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A Meeting of Equals

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Day 1

When Jim arrived home that night it was to a dark and silent apartment. Flipping on the light, he dropped his keys on the kitchen island and listened for a moment. No Blair. For a second he wondered where Blair was and then winced as he recalled their argument. The wince slid into a frown as Jim recalled that he was still angry. He hoped wherever Blair was, it was raining on him.

It wasn't until he was getting out of the shower reaching for a towel, that he noticed the counter top in the bathroom was missing some items. One whole side of the counter top to be exact. Blair's side. Now that he was thinking about it, Blair's shampoo hadn't been in the shower, either.

With a sense of dread slithering down Jim's spine, he wrapped the towel around his waist and headed for Blair's room. Pushing open the door, he was at first reassured by the fact that the room, while not its usual clutter, certainly wasn't empty. There were books on the bookshelf, and the desk had papers on it. The bed was a tangle of sheets and blankets, and there was a coffee cup sitting on Blair's bedside table.

Then the bad news started trickling in. Jim noticed that the closet door was open and full of empty hangers. A couple of the dresser drawers were hanging askew, as if Blair had been in a hurry, and they were empty. Jim took a closer look at the bookcase and saw that while some books did remain, all of Blair's Sentinel research books and notes were gone.

He sagged down onto the futon bed and heard something crinkle. Reaching underneath his ass, he pulled out an envelope that had his name on it.

Jim didn't want to open it.

There were any number of things it could say, but Jim knew that the bottom line was that Blair had left. Instead of imagining what the letter said, he found himself thinking of Blair instead. Four years. They'd been together for almost four years. Four years where a lot of shit had gone down, more shit than Blair had signed up for. For that matter, more shit than Jim had signed up for; he'd still give up the hyper-senses in a heartbeat. They might give him an edge solving crimes but they were a total pain in the ass.

But, while Blair had stood the test of time, sticking around for four years, he'd also been a pain in the ass. He was like some damn mosquito that keeps buzzing around your head when you're trying to sleep. And now, Jim thought, as he tapped a corner of the envelope against his thigh, he was probably gone. Jim was pretty sure he should feel okay about that. No more mosquito, no more wet soggy towels on the bathroom floor, no more freakishly green algae shakes, no more test this and test that, or let's talk about your feelings, or let's talk about your fucking fear responses, or let's talk to your fucking ex-wife about your fucking fear of intimacy.

Jim blew out a long breath. Blair could have a field day talking about Jim's anger issues and his abandonment issues, because Jim was feeling pretty fucking angry and abandoned, and he hadn't even opened the damn letter yet.

He wasn't crazy about his senses, but he sure as hell didn't want them if Blair wasn't going to be around. Blair might bug the crap out of him, but he was his fucking Guide, wasn't he? Wasn't a Guide supposed to hang around? And what the fuck was a Guide? It sure wasn't someone who wrote crap about you for a paper that everyone and their sister were going to read. It sure wasn't someone who came home after an argument and packed their goddamn clothes and left, leaving an envelope on their bed.

Jim ripped the envelope open and yanked out the paper within. It was folded in thirds, and Jim held it still folded, annoyed at how fast his heart was beating. There was a knot in his stomach, and he could feel a headache coming on. The thought that Blair would tell him he was exhibiting a classic fear response got him to unfold the letter.

Dear Jim

I came home after our fight and decided that I really would destroy my notes this time. I'm tried of arguing with you all the time.

The problem is that when I started pulling all my notes together, I began to realize that I am my notes. I don't know how to separate the two. I don't know how to just be Blair Sandburg, non-Sentinel-note person.

I'm not sure I know how to go through a day and not take notes on you. Even if I didn't write them down, I'd be thinking them. Even if I stopped asking you to do tests, I'd be watching you. I'm not sure I know where the friendship lies in all of that. I'm not sure where I lie in all of that. Where do you stop and I begin? Our edges seem blurred, like I'm not whole without you anymore.

So, I'm going away for a while, to see if I can figure out who the hell I am without you. I'll stay in touch, Jim, I'm not going to do some major vanishing act. But, when I think of life without you as my Sentinel, I suddenly see myself as some dinghy on the open sea, cut off from its mooring, and it scares the shit out of me.

I know I could have stayed, and we would have talked this through, or I could have talked it through and you could have grunted at me, but we'd have gotten through this, and lived to watch another Jags game over beer and pizza. So, don't think that I felt I wasn't welcome, or that our argument pushed me out the door. It didn't. I just have to go.

Take care my friend, and I will be in touch.

Blair

Jim folded the letter back up and laid it on the bed. He sat there for a long time, hands fisted on the sheets, staring into the empty closet.

 

Day 2

The boring case he was working on made him long for the days of nine foot alligators in the Cascade sewer system. The only good thing about the day was that no one asked where Blair was. Well, they asked, but when Jim snapped at them about the case, they didn't ask again. Simon was a little more persistent, but all Jim told him was that Blair had to go out of town.

He wasn't ready for the looks he'd get, as if he'd fall to pieces if he didn't have Sandburg around to hold him up. People might not know that Jim was a Sentinel, but they knew he and Blair were a matched set, and a lot of them thought that carried into Jim's bedroom. Not, Jim thought occasionally when he was in a fairly mellow mood, an unreasonable assumption to make. They were complete opposites, and what other reason did Jim have for keeping Sandburg around except for the fact that he must be a tiger in bed?

Jim had given the idea some serious thought, but Blair was already too much into his life, poking his nose into his private business, and Jim had no intention of giving anything else to him. Because Blair would bring his busy-body nose into the bedroom, for sure. Wanting to know about Jim's prior love affairs, and what his favorite position was, and what turned him on, and let's talk about feelings, and there was no way in hell Jim wanted that up in his bed.

Not when the next day, Sandburg would go back to wanting him to taste-test sour milk and exercise piggybacking his senses, and he'd have his notebook out taking notes, maybe making a notation or two about their night in bed and how it supported or didn't support Blair's hypotheses on whatever the hell a Sentinel was supposed to be like in the throes of orgasm.

In any case, Jim wasn't ready to tell anyone that Sandburg had up and left him. He didn't want to talk about it, catch anyone looking at him, or have Simon decide to take him out of the field. Just the thought of having to convince Simon he was perfectly capable of being on his own was enough to make Jim want to put his fist through a wall.

 

Day 5

Three days later, his boring case having taken an unexpected left turn resulting in a high speed car chase, Jim entered the loft, threw his keys on the kitchen island, ignoring the key basket Blair had left behind, and went for his usual beer. He had to admit he missed having someone around to share dinner duties with. Cooking every night sucked, and Sandburg had cooked most nights, deciding it was the only way he'd get healthy food into his Sentinel.

Jim was thinking about going out for Wonder Burger, or maybe calling for a pizza, when the phone rang. Moving to the couch, close enough to where he could grab it if he needed to, he let it go to voice mail.

"Hey Jim," Blair's voice came over the machine. Jim thought about picking up but didn't.

"I'm not sure if you're out, or if you're sitting there listening to this, but I wanted to check in. I hope you got that case wrapped up, and you're home safe and sound and in one piece.

It dawned on me today that you might need a reason to tell people why I left. Not that you can't just tell them the truth, and maybe you already have, but just in case, here's the story you can use, and it's pretty close to the truth.

Tell them that the dissertation committee closed down on me. That they decided the data I had wasn't sufficient, which would have been true after I told them that I didn't have a subject anymore and that I'd destroyed all my notes. You can tell Simon that my dissertation committee and I had a difference of opinion on what makes for good reading.

Tell him that I'm applying at different schools, hoping to find a program that will accept me and my studies and allow me to finish my dissertation. That's something I still want to do, even if I have to make some changes to my dissertation topic. Rest assured that the chapter one that freaked you out so much is history. I'm sorry I ever wrote it, and even more sorry that you read it. Not in a 'you shouldn't have kind of way', but because I know it hurt you, and I hate that.

I think I hurt you a lot, and the painful epiphanies keep coming as I keep driving. I'm not saying you couldn't be a first class asshole, but there's a difference when what I was responsible for was your well-being, and all I can seem to remember is how I pushed you out of your comfort zone daily.

See Jim, what I'm beginning to realize is that--"

The machine cut him off.

"Crap," Jim said, lunging for the phone. He picked it up but was met by a dial tone. Hanging back up, he stared at it, waiting for it to ring again so Blair could leave the rest of his message, but it didn't. Ten minutes later, Jim realized he wasn't going to call again.

Five minutes after that, Jim decided soup would do, so he heated up a can, grabbed some saltines and another beer, set it all up on the coffee table and turned the game on.

 

Day 6

"Where's Sandburg?" Simon asked Jim, in a tone of voice that said he was sick of Jim evading the question.

"He had a falling out with his dissertation committee," Jim said, deciding he'd go with Blair's lie.

"What's that mean?" Simon snapped.

"It means they wanted facts, and he kept giving them fiction," Jim embellished. "You know how he feels about this whole Sentinel thing," he added.

Simon rolled his eyes. "That doesn't tell me where he is, Ellison," he probed.

"He's gone on a road trip to find a school that will take him and his theories and let him write his dissertation," Jim said.

"So, he's gone?" Simon asked, eyebrows high.

"He'll be back," Jim said. At Simon's look, Jim said more defensively, "He said he'd be back." Jim didn't necessarily believe it, but he was willing to parrot what Blair had said. "Once he settles someplace, he'll have the damn thing written in a couple of months, and we'll both be getting invitations to his graduation in the mail."

"So you two didn't have a fight?" Simon asked suspiciously.

"We always fight," Jim said. "When weren't we fighting?"

"There's fighting, and then there's leaving, Jim," Simon pointed out.

"He'll be back," Jim said, sticking to the story. In a few months, people would stop asking, and then it wouldn't matter what the hell Sandburg was doing. Jim would get by just fine. He'd lived half his life without the guy; he could live the other half without him, too. If the life stretching out before him seemed lifeless and dull, that wasn't anyone's business but Jim's.

"Why didn't he say goodbye?" Simon asked, still not satisfied.

"You know Sandburg when he's in a crisis," Jim tossed out.

Simon snickered. "Yeah, okay." He pointed a finger at Jim. "You tell me if you have any problems. If you don't tell me, and I see you're having problems, I'm pulling you from the field."

"I'll be fine," Jim growled.

Simon humphed in an I'll-believe-it-when-I-see-it fashion, and gestured Jim out of his office.

When Jim got back to his desk, Brown asked, "Where's Hairboy?"

"Hairboy had to switch to a different school for a couple of months to finish his dissertation," Jim said. "He'll be back."

Brown let out an admiring whistle. "Dr. Blair Sandburg," he said dramatically. "Man, there'll be no living with the kid then, huh, Jim?"

"No living with him," Jim agreed.

 

Day 10

 

Day 11

"Have you heard from Sandy?" Connor asked.

"Yeah," Jim said. "He's in Massachusetts." He handed her a slip of paper. "He said to give out his address. You want it?"

She snatched the piece of paper. "Experimental College?" she asked, grinning.

"Suits him to a T," Jim said with a return grin.

Later that day, he felt his pocket where the printed copy of Blair's e-mail rested. He'd had mixed feelings about Blair's words. Part of him was defensive on Blair's behalf. The guy had been fun to have around when he wasn't being a pain in the ass. The other half was relieved at finally understanding why Jim had felt so caged all the time.

Sandburg was right about the fact that he'd wanted everything Jim had to offer, and if Jim had kept offering, Sandburg would have kept right on taking. It felt good to have that on the table. And having him gone, while a lot of it sucked, and Jim had to admit life was a little lonely without Blair, it also meant he was feeling freer than he had in a long time.

That night, after dinner, Jim picked up the phone. He hesitated but then dialed Blair's cell phone. Blair picked up after a few rings.

