WARNING, Part II: I'm not kidding. This story deals with the aftermath of rape. It is intense, graphic, violent, and contains bad words. If you are under 18 or apt to be disturbed by such content, PLEASE DO NOT READ THE STORY. Thank you.

DISCLAIMER: They're not mine, drat it. Neither is Chris Smither's song, "The Devil's Real", which can be found on his Happier Blue CD.

CLAIMER: The following characters are mine. Please don't use them without my permission: Sandy Kolchak, Martin Ballard, Steve Connelly, Tabitha Crowe, Victoria (Vicky) Smithers, Arthur Hatch, Lancelot Geoffrey Hatch, Antoinette (Toni) LeClaire, Rupert (Mr. Beige) Crowley, Dr. Alice Hawthorne, Ponytail, Olive Palmer, Wilkins, Dr. Elsie Cranmore, Keith Parks, Joshua Stanhope, Ms. Alvarez, Benjamin Sandburg, Miriam Sandburg, David Sandburg, Sarah Sandburg, Torvald Lindstrom. Still awake?

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: MASKS wasn't supposed to be written. But several readers of TDYK were kind enough to ask for a sequel, and a certain long-haired anthropologist wouldn't leave me alone until I'd written it. So, after ten months and much agonizing, what started out to be a longish story and became a short novel was finally finished. This would not have happened without the assistance of The Three Graces, all excellent writers and even better friends: Kris Williams, who managed to discover that the Kombai Tree People are real; Sue Palmatier, Super Librarian, who researched untold numbers of subjects for me with never a word of complaint; and Jo Duffy, Writer Extraordinaire and Keeper of Herbal Knowledge, who gave me wonderful advice, most of which I was smart enough to take. Without these three, MASKS would not be what it is. I hope you enjoy it.

written October, 1996 - August, 1997



Masks

by

Susan L. Williams


The gun went off in his hand. The double flew back, slammed down onto the floor, and lay still, but he didn't put the gun down, he couldn't. Jim came, bleeding, and took the gun away from him.

"You did good, kid. You got rid of him." A smile stretched his lips. "Now it's just you and me."

A hard mouth fastened on his, tongue thrusting into his throat. Jim pushed him down to the floor, and he was too weak to fight, too weak to get away. Jim flipped him onto his stomach, wrenched his legs apart. Jim's cock tore into his ass, and he screamed with pain and betrayal and shame, screamed until his throat burst.

"Sandburg! Sandburg, wake up! Sandburg!"

Hands on him. Hard hands, gripping his arms, shaking him. No, not again! Not again, please! Blair fought, trying to twist away, but he couldn't break the grip on his arms, he couldn't get away.

"Let go!" he shouted, panic increasing his struggles. "Let me go!"

"Sandburg, it's okay. It's me, it's Jim. Calm down."

"Let go!"

The grip relaxed. Blair tore free and threw himself away from the hands, too scared to see where he was going. He crashed to the floor and scrambled to his feet, facing the man across the bed. Tall, hard-muscled, face sculpted from stone, set with blue eyes that seemed to glow from within. Brown hair in a buzz cut, receding from the forehead in a widow's peak. Jim. It was Jim, Jim, not Ponytail. Ponytail was gone.

Jim stared at him like he didn't know him. One hand stretched toward him, and dropped to his side. Blair felt his face go hot. He sat down on the edge of the bed, his back to Jim, and tried to get his breathing and heartbeat back to something approaching normal. His voice was low, but he knew Jim would hear.

"I'm sorry, man."

"You were screaming."

"Yeah. Nightmares. Scared the shit out of the monks at St. Sebastian's."

"What about you?"

Blair shrugged.

"Sorry about grabbing you. I--forgot."

"It's okay, man. It's not your fault."

"It feels like it is."

Blair stared at him. How was he supposed to handle this? Jim just didn't talk about his feelings. Ever. "No, Jim. If not for you..." If not for Jim, Ponytail would have butchered him. Sliced him up and slit his throat, and recorded the whole thing on videotape.

"If not for me, he never would have come after you."

"He was after us both, man. I was just--easier." That was putting it mildly. Ponytail had beaten the shit out of him, raped him, kidnapped him, and he'd never gotten in a single punch to defend himself. Not one. "You're not responsible, Jim. Don't take it on yourself." Blair forced a smile. "One of us has got to stay sane."

"You're not crazy!"

Blair winced. "Okay."

"Sandburg." Jim waited until Blair met his eyes. "You're not crazy."

"Okay, I'm not crazy." Just slightly insane. "Can I go back to sleep now?"

"No point," Jim replied. "We've got to get up in ten minutes anyway. Work today, remember?"

Blair fell back onto the bed, groaning. "Already?"

"What are you complaining about? You've just had three weeks off. Now get your ass into the shower, and don't use all the hot water."

Blair groaned again, and rolled off the bed. Jim backed into the hall, giving him room to get by without touching him. "Yes, sir, Detective Ellison, sir."

"Wiseass," Jim growled after him.

"Yes, sir." He flashed a grin before ducking into the bathroom. "That's me, sir."





Jim drove to the station. Blair sat in the passenger seat beside him, fiddling with the straps on his backpack. His heart was pounding, his breathing was too fast, and he knew Jim could hear it, and that just made it worse. Shame kept him silent. He couldn't get this morning's incident out of his head. He kept seeing Jim's face, the hurt and confusion he'd glimpsed there when he'd fought to get away from the bigger man. He'd been back in Cascade for less than 24 hours, and Jim was already so upset that he was letting his emotions show. It was all his fault. Maybe he should've stayed at St. Sebastian's. He was still having nightmares, still afraid to let anyone touch him--maybe it had been a mistake to leave. Maybe he wasn't ready.

Jim's hands tightened on the steering wheel. Blair looked away, out the window. Dammit, this wasn't fair to Jim. First Jim saved his life, then did everything he could to save his sanity, and Blair repaid him by flinching every time he came near and going nuts if Jim so much as touched him. And now Jim thought that he was afraid just to be in the truck with him. It wasn't fair. Jim deserved better. At least, an attempt to explain.

"Jim?" Blair ventured.

"Yeah?"

"It's not you, man. I'm just--nervous. Okay?"

Jim nodded, accepting his words without question. "Okay."

Jim didn't try to tell him there was nothing to be nervous about. Blair wasn't sure if he was grateful for that or not, but he wasn't about to beg for hollow reassurance.

Jim pulled into a space at the station and shut off the truck. They sat for a minute, neither one moving. Finally, Jim looked at him.

"You ready, Chief?"

Blair winced at the nickname, and cursed himself for his reaction. It was just a word! Jim had been calling him that since they met, sarcasm at first, gradually evolving into sort of an affectionate jibe. At least, that was how he'd thought of it. Until Ponytail had made it an obscenity. Now he couldn't stand to hear it. He felt so stupid. It was just one more thing to hurt Jim, and he hated it.

"Sorry," Jim said.

"No, man, it's okay." Blair couldn't look at him. "We gonna sit out here all day?"

Jim got out of the truck. Blair jumped down and hurried to catch up with him. They went inside, flashed their ID's at the desk, and went to the elevator. While they were waiting, a bunch of uniforms walked past. They all spoke to Jim, or at least nodded, but Blair might as well have been invisible. Blair stared at the floor, pretending he didn't notice.

"Sandburg?"

Blair looked up. Steve Connelly stood in front of him. Connelly had been guarding him when Ponytail took him from the loft. Blair hadn't seen him since that night. "Yeah?"

Connelly cleared his throat. "I--uh--I just wanted to say that--"

"Forget it," Blair said. "It wasn't your fault."

"Yeah, well." Connelly shook his head. "Maybe. Anyway, uh, welcome back."

Blair's eyebrows shot up. "Thanks."

Connelly walked away. Blair stared after him for a moment, then shifted his gaze back to the floor. The elevator arrived, and they boarded. Jim punched "6", and stepped back beside Blair.

"Surprised?" Jim asked.

"Stunned."

"'Mr. Military's' not such a bad guy, huh?"

Blair grinned sheepishly. "I guess not."

The doors opened, and they stepped off, heading for the squadroom. Sandy Kolchak from Records was just coming out, her arms full of files. She was a year or so younger than him, pretty, and wore her blonde hair short and her skirts even shorter. They'd talked a few times, but nothing had ever come of it.

"Blair!"

Blair smiled uncertainly. "Hi, Sandy."

Sandy freed one hand from the stack of files and squeezed his wrist. Blair managed not to flinch. "It's nice to see you. We've missed you around here."

"Really?"

"Really. I have, anyway. Gotta go. See you later, Blair."

Sandy moved off, juggling her files. Jim grinned down at him. "She's got the hots for you, Sandburg."

Blair felt himself blushing, but a grin stole across his face. "She does not."

"Her heart rate was up, she was slightly flushed. Trust me on this, Casanova, she's after your scrawny body."

"Jim!" Blair knew his face was redder than his shirt. "Come on, man."

"You should ask her out."

The smile died, but the blush didn't. Blair looked away, mumbling. "Yeah, well, maybe I'll call her some time."

"What's wrong with now?" Jim prodded.

"I can't now."

"Why not?"

Blair hesitated. "Because--" Because she wouldn't want him. Not if she knew. Couldn't Jim see that?

"Because why?"

"Because I don't want to, dammit! Get off my back!"

"Fine." Jim's face was an impenetrable mask. "Let's get to work."

Guilt flooded him. "Jim--"

Jim stalked away, through the squadroom to his desk, leaving Blair standing alone at the door. Oh God, everyone was looking at him. What was he going to do? How could he walk across that room, knowing everyone was staring at him? God, Jim, don't make me do this alone. But Jim wasn't coming back. He had two choices: go in, or turn tail and run and never come back. Ever. Dammit. Dammit!

Blair took a deep breath, squared his shoulders, and walked through the squadroom. Taggert greeted him, and he said something in return, but he didn't know what and he didn't see him. His eyes were fixed on Jim's desk. All he had to do was reach it, and he'd be through the gauntlet. It didn't matter if no one else spoke to him; he didn't care about them anyway. The only one in that room he cared about was sitting at his desk, switching his computer on, never once glancing his way. Blair stopped in front of the desk, and stood there unmoving until Jim finally relented and looked up.

"I'm sorry, man," Blair said quietly. "I just--It's hard, you know?"

Jim studied him for a minute, then nodded. "Sit down, Sandburg. You want coffee?"

"Yeah. Thanks."

Jim went to the coffeepot. Several detectives stopped to talk to him while he poured their coffee, but no one came near the desk, and everyone except Martin Ballard avoided Blair's eyes. Ballard gazed back at him, a half-smile on his face, until Blair looked away.

"Hands off, Matthews, that's Sandburg's."

Simon's secretary, Rhonda, ducked out of Tom Matthews' reach and swooped over to Jim's desk, depositing a bagel in front of Blair.

"There you go, Blair. Welcome back."

Blair grinned. "Hey, pumpernickel, my favorite. Thanks, Rhonda."

She smiled. "Anytime, sweetie. Maybe now that you're back, Detective Grim Ellison will lighten up a little."

"Has he been giving you a hard time?"

"Nothing I can't handle." She leaned down, whispering, "He'll never say it, but he missed you. A lot." Rhonda straightened up, and winked at him. "Eat that, now, it's fresh this morning."

"Yes, ma'am."

Rhonda moved off, and Blair shook his head, still grinning. Rhonda wasn't any older than Jim, but she always treated Blair like he was a little kid. Usually, it drove him crazy. Today, he didn't mind so much.

Simon emerged from his office just as Blair bit into the bagel. The tall, dark-skinned man strode to Jim's desk, twisting his normally grim features into a smile.

"Sandburg. Good to have you back."

Blair almost choked. He coughed, chewed rapidly, and swallowed. "Uh--thanks, Captain."

The smile vanished, but there was a suspicious glint in the brown eyes behind the gold-framed glasses. "Has Jim briefed you on this Kenyan thing?"

"Um, not really. He just said it has something to do with Mombatu artifacts."

"Right. My office. Jim, bring the file. We may as well go over this together."

Jim handed Blair his mug, scooped a file folder off his desk, and followed Simon into his office. Sticking the bagel between his teeth, Blair picked up his pack with one hand, kept the mug in the other, and carried it all into the office, kicking the door closed behind him. The door slammed, startling Simon, who turned to glare at him.

"Shorry, Shimon," he said around the bagel. "No handsh."

He slid into his accustomed seat beside Jim, setting his mug on the table and his pack on the floor, and removed the bagel from his mouth. "So, what've we got, Jim?"

"That's what we need you to tell us." Jim opened the folder and spread out a series of photographs, each of about half a dozen masks, carved from wood, painted in various colors. Some were decorated with animal hair, or grass, or feathers; others were studded with stones or bits of bone. "What do you think Darwin? Are they real?"

Blair studied the pictures. "They're in the Mombatu style. In fact, they're representative of several different periods. You see how they evolve from relatively plain, to elaborate, to abstract? They did that over generations; over centuries, really."

"So they're real?" Jim asked.

Blair shook his head. "I have no idea."

"What?"

Simon scowled at Jim. "I thought you said he knew this stuff."

"I do," Blair protested. "But I can't tell if they're authentic from photographs. I need to see the real thing, to examine them. I need to check the carving marks, the ingredients in the paint, the application of the hair and grass. There's more to this than just looking at a picture. For all I can tell from these, this stuff could've been made last week with crazy glue and poster paints."

"Great." Jim ran a hand over his face. "Just great."

"What's the problem? I just need to see the masks."

"The problem is, we don't have them."

"What? Why not? Where are they? Jim, don't tell me they were stolen. That's terrible!"

"Whoa, slow down there, Sandburg. The masks weren't stolen."

"Then where are they?"

"They were shipped here from Kenya last month. Customs thought there was something weird--that's why the pictures--but they couldn't prove anything and they had to release the masks to the owner."

"Who's the owner?"

"They went to an art gallery on 14th."

"Well, can't we just go there?"

"Too late. All the masks have been sold. They're scattered all over the country now."

"Can't the gallery owner tell us who bought them?"

"The owner can't tell us anything: he's dead. He was found hanging in the gallery a week ago."

"Suicide?"

"Uh-uh. His hands were tied behind his back, and there was a mask over his face."

"Oh, man." Blair closed his eyes, trying not to remember hanging by his wrists in the attic, helpless, unable to escape Ponytail's touch, or his knife. He pushed the image from his mind, but the memory turned his stomach. The bagel was a lump of lead inside him.

"You okay, Sandburg?" Jim asked.

"Fine. Um, what kind of mask was it?"

"We don't know." Jim slid another photograph toward him. "It's in evidence, if you need to see it."

Blair glanced at the picture, and shook his head. "This isn't Mombatu. Onkantu, maybe."

"If these masks are real, how much would they be worth?" Simon asked.

"It depends," Blair replied. "Y'see, mask-making is a thriving trade now. The tribespeople churn them out for tourists. They're still real, but basically worthless. The older ones..." He shrugged. "It would depend on their rarity. Anywhere between a thousand dollars and a million."

"A million dollars? For one of those?"

"About there, yeah. But that would be for something incredibly rare. Usually, the government won't let those out of the country. They have too much historical significance. You think these were smuggled out of Kenya? And that's why the gallery owner was killed?"

"That's our best guess," Jim said.

"But who would kill him?"

"Probably his partners. We figure he tried to cheat them out of their share of the profits. Whoever they are."

Blair nodded. It sounded logical. But-- "What if it wasn't partners? What if it was someone trying to recover the stolen masks? Some of them are considered sacred."

"Could be," Jim conceded. "The list of buyers is missing. The gallery's trying to reconstruct it for us."

"So you think somebody's after the buyers?"

"Or possibly just the masks. We can't be sure."

"Got anything else?" Banks asked.

Jim shook his head. "Not yet, Simon."

Simon stood. "You and Sandburg keep working on it. Let me know if you find anything."

"Yes, sir."

They rose, and Jim left the office. Blair started to follow, but Simon called him back. He faced the older man, looking up to meet his eyes.

"How are you doing, Sandburg?" the Captain asked.

"Okay. Better now than I was. I, um, I want to thank you for letting me stay at your place. I appreciate it."

"Least I could do," Simon said. "Besides, I owed you."

"What for?"

"For coming to Peru, to get Daryl and me."

Blair shrugged. "I wasn't much good. All I did was get captured."

"You came, Sandburg. That's what counts."

