Disclaimer: All characters who have appeared in the UPN-TV series, "The Sentinel" are the properties of UPN and Pet Fly Productions. All original characters belong to the author. No infringement on the rights held by any to "The Sentinel" characters, name or stories is intended. No money is changing hands or profit being made on this story.

This story is rated PG.

Author's Comments: This story owes a great deal to my beta readers. You guys asked the right questions, nit-picked almost as much as I do *g*, and made my story much better than I ever could have done on my own. To Beth, Karin and Laurie: THANK YOU so very, very much. Wolfpup, I'm still working on a medal for you for the website you have provided to all us voracious fanfic readers. And lastly, for MB, who hands me awesome subplots while talking me off ledges. Love you!

Feedback may be sent to Crideon@aol.com



Jim Ellison stalked into the loft after his partner and slammed the door as hard as he could. He was furious, heartsick and tired. 11:30 p.m. was too late to be making the loud noise, but his neighbors could jump off a bridge for all he cared at the moment. The object of his fury was standing next to the table, looking at him in confusion. He punched the air with his finger as he unleashed his anger on his roommate.

"This is it, Sandburg. This is my absolute limit. I never knew I had one, but you have reached it and crossed it, and I have had it!"

Blair Sandburg glanced quickly around the loft, looking for some tangible reason for his partner's aberrant behavior. There were dishes in the sink, but they were Jim's from breakfast. Blair had barely had enough time for a shower that morning, let alone food or his algae shake. No papers were strewn about the living area or on the table, and he was pretty sure he had paid his rent and portions of the utility bills last month.

So what has him so strung out? Blair wondered. He's been pissed off ever since he picked me up.

Wearily, Blair ran a hand through his tangled curls, mentally retracing the evening's events. On his way to meet his partner for a stakeout that promised to kill his chance at a decent night's sleep, he'd run out of gas. Stranded halfway between the station and the university, Blair had been forced to call Jim for a lift. The stony expression on the detective's face when he'd pulled up had told the younger man that his timing had 'sucked'.

Things had gone even further downhill from that point. Instead of driving to wherever it was they were going to spend the night, Jim had steered the truck towards the station without an explanation. He'd ignored all of Blair's questions and, once they'd arrived at the station, Jim had holed up with Simon, giving Blair the brush-off. The anthropologist had endured several hours of anxious waiting at Jim's desk, worriedly eyeing the closed blinds of the captain's office. When his partner had finally emerged, the detective had stalked out of the bullpen without a backward glance. Blair had scrambled to follow.

They'd driven home in silence. Jim's anger had been palpable, and Blair was too tired to even try to talk. His partner knew how crazy the anthropologist's life got during midterms, so he couldn't be holding that one slip up against him. Could he?

"You had better clean up your act or you'll find yourself short one research subject." Jim was pacing the kitchen; jaw clenching, face reddened, steps heavy as he moved from the refrigerator to the table and back.

"Come on, man. I don't know why you're all over my case, unless. . . are you having a problem with your senses? Is that it?" Blair knew he was guessing, but if he was going to get his ass chewed out, he thought he deserved to know why.

"You know, not everything is about my senses, Darwin."

Blair flinched. Jim had made that nickname sound like a curse. He moved as close as he dared to the man who was still stalking the kitchen like a caged panther and spoke in as soothing a voice as he could muster.

"Something is really bothering you, Jim, and most of the time, that means something is going on with your senses. If you tell me what's going on, maybe I can figure out some way to help you out. I know you hate tests, but. . ."

"ENOUGH!" Jim roared. Blair backed up a few steps at the outburst. His mouth opened and shut a few times, but no words emerged.

"I want you to listen to me, Sandburg." Jim covered the few steps between them and poked a finger into his roommate's face. "This is not a 'Sentinel' thing, this is a 'Jim' thing. Or to be more specific, a 'Detective Jim Ellison' thing. Today was just one more example of me having to put my job on hold to get you out of a bind."

"Jim, I have no idea what other 'examples' you're talking about, since this is the first time it's happened. I ran out of gas. It's not like I planned it or anything. I knew you needed me to back you up, so I called you. I couldn't very well take a cab to a stakeout -- that would have ruined the whole thing."

"This is exactly what I'm talking about. I feel like I can't rely on you to be there for me when I need you."

"Jim . . ." Blair's brain was muddled from a very long day at Rainier, trying to explain to his dissertation committee why he needed yet another extension for his chapters, proctoring midterms and grading not only his own tests, but the exams of a colleague who had covered for him a few times this past semester. The man's Archaeology 101 courses contained over one hundred twenty students, and he had been roped into grading all their midterm exams. Combine that with a grand total of three hours sleep the night before -- after accompanying his partner on a fruitless stakeout -- followed by several late night hours of school work, and you got one exhausted anthropologist. It was no wonder he'd forgotten to gas up his car.

And now Jim wanted to pick a fight. That business about Blair being unreliable was bull, and they both knew it. Something else was bothering him, and being his roommate made the anthropologist an easy target when Jim was this upset. Before he could frame a coherent response to Jim's outburst, however, his roommate was shouting again.

"Do you know what happened tonight while I was playing taxi for you?"

"No, but I'm sure you're going to tell me. Like it was my fault, anyway. . ." Blair's muttered words seemed to further anger the Sentinel.

"Our perps walked into a convenience store on Jackson Street to rob it and killed the clerk. I had planned on staking out that very location tonight. I would have been there if it wasn't for you. A seventeen-year-old kid is dead because of you!"

"Jim, that's not fair," Blair managed in a ragged whisper.

"No, what's not fair is my having to put my job on hold to baby-sit you, Sandburg. Mark my words, I won't do it again. I'll take Simon with me next time if I need to use my senses, but I will not wait around while you try to get your act together and watch some other innocent kid die. I'm through with taking care of you. I'm not your mother. Do you hear me?"

Blair nodded his head miserably and turned towards his room. There was not a single thing he could say to his roommate at that moment without escalating their argument further. The anthropologist knew from experience that it was no use trying to talk when Jim was so riled up. Hopefully he would be more open to discussion in the morning. If not, it was going to be another very long day.

Jim felt a twinge of guilt as he climbed the stairs to his bedroom, intending to let sleep take away the hurts of the day. Watching Blair make a beaten retreat to his own room had brought back painful memories of his father. The harsh tone and scathing words that he'd spewed at the younger man matched those that his father had thrown at him far too often.

Any problem in William Ellison's life had been transferred onto his sons, without the least provocation. The elder Ellison had not been responsible for the safety of anything more than other people's money, though. His son held a greater responsibility -- that of the lives of Cascade's citizens.


Jim collapsed, fully clothed on the bed. He was too tired to go after Blair and apologize. Tomorrow was soon enough to try and make things right with him. The one good thing his outburst had done was to remove the blame from his own shoulders and place it on someone else's. It may not be fair that that someone was Blair, but it meant that he could sleep.

Had he been less distressed, he might have seen how his mimicking his father was driving Blair away from him as surely as it had driven Steven and Jim away from their dad.

Downstairs, sleep was the farthest thing from Blair's mind. He lay on his bed, staring up at the ceiling in his room. His tired body begged for sleep, but was overruled by his surging emotions.

Over and over, he replayed the events of the past few days. He could find no point at which he might have changed his routine and somehow found more time to spend with Jim, hopefully catching the two robbers before they had turned into murderers.

He was simply tapped out. All the time he had missed while riding with Jim had necessitated his colleagues covering for him. That they all seemed to be cashing in their favors at once sucked, but it was out of his control. After his overdose on Golden, the time he had been shot in the woods, and the many times a knock on the head had rendered him unable to fulfill his university obligations, he hadn't been able to give them any advance notice of his absence, so their last-minute demands on his time were well-justified.

The fleeting thought that he could quit Rainier and devote his full time to Jim was discounted almost immediately. Without the auspices of his dissertation -- whether it be on closed subcultures in the police department or modern-day Sentinels -- he could find no way to justify his continued work with Jim at the station. The incident with Captain Finkelman had proven to him that his position was tenuous at best, yet as long as Jim needed his help with his senses, he would have to find a way to remain as his partner.

There couldn't be more than three other professors and teaching assistants to whom he owed favors. He would simply have to plan more carefully, juggle a bit more adroitly, and then buckle down and prove again to Jim over the semester break that he was reliable and trustworthy.

Despite the whispers of his conscience telling him that the death of the clerk could not possibly be his fault, he allowed himself to grieve over the loss of life. If he had to give up sleep altogether, he would make sure that would never happen again.

Many times over the past few years, he had silently renewed his pledge to Jim Ellison, his friend, partner and Sentinel. This night called for another one. With his heart aching for the loss of the teenager, and still reeling from Jim's verbal assault, he vowed to do whatever it took to be less of a burden on his friend, and to help in whatever way he could to assist the Sentinel in keeping the city safe. He clenched his hand into a fist and held it over his heart. Breathing deeply, he let his resolve flow through him until he was certain it had touched his soul.

He glanced at the clock. Midnight. A very powerful time for vows, his mother would say. That made him feel better.

Sleep beckoned, but he knew he would have to spend most of the night grading the tests in his backpack if he was to have them to the University by 10:00 a.m. the next day, as promised. Midterms ran a close second to finals when it came to sleepless nights spent grading, and by riding with Jim on the stakeout last night, he had lost a full evening of grading time. Sighing, he sat up and reached for the bulging pack on the floor, dragging it up onto the bed and hoping the tests would prove distraction enough to rid his mind of thoughts of the dead clerk.

Jim woke early and showered quickly. His full night of dreamless sleep had energized him, and he wanted to get to the station and start work on the murder case of Michael Denby, the young clerk who had been killed. He pulled on his clothes, and was surprised to see his jacket in his closet. He must have worn it upstairs the night before instead of hanging it by the door. He grabbed it and heard the crinkle of paper emanating from one of the pockets. A stab of emotion struck his gut, and he sat down heavily on the bed.

He pulled the small envelope out of the pocket, and held it in his hands. This one little notecard had set off his dangerous mood yesterday, and he was loathe to open it again. His hands betrayed his mind, however, and within moments, he found himself rereading the brief message that had shattered his heart at the station yesterday.

