flipped the phone open one-handed. "Ellison."

"I see your guide is starting to feel the effects of my little present."

Red hot rage poured through Jim's blood as he jerked his head up, searching the surrounding buildings with his sentinel vision. "How long have you been following us, Brackett?"

Blair's heart, which had finally settled down, went into overdrive again. Jim gave his shoulder a reassuring squeeze even as he tried to restrain his own hatred.

"Long enough. Have you figured out how to do it yet? Or is that what this little tete-et-tete is all about?"

"Something like that," Jim replied vaguely, still scanning the rooftops.

"Don't bother to try and find me. Even with your sentinel senses, you won't be able to. I learned a thing or two myself about sentinels while I was in prison, thanks to you and Sandburg."

"I'm disappointed in you, Brackett," Jim mocked. "Here I thought you were a professional and all you are is just another two-bit punk trying to get revenge."

Brackett's laughter leapt through the phone. "Come on, Ellison, you can do better than some cheap psycho-babble every cop is taught in the academy."

Murderous adrenaline pumped through Jim's body. "And you can do better than using an innocent hostage to get your dirty work done."

"Sandburg is just as guilty as you, Ellison. Just because he's not in our line of work--"

"My line of work is law enforcement. Yours is prostitution, selling yourself to the highest bidder."

"Temper, temper Ellison. You do want that antidote, don't you?"

Jim fought for control of his rage. "How can I be sure I'll get it after I kill the prince?"

"You have to trust me."

That'll be a cold day in hell, Jim thought, but said, "Give me a reason."

"If I wanted Sandburg dead, I could take him out right now."

Jim instinctively moved Blair into the shelter of his chest, shielding his guide's body against the unseen threat. "You made your point. What's the plan?"

"You kill the prince. I'll call you with the antidote's location as soon as I have confirmation."

Jim nodded wearily. "All right."

"Relax, Ellison. You do this for me and I'll take care of your guide. Simple as that."

"If you don't come through, I'll find you and kill you, Brackett," he said coldly. "You know I can do it."

"I have no doubt you can, but will you be able to hold on to sanity long enough to find me? Without your guide, I don't think so. Good-bye, Ellison. And tell Sandburg's it's nothing personal, would you?" Brackett ended the connection before Jim could form a reply.

"What did he want?" Blair asked.

Jim's gaze softened as he looked down at his friend. "To gloat. He's got us by the balls and he knows it."

Cursing, Blair moved away from Jim's protective shelter. "If it wasn't for me, you wouldn't be in this position."

Jim crossed the distance between them in one long step and gently rested his hands on Blair's shoulders. "Without you, I'd be some babbling idiot in a padded cell. I owe you my life, Chief. So whatever position Brackett has put me in, it's nothing I would exchange for these past few years." He closed his eyes briefly. "But if I could trade my sanity for your life, I'd do that in a heartbeat."

Blair's eyes clouded with moisture, but he smiled. "I wouldn't let you, and the sentinel always has to listen to the wise counsel of his guide."

"Only when the guide is speaking from the wisdom of his mind and not his heart." Jim drew back, his emotions shaky and too near the surface. "Come on, we have a meeting to attend."


Blair shifted on the hard chair, ignoring the protest of his muscles. The meeting had been going on for over two hours and Blair had done little more than add a comment or two in spite of the feds' icy stares. Jim's own frigid glares had silenced most of their protests to Blair's presence. Only the most foolhardy had tempted the sentinel's wrath and he'd sprung on them mercilessly, leaving them sputtering with indignation.

Another five minutes and it was done. The suits left in a precise procession, while the CPD personnel exited with more animation. Jim, Simon and Blair remained.

"What do you think?" Simon finally asked.

Jim shook his head. "I don't know. I think the plan to fake the prince's assassination has too many weak links. Too many people will have to be in on it and there's liable to be at least one person who's willing to sell information to the highest bidder." He paused, his eyebrows drawn down.

"What is it, Jim?" Blair asked, recognizing his partner's deep concentration.

"Brackett has a back-up in his pocket," Jim said slowly.

Blair's eyes widened. "Who would it be?"

"Probably one of those men who just walked out of here."

Blair glanced at Simon and saw confirmation in his somber expression.

"Damn. I was afraid of that," Simon said. "I'm going to have to bring Major Crime into this, let them know what's going on."

Jim nodded. "We know we can trust them."

"But you don't have to tell them about me, do you?" Blair asked fearfully.

Jim met his eyes steadily. "We'll have to tell them something."

"But we don't have to tell them about the poison."

"Why don't you want them to know?" Jim asked gently.

Blair glanced away, unable to bear the concern in Jim's eyes. "The more people who know, the more real it is."

"What do you mean?" Simon asked.

Blair swallowed against the convulsive tightening in his throat. "As long as everybody thinks I'm fine, I'll be fine, you know? I mean, not really, but I can pretend because they don't know. If they know I'm dying, they'll treat me like I'm dying and I'm going to start believing it, too."

Heavy silence surrounded the three friends.

"Do we treat you like that, Blair?" Jim asked in a husky voice.

"No. Yes. I don't know. Sometimes you do, like when you look at me when you think I don't notice. I can feel it, your sympathy, and I don't want it." Blair stood too fast and colorful dots danced in his vision, but he waved Jim's assistance aside. "Like that. I know you mean well, Jim, but I have to do this on my own. If I don't, I may as well be in that damned hospital bed just waiting for the Reaper to come and get me."

The sorrow in Jim and Simon's expressions nearly undid Blair's precarious control. He reached past the burning muscles and slight nausea to find his next reserve. "Why don't you come over for supper tonight, Simon? I'll make some ostrich chili and Jim will make his famous cornbread and then we can catch the Jags game afterwards."

Simon glanced at Jim who shrugged. He turned back to Blair. "All right. I think we could use a little downtime. I've got to go back to the office, but I'll be over around six thirty."

"Sounds good," Blair said with one of his dazzling smiles. "That'll give Jim time to scrub the floor, vacuum the rug, clean the bathroom with a toothbrush, and wash the windows."

Jim tapped him on the cheek. "So what are you going to be doing while I'm slaving away cleaning?"

"Cooking. They say a man's kitchen is his castle."

"I think that's a man's home is his castle, Sandburg," Simon said.

Blair shrugged. "To each man his own castle."

Jim shook his head in exaggerated forbearance. "Come on, King Blair. Time to get you to your castle."

Blair hid his fear behind a blithe Sandburg smile. "Home then, Sir James."

The three men strolled out of the auditorium together. Going down the steps didn't tax Blair half as much as going up them, though he was aware of Jim's worry as the detective hovered nearby. But Blair wouldn't say anything -- Jim needed to protect. It was in his genes, just like his hypersenses were buried within his genetic make-up.

Just like it was in the guide's genetic make-up to care for his sentinel, no matter his own condition.


"Smells good, Chief," Jim called as he put the vacuum cleaner in its hiding place beneath the stairs.

Blair grinned. "I'm surprised you can smell it above the cleaning solution."

Jim shrugged, a flush touching his cheeks. "Some people bite their nails; I clean."

Blair stirred the chili, then opened the oven to check the cornbread Jim had put in an hour ago. It looked perfect. "And he cooks and bakes, too. You'll make a great wife someday," he teased.

"Can't do any worse than I did as a husband," Jim said self-deprecatingly as he leaned his hips against the counter and crossed his arms.

Blair tossed the potholders back onto the island, hiding a grimace when his muscles protested the motion. Slowly, he faced Jim, mirroring his roommate's pose against the island. "You're too hard on yourself, man. You and Caroline just weren't meant to be married. You told me yourself you two made better friends than husband and wife."

Jim gazed up at the slowly twirling fan in the wall above the fridge. "We were married less than two years. When she left for San Francisco, it didn't bother me all that much. She has her life now and I have mine." He brought his attention back to Blair. "You and I have lived together for over three years now. We've made it through some pretty heavy shit that should've ended our friendship, but you were always the one to forgive me, even when I didn't deserve it."

Blair stared at his sentinel's desolate face, the bleak eyes and clenched jaw. Jim Ellison had taken some hard knocks in life, then had been burdened even further with his special senses. If anyone deserved some lenience, it was him. Blair cleared his throat. "Hey, you've had to put up with some stupid shit, too. I mean, how many hard ass cops would open their home to an ape and a long-haired neo-hippie punk who didn't understand the term 'pick up after yourself'?"

"You or the ape?" Blair laughed and a self-effacing, almost shy smile lifted Jim's lips. "You housebroke pretty well, Chief, even if you do forget to clean your hair out of the drain every once in a while."

Blair snorted. "You're only jealous because I have hair to lose."

"Me? Jealous? In your dreams, Sandburg."

Chuckling in comfortable camaraderie, Jim and Blair set the table. By the time Jim smelled Simon's cigars at the door, the food was ready to be eaten.

An hour later, the dishes soaked in the sink while the three men made themselves comfortable around the TV just as the tip-off signaled the beginning of the Jags game. Blair sat cross-legged on the sofa beside Jim who sat slumped with his stocking feet resting on the coffee table. Simon had taken up residence on the loveseat, his long legs stretched out on the floor in front of him. The men cheered and argued good-naturedly through the first period and into the second. Jim and Simon treated Blair no differently than usual, the bantering enthusiastic and sharp-witted.

Right before the half, Simon's cell phone rang and Jim muted the television as the captain answered it.

"Banks." Simon listened for a minute, his lips pressing together in a grim line. "All right. I want you and Rafe to stay put until I have another unit there to relieve you."

Blair glanced at Jim and noticed the sentinel's own grave expression. He had obviously been listening in on the conversation. "What is it?"

Simon and Jim exchanged glances, but it was Jim who answered. "H and Rafe found someone who recognized Brackett's picture -- he's staying at a hotel on the south side. He's not in his room, so they're staking out the place." He turned to Simon, his eyes hard. "I want him."

Simon nodded. "We'll go together."

"What about me?" Blair demanded. "I'm Jim's partner."

Awkward silence surrounded them.

"Chief -- Blair, I don't think that's a good idea," Jim said gently.

"We've already been through this. You're not leaving me behind." Blair found himself laboring for air and hoping fruitlessly Jim wouldn't notice.

Jim placed his hand on Blair's shoulder and leaned close. "You're not in any shape for an all-night stakeout, Chief."

Blair knocked his hand away and jumped to his feet. "Let me make that decision, Jim."

Sentinel and Guide parried glares, each hiding concern behind anger.

"He's right, Jim," Simon said quietly.

A muscle jumped in Jim's jaw and Blair knew he was going to give in, though not without reluctance.

Jim leaned over to put on his shoes. "Put on some extra clothes, Sandburg. It'll get cold tonight."

Blair glanced over at Simon, saw the regret but also the understanding. Feeling the sting of moisture in his eyes, Blair hurried into his room to tug on two more shirts and an extra pair of socks. When he joined Jim and Simon by the door, his heart was pounding and his breath labored, but he ignored it as he donned his coat and scarf and made sure he had gloves in his pockets. The symptoms were merely by-products of the poison -- there was nothing he could do to relieve them unless he was willing to enter the hospital, which he wasn't.

Simon opened the door and led the way out. As Blair went through the doorway, he felt Jim's light hand on his back and, in spite of his annoyance with his friend's overprotectiveness, welcomed the trusted touch.

"Send H and Rafe back to the office. I'll meet them back there to see if we can dig up anything else from what they got," Simon said as they paused on the sidewalk outside their building.

Jim nodded once, then walked beside Blair as they strode to the pick-up. Jim unlocked the passenger door first and Blair could tell he was working hard to restrain helping him into the seat. By the time Jim slid behind the steering wheel, Blair had his seatbelt buckled and had leaned his head back to regain his breath and ease the pounding in his head.