"Hello?" came his voice across the line.

The sound of his voice filled Jim with a paradoxical longing for things to be the way they had been, with Blair about to come home to yell at Jim for eating burgers and fries, to throw his backpack somewhere Jim was sure to trip over it, and to cook some godawful tofu stir fry thing.

"Hello?" Blair asked again.

Jim's throat felt too tight to talk.

"Jim, is that you?"

His hand tightened on the receiver.

"Okay, well, I feel a little stupid, and I hope this isn't some obscene phone caller, but just in case it's you, Jim, I'll stay on for a while. I'm not even sure you're using your senses since I've been gone, but maybe you are, and maybe you can hear my breathing, and listen to my heartbeat, and maybe you need that right now. You'd tell me if you were in trouble, right?"

There was a sigh, and glad that Blair had mentioned it, Jim focused his hearing until he could hear the familiar rhythm of Blair's heartbeat, and the steady susurration of his breathing. Jim found himself relaxing.

"I'm putting the phone down, Jim, and going back to my typing. I've got unlimited minutes, so stay on as long as you want."

There was a hesitation, as if Blair had a thousand things he wanted to say, but Jim finally heard the phone being put down, and then the well-remembered clacking of laptop keys came through loud and clear. It was like Blair was there, and even though it was early, Jim walked upstairs, the phone to his ear, crawled into bed, and fell asleep to the sound of Blair.

 

Day 12

Simon cornered Jim in the coffee room. "Have you heard from Sandburg?" he asked, almost aggressively, as if he knew something stank about the situation.

"Yeah, I called him last night," Jim said calmly, stirring his coffee.

A look of relief crossed Simon's face. "Yeah?" he said with a grin. "How's the kid doing?"

"He's been typing," Jim said.

Simon snorted. "He probably thought he was getting off easy, leaving you to do your own reports."

That part of Blair being gone totally sucked; Jim had to do his reports again. "I'm more worried that the Experimental College will get sucked into the Sandburg Zone and never recover."

That got a laugh out of Simon. "Say hey to him next time you chat."

"I will," Jim promised.

 

Day 14

"What's that?" Conner asked.

Jim shut down the page. "An e-mail from Blair."

"Yeah? Let me see," she said pushily.

"You want an e-mail from Blair, go e-mail him," Jim said, annoyed. No way in hell was he sharing his e-mails from Blair with anyone else. And not just because he knew Blair was sharing painful epiphanies meant for Jim alone, but also because this was what he had of Blair, now. E-mails and messages on his phone, and he wasn't willing to share any of them.

Jim thought about e-mailing back. It sounded like Blair could use a pat on the back, but he wasn't ready. Or maybe Jim knew Blair wasn't ready. Blair was trying to do this on his own and maybe he'd do more harm than good getting in touch. And Jim was still a little pissed, pissed at Chapter One even if it didn't exist anymore, and even more pissed that Blair ran out on him. He wasn't ready to act like he wasn't pissed so any conversation the two of them had right now was sure to end badly.

 

Day 25

When Jim got home from a stake-out at three in the morning, his message light was blinking. Hitting the red light on the machine, Jim hoped it was Blair. It had been a few too many days since Jim had heard from him, and he hadn't liked it.

"Hey Jim," came Blair's voice, and the relief Jim felt made him sag down on the couch.

"I miss you. I know I keep saying that, but it's true. As I keep peeling away layers of myself, I keep finding you there. Maybe it's something I don't have the right to, but I still think of you as my best friend. Sort of pathetic I guess, having a best friend who won't answer the phone when I call, or respond to any e-mails." Blair snorted.

"Anyway, I'm calling to tell you I have a new address. I'm hoping you'd want to know that, although for all I know, you could have moved and just left the damn answering machine on the floor of your now empty apartment and I'm talking to four walls." There was a pause. "That sounded funnier in my head than out loud. I just wish… no, fuck that. Let me get this out before your machine cuts me off. I'm at 2701 Kingston Ave, Medford, Massachusetts. 02155. Same phone, same name. Ha ha.

Talk to you later."

He hung up. Jim wondered how long Blair would be willing to do this, to talk to a machine, and keep sending e-mails without getting a response, before he gave up on Jim. The thought caused Jim's stomach to knot, and he almost picked up the phone to call. Almost. It made him feel like a heel, but he didn't call.

 

Day 25

 

Day 26

"Any news from Sandburg?" Simon asked as they stood at the elevator.

"He's job hunting," Jim told him.

"What's he looking for?"

"Not Starbucks," Jim said. "They'd fire his ass as soon as he opened his mouth."

Snorting, Simon raised his Starbucks coffee cup in salute. "Amen to that."

 

Day 30

"I talked to Blair last night," Connor threw out.

Jim looked up from the files on his desk, somewhat taken aback at the surge of jealousy her words evoked. "What'd he have to say?" he said casually.

"He's got a new apartment, and he's looking for a job," she announced.

Relieved that he knew all of that, he leaned back in his chair. "And?"

"He sounded good," she said. "Mostly."

Jim knew why Blair was only mostly good, but he wasn't talking.

"He asked after everyone here," she said, "said to say hey to the gang." She cocked her head as she looked at him. "He asked a lot specifically about you."

"Like what?"

"Just wanted to make sure you were doing okay, I guess," Connor speculated. "It's not like you guys don't talk."

"Right," Jim said, going back to his files.


When Jim got home that night, he called Blair.

"Hello?"

Jim opened his mouth to talk but had no fucking idea what to say.

"Jim?" There was a long pause. "I wish you'd say something. Could you grunt or something?"

Jim managed to clear his throat.

"Okay," Blair said. "I can work with that." There was the sound of something metal. "I'm actually cooking dinner. Well, sort of. I'm heating up some soup and breaking out the saltines. Makes me think of you and cold nights, and wanting something warm to eat while we watched the game."

Jim focused in on Blair's heartbeat, and he could hear Blair stir his soup.

"Chicken noodle, in case you were wondering. Hey, I turned in my second chapter today. They really liked Chapter One and they don't seem to mind that it's all theoretical. I'm still writing on Sentinels, but only from a historical perspective. They see it as an editorial comment on how civilization has taken all the mystery out of life. I sort of feel like a liar, seeing as I know there's at least one Sentinel walking around, two if I count she-who-must-not-be-named, but I'm working around that by sticking to all the historical sources I have.

No luck on the job front today, I'm afraid. I'm interviewing for something cool tomorrow, but I don't want to say anything in case I jinx it.

Whoa," Blair suddenly said, "sorry, my soup is bubbling over. Hold on."

There was more stirring and moving of the pot and a burner being shut off. "Okay, managed not to set my kitchen on fire," Blair said, "always a plus."

Jim found himself smiling, really smiling, and he realized he hadn't done that since Blair left.

"Do you ever think we'd have become friends if it hadn't been for the Sentinel thing?" Blair asked. Jim could hear him walking and then sitting down on something fabric, a couch or padded chair. There was no sound of eating; he must have decided to save dinner for later.

"I think about it sometimes," Blair said. "It's not likely our paths would have crossed but I've tried to imagine how they might. Maybe a neighborhood basketball game. Maybe those couple of cases that involved Rainier. Of course, I would have totally annoyed you." Blair laughed.

"I guess where I'm going is even if you totally choose to lose the senses, and even if we never actually talk to each other again, I'm glad we met. I'm glad the Sentinel stuff brought me to you. I, um, well, and not that I think of you in a paternal way at all, because I don't, but I look up to you a lot, and whenever I find myself, lately, wondering whether to go left or right when I hit one of my growing up crossroads, I think 'what would Jim do'."

Jim found himself snorting.

Blair laughed out loud in response. "Don't worry, I don't think you're some kind of paragon of virtue or anything, I've seen the thinking you do with your dick. But it helps." There was a pause. "I don't suppose I could actually talk you into saying something, could I?" Another pause, longer this time. "Yeah, I didn't think so."

"I talked to Megan last night and she sounded good. She said that you've been fine, and I'm sure you're thrilled at the thought of us talking about you behind your back."

Jim wasn't thrilled, but if he had someone to check on Blair, he'd be calling them, too.

"My soup's probably cooled down enough to eat, so that's what I'm going to do. I'm going out on a limb here and guessing that you mostly just called to listen, so I'm putting the phone down so you can thrill to the sound of me slurping down my soup and crunching on crackers. If you're still on the phone when I'm done, we'll move onto the second act, and you can listen to me tap the keys on my laptop, interspersed with an occasional yawn and the shuffling of papers. Yes, indeed, I live an exciting life."

Jim found himself smiling again. If he closed his eyes, he could almost imagine Blair moving around the kitchen in the loft, babbling away about something Jim only half listened to, just liking the sound of Blair's voice. He heard the phone being put down, heard Blair open a cabinet, then pour the soup. There was the rustling of a saltine package and the scrape of a chair.

"I know you can hear me, so I'm leaving the phone on the table. The concert of eating is about to begin."

When Blair began eating, Jim decided he was hungry. He moved to the kitchen and pulled out the leftover pizza from last night. He could already hear the scolding if Blair had any idea what he'd been eating this past month. Blair would be dragging his ass to the doctor to get his cholesterol checked. He threw two slices on a plate and put them in the microwave. A minute later he pulled them out and took a careful bite.

Blair was crunching on a saltine. "I miss your pans," Blair suddenly said. "I have a couple of them, you know, the basics. A frying pan and a spaghetti pan, but I miss all the pans you used to have. I think I probably used them more than you." He took another crunching bite.

Jim took another bite of pizza.

"I wracked my brains and could only come up with a short list of adults that I'd like to emulate," Blair said. "I guess that's telling if most adults I know aren't very happy. Do you think my mom's happy? She always seemed happy, but I keep thinking that one day she's going to be old, and not so beautiful, I mean she will be to me, but you know, she won't find a willing man around every corner, and people she's depended on for years will be getting older, and maybe sick, and then where will she be?

I'm sure she just feels that the universe will take care of her, and maybe it will, but I keep thinking that the universe is able to take care of her because there're a lot of people out there earning money, and building houses, and putting food on the table that she takes advantage of.

Did I ever tell you that the longest relationship she was ever in lasted four months? On an average, I was in four schools every school year, which wasn't particularly fun, I can tell you. As soon as I started settling in, making a few friends, she'd be packing us up and moving us out. The second, and I mean the second, a man, and occasionally a woman, started getting too serious, she was out of there. She thought long-term was another word for chains. There was too much to see, too much to do, to stay any place for long."

Jim tried to imagine moving every four months. He'd lived in Cascade his entire life other than his time in the military.

There was a slurp of soup. "I got pretty good at making friends," Blair said. "Making them and losing them. Made sure none of them really mattered, didn't let myself care too much, or let any of them under my skin. Detach with love. Naomi taught me that lesson well, although I did it out of a sense of self-preservation. She did it because nothing was as important to her as her freedom."

Jim found himself hating Naomi just a little bit.

"I don't want to be like her," Blair said, sounding a little desperate, like maybe too much damage had been done. "I don't. I want a home and someone to share it with. And maybe that's my fear of being alone talking here, but I don't think so." There was another pause. "Okay, it's suddenly feeling really weird to be talking about this stuff without seeing your face or having you talk, so I'm gonna stop now. I'll leave the phone on, and you can just hang up when you're tired of hearing me breathe."

Blair was as good as his word; he didn't say anything else. Jim put the phone down and put it on speaker, his senses amplifying everything until it felt as if Blair was right there, working on his laptop, occasionally shifting in his chair, muttering under his breath, and while it was comforting, it also made Jim feel alone and lonely, and wondering who Blair was picturing when he spoke of spending his life with someone in the home he wanted.

Two hours later, Blair picked up the phone. "I'm going to bed, now, Jim. Good night."