"Yeah." Blair smiled briefly. "I guess. Anyway, thanks."

"You're welcome."

Blair left the office, closing the door behind him--quietly this time--and dropped his pack beside Jim's desk. Jim was already absorbed in some report, so Blair took the opportunity to slip off to the men's room. He still felt sick; if he was going to lose his breakfast, he didn't want to do it in the squadroom. He was in one of the stalls when he heard the outer door open and two men walk in, talking. He didn't know the first voice; the second, he recognized as Martin Ballard.

"I hear Ellison's partner's back."

"Yeah, he's back, all right. Flounced in here this morning like he owned the place."

"I'm surprised he's got the balls to show his face, after what happened."

"Me, too. If you ask me, the little Jew-boy faggot got what he deserved. Prancing around here with that hair and those earrings, pretending he's one of us. Makes me sick. Ellison should have tossed him out on his ass a long time ago."

"Maybe his ass is why Ellison keeps him around."

Ballard laughed. "Yeah, maybe."

Ballard and his friend left the men's room. As soon as he heard the door close, Blair started to shake. He wrapped his arms around his stomach, taking deep breaths, but it didn't help. God! They thought he--that Jim-- How could they? How could anyone believe that? How could anyone think that he deserved Ponytail? Ballard and his friend wouldn't be the only ones, either. Ballard was just a big enough asshole to say it out loud. What were the rest of the cops thinking? Did they all know? Did they all believe that he--that he'd had it coming to him? Did they despise him as much as Ballard did? Did Jim know? Jim had worked with these guys for years, how could he not know? God! Oh, God--

Blair dropped to his knees, grabbed his hair out of the way, and vomited. Once breakfast was gone, there was nothing else in his stomach, but the retching continued for what seemed like forever. When it finally ended, Blair sat on the floor and waited for the shaking to stop. He climbed to his feet, flushed the toilet, and left the stall to splash cold water on his face and wash out his mouth. Oh God, Jim would be able to smell it on him. How was he going to explain? He couldn't tell him what Ballard had said, he didn't know what Jim would do, and there was no way he could ever get the words out. What if Jim already knew? What if he knew exactly what his colleagues thought of his partner, what if he'd always known? What if they were right?

No! No, he was not going to do this. He was not going to let that jerk Ballard make him doubt Jim. Jim was his friend. If Jim knew what the others thought, and hadn't told him, it was because Jim was protecting him, making sure he didn't get hurt. That was all it was. Most likely, Jim didn't know. And Blair wasn't going to be the one to tell him.

But he couldn't stay here. He couldn't spend all day sitting in the squadroom, separated from Ballard by no more than twenty feet. He couldn't sit there and pretend he didn't know what Ballard thought of him, and of Jim. Not today. He wouldn't be able to keep it off his face, and Jim would know something was wrong. He had to get out. But he couldn't just run. He wouldn't give Ballard the satisfaction. And he didn't want to alarm Jim.

Blair went back to the desk. Jim was still reading the same report, something to do with another case he was working on. Blair grabbed his jacket and pack. "Jim?"

"Hmmm?"

"I gotta go."

"What?" Jim looked up, and frowned. "Are you okay, Sandburg? You look a little pale."

"I'm fine. I've gotta go to the U. You don't need me here, and I've got a lot to catch up on. I've gotta clean up my office, and talk to whoever subbed for me."

Jim didn't look convinced. But all he said was, "You want a ride?"

"No, I'll take the bus. Thanks."

"You have enough cash?"

"Yes." Maybe. "Jim, I'm not a kid. I can get across town all by myself. I'll see you later."

Blair shouldered his pack and walked away without giving Jim a chance to argue. He felt eyes on him all the way out of the room, but he didn't know if they were Jim's, or Ballard's. Or the eyes of everyone in the squadroom.

 

Blair didn't get home until after eleven. Jim heard a car stop out front, then drive away; heard the outside door open and close; heard footsteps on the stairs, approaching the door. He shut the television off, leaving the living room in darkness. A key turned in the lock, and Blair tiptoed in. Jim studied his partner from the shadows. Streaked with auburn and gold by the lamplight, the wild tumble of brown curls brushed Blair's shoulders, falling forward to screen his face until he remembered to shove it back. The kid was too thin. The cleft in his chin was more pronounced, his angular jaw so sharp it looked as though it would cut through the flesh. His full lips were dark against pale skin, and there were circles under the wide blue eyes. Normally, those eyes were clear and open; now they were shadowed, the color darkened.

Jim stood up, and Blair started violently. He went white in fear of a memory, then red when memory gave way to reason. There was a tremor in his voice.

"Jim. What are you doing up?"

"Waiting for you."

"In the dark?"

"I had the TV on."

"Oh."

Blair hung up his jacket, turned to find Jim near, and backed up a step. Jim shook his head. He was handling this all wrong. The last thing he wanted was to frighten Blair. He made sure his voice was quiet, but he couldn't keep it as flat as he wanted.

"Sandburg, where have you been?"

Blair wouldn't look at him. One hand slid back and forth over the strap of his backpack. "At the U."

"I called there two hours ago. There was no answer."

"I wasn't in my office two hours ago. I was talking to Keith Parks. He subbed for me while I was--while I was gone." Blair looked up then, a spark of defiance in his eyes. "What is this, Jim? Are you checking up on me now?"

"No. I just wanted to make sure you were okay. You left kind of suddenly this morning."

Blair's gaze dropped again. "I had a lot of work to do. I told you that."

"I know what you told me, Sandburg."

The clear blue eyes met his, anger in their depths. "You don't believe me. You think I'm a liar, now? You don't trust me anymore, is that it?"

Where did that come from? Jim started to reach out, saw Sandburg tense, and turned the gesture into spreading his hands. "Sandburg, I trust you. You're my partner. But I'm not blind. You were upset about something when you left this morning. What happened?"

"Nothing!"

Folding his arms, Jim fixed his eyes on the younger man. He didn't say another word; he didn't have to.

"I had a flashback," Blair admitted. "It was no big deal, I just--had to get out. So I went to the U. I had to go there anyway."

"The last bus leaves the campus at 9:30. How'd you get home?"

"Keith gave me a ride!" The anger was back. "Dammit, Jim, since when do you get to interrogate me?"

"Since a month ago."

The minute he said it, he knew he shouldn't have. Fear drained all the anger from Blair's eyes. His voice was almost a whisper.

"Ponytail's gone, Jim. He's gone. He's not coming back. That's what you told me. Didn't you?"

Ponytail? Well, it fit. Jim nodded. "He's gone, Partner. We won't see him again."

"Then why are you--why are you doing this?" Blair's heart was slamming in his chest. "Is someone else after me?"

Jim's first impulse was to put his hand on the narrow shoulder, to reassure Blair without words. But he couldn't do that anymore. If he touched him, Blair would bolt. He folded his arms more tightly, and kept his distance.

"No, Sandburg. No one's after you."

"Then why? You must have a reason." Eyes wide and blue as a newborn pup's rose to his. "Tell me, Jim."

Aw, hell. "I was worried, that's all."

"That's all?" Blair's heartbeat was slowing, returning to normal. "There's no other reason?"

"No."

Blair gave a half-laugh, shaking his head. "You were worried." He shook his head again, and smiled. "Thanks, Jim."

Blair shouldered his pack and disappeared into his room. Jim stared after him. He didn't get it. A minute ago, Blair had been ripping into him for asking questions, and now he was grateful? Sometimes, he thought he was never going to understand how his partner's mind worked. It didn't follow any logical pattern. What had Blair said once? "I go back and forth with things when the Muse strikes." That statement certainly seemed to fit his reasoning. He'd never seen anyone jump between seemingly unrelated subjects as quickly as Blair did, and then incorporate them all into a single unique solution. But right now, that didn't matter. The kid had survived his first day back. He was home, safe, and peace was restored. That was all that mattered.





Jim rapped on the bathroom door. "Let's go, Sandburg. Breakfast's on."

He went back to the kitchen, shoveled a stack of pancakes out of the frying pan and onto a plate, and set the plate at Sandburg's place. Blair emerged from the bathroom, shuffling down the hall in socks and Jim's old Cascade PD sweatshirt. He'd pushed the sleeves up so they wouldn't cover his hands, but the sweatshirt was so long on him that it fell halfway to his knees. Jim hoped there were boxers under there somewhere, but he wasn't about to ask. A huge yawn split Blair's face. He raised a hand to cover it, and ended up with sleeve instead of fingers. Jim hid his grin behind his coffee mug. He gestured at the sweatshirt with the spatula.

"Where'd you get that?"

"The laundry," Blair replied.

"The dirty laundry."

"Come on, Jim, it's not like you were mud-wrestling in it." Alarm crossed his face. "You don't mind, do you? It's a little cold this morning, and--well, it was right there."

"No, Sandburg, I don't mind. But if you're cold, why don't you put some pants on?"

"Huh?" Blair looked down at his bare legs. "Oh. Right. Be right back."

Blair vanished into his room, and reappeared moments later wearing his jeans. And the sweatshirt. Yawning, he slipped into his chair, his eyes going wide at the sight of breakfast. "Pancakes! Great!"

Show time. Blair forked the pancakes one at a time and laid them out around his plate, making sure that no edge overlapped any other. Next, he carefully spread strawberry jam over each one, coating the entire surface. Finally, he grabbed the maple syrup and poured a thin stream on top of the jam, back and forth, around and around, creating an intricate pattern. Jim shook his head. Blair did it the same way every time. Lately, Jim made pancakes just to see the performance. He couldn't understand how Blair could actually eat it.

"Got enough sugar, there, Partner?"

Blair just waggled his eyebrows, and shoved a forkful of jam and maple pancake into his mouth. Jim looked away, switching his concentration to his own breakfast. Blair ate quickly, alternating sips of orange juice and coffee. At least he didn't mix them together. He'd threatened to, once. He finished the pancakes, and poured himself another cup of coffee, yawning again.

"You gonna be able to stay awake today, Sandburg?"

"Yeah." Blair yawned once more. "I was up late last night, reading Keith's notes. I've gotta teach a class today, and I have to know what they've been doing."

"Does this mean you're not coming with me today?"

Blair studied his mug. "I can't, Jim. Class goes from 9 to 11, then I've gotta try to get caught up."

Jim nodded, accepting the excuse. "Did you get your office cleaned up?"

Blair laughed a little. "I didn't have to. Someone did it for me." He fixed Jim with a direct eye and a raised eyebrow. "You wouldn't know anything about that, would you?"

"Me?" Jim shook his head. "Sorry, Sherlock, wrong suspect."

"I wish I knew who it was. I'd like to thank them. You should've seen the place, Jim, I totally trashed it. Whoever cleaned it up restored all the artifacts, put them back on the shelves, and straightened out all the paperwork. It's never been so neat in there." The eye was back. "It really wasn't you?"

"Sandburg, I don't know squat about restoring artifacts."

Fortunately, there were plenty on campus who did. When Jim had asked for volunteers, he'd been surprised and gratified by the response. Blair had no idea how well-liked he was at the university. Of course, most of the volunteers had been female. Blair was always more popular with women than with men, a fact that Jim was sure didn't bother Sandburg at all.

"Well, it sure saved me a lot of time," Blair said. "I would've been months putting that stuff back together. The truth is, I was kind of afraid to go in there yesterday. When I saw it--" A smile lit his face. "Man, I was flabbergasted."

Jim smiled, and said nothing. That was just the effect he'd wanted to create.

They drank their coffee in companionable silence. Now and again, Jim glanced at Blair's face, to get an idea of what was going through his partner's head. Things seemed okay, until some thought jolted Blair, and his expression abruptly changed. Any trace of a smile vanished. He stared at the table, running his thumb up and down the handle of his mug.

"Jim, is it okay?" he blurted. "I mean, me not going in with you today? You don't need me for anything, do you?"

He had to be careful with this one. He was no psychologist, but he knew there was more to Blair's questions than what was on the surface. "Partner, I always need you. But if you have other work today, I guess I can get by without you. I can call if I have to."

Blair let out his breath. "Okay. Thanks, Jim."

Jim concealed his own relief. He'd gotten past that one. Now for the big one. "Don't forget your appointment with the counselor tonight."

Panic flashed through Blair's eyes. The thumb on the handle moved faster. "Jim, I've been thinking about that. I don't see how I can go."

Calmly. Calmly, dammit. "Why not?"

"Well, she's going to want me to tell her what happened. I can't do that. If I tell her about the shapeshifting, she'll think I'm nuts and have me locked up."

"No, she won't. Dr. Hawthorne knows all about it."

"But I can't tell her about the Sentinel stuff."

"She knows that, too."

Blair's eyes went wide. "You told her?"

Jim nodded. "You're right, Sandburg, she had to know or she would think you were nuts. So I told her."

"And she believed you?"

"Simon backed me up. I had to give her a little demonstration, to convince her, but she believed me." Eventually. "Don't worry, Sandburg: Dr. Hawthorne's the best. She's worked with the Department for years." Jim looked directly into Blair's eyes. "I want you to promise me that you'll show up tonight."

A small voice. "I will."

"That doesn't sound like a promise, Sandburg."

"Okay, I promise, I swear, on my honor as an anthropologist!" Blair snapped. "Is that enough, or do you want blood, too?"

"That should do it," Jim said quietly. He was not going to let the kid provoke him. Not about this. "Besides, at the moment, your blood's about three-quarters maple syrup. You can't swear an oath on maple syrup."

"You can in Vermont," Blair quipped.

Jim didn't even bother to reply.

Blair sat in Dr. Hawthorne's waiting room, trying to read over his notes. He couldn't concentrate. Every time he looked at the page, he saw Ponytail's face, heard Ponytail's voice--Jim's voice--spouting filth or whispering promises of pain. He sprang to his feet, pacing the room, but it didn't help. He couldn't drive the images away, couldn't shut the voice out. Thank God this hadn't happened while he was teaching this morning. If he'd lost it in the lecture hall, he could never have faced his students again. It had been hard enough as it was, and they had no idea what had happened to him. As far as anyone at the University knew, he'd been sick for the last month. He'd known that going in, but some unreasoning voice within him had insisted that they knew the truth, that their eyes would be fixed on him not because they were paying attention, but because they found him disgusting, or pathetic. They would stare at him, and then they would get up and leave, walk out rather than be taught by him. That hadn't happened, of course. Except for a few expressions of welcome, or sympathy for his illness, the students had behaved no differently than they always did. After the first minutes of utter panic, he'd gotten through the class with no trouble. He just wished things had gone that well at the station yesterday.

The office door opened. A woman emerged, fortyish, with greying brown hair smoothly styled, and warm brown eyes. She wore a classically-cut suit in a soft blue, and a silver pin centered with ever-changing images of stars and planets.

"Mr. Sandburg?"

Blair approached her, shook her outstretched hand. "Um, yeah. Blair. Hi."

"I'm Alice Hawthorne." Her handshake was firm, her skin cool. His own was sweaty, but she gave no indication of noticing. "Come in. Sit anywhere you like."

Blair entered the office, looking around. It was furnished in cool shades, blues and greens, the creamy walls papered in what looked like a pattern of woven grass. She had a desk of dark wood with a couple of chairs in front of it, the couch you always heard about, and three armchairs, cushioned and comfortable. Plants lined the walls and sat on tables: African violets, philodendrons, more exotic types he couldn't recall the names of. He half-expected to hear bird calls, or the chattering of monkeys.

"Whoa," he joked. "It's a jungle in here."

Dr. Hawthorne smiled. "It seems that way sometimes. They just won't stop growing, and people keep giving me more. Would you like coffee? Or tea? I've got a lovely herbal blend from Brazil. It's very soothing."

"Um, that sounds great. Thanks."

The doctor disappeared into a side room, and Blair heard cups clinking. He chose one of the armchairs and sat down, glancing around. Drums and flutes played faintly in the background, in a rhythm that was familiar to him. She must be playing a tape, but he couldn't see a stereo or any speakers. God. Brazilian tea, Peruvian music--had she set this all up just for him? Did she do this for all her patients? How much had Jim told her about him?

Blair's heart began to pound. How could he do this? How could he sit here and tell this woman--this stranger--about himself, about what had happened to him, never knowing how much she already knew, what judgments she'd already made? God, he couldn't. Blair shot to his feet. He couldn't stay here--

The panther paced in front of the door, sleek black coat a shadow among shadows, golden eyes gleaming. Blair stopped, frozen in place. He glanced toward the other room. If Dr. Hawthorne came out now, would she see the panther? What would she do if she did? How would he explain it? He looked back: the panther was gone.