"Chief?" Jim's voice was tentative.

Blair rolled his head to face Jim and opened his eyes. "I'm fine. Let's go."

As Jim pulled onto Prospect, Blair closed his eyes again and prayed for the strength to remain by his sentinel's side. Twenty-five minutes later, Jim parked behind H and Rafe's car.

"Wait here, Chief. I'll talk to them," Jim said softly.

Blair merely nodded, his concentration focused on controlling the pain as it rolled through his body. He heard low voices as Jim spoke with the two other Major Crime detectives, then there was the flare of a car engine coming to life. He listened to H and Rafe drive away and a few moments later, Jim returned to the truck.

"You warm enough?" Jim asked.

"Yeah," Blair lied. He buried his gloved hands in his pockets and wished he had remembered his winter hat with the earflaps. The furred cap was as ugly as sin, but it was warm. He took a deep breath and opened his eyes, concentrating on Jim. "How are your senses? Any spiking?"

"All systems go," Jim replied. He pointed to the six story building across the street. "Brackett's room is over there in the corner, top floor. It's empty."

"Did the manager know anything about him?"

"Only that Brackett paid cash and was alone. He checked in two days ago."

Blair nodded. "Timing's right. What about phone calls?"

Jim smiled. "You're going to make a detective yet, Sandburg." He sobered. "Megan's getting the records."

"Do you think he was stupid enough to use the phone in his room?"

"Brackett is a lot of things, but stupid isn't one of them, but all the bases have to be covered."

The next hour passed slowly and by the end of it, Blair could barely feel his fingers and toes. He lifted his cupped hands to his mouth and blew warm air onto them.

Without a word, Jim started the pick-up and turned the heat on high. Once the air coming out of the vents was warm, he turned the fan on the highest setting.

"Thanks, man," Blair murmured, holding his hands in front of one of the vents.

Jim turned and looked behind his seat. Reaching back, he came up with a light blanket and handed it to Blair. "Sorry. I forgot about it. It isn't much, but it might help a little."

With another quiet thanks, Blair tossed the blanket across his chest and buried his crossed arms beneath it. He'd always been more sensitive to the cold, but he was certain the poison was lowering his tolerance even further.

Jim leaned over and tucked the throw around his shoulders.

Blair smiled. "Thanks, Mom."

"No problem, Beave."

After the cab was comfortably warm, almost hot, Jim turned off the truck and settled back to watch. Conversation was sparse between the two men. Blair considered launching into one of his monologues, but knew it would only make his lungs burn and leaving him gasping in the middle of the story. Instead, he enjoyed the comfortable company of his friend.

It was near midnight when Jim suddenly sat up straight.

"What is it?" Blair asked quietly, aware that Jim probably had his hearing turned up.

"A car just pulled in."

"Can you see the driver?" Blair had worked one hand out of his cocoon and rested it on Jim's shoulder.

Lines furrowed Jim's brow as he concentrated on his target who walked unerringly toward the motel's side door. He wore a heavy jacket with the collar turned up against the cold night air. "I can't tell who it is."

The man entered the building and a few minutes later, the light in Brackett's room went on.

"It's him." Jim handed Blair his cell phone. "Call it in." He reached for his door handle, but paused. "Stay put, Chief. I don't want you anywhere near him."

"You should wait for back-up," Blair said.

"I want some time alone with him before anyone else shows up."

The menace behind the clipped words worried Blair, but he remained silent.

"Wait here," Jim reiterated and slipped out into the night.

As Blair waited for Simon to answer the phone, he focused on watching Jim's shadowy figure make its way across the parking lot. He found himself admiring the big man's grace and knew whomever or whatever had made the jaguar Jim's animal spirit had made the perfect choice.

Simon answered on the fourth ring and Blair quickly relayed what was happening. He hung up after listening to Simon swear about his best detective going in without back-up and assuring Blair help was on the way.

Two minutes passed and Blair shuddered, but it wasn't simply the cold this time. Something else had made him shiver -- some foreboding he didn't recognize. But the feeling refused to budge and the guide's fear grew. Suddenly the light in Brackett's room blinked out.

Glad he hadn't promised Jim he'd stay in the truck, Blair hopped out and kept low as he moved with as much clumsiness as Jim had grace. The poison had been in his system for close to forty hours, over half the time it needed to kill, and the effects were becoming more and more evident.

Thinking he should take the stairs but already breathing hard, Blair opted for the elevator and chafed as he waited. Finally, the doors slid open and Blair rode to the sixth floor. He closed his eyes, trying to do some quick-fix breathing exercises to ease his pounding heart and surging lungs, but the attempt was futile. As soon as the elevator deposited him on the sixth floor, Blair became aware of the all too-familiar noises of a struggle. The adrenaline rush spirited him down the hallway and to Brackett's open door.

Above his own harsh breathing, Blair heard the sounds of hard flesh against soft flesh followed by a grunt of pain. He blindly reached for a light switch. Finding it, he flicked it, but nothing happened.

Frightened for Jim's life, Blair shuffled inside, glad for the sparse light from the hall as it shone a narrow path into the single room. Two silhouetted figures grappled in front of the floor to ceiling window, backlit by the streetlights. It took him a moment to distinguish Jim from Brackett and he inched closer, uncertain what to do, but knowing he had to get closer.

Another painful moan and the soft thud of something hitting the carpeted floor captured his attention and his gaze spotted a pistol not two feet away. Even in the dim light, Blair recognized it as Jim's service revolver. He reached for it, but the click of something well-known and ominous froze his blood.

"It's over, Ellison," Brackett said in a low voice.

The silhouettes told the picture with Jim on his knees and Brackett standing over him, a gun in his hand. Pure instinct made Blair scoop up Jim's gun and, holding it between his hands, squeezed the trigger once. Brackett was flung back against the huge window which shattered beneath the impact, then the body was gone.

Blair's arms drooped, the gun still held within his hands. His head pounded and he couldn't catch his breath. He had hyperventilated once and he felt that same hysteria of not being able to breathe again. Trembling, he dropped to his knees and the revolver slipped from his numb fingers. Blair's stomach roiled and bile rose in his throat. He fought to keep the vomit down, to keep from passing out.

An arm came around his chest and a hand crept to the back of his neck, rubbing carefully... gently. The warmth of the large palm and the capable fingers gave him something to focus on besides the battle raging in his gut and head. For a moment, he thought he would win the conflict, but his body rose the white flag.

"I'm g-going... to b-be sick," he managed to say.

Those same strong arms drew him to his feet, led him into the bathroom, helped him kneel beside the toilet. The lid and seat were raised just as the first volley struck. Blair threw up until there was nothing left in his belly, then the dry heaves clenched at his gut and clawed up his throat. He was peripherally aware of Jim's solid strength, of the hand which kept his hair back from his face and the light massage on his back.

The heaves stopped, but the cramping continued and Blair slumped to the side, only to be clutched securely against a warm unyielding chest. Quiet words circled above him but the nausea remained, as did the insistent throbbing in his head which echoed in his muscles. More movement, but Blair didn't fight it. Jim was here.

Lights and sounds faded to nothingness and Blair welcomed the safe haven of his sentinel's arms.


"Jim!"

The detective blinked, surprised to see Simon Banks standing next to him, a dark hand on his shoulder. "What?"

"You zoned," Simon stated flatly.

Jim lifted his gaze to the pale features of Blair lying on one of the emergency room's examination beds. He raised a hand and brushed a stray curl from Blair's smooth brow, frowning at the oxygen tube beneath his friend's nose. "Sorry, sir."

"What was it?" Simon asked, his voice less demanding.

Jim shrugged, fighting the new fear rising in his breast. "His heartbeat. I was trying to memorize it, make sure I wouldn't forget it."

Simon gave Jim's shoulder a reassuring squeeze then withdrew his hand. "Don't give up yet, Jim. We still have thirty-one hours."

Jim reached into his jacket pocket and held up the stopwatch. "Thirty hours and forty-one minutes."

Simon sighed and swung the other chair around to Jim's right side, near the foot of Blair's bed. "You ready to tell me what happened?"

Jim stiffened, his head turning toward his friend. "He's waking up." He kept a hand wrapped around Blair's wrist, feeling the faster-than-normal pulse beneath his sensitive fingers. Dark blue eyes opened, blinked and finally focused on him. "Welcome back, Chief."

Blair lifted his free hand and rubbed his forehead. "D-did you get... the license of the truck that hit me?"

Jim placed his elbows on the side of the bed and leaned forward, smiling. "I guess that answers my next question."

"What happened?"

"You didn't stay in the truck. Again."

Blair grimaced. "Shit. Brackett. The hotel." His eyes widened and his heartbeat shifted into overdrive. "I killed him."

Jim shook his head. "It wasn't Brackett."

Confusion filled Blair's expression and he started to push himself upright, but Jim's big hand in the center of his chest kept him flat.

"Stay still. The doctor put you on oxygen, and gave you something for the dizziness and nausea but it'll take about ten more minutes to kick into effect," Jim said.

Blair surrendered reluctantly. "Tell me what happened."

"You shot an FBI agent," Simon said without preamble.

Jim sent the captain a disapproving scowl. Simon didn't have to be so damn blunt about it. He erased the irritation from his face and met Blair's gaze. "The man who went into Brackett's room was an FBI agent by the name of Harold Sinclair. He was one of the agents at the meeting today -- yesterday."

"He was going to kill you," Blair said, his eyes wide and fear-filled.

"Shhh, take it easy, Chief. It was a righteous shooting. If you hadn't shot him, he would have killed me."

"So was he the inside man?" Simon demanded.

Jim shrugged. "Probably. Unless there's more than one."

Simon stood and moved to the other side of Blair's bed to gaze down at the young man. The gruff visage gave way to something akin to concern. "What do you remember Blair?" he asked.

Blair managed a weak smile. "Other than seeing who I thought was Brackett aiming a gun at Jim, not much."

"You killed him, thinking it was Brackett?" Jim asked slowly, his eyes narrowed.

Blair nodded, his confusion at Jim's apparent anger plain. "Yeah. So what about it?"

Jim pressed his lips together, forming a thin line.

"Come down to the station after you get some sleep and give your statement, Sandburg," Simon said after a long moment of awkward silence. "I'll see you later."

Jim's gaze didn't waver from Blair as he listened to Simon leave. His temper held by only a thread unraveled. "What the hell did you think you were doing?"

"What's your problem, Jim? I saved your life."

"You thought it was Brackett."

"We've already established that."

"He's the only one with the antidote," Jim said, his voice too controlled. "If it had been Brackett, you would have destroyed your only chance of surviving this thing."

Blair crossed his arms calmly. This wasn't a revelation to him. "So?"

Jim jumped to his feet, knocking his chair to the floor in his haste. "Damn it, Sandburg. You didn't have that right."

"What fucking right is that -- watch you die when I could've saved you?" Blair demanded, then wished he had restrained himself. Even though the oxygen helped, he still felt like he had just run a record mile.

Jim moved to his side in one swift motion and sat on the edge of the bed, slipping an arm around Blair's shoulders to help him sit upright. "Breathe, Chief. In and out, c'mon you can do it." Finally, he heard his friend's harsh breathing ease and laid him back against his pillow. He stood and began to pace, running a hand across his short hair. "You've already given me so much, Blair. You gave me my sanity and control of these crazy senses. You've been my back-up for three years, risking your life more times than I can remember just to make sure I hold it together." He paused and stood over his friend, gazing down into brilliant blue eyes. "If my dying would save your life, I'd make that choice without hesitation. I would've done it tonight."