"Good night," Jim said back, and as tempted as he was to listen to Blair sleep all night long, he hung up.

Day 31

Jim found himself thinking about Blair most of the day. A couple of people asked about him, and Jim was able to fill them in on the basics. He thought of what Blair had asked, about whether they'd have met if not for Jim's senses.

They might have met just as Blair said. Playing basketball, assuming they both went to the same place. Maybe they'd have played a game, shirts and skins, maybe on the same team, maybe not. Maybe they'd have brushed up against each other as they played, exchanged insults. But, after the game, if Blair had come up to him and started yakking about some tribe in New Guinea and how they use basketball as a rite of passage, Jim would have been out of there.

On the other hand, if Blair had come up to him, all hot and sweaty, and grinned at him, and said, "Hey, I'm horny, wanna go fuck?" Jim might have said yes. And maybe through sex, they'd have discovered friendship. Or maybe it would have lasted one night, and Blair would have snuck out before morning, putting another notch in his bedpost.

Jim didn't like that idea. And he wondered what Blair would have seen in him if he hadn't been a Sentinel.

 

Day 37

 

Day 38

After work, Jim went shopping. It took him a couple of hours but he finally found the set of pans he wanted, good stuff without being too pricey, and filled with a variety of pots that Blair could use.

He stopped off at the grocery store and picked up several bags of Blair's favorite chips. He put the pans and the chips in a big box, and added a note:

I don't want to hear about it, Sandburg. Friends do shit like this for adult friends, too. Besides, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches without chips is un-American.

-Jim

He packed it all up, and Saturday morning he took it to the post office and mailed it off.

 

Day 42

As if six weeks was the magic number of days Blair needed to be gone for Jim to be considered available, open season seemed to be declared. He'd gotten three propositions today, two from men, and one from a woman street cop. Because of Blair, most everyone thought Jim was bisexual, which he was, but he'd always kept that part of himself away from work.

He turned the guys down flat and said something vague to Melissa, the street cop. Dating had always felt complicated to Jim, and his senses hadn't helped. People's bodies smelled and made weird noises, and women's make-up looked gross through Sentinel vision. The stupidest stuff could turn Jim off and ruin a date before he'd barely got through the door.

Thinking about it, Jim realized that his senses had gotten used to Blair. Blair didn't wear make-up, except eye-liner occasionally when he was going out clubbing, but his body had smells and made noises, just like everyone else, but Jim had grown accustomed to it. Like Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady, Sally's favorite movie, Jim had grown accustomed to Blair's face. Like breathing out and breathing in.

As he was leaving that night, he ran into Melissa. "Sure you don't want to get a drink?" she said.

Jim thought about it for a minute and decided what the hell. "Sure." He had nothing to go home to, and it had been a long time for him, too.

They walked to a nice restaurant close by and made themselves comfortable at a table for two in the large bar. Instead of paying attention to her he started thinking about what Blair had said in his last e-mail and the minefield of relationships and sex. Jim didn't have a good track record. In fact, it sucked.

"Jim?" he heard, snapping him out of his reverie.

"Sorry," he said with one of his charming smiles. "Long day."

The waitress arrived, and Jim waited for Melissa to order her drink before ordering a beer.

"Maybe we could have dinner, too," Melissa suggested.

"Okay," Jim said agreeably. He had to eat.

"So, is Blair really gone?" she asked.

Jim looked at her through narrowed eyes. "I didn't know you knew Blair."

Grinning, she said, "I think everyone knew Blair."

Jim allowed that was probably true. Blair had a way about him, getting people to open up.

"And," she continued, a little more cautiously, "everyone knew about the two of you."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Jim asked sharply.

"I'm as open-minded as they come, Jim," she assured him. "I don't have a problem if you swing both ways. I guess I just want to be sure it's over, you know?"

Jim stared at her. "Excuse me?"

"I mean, I just wasn't sure if he was all about convenience for you, or if you really cared, because I don't want to just be a rebound thing."

"I'm sorry," Jim said sarcastically, "but did I forget to fill in some dating application earlier today? Was there a test I was supposed to take?" He was pissed off on Blair's behalf, not to mention his own.

"You don't have to get so huffy," she said. "Oh, look, our drinks are here." She looked at him, clearly expecting him to pay.

He pulled out his wallet and took out a twenty. He had no idea how much the drinks cost, but he suspected a lot, given where they were. "Here," he said to the waitress, "keep the change."

Melissa didn't bother to say thank you, just took a sip, and told the waitress that they'd like a table for dinner in a few minutes. Turning to Jim, she said, "So, are you?"

"Am I what?" he snapped.

"Over him?" she said like she was speaking to an idiot.

Jim considered her for a long moment, considered telling anyone he was over Blair. He supposed he could tell her they were never involved, but he didn't think she'd believe him. Not that it was any of her business. Suddenly tired, and deciding he'd rather be alone than be with this woman who wondered if Blair was nothing but a convenient hole, he stood. "I'm tired. I'm going home. Enjoy your drink."

"But…" she started.

He was already out the door and didn't hear what she said.

When he got home there was a message on his machine. Feeling better than he'd felt all day, he hit the button, glad to hear Blair's voice.

"Hey, Jim, thanks, man. That was an awesome gift. And thanks for the chips, and the note. It was a nice way to see that you've been listening to my calls and reading my e-mails, instead of them going into some black hole somewhere. I could see it happening, years from now, when someone's writing my biography for some strange reason, they'll talk about this period of time in my life when I had an imaginary friend that I'd talk to at all hours of the day and night."

Blair laughed.

"Anyway, I just wanted to say thanks. Listen to this." There was a loud crunching sound. "That's the sound of a Dorito meeting its untimely end." More crunching. "Life never sounded so sweet." Another laugh and Blair hung up.

Smiling, Jim headed upstairs to change.

 

Day 44

"How goes the job search for Blair?" Joel asked.

"He got a job in the local library helping kids do research on aardvarks," Jim said with a grin.

Joel let out a laugh. "He'd have been a godsend for my kids. Getting them to research anything for their school projects was like pulling teeth. Blair would have made it seem fun."

Jim nodded, knowing it was the truth. Blair had a way of making a lot of stuff fun. Just then, he realized he wasn't mad at Blair anymore. He mostly just wanted him to come home.

 

Day 47

 

Day 48

"When's Hairboy coming home?" Brown asked the next morning. They were waiting on Simon to start their usual Monday morning meeting.

Good question, Jim thought to himself. Blair's e-mail yesterday had depressed Jim, because it made him wonder if maybe Blair wouldn't come home. Jim hadn't even been aware how foolishly he'd been expecting Blair to just come home and sort of slip into their old life, except without all the dissertation crap.

"He's still knee-deep in his dissertation," Jim said.

"It's just not the same around here without him," Joel offered.

No, it wasn't, Jim thought. "I don't know," Jim said, "I'm sort of enjoying the peace and quiet."

Joel gave him a thoughtful look. "Too quiet, I'm thinking."

Jim met Joel's eyes, but before he could answer, Simon walked in.

 

Day 50

Feeling like a shit, Jim suddenly realized he'd missed Blair's birthday. He took himself to the mall and walked around for a while, wondering what to get him. In the past, they'd gone out for dinner, and Jim usually got him some kind of stupid gag gift that Blair always got a kick out of.

It was funny, but now that Blair was gone, and the dissertation wasn't between them any more, Jim could focus on the non-dissertation parts of Blair, and the truth was, he was pretty great. He was funny, tolerant, smart, and could think outside the box. Basically, he'd been a great friend and had pulled Jim through some pretty weird shit. He was also the best partner Jim had ever worked with, cop or no.

Jim ended up leaving the mall and going to this uniform shop where all the cops, the fire department, and other city workers got their uniforms. Walking inside, he moved to where the sweat shirts were and found one that said Property of Cascade Police Department. Blair had occasionally worn Jim's but it had hung off of him. Jim bought one in Blair's size this time.

They had a box he could use to mail it and when he got home, he got out a piece of paper and started and stopped a dozen times before finally writing:

Happy Birthday,

Sorry it's late. Figured you'd still be cold even though it's summer. I'm having a few epiphanies of my own and I miss you, too.

Jim.

It didn't really say what Jim wanted it to say, but he hoped the sweat shirt would speak for itself. He packaged it up, wishing he'd gotten a bigger box and bought some more Doritos, but that would have to wait for another time.

 

Day 51

Jim read Blair's e-mail again. He wasn't sure how it made him feel. Part of him felt like he'd dodged a bullet, because if Blair had published his dissertation, everyone would have known it was Jim. Everyone with half a brain, anyway.

Part of him was sad that it would have been partially his fault because he sucked at communicating. Jim had known the dissertation would have been a disaster but he'd never told Blair that. Instead he'd let him keep writing it, taking advantage of Blair being there to help with his senses. Jim might have even stopped Blair from sending it in. As that would have been the death knell to their friendship, Jim was just as glad it wasn't going to happen. Any of it.

He also felt badly at how bad Blair felt. He was doing a much better job at castigating himself than Jim ever could. Blair wasn't a bad guy; in fact, he was one of the good ones. The situation sucked, not Blair. Plus, it hadn't happened and wouldn't.

For the first time since he'd been getting e-mails from Blair, he hit the reply button.

He hit the send button and went back to work.

 

Day 53

The phone rang as Jim was on his hands and knees cleaning the bathroom floor. He stopped and sat back on his heels, waiting to see who it was. When Blair's voice came over the speaker, he moved into the living room.

"Hey Jim,

Thanks. Thanks for the e-mail, and thanks for the present. I've gotta admit that I was pretty low when I sent that last e-mail. In fact, I don't remember ever feeling as low in my life. I'm really hoping that's the bottom. I'd hate to think that I could get much lower than selling my best friend out for three letters after my name. Shit.

Anyway, your e-mail and then the present were a lifesaver. Not literally. I don't want you to think that I'm that low."

Jim had no idea what to say to Blair so he sat on the couch and hoped his answering machine didn't cut him off too soon.

"I'm trying not to read too much into it, the present, that is, but I'm pretending that it means that you still sort of think of me as yours, at least in some way."

Jim smiled, glad Blair had gotten the message.

"I hope so. I'd like to think that we're still connected even if we're 3,000 miles apart and I have no idea how to connect the dots.

Of course, I could also be full of shit." There was a snicker. "Nothing new there."

Jim suddenly found himself missing Blair with a vengeance and he wanted to pick up the phone and tell him to get his ass home. But, he didn't. Blair was right about one thing. As long as that dissertation was between them, it was going to be a problem, and Blair needed to do that on his own. Besides, Jim hated to talk on the phone. He was even worse at phone conversations than face to face ones, and he sucked at those.

"I'm wearing it now, despite the fact that it's 82 degrees outside and humid. So, here's the plan. I'm going to finish this damn dissertation, get my Ph.D., and then maybe we can talk, okay? Figure things out. Decide if there's a way for us to be together. Okay? Maybe you could--"

The machine cut off.

"Damn," Jim said to himself. He had to get a new answering machine that didn't cut off so quickly. Of course, he could always pick up the phone and talk but Jim wasn't ready to go there. Whatever process Blair was going through to exorcise his ghosts, it was helping Jim, too. Everything in him was unclenching, breathing deeper, and his need for Blair was unraveling into something less complicated.

One of these days, it would be time. He'd pick up the phone and they'd talk, just like Blair suggested, and they'd figure out a way to meet in the middle somewhere.

 

Day 58

"What's the news on Sandburg?" Simon asked him.

"He's another year older, and deeper in debt," Jim said with a grin.

Simon snickered. "Things seem quiet around here without him. Is he planning on coming back?"

"He's talking about it," Jim said. "He's mostly just wanting to get his dissertation done. It's driving him crazy."

"More crazy?" Simon asked.

This time it was Jim who snickered.

"So, he's really doing all right?" Simon inquired.

