Curling into lotus position on the couch--no shoes, he wasn't about to listen to a lecture on upholstery-cleaning costs--Blair sneaked a look over his glasses. Jim lounged at the other end, long legs extended in front of him, remote in hand, staring at the TV screen with every appearance of a nothing-better-to-do level of interest. Blair doubted that he actually knew what he was looking at. Jim had told him the real story behind the blackmail. To anyone else, Jim would appear amazingly unconcerned, but Blair knew better. There was no way this was not making Jim crazy. He'd go crazy if someone were blackmailing Naomi. Not that anyone possibly could. Naomi wasn't ashamed of or embarrassed by anything she'd ever done. The Ellisons were another story. Whatever William and Steven's real concerns might be, Jim would not want his mother's name dragged through the mud. Jim might not have known Grace Ellison very well, but she was still his mother, and a guy didn't let things like that happen to his mother.
Of course, Jim being a cop complicated matters. He'd want to arrest this guy and bring him to justice at the same time that he wanted to wring his neck. Talk about a conflict of interest. Jim really should tell Simon, but he hadn't. When the captain found out, Jim would be in deep, deep shit. But would he listen to Blair, his shaman, his guide, his roomie, his friend for God's sake? Of course not. It was enough to make him tear out his hair. Not that he ever would. But if anything could make him start, it would be Jim Ellison, Sentinel of the Great City and Hardest Head in the PNW. And he wasn't getting a single test graded.
His eyes didn't leave the screen. "Yeah?"
"What are you gonna do?"
"I don't know yet, Chief."
"Y'know, Simon could put a tap on your father's phone."
"Not without his permission."
Jim levered himself up and headed for the kitchen to grab a beer from the fridge. Let's not make that avoidance too obvious, huh, Jim?
"You could convince him."
The bottle hit the counter. "He doesn't listen to me, Chief. He never has."
"Maybe. But you don't even want to try, do you?"
Blue steel points pierced him. "Why wouldn't I?"
"I don't know, man. You tell me."
"Look, Dr. Freud, I don't need to be analyzed."
"Hey, I'm just trying to help."
"I don't need any help."
"Fine." Blair unfolded himself from the couch and stalked to his room. Before he shut the doors, he tossed back, "Let me know when you do."
He threw the tests on the futon and climbed on after them. Raking his hair back with both hands, he glared at the Peruvian pattern on the coverlet. Great. Way to be the reasonable, mature one in the situation, Blair. Go to your room and sulk when your partner lets his feelings control his responses. Something you should know all about, by the way. Dammit!
The red pen sailed across the room, smacked the glass over his rainforest frog print, and fell to the desk. He was sick of being reasonable. If Jim didn't want his help, fine. Let him handle this on his own. He had other things to do. Tests to grade, papers to write, notes to organize. He wasn't just an adjunct to Jim Ellison. Jim said he didn't need him, so he'd just stay out of the way and let Jim do what he wanted.
Yeah. Right. That's gonna happen.
A soft tap at the door. "Sandburg?"
"You want popcorn?"
Blair shook his head. You'd think Jim would have learned by now that food didn't solve
everything. Knowing the sentinel would hear, he heaved a sigh. "Sure, Jim. I'll be
Jim snatched the phone up before it was through its first ring. Shoving the sleep mask up, he brought the phone to his ear. Great. 2 AM.
"Jimmy?" The well-known voice shook. Jim steeled himself.
"Sally? What's wrong?"
"It's your father, Jimmy. He got a phone call. He said it was nothing, a wrong number, but he went out."
"Do you know where he went?"
Sally's voice became increasingly hysterical. "He said to the drugstore, but why would he go now? Something's wrong, Jimmy. Something's wrong."
"Sally. Sally, calm down. It's going to be okay."
"Steven was shot, Jimmy!"
"I know. I know, but that's not going to happen to Dad. Look, I may have an idea where he went. I'm going to check it out, then I'll come over. If he comes home before I get there, make him stay there, okay? Can you do that for me?"
"I'll try, Jimmy."
"Good. Don't worry, Sally, I'm sure he's fine. I'll see you soon."
Jim hung up the phone and started to get dressed, pulling on the first thing that came to hand.
"Jim?" Blair's sleepy voice drifted up from the living room. "What's up, man?"
"My father got a call. He went out."