Blair sat down again, set his pack on the floor. Jim had said to do what the panther told him. He'd never seen it while he was awake, except for that night in the attic, and he hadn't been sure, then, that it was real. If it had taken the trouble to appear to him now, here, then it must seriously want him to stay. So okay, he'd stay. He wasn't about to argue with a 200 pound cat, real or not.

"Here we are."

Dr. Hawthorne came back in, carrying a tray holding a ceramic teapot and matching cups in mossy shades of green. Blair stood at her entrance and remained standing until the doctor had seated herself in one of the other armchairs. She handed him a cup, and he sat back, trying to relax, cradling the cup between his hands.

"Well, Blair." Dr. Hawthorne settled back with her own cup. "You know why you're here. Do you know what to expect?"

"Um, you want me to talk," he said, studying the incised leaf-pattern on his cup. "About what happened."

"Yes. About that, and about you. We're going to work together to help you deal with the rape, and with what's happening to you now as a result."

"What's happening now?"

She nodded. "Rape is a devastating violation, Blair. It causes psychological injuries as well as physical, which can take a long time to heal. You don't see things the way you did before--even simple, everyday things. So much reminds you, so much frightens you. It can make you unable to function, make you doubt your sanity. Many survivors of rape blame themselves for what happened. It's wrong--rape is never the fault of the victim, no matter what the circumstances--but they can't help it. My job is to help them--to help you--work through all this, and more. And yes, you do need to talk to me, because if you don't, I can't tell how to help. Are you okay with this, Blair?"

He shrugged. "I guess so."

Dr. Hawthorne leaned forward slightly. "I know it isn't easy. Talking about it will hurt. But it's the only way to help you, and I am going to help you, Blair. I want you to trust me. Do you think you can do that?"

"I don't know. I'll try."

"Good." Dr. Hawthorne sat back again, and sipped her tea. "Why don't you tell me a little about yourself?"

"Like what?"

"Whatever you want."

"Well, I'm an anthropologist." Blair gestured vaguely with the cup. "But you know that, right? And you know that I work with Jim Ellison, as a civilian observer. What else is there?"

"I don't know much about you personally. What about your family?"

Blair stiffened. "What about them?"

"Are your parents living? Do you have any siblings?"

"Yes."

"Have you told them what happened to you?"

"No."

"Why not?"

Blair shook his head. "I don't want to talk about them. They have nothing to do with--with what happened."

"All right. What do you want to talk about?"

A shrug. Blair knew he was being uncooperative, but he couldn't help it. He didn't want to do this. He didn't want to be here, talking to this woman. She wanted him to bare his soul, and he couldn't do it. He sipped his tea, concentrating on that so he wouldn't have to look at her, wouldn't have to think.

"Jim said you were quite a talker. Never at a loss for words."

He didn't know whether to laugh or get mad. "Jim doesn't know everything."

"Does anyone?"

"I thought you did," Blair shot back. Dr. Hawthorne just looked at him. Blair ducked his head, feeling a blush creep over his face. "Sorry. I don't mean to be a jerk. I'm--really nervous."

"That's okay. It's allowed." Dr. Hawthorne drank some tea, and Blair followed suit. "Blair, I have to ask you: Have you been tested for STD's?"

"ST--" Sexually Transmitted Diseases. Like syphilis, herpes--or AIDS. Oh God. "No. No, I--I never thought..."

Dr. Hawthorne picked up a prescription pad from the table next to her chair, scribbled something on the top sheet, tore it off and handed it to him. "There's probably nothing to worry about, but I want to make sure. I'd like you to have a blood test tomorrow. The minute the results are in, I'll call you. All right?"

Blair nodded. He couldn't find words. He couldn't think. Didn't want to think.

"You look tired," Dr. Hawthorne said. "Have you been sleeping?"

It took a minute for the question to penetrate. Sleeping. Had he been sleeping? "Some," he said. Just not last night. "I have--um--I have nightmares."

She nodded. "That's to be expected. Are you having flashbacks, too?"

"Yeah. They were pretty much gone while I was at St. Sebastian's, but when I--when I got back, they started again."

"That's normal, too. You were attacked in your home. Returning to the apartment triggered your memories. Almost anything can, I'm afraid. A sound, a scent--anything that reminds you of the attack."

"For how long?"

"It could be years. It could be--and this is only in extreme cases--it could be for the rest of your life."

"God." Blair pushed the hair back from his face. "God, it can't. I can't go the rest of my life having flashbacks every time I see--"

"Every time you see what?" Dr. Hawthorne asked. He shook his head, unable to answer, but she wouldn't give up. "Blair? Every time you see what?"

He had to force the word, from a throat so tight he could only whisper. "Jim."





Blair came in at 8:30. He dropped his keys in the basket, closed the door, and took a deep breath. Jim knew what he was smelling: garlic, hot oil, the more subtle scent of Parmesan. Linguini with white clam sauce was one meal they could both agree on. Jim didn't want any arguments tonight.

"Hey, Partner," he said, stirring the sauce. "How'd it go?"

"Okay," Blair answered, his automatic response to everything these days. Jim learned quickly. If he waited long enough, the truth might come out. "It was kind of intense. I've gotta go back Thursday."

"Dr. Hawthorne's okay, huh?"

"Yeah, she's nice. And she's honest." Blair shook his head. "This isn't going to be easy."

"You knew that going in."

"Yeah, but knowing it and going through it are two different things." Blair fixed his gaze on the counter, using his finger to trace a pattern of spilled olive oil. "When I first got in there, I panicked big time. I almost ran."

"What stopped you?"

Blair's finger stilled, his body tensing. "The panther."

The sauce was neglected. "In the doctor's office?"

Blair nodded. "He didn't want me to leave."

"Did he speak to you?"

"No. But the message was pretty clear."

"Did you tell Dr. Hawthorne he was there?"

Sandburg looked at him like he'd lost his mind. "No, man, I couldn't tell her that. You didn't tell her about him, did you?"

"No. I didn't want to put any more strain on her credulity."

"You mean, you didn't want her to think you were nuts."

"That, too."

"Your cheese is sticking," Blair pointed out.

"Huh? Oh, damn." Jim went back to stirring, and scraping melted cheese off the bottom of the pan. "Dinner in five, Sandburg."

Dinner went smoothly. They discussed Jim's cases and Blair's class, safe topics that weren't likely to stir up any bad memories for Blair. For that reason, Jim tried to steer the conversation more toward Blair's doings at Rainier, but Blair insisted on hearing the details of every case Jim was working on. Fortunately, there was nothing too gruesome. Blair heard it all without flinching or getting that trapped, terrified, blind stare that meant he was flashing back. He offered some suggestions that were right on the money, and managed to look directly at Jim without the hesitation Jim had learned to expect. He smiled a few times, and even cracked a couple of bad jokes. Jim smiled to himself. If one visit to Dr. Hawthorne had helped this much, Blair would be his old self again in no time.

"So, Partner, you think you can help me out tomorrow?" he asked.

A wariness entered Blair's clear gaze. "How?"

"I've gotta visit that art gallery about the masks. I'd appreciate it if you'd come along and look around, maybe talk to the employees. You know a lot more about this stuff than I do. I can ask the cop questions, but I need somebody to ask the right questions about the masks."

Blair relaxed. "Sure, Jim."

"Great. I've gotta go to the station first. Is that going to be a problem?"

Blair was suddenly concentrating on his fork. "No, Jim. No problem."

No sense challenging him. It would only start a fight. Trying to lighten things up, he said, "Sandy Kolchak was looking for you today."

The fork clattered to his plate. Blair pushed the hair away from his face. "God, Jim, give it a rest, will you?"

Jim held up his hands. "Hey, sorry. I'm just passing the message along."

"Yeah." Blair picked up his fork again. "Okay. Sure." He twirled linguini on his fork, and left it there, staring at it. He had to try three times before he got the words out. "Jim, I'm not ready."

"For Sandy?"

"For any woman. It's too soon. I can't--I--" Blair shook his head, unable to finish. "Don't push me, okay, man?"

"Okay, Partner."

They got through the rest of dinner without a disaster. Blair did the dishes, then went to his room with a pot of some weird, twiggy tea, and turned some music on. Jim could hear it in the living room, but it was fairly mild stuff, without the driving drumbeat behind most of Blair's preferred music, so he let it go without complaint. He watched television for a while, then went to bed and fell asleep to the piping of wooden flutes.





"No! Jim!"

Jim's eyes snapped open, his limbs paralyzed while his ears tried to identify the sound that had woken him. The clock on his nightstand read 2:13.

"Jim!"

Blair. Jesus, Blair. Snatching the gun from beneath his pillow, Jim rolled out of bed and padded barefoot down the stairs. Rain made it dark--too dark to make out anything but shapes. Nothing moved. There was nothing that didn't belong. He heard Blair's heartbeat, his own, no one else. They were alone in the loft.

"No! Please, Jim. Please, don't!"

There was a light on in Sandburg's room. Jim opened the door, cautiously, not entirely trusting his Sentinel hearing. Blair lay on the bed, eyes closed, his body immobilized by nightmare.

"God, stop! Please!"

Christ, what should he do? If he shook Blair awake, he'd only terrify him. But he couldn't do nothing while Blair was tortured by the nightmare. Bad enough that it had happened, without Blair having to live through it all again in his dreams. Jim set his gun on the floor, and approached the bed.

"Sandburg," he called. Louder. "Sandburg!"

No response. Blair was moaning now, wordless, his face twisted in agony. He couldn't let this go on. Blair would get over his fright sooner than the nightmare would let him go. Sweat ran into Jim's eyes. He wiped it away, reached down to grip Blair's shoulder, and shook him.

"Sandburg, wake up! Come on, kid!"

Blair's eyes flew open, a great gasp of air filling his lungs. Jim let go immediately, but it wasn't fast enough. Blair cried out and flung himself away, trying to get off the bed, but he was so tangled up in sheets and blankets that he couldn't get free. Jim held his hands out to his sides, speaking as calmly as he could.

"Sandburg, it's okay. You had another nightmare. You're awake now, it's okay."

Blair stopped fighting the covers and stared at him, emotions chasing each other across his face too fast for Jim to identify. "Oh, God." He buried his face in his hands. "Oh, God, Jim, I'm sorry."

"Nothing to be sorry about, Partner," Jim said gently.

"You don't understand!"

"Then explain it to me."

"I--" Blair looked at him, and away again, whispering, "I can't."

"Blair, you're not responsible for your nightmares."

"I--know."

"You don't sound convinced."

Blair's bleak stare was directed at something Jim couldn't see. "I'm just tired. I'd like to go back to sleep."

"So would I. But I don't think that's gonna happen for a while."

"Sorry, man."

"Dammit, Sandburg, quit blaming yourself for everything!"

Big mistake. Blair jerked back as if Jim had hit him, terror flashing through his eyes. He recovered almost instantly, and flushed deep red, staring down at the bedclothes. Jim cursed himself. Every time he tried to help, it seemed he only made things worse. Now Blair was afraid of him, and he didn't know what to do. It was all that bastard Ponytail's fault. He should've killed the son of a bitch when he had the chance. Hell, he never should've let him get his hands on Blair in the first place. Blair was his partner; he was supposed to watch out for him. He was doing a lousy job of it. First Lash got him, then Ponytail, and they both came right into the loft to get him, the one place where Blair should be safe. And he hadn't been here. He was never here when Blair really needed him. And now on top of everything else, he yelled at the poor kid. He couldn't stand being the cause of the fear in those eyes.

"I'm sorry, Partner," he said quietly. "I didn't mean to scare you."

"It's not your fault, man," Blair said to the blankets.

"This time, it is. I shouldn't have yelled at you. I just get so mad when I see you trying to take the blame for what that bastard did to you. Not mad at you; it just comes out that way, and I'm sorry." Blair didn't move. Jim took a step closer to the bed. "Sandburg, look at me."

Blair raised his eyes.

"None of this is your fault. Not what he did to you, and not anything that's happened after. It's all his fault. All of it. Do you understand that?"

Blair nodded hesitantly.

"There's two things I have to tell you, Blair. I should've told you before now, but--well--dammit, you know how I am with this stuff. I just kept hoping you'd know without me having to actually say it. But that wasn't fair to you. You can't be expected to read my mind all the time. So, here goes.

"First, I would never hurt you. Ever."

"I know that," Blair said softly.

"Maybe. But it had to be said anyway. Second--" Jim took a breath. "Blair, I will do whatever it takes to help you get through this. Anything you want, anything you need. Just tell me, Partner, and you've got it. Okay?"

Blair nodded. His throat worked, but he didn't speak, and his gaze was fixed once more on the bedclothes. Tears glistened in the corners of his eyes. Jim pretended not to notice.

"So, whaddaya say, Partner? How about a peanut butter and sprout on whole wheat?"

Blair looked up. "Now?"

"Sure, why not? My mother always says, 'When you're up, eat.'"

Sandburg shrugged. "Okay, man."

He untangled himself from the bedclothes and followed Jim into the kitchen. They were halfway through a sandwich and a glass of milk each, when Blair glanced up with a look in his eye that Jim had seen too many times.

"So, Jim, tell me something, man."

He braced himself. "What?"

"Just exactly how much does your mother weigh?"

Blair breezed into the squadroom behind Jim, smiling, greeting everyone he knew, trying his damnedest to give the impression that he was someone just back from a month's vacation and not a headcase back from something they didn't want to know about. He'd thought about it after he went back to bed last night--he hadn't slept again--and he knew he'd blown it Monday, approaching his return to the station like it was some kind of trial, a test to see if he could keep working with Jim. He'd worried too much, that was all. Expected too much, maybe. Sure, Ballard was an asshole, but most of the cops probably didn't care about him one way or the other, and those who did were mostly sympathetic, like Taggert, or Rhonda, or even Steve Connelly. If they hadn't spoken, it was because they were waiting for clues from him to tell them how to act, and his clues had all been of the "leave me alone" variety, guaranteed to keep everyone away. What he should have done was what he was going to do now: act normally, as if nothing had ever happened. Get them to relax, and everything would be fine. He could handle this. Hell, he was good at this.

It worked. He could see people relaxing as he went by. They were probably relieved that they didn't have to tiptoe around him, or treat him like some kind of invalid. He even managed to get by Martin Ballard's desk without giving in to the urge to deck him.

"Nice performance," Jim muttered when they reached his desk.

"Huh?"

"Come on, Sandburg, you're faking it."

Blair widened his eyes. "Faking what, Jim?"

Jim shook his head. "Have it your way, Partner." He grabbed a bunch of files from his desk. "I've gotta update Simon on this stuff. Shouldn't be more than twenty minutes. You going to be okay out here?"

"Sure, Jim."

Jim knocked on Simon's door and went in, leaving Blair on his own. He was fine. He didn't need Jim to baby-sit him. He wasn't going to have a breakdown just because Jim wasn't at his side every minute. He'd just sit here and work on his lesson-plan. But first, coffee. And maybe a bagel, if there were any good ones left. He couldn't expect Rhonda to save him the pumpernickel every day.

She had, though. Blair grinned his thanks, and took the bagel back to his desk with his coffee. He ate and worked undisturbed for about fifteen minutes, long enough to begin relaxing himself. He could do this. This wasn't a problem at all. Why had he been so nervous Monday?

"Feeling better, Hairboy?"

Ballard. Dammit, not now, things had been going so well. He looked up, meeting Ballard's eyes. "What are you talking about?"

Ballard grinned. "You looked kind of green when you ran out of here Monday. I thought maybe you were sick."

"I'm fine," Blair bit off. "Thanks for asking."

He returned his gaze to his notebook, but Ballard didn't take the hint. The paunchy detective parked his butt on the corner of the desk. "I hear you spent some time in a monastery."

"That's right."

"So, tell me something, Sandburg." Ballard leaned closer, leering. "Is it true what they say about those places?"

"Is what true?"

"You know. No women, but they still have--urges. So they take care of each other, right?"

Blair's grip on his pen tightened. If he slugged Ballard, Jim would get in trouble. If he slugged Ballard, Jim would get in trouble. If he slugged--"No, that's not true," he said, his voice as calm as he could make it. "But you know what? I read somewhere that guys who obsess over homosexual activity are really suppressing their own latent homosexuality. So, tell me, Ballard, is that true?"