"Yeah, Simon," Jim assured him. "He's struggling a little bit, but he's fine. He's tough. Besides, I'm keeping him flush in Doritos and sweat shirts, so he's good to go," he added. And maybe he wasn't being entirely honest, knowing how much Blair was struggling, but that wasn't anyone's business but theirs.

When he got home that night, he expected to see the light flashing on his answering machine, but it was dark. He was disappointed, but it'd only been five days since he'd last heard from Blair, and they'd gone longer than that between communications, so Jim made dinner, watched the game and went to bed.

 

Day 67

Jim smiled in relief when he saw his answering machine blinking. He put the bag of groceries he'd just bought down on the kitchen island, and moved to the phone, hitting the button. Jim frowned when it was a wrong number. "Damn," he said. It had been two weeks since he'd heard from Blair, and that was entirely too long.

He picked up the phone and was about to call Blair's cell, when there was a knock at the door. For a crazy moment, he thought maybe it was Blair, but one whiff told him he was wrong, even if whoever it was had a familiar smell.

Opening the door, he found Naomi Sandburg standing there. She gave him a wide smile. "Jim!" she said in delight. "You look wonderful!"

So did she. She was still as beautiful and sexy as the last time he'd seen her.

"Naomi," he said back, "what brings you to town?" He stood back, allowing her access to his apartment.

"One look at you, handsome," she said with a laugh, "and I can't even remember."

Oh, yeah, and there were the pheromones he remembered, too. She leaked them into the air like there was no tomorrow. Blair did, too, to a lesser extent, but he was an amateur on wielding them compared to his mom. "Do you want something to drink?" he offered.

"Of course," she said brightly. She looked around the apartment. "Is Blair around?"

He gave her a sharp look, surprised she didn't know he was in Massachusetts. Had she not tried to get in touch with Blair at all in the last two months? "He's not here, Naomi, he's in Massachusetts."

She looked startled, but only for a second, recovering well. "I didn't know he knew anyone there," she said, making it seem as if he never would have gone unless he'd known someone he could stay with. Not an unreasonable thing for her to assume as it was certainly her M.O. and, up until recently, Blair's.

"He doesn't," Jim said. "He ran into some trouble here with his dissertation committee, so he transferred to another school that would accept his area of study."

"Oh," she said. "I'm sure he's been busy, then," she added, easily excusing why Blair hadn't been in touch with her.

Out of curiosity, Jim asked, "Do you know what he's studying?"

She shrugged. "I never could keep up with him. Every day it was something else." She smiled at him, unconcerned.

Seventeen years, Jim thought to himself. Blair had been studying Sentinels for seventeen years and she had no idea. It made him angry on Blair's behalf.

"I have to admit," she said, trailing a hand down his arm, "I'm surprised he left you."

Jim found himself taking a step backwards. Remembering he was supposed to be getting them something to drink, he walked across the kitchen to the refrigerator. "Beer or juice?"

"Beer, please," she said, too close behind him.

Feeling her eyes on his ass, Jim grabbed two beers, turned, twisted the lids off, threw them in the trash, and handed her one. "Why are you surprised?"

Shrugging again, she turned, heading for the living room, letting her hips do the talking. As opposed to the last time she was here, Jim found himself rolling his eyes at her obviousness.

She sat on the couch, displaying herself, and patted the seat cushion next to her. Jim sat on the chair across from her.

Frowning a little, Naomi said, "Well, he had a nice set up here, Jim. It's not like him to just walk away from it."

"You do get that he's a grown man, right?" Jim asked.

"Of course," she said placatingly. "But, he's always been a little needy, don't you think?" She stood and sat on the coffee table, leaning over a little, putting her cleavage on show.

Jim couldn't help but look, and he caught her pleased smile. Annoyed, he said, "Do you think that had anything to do with how you brought him up?"

"I'm not sure I know what you mean," she said, putting a hand on his knee.

"It's not like he ever had a lot to call his own," he said, clarifying.

"He had the world, Jim," she said in surprise. "That's more than most children have. He's been in more countries and met more amazing people than a dozen people do in a lifetime."

Jim took a sip of his beer and considered her hand on his knee. If he wanted to, he could take her hand and lead her upstairs and have sex. It would probably be very good sex, too. He'd probably find himself inviting her to stay, and she would, at least until she got bored. And then she'd detach with love. Jim snorted.

Interrupting his thoughts, he suddenly found himself with a lap full of curvy woman. "Am I boring you, Jim?" she asked with a Venus smile.

He was ashamed to admit he was tempted. She was warm and soft, beautiful and willing, and it had been awhile. Naomi leaned in and kissed him, her lips hot against his, her tongue teasing.

She tasted wrong. As warm, soft, beautiful and willing as she was, she tasted wrong. Naomi tasted like everything Blair was trying not to be anymore, and he didn't want her.

He pushed her away, sitting her back on the coffee table. "Do you know why he's in Massachusetts?" he asked her.

"You just said it was to work on his dissertation," she reminded him, confused, one hand on his chest, a finger dangerously close to a nipple, as if still sure she would get her way.

"That's part of it," Jim admitted, taking her hand and putting it back in her lap. "But mostly it's to learn how to stand on his own two feet, and I admire the hell out of him for it."

"You say that as if you think it's somehow my fault," Naomi said, voice annoyed, her eyes narrowed.

Jim took a deep breath, knowing it was pointless to discuss this with her, as he was sure she'd never understand what she'd done to Blair. As far as she was concerned, Blair's childhood had been one adventure after another. "Do you want me to tell him you dropped by?" Jim asked, standing, hoping she'd get the hint.

She stood as well, stepping closer, a hand back on his chest. "Are you sure you don't want me to stay?" she asked coquettishly.

It made Jim remember Blair's comments about Naomi, about what she'd do when she grew older and less alluring, at least to the point where she couldn't get her way by throwing her body around, and it made him unexpectedly sad for her. Not that it meant she'd be welcome to live with him and Blair when she ran out of places to stay.

"Yeah," he said. "I'm sure." He pulled her hand off his chest again and stepped away from her.

"Is this because Blair wouldn't like it?" she asked, still not getting it. "Because it could be our little secret," she offered silkily.

Totally put off, Jim walked to the door, opening it up. "Time for you to go."

"Okay," she said, as if he was the loser here. As she neared him, she stopped, and said, "I'm sorry if I got us off on the wrong foot. I'd love to visit a while, maybe go out for dinner. I didn't bring my photo album with me, but I still have a lot of stories to tell about Blair as a child."

While that would have appealed once, having now heard Blair's take on it made it a less unappetizing offer. Plus, he didn't want to spend any more time with her. She was the wrong Sandburg, and it made him miss the right one. "Sorry," he said. "I've got plans."

She took a deep breath and nodded. "All right, Jim," she said, detaching with love right in front of his eyes. "Take care of yourself."

"You, too, Naomi," he said, willing to be gracious, now that she was leaving. After all, he added to himself, it's what you do best.

She hesitated, staring at him, as if to see if she might be able to change his mind, but then, with another smile, she patted him on the arm, and walked out the door.

He gave her ten minutes, hopefully enough time to vacate the area, using the time to put his groceries away, then he grabbed his keys and left the loft.


Two hours later he was back, carrying a large box. An hour later, he had his brand new laptop computer set up. Fortunately, he'd never cancelled the wireless service he'd installed for Blair, so he was able to get on the internet right away. He opened up his e-mail account, frowning when he saw there was nothing waiting for him from Blair. He started his own.

He grinned, hit the send button, and then wondered at how crazy he was for buying a two thousand dollar laptop so he could send Blair a one line e-mail.

Licking his lips, he realized he could still taste Naomi there. He got up to brush his teeth and found himself curious as to how Blair would taste.





When a response didn't come right back, Jim frowned at the computer. Maybe he'd said too much. There were a lot of ways Blair could take that remark, and while most of them were true, it didn't mean Blair would take it in a good way. It wasn't like Jim was actually putting an invitation on the table. He wasn't. Not right now. But he was maybe putting an invitation on the table for later. For when Blair finished writing his dissertation and getting his shit together.

He pulled together some dinner, checked his e-mail again, and when he still hadn't gotten a response, he put on a game.

When the game was over, Jim checked one more time and saw that Blair had written. He double clicked on the message.

Jim smiled and went to bed.

 

Day 76

Jim was relieved to see an e-mail from Blair, so he eagerly opened it up.

Jim stared at the e-mail and frowned. What the hell did that mean? He picked up the phone and dialed Blair's cell phone number. It rang and rang and never rolled over into voice mail, not that Jim had any idea what kind of message to leave.

"Shit," Jim said, flipping his phone closed.

"What's up, Jim?" Megan asked.

Jim shut down the e-mail program.

"Was that from Blair?" she asked.

"Yeah," Jim grunted. He just wished he knew what the fuck it meant.

"You know," she said carefully, "he might decide not to come back."

"Did he say something to you?" Jim asked sharply, shocked at how betrayed he felt that Blair might have confided something to someone else and not to him.

She gave him a calculating stare. "I thought you guys talked."

"We do," Jim said with a scowl. "I even sent him a birthday present."

Looking dismayed, she said, "I missed his birthday?"

"Yeah," Jim said, taking full advantage of the distraction.

"What's up?" Brown asked, walking over.

"We missed Blair's birthday," Megan said unhappily.

"You missed Blair's birthday," Jim said quickly. "I didn't."

"Man," Brown said, "we should send him something."

Megan agreed and the two of them went off to plot about some stupid present, leaving Jim staring at his computer screen, wondering what the hell Blair was talking about.

He thought about going to see Blair, but realized that meant he'd have to actually go see Blair. He wasn't ready to spend a weekend with Blair in his tiny apartment, having them dance around each other, maybe having to talk about themselves and their relationship.

Besides, Jim hadn't forgotten that Blair had made it plain that sex wasn't out of the question, and Jim had egged that along with his last e-mail, and staying together in a small apartment was just asking for trouble. And while it might be nice trouble, Jim wasn't about to give anything else away to Blair without having some idea of what Blair would be doing and where he'd be six months from now.

He could stay at a hotel but that seemed too impersonal. Jim considered just going to see how Sandburg was doing--make sure he wasn't in trouble--but not actually visiting the man, but that felt too much like stalking to Jim, and he dismissed it. Mostly.

Last resort, he told himself. If he hadn't heard from Blair in a week, he'd give it some more thought.

 

Day 84

Jim was on-line checking for airline tickets when his computer beeped, indicating the arrival of an e-mail.

Beyond relieved, both at hearing from Blair, and also at being saved from becoming a stalker, Jim clicked on the message.

Jim thought to himself that if Blair didn't tell him what was going on, he would definitely be freaking out. But then his eyes caught the next line and his heart clenched in his chest.

What the fuck?

That was supposed to make Jim feel better?

Jim hadn't been having those visions before, but he sure as hell was now.

Clenching his teeth, Jim thought that Blair fucking better well not be moving anywhere with anyone.

Jim's head hurt.

Except where did that leave him in Blair's life, if Blair had another Sentinel to study?

Jim felt a little better at that, but he still wasn't reading what he wanted to read.

That didn't make Jim feel better.

What the hell was he? Jim thought indignantly. Swiss cheese?

Jim read the e-mail again, and he still didn't find what he was looking for, and the resulting anxiety was making his gut churn. What he needed to know was who the fuck was this new Sentinel's Guide?

He hit the reply button.

Jim hit the send button and sat back in his chair, his heart thumping in his chest, a part of him wanting to get on a plane and go to Massachusetts to find this Brad guy and beat him to a bloody pulp.

It was taking entirely too long for Blair to write back. Jim willed the computer to beep. When it did, the noise almost gave Jim a heart attack.