Blair reached up and snagged Jim's wrist. "What about my choice? This is my life we're talking about and I think it's up to me who I risk it for." He gently tugged Jim down until he again perched on the narrow bed. "Let's say it had been Brackett and I didn't kill him. Instead, you died and Brackett escaped. I hate to tell you this, big guy, but that still would have left me without the antidote."

"We don't know that's what would have happened," Jim said stubbornly.

Blair shrugged. "Maybe, maybe not. But it's a moot point. It wasn't Brackett and he still has the antidote."

"But--"

"No buts, man. We don't have time to look back," Blair said sternly.

Jim's granite expression remained unyielding for a few more moments, then a smile teased his lips. "I don't think I've ever seen this bossy side of you before, Chief."

"Hmmph. I'm surprised your animal spirit isn't a jackass."

Jim chuckled and ruffled Blair's curls. The younger man ducked, but he was grinning.

The doctor entered and paused momentarily, smiling as she watched their antics. "It looks like Mr. Sandburg is feeling better."

"I'm ready to blow this Popsicle joint," Blair said with a smile.

Her amusement faded as she approached him. "Are you sure? Detective Ellison told me about your... situation. As a doctor, I strongly recommend that you be admitted."

"No way, Doc. I'm feeling a lot better."

"That's because you've been on pure oxygen for the last hour and were given an injection to alleviate the nausea. Once you leave here, the symptoms will return fully."

Blair shook his head stubbornly. "I'm leaving, Doc, with or without your blessing."

The doctor looked to Jim who only raised his hands helplessly. "I've tried, but it's his decision."

She stared at Blair for a long considering moment, then finally nodded. "All right, but I don't agree with you."

She removed the oxygen tube and Blair felt the change immediately, but was determined to leave. "Thanks."

He maneuvered around until his legs hung from the bed. Jim took hold of his arm and helped him stand.

"Okay?" Jim asked.

"Yeah."

Jim could tell he was obfuscating again, but he allowed him to have the lie.

"You have his prescription, Detective Ellison?" the doctor asked.

Jim nodded, patting his jacket pocket. "Right here. And the other thing is in the truck."

"Good. He's going to need it." The doctor walked to the door and paused. "I pray you find the antidote in time."

"We will," Jim said in a steely voice even the devil wouldn't argue with.

She looked like she wanted to say more, but then let herself out, leaving the two men alone.

Blair pulled away from Jim to cross the floor by himself. Jim kept his pace slow as they walked side by side. His fingers wrapped around the door handle, but before he could pull it, Blair's hand settled on his. He met his friend's somber look.

"If I had known this would happen three years ago when we met, this still would've been my choice," Blair said, intensity echoing in his softly-spoken words. "Do you understand?"

I wish I didn't. His throat full and aching, Jim nodded. "I understand."

Then Blair gifted him with one of his dazzling smiles and Jim wondered what he'd done in his fucked-up life to deserve this man's friendship and loyalty.


PRESENT

The door opens and light sneaks in for a moment, illuminating the simple altar at the front of the chapel. I remain seated in the back corner, far away from the light and the new arrival doesn't notice me. The man walks to the front pew, his broad shoulders slumped as if the weight of the world rests upon them.

Or the weight of two men he cares for deeply.

I know how Simon feels. My own grief feels like a gunshot wound to the belly.

I was as confused as everyone else when Blair Sandburg became Jim's unofficial shadow. No one figured the student would last longer than a week with Major Crime's best but most obstinate detective. "His way or no way" used to be Jim's motto and heaven help the poor slobs who got in his way.

But Blair stuck with him and even made Jim a better detective -- a better man. Of course, Blair did that with everyone, including me. I had this problem with a bomb. In fact, it was one of Brackett's. I lost my nerve. Decided I couldn't handle the strain of not knowing if I'd go boom the next second or not. I talked to my wife, Simon, a department shrink, and even my barber. Everyone listened and sympathized, but nobody could figure it out. Nobody until Blair.

To this day I don't know how he did it. Maybe he talked me into losing the fear. Maybe he gave me back the faith I lost. I don't know. Whatever he did, he got me past the fear. He also got a lifelong friend in return.

My wife and I never had children. Oh, we tried, but God didn't see fit to give us any and we accepted that as part of His plan for us. Sometimes I think maybe He sent Blair Sandburg to give me a taste of what having a son would be like. I'm not afraid to admit it -- I love the kid.

Simon shifts on the cushioned pew thirty feet away. Just another miracle brought to you by Blair Sandburg. Simon -- in a house of worship? Never thought I'd see that happen again, but tragedies bound to change a person, make them want to believe that there's something out there greater than all of us.

Funny how things happen -- how one person can so profoundly change an entire department of cynical cops. If Blair's life changed us all so much, how will his death affect us? Will we all crawl back to our own desks, work our own cases, arrest the bad guys and go on to the next file? Or will Blair's compassion remain among us, make us look at each other as friends rather than co-workers; make us look at the victims rather than the criminals; make us look beyond the outer trappings to the person beneath?

My eyes fill with tears and silent sobs shake my shoulders.

Why Blair, God? Is this all part of your plan, too? If so, tell me so I can comfort my friends in the days ahead.

So I can comfort Jim Ellison who I'm afraid will retreat once more into the cold hard shell of the man he was before Blair....


ONE DAY PREVIOUS

"Okay. Thanks, Joel. We'll be down in a couple hours." Jim hung up the phone and glanced at his watch. Nine a.m. Exactly twenty-four hours before the poison killed his guide and best friend.

The french doors opened and Blair emerged, his curls nearly flat on one side of his head and wild on the other. He shuffled into the bathroom like he had aged fifty years overnight. The brief glimpse Jim had of his haggard face revealed his exhaustion and pain.

Jim's fingers tightened around his coffee cup. Should he push Blair to go into the hospital? The medication the doctor had prescribed for him only treated the nausea and dizziness, two symptoms which would continue to worsen. She had also given him a portable oxygen tank. As the poison progressed, the pure oxygen would help the damaged red blood cells work as efficiently as possible, but after the cell count dipped below a certain point, no amount of oxygen would help. Nothing but the antidote would in the last hour or two. And even that was iffy.

Jim heard Blair exit the bathroom and stumble back into his room. He forced himself to remain seated at the table when all he wanted to do was help his roommate. Ten minutes later Blair shambled into the kitchen and sank into a chair.

"Morning, Chief," Jim greeted, determined to keep his fear from showing in spite of the alarming heartbeat of his guide.

"Morning," Blair said huskily.

Jim reached over and poured Blair a cup of coffee which he handed to his roommate.

"Thanks," Blair murmured. After drinking nearly half of it, he smiled. "Never underestimate the power of caffeine."

Jim smiled back, but nearly lost his composure when he noticed the dark circles beneath Blair's eyes and the pallor of his skin. He opened his mouth to ask him how he felt, but abruptly clamped down. He turned his gaze back to the file laid out in front of him.

"What's that?" Blair asked.

"Harold Sinclair's file. I thought I'd see if I could find anything that linked him to Brackett."

"Anything?"

Jim shook his head in exasperation. "No. He's clean."

"How'd you get a hold of it?" Blair paused as he dragged air into his laboring lungs. "The feds aren't real keen on letting us peons see their personnel files."

"I called a marker in."

Blair shook his head, half in exasperation, part in fondness. "You eat breakfast yet?"

"Yeah, but I'll make whatever you'd like."

"To be perfectly honest, I'm not real hungry." Blair laughed weakly. "You'd think after losing everything I ate in the past two days--" he paused to regain his breath, "--I'd be able to eat a seven course meal, but the thought of food only makes my stomach queasy."

"How about a piece of toast so you can take one of those pills the doc gave you last night?" Jim asked, keeping his voice light.

Blair grimaced but surrendered. "Dry."

"No butter. Gotcha." Relieved to be able to do something, Jim undid the wire twisty and reached in the plastic bag to retrieve a slice of sourdough bread. He popped it in the toaster. "It'll be ready in a minute." He crossed the kitchen and retrieved the pill bottle from a drawer. He shook a single pill out and placed it on the table in front of Blair. "Don't take that until you eat some of the toast."

Blair's crooked smile made Jim turn away quickly. In less than a day, that beloved smile might be gone forever.

The bread popped up and Jim carried it to the table. He laid it on his own plate and pushed it over to Blair. "Eat up."

Jim picked up Sinclair's file and pretended to read while he kept his senses aimed at Blair.

"Give it up, man," Blair said.

"What?" Jim asked.

"I'm okay," Blair said, then added wryly, "For someone who has this manmade poison running around in his veins."

Jim gave up his pretense and closed the file. He shifted his chair so he faced Blair and leaned forward, his forearms resting on his thighs. "How bad is it?"

For a moment, he thought Blair would fall back on one of his obfuscations again, but his friend lowered his mask and Jim was shocked by the distress in his ashen complexion. "I never knew a person could hurt in every square inch of his body," Blair whispered hoarsely. "I have bruises that I have no idea where they came from. My stomach feels like I just ate some of Simon's red rice and beans. And I could do a commercial for Excedrin with a headache this size." Blair held his hands out a foot on either side of his head. He smiled, but his eyes glistened. "But I won't slow you down, Jim. I'll stay right beside you as long as you need me."

"Jesus, Sandburg." Jim leaned forward and wrapped his arms around Blair gently, afraid to hold him too tightly, and held him close to his chest. He felt his friend's sweat-pearled forehead rest in the curve of his neck and the minute tremors skimming just under his too-warm skin.

"I'm scared, Jim. I don't want to die," Blair murmured, his voice thick with unshed tears.

Guilt assailed Jim as he gently rocked his best friend, unable to find the words to reassure him. Blair's body shuddered as his arms snaked around Jim's waist, clutching him tightly, but Jim didn't smell the salty tang of tears, only fear. The sentinel closed his eyes and fought to hold back his own tears. He listened to Blair's lungs struggle for air and the blood moving languidly through his veins, mocking Jim with his helplessness against the deadly invisible threat.

The fan's blades twirled lazily. Jim rubbed Blair's soft flannel shirt. The refrigerator motor hummed. Blair gripped Jim's denim shirt in his fists. A car horn honked on the street below.

Normalcy taunted them.

After several more minutes passed, Blair drew away from the sheltering arms and pushed himself upright. Jim's hand slid off his friend's shoulders reluctantly. Keeping his head bowed so his long hair curtained his face, Blair stood and shuffled into the bathroom. Jim heard the faucet come on and the sound of cupped water splashed across skin. A groan so quiet Jim's sentinel senses almost missed it reached inside him and twisted his entrails into a knot.

Swallowing hard, Jim cleaned off the table, wrapping up his emotions in the everyday task. When Blair rejoined him, Jim plucked his coat off a hook and held it while Blair painstakingly stuck one arm into a sleeve, then the other. Jim donned his own jacket and picked up Blair's backpack.

"Thanks," Blair said, his voice only a little more raspy than normal. "I have to enter the grades this morning."

"I can do it," Jim offered as he ushered Blair out the door.

"No way, man. With your typing skills, you'll be giving them Vs instead of Bs and Zs instead of As."

"You trying to tell me something here, Sandburg?" Jim bantered.

Blair smiled though it was a shadow of his usual one. "Me? Subtle? C'mon, Jim."

Chuckling, the two men took the elevator by unspoken pact. After ensuring Blair was belted into the passenger seat, Jim started the truck and drove south on Prospect.

"This isn't the way to the station," Blair said.

"I want to check out Brackett's motel room. We might find something," Jim said.

Blair nodded. "Good idea."

They went the remainder of the distance in silence, though to Jim's sensitive hearing, Blair's respiration and heartbeat resounded loudly within the truck cab. After they arrived, Jim crammed his hands into his jacket pockets, determined to allow Blair his independence for as long as possible. He matched his friend's slow pace, even slowing it a little further without Blair realizing.