Dear James, 
     You may not remember me, but I was a dear 
friend of your mother's before she married your 
father, and for a few years thereafter.  I was
saddened to learn of her death, and wanted to let 
you know my thoughts are with you and your brother 
at this difficult time.  If you need to talk to someone, 
whether it be to reminisce or grieve, I am always 
available to you.  You can reach me at the address 
and phone number listed on this notepaper.  
    Your mother and I may have drifted apart, but 
I have always held a space in my heart for her and 
for her children.  The occasional mentions of you and 
Stephen in the paper have made me so proud.  I'm sure 
she will always look down on you with love.  

With deepest sympathies,  
Mrs. Angela Hutchinson 

His mother was dead.

How Mrs. Angela Hutchinson knew, and he didn't, was beyond his comprehension. He thought he had left things rather well with his father, and would never have expected him to keep something like this from his sons. Jim was almost certain that Stephen didn't know -- he would have called his older brother by now demanding to know as many details as possible, knowing that Jim would find them out. His younger brother would most likely be receiving a similar notecard from this Mrs. Angela Hutchinson himself. Then again, Stephen was on an extended business trip. It was possible that a secretary opened his mail, but this was clearly a personal letter, and would probably remain unopened until his return. Jim was not about to call him in Geneva and drop this bomb in his lap. There was nothing they could do now. Nothing except grieve for a mother they barely remembered, and would now never have the chance to know again.

The Sentinel's thoughts returned to his father. There was no excuse in the world that old man could give to explain this. There was a chance he didn't know, but it was unlikely. He stared down at the polite, caring words -- offered by a complete stranger -- and felt his rage increase. The anger kept the hurt at bay, so Jim allowed it to fill him.

Crumpling the note in his hand, he flung it to the opposite end of his room, disappointed that it merely fluttered to the floor. He wanted to pick something up and smash it. Over his father's head if possible.

"Goddamned son of a bitch!" he shouted. Pulling his jacket on as he descended the stairs, he strode to the door, grabbed his keys and slammed the apartment door on the way out, pleased that it made such a loud bang.

Blair hesitated inside the doors to his room, his roommate's angry shout ringing in his ears. He swallowed hard, deciding to wait a few more minutes to give Jim time to get out of the apartment. And to give his heart a chance to resume its normal rhythm. He didn't think Jim had ever been so angry at him before.

All of his carefully thought out words were forgotten. He had stayed up until about 3:00 a.m., grading the bulk of the English exams and wondering how he could find out what was bothering Jim. He had set his alarm for an hour earlier than normal, since he was pretty certain the exams had not gotten his full attention. He had planned to be up early enough to talk to his roommate, and then catch an early bus to the University, where he intended to finish his marking and go over the completed exams again before posting the grades.

Foregoing a shower, he had dressed, gathered up the bluebooks and was about to make his way into the kitchen to prepare some breakfast when Jim's shout reached his ears. There was no question in his mind who Jim was talking about, and the anthropologist had swiftly backed up and sat down on his bed. It seemed a night's rest had not lessened Jim's anger towards him. He barely breathed until he heard the Sentinel slam the front door and move down the hall.

"So much for talking it out this morning," he declared to the walls. Sighing heavily, he shuffled into the kitchen and made some toast. It was going to be a very long Wednesday after all.

Sitting at his desk at the station, Jim wondered if he would ever stop feeling angry. The draining emotion, which had caught hold of him yesterday morning shortly after the mail had been delivered, had been his constant companion ever since.

He had wanted to keep the news about his mother to himself. A part of him needed to pretend that his father was not still a selfish son of a bitch who, purposefully or not, wreaked havoc on the lives of his sons. If Simon hadn't read the note the day before, he might have been able to find a way to digest the news alone, to come to terms with it himself before sharing it, or keeping it a secret. Now, embarrassment was his truest feeling -- the rage acting as a mask to hide his shame. Both Simon and Blair had seen the supposed progress Jim had made towards repairing his relationship with his Dad after they had met him recently. What would Blair think now? What did Simon think?

Jim savagely twisted a piece of notebook paper in his hands then balled it up and hurled it into his wastebasket. Jim Ellison would not be the object of anyone's pity. It was bad enough that Simon knew. If Blair found out, he would never see the end of those sympathetic looks and soft questions of 'was he okay', and 'did he want to talk about it'.

Part of him acknowledged that it was distress over the news about his Mom that caused him to lash out at Blair so viciously the night before. It was true that the young man had messed up, but Jim did understand why it had happened. After all, he had done it himself often enough when things got crazy at the station. Why did he have to hold Blair up to a standard higher than the anthropologist could ever hope to achieve? Why was he doing to his roommate exactly what his father had done to him and Steven? His partner was brilliant, dedicated and trustworthy. Jim counted on him for answers and guidance when it came to his Sentinel abilities, and for fresh perspectives during police investigations. Jim regretted that Blair's father was not in the grad student's life. The man, whoever he was, would have swelled up with pride on a daily basis upon learning what an extraordinary child he had fathered. Jim was certainly proud of his partner and all he had accomplished.

But Blair was not his son, and the bottom line was that Jim had no right to lay into him like he did. Blair was a grown man, capable of amazing accomplishments, but also a human being, and therefore susceptible to mistakes like every other person. Like Jim had made when in the midst of his fury last night.

Like his father had made when he neglected to tell his sons that their mother was dead.

"Dammit!" he shouted as another piece of paper met its untimely demise at his hands. Feeling only marginally better after the outburst, he grabbed a pencil and began making notes on the murder case, putting the paper to better use and hoping to make some sense of the minimal clues that had been found. He also sought to forget how badly he had behaved the night before at the loft, and found that his memories of Blair's despondent face were not banished easily.

Any further regrets he had over his harsh treatment of his roommate were forgotten when Mrs. Denby arrived to identify the body of her only son.

After calling a cab for the devastated woman and witnessing her unsuccessful attempts to control her grief while they waited together for it to arrive, Jim stalked back up to his desk and began to fill out the reports on Michael Denby's murder. Over the course of the morning, several other detectives who had been working the case came over to confer with him, and Jim made them the targets of his anger. Pretty soon, word had spread that the detective was in one of his "Vice moods," and Ellison's desk was avoided at all costs. Finding himself without an outlet for his hostility, Jim shifted his attack. Pens and pencils were snapped in two, a coffee cup was shattered and his keyboard was in jeopardy of being broken into bits from his stabbing keystrokes and the occasional application of a fist. His behavior did not go unnoticed.

The writing instruments were acceptable casualties, and the coffee cup mishap could conceivably be called an accident, but keyboards were expensive, and Simon Banks decided it was time to draw the line.

Simon considered himself an understanding man. When Jim had gone sheet white in his office the day before while opening his mail, the captain had swiftly pulled the note from his hand and read it. After handing the card back to his friend, he had offered his condolences and asked Jim if he wanted to talk about it. Jim had shaken his head and quickly changed the subject. His face had resumed a more healthy pallor within minutes, so Simon had respected his detective's wishes.

Simon had been the one to call Jim with the news of the Jackson Street robbery and homicide shortly after he had gone to pick up his roommate, and asked the detective to return to the station. Upon arrival, instead of Jim demanding to go to check out the scene, he had exploded.

When the enraged Sentinel had reached the point of insubordination, shouting about the latest convenience store heist, Simon had practically ordered him to take bereavement time and threatened to pull him off the case altogether. Jim had calmed almost immediately, and managed to convince his captain to leave things as they were. Simon had heard about Blair's car trouble, but had dismissed it as bad timing on the kid's part. He had felt sorry that the observer was going to have to deal with his pissed off roommate, but he had problems enough of his own to worry about, with the press starting to make noise and his superiors on his tail for an arrest.

Now, Simon regretted his decision to keep Jim on the case. The man was more incensed than he had been yesterday, and he was pretty sure that the letter he had received about his mother was partly to blame. It was definitely time for some damage control.

Several minutes later, Jim was sitting in the captain's office with the door closed and shades drawn. The tall black man was perched on the edge of his desk, cigar in hand, glaring down at his detective.

"Jim, do you want to tell me what's the matter with you today?"

"There's no problem, sir."

"The hell there isn't. Is it the case, or is it personal?" Simon pressed.

Jim's sullen silence was all the answer Simon needed. He immediately softened his tone. "Jim, did you tell the kid the news about your mother?"

"No," the Sentinel replied abruptly, and didn't seem likely to add anything more.

"I thought you would talk to him about this. You told me flat out that it was, quote, 'none of my damned business,' unquote, even though I consider myself your friend as well as your boss." Ellison's stormy visage convinced Simon that the guilt trip he had been building was not going to work on his detective. He quickly changed tactics.

"Jim, you have been a pain in the ass since yesterday. You've been verbally abusive to the other members of this department and have been beating up on innocent office equipment."

Jim's face got even harder, his eyes narrowing dangerously at his superior.

Great Simon, just great. Crack a joke in the middle of a conversation about his dead mother. Why not go find the family dog and kick it while you're at it? Simon moved away from the corner of his desk and decided a little pressure from his captain would be his best option at getting through to the man glaring at him.

"Jim, if I see this continuing to hurt your effectiveness on the job, I'll have to take action as your boss. Please do not make me have to do that to my friend."

Jim's face did not lose the hardened expression, but his eyes softened a bit. Simon caught himself before he could release a sigh of relief. He hated playing hardball with Ellison.

"Simon, I'm dealing with this in my own way. If I promise not to look at or speak to my co-workers and leave the computer alone, will you get off my back?"

"Are you going to talk to Sandburg?"

"I already did."

Simon had placed so much faith in the police observer to get Jim out of this black mood that he visibly started when he heard Jim's words. Jim did not appear to notice his reaction, so Simon plowed on with his questions.


"And what?"

"Do you feel better?"

"About what?" Simon knew Jim was purposely making the captain drag this out of him.

"About your mother."

"We never talked about that."


"I sort of blew up at him instead." Jim had the grace to look slightly embarrassed.

And suddenly, it was as if a giant light bulb went off over Simon's head. His eyes narrowed.

"Is this because of the convenience store heist last night?" Bingo, Simon, got it in one, he thought to himself as he watched the anger fully reappear on Jim's face.

"Simon, if his car hadn't been out of gas, I could have been there," Jim practically shouted. "I should have been there."

"Jim, what happened wasn't your fault. Even if Sandburg had made it to the precinct on his own, you would never have gotten there in time."

"You don't know that."

"The hell I don't."

"Well, he could have been early for a change," Jim muttered.

"Jim, I know what you're going through right now, but listen to yourself. You're not making any sense here. The store that got hit is at least forty minutes away from this station. Suppose Sandburg had gotten here a few minutes earlier -- the perps shot the clerk and were long gone at least twenty minutes before you would have arrived."