It totally wasn't okay, but Jim wasn't sure why. He was angry, and those damn fear based responses were kicking up a storm, fuck it all. All he knew was he still wanted to go find this Brad guy and beat the shit out of him.

Deciding he needed an outlet for everything he was feeling, Jim grabbed his bag and headed for the gym. He lifted some weights, and then pummeled the weight bag until, even through the layers of protective tape, he could feel the bruising on his knuckles.

 

Day 87

Jim heard his cell phone go off, but was too busy running after a perp to answer it. When he got back to the station, booked the guy, and sat back down at his desk, he checked for a voice message.

He listened warily when he realized it was from Blair.

"Hey Jim," Blair began.

"I hope you're doing okay and haven't punched any holes in anything."

Jim ran his fingers over the still sore knuckles of his other hand.

"I suddenly realized I hadn't answered your question as to who Brad's Guide is. Well, I think it's his dog. Yeah, you heard me, his dog."

Jim found himself grinning.

"And I don't want to hear any hairy or fuzzy comments out of you, thank you very much."

Snickering, Jim switched the phone to his other ear.

"So, why do I think it's his dog? And, hey, you know what, I'm not in the mood to get cut off, and I'll bet your cell phone does that, too, not that I've ever left a long enough message to find out. Maybe one of these days we could actually talk on the phone, what do you think about that idea? I feel like I'm internet dating. Anyway, I'll send you an e-mail. Bye."

Jim glared at the phone, then after making sure Simon wasn't paying any attention to him, turned to the computer and clicked his way into his e-mail program, frowning when he saw there was nothing from Blair. Checking his phone, he saw that it had been over two hours since Blair had called, plenty of time for him to send an e-mail.

Hitting the compose button, Jim put in Blair's e-mail address:

Jim hit the send button.

"How's Blair?" Joel asked, surprising him.

Jim wasn't sure how to answer that. "Do you know what a Sentinel is?" he asked Joel before he could get his mouth to behave.

Joel looked puzzled for a moment. "Yeah, someone with extra good senses," he said. "Like you, right?" He gave Jim a careful look as if he needed medical care.

"Yeah," Jim said. Like me. He knew they hadn't been fooling everybody completely, but he hadn't realized some people just out and out knew. "How did you know?" he asked, perplexed.

"I do have eyes, Jim," Joel said kindly. "And I did a little research on Blair after that whole bomb thing. I had a feeling he was--what's that word he used again?" Joel mused. "Ah, obfuscating," he remembered with a grin. "He was obfuscating to help this old man get his act together. I didn't find anything about what he'd talked to me about, but he had a few things published about Sentinels. It didn't take me long to put two and two together."

Jim studied Joel, amazed he'd known that long and hadn't said a thing. "Does anyone else know?"

Joel shrugged. "I knew it was a secret. I never told anyone."

"Thanks, Joel," Jim said sincerely.

"Sure," Joel said dismissively. "But, why'd you ask?"

Letting out a sigh, Jim said, "He found another Sentinel."

Joel sat down. "Another one? Jim, I don't like this. The last Sentinel he found tried to kill him."

Jim's eyes widened. "You knew about Alex?"

"Like I said, Jim, I'm not blind."

"Never thought you were," Jim told him, even though it was a little bit of a lie. Joel was a great guy, but he'd never come across as the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree.

"Do you think Blair's safe?" Joel asked again.

"Blair says he's a regular guy," Jim said, hoping he sounded as casual as he was going for.

"Does that mean he won't be back?" Joel asked worriedly.

"He'll be back," Jim said definitively, although that reminded him that he needed to talk to Simon.

"You're keeping close track of him, making sure nothing happens?" Joel asked anxiously.

"I won't let anything happen to him," Jim assured him solidly.

As if that was all Joel needed to hear, he patted Jim on the shoulder, and walked off.

A little dazed, wondering who else knew, he checked his e-mail one more time, saw nothing new had come in, and got up to go talk to Simon. Knocking on his open door, he asked, "Got a minute?"

"No," Simon grumped, "but come on in, anyway." He closed the file in front of him and said, "What's on your mind?"

"Sandburg," Jim said. "When he comes back, we need to pay him."

Simon's eyes opened wide. "Excuse me?"

"He's going to be a Ph.D., Simon," Jim said, a bit defensively. "It's not like he can stay an unpaid observer."

"You're right about that," Simon said. "That pass of his expired about two and a half years ago."

"I mean it," Jim said. "If he's going to work with me again, we have to figure out a way to pay him."

"I appreciate how much he helped out around here," Simon said, "but do you see this folder?" He tapped the manila folder in front of him.

"You mean that manila folder right in front of you?" Jim asked dryly.

"That's the one," Simon said, sounding aggravated. "Do you know what's in this folder?"

"No, but I have a feeling you're about to tell me," Jim said.

"You're damn right I'm going to tell you," Simon groused. "This is an excel spreadsheet into which I'm supposed to put all the budget cuts I'm required to make for next year."

"Simon--" Jim started.

"Because," Simon bellowed right over him, "the mayor thinks we don't actually need manpower or guns to catch criminals. Apparently he thinks all we have to do is sit around and the bad guys will come to us."

"Simon--" Jim tried again.

"So if I'm supposed to come up with ways to cut my budget," Simon continued, ignoring Jim's attempts to talk, "then I sure as hell can't add a position, especially for a, what, an archeologist?"

"Anthropologist," Jim corrected him.

"Right," Simon said sarcastically. "I'm just supposed to go to the mayor and tell him I have to increase my budget because I desperately need an anthropologist on staff."

This wasn't going well. "You don't have to call him an anthropologist," Jim said a little desperately, reaching for anything he could use. "You know how much he did around here. He's a great profiler, and can put clues together like no one's business, and he has great instincts."

"Not denying any of that," Simon said. "But, it's not going to happen."

"Simon."

"Not going to happen," Simon said again. "And is he really coming back?"

Jim nodded. "He said if I wanted him here, he would."

"And you want him here?" Simon asked.

"I do," Jim said without a doubt.

"What's he up to, anyway?"

Wishing he could get control of his mouth, Jim said, "He found another Sentinel."

Simon's eyes grew wide again. "Another one?"

"Apparently," Jim said with a frown, "we're thick on the ground."

"So what makes you think he's coming back?"

"What do you mean?"

"Jim," Simon said, pushing his chair up closer to his desk so he could rest his elbows there, "that kid went through thick and thin to stay near you. Why wouldn't he end up wanting to do the same thing for this new Sentinel? What's that Sentinel going to do when Sandburg decides he wants to come home?"

Good fucking question, Jim thought miserably. "Sandburg says this Sentinel already has a Guide. He's only helping him out. The guy's willing to be used as his subject in his dissertation."

That got a careful look, as if Simon was just now figuring out that Jim had been a big part of Blair's issues with his dissertation committee.

"Maybe I could talk to the mayor?" Jim suggested.

"And tell him you're a Sentinel?" Simon asked.

"Yeah. Maybe he'd pay for Sandburg then, if he understood."

"And how do you explain the fact that he's been gone for three months and you've been fine? You haven't had one of those zone things the whole time he's been gone." His eyes narrowed. "At least not that I know of," he amended. "You haven't had any trouble, have you?"

"No," Jim admitted reluctantly, "I haven't had any trouble, but I haven't been using the senses very much, because I didn't want to get into any trouble."

Scowling, Simon commented, "That explains why your solve rate's been down."

"See?" Jim demanded, even if it stung that he wasn't quite as good without the senses and Blair, "Proof that I need him."

"Your solve rate's still higher than anyone else's," Simon said. "You can talk to the mayor, but I don't think it's going to get you anything except some scrutiny you could do without. Maybe if Sandburg were a cop, he'd go along with it, but he'd have a stroke if he knew the danger the kid had been in on a regular basis. He'd never approve a permanent civilian pass. Not with all the attorneys circling city hall looking for blood."

As a last resort, Jim threw out, "I was thinking I could open a private investigation service."

"Is that a threat?" Simon said dangerously.

Jim squirmed a little; Simon didn't deserve this. Going back to his original plea, Jim said, one more time. "He needs a paycheck."

"Then, he'll need to find a job, just like everyone else," Simon said. "It's about time the kid stood on his own two feet, anyway," he added.

"The only reason the kid wasn't standing on his own two feet, Simon," Jim said hotly, "was because he was helping me stand on mine."

"All right," Simon said begrudgingly, "back off. I didn't mean anything bad by him. I know he was a big help, and I know he helped you solve your cases. All I'm saying is he's, what, thirty years old? He needs to get a job and find a place to live like every other adult."

Jim sat back in his chair, wondering how much of life was going on around him that he just didn't see. Joel knew he was a Sentinel, Simon was totally clued into what Blair was personally struggling with, and Jim hadn't known anything at all.

"Jim," Simon said softly. "If Sandburg's found himself another Sentinel, maybe it's time for you to--"

"To what?" Jim said, standing, suddenly really pissed off with the whole conversation. "Let him go? Detach with love? What is it with you and Naomi?"

"Me and Naomi?" Simon asked incredulously. "How did Sandburg's mother end up in this conversation?"

"Never mind," Jim said, feeling more unsettled now than when he'd walked in here.

"Get out of here," Simon suggested. "Go do some work before I cut you out of my budget."

With a nod, Jim opened the door and stalked out. Sitting back down at his desk, he checked his e-mail again, wanting desperately to connect with Blair in some way. It was startling to realize that while he had spent a good deal of the time when Blair was here thinking he was from another planet, now he was beginning to understand that no one understood him better than Sandburg.

With a fierce sense of jubilation, he saw there was an e-mail waiting for him and he clicked on it.

Jim didn't like that Blair still doubted himself so much and hit the reply button.

Jim's finger hovered over the send button, thinking his response was a little over the top, emotion wise, but then he thought, "Fuck it," and hit the send button.

As soon as he sent it, he wished he hadn't. Not because he hadn't meant everything he said; he had. It was just that after his conversation with Simon, Jim had no idea how they were going to work things out.

After all the work Blair had been doing, not to mention his new rules, it was hardly as if Jim could tell him to move back in and not worry about getting a job. But even if Blair said okay, it still wouldn't work out because it didn't sound as if Simon would even be able to get Blair another observer's pass. And Simon had a point; Blair was an anthropologist and should be doing anthropologist type things.

Whatever the hell that was.

Maybe Blair would be going on more of those trips to Borneo, and other places Jim would need a frigging map to figure out where they were. He wondered if the groups sponsoring those trips ever needed to hire security. Maybe he could start following Blair around for a while. Live in Blair's tent.

Jim was kind of captivated by the idea. Especially the sharing the same tent part.

He wrote down a few names that he needed to interview for a case he'd been working on and headed outside. He'd get some work done, but first he had to think.

As much as Jim had missed Blair, it had also been good to have him gone. Every e-mail Sandburg had sent had been another ten pounds off of Jim's back. All that stuff Blair had felt badly about had affected Jim, even if he would never have been able to actually verbalize any of it. Jim knew he'd contributed to the whole mess, and he had an equally long list of shit he probably should be apologizing to Blair about.

This wasn't the first time Jim had thought this, but it continued to be the case that an unexpected side effect of Sandburg being gone was that Jim could see Blair more clearly without the frustration and the feeling that he was losing complete control of his life getting in the way. What he saw appealed; it always had. Jim wouldn't have let the man live with him so long if he didn't like him, but just the fact that he had let the man live there was pretty telling, something Jim had never given much thought to until right now.

He hadn't liked living with Carolyn, despite the sex. Jim liked peace and quiet in his home. He had the occasional poker night there, and brought women home to have sex, including his wife, but that night or the next day, he'd show them the door and be glad to be alone. Needless to say, he hadn't been able to do that with Carolyn. As distressed as he'd been about his marriage breaking up, mostly what he felt was relief to have his home back.