Ballard stood, his face going purple. "Are you calling me a faggot?"

"Not me, man." Blair smiled. "I don't use that word. It's against departmental policy, isn't it? I mean, don't you guys get reprimanded or suspended or something for that? Or is this some kind of microcultural thing? You know, where only those within the particular group are allowed to use derogatory terms about that group? This stuff fascinates me. Did you know, there's a tribe in the Amazon where it's a deadly insult to give someone a compliment? Y'see, they believe that to do so invites the wrath of the gods upon the recipient. So what they do is, they say the worst things imaginable to each other when what they really mean is something nice. For example, if I were to call you, oh, a complete asshole with your mind in the Dark Ages, to them, that would mean you were a really great, forward-thinking guy. Funny how these things develop, huh, Marty? Well, it's been great chatting with you, man, but I've gotta get back to work. Maybe we can talk more later."

Blair fixed his eyes on his notebook, scribbling some nonsense. Ballard stood there for a few seconds, then turned and went back to his desk. Suppressed laughter came from the coffee cart, where Taggert was checking out the Danish while he waited to see Simon; Blair grinned, but didn't dare look at the big man or he'd laugh out loud and Ballard would know he'd been had. Not that he was afraid of Ballard, but the man was armed, and who knew what a jerk like that would do if he got mad enough?

Jim came out of Simon's office and dumped the files back on his desk. "Let's go, Partner."

Blair closed his notebook and stuffed it into his backpack. He stopped beside Taggert on the way out. The big man was still laughing. "Joel, man, you gotta get hold of yourself. You're gonna bust something."

Taggert just shook his head and waved Blair away. Jim was waiting for him outside the squadroom. "What was that all about?"

"Oh, nothing." Blair grinned. "Taggert just likes my jokes."

"God knows why," Jim deadpanned.

"He's obviously a man of taste."

"Yeah. Bad taste."

Blair just let it go. He couldn't win, not with Jim. He didn't even want to try, he was feeling too good. He'd done it. He'd gotten in and out of the station without any trouble. He'd even handled that jerk Ballard, and come out on top. Not that Ballard knew it. Too bad, but it would be safer for him if Ballard never found out. He didn't trust that guy not to go postal.

Blair swung up into the truck, buckled in, and began to shake. What the hell--? His heart raced; he started to hyperventilate. He tried to stick his hands in his pockets, so Jim wouldn't see, but it was too late.

"Sandburg, what's the matter?"

Blair just shook his head. He couldn't get the breath to speak.

Jim started the truck. "I'm going to get you to the hospital."

"No!" Blair tried desperately to calm himself. "No--Jim--I'm okay. It's just--just a--delayed reaction."

"To what?"

"I--I dunno. Stress, I--guess."

"We're still going to the hospital."

"No, man. Really. I'm--okay. I just--need to relax. Trust me--Jim."

Jim rubbed a hand over his jaw. "Okay, Partner. But if this gets any worse--"

"It won't."

"If it gets any worse, we're going to the hospital. And no arguments."

"O--okay."

Closing his eyes, Blair leaned back against the seat and focused on breathing. In. Out. In. Slowly. Slowly. No problem. He could do this. He was fine. Nothing a couple of years in a sanitarium wouldn't cure. If he wasn't careful, that's where he'd end up. No, don't think about that. That train of thought didn't help at all.

"Easy," Jim soothed. "Take it easy, Partner. Just breathe. That's good."

That's what he needed. A coach, just like in Lamaze class. He'd gone to one of those, once. He'd have to tell Jim about it sometime. It would freak him out, wondering if he'd gone because he was the father. Then he wouldn't tell him. Let him wonder.

"Something funny, Sandburg?"

Blair's grin widened. Let him wonder. He'd stopped shaking. He took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and opened his eyes. Jim had turned to face him, one hand on the seatback, the other on the dash, gripping so hard that his knuckles were white.

"Relax, man," Blair said. "I'm okay."

Jim eyed him suspiciously. "You sure?"

"Yeah. It was just an anxiety attack. I've had 'em before."

"Not with me, you haven't."

"No. It was before I met you."

"When?"

He shrugged. "Most of my life. It's no big deal, it's just a stress thing."

Jim turned away, put his hand on the steering wheel. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have made you come in with me."

"You didn't make me, Jim. I chose to go in. And I'm glad I did." Without thinking, Blair lightly punched Jim's arm. "Come on, man, let's get to that gallery."

Only when Jim stared did Blair realize what he had done. That was the first time he had touched Jim since--since it happened. Blair looked away quickly, praying that Jim wouldn't say anything, that he'd just accept it and let it go. God, he was so embarrassed, and he knew he shouldn't be, and that just made it worse.

Jim put the truck in gear and drove out of the garage. He didn't say a word, but a tiny smile curved the corners of his mouth.

They rode in silence for a while. But silence wasn't something Blair was good at.

"So, Jim, fill me in. What do we know about the gallery owner?"

"His name was Arthur Hatch. He was fifty-two, unmarried, no kids. He opened the gallery in--"

"1987," Blair supplied.

Jim eyed him. "You been holding out on me, Sandburg?"

"Come on, man, you're talking about the Hatch Gallery. It's the biggest art gallery in Cascade. Everybody knows--" He caught Jim's look. "Well, a lot of people know about it. Why didn't you tell me the victim was Arthur Hatch?"

"You didn't ask. What else do you know about this guy?"

"Nothing, really. I mean, he's supposed to have lots of money--you know, always had enough to get the really important artists. He sponsored new artists, too. I heard that he made Judith Carnover's career." Realizing that Jim had no idea what he was talking about, Blair toned it down. "I never knew that he dealt in African art, though."

"Maybe it's the next big thing."

"Yeah, maybe. Jim, you said Hatch had no heirs. Now that he's gone, who gets the gallery?"

"He had one heir, a brother: Lancelot, if you can believe it. They were partners in the gallery. Now Lancelot owns the whole shebang."

"The whole what?"

"The whole--" Jim gave him a dirty look.

Blair laughed. "Shebang!" Jim didn't join in. It took Blair a minute to get control. "Hey, Jim, man, what if we're wrong about this? What if Hatch wasn't killed because of the masks at all? What if his brother did it, to get the gallery for himself?"

"That's a good theory," Jim conceded. "He's a definite suspect. But my gut says it's the masks. I just wish I knew why."

"You'll figure it out."

"Not unless you get me some information on those masks."

"Oh, right. Okay. No pressure. Thanks a lot, Jim."

"Sandburg, if you can't handle it--"

"I can handle it."

Jim parked the truck in front of the gallery, between a Mercedes and a Jaguar. Blair grinned as he followed Jim inside. The 4X4 would do a lot for the gallery's reputation. Hatch would probably rather they parked it out back, with the delivery trucks. He'd love for someone to ask Jim to do that, just to see his partner's reaction.

"May I help you?"

A man in a suit that cost more than Blair made in a month--in two months--approached them, the utter unlikelihood of his being able to do more for them than show them the exit made absolutely plain by his tone. He was as colorless as his suit: hair, eyes and skin all of a dull, faded beige. The gold stud in his ear was the only thing about him that wouldn't fade instantly into the background. He might as well have had, "I am nowhere near as important as I think I am" etched into his forehead.

Jim flashed his badge. "Detective Ellison, Cascade PD. This is my partner, Blair Sandburg. We'd like to see your boss."

Mr. Beige looked down his nose at him, not easy considering Jim had about five inches on him. "You're not the same policeman who was here before."

"No," Jim replied affably. "I'm a different one. Now go get your boss for me, okay, Slim?"

"I'll see if Mr. Hatch is available."

"You do that."

Mr. Beige hurried off and dashed up a spiral staircase in the center of the gallery. Jim watched him all the way, but Blair took a minute to glance around the gallery and admire the work hung there. Not all of it was to his taste, but every piece was considered the current best of whatever style it represented. There were three other people in the gallery: a white-haired man of about sixty in a blue suit, who was inspecting some abstract paintings; a flamboyantly-dressed woman with a flame-red pageboy and lots of scarves; and another woman whose back was to Blair. All he could see were black ringlets cascading down the back of a coral-colored suit with a fashionably short skirt beneath a long, fitted jacket. The redhead was talking to her, but Blair couldn't hear what she said. Jim could, he was sure, if his partner was listening.

Blair's attention was caught by two masks hanging in an alcove, facing each other across the stylized statue of a rhino. Mr. Beige still hadn't come back, so Blair stepped away from Jim to get a closer look. The masks were Onkantu, about seventy years old. There was an empty hook on the rear wall of the alcove. That must be where the mask that had been found on Arthur Hatch's body had come from. Blair suppressed a shudder.

"You like African art?"

The voice was soft, musical, and low. Blair turned toward it, and saw the face that went with the black ringlets: large eyes, so dark a brown they could drink you in and you'd never come out; high, delicate cheekbones, full lips, skin the color of cinnamon. Blair smiled in delight just to look at her.

"Hi." Belatedly, his brain kicked in. "Um, yeah. I study it. Well, it's part of my studies, actually. I'm an anthropologist. How about you?"

"I'm not an anthropologist."

"That's not what I--"

She smiled, and he shut up. Stupid, Blair. She was joking.

"It's not my field of expertise," she said. "But now that we're showing some African pieces, I've started to learn about them. I'm still new at it, though."

"What is your field?"

"Contemporary American, with an emphasis on the southern United States, particularly Louisiana. I'm from New Orleans, so I just fell into it naturally." She held out her hand. "Antoinette LeClaire. Everyone calls me Toni."

"Blair Sandburg."

Her hand was soft, just like he'd known it would be. He held onto it for a second longer than he should, but she didn't seem anxious to pull away. She smiled.

"I have a cousin named Blair. But you're not from the south, are you?"

"How'd you guess?" Blair grinned. "Actually, I'm from Connecticut. But don't tell anybody, okay? I'm trying to keep it quiet."

"I'll tell everyone I know that you're from New Orleans, and you just never did learn to speak properly, poor boy."

Blair's smile widened. "Thanks."

A familiar voice intruded. "Sandburg."

"Yeah, Jim?"

"Work. Remember?"

"Huh?" Blair looked around, remembered where he was, who he was. Mr. Beige had come back. He and Jim were standing there, obviously waiting for him. "Oh. Yeah." He turned back to Toni. "Sorry. Gotta--um...."

She just smiled. Jim and Mr. Beige had already started for the stairs. Blair hurried to catch up, feeling Toni's eyes on him as he walked. Not a bad thing. Not a bad thing at all. God, she was beautiful. And she seemed to like him. Maybe.... Oh, who was he kidding? She worked here. That made her at least a witness, probably a suspect. She was off-limits. Jim would kill him if he messed up this case. Even if she wasn't involved, he could never ask her out. She deserved better than him.

Mr. Beige showed them into an office at the top of the stairs, and left. Hatch wasn't there. The room was dominated by a huge desk topped by a curving sweep of black glass. The chair behind it was black leather. Paintings hung on the white walls. Blair recognized a Carnover, a Daneir, a Lopez; the rest he wasn't sure of. A gold nameplate on the desk said "Geoffrey Hatch" in black letters. Blair picked it up.

"Geoffrey? I thought his name was Lancelot."

"It is," said a new voice. Blair hastily put the nameplate down. A man strode into the office through a door to their left. He was tall, with graying brown hair carefully blown dry. He wore a charcoal gray Armani suit, pale gray shirt, and a pearl-gray silk tie. Blair briefly wondered if a monochromatic wardrobe was a requirement in this place. The man shook his hand, then Jim's, still talking. "My mother had a romantic bent, unfortunately. Equally unfortunately, she named us. Arthur was the eldest, the King. So when I came along ten years later, I had to be Lancelot, the loyal knight."

"But Lancelot betrayed Arthur," Blair said.

"Over a woman," Hatch qualified. "I swear, I never once stole a girlfriend from my brother. They were always too old for me." Even white teeth bared in a smile. "I prefer my middle name."

"After Chaucer?"

"Of course. But at least it's not instantly recognizable. Sit down, gentlemen, please." Hatch took his own invitation and sat in the leather chair. "What brings you here, Detective Ellison? Have you found my brother's killer?"

"No, sir, not yet. If you don't mind, I have a few questions."

"Go ahead."

"Did your brother have any enemies?"

Hatch frowned. "Another detective already asked me this."

"I know, sir."

"No. No enemies. Competitors, yes, but this is an art gallery. Art dealers don't kill each other."

"Was he engaged in any illegal activities that you know of?"

"Of course not," Hatch snapped, his face going red with anger. "My brother was highly respected."

Jim's jaw muscle jumped. "Someone killed him, Mr. Hatch. It wasn't a robbery; his wallet was found on him, and none of the artwork was missing. There was no sign of forced entry. Your brother let his killer in after hours, which means it was someone he knew, either a business associate or a personal acquaintance."

"Do you have any suspects?" Hatch demanded.

"Several."

"And I'm one of them."

"Well, sir, the way it stands now, you had the most to gain from your brother's death. So, yes, you are a suspect."

"I did not kill my brother."

"Then we'd appreciate any help you can give us in finding out who did."

Hatch scowled. "What do you need, Detective?"

"What do you know about Mombatu masks?"

"Nothing. Arthur made the purchase on his own, I had nothing to do with the arrangements."

A tiny line appeared between Jim's brows. "Was that normal? You were partners, didn't your brother consult you about purchases?"

"Not always. We allowed each other a certain amount of discretion."

"Were the masks on display here?"

"For a short time. They sold very quickly. I believe Arthur had buyers for most of them before the shipment arrived."

"Have you been able to put together a list of the buyers?"

"Not yet. My brother was buried yesterday, Detective. The gallery's been closed until today."

"Did you get a close look at any of the masks?"

"Not really. I'm not usually on the floor. Toni and Rupert handle the walk-ins. And I didn't have much interest in them." Hatch grimaced. "Thought they were pretty ugly, actually. Why? Do you think there was something wrong with them?"

"That's what we'd like to determine. My partner, here, is an expert on Mombatu artifacts. We'd like him to talk to your staff. We'd also appreciate it if you'd let him get a look at your computer. He may be able to help you restore the list of buyers."

Hatch raised his eyebrows. "A policeman who's an expert on computers and Mombatu artifacts?"

Jim smiled tightly. "He's a man of many talents." He turned to Blair. "Why don't you get started, Partner? I've got a few more questions for Mr. Hatch."

A man of many talents. Wow. He'd had no idea Jim thought that about him. Or was he just trying to aggravate Hatch? Blair got up from his chair. "Sure."

Jim beckoned to him, and he leaned down. Jim spoke softly, into his ear. "Talk to them separately. Start with Rupert. And when you get to the girl, keep it professional."

"No problem, Jim."

Blair left the office and started down the stairs. He could see Toni at the front of the gallery, talking to the woman with the scarves. Toni glanced his way, and smiled. Blair gripped the railing hard, and knew he was in trouble. Keep it professional. Oh yeah, no problem. No problem at all. As long as he didn't have to look at her, talk to her, or come within twenty feet of her. No problem at all.

"So, you didn't see anyone?"

Rupert "Mr. Beige" Crowley heaved a bored sigh. "No. I told you, Toni and I left together. Mr. Hatch stayed behind. There was no one else in or near the gallery."

"And he wasn't expecting anyone that you know of?"

"No. He didn't clear his appointments with me."

Blair nodded. So far, Rupert was no help. He was not at all pleased to be in the back room of the gallery answering questions when he could be out on the floor trying to earn some commission off a sale. He was particularly displeased that the questions came from a scruffy, long-haired kid, and he made that apparent by being even less polite than he'd been to Jim. Blair wasn't any too happy himself. Aside from some of the artwork, the only thing he liked about this gallery was Toni. He didn't like being here, and it showed. He couldn't sit down, or stand still. He was all over the room, pacing, touching things, shoving his hair back--he'd done that about twenty times since they came in here--and he couldn't stop. Rupert leaned against a desk, legs crossed, pale eyes shifting back and forth to follow him. Rupert wasn't the problem, he knew that. It was being alone in a room with another man. Any other man. Which was ridiculous, but he couldn't help it. There was nothing to be afraid of. Rupert wasn't going to attack him. And if he did, Blair was pretty sure he could take him. Rupert was only a couple of inches taller than him, skinny, and he'd probably never hit anyone in his life. All of which was completely insignificant, because nothing was going to happen. There was no reason for him to be nervous. No reason at all. Rupert wasn't Ponytail. But he could be. Anyone could be.