A few minutes later, Jim raised the yellow police tape crisscrossing Brackett's motel room door and allowed Blair to duck beneath it. He followed and stood in the center of the small room for a moment.

"Let's start by the bed," Blair suggested.

With Blair using his low-modulated guide voice, he walked Jim around the room and through every sense. Jim's hypersenses picked up his own and Blair's scents from the night before, gunpowder, and the aftershave Sinclair had been wearing. He spent a long time by the bed, trying to find something which would clearly indicate Brackett had been there, but there was nothing.

"How can a man spend two days in a room and not leave some sign that he was here?" Jim demanded.

Blair's brow furrowed. "Maybe he wasn't here."

"What?"

"Maybe he rented the room, but didn't stay here."

"A smokescreen? Why?"

Blair shrugged. "I don't know."

Jim rubbed his chin. "You might have something there, Chief. Brackett's a loner, right?" Before Blair could answer, Jim forged ahead. "Maybe the only way he could get out of prison was to sign on with whoever was pulling the strings -- his puppetmaster. Knowing Brackett likes to work for himself and no one else, he's probably angry because he's not in control."

"Then why doesn't he disappear?"

"Because he can't. He knows his boss will use all of his resources to track him down and more than likely kill him for daring to get out of his contract. Maybe he used this room to set somebody up."

"You think Sinclair was his boss?"

Jim shook his head. "No, he was hired muscle. What if Brackett saw us staking out the motel and called Sinclair, asking him to meet him here? Brackett would know I'd go after him."

"But you might have figured out it wasn't Brackett," Blair interjected, puzzled.

"It was a risk Brackett was willing to take to get rid of one of his keepers." Jim went back to the door and flicked the light switch a few times. Nothing happened. "What do you want to bet Brackett did something to the wiring?"

"Brackett knows about your sentinel senses -- he would know the darkness wouldn't stop you from recognizing Sinclair."

Jim frowned and shrugged. "It's hard to tell how Brackett thinks."

Blair raked his long hair back. "Damn it, Jim, this is getting weirder and weirder."

"Yeah, it is. I'm beginning to wonder if he really wants me to assassinate Sahir, or if he's got some other agenda."

"If he does, I wish he'd let us know what it is," Blair groused.

Jim nodded. "Are you ready to head to the station?"

"As ready as I'll ever be." Sighing, Blair trudged across the room and ducked under the yellow tape.

Jim caught an odd scent, so faint it was almost nonexistent. He stood motionless, sifting through his memory, but this odor was new.

"What is it?" Blair asked from the hallway.

"I'm not sure, Chief. I barely caught this scent with my smell dialed all the way up."

"What is it? Something you can recognize?"

Jim shook his head. "No."

"Brackett?"

"Maybe."

"File it away so if you run into it again, you'll recognize it."

"Gotcha." Jim joined his partner.

Half an hour later, they arrived at CPD headquarters. Jim watched Blair consciously draw his shoulders back before they stepped out of the elevator on the seventh floor. He even managed to put a fraction of his bounce back into his step.

"It's about time you two dragged your lazy butts in here," H called out from behind his desk

Blair smiled and Jim could see his relief.

"Very funny, H. You keep eating those doughnuts and your lazy butt's not going to fit in that chair," Blair retorted.

Jim frowned at the hitch in Blair's lungs and the increased respiration level. "Why don't you sit down by my desk and I'll go check in with Simon?"

Blair didn't have the strength to argue as he used every ounce of willpower to maintain his mask. After Jim disappeared into Simon's office, Megan joined the observer with a worried frown.

"Are you sick, Sandy?" she asked without preamble. "You look a little blue there."

Blair forced a smile. "Just a cold. Nothing to worry about."

"As long as it's not the flu," Rafe said as he paused beside Megan. "We don't need another bug running through the department. Remember the one last year, Blair? It got everyone except Jim -- until the end, and then he got it worse than anyone else." Rafe shuddered. "We all wondered if Blair would survive."

Megan smiled. "I can imagine Jim isn't the most agreeable patient."

Blair snorted. "You don't know the half of it." A pain shot through his chest and he clenched his teeth.

"Sandy?" Megan's concern was back.

He managed a little wave. "I'm fine. Really. Now if you two don't mind taking the coffee klatch someplace else, I have grades to post."

The door to Simon's office flew open and Jim strode unerringly toward Blair. Megan and Rafe took several steps back.

"Something going on here?" Jim asked casually, but Blair heard the intensity behind the question.

"We were just shooting the bull," Blair said. "You know, the morning ritual of every office in the country."

After some half-hearted waves, Rafe and Megan retreated to their desks to begin their work.

"Good job, big guy, scaring them off like that," Blair said huskily, but with a smile which told Jim he wasn't really angry.

Jim moved his chair a little closer to Blair's and sat down. "Your heart went off the chart there, buddy. Are you okay?"

Blair nodded tersely, feeling his neck muscles protest the everyday motion. "We're going into the home stretch so it's bound to get worse, but I can handle it."

Jim sighed as he continued to gaze at him. "Is there any way I can convince you to let me take you to the hospital?"

"Nope," came the immediate answer.

"I was afraid of that." Jim laid a hand on Blair's shoulder.

Although the touch was light, Blair cringed. It seemed the poison was even stealing the one thing which could soothe him -- Jim's touches.

As if sensing his distress, Jim withdrew his hand. He leaned over and plucked Blair's backpack from the floor. Opening it, he pulled out the laptop and proceeded to make a place for it on his desk, then booted it up. "Where are the grades?" he asked softly.

"In a file on top," Blair answered.

Jim found the file and set it down beside the computer. "Need anything else?"

"Coffee?"

"You got it. I'll be right back."

By the time Jim returned from Simon's office where he actually managed to convince the captain to give up some of the good stuff, Blair had connected with the university and was pulling up the first student on his list.

"Thanks," he said to Jim as he accepted the coffee mug.

"No problem, Chief. I'm going to do some paperwork. If you need anything--" Jim speared him with an intense gaze, "--anything at all, just let me know."

Blair nodded, using all his concentration to post the grades. His hands and fingers had begun to tingle at Brackett's motel room and were now prickling constantly. His neck and back protested his hunched-over position vehemently. A droplet of sweat slid down his spine, followed by another and another. He knew the low grade fever which had started overnight was slowly rising, but he wouldn't give in to it. Once all the grades were posted, he could take a break and wander into the restroom to splash cold water on his face.

He worked diligently, ignoring everyone around him except Jim. He was aware of the detective making some phone calls and Blair was fairly certain all of them involved Prince Sahir except for those where Jim bullied for information about Sinclair.

Shot. Dead. Took a gun in my hands and took a life.

To protect Jim, he argued with himself, but the defense didn't take away the actualization that a man was dead because of him. His stomach roiled and Blair swallowed, determined to ride out the nausea. A trail of sweat rolled down his cheek and dripped onto his keyboard.

The walls were closing in. Heat ripped through Blair's body. The room was suddenly without air and his lungs burned.

Familiar hands grasped his shoulders, helped him up, guided him out, away from the suffocating heat. A door was opened and closed and there was the snick of a lock. Then he was on his knees and a toilet lay before him. He vomited. Air shifted dizzily, hot then cold and back to hot. A cool palm rested against his forehead, holding his head up.

"That's it, Chief. It's okay. You're gonna be okay," Jim was saying.

The heaves stopped but then came the struggle to find air. He gasped raggedly, clutching Jim's arm tightly, knowing he was probably hurting him, but he couldn't stop. Arms cradled him tenderly, speaking soothing words which made sense at a level Blair couldn't quite grasp.

He fought for every precious molecule of oxygen, willing each one into his body. With his eyes closed, he visualized healthy red blood cells filling with oxygen and carrying it to his organs. Like a train -- a coal train -- making stops at various depots to drop off coal where it was utilized as energy.

Blair didn't know how long his battle lasted, but he finally became aware of Jim's hoarse voice close to his ear.

"C'mon Chief, you can fight this. You can do it. Damn it, you're the strongest man I've ever known," he was saying.

Blair raised his eyelids, blinked once, then again. He was sitting on the floor of a bathroom stall between Jim's outspread legs with his cheek resting against Jim's chest. He could hear his friend's heart beating, a strong reassuring sound.

"J-Jim?"

"Hey Chief, welcome back." Jim's attempt at lightness failed. "God, you scared me, Blair."

"S-Sorry, man."

Arms tightened around Blair. "No, don't be sorry, Chief. It's not your fault. It's--"

"It's Brackett's," Blair managed to say with enough force that he silenced Jim's verbal self-flagellation. He struggled to sit up and Jim helped him. "I'm okay."

Jim gritted his teeth and Blair was surprised he didn't hear enamel cracking. Jim climbed to his feet, then leaned over to help Blair up. He kept an arm around Blair's waist as he led him to a sink.

"I'm all right," Blair reiterated.

Jim stepped back reluctantly. Blair turned on the faucet, splashed cold water on his face, and rinsed his mouth. Gods, he hated the slime that filmed his mouth after puking. He lifted his head and came face-to-face with a stranger in the mirror. Sunken eyes with dark smudges beneath them, pallid complexion, chapped lips, limp hair.

"No more mirrors," he muttered, turning away as he wiped his face with some paper towels Jim handed him.

"How's the stomach?" Jim asked.

"Better, but still squeamish."

"When we get back to the bull pen, I'll dig out one of those anti-nausea pills for you."

Blair nodded and tossed the paper towels in the garbage. He glanced at the stall and grimaced. "Hope you had your smell dial turned down."

Jim shrugged. "I'm all right." He toed the floor like a child expecting to be scolded. "Don't you think it's time you call Naomi?"

"No!" Blair answered without thought.

"She's your mother, for Chrissakes."

"Drop it, Jim. I don't want her--" the younger man swallowed hard, "--watching me die. I don't want... t-to lay that on her." He raised his dull eyes. "It's bad enough knowing you'll... have to watch m-me die."

Jim's neck bowed and his shoulders shuddered. Finally he lifted his head, his face tight as he held his emotions under a tight rein. "Don't you think it's her decision?"

"It's mine." Blair broke off, alternately coughing and gasping. When Jim moved toward him, he held up his hand. "No."

"You want me to take you back to the loft?" Jim asked quietly after Blair managed to get his breathing under control.

Blair glared at him, giving his answer.

"Okay," Jim said with resignation. "But when we have the last security meeting this afternoon, I want you to take a nap in Simon's office." Blair opened his mouth to object, but Jim held up his hand. "You either rest there or I'll take you to the loft to sleep. Or the hospital."

"Damn it, Jim. You might need me at the meeting." Blair paused, panting to regain his breath again. "You're going to be listening to heart rates... t-to see who might be working with B-Brackett." He braced his hands on the sink and struggled to breathe.

"C'mon, Chief. Don't get yourself worked up here. Close your eyes and practice those deep-breathing exercises," Jim said.

Blair was glad for the excuse to close his eyes against the dizzying lights. As the hours progressed it was taking longer and longer to find his center and breathe in long even inhalations and exhalations. Jim remained close, but didn't touch him for which Blair was grateful. If he did, Blair was afraid he'd give in to his sentinel's strength and his own weakness.

Eventually the world stopped crashing down around him and Blair opened his eyes. He found Jim in the exact same place, watching him with concern etched in his face.

"Better?" Jim asked softly.

"Yeah."

"The doctor gave me a portable oxygen tank last night. It's down in the truck. I'll go get it," Jim said.

Blair grabbed Jim's arm. "Don't. If I start using it in the bull pen, everyone's going to start wondering."

Jim sighed in exasperation. "How long do you plan on pretending everything's okay?"