Despite all of that, he'd let Blair Sandburg, a hippy freak with long hair and earrings, move into his home and stay there for almost four years. Four fucking years! It seemed inconceivable to Jim after the fact. And even more inconceivable was the thought that he'd take him back right now, and keep him there if he could.

That smacked of forever to Jim, and that was what had him outside walking. There were several crossroads coming up for him and Sandburg to deal with and this was one of them. What did draw them together? Was it the Sentinel/Guide thing? Or was that merely the device that allowed two completely disparate people to find each other?

Jim had smiled more, laughed more, entertained more, and essentially been more involved with life with Blair than he'd ever been without him. In so many ways, Blair was good for him. He drew him out and without him Jim would probably end up being some crusty old cop that everybody hated, sitting in some dingy old bar drinking himself stupid every night.

With Blair, God only knows what he'd end up like as an old man. Jim smiled to think of it. With Blair, anything was possible. And that right there, Jim thought, was what Blair brought into Jim's life: possibility.

Jim had already lost that capability, that ability to believe in the possible, when he was young. He'd gone in the other direction as he'd gotten older. Right before his senses came online he was angry and disillusioned, and didn't really see much of anything good coming down the pike for himself.

Blair, though, he was the opposite. He was all about possibility, and optimism, and whoa, there's something else exciting!, and hey, look at that!, and wow, this is unbelievable! He could make cooking dinner an adventure, shopping fun, doing chores interesting. That was the plus side of Blair never growing up. He was still a kid, with a kid's zest for life, a fresh enthusiasm for everything, and he'd brought that to Jim.

It was almost as if between the two of them, they made one perfect adult, with a few parts left over. If they didn't have the dissertation stuff hanging between them, if Blair could get his Ph.D. on his own and they could just come together as two men, things could be good. Better than good.

Jim thought about seeing Blair again, of holding him tightly and breathing him in and felt a flush of desire. It was all he could do not to rush to the airport and get on the first plane to Massachusetts.

Instead, he pulled out his list of addresses and went back to work.


When he got home, he turned on his computer and opened his e-mail program. He smiled when he saw there was one from Blair.

Jim was shaking his head as he hit the reply button.

Smirking, he hit send and got up to make dinner.


Jim was just about to head off for bed when the phone rang. Instinctively, Jim knew it was Blair. He picked it up for the first time, and said, "What is it, Sandburg?"

He got a delighted laugh in return. "Jesus, Jim, it's good to hear your voice," Blair said.

It was good to hear Blair's too, and Jim could feel his sense of hearing hone in on the man's voice, soaking it in, as if preparing for another drought. "Yours, too," Jim admitted out loud.

That got another laugh. "As taciturn as ever, I see," Blair said, his voice filled with humor. "Jesus, it really is good to talk to you. I was beginning to think you only existed in my mind."

Jim sat down on the couch and closed his eyes. "I'm here," he simply said.

"Yeah," Blair said with satisfaction. "Me, too."

He hadn't been planning on it, but he found himself saying, "I talked to Simon today about getting you a paycheck."

"By the sound of your voice," Blair said, "I'm guessing it didn't go well."

"You could say that," Jim said dryly. "It's not that he doesn't get what you did here, but he has to cut the budget, and he doesn't intend to even try to add an anthropologist to the staff."

"I get that," Blair said reasonably. "Thanks for trying. I really appreciate it."

"So, what are we going to do?" Jim asked.

"Jim," Blair said and then paused.

Jim's gut clenched, unhappily imagining all that Blair wasn't saying: I'm staying here, I'm going to be Brad's Guide, I'm not coming unless Simon gives me a job. "What?" he finally asked, needing to be put out of his misery.

"I just know how much you hate this destiny shit," Blair said cautiously, "but if we're meant to be together, it'll work out."

"You're right," Jim snapped, "I hate this destiny shit." It wasn't concrete enough. It wasn't: 'I'll be at the airport at 11:30, pick me up'. It was maybes, and I'll let you knows, and we'll have to sees, and Jim hated that.

"I know," Blair said soothingly. "And I'm sure you wish I was telling you what my flight number was so you could just pick me up at the airport, but I can't give that to you now. But if I had to tell you what the future holds, Jim, I see us together. And if there's a way I can do that, that we can do that, and I can stand on my own two feet, and meet you as an equal doing that, it'll happen. I promise."

"That's a lot of ifs, Sandburg," Jim said, frowning, even while pleased that Blair really did know him so well.

"I'm working on it as fast as I can," Blair said, sincerely, with a hint of frustration in his voice.

"I know you are," Jim assured him. "And I respect you for everything you're doing. I do. I just--" Jim sighed.

"I miss you, too," Blair said, always so much more at ease with words and emotions than Jim would ever be.

"So, why'd you call?" Jim asked. "Anything in particular?"

"Oh, my God," Blair said excitedly. "Yes, something huge! I can't believe I almost forgot. The guy who came to talk to us tonight?"

"Yeah?" Jim prompted, smiling at Blair's enthusiasm.

"I had no idea, but this friend of Brad's, who's known about his senses for a while, and has seen what an improvement there's been since I came on the scene, anyway, this friend knows the producer of the Today show."

Jim's eyebrows went up. "The Today show?"

"Yup. That's the one. Anyway, this friend, whose name is Charlie, has been chatting to his friend, whose name is Jim and is the executive producer, and Charlie brought him to talk to us tonight."

Jim guessed there was more to the tale. "And?"

"And," Blair said, getting even more revved up, "he's putting us on the Today show to talk about Sentinels, see if we can help anyone else out there struggling with their senses."

"You are fucking kidding me!" Jim said, astonished. "The Today show?"

"I kid you not. The only reason I believe it is I'm looking at his card in my hand as we speak. Someone's going to be calling tomorrow to schedule us in. We'll only get about five minutes, but holy shit, Jim, the Today show!"

"Wow," Jim said, flabbergasted. "You'll let me know when you're going to be on?"

"You bet. And I promise I won't mention anything about you or Cascade or anything like that. I might mention that I know there are other Sentinels, but no particulars. Is that all right with you?"

"Yeah," Jim said. "Not that it would be much of a surprise," he added ruefully. "I told Joel you'd found another Sentinel, without thinking, and he immediately asked about you-know-who, and if I knew you were safe, and did that mean you weren't coming back if you had another Sentinel to work with. He knew everything."

There were a few moments of stunned silence. "Wow," Blair finally said. "How did he know all of that?"

"He said he wasn't blind," Jim answered, "and he'd done his homework on you after that bomb thing, and found some of the articles you'd written."

Letting out a soft laugh, Blair said, "That Joel, he's a good one for setting you up for underestimating him, isn't he?"

That was a good way to put it. "Shocked the hell out of me," Jim admitted. He drew in a deep breath and blew it out. "I wish this was all over."

"What do you mean?"

"You getting your Ph.D., us figuring things out. That stuff. I wish it was all over."

"It will be, Jim, and sooner than you think. I'm guessing less than two months. Can you wait that long?"

Snorting, Jim said, "I've waited this long, haven't I?"

"Yeah, you have, and you've let me cry all over your shoulder, electronically, anyway," Blair snickered.

"Let's keep it that way," Jim suggested. "I'll ruin fewer shirts that way."

"You got it," Blair promised. "And hey, what was that about my mom? She really made a pass at you?"

"She gave it her best try," Jim said. "No offense, Sandburg, but your mom's a piece of work."

"I know," Blair agreed. "I love her and all, but she's a bit much. I guess I never really gave it a lot of thought, she was just my mom. I think I was a lot like her, in some ways."

"Blair," Jim said earnestly, almost angrily, "you're not like her. You may have her free spirit, but yours is coupled with some integrity and responsibility. You think she would have stood by me when all that shit was going down with Alex? Do you think she would have stayed with me for any of it? You may feel like you've got a lot of growing up to do, but you've got it over your mom in spades. Her life is still all about her and that's it."

There was a long pause. "Thanks, Jim. For all of that, but I think if there's something I've unfortunately learned while I've been out here soul-searching on the East Coast, it's that a lot of what I did with you and for you was for me."

"Everyone's like that, Sandburg," Jim protested. "There aren't many people who live their lives truly without thought to their own. I can think of maybe one, right off the bat, and that was Mother Teresa. We all plan our lives to orbit around what we want and what makes us happy. That's human nature, Chief. The test is if you can stick around when the going gets tough, if you can put your own stuff aside to help someone else out when it stops being fun.

"I know how much of an asshole I can be, and I know I never made it easy for you, and I also know I'm the one who essentially pushed you away until you ended up in Massachusetts. You put your life and your sanity on the line for me every damn day." As embarrassed as Jim was to have blurted out so much, he was still glad he'd managed to say it. Sandburg deserved to hear all of it to help balance his ongoing hair-shirt routine.

There was another long pause, but Jim could hear a sniffle or two. He waited patiently for Blair to pull himself together. Finally, to save them both, Jim said, "So, how about those Red Sox?"

There was a soggy laugh, and Blair said, "Bitchin', Jim. They're a bitchin' team."

"It wouldn't take much to be better than the Mariners," Jim said.

"You got that right," Blair agreed, sounding more like himself. "I know I keep saying it, but thanks. And maybe you can be a first class asshole, but then you would always do something like this and make everything all right."

"You're probably the only person I've ever said shit like this to," Jim said. He wanted to stop, but he had one more thing to say. "You make me a better human being, Sandburg. And now we're done," Jim said sternly, "and I don't want to say another damn word about this shit."

Snickering, Blair said, "My lips are sealed."

"Yeah, that'll be the day," Jim teased back.

"Well, I guess it's time for me to do a little more writing and then hit the sack. I'll let you know as soon as I know anything more."

"Do that."

"Okay." A short laugh. "Now that I'm actually talking to you, I don't want to hang up."

"So, don't," Jim suggested.

"Want me to just breathe for you a while?" Blair asked.

"Yeah," Jim said.

"Should I breathe heavy?" Blair teased.

"Shut up," Jim said, grinning.

Laughing, Blair said, "I'm putting you on speaker phone, and I'm just gonna do some writing and then get ready for bed. What are you doing?"

"I was heading up for bed when you called."

"Take me with you," Blair suggested softly.

"If you were here, I would," Jim said back, just as softly.

"Man," Blair said in a tense voice. "I've just thought of something I need to do, and I'm not quite ready to do it on the phone with you."

"You? With all your commune living days, you're not able to deal with a little phone sex, Chief?" Jim asked, feeling his own groin tighten knowing Blair was aroused. Jim wished he could smell him.

"Nope," Blair said without remorse. "The first time we do this, if we figure out a way to do this, I want to see your face."

Instantly sober again, Jim said, "See, it's that 'if' shit I hate."

"I know," Blair said, sounding sorry he'd mentioned it. "We'll work it out."

"We better," Jim said firmly. The more time that went by, the less prepared he was to live his life without Blair in it.

"Then I better get back to my writing, so I can get that part done. Hopefully, we can talk again soon." Blair sounded like he wasn't sure he believed it. That maybe Jim had picked up the phone this time, but he wouldn't get so lucky the next time.

Jim wasn't sure Blair was wrong. He wasn't sure he wanted too many more conversations like this. What he wanted was for Blair to come home. "We'll talk again, Chief," he finally said. That he could easily promise.

"Okay, then," Blair said, sounding a lot less happy. "I guess I'll say goodbye."

Now Jim didn't want to hang up. "Just leave it on," he said a little harshly. "Do what you said you were going to do."

"Oh," Blair said, sounding surprised. "Okay," he added, sounding happier.

That was better. "And I'm taking you upstairs with me and we're going to sleep," Jim announced.

"Good," Blair said. "But I get the soft pillow."

"That's my pillow, Sandburg," Jim growled, grinning. He'd already taken care of business and brushed his teeth, so he headed upstairs.