A beat, while Blair processed this. Then bare feet padded quickly into the room under his. When Jim ran downstairs, Blair came back out, dressed, his backpack dangling from one hand.
"Where do you think you're going?" Jim demanded.
Blair just looked at him.
Jim sighed. "Come on, Chief."
Blair didn't say a word, just followed him out to the truck and hopped up into the passenger seat, like always. He didn't even ask where they were going. He just sat quietly, glancing at Jim every so often, as if gauging his condition, whether emotional or physical, Jim couldn't tell. Probably both, though how Sandburg knew that kind of stuff without the benefit of sentinel senses was a mystery to him. Sure, all cops could read body language to a certain extent, but Blair made it a fine art. Must have something to do with anthropology. Though from what Blair had told him about some of the people he'd worked with or studied under, that might not be it at all.
"It's not your fault."
"It's not your fault, Jim."
"You're analyzing again, Chief."
"Hey, psych minor, man. It's what I do."
Jim shook his head, keeping his eyes on the road. "I should have known he'd do this. He never listens to me."
"Yeah. You told me."
"I told you. But I didn't do anything about it. I should've moved in with him until the call came. I should've been there."
"Jim, he's your father. You trusted him."
"I know better."
"You can't blame yourself for his actions."
"I'm not talking about his actions."
Blair heaved a long-suffering sigh. "Jim, I'm going to tell you something and it might come as a shock, so get ready, okay?"
"Just say it, Sandburg."
"Okay, man, here goes: Nobody's perfect. Not even you."
"You minor in smartass, too?"
"All I'm saying is, there's no way you could have been one hundred percent sure what your father would do. So you guessed. You chose to trust your father. There's nothing wrong with that, Jim."
"And if he ends up in the hospital, like Steven? Or dead?"
"Then that'll be horrible. But it won't be your fault. Your father made a choice, too. So will the blackmailer. You aren't responsible for either of them."
"I get the point, Chief."
"Do you? Or are you just saying that to shut me up?"
He couldn't keep his lips from twitching. "Can't I do both?"
Blair snorted, but for once didn't comment. The kid was half right. He wasn't responsible for his father's actions. But he was responsible for his own, and he'd known damn well his father couldn't be trusted. Even if he hadn't, there was procedure. He should've been there when the call came, or at least listened to Blair and asked Simon to put a tap on his father's phone. What the hell had he been thinking?
Jim pulled over and shut off the engine. Blair looked at the deserted warehouse.
"Returning to the scene of the crime, huh? You really think this guy is dumb enough to meet your father in the same place he met Steven?"
"Criminals are stupid, Chief. That's--"
"--how we catch 'em. I know."
"Stay in the truck."
"Not in this lifetime."
"Fine." Jim got out of the truck, remembering at the last second not to slam the door. "Do what you want." Muttering. "You always do anyway."
"Man, that is so not true." Blair grabbed his arm. "Where are you going?"
"Don't look: listen." Under his breath. "That sounds familiar."
Jim obediently extended his hearing, first to the warehouse in front of them--no voices, just heartbeats, lots of them, fast, and claws scrabbling: rats--then to the surrounding buildings and docks. More rats--hundreds of them, too many, and roaches, scuttling, clicking--God!
He shook his head, trying to drive the sounds out. "It's too much."
Blair laid a hand on his back, and he zeroed in on the pressure, the warmth. "You've done this before, man. Filter out the extraneous sounds. You know what you're trying to find; let everything else go."
Anchored in touch by the hand on his back, Jim let the rats and roaches fade from his awareness. The creak and slap of ropes and water surged and receded, as did his own heartbeat, and Blair's, leaving nothing. No voices, or footsteps. No--
Jim cocked his head. A heartbeat. Faint. Fast. No, two, slower. But no voices, no movement. He began to move, toward the sound. Contact with the hand on his back was lost, but he knew Blair was behind him, with him. He all but ran, gun in hand, not knowing what he would find, trusting Blair to keep up, to keep quiet. Then he did run, through the empty, echoing building, once a factory of some kind, now stripped of all the machines, the lights, the workers, leaving only concrete posts, and creaking wooden stairs that betrayed their presence. The heartbeats didn't change, didn't speed up with the knowledge that someone else was here. They were unheard, but Jim's heart pounded, dreading what he would find, and Blair's heart beat no slower or less hard.