"You didn't have to stand with that kid's mother while she identified her son's body, sir." The detective abandoned his chair to pace the room as he continued fiercely, "You didn't have to listen to her trying to keep herself under control in front of a stranger while knowing her only child was stone cold dead on a slab in the basement of this building. Pardon my saying so, but you have no idea how I feel right now."

Simon Banks raised himself to his full height and moved closer to the Sentinel.

"Watch your tone, detective. Remember who you are talking to. Do not presume to tell me how it feels to stand with someone while they identify the remains of someone they loved. You think this morning was hard? I could tell you stories that would make your experience with Mrs. Denby look like a tea party!"

"Simon, I. . ."

"No, you listen to me, detective, and don't you forget that I buried my own mother just a few years ago. I asked you yesterday if you needed time off to deal with what you learned about your mother. You stated in no uncertain terms that this would not be a problem. This means that there must be a different problem, because I've never known you to be a liar." With eyebrows raised, the taller man stared at Jim until the detective resumed his seat, his eyes downcast. When Simon spoke again, his voice was softer.

"Jim. I know you haven't seen her for years, but she was your mother for crying out loud. Take the bereavement time I've offered. Spend some time with Sandburg, or alone, or with your family."

"I don't need any time off, sir." The captain maintained his stony expression. "Please Simon. I need to be on this case, I need to make sure no one else has to go through what Mrs. Denby did today." The two friends maintained eye contact, measuring each others' resolve. It was Simon who broke the silence.

"Okay, Jim. I'll accept that for now, but do not make me suspend you because you can't get past this, do you hear me?"

"Yes, sir."

Simon decided to press one last issue before dismissing his man.

"Jim. I want you to talk to Sandburg about this. If anyone can help you with this, it's him. Besides, he deserves an explanation. . ."

"Dammit, Simon, you have no right to tell me how to handle this!"

Simon ignored the outburst and strove to maintain the calm they had finally established.

"All I'm saying is that you shouldn't take out your anger on the kid."

"I'd appreciate it if you would mind your own business, Simon."

Well, so much for calmness, the captain mused.

"This is my business, detective. Sandburg is one half of my best team, and when you two are not working well together, it shows. Besides, I won't have you out on the streets all bent out of shape like this."

"Fine, I'll talk to him. Will that make you happy?" Jim stood and crossed to the door, obviously intending to go back to work and most likely forget this whole conversation even happened, Simon guessed. The captain's parting shot stopped him cold, though.

"Tell him about your mother, Jim. Let him help you with this. This is too important to you to blow it because your pride won't allow someone else into that fortress you call your heart."

Jim stood blinking in astonishment at the man in front of him. Part of him wanted to throttle the taller man for daring to speak to him that way. The other, less aggressive part of him was touched that Simon knew him so well, and truly seemed to want to help him. The warring sides gave him no help with an answer, though. Nodding sharply, he turned and exited the captain's office.

Back at his desk, Jim picked up the phone, took a deep breath and began dialing Blair's number at the university, but hung up before he completed the call. This was a conversation to have in person.

After quickly reviewing the paperwork from the other detectives who had worked the Jackson Street heist, he decided to head over there to check over the scene himself. He hoped the work would distract him from the lingering image of Mrs. Denby's grief.

At 1:30 a.m., when Jim finally arrived back at the loft, tired and miserable, a conversation with his roommate was the farthest thing from his mind.

Another store had been robbed, and the elderly man who owned it had been shot. The victim was in critical condition at a local hospital, and his chances for recovery did not look good. The thieves were getting bolder. This heist had occurred in the daylight.

Jim had spent close to eight hours on the scene, questioning the area residents, desperate for any clues about who was doing this and why. His senses had been given a full workout, and he was glad of Simon's presence, despite their harsh words earlier that day. He had refused when Simon suggested he call Blair to help him with the examination of the scene. Until he cleared the air with Blair about why he had blown up at him, and told him the news about his mother, he did not feel comfortable making demands on his Shaman's time.

Jim was certain that Blair would have been at his side in an instant had he asked, despite this being one of the busiest times in the academic year. The Sentinel had noticed his roommate's fatigue, and recalled him mentioning in passing the many demands his colleagues had placed on him recently. Jim knew Sandburg somehow managed to cover all of his university obligations while still spending a majority of his time acting as Jim's partner and Guide, but was never certain how he accomplished it. Upon reflection, the detective got a slightly clearer picture. The number of classes the grad student was teaching, and the sheer volume of exams he had to grade would never have been assigned to one person. Blair had been begging favors from friends in the past, and it was payback time.

The roommates joked frequently about the typical life of a grad student: little food, less sleep, and no time whatsoever to devote to personal endeavors. Blair had shattered that perception, though, by juggling his roles as grad student, police observer, Shaman to a Sentinel and ladies' man with apparent ease.

Right Ellison, your partner is going to 'ease' himself into a coma if he doesn't get a break soon.

He regarded the closed door to Blair's room as he made his way from the bathroom to the stairs. Focusing his senses, he heard the scratch of a pen against paper, as well as muttered words about kings, landowners and the role of the Church. Underneath it all, the steady rhythm of Blair's heart thrummed a soothing beat which lulled him toward sleep. He resolved to wake early enough to talk to the younger man, and with that, he climbed the stairs to his bedroom. He was asleep before his head hit the pillow.

"Dammit," Blair cursed, tossing the empty pen down onto the floor of his room. That had been the last red pen in the loft, and he was still about forty exams away from completing the pile of Medieval History midterms he was correcting for Sarah Eddings, a fellow T.A. The unfamiliar subject made the grading that much more difficult, and his present state of near-exhaustion was not helping matters.

When Blair got home from the university that evening, he had heated a can of soup on the stove, and after eating, set himself up at the table, prepared to be visible when Jim arrived home. Whatever was wrong, he knew they had to deal with it soon before it grew into something they could not mend. They'd had some disagreements in the past, but nothing of this magnitude. It had always been somewhat clear to Blair what the reasons behind their disagreements had been, but in this instance he was flying blind. He needed his partner to participate if they were going to get past this.

At 8:00 p.m., when there was still no sign of Jim's imminent return, Blair considered calling him on his cellphone to see if he needed his partner's help with whatever had him working late. However, the thought that Jim might be out with Simon or some of the other detectives occurred to him as he was dialing the numbers, so he hung up the phone and went back to work.

Around 11:00 p.m., when the stack of completed exams was just about level with those still needing his attention, he rewarded himself with a short break for a shower. He left the door to the bathroom ajar so he would hear Jim if he arrived home, then allowed the hot water to soothe his tired body and revive him for the late night he anticipated.

At 12:15 a.m., he gave up on the thought of talking upon Jim's return and moved his belongings back into his bedroom. The only thing Jim would want when he got home was sleep, and neither of them would get much accomplished if the Sentinel was too tired to think. Tomorrow night would be the soonest he could spare time for his partner, and hoped that their schedules would not clash again.

Now here he was, in the dead of night, tired and hungry, surrounded by unfinished exams, and mocked by the empty shells of five red pens scattered across his bed. His life was turning into a cosmic hate joke.

He could not even manage a smile as he recalled his search through the loft for another marking pen. He had opened every drawer and cabinet in the kitchen, pulled the cushions from the sofas and chair, crawled on hands and knees through the living room as well as his bedroom, and even started halfway up the stairs to Jim's bedroom before thinking better of that idea and retreating back to the smaller bedroom. He had done it all as silently as possible, and hoped Jim appreciated his efforts. He had heard his roommate come home earlier, and from the sounds of his shuffling footsteps on the loft stairs, the older man had been exhausted.

Blair sat up and stuffed the completed tests into his backpack. With only the ungraded ones there, the task looked much less daunting. A glance at his watch told him that he could still cut that stack in half and get a few hours of sleep if he could just get another red pen. He did not relish the thought of walking all the way to the university, where he had to have about fifty of the damn things lying around, and his car was still at the impound lot where it had been towed. It was just his luck that he had coasted into a no parking zone when his car ran out of gas. He was nearly broke, wouldn't get paid for another few days, and borrowing money from his roommate to retrieve the vehicle was totally out of the question.

At least it won't get stolen, he mused.

He looked at his watch again, willing his tired brain to come up with a solution. It was 3:30 a.m. If he waited until morning to catch a bus to campus, he would have lost precious grading time. Sarah had promised her students the grades would be posted by the following morning, and had passed that bit of information on to Blair only after he agreed to help her out.

He would have borrowed Jim's truck and been to his office and back in no time, but after their discussion the night before -- or rather, Jim's speech -- he wasn't comfortable doing that. Besides, he would rather walk to Portland and back than hear another one of Jim's shouted curses directed at him.

Sighing, he put on his sneakers and resolved to walk over to Marty's Deli, which was only about twelve blocks from the loft. It was open all night, and sold sundry items -- like red pens -- in addition to the best soup and sandwiches in Cascade. Maybe he would get something to munch on while he finished the tests.

Brightening at the thought, he pulled some money out of his wallet and stuffed it into his jeans pocket. It was warm enough to go without a coat, and his backpack was way too heavy to lug around if he didn't have to.

The interior of Marty's Deli was brightly lit and the tantalizing aroma of homemade soups wafted throughout the store. A huge deli case covered the front wall from end to end, the only break being a lower counter which sat adjacent to the cash register. Peering through the glass case, Blair could see three large heated containers from which the smells of Marty's famous soups emanated. What he did not see, however, was anyone manning the register. Scanning his memory, he recalled the faces he had seen here on the graveyard shift in the past and guessed at who might be hidden in the store.

"Heidi?" he called tentatively, hoping the attractive coed was on duty tonight. The young woman was the only female member of Marty's staff who was allowed to work at night. She was a championship black belt in karate, and practiced regularly at Rainier's athletic facility, putting her male teammates to shame with her skills. She was a former student of his, as were most of the employees here. When Marty first opened his business, he believed if he offered college kids jobs, the energetic grads and undergrads would lure in the lucrative university crowd.

He needn't have bothered. All of Cascade's denizens flocked to Marty's for his extraordinary soups and generous sandwiches. The man could have doubled his prices and still maintained the majority of his customers, but the owner was happier with a smoothly running business than with huge profits. After eight years of successful operation, he did not see the need to change his hiring policies, and a steady stream of students staffed the store for him, working the register, stocking the shelves behind the seating area, and making sandwiches. The soups, however, Marty made himself. His employees likened him to Seinfeld's infamous "Soup Nazi," in the way he kept the recipes secret, but unanimously agreed that the man could sleep with the recipes beneath his pillow if he wanted. The end result was incredibly good soups.