"I'm not pretending, man," Blair shot back. "Believe me, I know this is real. I... j-just don't want them to know yet."

He could see Jim consciously tamping down his impatience. "All right, Chief. But later, sometime before the prince's speech, I'm going to tell Joel, Megan, H, and Rafe. I need them to know what's going on and why." He took a deep breath. "And you should think about calling Naomi."

Blair gritted his teeth, but nodded reluctantly.

"Let's get back," Jim said. He unlocked the bathroom door and was grateful no one was standing in the hallway. It wouldn't have surprised him if one of their fellow Major Crime detectives had guarded the door. He ushered Blair back to the bull pen with a light hand against his back.

When they returned, heads lifted, but no one commented. Hopefully, they all thought it was merely the flu. Blair sat down carefully by his computer to finish inputting the grades.


At two o'clock, Jim stood and reached for his and Blair's jackets. "We should get going to the auditorium."

"Isn't the meeting at three?" Blair asked.

Jim nodded, holding Blair's coat out for him. "I want to get there before everyone else and have a look around to make sure no one has come in who's not supposed to be there."

Blair allowed Jim to help him into his jacket. "I thought... you weren't going to let me come."

Jim didn't meet his gaze. "I still don't want you to go, but I know you'll only argue and make yourself sicker."

Blair's throat tightened. He didn't want Jim mad at him, but he wasn't going to back down on this either. He knew Jim was going to be stretching his senses, trying to discover if there was someone else working with Brackett -- someone who was part of the federal security contingent.

The two men made the trip to the truck in awkward silence, broken only by Blair's ragged breathing. He walked hunched over and knew he resembled an old man, but the position made it marginally easier to breathe, and at this point any relief was welcome.

Jim's phone rang just as he parked behind the auditorium beside an employee entrance.

"Ellison," he answered curtly. His granite expression eased. "What did you find?" He listened for a full minute. "Nothing at all?" A load of frustration was packed into the short question. "If you find out anything, call me. I don't care what time it is. Thanks, Jack." He snapped his cell phone closed.

"Jack Kelso?" Blair asked.

Jim nodded as he gritted his teeth. "He heard back from a friend of his. The poison is a brand new one. Jack couldn't find a single person who knew anything about it. He said he'll keep trying, but he thinks it's so high up, he won't be able to find out anymore."

"Damn," Blair said hoarsely as he pressed his clenched hands into his thighs. "I was hoping Jack would come up with a miracle."

"Don't give up yet, buddy."

Blair laughed bitterly. "You don't kill Sahir, Brackett won't give us the antidote. We're screwed."

Jim reached over to rest a hand on Blair's shoulder. "Come on, Chief, don't you dare give up yet. We still have over eighteen hours for a miracle to happen."

Hadn't he already exhausted his cache of miracles -- Lash, Peru, Quinn, and Golden, just to name a few? Not to mention his death by drowning. He smiled wryly. "Sure, what's one more miracle?"

Jim looked away. "Let's go on in and make sure everything's okay."

The two men slipped out of the truck and Jim opened the auditorium employee door. He went in first, followed closely by Blair. A bare lightbulb lit the narrow corridor.

"Is this going to be guarded tonight?" Blair asked.

Jim nodded. "Definitely. In fact, I'm surprised it was unlocked now."

"You don't think anyone dropped off a bomb, do you?"

"I'm going to filter out the smells as we go to make sure there aren't any explosives."

"Ground yourself with my heartbeat so you don't zone," Blair said.

Jim tipped his head slightly and Blair knew he was doing as he'd suggested. They walked down the hallway slowly, partly for Jim to do his bloodhound routine and partly to ensure Blair's body wouldn't be overtaxed. Jim stopped by a freight elevator and the two men rode it up to the main floor.

Blair had been puzzled as to why Jim had parked by the back door this time, but now he understood. Jim was sparing him the endless stairs at the main entrance.

For the next half hour, Blair sat in a front seat of the auditorium while he watched Jim move around the stage, extending his senses to make sure there would be no surprises tonight. He would have preferred to keep close to the sentinel, but the short walk from the truck had wiped him out. It took all of his strength to remain seated upright and follow Jim's movements.

Before he could see or hear the first arrival, Blair knew someone had shown up when he spotted Jim tilt his head. For the next five minutes, federal agents and local police joined them. Blair was aware of the hostile gazes aimed his way from the feds and knew it stemmed from his shooting of Sinclair. Even though the agent had been planning to murder Jim in cold blood, the feds didn't like it. Simon started the meeting and began with an explanation of what had happened the night before. Some of the hostility faded, but most didn't. Blair sighed. It was part of the code law enforcement lived by -- take care of your own.

After Simon was done Marvin Leonard, the local head FBI agent, divided everyone into small groups and assigned them their tasks. Blair's head buzzed, but he managed to follow the main gist. Jim moved from group to group, double-checking with each one to make sure they knew their assignment. The frozen glares from the feds didn't faze him, and Jim matched them ice for ice.

The last team Jim spoke to was Joel, H, Rafe and Megan who were gathered only a few feet from Blair.

"I especially want you all to keep an eye open for Brackett," Jim said.

Joel frowned. "What's been going on, Jim?"

Blair caught Jim's gaze and he read the unspoken question in his eyes. With his heart thudding painfully, Blair nodded. It was time his friends knew the score.

Jim explained the situation and Blair endured the sympathetic looks directed his way. But beneath the sympathy was anger.

"Why didn't you tell us sooner?" Megan demanded, concern making her voice sharp.

"It was my decision," Blair answered for Jim. "I-I didn't want anyone to know."

Joel stepped over to the student and placed a meaty hand on his shoulder. "How are you doing, Blair?" he asked softly.

Blair blinked back tears at the gentle tone. "Hanging in there, Joel."

"What's the plan?" H asked, his gaze hovering between Blair and Jim.

Jim squeezed the bridge of his nose. "There isn't one," he replied in a low voice.

"What?" Megan demanded.

"You heard him, Megan," Blair said. "He can't kill Sahir."

"Can't you stage an assassination?" Rafe asked.

Simon joined them in time to hear Rafe's question. "Too many unknown variables -- mainly the suits." The captain glanced at Blair. "You look like hell, Sandburg. You should be in the hospital."

Blair held up a hand, palm out. "Gee thanks, Simon. Jim and I have already had this discussion. He lost."

Simon grunted. "What else is new?" He turned to Jim. "Everything set?"

Jim nodded. "I handed out pictures of Brackett to everyone."

"You think he'll show?"

"I don't think he'll miss it. Son-of-a-bitch wants to see me fail."

"You still think he has someone in his pocket? Or was Sinclair it?" Simon asked.

Jim shrugged. "When I passed out the pictures of Brackett, I watched the feds' reactions. No one seemed to recognize him."

Blair knew he meant he'd used his senses as a lie detector to monitor their vitals, but couldn't admit it in front of Joel, Rafe, and H who didn't know about his sentinel senses. That would probably change after tomorrow -- everyone would have to be told about Jim's senses so they could watch for zone-outs.

Blair's breath hitched in his throat. Tomorrow at this time, Jim would be alone. The companionable evenings where sentinel and guide argued good-naturedly about whose turn it was to cook, then watched a Jags game, or worked on reports or homework would be over. It wasn't like he and Jim spent every spare moment together -- hell, every once in a while, each of them even managed to go on a date outside their busy work and school schedules. But it was the time they'd spent together which Blair grieved for. Finding a sentinel had been a dream come true, but finding a best friend in Jim had been even more extraordinary.

"Are the doors all secured?" Jim asked.

Simon nodded. "Our uniforms are checking them now. They'll all be checked again at six this evening and guarded from then until the prince leaves."

"Good. What about the feds?

"They'll be at their posts at six thirty, half an hour before the doors open." Simon turned to his gathered Major Crime detectives. "Why don't we all go get something to eat? We're going to have a busy evening." He glanced at Blair, his expression softening. "Probably a long night."

Blair swallowed hard, trying not to notice how much energy the single action required.

"Good idea. We could head over to the Thai place Hairboy likes so well," H suggested, smiling too widely.

"No thanks, guys. I think I'm going to get some rest before the performance starts," Blair said, forcing a casual grin.

A long moment of awkward silence sprang up between the detectives. Simon clapped his hands together. "Come on, people. We don't have all day. Let's go."

Megan slipped to Blair's side. "We'll see you this evening?"

"No place else I'd rather be," Blair replied.

She leaned over and kissed his cheek. "We'll get him, Sandy," she whispered.

Blair watched everyone but Jim leave. "You can drop me off at the loft and go with them."

"Like hell," Jim growled. He took a deep breath to gather his composure. "You're right about the loft, but we're both going there. I'll make you some milk toast."

"Ugh," Blair gagged. "You can't be serious."

Jim shrugged, though his eyes twinkled. "Any time Stephen or I was sick, Sally would make us milk toast."

Blair grunted. "That explains a lot."

Jim came over to Blair's side and grasped his arm to help him stand. "What does that mean, Sandburg?"

Though Blair hated to admit it, he was grateful for Jim's support. His muscles felt like... milk toast. "You figure it out, man," Blair bantered.

Leaning heavily on his partner, Blair made it to the truck then collapsed. He was aware of Jim pulling his seatbelt across him, but it was taking all of his energy to breathe. Jim reached behind the seat, then Blair felt a mask being held over his nose and mouth. The cool energizing stream of air brought reality back into focus.

Jim reached for his hand and placed it against the clear mask. "Hold it there, Chief."

Blair nodded, not wanting to deplete the precious oxygen by talking.

Jim slammed his door shut and climbed in behind the wheel, but the motor wasn't started. Blair turned his head to look at Jim, only to find anguished blue eyes on him. With his free hand, Blair clumsily reached across the seat to lay his palm on Jim's arm. "It's okay, Jim," he rasped out.

Anger leapt into the detective's face, but Blair knew it wasn't directed at him. "No, it's not okay, but there's not a damn thing I can do about it." Jim struck the steering wheel with a fist and Blair flinched. "I feel so fucking helpless, Blair. It's tearing me apart to see you like this and to know if you hadn't gotten involved with me, you'd be in some safe college classroom."

"And b-bored as hell," Blair said with a little smile.

Jim's breath hitched in his throat. "Better to be bored, than dead."

"Haven't you... heard the s-saying... bored to death?"

Jim laughed, but it sounded more like a strangled sob. "Shut up, Sandburg."

The guide obeyed his sentinel.


PRESENT

I will not cry, damn it. I fight the tears which fill my eyes and curse my weakness. Rafe and H aren't sitting here blubbering like a couple of sheilas. But looking at their eyes, they do seem to glisten a little....

I force myself to remain seated in the uncomfortable chair and glance up at the clock on the wall -- 6:05 a.m. A little less than three hours left...

I wonder when I allowed myself to get so close to these people... to Sandy. I was only supposed to be here a month, maybe two, on the officer exchange program, but somehow it kept getting extended. I even finally broke into the tight circle of Major Crime. I have to admit much of my acceptance came from the man who has brought us all to this hospital -- to his death watch.

A tear trickles down my cheek and I brush it away impatiently. If Lee Brackett ever crosses my path, I will shoot the bastard whether he has a gun or not.

I've only hated one other person this badly and he's serving time in prison. Sometimes I imagine killing him -- slowly and painfully. I'm doing the same with this Brackett person right now. I know I'm an inspector, duly appointed to uphold the law, and I know what I'm thinking is wrong, but it's only a fantasy. We all have them and we all hide them from the rest of the world.

Take the undercover assignment where Sandy posed as my artist lover. Most of what we were doing in the bedroom was acting, but there was a small part of me which enjoyed it. Not that I would ever admit it to anyone...

Fantasies -- we all have them.