"Is there anything else, officer?"

Blair pushed his hair back again. Dammit! "Yeah. I wanted to ask you about the masks."

Rupert smiled. "They're African."

Blair returned the smile. "No kidding? From the photographs, I estimated the oldest mask to be mid-16th century, and the newest late 19th, probably during the cholera epidemic. Would you say that's about right?"

Rupert shut his gaping mouth. "I wouldn't know. It's not my field."

"Oh? Did you sell any of them?"

"No. Mr. Hatch sold all of them personally."

"You've never shown African art here before, have you?"

"No. The masks were the first."

"What made Mr. Hatch decide to buy them?"

"I wouldn't know that, either."

"Oh. You're just the help, huh?"

Rupert glared daggers at him. "Actually, I brought several artists to Mr. Hatch's attention."

"Just not these?"

"Yes."

"Yes you did, or yes you didn't?"

"I didn't," Rupert gritted.

"Do you know who he bought the masks from?"

"No."

Blair asked a few more questions, got no more information, and let Rupert out of the back room. He didn't know which of them was happier to get him out of there. Scarf-woman was gone; Toni was studying one of the Onkantu masks, reaching up to touch the wood. She turned toward Blair, and smiled.

"My turn, Detective Sandburg?"

He couldn't help answering her smile. "Yes. But it's just Blair. I'm not a cop, I'm a civilian observer."

Rupert shot him a dirty look, and Blair shrugged. He'd "forgotten" to mention that little fact to Mr. Beige. Toni preceded him into the back room.

"I wondered how you could be an anthropologist and a policeman. I was afraid you were lying to me."

"I wouldn't do that."

"Except in the line of duty?"

"No, I--well--" Oh, God, he was blushing. "This isn't fair. I'm supposed to ask the questions."

Toni smiled. "Well, you go on and ask, Mr. Sandburg."

Toni's answers were pretty much the same as Rupert's, though she phrased them a lot more politely. She had no more idea than Crowley of why Arthur Hatch had suddenly decided to branch out into African art, and she hadn't seen anyone near the gallery when she left on the night of the murder. Blair didn't push any more than he had with Rupert; Jim would question them both again anyway, and their stories agreed in every area but one: Toni claimed that she had sold one of the masks.

"Really? Do you remember who you sold it to?"

"A Mr. Wainwright. He was in Cascade on business."

"From where?"

"Boston, I think."

"Great." Blair nodded, his mind racing. "I know the list of buyers is gone. Would you have anything else that might have Wainwright's address or phone number on it?"

"Packing slips? No, wait." Toni sat down at the computer. "We keep records of all the customers, what they've bought, their preferences, things like that."

"Fantastic!"

Her slender fingers tapped in commands. In seconds, she was into the database, searching for the record on Wainwright. It took a few minutes--the gallery didn't have the most advanced system in the world--but eventually, Wainwright's name flashed onto the screen.

"Can you print it for me?"

Toni obliged. Blair hovered over the printer, bouncing on the balls of his feet, until the paper came out. He snatched it up. "This is great. This is really great. Jim's gonna love this."

"Jim's gonna love what?"

Jim stood in the doorway, eyebrows raised in inquiry. Blair dashed across the room, waving the paper.

"Jim, Toni sold one of the masks to this guy, Wainwright, in Boston. We've got an address and phone number."

Jim took the paper from him, scanning the printout. "Good work, Partner."

"Actually, it was Toni's work."

Jim smiled at her. "Thank you, Ms. LeClaire. Would you by chance remember any of the other buyers?"

"No, I'm sorry, Detective. I only sold one."

Still smiling. "Would you excuse us for a minute, please?"

"Of course."

Toni left the room. Both men watched her go. The moment the door closed, Jim turned to Blair. "Got anything else?"

"No. Rupert claims he doesn't know anything."

"You think he's lying?"

Blair shrugged. "You're the human lie-detector, man, not me. Toni tells the same story, but..."

"What?"

A grimace. "I guess I just don't like him."

"You don't seem to have that problem with Ms. LeClaire. Remember what I said, Sandburg?"

Heat mounted in Blair's face. "Jim, she's cooperating. She got that guy's address for m--us."

"She's still a suspect. Along with everyone else here. So--"

"I know, I know. Keep it professional. Come on, Jim, give me some credit."

"I am. I left you alone with her, didn't I? Listen, Partner, do you think you can reconstruct that list of buyers?"

"I don't know yet. I haven't had a chance to get into the computer."

"Why don't you hang out here for a while and see what you can do? I'm going to question our friends out there, then go back to the station and see if I can reach Wainwright and persuade him to send the mask back here so you can have a look at it."

"You sure you trust me?" Blair couldn't keep the sarcasm from his tone. "Toni'll be here, too."

"Sandburg, I trust you," Jim said. "Her, I'm a little worried about."

"Right. Sure."

"Blair--"

Jim reached out, and panic slashed Blair's heart. He flinched away, then tried to cover by ducking his head and moving behind the desk to sit at the computer.

"I'll get started."

Jim opened his mouth, and shut it. Blair shifted his gaze to the screen. God, don't let Jim apologize again. He couldn't stand it.

"Okay, Partner," Jim said. "Call me if you find anything, or you want out of here before I get back."

"Okay."

He didn't see Jim leave. His eyes were fixed on the computer screen, seeing nothing.





Blair sipped his tea and gently stroked the purple blossom of an African violet, wishing he were somewhere else. He didn't want to talk about what he was feeling, how he was--or wasn't--dealing with things. He didn't like talking about himself. External stuff, sure. He could go on for days about the places he'd been, the people he'd met and lived or worked with. But talking about the inner Blair Sandburg, about his thoughts and feelings, about what made him the way he was--that, he hated. Letting other people see inside him made him uncomfortable. Hell, it scared him. People liked the surface Blair. But people who knew him--really knew him--didn't want him around. It had always been that way. There was something wrong with him, something he couldn't let other people see. He didn't know what it was, but he knew it was there.

"Blair, are you with me?"

Blair glanced at Dr. Hawthorne, smiled briefly. "Sure."

He'd told her about going to the station, and the anxiety attack, but not about Ballard. About feeling uncomfortable with Rupert, but not about his attraction to Toni. About having the nightmares and what Jim had said to him, but not what the nightmares were about, or staying awake the rest of the night, or not going to bed at all some nights. He wasn't lying to her; he was just being selective. After all, he couldn't tell her every little thing that happened, or they'd be here all night.

"Blair, you've been coming to me for a few weeks now, and you've never told me about the attacks. Do you think you can do that?"

No! "I thought you already knew."

"I know what you told Jim and Captain Banks. But you left things out, didn't you?"

"I didn't lie."

"Of course you didn't. I'm sure everything you told them was the truth. But there were things you couldn't tell them, weren't there?"

"And you think I can tell you?"

"I don't know. But I'd like you to try. If you don't feel you can, we can leave it for another time. But the sooner you get through this--the sooner you can tell someone--the sooner you'll start to heal. Complete honesty really is cathartic, Blair. It will also give me more of an idea of exactly what we need to work on. Would you like to try?"

"No." How's that for honesty, doc? "I don't--I don't think I can."

"All right. Maybe next time."

That was it? All he had to do was say no and she folded? He wished Jim could be put off so easily.

"How are you and Jim getting along?"

What, was she reading his mind? "Okay. I told you what he said."

"Yes. I was glad to hear it. I think Jim can be a lot of help to you. How is he dealing with the flashbacks?"

Blair shrugged. "He apologizes a lot."

"Why do you think he does that?"

"I don't know. I guess he feels guilty about reminding me. I just wish he'd stop."

"Have you told him that?"

"No. He'd just feel guilty about that, too. It's bad enough I'm--the way I am. I don't want to dump anything else on him."

"You don't think he could handle it?"

"He shouldn't have to!" Blair rocketed out of the chair and began to pace. "He shouldn't have to deal with any of this. It's not fair."

"What would be fair?"

He stopped, staring at a curling vine. "If he had a better partner."

"As I understand it, you serve as Jim's Guide, and help him to use his Sentinel abilities. Who would be a better partner?"

"Someone who could take care of himself. Someone Jim wouldn't have to worry about all the time. Someone who could watch his back. A real cop, with the training, the gun, the whole deal."

"Do you think that's what Jim wants?"

Pacing again. "I don't know. He'd never tell me."

"Why not?"

"He'd be afraid of hurting my feelings."

"And would your feelings be hurt?"

Blair threw his hands in the air. "What difference does that make? We're talking about Jim's life here! He deserves a partner who can help him, not some stupid kid anthropologist who can't even--deal with his own nightmares."

"Maybe you should discuss this with Jim."

"Yeah. I should. But I can't."

"Why?

"Jim won't hear it. He'll just brush me off and tell me I'm his partner and that's that."

"Because he doesn't want to hurt your feelings?"

"Yes." Blair pushed his hair back. "I don't know. Maybe I should just leave. Get the hell out and let Jim get on with his life."

"Is that what you want?"

Blair shrugged. "Sometimes. Sometimes I can't stand the thought of going back to the loft, of facing Jim, trying to act like everything's back to normal when we both know it's not. Sometimes, I just want to run away, and keep on running. Go someplace where nobody knows me, or feels sorry for me, or guilty, or--despises me."

"Running away won't help you, Blair."

"It might help Jim."

"Do you really believe that?"

"Yes." Blair sighed. "Sometimes."

"Blair, I think it would be a good idea for you to talk to Jim, tell him how you feel."

"What good would that do? He'd just feel guilty again, and tell me I'm wrong."

"How can he be honest with you, if you won't be honest with him?"

Blair shook his head. "You don't understand. Jim won't do anything he thinks would hurt me. Not even to save himself. This is something I have to decide on my own."

"Then give it time, Blair. Don't rush into anything now. It's too soon to make decisions that will affect the rest of your life."

"You mean I'm not rational?"

"I mean the rape is coloring everything you think, see, and do. And you need some time to work through it, time in which you shouldn't be making decisions that you might regret later. All right?"

Blair nodded. "All right."

Dr. Hawthorne leaned forward. "Blair, you haven't had the blood tests I recommended, have you?"

He shifted uncomfortably. "No."

She put a hand on his wrist. "I understand that you're afraid, Blair. Believe me, I do. But you have to have it done. It's better to know than to wonder. Promise me you'll have it done tomorrow."

Blair opened his mouth with an excuse, and shut it again. He knew she was right. "Okay. I promise."

Dr. Hawthorne smiled. "You're strong, Blair. You can deal with the results, no matter what they are. I promise."

Blair nodded, because she expected it. But he didn't believe.

He hung by his wrists in the attic while Ponytail raped him, wearing Jim's face, speaking with Jim's voice, and Jim looked on, doing nothing. Ponytail's cock rammed into his ass, fingers digging into his thighs.

"You've never really--'had' him--have you--Ellison? Living with him--all these months--and you never--once--fucked his--tight--little--ass. I'm--disappointed in you--Ellison. That's what a Guide's--for. I expected you--to figure that out--but I--had to--show you."

Ponytail came, and he thought the torment would end, but it didn't stop. Jim's watching face shifted, his features melting into Ponytail's. Jim's voice whispered in his ear, big hands grasping his buttocks, yanking them farther apart while Jim's cock drove deep inside him.

"You've got a great ass, you know that, Chief? I can't believe I waited this long. We've got a lot of lost time to make up for."

"Don't!" he gasped. "Please, Jim."

Jim chuckled. "Now, I know you don't mean that, Chief. You want this as much as I do. You're just too scared to admit it."

"No! I don't want it! Please, Jim! Please, don't do this! Please!"

Jim just laughed. One hand moved to his shoulder, gripping hard, shaking him. He twisted away, and slammed into something hard. Lightning shot behind his eyes, and he grabbed his head, moaning, unable to move.

"Blair? Sandburg, answer me!"

Jim? Oh God, he-- No. No, dammit! He wasn't in the attic. He'd had another nightmare. It wasn't real. Blair forced his eyes open, focused first on his tangled bedclothes, then on Jim's face, the normally impassive features lined with concern. He looked away, back at the blanket, studying the pattern woven into it.

"I'm okay," he muttered.

"Look at me," Jim ordered.

He couldn't. Jim picked up the lamp beside the bed and angled the light into Blair's face. Blair lifted a hand to shield his eyes. "Come on, man, cut it out."

"You hit your head pretty hard, Sandburg. Let me check your pupils."

"It wasn't that hard."

Jim's voice rumbled in his throat. "Sandburg--"

"Okay, okay. Don't go grizzly on me, man." Blair raised his head and looked into the light, trying not to squint. "Happy now?"

Jim nodded and put the lamp down. "You're okay."

"Told you."

"Don't get smart with me, kid. I'm not in the mood."

Blair pushed his hair back. "What time is it?"

"About three."

"Oh, man!" Blair's face went hot. "I'm sorry."

"It's not your fault. Do you want to talk about it?"

Oh, sure. Tell Jim all the nasty little details. He'd be thrilled to find out Blair was having nightmares about him as well as Ponytail. Yeah, that would go over real big. "No. But thanks for asking. And for waking me up."

"You sure, Partner?"

"Yeah. Go back to bed, man."

Jim didn't move. "Blair, do you want me to wake you up? I mean, I'm not sure I'm doing you a favor, here."

"Yes, you are. Trust me, man, I'd rather be awake."

Jim stood a moment longer. "Well, try to get some sleep, Partner. We've got that mask finally coming in from Boston this morning."

"I will."

"You want me to get the light?"

"No, I'll get it." Blair picked up a notebook and pen from his nightstand. "I've gotta do my homework first."

"Homework?"

"From Dr. Hawthorne. I'm supposed to keep a journal. Dreams, flashbacks, that kind of stuff."

Jim nodded. "Good night."

"G'night."

Jim left, closing the door behind him. Blair opened the notebook and began to write. He was still writing when he heard Jim get up, four hours later.





Jim walked into Simon's office carrying the overnight package. It was about damn time the Boston PD had sent Wainwright's mask. Bad enough it had taken them three weeks to get hold of Wainwright in the first place--he'd been out of the country on business and unreachable--but Boston PD had put up so many bureaucratic road blocks that Simon had ended up going to the Commissioner just to get some cooperation.

The Captain and Blair were already there, Simon seated behind his desk, Blair standing at the windows, staring out at the city, the morning's fifth cup of coffee clutched in his hand. If Jim hadn't already known, the caffeine overdosing would have made it clear that Blair hadn't slept after his nightmare last night. He'd almost called the younger man on it back at the loft, but he wasn't sure it would do any good. He knew Blair would be embarrassed if he brought it up, and there was enough between them now without adding more.

Maybe it was better to wait Blair out, let him talk when he was ready. Dr. Hawthorne was supposed to be helping him with this stuff. Maybe Blair was talking to her about the nightmares and didn't want to discuss them with anyone else. Maybe she'd told him not to, for some reason. She did have him keeping that journal. Maybe Blair was supposed to write this stuff down instead of talking to anyone else about it. He could ask her--no, he couldn't. Blair's therapy was confidential. If his partner didn't want to tell him anything, that was that. Besides, Blair was pretty tense right now. They'd stopped off at the hospital on the way to work so Blair could have blood taken to test for STD's. Jim had offered to go in with him, but Blair had refused. He knew the kid was trying to downplay this, so he wouldn't worry. Hell, if Blair hadn't promised Dr. Hawthorne he'd go today, Jim was sure the kid wouldn't even have told him about it. Jim didn't like that, but he wouldn't push. Just like he wouldn't push about the dreams. But, God, it was killing him, having to keep waking Blair from these nightmares. Nightmares that had the kid screaming his name--his name, not Ponytail's--and pleading with him to stop whatever horror was going on in Blair's sleeping mind. The nightmares had to stop. If it was this bad for him, what must it be like for Blair?

Jim dropped the box onto the table. Blair winced, turning from the window. "Careful, man, that mask could be hundreds of years old."

"And it could have been made last week, with crazy glue and poster paints," Jim countered with Blair's own words. "You're the expert, Partner: you do the honors."