"Hello? I'm back here," a voice answered from behind the tall shelves towards the rear of the building. It was a male voice. Suppressing his disappointment at Heidi's absence, Blair strode towards the voice and turned the corner to see another former student of his, Billy Rafferty, kneeling on the floor, brandishing a box cutter. Several unopened boxes from a local stationery store surrounded him. A smile split the young man's face when he recognized Blair.

"Hey, Mr. Sandburg, what brings you out here so late?"

"Hi Billy. I am on a quest for some red pens, and I have a major craving for a turkey sandwich."

"Ahhh, the sandwich is no problem, man," he said as he rose to his feet. "The pens, you're going to have to work for. The shelves are bare, but I'm pretty sure Marty ordered some more. I'll bet they're somewhere in these boxes. If you can dig them out, the sandwich is on me in exchange for the labor."

"Deal," Blair said, grinning. This little break from grading was turning out well. He felt less tired, and quite a bit hungrier. "Let me have that cutter. What kind of soups did Marty make today, um. . . yesterday?"

"Black bean, chicken noodle, and cream of broccoli," Billy recited as he handed Blair the black plastic tool. "Nothing very fancy. I'd stay away from the broccoli, it's kind of turned into broccoli mush by now, but the chicken noodle only gets better the longer it's heated, and the black bean is always sort of mushy, so you'll never be able to tell it was made yesterday morning."

"All right, chicken noodle it is, just a cup, though, it's almost time for breakfast as it is. Let me have the turkey on 7-grain, with lettuce, tomatoes and hot mustard."

"Gotcha." Billy turned the corner and headed for the deli case. Blair knelt down and began cutting through the packing tape on the boxes. He was about to call out and ask Billy how his classes at Rainier were going when he heard another customer enter the store.

The shrill sound of a ringing phone jolted Jim from sleep. Grabbing the receiver before it could ring again, he glanced at the red numbers on the alarm clock on his nightstand. It was 4:30 a.m. Nothing good could come from a call at this time of the night, so he was up and reaching for his clothes before he said a word.

The caller was Simon. He was shouting over the noise of his siren, and after flinching violently at the noise, Jim dialed down his sensitive hearing before a headache could form. Almost without thought, the remainder of his senses were also turned to near-normal levels to protect the Sentinel from any further sensory assaults.

"Jim, another store has been hit. I need you down there ASAP."

"Just tell me where, sir."

"Marty's Deli. It's not too far from the loft. You might even beat me there."

"Do you have any information yet?" He held the phone between his ear and his shoulder as he pulled on his jeans and shirt.

"Not much, just a 911 call from a customer who said she saw blood on the floor and no employees in sight. She ran home and called from there. I have Megan headed over to her house to get a statement. Conner'll meet us back at the scene as soon as she's finished."

"Okay, sir, I'll see you there." Jim had his shoes on and his gun in its holster at the small of his back. He strode down the bedroom steps and was at the front door before he realized something was missing. It took him but a moment to think of, then discount, the idea of waking his roommate and bringing him along. He and Blair had things to discuss first, and Simon would be on the scene to help him again.

The pressing desire to get to Marty's Deli and find something, anything, to aid in the capture of these perps made him take the stairs instead of waiting for the elevator. He sprinted to his truck and drove away quickly, his senses too dulled and his emotions too high to notice the puddle of blood just outside the front door.

The crime scene was a study in controlled chaos.

Several uniforms stood guard around the yellow tape barrier which had been set up around the popular store, urging passersby to move along, and directing the arriving members of the investigation team to where Simon Banks stood overseeing the operations. They also rebuffed the reporters and camera operators who had begun to swarm the area. Two members of the mayor's task force on crime had arrived, and were looking to gain some answers for their boss as to why this crime spree had not been stopped yet by the city's police force. The early morning cleaning crew Marty hired for the deli arrived and was turned away. Marty himself had been called, and was en route. Forensics specialists were combing the interior and exterior of the store, assisted by some of the detectives who weren't collecting statements from nearby residents. An EMT crew sat quietly in the parking lot, thankful that their services had not been needed, but concerned by the blood found on the scene, and prepared to offer assistance when this wounded individual was found.

Upon arrival, Jim had been stunned by the sheer volume of scents contained in the building. Even with Simon's hand on his shoulder, he had been quickly overwhelmed when he dialed up his sense of smell. Marty's served hundreds of people daily, and the lingering scents of the patrons, combined with the smells of food, blood and cordite assaulted him as soon as he opened his senses. Coughing and gagging, Jim had been hauled out quickly by Simon. After escorting the sentinel to the relative quiet of the forensics van, Banks returned to the store, muttering under his breath about an absent anthropologist and foolish detective who had alienated his best chance of getting clues.

Hanging his head, Jim tried to calm himself with a mantra Blair had taught him, and only succeeded in extending his senses even further. For a moment, he thought he caught the particular scent of Blair's shampoo and aftershave, which when combined with the essence of his friend made for an olfactory "fingerprint," unlikely to be confused with anyone else. He blamed it on his battered controls, though, and disregarded the notion that his partner was nearby.

Five minutes later, he was surprised to see Simon climbing into the van holding a tape in his hands, followed by Ellen Ferguson, a member of the forensics team. The captain motioned Jim to join him in the back of the van while Ellen inserted the tape into the van's equipment and turned on a monitor.

"We have the surveillance tape from the store, Jim," Simon explained tersely. "The robbers didn't shoot it out like they have done at the other scenes. We just might get these sons of bitches. They finally screwed up."

After showing the men how to operate the controls, Ellen headed back into the store to continue scouring for evidence. Jim and Simon scooted closer to the screen, then waited in silence for several minutes while the tape rewound to the approximate time of the robbery. When a clear image of the student working that night appeared on the screen, Simon paused the tape and called for the newly arrived Marty to come in and identify his employee. After getting a name and address from the distraught owner, Megan and Rafe were dispatched to locate him and an APB was put out on the young man.

Simon soon resumed his position next to Jim and continued to watch the screen, praying silently that tonight would be the night they would finally gain an edge on the perps who had made his life a living hell and frightened the citizens of his city for too long. Simon glanced over at the man by his side and nodded approvingly at the feral gleam in his detective's eyes. It seemed he, too, was ready for this case to end, for a lot more reasons than Simon did, and was relishing this glimpse at the robbers as much as Simon was.

The one downside to the video was its single camera angle. Only the activity at the front of the store -- where the long deli counter and cash register were located -- was visible on the tape. There were two entrances to the store, one on either end of the counter, though, so whichever way the perps had chosen to enter would be seen.

Upon their first glimpse of the curly haired customer looking to purchase some red pens and a sandwich, both men's jaws dropped open. A lick of fear uncurled in Simon's belly, and he heard what could only be called a growl emanate from the Sentinel.

Stunned, they watched as Blair called out, then moved off-camera to the back of the store They turned up the volume and listened to the off-screen conversation. Moments later, Billy reappeared on the tape and began slicing turkey for Blair's sandwich. Mere seconds after that, the two robbers entered the store.

Later, both men would question why they hadn't stopped the tape and begun an immediate search for Blair. At that moment, however, shock, fear and an insatiable curiosity to see what had taken place kept them frozen in place, unable to speak or move, as the action continued on the small screen.

They watched as the night clerk, identified by Marty as Billy Rafferty, panicked at the first sight of the gun in the hands of the taller of the two teenaged boys. When the other boy grabbed the student's shirt and pulled him face to face to deliver a threat against his life unless his cooperation was provided, both Simon and Jim knew what would happen next. As if on cue, a familiar voice was heard off-camera, and both robbers spun to face their new adversary. The clerk dropped to his knees and began to cry noisily.

When the perps moved to stand on the edge of the tape's picture, presumably facing the anthropologist, the frightened clerk took this opportunity to flee the building. It was apparent that the robbers were not impressed with Blair's attempts to calm them down and negotiate a peaceful solution to their predicament. Jim was not actually able to see Blair on the tape, but the image of his roommate -- expression grave, eyes shining with fear and adrenaline, hands moving expressively as they punctuated his mediation efforts -- was clear in his mind.

From the jerky motions and too-high laughter coming from the unarmed robber, it was obvious he was high on something. The boy holding the gun simply stared off-screen until the other boy grabbed his arm and shouted something about wasting time. A flick of his wrist turned the gun in his hand so he was holding it by its muzzle. He swung the gun in a sharp downwards arc, and the ensuing grunt was audible to Simon and Jim. The sound of a body hitting the floor was the next thing they heard, followed soon by the appearance of Blair's limp hand, resting on the floor. The rest of his body was obscured by the too-narrow reach of the surveillance camera.

The boys moved to the register and quickly divested it of its contents. After that, they crouched down, almost out of sight of the camera, and began fiddling with the small floor safe under the counter.

Oh God, oh God, oh God, Jim repeated in his head. He still could not bring his body to move. This is what hell must be like, he thought, forced to watch evidence on tape of how badly he had failed his partner. His complete and utter wrongness stung him. After all his accusations of Blair letting him down, Jim had been the one who was not there for his partner when he needed him.

When the hand on the floor twitched, then moved out of range, Jim gained his voice.

"Dammit, Chief, stay down," he whispered, knowing at the same time that there was no way he could alter the outcome of this scene. It had happened well over an hour ago. A voice in his head was screaming at him to go to the loft, to make sure his partner was okay, but he remained riveted to the small television, as did his captain.

This can't be happening, Jim thought desperately. Blair's at the loft... in his bedroom... he was, wasn't he? I did hear his heartbeat, didn't I? I always do... But he was here...

They watched Blair crawl into view, then over to the edge of the deli counter, unnoticed by the two boys, now arguing loudly over how to best access the money in the safe. The anthropologist levered himself up on the sloping counter and moved unsteadily towards the far door, holding the glass casing for balance. His hand brushed against a stack of menus and they slid to the floor, announcing his presence to the robbers. Without hesitation, Blair bolted. They watched as he straight-armed the door and stumbled into the night, his gait unsteady due to his head injury. Onscreen, the two policemen watched the perps leap over the counter and heard the taller of the two thieves cry out "no witnesses" just before firing several shots in the direction of the fleeing anthropologist.