My fantasy now involves seeing Sandy bouncing along behind Jim, talking about some ancient civilization as they enter the Major Crime bull pen. It's funny. I can't imagine one without the other -- Blair without Jim; Jim without Blair.

Sentinel without Guide; Guide without Sentinel.

Damn. The tears refuse to listen to my threats and roll down my cheeks. A white handkerchief is pressed into my hand and I manage a slight smile of gratitude for Rafe.

I haven't seen Captain Banks or Joel, but I suspect they're not far away. Rhonda would be here, but she doesn't know. Maybe we should have told her. Maybe I should call her.

A nurse strides down the corridor, her soft-soled shoes almost soundless on the shiny floor. She stops in the waiting room and looks at us. "There's a phone call for a Detective Ellison at the desk."

I stand before Rafe or H have time to move. "I'll get him."

Grateful for something to do, I walk toward the ICU area. My stomach is twisted into a knot -- it feels a bit like one of those pretzels the Yanks are so fond of.

I press my hand to the door, but pause. I'm certain Jim's extraordinary senses have told him I'm out here, but suddenly I feel like an intruder. I haven't felt this way since I first arrived in Cascade.

I'm not sure I can do this. Jim won't want to leave Sandy's side for even a minute. Maybe I should have questioned the nurse about the phone call. But then maybe it's good news -- maybe one of Jim's sources have found a miracle.

Steeling my backbone, I push open the door and enter.


TWELVE HOURS PREVIOUS

Jim crossed his arms and gazed down at his best friend, who slept soundly on the couch beneath a pile of blankets. Blair's cheeks were flushed, but the rest of his face was pale. The fever he had been tolerating had risen to over a hundred degrees and continued upward with each passing hour. A faint blue tinge ringed his lips, but Jim was certain only he could see it because of his sentinel vision. He suspected it would become visible to everyone in a few hours.

He clamped down hard on his emotions, afraid to give in even for a moment -- afraid he would lose the edge he needed tonight. There would be no second chances -- no three strikes and you're out. If Brackett was there tonight, Jim had to find him. He was Blair's one and only chance at survival.

Jim had taken advantage of the time to make some calls and come up with something resembling a plan. It was by no means foolproof and could barely be called a plan, but it was more than they had three hours ago.

Though he wished he didn't have to wake him, Jim squatted down beside the couch and gently shook Blair's shoulder. "Come on, buddy. It's show time."

Blair groaned and his bleary eyes flickered open. "Jim?"

"Yep. Think you can manage to get up?"

The younger man didn't waste energy on words but pressed back his covers. Jim helped, pulling the blankets off Blair's curled-up body and hating himself for having to do it. Blair maneuvered around in slow motion and planted his feet on the floor. He propped his elbows on his knees and scrubbed his hands through his unruly hair. "I shoulda tied it back," he murmured. "Don't think I have... the s-strength to do it now."

"No problem," Jim said. He hurried into Blair's room and grabbed a hair tie from his desktop. Returning to the living room, he sat on the couch beside his friend and gathered the frizzed hair into a ponytail. "Better?"

"Yeah, thanks, man." He wrapped his arms around himself and doubled over. "Ah geez, Jim, I feel... like shit."

"Let me take you to the hospital, Blair. They can make you more comfortable."

"No." The single word left no doubt Blair wouldn't even consider it.

Sighing, Jim reached for Blair's shoes. He knelt before his guide and fixed the Nikes on his feet, then tied the laces snugly.

"Thanks." Blair raised an arm. "Help me up."

Jim stood and took hold of his arm firmly but gently and tugged him to his feet. He wove a bit, but managed to stay upright with Jim's help.

"I can do it," Blair said in a raspy voice, shaking off Jim's assistance.

The older man stepped back, but didn't stray far from his side. "Can you eat anything?"

"No," came the short reply.

"Not even milk toast?" Jim teased, hoping to get a smile from his friend.

He did, though it was only a mere fraction of Blair's usual amused grin. By the door, Blair stopped, braced a hand against the Red Heron Hooks poster. After Jim assisted him into his coat, Blair straightened and turned to gaze at the loft, his eyes filled with a mixture of happiness and melancholy.

Jim could feel the emotions emanating from his guide, but didn't know if it was because they harbored a weird sentinel/guide bond or because his sentinel senses could actually detect his best friend's feelings. He moved closer, wrapped an arm around Blair's waist -- supporting him both physically and emotionally. "What is it?" he asked softly.

"This is... the f-first place I ever called... home," Blair stammered. "Thanks to you, I... understand."

"Understand what, Chief?"

Blair turned so he could gaze up into Jim's face. "A home is... m-more than four walls. It's--" His voice broke, but he struggled valiantly ahead, "--It's who you share it with."

Jim blinked to counter the stinging in his eyes. "Yeah, it is, Chief."


The afternoon was shifting to dusk as Jim drove to the auditorium. Blair watched the familiar lights of Cascade come to life, heralding the end of another day -- his last day. He accepted his fate, but knew his destiny was linked with Jim's. If Jim couldn't accept his death, the sentinel wouldn't survive. He alone knew how stubborn the detective was and how his emotions could banish his hypersenses. His accidental shooting of a security guard and Danny Choi's death had proven Jim's control of his senses depended on his mental well-being.

"How're you doing, Chief?" Jim asked.

"Fine."

"I can get the oxygen for you."

Blair shook his head. "Save for later."

He started to abbreviate his sentences to conserve his strength. Shifting on the seat, Blair stifled a groan. He was one big aching muscle and felt about a hundred years old. His stomach made a few half-hearted attempts toward nausea, but didn't succeed. He placed two fingers across his wrist and counted the beats for ten seconds, then multiplied the number by six. One hundred and fifty beats per minute. He grinned to himself -- only about eighty above his normal pulse.

Jim glanced at him, but didn't say anything. It was clear he knew what Blair was doing, but let him have his distraction. And Blair definitely needed some diversion from the self-pity party which was rallying inside him.

Jim parked the truck by the door they had used that afternoon. Only one other vehicle was nearby -- a dark sedan.

"Stay," Jim ordered. "I'll come around to help you."

"Woof," Blair said, a slight twinkle in his sunken eyes.

Jim smiled. "Good boy."

Five minutes later, Blair leaned heavily on Jim as they rode the freight elevator up to the main floor. They had surprised the uniformed cop who had been on duty at the back door, but he had let them in after Jim had shown proper identification. His arms crossed tightly against his chest, Blair moved away from Jim as they stepped off the elevator.

"I have to," Blair said huskily.

Jim nodded, understanding his friend had to do this on his own. He had to be allowed to hold on to his pride.

Each step was agony and Blair's lungs burned like lava had been poured straight into them. Sweat trickled down his cheeks and he kept wiping it away so no one would see the fever-induced moisture. His body begged him to lie down and curl up into a ball, but Blair didn't have that option and he stubbornly shuffled into the auditorium.

Big hands settled on his shoulders and he looked up to see Simon's eyes peering down at him. "Shouldn't you be in bed?" the captain asked, concern shading his tone.

"Not until... this is... over," Blair managed to say. "S-Sit down."

Jim took Simon's place and steered him to a nearby seat. He patted Blair's knee. "Relax, Chief. We're just going to go over some last minute stuff."

Blair wondered if they had come up with some plan of attack while he'd been sleeping. Jim didn't mention it, but then he wouldn't. Sometimes the sentinel thought his shoulders were wide enough to shoulder the world. Someone ought to tell the man his name wasn't Atlas.

Jim cast Blair a worried glance, but he seemed to be breathing a little easier now that he was seated and still.

"You shouldn't have brought him, Jim," Simon said in a low voice.

"You think I had a choice?" Jim demanded, his hair-trigger temper aroused.

Simon planted a beefy hand on his arm. "Take it easy, Jim. I know how stubborn he can be." His expression eased and a slight smile lifted his lips. "That stubbornness has saved him in the past."

"Without the antidote, stubbornness can only do so much." He raked a shaking hand over his short hair. "Everything set?"

Simon nodded. "I've put Joel, Rafe, H and Megan in the highest observation posts. You'll be up in the lighting booth. You'll have a birds-eye view of the entire auditorium without the lights bothering your eyes."

Jim nodded. "What about the sniper rifle?"

"It's up there already. The six of us will be on a separate channel from the rest of the security contingent. If anyone sees Brackett, they'll contact you so you can track him." Simon pursed his lips. "I know you can't be planning to kill him since he's the only one with the antidote."

"That's right, but if he tries to take out Sahir, I'll have to shoot and I have the best chance of only wounding him."

Simon reached into his pocket and withdrew a cigar. He removed the cellophane wrap and placed the unlit stogie between his lips. "Where do I fit in your scheme?"

"You have the most important assignment -- take care of Sandburg. I won't risk having him climb all the stairs to the lighting booth, but I need to know he's safe."

Simon's eyes glistened suspiciously. "Give me the easy job," he said, hiding his worry behind gruff sarcasm. He sobered. "Don't zone trying to listen for his heartbeat. You need to be at one hundred percent."

Jim smiled wryly. "I don't have to try. If he's within a thousand foot radius, I'll hear him."

Simon's eyes widened, but he held up a hand before Jim could say more. "Too much information." He took a deep breath as he rolled the cigar between his fingers. "I'll put him in a chair beside me backstage."

"Thanks, Simon."

"Don't thank me. He's one of us and we take care of our own." Simon gave his arm a reassuring squeeze. "Why don't you let your partner in on the plan?"

"Gee, thanks, Simon. I was hoping you might do it."

"You have more experience dealing with Sandburg than I do." Simon grinned. "Go get 'em, Tiger."

Jim sent him a feigned glare, then joined his guide. He sat down beside him, registering the fast heartbeat and ragged respiration, not to mention the fever's heat which came off him in waves. "Hanging in there, Chief?"

"Am I?" Blair arched an eyebrow.

Jim laughed. "You know me too damn well, buddy." He leaned toward Blair and rested his forearms on his thighs. The moment of light-heartedness faded. "We've got every exit and entrance covered. If Brackett shows, we'll get him."

Blair smiled sadly. "You'll try."

"No! We will get the bastard and the antidote, too."

"Whatever you say, Jim." Blair studied him closely.

"What? I have some spinach between my teeth?" Jim teased.

"No."

Jim expected him to say more, but the student remained mute. "I'll be up in the lighting booth watching everybody."

Blair's eyes flashed with something akin to panic. "What about me?"

"You're going to be backstage with Simon."

"No. The guide stays... with his s-sentinel."

Jim gripped his shoulders, careful not to hurt him. "Not this time, Chief. There's nearly fifty stairs leading to the booth. I can't risk you exerting yourself too much. It could make the poison move through your system faster and we might need every minute we can get."

Blair scowled, his displeasure evident. "All right, but no... zoning."

Jim drew an imaginary X on his chest. "Cross my heart."

Movement on the stage caught Jim's attention. "It looks like the main attraction has arrived."

Simon and Marvin Leonard were shaking hands with Prince Sahir and his official attendants when Jim joined them. The prince was younger than Jim expected, probably near Sandburg's age.

Simon introduced Jim to the six men gathered around the prince. Two of them were official escorts from the prince's native country. One was a congressman from Washington state and the other three were federal agents.

Dale Rankin, one of the FBI agents from DC who was with the prince, looked around with narrowed eyes. "You've done a good job with security."

"Thank you," Simon said. "We would hate to have something happen to the prince while visiting our city."

Rankin smiled. "I understand. This is the first city on the prince's tour."

Jim divided his attention between the conversation and checking out the six members of the prince's entourage. Their heartbeats were all a bit elevated, but that was normal under the circumstances. He examined them with his other senses, pausing when he caught the faint whiff of something familiar, but it was too fleeting to nail down.