Setting his mug down, Blair took his Swiss Army knife from his pocket and used one of the blades to slit open the package. He drew the flaps back, parted the bubble wrap, brushed a clump of shredded cardboard aside, and carefully lifted out the mask Toni LeClaire had sold to Thomas Wainwright. It was as long as Blair's arm, about two feet wide at the center, carved from some dark wood that had been painted with dull reds and yellows and fringed with dried grass. Stones were set around the eyes and mouth, and in a line bisecting the forehead and nose. The stones were polished smooth, jammed into holes not made exactly to size. They were all different colors, some glittering, others with a pale chatoyance. Blair gingerly laid the mask on the table.

"What do you think, Sandburg?" Simon asked.

"I think I just took it out of the box!" Blair snapped.

Simon's eyes widened, then narrowed to hard points. Jim jumped in before the Captain could speak. "Don't mind him, sir. He's overtired."

Simon's expression didn't change. "Maybe you should put him down for his nap."

"You know," Blair said, addressing the table. "I really hate it when people talk about me like I'm not there."

Simon stood up, glaring at Jim. "I'm going for coffee. I'll be back in five minutes."

Banks left the office, closing the door to give them privacy. Jim watched him out, and turned to Blair, whose sullen gaze was still fixed on the table.

"Sandburg, are you trying to get your ass thrown out of here?"

Blair looked up. "What are you talking about?"

"I'm talking about your attitude with Simon just now."

"What attitude?"

"Dammit, Blair, cut the crap. You know what I mean."

"Well, what the hell does he want from me?" Blair demanded. "I can't tell if the mask's real in five seconds."

"Then you explain that to him, and you do it politely. He's the Captain, and he deserves some respect. You got that?"

"When do I get some respect?"

"When you've earned it, Junior."

"That's bullshit!" Blair shot to his feet. "I've been working with you for months, man! I've helped you use your Sentinel abilities, I've gone undercover, I've been shot at, I defused a bomb. And what do I get for it? 'Maybe you should put him down for his nap.' You keep telling me I'm your partner, but I still get treated like I'm some kid off the street who's got no business being here. What am I doing this for, Jim? Nobody wants me here. Why did I come back?"

Blair lurched away from the table, back to the windows. Jim went after him. He reached out to put a hand on one narrow shoulder, but Blair sensed his closeness and stiffened.

"Don't touch me, man," he whispered. "Don't."

Jim's hand fell to his side, closing into a fist. "Blair, listen to me. I want you here. If you hadn't helped me with this Sentinel thing, I'd have gone crazy. I'd be off the force now and probably in a nuthouse somewhere. I still need your help with this, and with other stuff, like these masks. You've got a way of seeing things that no cop has, and I can't tell you how much that's been worth to me. You're right, you do deserve respect. Sometimes, Simon and I forget that because you're just so damned young. But don't ever think you're not needed, or wanted. As for why you came back, I--" Shit. He had to get the words out. Blair needed to hear them. "I kind of thought you did it for me."

Blair slowly turned to face him. His eyes were red, but he had control of himself. "Do you really mean all that?"

"Every word, Partner."

Blair shook his head, his voice soft. "Maybe I did." He pushed his hair back with both hands. "God, I'm such an asshole! How do you put up with me?"

Jim kept his face straight. "Sometimes, I wonder."

Blair met Jim's eyes, a wry smile curving his lips. "You'd better let Simon back in. I'll--um--apologize, okay?"

"Okay, Partner."





Blair opened his eyes and lifted his head, staring around groggily. It was dark, but the lights of Cascade shone through the windows behind him, illuminating the desk, casting a pale, skewed rectangle on the floor. Simon's office? What was he--? His fingers brushed dried grass, and he turned back to the table. The mask lay to his left; tools and books were scattered around it. The last thing he remembered was Jim and Simon going out to get a late lunch. God, he'd fallen asleep. And Jim had just left him here? Great. Just great.

Curls tumbled into his eyes. Blair shoved them back and stood, shuffling toward the door. His neck was stiff. He shook his head and stretched, trying to work the kinks out. He opened the door, squinted at a "Do Not Disturb" sign taped to the opaque glass. The squadroom was deserted, every light shut off except for the lamp on Jim's desk. Jim sat there, his feet up on the desk, a report open in his lap. He looked Blair's way, and smiled.

"Have a nice nap, Partner?"

Blair felt himself blushing. Wonderful. First, he complained about being patronized, then he fell asleep while he was supposed to be working. Way to prove your maturity, Sandburg. The hair fell into his eyes again, and he raked it back. "What--" he croaked, cleared his throat, and tried again. "What time is it?"

"About eight. You've been asleep since two."

Six hours! "Oh, man, why didn't you wake me? Is Simon mad?"

"I didn't wake you because you need the rest. I told Simon you'd work on the mask tomorrow."

"Oh." He frowned. "Tomorrow's Saturday."

"You have plans?"

"Um, no."

"Good." Jim closed the file and put it back on his desk, switched his computer off, and stood up. "Let's pack it up and go home."

Blair nodded. "I'm sorry, man. I feel so stupid."

"Don't worry about it. Nobody knows you were asleep except for Simon, Rhonda, and me. Simon says if you figure this mask thing out, he won't tell anybody."

"What if I don't?"

Jim grinned. "You're dead meat."

They packed up the mask and all of Blair's paraphernalia, then took the elevator down to the garage. Blair held the mask across his lap as they drove. If his initial appraisal was correct, the mask was too valuable to be rattling around in the back of the truck. He hadn't said anything to Jim or Simon yet; he didn't want to blurt out his first impression, then turn out later to be wrong. Jim trusted him. He was not going to screw this up.

"Hey, Partner," Jim said. "What do you think about spending the night in a hotel?"

"A hotel? Why?"

Jim shrugged. "I just thought it might be good to get away from the loft for a night."

"Jim, I've been away. I just got back a month ago."

"I know. And you've had nightmares every night."

"Not every night."

"No. Only the nights when you actually slept."

Blair looked away. "How'd you know?"

"I didn't. I guessed. And I guessed right," Jim said, cutting off Blair's indignant exclamation. "Did you have any nightmares while you were sleeping in Simon's office?"

"Not that I remember." Realizing what Jim was getting at, Blair shook his head. "It's not the loft, man. I had nightmares at St. Sebastian's, too. Dr. Hawthorne says it's normal."

"Okay, it's not the loft," Jim conceded. "Maybe it's me."

"No, man."

"Why not? Ponytail looked exactly like me when he attacked you. It's got to be tough, looking at me and seeing the face of the man who hurt you."

"No, Jim." Blair couldn't stop shaking his head. "I know it wasn't you. I know you're not Ponytail. The nightmares are normal, they're not your fault. They'll go away."

"And until they do, you plan to go without sleep?"

"I'm not--"

"You're sure as hell trying, Sandburg. Look, why don't we give the hotel a try, just for one night? We'll get adjoining rooms, so you'll have privacy, but I'll be able to hear you if you need me."

"I can't afford a hotel."

"I'll pay."

"No, Jim. I can't let you do that."

"Blair, it's not a problem."

"It is for me. I don't want to do this, Jim. Let's just go home. Please? I promise I'll sleep tonight."

Jim shook his head, but gave up arguing, to Blair's intense relief. He didn't want to try Jim's experiment. He had to get used to being back at the loft, to sleeping in his own bed, knowing Jim was just up the stairs. And that Jim was not going to turn into Ponytail. That irrational fear was what had driven him to St. Sebastian's in the first place. He wouldn't let it happen again. He wouldn't hurt Jim like that, again. It wasn't Jim giving him the nightmares, it was the trauma of the attacks. That was all. Jim was wrong. He had to be. Because if Jim was right, then Ponytail had done exactly what he'd set out to do: driven Blair away from Jim, separated the Sentinel from his Guide, maybe forever. If Jim was right, then Ponytail had won. And Blair couldn't live with that.

Blair set the mask down in the center of the table, handling it gently. That alone told Jim it must be pretty valuable. Or at least, Blair thought it was. Dumping his pack in one of the chairs, Blair tossed his jacket to Jim, who hung it on one of the hooks by the door. When Jim turned around, Blair was heading for his room.

"How about some dinner?" Jim called after him.

"No, thanks," Blair answered without pausing. "I'm not hungry."

"You didn't have any lunch."

Blair ignored him.

"Isn't that weird show you like on now?"

Blair stopped, finally. "No, they moved it to Sundays, and replaced it with Serial Killer of the Week." He grimaced. "Not my idea of a good time."

"Mine either. Maybe there's a game on? We could nuke some popcorn...?"

"Jim, there's always a game on somewhere." Blair glanced toward the living room, and away again. "Maybe tomorrow, okay? I'm really wiped."

"Okay, Partner."

Blair went into his room and closed the door. Jim shook his head, staring at the double door he'd put up while Blair was at St. Sebastian's, to give his partner more privacy. The door wasn't the only thing he'd done. He'd painted, replaced the carpet, bought some new furniture, even added brightly-colored throws and pillows. Carolyn had helped him with it. He was no decorator, or so she'd declared when she saw the green paint he'd used in the kitchen. He hadn't cared. All he'd wanted was to change the place as much as he could, so that Blair wouldn't be reminded of what had happened to him here. It hadn't helped. Blair hadn't set foot in the living room since he came home. He even avoided looking in that direction. Jim couldn't blame him. Standing there, his own eyes went unerringly to the spot on the floor where he'd found Blair's blood on the night of the attack. There was nothing to see now, of course, but he knew it had been there. And if he couldn't forget, how could he expect it of Blair?

The light in Blair's room snapped off. In a few minutes, his breathing changed to the deep, regular rhythm of sleep. Not wanting to do anything that might wake his partner, Jim made himself a sandwich, grabbed a beer from the fridge, and took it upstairs to eat. He listened to a Santana tape for a while, the volume so low that no one else would have known it was on, then went to bed himself. When Blair began to scream, he shook the younger man awake, and stayed with him until he fell asleep again.





"So, what've you got, Sandburg?"

"Just a sec, Captain."

Blair laid the mask on the table in Simon's office, and started pulling things out of his pack. Various tools, books, a magnifying glass, and a sheaf of notes appeared, set out in no order that Jim could see, but that seemed to make perfect sense to Blair. The grad student had spent ten hours on Saturday examining the mask, stopping only when Jim dragged him from the loft to go out for pizza. He'd taken samples of paint and grass, done tests on them with different chemicals, checked every single carving mark with the magnifying glass, flipped through books, and scribbled notes. Jim had never seen him work like that before, on something in his own field. Except for the rare experiment he could talk Jim into trying, Blair generally did his thesis work alone in his room or at the U. Seeing him so focused, for so long, was an experience he wished Simon could have shared, if only to show the Captain what Blair was really capable of doing.

Blair put his glasses on and grabbed his notes. "Okay, Captain, I won't give you the details--unless you want me to?" Blair raised his eyebrows, peering over his glasses at Simon, who shook his head emphatically. "Right. As near as I can determine, the mask is late 18th century, made during a period of famine that lasted about five years and reduced the tribe by two-thirds. It's meant to represent a starving woman in a ceremony that's an appeal to the gods for relief."

"So it's real."

"Yes, sir."

"What's it worth?"

"About fifty-thousand dollars. Not enough to kill someone for."

"You'd be surprised what people will kill for, Sandburg. Is there anything unusual about the mask, anything that would be worth killing for?"

Blair shook his head. "I don't think so, Simon. There are dozens of these, maybe hundreds, scattered all over the world. Most are in museums, but some are held by private collectors like Wainwright. They're not rare enough for the government to restrict export."

Simon frowned. "What about the religious aspect? You said these masks are sacred, that someone might be trying to get them back."

"I don't know, Captain. This particular mask just isn't that important. I don't see why anyone would kill for it."

"What if it isn't the mask itself? What if there's something inside it?"

"Sandburg thought of that, Simon," Jim said. "We checked it yesterday. Except for the decorations, the mask's all one piece, and solid. There's no place to hide anything."

"So we're back to square one."

"Looks like it, sir."

Simon reached behind and poured himself a cup of coffee. "Jim, this mask theory isn't working out. You'd better start looking into other motives for Hatch's murder."

He'd known this was coming. Jim started to voice his arguments. "Simon, I really think--"

The phone rang. Holding up one hand to forestall Jim, Simon picked it up. "Banks." He listened for a second. "What?" A few more seconds. "Oh. All right, Rhonda, put it through."

Simon held the receiver out to Blair. "It's for you, Sandburg. Alice Hawthorne."

Blair went absolutely still, staring at the receiver like it was a snake about to strike. He jerked into motion, pushing his chair back, standing slowly, moving toward Simon's desk like a sleepwalker. He took the receiver with a trembling hand and raised it to his ear.

"Yeah?"

Jim turned his hearing down. Much as he wanted to, he couldn't eavesdrop on Dr. Hawthorne's end of the conversation. It wouldn't be right. Blair was pale, and swaying. It wouldn't take much more than a breeze to knock him over.

"Um, yeah. Uh--thanks. I will. Bye."

Blair hung up the phone, kept his hand and eyes on it for a minute. He took a deep, shaky breath, glanced up at the ceiling, around the room, anywhere but at Jim or Simon. Simon stood up.

"Are you all right, Sandburg?"

"Yeah." Blair pushed the hair back from his face. "Um, excuse me, I'll..."

Blair rushed out of the office, through the bullpen into the hall. Jim started after him, but Simon caught his arm.

"Maybe you should let him go."

Jim shook free. "Not this time, Simon."

He left Simon's office, hearing the men's room door close. At least Blair hadn't gone far. Jim made his way through the squadroom to the hall, and stopped outside the men's room, schooling his features into a calm mask. He didn't feel calm, but if he looked it, he might be able to fool Blair. Fortunately, the Guide couldn't hear the Sentinel's heartbeat. Jim pushed the door open.

Blair stood at the opposite end of the room, hunched into himself, facing the corner. Oh, God, what had Dr. Hawthorne told him? Jim advanced into the room. Blair knew he was there, but the younger man didn't turn around. Knowing Blair would tense up if he got too close, Jim stopped just out of reach. He tried to keep his tone light.

"Hey, Partner. Are you okay?"

Blair wrapped his arms more tightly around himself. "I'm fine."

"What did the doctor say?"

"She--um--she had the results of the blood test."

He had to stay calm. For Blair. "And?"

"And they're negative. No--no STD's. I'm fine."

Jim let out the breath he'd been holding. "Thank God."

"Yeah. I'm--um--really happy about it."

"Then what's wrong?"

"Nothing. Everything's great. Really. Just--just--"

Blair's shoulders began to shake. Oh God, he was crying, so hard that he could barely stay on his feet. Jim instinctively reached for him, and hesitated, unsure of Blair's reaction. He didn't want to make things worse. But he couldn't just stand here and watch Blair cry. Slowly, so slowly that it almost seemed unreal, he reached out and turned the slender body around, gathering Blair to him like a child. To his amazement, Blair didn't resist. His hands fisted in Jim's sweater, and Blair clung to him, sobbing, his whole body trembling.

"Oh God--Jim." He forced the words. "I thought--I thought I could han--handle it. But I--I was--so--scared."

"Me, too, Partner," Jim said softly. "Me, too."

"I'm s--sorry."

"Nothing to be sorry for."

"But I--I--c--can't--"

"Shut up, Sandburg."

Blair punched his chest, but there was no force behind the blow and Jim barely felt it. "Shit."

Jim smiled. "That you can say?"

They stood that way, Blair's sobs gradually fading, until the door opened and Martin Ballard walked in. Ballard stopped dead when he saw them, his mouth dropping open. After a moment, a nasty grin spread across his face. "Sorry, Ellison."

Blair tore free of Jim as though he'd turned to fire, flinging himself across the room. Jim glared at Ballard, and the man backed out of the bathroom, still grinning. Blair fixed his gaze on the floor, his face crimson.

"Shit!" Blair's fist slammed into the wall. "I'm sorry, man."

"What for?"

Blair gestured toward the door. "For that. He'll--tell everyone."

"So?"

"So?" Blair gave him an incredulous stare, tears still standing in the clear blue eyes. "Don't you get it, Jim? He's gonna tell them we're gay."

"He's been saying that for months."

"And you didn't tell me?"

"What for? Ballard's an asshole. Nobody listens to him."

"Some people do," Blair muttered.

"Then they're assholes. Sandburg, don't worry about it."

"Don't you care what people think of you?"

"No. And since when do you?"

"I have to."

"Why?"

"Because of what--what happened. People think that I--that I brought it on myself. That I was asking for it."

"Who thinks that?"