Close now. Jim stopped, put a hand out to stop Blair, and gripped a jacket-warmed arm for a moment, drawing strength, or imparting it. The heartbeats came from a room to their left, rhythms mingling in his ears, no other sound reaching him, no other sound possible. He pressed Blair back against the wall, ordering him to stay there with a look and no fear, this time, that his partner would disobey.
Jim readied himself, and spun into the doorway, gun pointed unerringly at the heartbeats.
Two men huddled in the corner. Ragged, filthy, reeking of alcohol. And deeply asleep.
Jim's shoulders slumped, gun hand dropping to his side. Damn. Damn. What the hell was the matter with him? He should have known neither of those heartbeats was his father's. He turned to find Blair just peeking around the doorway. Sandburg saw the sleeping men and looked to Jim with a mixture of relief and sympathy.
Leaving the men undisturbed, Jim exited the factory, Blair in tow. They returned to the truck, and Jim got in. Blair hesitated, his hand on the door handle.
"Let's go, Chief. He's not here."
Blair climbed in, glanced to and away from him. "Jim. What if he is? What if he's...?"
"He's not here."
Blair subsided, but couldn't keep still. One knee bounced, for a while. Then one hand slid up and down the shoulder belt. He shoved his hair back over and over, rubbed his thumb and index finger together, ran through all of his nervous tics one by one, until he realized what he was doing and stopped each one in succession. Finally, he was left with staring out the side window, avoiding any possibility of eye contact with Jim.
After twenty minutes of this, Jim pulled up in front of his father's house. Sally's Escort was in the garage; his father's Mercedes wasn't. Dammit, Dad.
Sally opened the door before they reached it. She clutched a flowered robe around her, her hair disordered, eyes bloodshot. Jim hugged her, and she clung to him while Blair stood by, looking around with interest he didn't bother to conceal. Jim had expected as much. After all, Blair had only been here once before, and this was the childhood home of "the sentinel".
"I'll--uh--I'll make some coffee," Blair offered.
"No." Sally broke away from Jim. "I'll do it."
Sally disappeared into the kitchen. Jim heard her opening cabinets, scooping measures of coffee, pouring water. And another sound: a car turning onto the quiet street. He faced the door, waiting. Blair didn't even ask.
"I'll go help Sally."
Jim just nodded. Moments later, the car pulled into the driveway. Only then did Blair say softly to Sally, "He's back." The key turned in the lock, and his father walked in. He saw Jim, started, but closed the door before he spoke. "Jimmy. What are you doing here?"
"Sally called me."
His father's gaze flicked toward the kitchen. "She shouldn't have."
He tried to go past, but Jim grabbed his arm. "No, she shouldn't have. You should have. We had an agreement, Dad."
His father shook free and headed for the couch. "I couldn't keep it."
"You never could," Jim muttered.
"What does that mean?"
"Never mind." His father shook his head and sat down, rubbing his eyes. Jim stood over him. "Did you pay him off?"
"No. I didn't."
"Then where did you go?"
"To meet him. He doubled his price. I thought maybe I could talk him down."
"Jesus Christ, Dad, that's exactly how Steven got shot! Are you crazy or stupid?"
Blair came out of the kitchen, Sally right behind him, both probably hoping to prevent bloodshed. If his father was affected by Blair's presence, he didn't show it. He stared at his clasped hands. When he answered, his voice was low.
"I don't know. Maybe both. I thought I could talk to him, make him see reason. He wouldn't listen."
"He didn't hurt you, did he?"
"No. He--laughed at me. He said he wants the hundred thousand tomorrow."
"When and where?"
"I don't know yet. He's going to call tomorrow night."
"Fine. When he does, I'll take the call. And I'll make the payoff."
"No. I don't want you involved in this."
"Dad, I'm not going through this again. We're doing it my way. It's that, or I call my captain right now. Which is what you should have done in the first place."
"I'm only trying to protect you."
"You can't protect me, Dad. You tried that before, remember?"
His father flinched. "I've only ever done what I thought was best."
"Yeah. Well, you were wrong then and you're wrong now. I'll handle it."
"No," Blair said. "I'll be with him."
"You?" His father looked Blair up and down. "I'm sorry, Mr. Sandburg, but frankly, I don't see what you could do to help."
"Dad--" Jim warned.
"No, Jimmy. I want you to explain it to me. Why is he your partner? What help can he possibly be to you? He's not even a cop."