"Prince Sahir would like to go prepare in his dressing room," one of the prince's countrymen said.

Jim watched the group leave the stage.

"I'm surprised to see Director Rankin," Marvin Leonard commented. "He doesn't normally accompany dignitaries."

"What does he usually do?" Jim asked.

"He coordinates security with all the cities the diplomat is traveling through." Leonard scratched his jaw. "I guess he got tired of sitting behind a desk." The local fed wandered off to check on his own men.

A hand on his arm startled Jim out of his thoughts and he glanced down to see Blair's pain-filled eyes staring at him.

"You okay?" Blair managed to ask.

"I'm fine, but you need to sit down."

Simon found a chair and set it just inside the edge of the curtain. "He can stay here for the entire speech."

"That wasn't a... suggestion, was it?" Blair asked as Jim led him to the chair.

"Nope," Simon replied.

"What were you doing coming up those stairs by yourself?" Jim demanded.

"There were... only three," Blair answered.

"Three too many. Geezus, Chief, what am I supposed to do with you?"

In spite of Blair's illness, he managed to give Jim a wide-eyed innocent look.

"Uh-uh, that's not going to work," Jim said.

"Come on, Jim, lay off the kid," Simon interjected.

Blair waggled his eyebrows at his partner. "Worked."

Jim rolled his eyes, but smiled gently. "That's because he's a kitty cat."

"Don't you have someplace to be?" Simon asked Jim with feigned irritation.

"Yeah, I guess." Jim frowned, looking back to where the prince had disappeared. There was something he wasn't putting together.

"What?" Blair asked with uncanny perception.

Jim blinked. "It's nothing, Chief. Now you are going to stay here and listen to Simon, right?"

Blair rolled his eyes heavenward. "Yes, Jim."

"Good." Jim shook a finger at him. "And don't overdo it. If you need something, let Simon know. He'll let me know."

"Yes, Jim," Blair repeated dutifully.

Jim gave Blair's shoulder a gentle squeeze. "Hang on, Chief."

"I'm not... g-going anywhere."

For a moment, Jim merely stared at his guide. His slight frame was racked by tremors which were barely visible to the normal eye, but were all too-evident to Jim. Fatigue created dark circles beneath his eyes and fever flushed his face. He wished he could do something to help, but all he could do was hope.

"Good luck," Blair whispered sentinel-soft.

Jim sent him a quick nod then hurried up to his post. The auditorium's doors would open up in less than five minutes.


Blair tried to focus on the crowd, but his vision kept blurring from either the sweat or the poison's effect. He wasn't certain which. All he knew was he was spiraling downward faster and faster. Although he remained motionless, he still found himself working overtime to draw in enough air to keep his body upright. His hands and arms shook and he was alternately hot and cold, dependent on the fever's whims.

If only he could slink away into a corner and disappear. How much agony could a person tolerate? More than Blair had ever thought possible.

He glanced up toward the lighting booth, but his vision was cutting in and out, and the spotlights were on, making it even more difficult to focus. He curled his arms into his belly and hung his head down.

"Are you all right, Blair?" Simon asked anxiously.

He nodded, but didn't raise his head. "Makes it easier."

He felt Simon's hand come to rest lightly on his bowed back. "Hold on, kid."

Blair smiled. Kid. Maybe Simon had paternal feelings toward him. Now that thought was too weird to contemplate.

He rocked gently, easing enough of the pain to make it bearable for a few more minutes. Whatever poison was racing through him, it had a hell of a punch.

Mom. The thought came unbidden and caused a moment of panic. He should have called her when Jim suggested it. Naomi was not going to be happy hearing about his death from Jim and knowing her own son could have called.

Could he fuck anything else up? He shouldn't have let himself be injected in the first place. It would have spared everyone -- including himself -- a load of pain and grief. He wouldn't be dying and leaving Jim alone if he'd been more alert, more careful. No wonder Jim had checked on him so often. He couldn't be trusted to do anything right, not even take care of himself.

And now he was too weak to be at his sentinel's side when he needed him. What the hell good was he anyhow, besides being something else for Jim to worry about?

From far away, Blair heard applause and lifted his head. He forced himself to concentrate on the prince who stood at the lectern to begin his speech.


Jim scanned the crowd, hunting for one face among the hundreds. He allowed his sentinel vision to do a methodical search of the audience, moving back and forth across the rows. The sniper rifle sat propped against the wall beside him, loaded and ready to be used in a moment's notice. The Major Crime detectives checked in every five minutes, but so far there had been no confirmed -- or unconfirmed -- sighting of the rogue agent.

As he continued his search, Jim's thoughts took him back to the six men who escorted the prince. One of the six had triggered a memory, but of what Jim couldn't recall. It had been an ephemeral scent, but where had he smelled it before? Someplace not too long ago...

This morning. At Brackett's hotel room. The unknown odor.

Jim turned his attention from the crowd to the six men on the stage. Which one did the scent belong to? Jim focused in on the congressman, but didn't see or hear anything out of the ordinary. Damn it, this wasn't going to work. He had to smell each man.

Yeah, right Ellison. Ask the nice men nice if you can sniff them. That would go over well.

"Piggyback your sight with you hearing, Jim." Blair's words from a case long ago returned to him.

Okay, if it worked for sight and hearing, maybe it would work for sight and smell. He might zone, but he had to take the chance. Concentrating, he first consciously sought Blair's heartbeat and was distracted momentarily by the rapid beat. Allowing the sound to ground him, he extended his sight then imagined himself being on stage beside the officials. The smells inundated him immediately and he managed to filter out the common ones: the prince's expensive cologne, the congressman's perspiration, one of the agent's coffee breath, and finally, the elusive scent. Jim pushed himself, trying to discover who the faint odor belonged to -- Rankin.

Jim mentally reached for Blair's heartbeat and drew himself back, like a rope thrown to a man drowning in quicksand.

It was Director Dale Rankin. The conclusion didn't surprise Jim -- he'd already suspected something when Leonard had told him Rankin didn't usually go out into the field.

The prince's speech was coming to a close. Jim kept his steady gaze on Rankin, who seemed almost too cool and calm, though his gaze darted about quickly. But the man's heartbeat remained slow and steady, his breathing deep and regular. If Rankin had been at Brackett's apartment, either Brackett worked for him or Rankin worked for Brackett. The former seemed more feasible.

If Jim hadn't been listening so closely, he wouldn't have noticed the sudden surge in Rankin's heartbeat.

"Gun," Rankin hollered as he shot into the crowd.

Panicked pandemonium took over as people screamed and tried to escape. Jim grabbed the sniper rifle and jammed the stock against his shoulder. He'd removed the sights so he could use his own enhanced vision to find his target. He zeroed in on Rankin and found the agent on top of the prince's body as if to shield him, but Rankin's weapon was aimed at the prince's forehead.

Jim took a deep breath, sighted his target and squeezed the trigger. Rankin's gun flew in one direction as the agent was flung back in the opposite direction. Simon appeared like magic, flipping Rankin onto his stomach and dropping a knee into the agent's back to hold him down. The captain handcuffed him in record time.

Jim remained in the booth, watching the audience scatter like stampeding cattle. When he deemed it was safe, he trotted down the steps, his legs and arms shaking from the post-adrenaline rush. As he neared the stage, he saw Joel shaking his head as he knelt beside the man Rankin had shot.

"He's dead," Joel said. "No gun."

Jim gritted his teeth. Rankin had used the innocent bystander as an excuse to create chaos and planned to kill the prince himself, making it appear the deed had been done by some unknown assassin in the crowd. An assassin who would unfortunately escape in the ensuing melee -- and the dead person would have been considered an unfortunate mistake.

Son-of-a-bitch.

Jim jumped onto the stage and sent Simon only a cursory glance. His attention was already riveted to his pale, wraith-like guide.

"Did you catch B-Brackett?" Blair asked breathlessly.

"I'm sorry, Chief, but he never showed. We did get the guy we believe was pulling Brackett's strings, though. I'm betting we can get the antidote from him," Jim said with more confidence than he felt.

Blair's face fell, the last vestiges of hope erased. "Brackett wouldn't share."

"He had to have gotten the poison from someone and it seems to me this Rankin would have access to the newest weapons in the damned arsenal."

"Jim?" Blair's voice was barely audible, even to Jim's hearing.

He knelt beside his guide. "What is it, buddy?"

"I think I... should g-go to the... hospital now."

Jim's heart skipped a beat and panic robbed him of his voice for a moment. "Okay, Chief." He fought back terror. "Simon, we're going to the hospital."

The captain's eyes widened and he left Rankin in Joel's capable hands as he hurried over to the two men. "I'll leave word that if anyone sees Brackett, they're to get a hold of you or myself immediately."

"Thanks," Jim said. "Will you interrogate Rankin personally? I would, but--"

"I'll do it just as soon as I can get him down to headquarters. Take care of your partner."

Jim nodded once, then said close to Blair's ear, "Pretty soon you'll feel better, Chief."

He couldn't tell if Blair had heard him or not. It was a chore to get the younger man to his feet and when it was obvious he was incapable of walking any distance, Jim scooped him into his arms.

Blair's face rested against Jim's chest but a small smile graced his lips. "What'll the... n-neighbors think?"

"I don't give a damn what anyone thinks," Jim said, unable to camouflage his fear. If Blair said he needed to get to the hospital, he was in bad shape.

Keeping his guide's fevered body cradled in his arms, Jim carried him to his truck.

"Do you think you can stand? I have to get my keys," Jim asked gently.

Blair nodded faintly. Jim eased his feet to the ground first and leaned him against the truck beside the passenger door. Keeping one hand near his friend, Jim dug the keys out of his jacket pocket.

"It's not... s-so bad, Jim," Blair wheezed. "I remember... the fountain. Quiet. P-Peaceful."

The keys slipped out of Jim's suddenly nerveless hands. He stared at his hands, willing the feeling back into them but they remained numb.

"Goddammit," Jim swore.

"What is... it?"

"My hands. They're numb just like when Danny--" Jim couldn't finish. He dropped to his knees to pick up the keys but his fingers were useless.

Blair slid down the truck, landing on his butt on the ground. "Shit. You... can't do this, Jim." He fought for air. "D-Don't let it... happen again."

Jim sat back on his heels, his numb hands balanced on his thighs. Blair's face blurred in the darkness. "What am I going to do without you, Chief?" he asked hoarsely.

With strength Jim didn't think Blair still possessed, his guide reached for him and Jim allowed the arms to enfold him and draw him close. He laid his ear against Blair's chest and listened to his rapid heartbeat. Blair hugged him tight and rested his chin on Jim's head.

"L-Listen, Jim. I'm s-still here," Blair intoned huskily. "I'll always b-be... here for you."

Jim closed his eyes and just let his senses drink in Blair's presence -- from his unique scent mixed with fever sweat to the sound of his heart beating too quickly and too weakly.

Blair spoke again, his voice low and emotion-laden. "A sentinel will always... be a sentinel if he--" he caught his breath. "--if he chooses."

For a moment, Jim couldn't breathe. He wrapped his arms around Blair's waist snugly, drawing them even closer. "Damn it, Sandburg. You better not be giving up."

"Your hands?"

Jim blinked and realized the feeling had returned. "They're back." He reluctantly unwound himself from his guide and helped him to his feet. "Time to get you to the hospital."

"I'm hoping... for s-some good drugs," Blair said with a half-smile.

"I'm hoping for an antidote," Jim said grimly. "Up you go, Chief."


Two hours later, Blair had been admitted to the intensive care unit. His room had a large window where he could be watched and there were machines and beeps and IVs to keep him company.