"Asshole," Blair said fondly. "I'm putting you on speaker phone. I'll talk to you later."

"Good night," Jim said.

"Good night," Blair said.

Jim heard him place the phone on the table and settle more firmly in his chair. A few moments later, he was busy typing. Jim stripped down to boxers and crawled into bed. He put the phone down on the soft pillow, smiling as he lay down on the pillow he usually slept on, and fell asleep to the sound of clicking computer keys, Blair's breathing a soft counterpart in the background.

 

Day 91

Right before he left for work, Jim checked his e-mail.

Maybe he and Simon could watch it at work, Jim mused. Joel, too. All of the gang, actually. No one would be happy if they found out they missed Blair on TV.

Half looking forward to the show, half dreading it, Jim grabbed his keys and headed out for another workday.

 

Day 94

They were all there, Simon, Joel, Megan, Rafe, Brown, and even Rhonda. Simon had gotten them all set up in the small conference room and left orders for them not to be disturbed.

During the commercial break after the first half hour they made an announcement about Sentinels. "What are they?" the announcer said dramatically. "Join us after these messages to find out."

Jim rolled his eyes while Simon snickered. "They sound like some sort of message service," Simon threw out.

"Yeah," Megan said with a grin. "Instead of Cingular, use Sentinel." Her mouth pursed in consideration. "I guess in some ways you could."

Jim sighed, wondering if everyone in the room knew exactly what Sentinels were and that he was one. That Megan knew was no surprise after the debacle with Alex. Joel and Simon knew.

The show came back on, and Jim pushed his thoughts to the side. He heard the introduction but all his attention was focused on looking at Blair. He was walking out, a taller man with curly dark blond hair by his side. They were in suits, Blair's hair was down and full, and he looked fucking gorgeous.

Megan let out a whistle. "Sandy's looking just fine," she said with a leer.

Matt Lauer was doing the interview and Jim supposed he should be listening, but he'd heard the spiel already. He could see Blair had brought his book on Sentinels, and he was giving the same talk he'd given Jim in his storage room cum office a few years back. Knowing it was nothing new gave Jim permission to just stare at Sandburg.

Just as the phone call last week had been a feast for his ears, now his eyes were getting the treat. The suit was new and it fit Blair perfectly. He was still wearing his knock-around shoes, but he'd managed to find a matching shirt and tie, and it was all very GQ. His eyes narrowed as he wondered who the hell had helped dress him.

The other guy, Brad, was good-looking in a wholesome guy-next-door kind of way. Regular build, brown eyes, straight teeth, nice smile. Jim tried not to hate him, but it was hard.

There was some activity on the show, and Jim focused back in to see that Blair was encouraging Brad. "Go on, get him. He's part of the act, man." He smiled at Brad and Brad smiled back, nodding, getting to his feet.

Keeping his growl to himself, Jim hoped the guy would leave and not come back.

But, he did, and he had his dog. It was a golden retriever. "That's Shep," Jim told everyone.

Right after that, Blair said, "This is Shep. He's Brad's Guide." He loved on the dog for a moment while Brad watched indulgently.

"Will you show us what you can do?" Matt asked.

"Sure," Brad said.

He looked at Blair as if he was the guy in charge, which grated on Jim's last nerve.

The next few minutes were spent on Brad with Shep right at his side, announcing what people had eaten, where they'd been, what they'd been doing, amazing everyone. It had the feel of some carnie show and Jim hated it.

Blair put a hand on Brad's arm and said, "I'm going to stop this now, because the last thing I want is for people to walk away thinking this is nothing more than a novelty act. What I want you to realize is what Brad's been able to do with Shep. He's found fifty seven people in the last year that other rescue teams had given up on. He's found lost children dying from exposure, he's found teenagers lost on day-hikes, mountain climbers lost in weather bad enough to keep all routine surveillance teams grounded.

"That's what a Sentinel can do. They're not superheroes, or mutants, or anything like that. They have an edge, and with that edge, they can help. They can make a difference.

"We're here on this show today to try to find other Sentinels who have possibly been overwhelmed by their senses, to let them know that there are techniques that can help keep them under control."

Brad took over the story. "I knew I was good, which sounds totally conceited, but I don't mean it that way. I knew I could see better, and I was able to find people more easily than others. But, I'd get lost in my senses sometimes, and people would find me completely out of it. Or sometimes I couldn't control my senses at all and every noise felt like a dagger through my brain, or the sunshine felt like a nuclear explosion to my eyes.

"But, then I met Blair, and he knew how to work with me, and he taught me some ways to work with my senses and showed me that Shep was trying to help. When he was nudging me, or mock biting me, it was his way of telling me to snap out of it."

"There have been so many reports on the extrasensory abilities of animals," Blair said, "from sensing earthquakes early to somehow magically knowing when their owner is coming home. This is just another instance of how humans and animals can work together."

"Is a Guide always an animal?" Matt asked.

Megan snickered. "Depends on how you define animal," she joked.

"Shh," Simon snapped.

"No," Blair said. "I've met two other Sentinels; one had another man as a Guide and the second one didn't have a Guide at all and was lost and confused. Guides can come in many shapes and sizes; what's important is finding one who believes in what a Sentinel can do, and making sure they can work together. There could be some professional considerations to take into account as well. For instance, a soldier would have a hard time having a civilian as a Guide, that sort of thing."

"We're about out of time," Matt said, "anything to add?"

Blair looked right at the camera, and Jim felt like he was looking right at him. "In the past, Sentinels were the protectors of their tribes. Nowadays, as in so many things, we have only traces of what came before us. Humanity has long dug into its past in the hope it will shed light on its future and now is no different. Perhaps what this reveals is that it is the best of us, past and present, that will survive and lead us through the next millennium. I'd like to believe that our tribal protectors, the new protectors, the modern age Sentinels, will be watching our every step, and offering their protection to an age and a people that are crying out for help." To Matt, he added, "That's it." He smiled a little sheepishly.

Matt blinked at him, and Jim didn't blame him. Blair at his most erudite was a force to be reckoned with. Lauer pulled it together quickly; it was why he got paid what he did, and said, "Sentinels and Guides. Hopefully, they'll prove to be part of the solution to our troubled times. Blair Sandburg, Brad Johnson, and Shep," he added with a grin, "thank you so much for joining us today. If you have any questions about Sentinels or think you might be one, you can contact Blair Sandburg at the e-mail address at the bottom of your screen."

A different e-mail address showed up than the one Blair routinely used. Jim wasn't sure if the Today show routinely set one up for their guests, or if Blair, in hopeful anticipation of a deluge of e-mails, had set up a second one. Matt announced what they'd be talking about next and the show cut to commercials.

"The boy's got a way with words," Joel said with an admiring grin.

"That he does," Simon said with a satisfied slap to the table.

As one, they all turned to Jim. "What'd you think, Jim?" Rafe asked.

"Trust me," Jim said dryly, "I know how much he can talk. I lived with him for three years." He didn't know what else to say. He wasn't ready to go public, wasn't sure he ever would be, and as far as he knew Rafe, Brown, and Rhonda had no idea he was one of the Sentinels Blair had been talking about.

"What I was really asking," Rafe corrected himself, "was how's Blair going to be your Guide when he gets back if he doesn't work here anymore?"

Jim slapped a hand over his face. Was there anyone in Cascade who didn't know?

"Yeah," Brown asked. "If he has a Ph.D. it's not like he can just be an observer anymore." To Simon, he added, "You gonna give the man a job?"

"No, I'm not," Simon said stubbornly. "It'll be a miracle if we all manage to keep our jobs, let alone add someone."

"Blair liked the police work," Megan said. "Maybe the two of you could open a private investigation practice."

"Wait a minute," Simon said, annoyed. "I like Jim where he is just fine."

"Well, yeah, Simon, we all do," Brown said, "but Jim and Blair have to work together. That's what Sentinels and Guides do."

"We all know the only reason you haven't had a zone out lately is because you've been dialing down the senses," Megan added.

Jim let his forehead drop to the table.

"You haven't been finding stuff the way you usually do," Brown told Jim. "Not that you still can't run circles around most of us," he remarked with a sigh.

"Speak for yourself, bucko," Megan said indignantly.

"How do you all know this?" Jim said out of the corner of his mouth, head still on the table.

"When Blair was in the hospital after tall blond and busty got done with the both of you," Megan said, "I snitched his book, The Sentinels of Paraguay and made a copy of it. There were a few pages of Blair's notes inside it, too."

"She gave one to me and Rafe," Brown said.

"I have a copy, too," Rhonda said. "That way I knew to always call Blair if something odd happened to you."

Jim sat back up and looked at Simon. "Did you know they all knew?"

Simon was shaking his head. "I had no idea."

"My idea's not a bad one," Megan started up again. "You could cut Jim from the budget which will make all the muckety mucks happy, because you won't have to pay him all his bennies, but then you could hire both him and Sandy as contract PIs. That usually comes out of a different budget that people don't pay that much attention to."

"Yeah," Brown said, "and now that Blair's all famous and everything, the mayor'd probably be thrilled to have a Sentinel and a Guide on the payroll."

"Hold your horses, people," Jim said. "There's a reason I didn't want to go public."

Megan stared at him through narrowed eyes. "So it is your fault Sandy left," she accused.

"Let it go," Simon suggested to Megan.

"Think about it," Jim said. "If people find out I'm a Sentinel, what's the first thing all the criminals in Cascade are going to do?"

"Get your autograph?" Brown asked.

Jim rolled his eyes. "No, they'll buy loud whistles, or strong flashlights, or anything else they can think of that'll stop me in my tracks."

"But can't Blair help with that stuff?" Joel asked.

"He can, but only after the fact. It still hurts like a bitch when it happens, and that's plenty of time for the bad guy to get away, or worse, to shoot."

"If you became PIs, though," Megan mused, "you could stay more off the radar by doing investigative work. It's what you're best at."

"Yeah," Brown said with a grin. "We all know you have a hard time hanging on to your gun."

Jim shot him a 'fuck you' grin. Laughter spread around the small group.

Megan finished up, "You could help with forensics, all the cases we can't find enough stuff on to arrest anyone, and both of you could help find clues, you with the senses, and Sandy with all the researching. Not to mention all the weird cases."

"That's true enough," Rhonda said. "There were always plenty of odd cases that you guys worked on that Blair really helped you with." She smiled. "You two were quite the team."

Jim found himself smiling. "Yeah, we were. And this is all well and good to talk about, but Sandburg's going to be a Dr. Sandburg soon and he might have a higher career goal than to be a PI. After today, especially if more Sentinels come forward, he might have more job offers than he knows what to do with, and there's no guarantee that he'll get something here in Cascade."

"And I'll thank you not to encourage my detective to quit his job," Simon added with a glare.

There was a somber silence, then Joel said, "Then you might have to go to him. Seems to me the Sentinel can go to the Guide, just as easily as the Guide can go where the Sentinel is."

"Yeah," Megan said, with an emphatic nod. "Too right, Joel."

"Perhaps you didn't hear me the first time," Simon said menacingly. "Jim's doing just fine right where he is."

"Do you think there are other Sentinels?" Rafe asked, as if Simon hadn't spoken. "I mean I know we've had two here, but do you think there are others?"

Jim shook his head, amazed at these coworkers of his. They'd all known, every one of them, and they'd never said a word, just silently helped him without his knowledge. He'd always appreciated them as fellow cops, or assistants in Rhonda's case, but for the first time, Jim saw them as a family, and it made him even more determined to find a way to get Blair back to Cascade.

 

Day 101

Jim hadn't been sure what would happen after Blair's appearance on the Today Show. Part of him was sure that the next day it would all be yesterday's news, but the country had gone nuts. Even Cascade had a headline and front page story dedicated to Sentinels, and every night there'd been something about the subject.