"Just--people."

"You know that's not true."

"Do I?"

"Of course you do! Blair, Ponytail didn't attack you because he thought you were gay, he did it to hurt you. And to drive you away from me. You know that."

"I--I guess so."

"You guess?"

"Jim, I--" Blair turned away. "You don't understand."

"No. I don't. But I want to." Jim looked around the men's room. "This isn't the best place to talk--too many interruptions. How about we go to lunch?"

"Now? Jim, it's ten o'clock in the morning."

"Okay, later. Or we'll go for dinner. Or when we get out of here, we'll just go home. I don't care where, but we're going to talk."

Blair wouldn't look at him. "I don't--I don't think I can."

That hit him. He knew it shouldn't, that Blair probably just needed more time, more something, but he couldn't help it. "Blair, I'm your partner. If you can't talk to me, we're in trouble."

A whisper. "I'm sorry."

Damn. Jim ran a hand through his hair. This wasn't right. Blair had been through hell, and he was sulking because the kid couldn't talk to him? What the hell was wrong with him? He lifted a hand toward Blair's shoulder, but Blair must have seen it in the mirror. He flinched, and Jim lowered his hand.

"It's okay, Partner. Whenever you're ready."

"Thanks, Jim. I wish--"

"What?"

Blair shook his head. "Never mind." He faced Jim with a forced smile. "We'd better get back to work, or Simon'll think we skipped out."

Jim answered his smile, and started for the door, Blair behind him.

"Jim?"

"Yeah?"

"I'll have to get tested again."

"I know."

"I can't guarantee that I won't--y'know--do this again."

"If you do," Jim said. "I'll be here."

Blair's eyebrows flew up. "In the men's room?"

A swat was called for, but Jim settled for a growl. "Get back to work, Sandburg."





He was crying, sobbing like a baby and he felt so stupid, but he couldn't stop, no matter how hard he tried. Jim's arms went around him, pulling him close. He was afraid for a second, but the fear washed away, and he grabbed on to Jim's sweater, letting Jim hold him while he cried. He didn't have much choice. Without Jim's support, his legs would give out and he'd be on the floor. But Jim wouldn't let him fall.

"Sorry, Ellison."

Shit, Ballard! He tried to break free, but Jim wouldn't let go. The arms tightened around him, crushing him so that he couldn't breathe; he fought to get away, but Jim just laughed and slid one hand down to his ass.

"Don't!" he cried. "Please, Jim!"

"Now, I know you don't mean that, Chief. You want this as much as I do. Even Ballard knows that."

"No! Ballard, help me!"

Ballard shook his head, grinning. "You're getting just what you deserve, you little Jew-boy faggot."

Laughing at his struggles, Jim ripped his pants open and shoved him against the wall. The massive body crowded close, one hand coming up to caress his cheek and thread through his hair.

"Please don't," he begged. "Please!"

Jim's fingers tangled in his hair, holding him still. He stared into eyes that were first blue, then brown, then blue again, but always, always cruel. Jim's head bent down toward him, and he struck out blindly.

"Ow! Sandburg!"

Jim caught his wrist in an iron grip.

"Let go! Let me go!"

The grip loosened. Blair twisted free and lunged across the bed, putting as much distance between them as the room would allow.

"Get away from me! Leave me alone!"

"Blair, it's okay, it's Jim."

"I know who you are! I--"

He saw then, really saw: Jim standing by the bed, one hand covering his right eye, the other held out toward him. Jim, not the nightmare. What had he done?

Blair started toward the bigger man, and stopped. "Jim, I'm so sorry."

"Don't worry about it, Sandburg."

"But I hit you! I could've--"

"I said, don't worry about it!" Jim snapped.

Blair stepped back, feeling the blood drain from his face. Jim turned his back on him. Oh, God, this was it. Jim had finally lost patience with him. He wanted to run, but there was no place to go. Left without an escape, he waited for Jim's anger to hit. He started to shake, and couldn't stop.

Jim's hand left his eye and passed through his hair. He sighed, and faced Blair again. "This has got to stop, Sandburg. We can't keep doing this every night."

"I know." Blair could hardly hear his own voice. "I'll start packing."

"What?"

"I'll start--"

"I heard you, Sandburg. What the hell are you talking about?"

"Moving out. That's--what you want. Isn't it?"

"No, that's not what I want!" Blair flinched, and cursed himself. In the pre-dawn light, Jim's eyes were ice-pale. "Is that what you want?"

He wanted to lie, to make it easy for Jim, but he couldn't get the words out, he didn't have the courage. Blair shook his head. Jim eyed him again.

"You're shivering. Get back in bed."

Blair did as he was told. Let Jim think he was cold. It was better that way. Jim sat down on the foot of the bed. Blair could see the muscle jumping in his jaw.

"What I want," Jim said. "Is for the nightmares to stop. What I want is for you to stop being afraid of me."

"I'm not--"

Jim held up his hand. "Don't even start, Sandburg. You can tell other people anything you want, but don't lie to me. If I come near you, you back away. If I raise my voice, you flinch. I can see the fear in your eyes, Blair. You think I'm going to hurt you."

"No, Jim."

"Yes, you do."

"No! I know you won't, I just--" He didn't know what to say, how to explain. "I'm sorry, Jim. I can't help it."

"I know. But Blair, we've got to do something. If being around me is making you afraid--"

"It isn't you, Jim. I swear it isn't." He raised his eyes to Jim's. "Don't make me leave."

"I wouldn't do that."

"Yes, you would. You sent me to St. Sebastian's."

"You wanted to go."

"But it was your idea. And if you thought it would help me, you'd do it again. To a hotel, or another apartment, wherever. But it wouldn't help me, Jim. This is where I need to be. If I can't stay here, with you, if I leave--then I'll never get any better."

"You know that, huh?"

"Yes. I do."

He'd put as much conviction into his voice as he could. Jim studied him for a minute, and he tried his best to meet the older man's gaze steadily. At last, Jim shook his head.

"All right, Partner. If you're sure this is what you want."

"I'm sure."

"Have you told Dr. Hawthorne about all this?"

Blair grabbed the notebook from the nightstand. "That's what the journal is for."

Jim stood and stretched. "I'm going back to bed. Don't stay up writing in that thing too long."

"I won't."

As soon as Jim closed the door, Blair began to write. When he started to shiver with cold, he left the bed, found Jim's Cascade PD sweatshirt where he'd dropped it on the floor, and pulled it on. He crawled back into bed and picked up the pen, but he hadn't written more than a few lines before his eyes started to close and the pen became too heavy to move. Blair slid down under the covers, and fell asleep with the notebook on his chest.

The buzz of the alarm startled him awake. Blair slapped it off and buried his head in the pillow, waiting for his heart to slow down. He hated alarm clocks. Being scared awake was a really, really lousy idea, and whoever had thought of it was a sadist. Probably a rich sadist.

Okay, he'd set the damn thing, so there must be a reason why he had to get up. What day was it? It was day? Blair turned his head so one eye could look out. Yup, that was daylight. Okay, so it was...Tuesday. Right. What did Tuesday mean? School. Midterm. That was it. He had to give the midterm today. Blair groaned. Couldn't he just flunk 'em all and be done with it? Or give 'em all A's, he didn't care which. He'd do either, for an extra hour's sleep right now.

He hadn't realized the shower was running until he heard it shut off. Screw the midterm. If Jim had used all the hot water, he wasn't getting up. Not that Jim would use it all. It took Jim all of thirty seconds to wash that fuzz he called hair, he could be out of the shower in under five minutes. Some people had real hair to wash, but some other people didn't understand that, and spent all their time complaining about how long the first people spent in the shower, which wasn't fair, and why should he get up anyway?

Blair heard the bathroom door open, and cracked one eyelid far enough to see Jim go by. If he didn't get up soon, Jim would start nagging him. He didn't need that this morning. He'd had a mother, thank you, and one was enough. More than enough. A partner wasn't supposed to act like a guy's mother, and neither was a Sentinel. A Sentinel was supposed to--

"Sandburg!"

"I'm up!"

"You're not moving."

"Doesn't prove a thing," he said into the pillow. Groaning again, Blair pushed himself off the bed. The floor was cold to his bare feet, and he cursed softly, making his way out of his room, down the hall to the now-vacant bathroom. Steam hung in the air from Jim's shower, fogging up the mirror. Blair turned the water on, stripped off the sweatshirt and his boxers, and stepped into the shower.

He'd just finished rinsing the shampoo out of his hair when a door slammed. The sound sent a chill through him, and he froze, remembering a softer sound, dismissed as nothing until a hand closed around his wrist and yanked him out of the shower.

"Jim?"

No answer. But Jim should be able to hear him. Heart pounding, Blair shut the water off. "Jim?"

Nothing. No other sound. Trembling, Blair pushed the curtain aside. He was alone in the bathroom. He stepped out of the tub, and wrapped a towel around his waist.

Ponytail threw him against the door and pressed up against him. He fought, but the bigger man pinned his wrists above his head with one hand, took him by the hair and banged his head into the door.

No! Blair jerked his head aside, squeezing his eyes shut for a moment. That had happened more than two months ago, at Simon's apartment, not here. Ponytail was gone, the feds had taken him away, he was never coming back. Jim said so, and he knew it was true. He knew it, but he couldn't stop the trembling, or the nausea that knotted his stomach; he couldn't make his breath come any easier.

He started to call Jim's name again, and stopped. Ponytail wasn't out there. But someone else might be, some criminal who had a grudge against Jim, or who wanted to stop an investigation because Jim was getting too close. Jim would have answered him before, if he could.

Blair pressed his ear to the door, listening. He couldn't hear anything; there was no sound at all. Was someone waiting for him out there? Were they gone? Where was Jim? Was he hiding somewhere, or hurt? Maybe-- No. Not that, he wouldn't think of that. But he had to know. He couldn't just stay in here. If someone was in the loft, they'd find him eventually. He grasped the doorknob, but couldn't turn it. He couldn't move. He couldn't go out there. He couldn't.

Closing his eyes, Blair leaned his forehead against the door, fighting to breathe. He had to do this. He had to find out if someone was in the loft, if Jim was okay. If Jim was hurt, and he did nothing...

Slowly, he turned the doorknob, careful to make as little sound as possible. The door opened, and he looked out. He could see no one in the hall, or by his room. Slipping out, he padded down the hall, his bare feet inaudible to anyone but a Sentinel. At the corner, he flattened himself against the wall and peered out at the kitchen area. No one. No one in the living room, or on the balcony. Upstairs? God, how could he get a look without being seen? He had to try. He had to try now.

Blair ducked, heading for the kitchen, intending to hide behind the counter. The front door rattled, and his body turned to ice. Paralyzed, his heart slamming in his chest, he watched the door swing open.

Ponytail walked in, tossed his keys on the table. He shut the door, and smiled. "I've missed your ass, Chief."

Oh God. Oh God, no.

"Sandburg?"

Jim. It was Jim, not Ponytail, Jim, plastic bag in one hand, bruises around one eye, staring at him in mild surprise. His frozen limbs melted, leaving him legs made of water. Blair collapsed against the counter, holding on hard to keep from falling. Jim put the bag down and came toward him, stopped a yard away when Blair looked up. He could only imagine the expression that must be on his face.

"Are you all right?" Jim demanded. "Did something happen?"

Blair shook his head. "God, Jim, I thought--heard--I--" Calm down, Sandburg. Breathe. Just breathe. "I heard the door slam. I thought--God, I panicked." His face was burning. "I'm sorry, man. I'm an idiot."

Jim's hands were fists at his sides, white-knuckled. "Blair, I'm sorry. I spilled the damned milk, and got mad at myself. I shouldn't have slammed the door. I should've told you I was going out to get more. I'm the idiot here, not you."

"No, man, I--" Blair shoved his dripping hair back, trying to remember what normal breathing was like. He was so tired of these endless rounds of apologies. "Look, Jim, no big deal. I overreacted. Let's just--let's just forget it. Okay?"

Jim looked at him, saying nothing. Blair waited. If he had to, he'd add a "please" and do the eye-thing. Jim couldn't handle that. He hated to consciously manipulate his friend, but there was no way he could go through all this again. C'mon, Jim. Give in.

"Sure, Partner." Jim took off his jacket, hung it up, grabbed the milk. "Go and get dressed. Breakfast in ten."

Trying to hide his relief, Blair pushed off the counter and went back to the bathroom to shave.





Blair glanced up, surveying the lecture hall before returning his gaze to his own notebook. Everything looked okay. Of the sixty-seven students, most were scribbling furiously in their bluebooks. A few were staring blankly into space, but he hoped those were just thinking and not hopelessly lost. The test wasn't all that hard. He was trying to go easy on them because they'd had to adjust to two different teachers, each with his own style, and that could throw people off. He wished he could have made the test multiple choice rather than essay. Multiple choice was so much easier to grade. You just checked them off, right or wrong, no could be or maybe or well I suppose, added them up and that was that, ten minutes per test and you were done in twelve hours, no problem. With essays, you had to wade through the repetitive bullshit looking for the maybe five percent of each that actually said something, and then determine whether that five percent made any sense at all, and if so, just how much. Plus, you had the added bonus of trying to read the handwriting. At least they weren't expecting them back on Thursday. There was no way he could get through all of them by then, even if he pulled all-nighters and never stopped to eat. But he would have to have them done by Tuesday, and he had a paper of his own due then. Fortunately, he already had the groundwork laid for that one. He was using Wainwright's Mombatu mask as the subject. All he had to do was organize his notes and put them all into anthro-speak. In fact, he expected to get the outline done now, while his students were taking the midterm. Two hours should be more than enough for that.

Except that he couldn't concentrate. He couldn't get the last five hours out of his mind. The nightmare, hitting Jim--hitting him! God, no matter what Jim said, he might have really hurt him--then practically begging Jim not to make him leave. He shouldn't have done that. If Jim would be more comfortable without him there, then he should just go. Jim had insisted that he didn't want him to go, but had he really meant it? Or was he just trying, again, to spare Blair's feelings? He was ashamed of his behavior. He knew Jim didn't want to hurt him, and he counted on that to get his way. It was wrong, but he'd still done it, and he knew he'd do it again.

God, he'd had better control of himself when his father threw him out! He hadn't begged, or pleaded. He hadn't even argued. He'd just gone. Maybe because he'd known it wouldn't be any use, that his father didn't care what happened to him. Jim cared. And Blair was using him because of it, manipulating him. He almost wished that Jim had demanded to know why he'd freaked out this morning. He wished he could tell Jim what he'd seen and heard, how real it had been, how scared--how scared he still was. But Jim had taken the blame on himself, and let Blair put him off, and Blair had been so relieved, then. He shouldn't have done it. He should have been honest with Jim. Jim deserved that.

But how could he? How could he tell Jim that he hadn't seen him at all when the door opened, that he'd seen Ponytail, heard him, and believed it was real, that it was somehow all happening again? Jim knew about the flashbacks, but the detective had no idea what they were like, how real they were, how he could still hear Ponytail's voice whispering in his ear, still feel the man's rough hands on his face and body, still feel his-- No. God, don't think about that. Don't. Think about the paper, the mask, the outline. Write the outline.

He couldn't write. His hand was shaking too much, and he was breathing too fast. God, not another anxiety attack, not here. Not in front of his students. Blair put the pen down, and flattened his hands on the table. Closing his eyes, he drew in a deep, shaky breath and let it out through his mouth as slowly as he could. His heart pounded in his chest, so hard that it hurt.

"Your heartbeat's real fast, Chief. Are you scared? Or excited?"

No! God, don't do this, not now. Calm down. Breathe. Visualize the mask: the age-darkened wood polished by two hundred years of handling; the dried-grass fringe, so fragile that a careless touch could crumble it; the faded paint, red from fruit and flowers, yellow from clay. Think of the mask, nothing else. See only the mask.

The man wearing Jim's face unzipped his jeans. "I'm excited."

No. God, no, he had to get away. Ponytail reached for him, grabbed his arm, and he flung himself away. "No!"

"Mr. Sandburg?"

Two faces: one Jim's, but not Jim's; the other thin, crowned by blond waves of hair, mouth open in astonishment. He looked away, fighting to breathe, to calm himself. Took off his glasses and ground the heel of his hand into first one eye, then the other. Forced himself to look again. Only one face now, the thin face. One of his students: Joshua...Something. Staring at him. They were all staring at him, pens frozen in their hands, tests forgotten. Oh, God, he'd been so afraid of this.