Jim stood over him, gazing down at his friend's face which had lost some of its bluish hue, but it was only temporary. The oxygen helped now but would lose its effectiveness as the seventy-two hour deadline neared. Blair seemed to be sleeping and Jim hated to wake him.

He reached into his pocket and pulled out the stopwatch. They had passed the sixty-two hour mark and were climbing to sixty-three -- less than ten hours remained.

The door opened and a nurse stuck her head in. "You have a phone call, Detective Ellison. It's a Captain Banks," she said quietly.

He nodded at her and she backed out, leaving them alone again. Jim pressed his palm to the side of Blair's fever-flushed face. "I'll be back in a minute," he whispered.

Jim slipped out of the room and strode down the hallway to the nurse's station. He picked up the phone. "Ellison."

"Jim, it's Simon. We've got Rankin but he won't tell us where Brackett is. He wants to cut a deal."

"Then do it. We need the antidote, Simon."

"Rankin will plead guilty to accidental manslaughter for Brackett's location."

"What? He shot an innocent man in cold blood and was getting ready to murder another. And God knows how many other assassinations he's engineered."

"The DA doesn't like it at all, but that's Rankin's deal."

Jim rubbed his brow, wishing his headache would ease. "We don't have a choice."

There was a long moment of silence at the other end, then finally, "Is Blair conscious?"

"He's resting." Jim scowled. "Why?"

A long sigh filled with anguish came through the receiver. "It should be his choice."

"What?"

"You heard me, Jim. If we make this deal, Rankin gets away with murder, literally." Simon paused. "The victim had a wife, a little girl and another child on the way. What do you think Sandburg would say about his murderer getting off?"

Hot anger pulsed through Jim. "I don't give a damn what he would say. If we don't make this deal, Blair is as good as dead."

"Talk to Sandburg. It's Blair's choice."

Jim wanted to throw the phone against the wall, but it wouldn't rid him of the acid in his belly or the horrible fear in his heart. He knew Simon was right, but he was almost certain he knew what Blair's decision would be. He took a deep steadying breath. "I'll call you back."

"All right."

Jim placed the receiver back in its cradle and closed his eyes. His instincts screamed to do something -- anything -- to save his guide, but the decision had been taken from him.

Steeling his spine, Jim opened his eyes and returned to Blair's room. The lights had been dimmed, but with his sentinel vision, it could have been noon. He forced himself to walk over to the bed and gently shook Blair's shoulder.

"Chief, are you awake?" Jim asked softly.

Blair muttered something unintelligible, but a moment later his familiar blue eyes were aimed at Jim. "Hey."

The older man smiled and leaned over the bed, resting his arm on the pillow above Blair's head. "Hey, yourself. How do you feel?"

"You're beginning t-to... sound like a broken record," Blair teased. "Better."

"They put you on oxygen right away and gave you some of those good drugs."

Blair managed a shaky grin which quickly disappeared. "You l-look like hell."

"Simon just called. Do you remember what happened at the auditorium?"

The student's brow furrowed. "One of the agents b-by Sahir... yelled gun. He shot someone."

"The agent was an FBI director and there was no gun. He faked the alarm, shot an innocent man in the front row and was going to shoot Sahir. I shot his gun out of his hand. Simon's been interrogating him."

Blair studied him. "There's s-something... you're not telling me."

"We think this director, Rankin, was the one pulling Brackett's strings." Jim swallowed hard. "He'll make a deal -- he'll tell us where Brackett is in exchange for the DA accepting a guilty plea for accidental manslaughter."

Blair appeared to be processing the information. "It was first degree m-murder."

Jim nodded. "And attempted murder of the prince."

Blair closed his eyes, fatigue awash in his pale complexion. "Will the DA accept?"

"He doesn't want to, but it's your life we're talking about."

"Who was... the man?"

Jim wished he hadn't asked, but had known he would. "Someone with a wife, daughter and another child on the way."

"Shit."

"My thoughts exactly." He paused, moving his hand to the top of Blair's head. "What do you want to do?"

"If I s-say... accept the d-deal, Rankin only g-gets a... slap on the wrist."

Jim wished he could lie. "Yes."

"He's probably... killed more."

Jim closed his eyes against his pain. "Probably, but whatever you decide won't bring back any of them. But if you decide to accept the deal, you can live."

"Will I?" Blair gathered his strength. "What if he's lying? What... if Brackett is already... g-gone? The deal happens. I die. Rankin wins."

"I-I can't give you any guarantees, Chief. I wish to God I could, but I can't."

Blair's head moved minutely from side to side. "No deal."

"Damn it, Sandburg. This is your only chance. Our last chance."

"My life... for all the others who... would be k-killed by Rankin in the... future."

"Please, Chief -- Blair. What if he's found innocent and gets off anyhow?"

"No. My choice, Jim."

Tears burned in the detective's eyes but he trapped them with sheer force of will. "That's what Simon said -- he said it was 'Blair's choice.'"

"Smart m-man," Blair said weakly. "Call Naomi?"

Jim blinked, then nodded. "I left a message for her while they were getting you set up here."

"Good." Blair closed his eyes, exhausted. "I think... I'll sleep now."

Jim listened to Blair breathe for a few minutes, then walked to the door. He would have to call Simon and give him Blair's answer. What if he lied -- said Blair told him to accept the deal?

He shook his head. He couldn't betray his best friend, even if it meant his death. Jim sucked in a lungful of air, but couldn't displace the overwhelming sorrow which permeated every single cell in his body.

It was Blair's choice -- just as it had been from the moment the overeager anthropology student had entered Jim's life.


PRESENT

"You have a phone call."

Connor's voice surprises me. I didn't even hear her enter, but then my senses are totally focused on my guide, as they have been since he made his choice and fell asleep, then descended into a coma without waking again. The doctor said it was his body preparing for the final decline to death.

"Who is it?" I ask, keeping my gaze on Sandburg's pale features and my hand on his arm.

"I don't know. Do you want me to find out?"

For the first time since I met her, Connor sounds unsure of herself.

I shake my head, thinking maybe Jack Kelso has come up with a miracle.

"I'll be back in a minute, Chief," I whisper to my friend.

Reluctantly, I draw away from him. The moment my hand leaves his arm, I feel a sense of loss which nearly drops me to my knees. If I'm this bad already, what will happen when Blair takes his last breath and I can no longer touch him?

Connor takes a hold of my arm and escorts me down the hall. I must really be in bad shape, but her support is welcome even though I don't have the strength to thank her. At the nurse's desk, I'm handed the phone and I put myself on automatic pilot. "Ellison."

"Detective Ellison, this is Sergeant Larson from lock-up. I was told to contact you if anything strange happened with Rankin."

I straighten, suddenly wide awake. "What is it?"

"Rankin hanged himself in his cell. There was an envelope pinned to his jacket with your name on it."

My world tips on its axis. "Has it been opened?"

"Not yet. We thought you'd like to do it."

"Open it, Sergeant. Now." I know I sound a little crazy but something weird is going on here.

There's the sound of an envelope being sliced open, and paper and something else being drawn out of it.

"Uh, the note's addressed to you."

"Read it."

"You gave me my keeper so I could be freed. Your payment is enclosed -- let it be your guide until we meet again."

"Is it signed?"

"No, but there's also a small bottle in the envelope. It says Blair Sandburg on the label."

"Get it down to Cascade General immediately, Sergeant! Do you understand?"

"Yes, sir. I'll bring it myself."

"Sirens and lights, Sergeant. Move it!"

I slam the phone down and grab the nearest living object which happens to be Connor. I spin her around and around until I'm sure she's going to have me carted off to the eighth floor to study ink blots. I finally set her down and kiss her cheek. "He's going to live!"

Before she can slap me or take her turn at kissing me, I'm racing back to Blair's room, bursting to tell him the good news. I know he can't hear me, but it doesn't matter.

I try to calm myself, take a few deep breaths -- Blair would be proud of me -- and enter the room. I lean over my guide and have to touch him so I frame his precious face between my palms. "Hang on, Chief. The antidote is on its way." I need more contact so I bring my forehead down to meet his. "You're going to live, Blair. You're going to be my guide until we're both old and gray and we'll still be arguing about the hot water and the Discovery channel and hair in the bathroom." I laugh even as two tears roll down my cheeks and drip onto Blair's face. "And those damned tests. But I swear to you, Chief, I will never ever argue about your choices again."

I take a deep shuddering breath and raise my head, only to see Simon, Joel, Connor, H and Rafe standing by the window gazing at us. I would have been embarrassed as hell to have them see me like this three years ago -- even a year ago. Now all I can do is smile like the village idiot and watch as they, too, refuse to hide their tears.


EPILOGUE

Jim trotted down the steps from his bedroom and tossed his duffle bag onto the pile of camping gear gathered on the floor. He knew Blair was standing in front of the balcony windows even before he saw him. Puzzled, he joined him and stood slightly to the left and behind his friend.

"What's so exciting out there?" Jim asked quietly.

Blair grinned. "The sun. The clouds. The sky. Buildings. Even an occasional airplane."

"But no bodies coming out of them, right?" Jim teased.

"Not a one."

The two men stood in companionable silence, enjoying the camaraderie which had only grown deeper in the two weeks since Blair had been poisoned. It had been touch-and-go for a few hours after the antidote was administered, but the student had pulled through. Recuperation had taken longer than expected, but after yesterday's check-up, Blair had been given a clean bill of health which was the reason for the celebratory camping trip.

"Brackett killed him, didn't he?" Blair asked quietly.

They hadn't really discussed Rankin's death, preferring to simply be grateful for Blair's life.

"Yes," Jim said, equally as quiet. "Remember when we were wondering if Brackett had another agenda -- we guessed it right. From what Simon was able to piece together from his 'friends in high places', Rankin had engineered Brackett's release, but Brackett never knew it was him. Rankin always used an underling as his go-between."

"Like Sinclair?"

Jim nodded. "That's right. For this assignment, Sinclair had been given the honor of being the messenger. Nobody knew Brackett was making his own plans. Brackett knew I wouldn't be able to assassinate the prince and he also knew I would do everything in my power to save your life." Jim rubbed his chin. "He knew exactly what buttons to push, just like he did three years ago, and I jumped through every hoop he held out."

Blair turned to face his sentinel. "You did what you had to... and it worked."

"But it could've gone the other way, too. We were damned lucky Rankin had checked out Brackett's motel room himself after Sinclair was killed. If he hadn't, I wouldn't have been able to pinpoint him."

"Do you think Brackett would have given us the antidote if you hadn't ID'ed Rankin as his boss?"

"I don't know how Brackett thinks, Chief. All I know is he's out there somewhere working freelance, and if he needs a sentinel and guide to do some of his dirty work again, he'll return."

Blair shivered. "Oh, man, if I ever see him again, it'll be too soon."

"If I ever see him again, it'll be the last time," Jim promised. He glanced down into Blair's brilliant blue eyes and caught his breath as he realized what he had almost lost -- a best friend, a guide, a partner. A brother. He reached out and hugged Blair close as the younger man's arms wound around his waist. "I came so close to losing you again, Chief," he whispered, his cheek resting on Blair's curly head.

"I'm right here, big guy. Right where I choose to be."

"Another one of Blair's choices?"

Blair eased out of Jim's embrace and stepped back to gaze up into his sentinel's eyes. "The most important choice of my life. No regrets."

Jim arched an eyebrow. "None?"

Blair's eyes danced mischievously and Jim knew he was in trouble. "Maybe one. I wish I could've seen Megan's face when you kissed her."

Jim grabbed his guide, this time in a playful headlock. "Jealous, Romeo?"

"Of a man who told a woman her perfume reminded him of his grandmother? I don't think so."

Blair slipped out of his grasp and dashed away with Jim close on his heels and the loft rang with laughter of the sentinel and his guide.

~finis~

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