He hadn't heard from Blair, but he wasn't surprised. Answering his e-mail had probably become a full time job, but Jim knew Blair wasn't forgetting about him. It was actually kind of nice to be sure of that. He knew he was on Blair's mind, and that Blair would get in touch as soon as he got his head above water.

And indeed, as he opened up his e-mail at home after a very busy Friday, there was an e-mail from Blair.

Jim replied immediately.

He had just enough time to get a beer when his computer chimed indicating a new e-mail had arrived. Sitting down, he clicked on it.

Jim refused to consider any ending to this other than him and Blair being together, but it waited to be seen if that would be in Cascade. He debated telling Blair that he'd go wherever Blair ended up, but there was a chance that might not be true, depending on where Blair went or, Jim thought darkly, if he ended up finding another Sentinel that wanted a Guide, and wanted Blair to be that Guide and Blair found himself feeling the same.

"Get the damn thing done," Jim muttered to himself. Deciding he wasn't hungry, he grabbed his gym bag and left the apartment.

 

Day 103

Jim stared at the e-mail, and read it again, especially the part about the offer to stay in Massachusetts. Jim wanted to write back, wanted to be a good friend and encourage Blair to take the offer if that's what he thought he should do. He wanted to tell Blair that he'd move there to be with him, but he couldn't.

Now that the moment was finally here, Jim had to face the fact that he didn't want to move. He didn't want to leave Cascade, especially now when he knew his entire team understood his senses and supported him.

It didn't mean that he wouldn't go, but it wouldn't be easy. This was his home. This city and Blair; they were both his home, and he didn't want to leave one to have the other. Maybe that was selfish, but it was the truth.

His finger hovered over the reply button but, after a few moments, he shut down the computer and decided to go for a run.

 

Day 104

"How's Blair doing?" Joel asked. "I saw him on the news last night. He looks tired."

"He's been busy," Jim said. "He was already busy trying to get his dissertation done, and that was before his life exploded on him."

"You're still talking to him, right?" Joel inquired anxiously.

"Oh, yeah," Jim said nonchalantly. "I heard from him last night. And on Friday."

Joel grinned at that. "That's good. Any news on when he might come home?"

"Not yet," Jim said. "He's getting offers for other places," he admitted. "They want him to stay there at Tufts."

Joel frowned. "That's no good."

Jim agreed wholeheartedly. "He wants to study Sentinels, Joel. Not sure he's going to be able to do that working here with me."

"You're a Sentinel," Joel protested.

"I'm one Sentinel," Jim said in return. "He wants to study them all."

Joel frowned again. "He belongs here."

"You're preaching to the choir, Joel," Jim said in return.

"Yeah, I know, Jim," Joel said, patting him kindly on the shoulder. "I know."

 

Day 110

Definitely in a pissy mood, Jim thought as he sat there. And there was the question of the hour, right in front of him. Blair had warned him that he'd have to make some decisions, and it looked like the time was here. Did Jim want to be an outed Sentinel? Or did he want to stay just like he was?

If he stayed in the job he had, Jim knew the answer. He couldn't afford to be an outed Sentinel; every criminal on the street would be looking to take him down.

Startled, suddenly Jim realized that if Blair came back, if he became Jim's partner again, he'd be outed whether he wanted to or not. Blair was a public figure now and associated with Sentinels. It wouldn't take long for people to put two and two together. He was protected now to a certain extent, because Blair was gone, but that would stop as soon as he was back. In fact, no matter where he went, if he was with Blair--unless he wanted to stay at home and eat bonbons--he'd be outed as a Sentinel.

"Fuck," he said under his breath. Blair had been more right than he knew. It was time for Jim to make some decisions.

 

Day 117

It didn't make Jim any happier to realize that Blair had come to the same conclusion he had. It also wasn't hard to see that his silence was starting to piss Blair off.

In a way, Jim was glad Blair was pissed. A few months ago, Blair was sure he deserved the silent treatment, and he'd put up with it because of that. Now, Blair had crawled his way out of his self-imposed self-esteem hell-hole, and he wasn't as predisposed to accept it.

The problem was that Jim had no idea what to say. He hadn't heard a single possibility thrown out there that grabbed at him. England? What the fuck was Jim going to do in England?

The crux of the matter was that Jim really needed to make a decision about the Sentinel shit.

 

Day 124

"Fuck," Jim said. He'd been saying that a lot and everyone at work had been giving him a wide berth. People weren't even asking about Sandburg anymore, which was a good thing, because Jim had nothing to tell them. He hit the reply button.

He hit the send button, grabbed his gym bag, realizing that at the end of this whatever the hell it was, he'd probably be in the best shape of his life.

 

Day 131

Jim found an e-mail waiting for him after he woke from an unexpected nap.

Jim blinked and then read the e-mail again. He hit the reply button and thought of what to say. A lot of words were jockeying for position in his brain, but they weren't coming together. He felt almost lightheaded and his heart was feeling pretty damn full, but he sucked enough at this stuff in person, let alone trying to write any of it down.

He waited for a response, but gave up after a while. Tired of working out, he put on the TV, found a game, and tried to concentrate, even while a large part of him was listening to the computer, waiting for the ding announcing a return e-mail.

He slept shitty that night.

 

Day 132

Jim spent the day on pins and needles, and bit people's head off anytime they spoke to him. When he got home, finally, there was a message from Blair.

 

Who, yes, still loves you. Damn it.

Jim hadn't been looking for quite such an honest answer and his chest felt tight, his gut was churning, and his teeth hurt from clenching his jaw.

He wanted to hit reply and tell Blair to go fuck himself.

He wanted to hit delete and let his silence tell the tale.

He wanted to go back and maybe live his life over.

Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.

He didn't have a therapist and he sure as hell didn't want one. He did, however, own camping equipment.

Picking up the phone, Jim called Simon.

"Banks," Simon said.

"I need the rest of the week off," Jim said without preamble.

"Forget it," Simon said immediately.

"I need it, Simon," Jim insisted. "I need to figure out some stuff, and if you don't give it to me, I'll take it anyway and deal with the fallout later."

There was a huge sigh. "Is this about Sandburg?"

Sometimes Jim hated being surrounded by smart people. "Yeah," he admitted.

"What are you working on?" Simon said grudgingly.

"Six cases. They're all on the corner of my desk, and the paperwork's current." To avoid thinking all day, he'd buried himself in paperwork in between yelling at people.

Simon grunted. "Come back with your head screwed on right, Ellison." He hung up.

"Shit," Jim said, as he ran upstairs to pack. It was going to be fucking cold in a tent. He grabbed a couple extra sweaters.

 

Day 138

He packed up his campsite mid morning on Sunday and stopped at Simon's on his way home. He got all his camping gear stowed away in the storage unit and ran up the three flights of stairs from the basement to the loft. Stripping down, he took a long shower, and with a towel wrapped around his waist, headed upstairs to put on some sweats.

Jim still felt cold. He had frozen his ass off all week. While some hot water was brewing for tea, he heated up a can of soup. Keeping one eye on the pot, he moved to the living room and started a fire.

His tea in one hand, his soup on the table next to him, Jim started up the computer. A minute later he was staring at the link to Blair's e-mail, his heart beating uncomfortably fast. For all he knew, his silence had pushed Blair away right into some other Sentinel's spare room. Planning the perfect murder in his head, he double clicked.

Still feeling chilled, Jim ate some of his soup. Then, he hit the reply button.

With a grin he hit the send button, sat back, and ate the rest of his soup. He had no idea if Blair was even at his computer, but he sat there, waiting.

Tea in hand, he picked up his laptop and carried it closer to the fire. He felt like he was finally starting to thaw out.

While he was waiting, he played fifteen rounds of Free Cell. Then six games of Minesweeper.

His computer beeped.

Jim grabbed for the phone, even as he hit the reply button and typed one handed.

Grinning, he ignored the chime of Blair's return e-mail. He was too busy talking to the airlines.

 

Day 139

Blair was looking for him when he arrived, breathless from running, already two minutes late. "Jim," he said, as if he couldn't believe it.

Jim swept him into a hug and gave him a quick kiss. "Knock 'em dead, Chief. I'll be right here."

The smile Blair shot him was blinding in its joy.

"Go," Jim said, gently shoving him. "You're already late."

Blair walked backwards into the room, as if fearful Jim would vanish if he took his eyes off of him.

Jim had no intention of vanishing. He grabbed a chair from a nearby room, sat down, dialed up his hearing, and prepared to be dazzled by Blair's orals.


Ninety minutes later, as impressed as he'd ever been by Blair, and after hearing the committee grant him his Ph.D., Jim stood up and moved out into the hallway until he was standing directly across from the door.

The first thing Blair did when he walked out was look for Jim. "You're still here," he said. "I was almost afraid I'd dreamed you up."

"Still here," Jim said, smiling. "Congratulations."

Blair walked right into his arms. "You're here," Blair said again.

"I think we've established that," Jim said, laughing a little. He stopped laughing when he realized Blair was trembling. "You all right?"

Blair nodded against his shoulder. "It's just that you're here," he said one more time, as if Jim had just turned water into wine.

The dissertation committee came out of the room, and there were more congratulations and hand-shaking as Blair introduced Jim as a friend from Washington. When they were once again alone, Blair tried to move right back into Jim's arms.

Jim held him at arm's length. He had something to say. "I understand you're an expert in Sentinels," he said.

"Yeah," Blair said, a hint of a smile on his face. "I think you could say that I'm the expert on Sentinels."

"That's good," Jim said, "because I think I'm one of them."

"Really?" Blair said, grinning. "What a coincidence."

"Yeah," Jim said, grinning now, too. "And I think I might need one of those guide things. You see any dogs around?"

Blair laughed. "No, I'm fresh out of dogs, but I used to be a guide. In fact, I think I was a pretty good guide. I might be willing to try it again for the right inducement."

"Watch that inducement stuff, Chief," Jim said. "I'm a police officer."

"Sorry, Officer," Blair said. "How's that working out for you, by the way?"

"I'm actually thinking about starting a PI firm in Cascade, but I need a partner," Jim informed him. "The head of Major Crimes, some guy named Simon Banks, is planning on using our services whenever they have some profiling or difficult forensics to work on, which I'm guessing might be a lot of the time."

"I don't suppose you'd be willing to be a PI part time, would you?" Blair asked, sneaking a few inches closer.

"I might," Jim said, wrapping his arms around Blair. "What'd you have in mind? Are we back to that inducement thing again?"

Letting out another laugh, Blair shook his head. "No, but I told Rainier that I needed a Sentinel on staff to help me. Know anyone who might be interested in the job?"

Jim pretended to give it some thought. "So, what you're suggesting is that we work half time at Rainier and half time as private investigators?"

Blair nodded, still smiling, but his eyes were a little anxious.

"Sounds perfect," Jim said, and then he was kissing Blair, fingers fisted in his hair, tongue sweeping inside his mouth to explore every nook and cranny.

A minute later, desperate for breath, they broke apart. "Jesus," Blair said breathlessly. "This inducement stuff's gonna kill me."

Snorting, Jim kissed him again.

After a while, Blair pulled back. "I have a ton of Sentinels all waiting to congratulate me."

"Too bad," Jim said, dismissively.

"Jim," Blair cajoled, "you're going to be surrounded by Sentinels on a regular basis from now on. You need to get used to it."

Jim supposed that was true. "I'll be nice," Jim said, "but first we need to be alone for a while."

Eyes twinkling, Blair asked, "Why?"

"So when we go meet those Sentinels, there won't be a single one of them who doesn't know you're mine," Jim said, feeling every inch a behavioral throwback to a pre-civilized breed of man, planning on marking Blair with his scent in every way possible.

Blair stared at him for a few seconds. Then he grinned, taking Jim's hand, pulling him toward the door. "Fair enough," he said.

The End