Jim's enhanced hearing picked up a gasp of pain in an all-too-familiar voice. Finally free of his shocked paralysis, he flung himself out of the van and ran towards the direction in which the robbers had fired the shots. Several steps through the side door, he spotted a patch of blood. Without a doubt, he knew it was Blair's.

Moments later, Simon skidded to a stop next to the crouched Sentinel. Jim stood and grabbed at his captain's arm.

"They hit him, Simon, he's hurt."

"I'll put out an APB."

"No, Simon. He's home, he would try to make it home."

"How do you know?"

"I just know Simon, please, trust me."

The police captain looked puzzled, but did not let that stop him from acting quickly. Calling out his intentions to Henri Brown, who was supervising the efforts inside the store, he strode to his car, with Jim on his heels. Taking his place behind the wheel, he began a slow drive back to the loft, using the most direct route. Jim questioned him immediately on his lack of speed.

"We don't know how far he got, Jim. Open your window and tell me if you sense anything," Simon said, with emphasis on the word 'sense'. He didn't know everything about Jim's ability, but he and Sandburg had spoken enough about it to give him a clear picture of some of the possibilities.

Jim nodded tersely and did as he was instructed, grateful that Simon had full control of his emotions. Jim might have sped past his bleeding partner, and perhaps returned too late to help him. No, he would not think like that. Blair had not been dropped by the bullet, which meant he had a good chance of surviving this.

Simon explained to him that the next few seconds of videotape had shown the robbers fleeing the scene in the opposite direction. Good. That meant Blair had not been pursued. Then again, if the men had doubled back to finish off the witness...

"No!" the Sentinel shouted. Simon stopped the car and looked at his detective, naked fear on his face.

"Sorry, Simon, keep driving, I just can't stop thinking about..." His voice trailed off. Jim was not about to risk negative thoughts. He listened carefully for the familiar heartbeat, or for the moans of someone in pain. There was nothing.

"We're here, Jim. Come on."

The two men stopped at the front door when Jim knelt down to touch something on the sidewalk. It was blood. There was a long streak pooling in front of the outer door. A scuff mark smeared part of it, and Jim swallowed deeply before raising his shoe to look at the sole. There it was, a small smear of Blair's blood on the edge of the tread. His foot dropped from suddenly nerveless fingers.

Dear God, he came home when I was still here. I walked right out with barely a backwards glance, and Blair in his room, bleeding.

"Call an ambulance Simon. Get it here now!" he shouted before wrenching the door open and charging up the stairs.

The french doors leading into Blair's room were slightly ajar, as they had been when Jim had raced past them earlier on the way to the crime scene. The Sentinel found his unconscious partner on the floor next to his bed, curled into a ball. In his hands was a dirty, bloodied shirt. Its position made the detective think it had been pressed to the wound when his partner was conscious, but Blair's hands had gone slack when he had passed out. Whether it was from blood loss or pain, Jim did not know.

He heard Simon's thundering footsteps on the stairs as he was easing Blair into a prone position on the floor, and a few moments later, the captain was kneeling at his side.

"Jesus, Jim. How bad is it?"

"I don't know. God, Simon, there's so much blood. How long for the ambulance?"

"Dispatch said five minutes. Ten tops."

Hoping Blair was deeply unconscious and would not feel the effects of his ministrations, Jim eased his roommate's blood soaked shirt up to expose the gunshot wound. The bullet had exited Blair's body just below his ribcage. Jim sighed with relief as he noted the small round hole the bullet had made on its way out of his partner's body. That meant a small caliber weapon. A larger weapon would have torn up his partner both inside and out, making for a much more serious injury. Jim doubted Blair would have made it two blocks, much less all the way home if the bullet had ruptured anything internally, and he more than likely would have been dead by now. As it was, blood loss and the possibility of infection were still heavy factors in the battle Blair was fighting to stay alive.

Jim shook his head abruptly in an attempt to clear the dark thoughts from his mind. With Simon's help, he rolled the anthropologist over to examine the slightly smaller entry wound in his back. Blood still flowed copiously from both points, and before Jim could form words, Simon was heading for the bathroom. He returned moments later with a wet facecloth and several clean towels. Jim sent a grim smile of thanks in his captain's direction, and the other man nodded.

Working together, the men gently cleansed the wound and then wrapped a large bath towel around Blair, wincing each time they had to move the still unconscious man. Finished, they propped him on his side with a pillow beneath his head. Jim held the makeshift bandage tightly to his partner while Simon raced downstairs to meet the paramedics.

Realizing he was alone with his partner for the first time since he had hurled those hateful words at him, Jim found himself speechless. Ever since Simon had pounded home to him the importance of making things right with Blair, Jim had tried to imagine what he would say to his partner when they finally had time to talk. Yet here he sat, holding his friend, unable to mouth a single word of encouragement.

He was saved from further reflection by the arrival of the EMTs, stretcher and gear in tow. They quickly applied a pressure bandage to the young man, and inserted an IV before preparing him for transportation to the hospital. Jim strode alongside the stretcher and listened to the weak lifesigns emanating from his best friend, with half an ear tuned into the statistics one of the paramedics was barking into his radio. They were taking him to Memorial, and a surgical team would be standing by when they arrived.

The blood on the walls and floor of the elevator came as another shock to the detective. Knowingly or not, Blair had left many clues for the Sentinel to find, but Jim had missed them all.

He thought he heard Simon call out that he would meet them at the hospital before the doors closed on the back of the ambulance, but his primary focus was the slow, sluggish heartbeat of his best friend.

After Blair was whisked into surgery, Jim found himself with a clipboard full of forms and his tired captain at his side in the waiting room. As he painstakingly filled out each line on the flat white sheets of paper, Simon had hunted down two decent cups of coffee. As he sipped the hot brew, his mind once again rolled through the events of the past few days. Much like Blair had done after Jim had shouted at him, the detective could find no point at which he might have changed his routine in order to have prevented the injury to his partner. The robberies had taken over his life, as so many cases had in the past, and he hoped Blair knew that his avoidance had not been deliberate.

Still, the guilt of having failed Blair despite the realization that it could not have been his fault, was strong. He was grateful for Simon's presence at his side, but also knew the captain's silence would not last. His own conscience made him speak first.

"If he doesn't make it. . . it'll be my fault, Simon."

"Jim, I know you see yourself as the kid's protector, but. . ."

"You don't understand, Simon. I didn't know... the clues were there and I missed them. I missed them all..."

"What are you talking about?"

"He was home, Simon. He was there, the whole time..."

"Blair was at the loft when I called you in on the robbery?"

"Yes." And I had no fucking idea that he had been hurt. Me, who calls himself a detective and and Sentinel did not smell the blood covering him, or even see the drops of it on the pavement in front of the loft.

Looking up into his captain's stunned face, Jim shook his head in answer to the unvoiced question in Simon's eyes. "I didn't know he was hurt. I didn't sense anything..."

"What the hell is going on with you two?" Simon hissed. "He gets himself in the middle of a holdup, gets shot, stumbles back to the loft and proceeds to crawl into his room without so much as a 'Hi, I'm home, oh, and by the way, Jim I need you to call an ambulance...' And you... you suddenly forget you've got a partner who's normally joined to you at the hip. If he was there, why didn't you ask him to come with you?"

"What was I going to do, Simon? Knock on his door and say 'I know you've had only twenty minutes of sleep, Chief, but would you mind coming with me to go look at a crime scene, complete with a dead body and lots of blood, and oh, by the way, sorry for yelling at you the other night.'"

"You never talked to him."

"No, Simon, and you know perfectly well how late we were up last night at the other scene. I could barely think, let alone string the words 'I'm sorry' together."

"Relax, Jim. I know how tired you were. I'm just a bit surprised, is all."

"You don't understand Simon, until we clear the air about what was said, I'm not going to lay anything else on him."

"How bad could it be?" asked Simon, dreading the answer to that particular question. He had seen Jim Ellison when he got really angry, and could imagine how bad it was.

"Jesus, Simon, I blamed a homicide on him. I told him it was his fault that Michael Denby was killed."

"What? What in God's name were you thinking? That is not true and you know it. What the hell did you do that for?" Simon was on his feet and pacing the small room now, his questions bursting out like mini explosions. "Dammit, Jim, I know this thing with your mother has you all messed up, but why in hell do you have to take it out on the person you'd get the most support from?"

"I don't know, Simon. God help me, but I don't know." Jim's bowed posture reflected his exhaustion, and the pain on his face was visible. Any other time, the obvious signs of suffering would have stilled Simon's sharp tongue, but not now.

"You want to know what I think? I think Mr. Self-reliance has finally got himself an Achilles' heel."

"What do you mean by that?"

"I mean that you care about him, rely on him. You need him. He's closer to you than anyone has been in a long, long time. Maybe as close as your mother was, before she left."

Simon ignored Jim's harshly drawn breath and continued.

"Pushing Blair away is not going to make your mother's abandonment of you any less painful. If you think that by pushing him out of your life now you'll save yourself that pain when he moves on to greener pastures, you're wrong. I call this a self-fulfilling prophecy. You'll push and push at him, and when he finally does take off, you will have proved yourself right -- that he was going to leave all along. Let me tell you something, mister, that kid has practically put his whole life on hold for you. Did you know he's months behind on his dissertation and that he's dropped his teaching schedule down to the bare minimum so he could be available to you?"

"Did he tell you this?"

"No, I called Rainier and spoke to the head of his department after the last time he was hurt on the job -- this job -- your job. We had a long conversation about that observer of yours and quite a few things came clear in my mind. The biggest being that that kid is making an awfully big sacrifice to be your partner, and I refuse to let you throw that away. If he does leave someday, you had better damn well make sure it's because it's time for him to move on, and not because your damnable pride tossed him out on his ear. Do I make myself clear?"

"Are you saying that as my captain or my friend?"

"Both, Jim. I would lose a damn good detective and an even better friend if you let yourself slide back into your pre-Sandburg behavior. You were a sorry son of a bitch back then. You're lucky I'm so forgiving, or you'd be walking a beat right now."

The two men shared a grim smile, then settled back in their chairs to wait for the doctor to bring them news on Blair. Simon excused himself for a few minutes to check in with the detectives at the scene and smoke a cigar out in the parking lot, returning to his friend's side after he had finished. Occasionally, Jim would sigh deeply, or stand up and pace for a few minutes. No more words were exchanged, though. There was nothing else left to say.

When the news came several hours later that Blair had come through surgery with no complications, and that after some time spent in recovery, he would be moved to a private room, the men found themselves grinning happily at each other.

