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.


Part Two