Jim met Blair's eyes for a long moment. Blair nodded encouragingly, but didn't speak, leaving it up to him. He knew what Blair wanted him to do. But it wasn't right. Blair's presence in his life shouldn't have to be explained to anyone. Not even to his father. Least of all to his father. For his father's sake, he wouldn't do it. For Blair's...? Oh, hell.
"Blair's an anthropologist, a grad student at Rainier University. He's doing his doctoral dissertation on sentinels."
His father mulled this over, and frowned. "So...he's studying you?"
"It started out that way. When my heightened senses came back a couple of years ago, I didn't remember having them. I thought I was losing my mind. Blair found me at the hospital when I was having some tests done, and offered to help. In exchange, I agreed to be his thesis subject.
"Of course, it wasn't that simple. It never is, with Sandburg." Behind him, Blair stifled a comment. Jim smiled briefly. "Most of Blair's 'studying' meant finding ways to help me use my abilities. And to help me deal with having them. Blair would tell you that I spent a lot of time in serious denial. What he'd really mean is that, even before the abilities came back, I walled myself off from other people and devoted myself to being an obnoxious, arrogant jerk. It took me a long time to accept being a sentinel. Blair was there every step of the way, sympathizing, arguing, or pushing, whatever I needed. Sometimes, I still need one or all of those, and Blair's always there.
"That in itself is a lot. More than I had any right to expect from our agreement. But that wasn't all, by a long shot. To help me, Blair had to ride along with me on the job. He was supposed to be just an observer. But from day one, he got involved in the cases I was working on. He's brilliant, Dad, you have no idea. He comes up with ideas, makes connections, just knows things that would amaze you. His insight has helped solve a lot of cases. And he throws himself into everything without hesitation. That includes dangerous situations he shouldn't be anywhere near. I try to keep him out of that stuff, but sometimes--more often than I'd like--I can't. He's been kidnapped, beaten, shot--all to help me. And he keeps coming back for more."
His father stared. "I had no idea."
"I'm not done, Dad. Through all of it--helping me with my senses, risking his life in police work, whatever--Blair has been my friend. He puts up with a lot of crap from me, and gives it back when he has to, but he never walks out on me, or tries to make me be something I'm not. He's given up career opportunities for me, more than once, though he thinks I don't know that."
"Jim," Blair began.
Jim held up his hand. "Let me get this out, Chief. No one has ever been as good a friend to me as Blair is. No one. And I doubt that anyone else ever will be. That's what Blair does for me, Dad. That's how he helps me. That's what he is to me. I hope you can understand that. But if you can't, it won't change a thing."
His father sat silent for a minute, rubbing a hand over his jaw. "I'm glad you have a friend like that, Jimmy. But there's one thing I don't understand. Mr. Sandburg--"
"Blair. What do you get out of it?"
"You mean, aside from my diss?"
"A dissertation can't be worth risking your life."
"It isn't," Blair agreed. "But Jim is. And what he stands for is, too."
"What does he stand for?"
"Protecting the tribe. That's a sentinel's responsibility. Cops do it every day, but in Jim, the urge is even stronger. He has to do it, he's genetically programmed. Sometimes, he needs help. I do my best to give it to him."
Blair shrugged. "I'm his partner; it's my job. Even if it wasn't, Jim's my friend. If I can do anything to help him, I will. Just like Jim would for me."
"For anyone, according to what you just told me."
"That's true." Blair smiled. "But I like to think that, with me, it's because he wants to."
"If you're everything he says you are, then I'm sure it is." His father stood. "I'm going back to bed, Jimmy. Why don't you and Mr.--Blair--go home?"
"We're staying, Dad."
"I wish you wouldn't."
"I know you do."
He shook his head and started up the stairs. When he reached the top, Sally turned to Jim. "Your room is made up, Jimmy. Blair can take the guest room."
"Thanks, Sally. Good night."
"Good night, Jimmy."
Sally stood on tiptoe to kiss his cheek, and headed upstairs. Blair grinned at him, but Jim refused to blush. The grin softened to a smile.
"Thanks, Jim. I know you didn't want to tell him."
"It had to be done."
"I agree. But you made me sound like Saint Einstein. You didn't have to do that."
"I didn't say anything that wasn't true, Chief."
"Maybe. Anyway, thanks."
"You said that already."
"Can't be brilliant all the time, man."
Jim groaned. "I knew I'd regret those words."
"Oh, yeah." The grin was back. "You will, Jim. You definitely will."