"I'm not going to tell you to go home, Jim, since I would be wasting my breath. But at least try to sleep in the big chair in the corner, it's got to be more comfortable than sitting next to the bed in those hard backed chairs. Okay?"

"I'll try sir," Jim said over his shoulder, already heading out to the nurse's station to find out his partner's room number.

Later that morning, when Simon stopped in briefly before heading to the station, he found Jim exactly where he knew he would be -- wide awake at his sleeping partner's side.

Blair woke to the feeling of a gentle hand rhythmically stroking his hair and murmuring reassurances. He smiled at the tender way in which his roommate was comforting him. This was borderline maternal. He was quite sure he didn't want to make hair massages from the detective a habit, but after the bitter words they had shared, he was willing to let him get away with it for now. He had wakened briefly a few times before, feeling quite groggy from his medication, and thought he had sensed Jim's presence. He was finally coming fully awake this time, though, and his memory was beginning to piece itself back together. Despite the trauma he had been through, he knew if Jim was here, everything would be okay.

"Mmmh," he sighed, and turned his head in the direction of his visitor. Opening his eyes, he was startled to find himself staring at Megan Conner.

"Hey Sandy, welcome back. How do you feel?"

Like a complete idiot, thank you very much. he thought, bitterly. Who was he kidding? He and Jim had not worked anything out yet, and it seemed his roommate was still holding a grudge. Struggling to wrap his head around the fact that his partner was nowhere to be found, he answered Megan's question.

"Lousy. How long have I been here?"

"Over twenty-four hours now. It's..." she glanced at her wristwatch before continuing. "10:30 a.m. on Friday."

"Dammit! Sarah's going to kill me. I was supposed to have those grades posted for her yesterday. And I'm supposed to be giving midterms for my own classes at 1:00 this afternoon."

"Simon contacted the University and let them know what happened. Your classes should be covered, and I assume Sarah has been told and has made other arrangements."

"Yeah, but I'm toast the next time I see her."

"Don't you worry about that, I'm sure she'll understand," Megan replied brightly with a pat to his hand. "Now I'm sorry to pounce on you in the hospital like this, but I was hoping you could shed a bit of light on the robbery for me. Jim would have done this, but Simon ran him off a while ago. Can you tell me what you remember?"

Simon ran him off? Blair thought to himself, allowing himself the hope that Jim really had wanted to be here, but was countermanded by his captain.

Comforted by the thought that maybe Jim wasn't avoiding him, Blair closed his eyes again and let himself remember. The fear he had felt, first for Billy and then for himself came crashing in to his mind. The pain that coursed through his skull when the teen had struck him with the gun was nothing compared to the burning agony of the gunshot wound. Even now, a dull throbbing in his temple and his side reminded him of how badly he had been hurt. His stumbling journey to the loft was a bit fuzzy, but as he lay on the floor in his room before losing consciousness, he remembered worrying that he would bleed to death right there. The fear had pushed him past his vow not to bother Jim with his own problems, but before he could draw a deep enough breath to call his partner's name, he had passed out.

While he remained silent, Megan continued her gentle caress, and he let it soothe him. Once his racing heart had slowed to normal, and he convinced himself that he was safe from harm, here in the hospital with a highly trained police officer at his side, he opened his eyes again. Glancing at Megan, who had removed her hand from his head and instead held her notebook and pen at the ready, he began recounting his late night trek for a red pen.

His descriptions of the two robbers were detailed, their images still clear in his mind. He told Megan about his attempt at escape, and the ensuing gun shot. He remembered stopping at a trash can and pulling out an old shirt to try and stop the bleeding from his wound, and of his eventual collapse once he had reached his bedroom. His next clear memory was waking up and seeing the Inspector's smiling face.

He looked over at Megan and noticed her frowning at her notebook.

"What's the matter? What aren't you telling me?"

"Nothing, Blair, nothing. You did a tremendous job. This is more information than I expected." Her bright smile dimmed. "I was just wondering why you didn't ask Jim for help. He was asleep upstairs when you returned to the apartment, but you never called out to him. Why is that?"

Blair fought to control the stab of hurt that sliced through his heart at Megan's question. Why hadn't he called for Jim? How could he possibly have done that after the shout he had heard that morning? After what had been said the night before? At the time, foolish as it was, he had imagined Jim would be royally pissed at his partner for getting himself into trouble -- again.

"He was asleep. I didn't want to disturb him." The words sounded lame even to him.

"My God, Blair, you had been shot! I don't think Jim would have minded being woken up for that."

You have no idea, Megan. You simply have no idea, he thought. "I guess I wasn't thinking clearly when I got there. Um, can we just drop this. I'd rather not think about last night anymore."

"Oh, Sandy, I'm sorry. I'll let you rest now. If you need anything, Detective Brown is just outside the door."

"What's he doing there?" Blair had the sinking feeling he knew exactly why Henri was there.

"Blair, right now, the boys who robbed the store are still at large. You and the clerk, Billy Rafferty, are being treated as protected witnesses. Once you're discharged, you'll have the option of entering a safehouse or of having one of the detectives with you 24/7 until we catch these guys." She smiled brightly before she added, "Since you live with Jim, that shouldn't be a problem, though."

When Blair frowned deeply at her words, Megan misunderstood the reason for his distress and spoke quickly to cover for her apparent slip up.

"Oh, and don't you worry about Billy, he was just released about an hour ago and Rafe went with him to his apartment. Once I finish up here with you, I'll be meeting him there. We'll be protecting him until we apprehend the suspects."

"Was he shot, too? Why was he in the hospital?" Blair asked, praying his former student was okay. Billy was a bit flighty, but he had a good heart.

"Oh, no, Sandy, no," Megan replied, "he was held overnight for observation on a pretty nasty concussion he got." When Megan began giggling, Blair fixed her with a stern look.

"I don't think that's very funny, Megan. Those guys hit me, too, and I can't imagine what is amusing about it," he spat indignantly.

"Oh, no, Blair, no. He ran out of the deli as soon as you began speaking to the robbers. His concussion was brought about in a very different way than yours." She dissolved into laughter at that point, and Blair could not help but grin in return. Her mood was infectious. Raising his eyebrows, he silently urged her to continue with the story.

Megan started her tale at the crime scene, when Simon had ordered her and Rafe to hunt for the missing clerk, giving them a description and a direction in which to begin looking. An APB had also been placed on the student. Finding his apartment vacant, they had been searching the streets for nearly an hour when a call came over the radio that the silent alarm at another convenience store had been tripped, and that all units were to respond immediately.

Megan and Rafe were only a few blocks from the address, so they abandoned their search for the moment and sped to the scene. Creeping quietly out of the sedan, they approached the entrance to see two men in view. One was behind the counter, his hands raised in a placating gesture. The other man, whom the detectives recognized as their missing clerk, was clearly distraught, and stood in front of the other man, waving something that looked suspiciously like a gun. They were not certain if he had been an accomplice to the robbers at Marty's or not, so decided they would be cautious and drew their weapons. Billy's breathing bordered on hyperventilation, and he was screaming. Despite the man behind the counter's pleas for Billy to calm down, the young man continued to rant. When Megan heard him clearly say 'don't move a muscle or I'll kill you' she decided it was time to act.

Signaling to Rafe, the two of them burst through the door with their guns pointed at the student, calling out for Billy to drop his gun immediately and back away from the clerk. Upon hearing this, the man behind the counter began waving his hands in front of his body and shouting for the detectives to stop. Oblivious to the other man's words, Billy spun around and gaped at the new gun-toting arrivals.

Shocked silence had prevailed for a few moments, then Billy Rafferty's eyes rolled back in his head and he dropped to the floor in a dead faint, a package of black licorice falling from his nerveless fingers. Megan and Rafe had quickly holstered their weapons and watched as the young man fell forward onto an end-cap display of snack cakes, the tumbling packages landing on the floor in time to cushion his fall.

Blair did his best to keep the wide smile on his face from erupting into laughter, but finally failed when Megan explained how the huge ceramic Twinkie on top of the display had teetered slowly, and before Rafe could catch it, landed on the student's head with a loud crack. While attempting to prevent the student's injury, Rafe had skidded on the scattered snack cakes and fallen himself, some of the packages bursting open to shower him with creamy filling and bits of pink coconut. Blair shouted with laughter at the image, then groaned loudly in pain when his stitches protested the movement.

"Oh, Sandy, I'm sorry," Megan said, wiping tears from her eyes. "I just can't stop thinking about that poor boy, outrunning vicious felons, then being felled by a giant Twinkie. It was just so surreal, and oddly appropriate, if I do say so myself. That boy seems a bit off."

"Megan," Blair gasped, "stop!" He pressed his hands to his side and breathed as deeply as he could to stop the pain and eliminate the comical image of Billy Rafferty's ordeal from his mind. Each deep inhalation caused him twinges of pain, which threatened to turn into more than twinges if he didn't calm himself down soon.

"Sorry, sorry," she said and took a deep and noisy breath. She did not laugh, but her eyes sparkled brightly as she continued with her tale.

It turned out that the other clerk, Max Donovan, was a close friend of Billy's. After the frightened clerk had fled Marty's Deli, he had run halfway across town before deciding to seek his friend's help. Max could give no explanation as to why Billy had never stopped to call 911 or to head for a police or fire station, even though he had passed several in his late night dash.

Upon arriving at the Store 24 where Max worked, Billy had been hysterical. Max had tried to make some sense of what his friend was saying, but failed. When Billy grabbed the Twizzlers and brandished them like a gun, Max decided the police needed to be involved. He regretted using the silent alarm, but Billy had majorly freaked when he had moved towards the phone, and truth be told, with the string of convenience store robberies, he preferred to be safe than sorry. Billy had proceeded to recreate the scene at Marty's, which Megan and Rafe had heard part of and mistakenly considered a threat.

After the ambulance had taken Billy away, Max had given his statement. He had no information to give them about the incident at Marty's other than to recount Billy's histrionics. At the hospital, the cut on Billy's head was stitched up, and he was admitted for twenty fours hours of observation then released.

"So," Megan declared, "you just need to concentrate on getting better, Sandy. Rafe and I will make sure that Billy is safe, and you've got Jim and Henri to keep an eye on you." She bent over, pressed a kiss to his forehead and smiled down at him, then turned and left the room.

Blair watched her retreating back. He chuckled a bit more over Billy's drama, but his mind quickly turned back to thoughts of Jim. Where was he? Was he angry at having been ordered to keep watch over his roommate? In the past, Blair would have thought that Jim would demand that job, and not let anyone else usurp his position as Blair's "Blessed Protector," regardless of any order from Simon. But that was clearly Henri Brown, and not Jim Ellison outside his room. Maybe it wasn't just a simple fight the other night. Maybe Jim really was fed up with the anthropologist.

Better get your head wrapped around that idea, just in case. he thought as a huge yawn split his face.

Before he could fully reflect on how pissed Jim must be to have an assigned babysitting job for his errant roommate, he drifted into a troubled sleep.

When Blair woke again, decidedly less woozy and feeling a bit stronger, it was to another unfamiliar image. This time, instead of Jim Ellison snoring away in the seat beside his bed, the deep and even breathing of Simon Banks met his ears. Blair shifted slightly, mindful of his aching incisions, and rolled himself to his uninjured side, facing the sleeping man.

His initial feeling of melancholy at his partner's continued absence was buried under the realization of the gruff police captain's concern for him. The two men had developed a strong relationship over the several years Blair had been partnered with Jim. The anthropologist felt as though he had been on some sort of probation for the majority of that time, with the captain seeming to barely tolerate his presence at times, but always acting in the interest of the younger man's safety, as his job dictated. Recently, though, Blair knew they had reached a different level. Simon fully accepted Blair's role in Jim Ellison's life, and had begun to treat the observer with something akin to respect. A solid friendship had developed, and while it was not as strong as what Simon and Jim shared, Blair was thankful for Simon's presence in his life.

After their revealing conversation in the captain's office around the time of Roy's death, Blair knew he was an important part of Simon's team, not simply an unwelcome shadow to the best member of the department. Their foray to butt in on Jim's solitary vacation and the paternal way in which the captain had treated him when he became ill were indications of a caring that went farther than a boss to a subordinate.

And now here he sat, sleeping at Blair's bedside when he probably had a boatload of other things to deal with, just so the anthropologist would not wake up alone. From his earlier conversation with Megan, Blair knew it was necessary to keep him under guard, but that duty would never have fallen to the captain of Major Crimes. There were countless detectives and uniforms who could perform that duty. Simon was clearly giving up his own time. The thought touched Blair deeply, and he smiled as he reached out to tug on the captain's arm.

Simon came awake with a start. He blinked a few times, then scrubbed a hand across his face, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. Clearing his throat, he sat up straight and adjusted his suitcoat, which had bunched up as he dozed. Turning to face the anthropologist, he squinted a bit at the big smile plastered on the younger man's face.

"Thanks for being here, Simon," Blair said softly, and continued to grin at the now flustered captain, who had fished his glasses out of a pocket and was making a big show of cleaning them on a corner of Blair's blanket.

"No reason to thank me, kid, I'm just making sure that one half of my best team is well on the way to recovery. If you two keep up the good work, I just may see a nice fat raise next time the Commissioner takes a look at my department. You guys make me look good." The stopped speaking when he saw Blair's grin falter. Letting out a deep sigh, he shook his head before continuing.

"Ah, hell. Forget what I just said. You know damn well that I care about what happens to my men, and whether you have a badge or not, you are one of my men." Simon smiled as the grin on the anthropologist's face strengthened. "You're also my friend, Sandburg, and friends don't leave friends alone in the hospital."

As quickly as it had returned, the smile vanished from the younger man's face. Simon was pretty sure he knew the reason, but wanted Blair to mention it before bringing it up himself. The partners were long overdue for a good long talk, but that would have to wait a while longer. The captain watched a myriad of emotions cross the observer's face, all reflected through his expressive eyes, then saw a guarded expression appear on the pale face.

"Is Jim working on a case?" Blair asked finally. Simon resisted the urge to chuckle at the nonchalant way in which the question had been posed. It was all too evident that the answer to that question was of the utmost importance to the younger man.

"Hell, no," Simon replied forcefully. "If he values his job, he's back at the loft sleeping."

The confusion in Blair's face was clear. Simon continued before the apprehension could grow further.

"Blair, between the bullet wound in your side and the knock on the head, you were completely out of it for about 36 hours. Jim Ellison was here for every one of those 36 hours, and refused to sleep, eat or leave your side. He had only gotten about two hours of sleep the night you were hurt, so the man was seriously wiped by the time you woke up for the first time. I sent him home in a cab with the strictest orders to get some sleep or start circling jobs in the want ads, because I was going to fire his ass if he didn't do as I said."

"So he was here," Blair said, all the anxiety gone from his expression.

"He left a few hours before Megan got here. You were still pretty out of it, but he was certain enough that you were on the way to recovery that I was able to convince him to leave. You can ask the nurses if you don't believe me."

"Oh, no, no, Simon, I believe you. It's just... I wasn't sure... I thought I remembered him being here, but I guess I didn't know if it was wishful thinking or something." The anthropologist's face was slightly flushed, and he averted his eyes, realizing he had probably said too much. The problems between Jim and himself were not resolved yet, and bringing their captain into the issue would not make it any better. Simon seemed to sense his mood.

"Don't worry about it, Sandburg. Even under threat of termination, I expect Jim will be back here in a few more hours." Simon smiled warmly at Blair and was glad to see his answering grin. Knowing that hurdle was behind him, he decided to tell the young man the other reason for his being in his room.

"Blair, do you remember a professor from Rainier named Edward Hurston?"

"Oh, yeah," Blair replied with a chuckle. "Professor Ned Hurston. He retired two years ago, so that would make him a Professor Emeritus now. He was one of my favorite teachers. He really challenged me in my first year of graduate studies and actually had me considering a specialty in linguistics for a while. He's a linguist and an anthropologist, noted for his studies of Native American languages and his theories on the ways in which language shapes our perceptions. I remember sitting in his office one night, talking for over six hours about a paper I had written which challenged one of his ideas. We lost track of time, got locked in and had to climb out a first floor window." Blair's animated chatter abruptly ceased, and he sat up too quickly, gasping at the pain it caused.

"Wait a minute... how would you... know about him?" he asked between deep breaths. "Oh, God... is he okay?"

"Easy, Blair, easy," Simon soothed as he pushed the younger man back against the bed. "He's fine. Bored silly, but fine."


"I had a long talk over the phone with Rainier's Dean of Arts and Sciences yesterday afternoon, and he told me all about Professor Hurston."

"Oh, man," Blair groaned, and buried his face in his hands. "I'm fired, aren't I? From the University? There's no way Dean Sturgis is going to put up with another absence from me. He's been pretty cool so far, but there's no way he's going to be able to justify my position there if I keep passing off my work onto the other TA's every time I get hurt."

"No, Blair, you're not fired. In fact, do you see that flower arrangement over by the window?" He watched Blair peek out from between his fingers and look at the huge bouquet of flowers. When the anthropologist nodded, he continued.

"They're from him and his staff. It seems you have presented him with the means of solving his biggest problem, namely one Professor Emeritus Edward Hurston."

"I don't understand."

"I called Dean Sturgis to tell him about your hospital stay and to arrange for a temporary replacement for your classes. I wasn't sure how he was going to react, so I made sure I mentioned that since Rainier is a partially state- funded institution, it would be in his best interest to cooperate fully with the police department in our desire to give you all the support you needed to fulfill your obligations with us."

"You threatened Dean Sturgis?" Blair exclaimed, horrified that Simon had to resort to coercion to secure Blair's position at the University.

"No, Sandburg. I simply told him that you have become much more important to our department than simply a ride along. You had no idea what you were signing up for when you applied for those observer's credentials. Hell, I had no idea how this partnership between you and Jim would turn out. I told you before, you're part of my team, now, and I felt obligated to clear the way for you as best I can. I owe you this after everything you have done for me. You shouldn't have to give up everything in order to keep my best detective functioning, so if I have to put in a little effort to see that you're able to sleep for more than an hour a night, I'm damn well going to do it."

Blair was speechless. He felt the need to thank Simon, but words could not possibly express what he was feeling. He reached out for the captain's hand and held on tightly, willing that gesture to speak for him. Simon covered their clasped hands with his free hand, and simply nodded at the younger man. He understood completely, and took the gratitude shining from the anthropologist's eyes as a sign that he had effectively made his point. After a few more moments of shared silence, he placed Blair's hand back on the edge of the bed.

"Anyway," he began. "Dean Sturgis was quite concerned for you, and wanted me to relay his wishes for a speedy recovery. He then proceeded to tell me all about this Professor Hurston, and how the man was giving him an ulcer. It seems 'Old Ned', as Sturgis calls him, is having a bit of trouble adjusting to retirement, and calls him daily to demand his old job back. Sturgis has a full staff, though, and no room in the budget for any kind of salary for Hurston. The professor said he doesn't need a salary, just wants to do something besides watch the grass grow. He traveled for a while and tried writing, but said he misses interaction with young minds, and is insistent he'll go senile if he stays away from the university life. Since he and his wife are living in Cascade, Rainier is where he wants to be."

Blair was nodding his head as he listened to Simon relate the Dean's words about his former teacher. He had been concerned when Professor Hurston retired, imagining the very scenario he was hearing now. Old Ned was as energetic as men half his age, but the university had strict rules about the age at which one could continue teaching, and at 78 years of age, Ned had been forced into retirement. He focused his attention back to Simon, who was still speaking.

"So, Dean Sturgis gets all excited when I finished singing your praises to him, and tells me that you are the answer to his prayers. He practically hung up on me, then called me back about a half hour later. Professor Hurston has agreed to act as back up for you, to be on call, so to speak. Whenever you can't meet your teaching obligations due to your policework, Old Ned is more than willing to pick up the slack. You'll still keep your teaching schedule, but you'll have someone to turn to should things get hairy. You'll need to set up a formal meeting with Dean Sturgis and Professor Hurston once you get out of the hospital, but it looks like everyone comes out a winner here."

Simon smiled hugely at the incredulous look plastered all over the observer's face.

"I... I don't know what to say, Simon."

"Don't say anything then, and let me enjoy this once in a lifetime moment."

"What moment?"

"Blair Sandburg. Speechless."

The younger man rolled his eyes at the captain's obvious glee, but could not help the huge smile that broke out on his face, as well, as he thought about what Simon had done for him.

"Wow, Simon. Wait 'til I tell Jim. He'll be more ecstatic that I am. No more 'Sandburg screwups' for him to contend with." The caustic tone which had crept into the anthropologist's words was not missed by the tall black man, and he wanted more than anything to ease the younger man's mind. He hadn't exactly promised Jim that he would not speak to Sandburg about the situation with his mother, but did not feel it was his place to tell the whole story. Maybe he would just drop a hint or two, and see what the kid could do with it. He took a deep breath, and after letting it out slowly, began to speak.

"Blair, I need to tell you something about Jim."

Jim smiled to himself as he sat at the table and sorted through the mail which had accumulated over the past few days. It was finally looking like things were on the road towards normalcy. The loft was quiet, and a fire threw soft dancing lights across the sleeping figure on the couch. The smell of simmering vegetable soup and warming bread wafted through the rooms, reminding him that it was nearly time to wake his partner for dinner.

It was Saturday, and he had picked up Blair from the hospital around noon -- against his better judgement -- and had brought him home. His roommate was still a bit woozy and quite sore, but insistent that he be discharged. The doctors had agreed with Blair, so with strict instructions to rest and take his prescriptions, they had released him into his partner's care. The unresolved argument still lingered between the two men, and the ride home would have been tense if Jim had not had news to share.

At the station, he had learned that while Rafe and Megan were guarding Billy, the two robbers had arrived at his house to 'take care of' one of their few living witnesses. They had not expected to find the inspector and detective there, and were apprehended immediately. Conner had to be restrained by Rafe from seriously harming one of the two boys when he resisted arrest. After her visit with Blair in the hospital and seeing the extent of his injuries, she was determined to exact a bit of revenge if the situation presented itself. The thought of challenging the two very angry cops never occurred to the second boy, and he had surrendered without a word. The teens had been taken away from the house in a squad car, while Megan and Rafe remained behind and over the course of three hours, coaxed Billy out of the closet in which he had locked himself at the first sight of the robbers.

The case against the teens was strong, and Jim assured his partner that they would be going to jail for a very long time.

Upon arriving home, Jim had managed to convince the younger man to take a pain pill, and had settled him on the couch where he still lay sleeping.

The phone was next to his elbow, and he was able to grab it quickly when it rang, before it could disturb Blair's sleep prematurely.

"Hello?" he whispered.

"Jim, Simon. I wanted to check on the kid and let you know I've okayed your vacation days."

"Blair's doing fine, Simon. He's sleeping right now, but I'll let him know you were asking about him."

"Good. I expect him to be back in the bullpen and solving all my cases soon. It's not the same without him here."

"Oh, right, and I can take all the time off I want, huh?" Jim asked with a chuckle.

"Damn straight," Simon replied, laughing as well.

"Thank you, sir," Jim said, his voice serious now. "For everything."

"Don't mention it. You just take care of your partner, and get some sleep. Call me if you need anything else, you hear me?"

"Yes, sir," Jim said with a light laugh, counting himself lucky to have as good a friend as Simon Banks.

As he clicked off the phone, he noticed the form on the couch begin to stir. He skimmed through the stack of bills for a few more minutes, allowing Blair time to awaken before moving over to sit on the coffee table opposite his partner. When a pair or bleary blue eyes looked up at him, he smiled.

"How you feeling, buddy?"

"Okay, I guess. Not too sore. How long did I sleep?"

"Just a couple of hours. Your pain meds are probably still going strong. Are you hungry?"

"Not really."

"I heated up some vegetable soup and put a loaf of french bread in the oven to warm. You sure I can't tempt you with that?"

Blair seemed to consider the menu for a minute before replying.

"I could eat."

"Good," Jim replied with a grin. "Besides, it's the soup you made last week. I put it in the refrigerator to defrost last night when they said you were being discharged today. I thought you would enjoy some of your own cooking before you had to put up with Ellison Cuisine for a while."

"Only for supper, man. I intend to bulk up on good food during the day so your less than healthy choices don't tempt me when you get home from work."

"Actually, Simon called just before you woke up. He approved my request for some vacation days. I wanted to make sure I was here for you for the next few days at least. I still think they let you out of the hospital too soon."


Jim saw the crestfallen look appear on his partner's face and misunderstood its meaning.

"What, no lecture about the relative benefits of home care versus hospitalization? Next, I suppose you'll be taking your prescription medication without a debate?"

"I never realized what a pain in the ass I could be when I got sick or hurt. I suppose I do bitch a lot. Sorry."

"What are you talking about, Sandburg?"

"I just don't want to you think you have to baby-sit me. Go to work, do whatever you have to do. I'm not going anywhere, and I know what an inconvenience it is for you."

"Jesus, you're not an inconvenience, you never have been. I'm the one who asked you into my life, I'm the one who asked you to stay. And you did and you didn't have to." Seeing the confused look on Blair's face, Jim continued quickly. "Blair, don't you understand, you're my best friend. You're vital, necessary, indispensable. I need you, Chief. It scares the hell out of me sometimes to realize how much I rely on you to help me. I trust you."

Jim looked into his roommate's blue eyes. His partner looked stunned. He was not surprised that Sandburg would be so shocked -- he rarely opened up like this. He decided to go for broke. After his insensitive behavior that had nearly cost Blair his life, Jim knew he needed to drive home his point as clearly as possible.

"Blair, I'll be honest with you. My track record with relationships of all kinds has been pretty shitty. All you have to do is ask Carolyn how supportive I was during our marriage and she'll laugh in your face.

"The way the past few days have been -- the way I acted towards you -- this is how my Dad used to act towards Steven and me when we were younger. Whatever was eating at him ended up getting taken out on us. You probably guessed by now that we didn't talk about anything important, much less our feelings. I thought I had gotten past all that crap, but it seems like I've turned out to be more like my old man that I thought I was.

"I let my father and brother drift away from me, let the hurts from my childhood grow until I drove a gap between us that can never truly be bridged. I have friends now, mostly the guys in the department, but what I feel for them doesn't even come close to how I feel about you. I love you, Chief, and I'm sorry that my words and actions caused me to lose sight of the fact that right now, you're the most important person in my life. You're my friend, my partner, my Shaman... hell, you're my family. I don't ever want you to think that I won't be there for you. I screwed up this time, and I almost lost you, permanently. Please tell me we can get past this."

Jim watched the emotions play across the face of the man in front of him. Shock was still the clearest one he saw. Blair's heart had been racing as he listened to the Sentinel's words, but had slowed in the silence that ensued. Grimacing with the movement, Blair raised himself to a seated position. The younger man closed his eyes and breathed deeply in and out a few times, then lifted his head to look at his roommate squarely. Jim's heart plummeted as he saw the strong resolve reflected in the blue eyes.

"I know I'm laying an awful lot on your plate right now. Maybe I should have waited until you felt better. I'm sorry, I didn't..." His words were silenced by the raised hand of his partner.

"Don't you dare take that back, Jim. Don't you even dare." Blair's voice was still husky from sleep, but the threat in those words was clear. Jim felt some of the heaviness ease from his heart. A flickering of hope that things just might be okay after all uncurled deep within the Sentinel's belly.

"Blair?" A thousand questions were asked with that one word. His face anxious, his body tense, he knew the next move would have to be Blair's. He watched as a small smile appeared on his friend's face. Wordlessly, the anthropologist held his arms open -- with understanding and forgiveness -- and Jim moved forward into the younger man's embrace.

Feeling Blair's heartbeat against his cheek, Jim felt a heavy burden lift from his heart. His throat was suspiciously tight, and coughed to loosen it. A similar sound emanated from the form beneath his and he held his friend just a bit tighter, careful not to pull the still-healing incisions.

After clearing his throat a few times, Blair pulled Jim's head away from his chest and held his partner's face between his hands. His face was grave as he stared into his roommate's contrite face, but Jim thought he saw a flicker of a smile appear before Blair leaned over and placed a sloppy kiss on his forehead.

"I love you, too, Jim." Both men found themselves chuckling over their declarations and open displays of affection. But they both knew they needed this physical reconnection after everything that had happened. Blair pulled Jim's head back down to rest against his chest, content to soak up the physical presence of his best friend while he was in this rare mood.

Jim's thoughts, though, had turned inwards once again, and the laughter that Blair had instigated with his impromptu kiss quickly died. The anthropologist's gesture was so reminiscent of something his mother would have done when he was younger, he felt a physical ache in his heart at her loss, and for the missed opportunity of ever seeing her again.

"Jim," Blair said softly. "Tell me about your Mom."

Jim's quick indrawn breath told Blair that he had correctly guessed the cause of Jim's silence. Simon's hospital visit had proven to be quite enlightening, on many fronts. While Simon had not told Blair everything, he had said enough for the younger man to draw a healthy conclusion. This was the open wound Jim had been carrying around for the past few days -- the reason for his distance and for the hurtful words he had thrown at his partner. Jim was very still in Blair's arms for a moment, so Blair began gently rubbing his back, willing him to speak, yet not wanting to push too hard. After a few minutes, Blair heard a soft sigh from the Sentinel, and felt some of the tension in the larger body ease.

"I wish you could have met her, Blair."

"Me, too, Jim. Me too." After those quiet words, Blair held his silence, waiting for Jim to speak. It took several long minutes, but when he did, his voice was soft, reverent.

"She had the most beautiful blue eyes, Chief. Whenever I'd come home from school, or from practice, her eyes would light up the whole room when she saw me. God, I loved that look in her eyes, like I was the most important thing in the world at that moment. Even if she was busy, she would always smile and look at me like that. I think I miss that the most." The detective was silent for a few minutes, but when he realized that Blair was content to simply listen, he continued.

"She used to make me sugar cookies with cinnamon sprinkled on them, and somehow they would always be coming out of the oven when I got home. She had this flowered apron that she wore when she was cooking, and I remember my face being pressed against it when she gave me a hug. It always smelled so good. She always smelled good, like you, Chief, like home. And she was really good at sewing. She made all the pillows for the sofa downstairs, and embroidered the bedspread in her room by hand. I think my Dad still keeps that on his bed, even today..."

Blair felt his heart skip and then expand, overflowing with the strongest of emotions. Jim's memories continued to pour from his mouth, but one phrase had given Blair a jolt. '...like you, Chief, like home.' The words echoed over and over in his brain. His hand, which had paused momentarily at the shock of hearing such a naked confession from his roommate continued its slow, soothing strokes across Jim's back. Blair was glad he was comfortably propped up on the couch. This was old, deep pain that Jim was working through, and Blair did not intend to move a muscle until he felt the healing begin.

Smiling over the top of the head which was still pressed against his heart, Blair held on just a little bit tighter to the brother of his soul, his partner, his Sentinel, his friend.

The end.

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