Blair pushed the hair out of his face, and tried to smile. "Sorry, man, you--uh--startled me. I was...someplace else."

Joshua nodded, mouth still open.

"So, did you have a question or something?"

Joshua blinked, and shut his mouth. "Uh--yeah. On question three, I'm not sure exactly what you're looking for."

Blair nodded, casting a quick glance at the other students. They were all looking down at their books, most of them writing again. Blair sat down, and picked up his copy of the test, hoping Joshua wouldn't see that his hands were still shaking.

"Okay, Josh, what I'm after here is...."





Blair paced the waiting room, hands jerking, gesturing, pushing his hair back, going to his mouth, in and out of his pockets. His breathing was too fast, and his heart was pounding, and if he didn't get in to see Dr. Hawthorne soon, he knew he'd be gone, out of there, and he'd never come back. Never to her office, never to the station, the U, or the loft. He couldn't do this anymore, he couldn't stand it. He didn't know how he'd gotten through the afternoon, and right now he had no idea how he was going to get through the rest of his life. Life. Huh. What life? He didn't have a life, he had a mess. He'd had a life once, or something that was starting to resemble one. But Ponytail had taken that away. Just--taken it, as if he had a right to, because he was bigger, stronger. Because he could. And no one noticed. Everyone thought that Blair still had his life, that nothing had changed except what was inside his head. But they were wrong. It was gone, all of it. Gone. He couldn't work, at the station or at the university. He couldn't concentrate, he couldn't get Ponytail out of his mind--God, he'd freaked out in front of his class! How could he pretend to be any kind of teacher when he couldn't even be sure if what he was seeing was real or a flashback? He couldn't date. He didn't know if he could touch a woman, never mind go any further, and no woman would want him, if she knew. He couldn't stay at the loft. He couldn't--physically could not--go into the living room, no matter how hard he tried. His muscles froze, and his brain locked, and all he could see was Jim's face above him, staring at him with cold hatred that turned to something else, something worse. He couldn't sleep, he couldn't eat, he couldn't form a coherent sentence. And he couldn't stand to be near Jim.

He wanted so much. He wanted things to be the way they'd been before. He wanted to be comfortable with Jim, to know without having to think that Jim was his friend, that Jim would never hurt him. He wanted Jim to be easy with him and not walking on eggshells all the time. He wanted Jim to pat his back, or put a hand on his shoulder, or grab his arm. He wanted Jim to call him "Chief", and he wanted to be able to hear it without hearing the echo of Ponytail's voice. He wanted not to hurt Jim anymore by flinching or shying away or losing control. He wanted not to be afraid.

But he was afraid, every moment that he was awake, and God knew, even while he slept. Afraid of it happening again. Afraid that Ponytail would escape, or the feds would let him out, and he'd come back, and how would they ever know? Ponytail could be anyone, anyone, and there was no way to tell, nothing that gave him away. At least, nothing that a non-Sentinel could recognize. And if it wasn't Ponytail, it could be someone else. Someone else who knew that Blair Sandburg was an easy target, that he could be used against Jim, that he could be used any way they wanted. Jim couldn't protect him, and he couldn't protect himself. Lash had broken in and taken him, so had Ponytail. Anyone could. Anyone could just take him, and do what they wanted to him, and there was nothing he could do about it. Nothing!

The office door opened. Dr. Hawthorne stepped out, looked automatically to the chair where he usually sat to wait, saw only his pack, then found him at the opposite end of the room. "Blair. What's the matter?"

She wanted direct? Okay, he'd be direct. Blair crossed the room, grabbed his pack and went past her into the office. He dumped the pack down beside a chair, and kept going, never slowing down. Dr. Hawthorne closed the door, watching him.

"I can't stand it!" he blurted. "I can't do this anymore, I hate it! I hate being afraid all the time, I hate the anxiety attacks, the nightmares, the flashbacks! I hate being afraid of Jim! I--" He stopped, not looking at her, not looking at anything. He pushed his hair back with both hands, holding either side of his head. "I think I'm losing my mind."

"Why do you think that?"

"I just told you! Weren't you listening? Don't you listen to me at all?"

"I heard you," Dr. Hawthorne said quietly. "Blair, we've talked about this. Everything you described is normal."

"But it's getting worse! I--I lost it in front of my class today. And this morning--"

"Yes? What happened this morning?"

"I had another flashback. A bad one. I--God, I thought it was real! I was terrified. But that's not the worst."

Dr. Hawthorne said nothing, waiting.

"I hit Jim. He was trying to wake me up from a nightmare, and I hit him. What if I'd really hurt him?"

"Do you think you could?"

"If he wasn't expecting it. He told me to forget it, but he was mad. He's not going to put up with me much longer."

"What do you think he'll do?"

"Throw me out."

"Has he told you that?"

"No. But what else can he do? He can't live with a headcase who screams all night, and he can't work with a partner who could freak out at any moment. It's not fair to him."

"Do you want to leave?"

Blair glanced at the doctor, and away again, studying a shrivelled leaf on one of her plants. "I don't know. I don't know what I want. I don't know what's right. Sometimes--I'm so afraid to be there. And other times, I'm afraid to be anywhere else. This morning, I told Jim that I had to stay, or I wouldn't get better."

"Was that the truth?"

"I believed it when I said it. Now--I don't know. Maybe I just--maybe--" He ripped the dead leaf off the plant. "God, I don't even know what I'm saying! I don't know what to do. I can't live like this."

Dr. Hawthorne came toward him and put a hand on his sleeve. "Blair, come and sit down."

He met the warm brown gaze, and hesitated. She gave him a small smile.

"Come on. Take your coat off and sit. It's okay. The tea's brewed by now, I'll go get it. You just sit for a minute."

Blair nodded, and did as she asked. A tape was playing, something with flutes, and harps, and running water. He closed his eyes, listening, and tried to let the music's tranquility seep into him. It helped, a little. Enough. When Dr. Hawthorne came back, he knew what he wanted to say. She handed him a cup, and he cradled it between his hands, treasuring the warmth. He didn't wait for her to prompt him.

"Dr. Hawthorne, you said if I told you about--what happened, that I'd start to heal."

"Yes. That's true."

Blair nodded, affirming what he was about to say as much as her words. "I want to do it. Now."

"All right."

"It might--it might take a while."

"Don't worry about that. You're my last appointment. We have as much time as we need." She pressed a button on a console beside her chair. "I'm going to record what you say. Are you okay with that, Blair?"

He bit his lip. "I guess so."

"Fine. Whenever you're ready, Blair."

Blair gulped his tea down, leaned forward to pour himself some more, and sat back. Keeping his eyes on the green cup, on the amber-colored liquid it contained, and on the steam curling from it, he began to speak. He told her everything, beginning at the moment Ponytail's pounding on the loft door shocked him from his dream. Every word the man had said, every blow, every rough caress was branded into his memory, and it all came out, as it would not when he had told Jim and Simon. It made him sick to tell it. He shook, and he cried, and his face burned with shame, and more than once he had to stop, to compose himself or try to find breath to continue. But he told it all.

"Then I--I don't remember much, for a while. I guess--I guess I was in shock. I remember being cold, and hurting. And then--there were arms around me, and I wasn't cold anymore, and I felt--safe. And there was a voice saying--um--'It's okay, kid.' Next thing I knew, there was a blanket around me, and Jim was telling me another ambulance was on its way. When it showed up, we went to the hospital. They stitched Jim's side up and put me in overnight. Jim stayed the whole time. I was tranked, and wouldn't have known the difference if he'd gone home. But he stayed."

"He's a good friend," Dr. Hawthorne said, and he knew those were the first words she'd spoken in a long time.

"Yeah." Blair cleared his throat. "He is. Better than I deserve."

"Why do you say that?"

Blair wiped his eyes, and looked around, realizing only now that he was sitting on the couch, Dr. Hawthorne beside him, and that her arm was around his shoulders. He was exhausted, drained. Dr. Hawthorne handed him a kleenex; he blew his nose, and wiped his eyes again. There was a dark spot on the front of Dr. Hawthorne's pale gray jacket.

"Oh, geez, I'm sorry," he said. "Did I ruin your suit?"

"No." She squeezed his shoulder. "A little salt water won't hurt it. Now answer my question."

"Jim's done so much for me. He lets me work with him, he gave me a place to live. He's got these stupid house rules, but he never yells at me when I screw up, and he puts up with all my questions."

"I imagine you have a lot of them."

He smiled a little. "Oh yeah. I can be a major pain in the ass. But it doesn't faze him. Nothing fazes him, he's the proverbial rock. He's saved my life more times than I want to think about."

"But isn't it true that you wouldn't be in these dangerous situations in the first place if you weren't working with Jim?"

"Well, yeah, but that's not the point. The point is, he's done all this stuff for me, and I repay him by being afraid of him and punching him in the eye when he tries to help me."

"How are you with other men?"

"Huh?"

"Are you comfortable around other men?"

"Um--no. I get--really nervous. Even with Simon, if he gets too close."

"Then it isn't just Jim, is it?"

"No. But it's worse with him. I mean, sometimes, I'm okay. Like, when you called yesterday about the blood test. I lost it. I mean, I was really crying, you know? Almost hysterical. Jim--held me while I cried, like I was a little kid or something. And I felt safe, like I did--like I did in the attic."

"You know that it was Jim who put his arms around you in the attic?"

"Oh. Yeah. I guess I always did, I just--" Blair shrugged. "Anyway, I was okay then. But it didn't last. I went right back to cringing if he so much as made a move toward me. And I'm still having nightmares."

"You will, for a while. The attacks--"

"But they're not about the attacks! Well--they are, but--but it's--" He forced the words through his shame. "It's Jim who's attacking me."

"Do you believe that Jim would attack you?"

"Of course not!" Blair looked away. "Not consciously. But if I'm dreaming about it, doesn't that mean that I do believe it, subconsciously?"

"Not necessarily, Blair. Nightmares spring from our fears, not from our beliefs. And for you, for a time, that fear was true. Your eyes and ears told you that it was Jim who had beaten and raped you, and you had no reason to believe otherwise. You know, now, that it was Ponytail and not Jim. But your mind remembers what it saw and heard."

"So, that's why I'm having these nightmares? Because, no matter what I know intellectually or emotionally, the physical evidence still says it was Jim?"

"Exactly. You're not responsible for your dreams, Blair. You must know that. Have you told Jim about them?"

"God, no. I couldn't."

"I think you should."

"I can't! He'll--He won't understand. He'll think I don't trust him."

"You think it would upset him?"

"I think he'd go ballistic."

Dr. Hawthorne thought for a moment. "What if you told him in a neutral setting, with a third party present?"

"You mean here? With you?"

She nodded. "A lot of what I hear from you tells me that the two of you are having trouble communicating. Mostly out of a desire to avoid hurting each other's feelings. It might help if Jim came with you next time, and you could talk to each other with the clear knowledge that what was said was the complete truth and was not intended to hurt. Would you like to ask Jim to come, or shall I call him?"

She wasn't giving him an out. Man, less than a dozen sessions and she already knew him too well. "I'll ask him. But I don't know if he'll do it. And I still don't know if I'll be able to tell him."

Dr. Hawthorne smiled and patted his hand. "Don't worry. I'm sure you'll find the courage."

Damn. The hall light was out again. Jim must not know it, or he would have replaced the bulb. There wasn't enough light from the tiny window to see anything. Wouldn't bother the Sentinel, of course. But Guides needed light like everybody else, especially Guides who were so tired they could barely put one foot in front of the other and they definitely weren't thinking straight. There was a lock to put his key into, somewhere. All he had to do was find it. Aha. There was the knob. Now to find the lock.

The door jerked open, nearly taking Blair with it. His heart lurched. Jim stood in the doorway, backlit, looking huge.

"Sandburg, where the hell have you been?"

Blair swallowed his heart back down. "Don't do that, man, you scared the shit out of me."

"Answer the question."

"Or what? You won't let me in?"

Jim stepped aside, and Blair moved past him, pausing to hang up his coat and toss his keys in the basket. Jim shut the door, locked it, and turned to watch him. The skin around Jim's right eye was purple, but there didn't seem to be any swelling.

"Your eye doesn't look too bad, Jim," Blair offered.

"It's fine. Do you know how close I came to having an APB put out on you?"

"What? Why?"

"Don't you know what time it is?"

"Um..." Blair looked at his hands. No clocks there. "No?"

"It's almost midnight. Where have you been?"

Midnight? My God-- "At counseling. I just left Dr. Hawthorne twenty minutes ago."

"Counseling? All this time?"

"Yeah. I--um--had a lot to talk about."

"Is that good or bad?"

Blair shrugged. "Good, I guess. I--um--got a lot of stuff out. I'm sorry you were worried, man, I had no idea how late it was."

Jim sighed. "Sit down, Sandburg, you look ready to drop."

"That's because I am, Jim."

All he wanted was to go to bed, to sleep, if he could. But he couldn't do that yet. He had to ask Jim to go to the next session with him, and the longer he waited, the harder it would be. Blair pulled a chair out from the table and fell into it. He rubbed his hands over his face, trying to wake up enough to think.

"Did you eat?" Jim asked.

His hands stopped. Whoops.

"You can't remember?"

"Of course I remember," he said testily. "I remember that I forgot to eat."

"Sandburg, you can't keep doing this to yourself."

Blair put his head down on his arms. "No lectures tonight, Jim, okay? I had a really bad day."

"What happened?"

He shook his head without raising it. "Can we talk about it tomorrow? I'm kind of talked out right now."

"I didn't think that was possible."

Blair ignored that. He didn't have the energy to answer. He heard the sound of the refrigerator door opening and closing. Something wrapped in paper thumped down at his elbow. "What is it?"

"I don't know," Jim said. "I don't want to know. I stopped at that weird deli you like and told them to give me your usual. Do me a favor, and don't ever tell me what the hell is in there."

Blair sat up and unwrapped the sandwich. Hummus, tongue,

horseradish and sprouts on pumpernickel. That might even keep him awake long enough to eat. "Thanks, Jim." He took a huge bite, and grinned.

Jim looked away. "You want a beer?"

"Yeah, I'll--"

"Sit."

Jim got the beer, opened it, set it beside him, and sat down across from him. Blair shook his head.

"You don't have to watch me, Jim. I'm eating it."

"I'm not watching you, Sandburg, I'm sitting. Is that okay with you?"

Blair winced. Nice going, Sandburg. Make sure you get him good and irritated before you ask him for a huge favor. He opened his mouth to apologize, but took another bite of sandwich instead. Jim was probably just as sick of the words "I'm sorry" as he was.

"Y'know, Jim," he said, and swallowed. "If you concentrated a little, you could smell what's in this sandwich."

"That's exactly what I'm trying not to do, Sandburg."

"Chicken."

Jim shook his head. "There's no chicken in that."

Blair rolled his eyes. "Great. I come home at midnight, and I get punished with bad jokes."

The slightest of grins curved Jim's lips. "Maybe next time, you'll call."

"C'mon, Jim, how was I supposed to do that? Stop in the middle of the session and say,'I have to call my roommate, he thinks he's my mother'? Dr. Hawthorne would get another whole session out of that. Maybe two."

"Blair, is the therapy helping at all?"

He smiled. "It's a little early for that, Jim."

This was the perfect opportunity. He had to ask Jim now. He put the sandwich down, and swigged some beer, gathering his courage.

"Jim, I've got something--"

The phone rang. Dammit! Jim jumped up to answer it.

"Yeah? Yes, this is Ellison." All expression wiped from his face. "What? Was anyone--? I see. What was taken? Uh-huh. Yes. Yes, thank you. I appreciate the call. I owe you one."

Jim hung up the phone. Blair swallowed the last bite of his sandwich.

"What's wrong? Jim?"

"That was Boston PD," Jim said. "Thomas Wainwright's house was robbed Sunday night."

"What was taken?"

"Some artwork. But it wasn't the really valuable stuff. Either the thief didn't know what he was doing, or he just grabbed the first things he saw."

Jim stared into the distance, his jaw clenched.

"What else?" Blair asked.

"Apparently, Wainwright surprised the guy in the act. He's dead."

"Murdered? My God!"

"Yeah. Blair, where's the mask?"

"In my room. Jim, you think the thief was after the mask?"

"I don't know. He could have been."

Blair shook his head. "I don't understand. There's nothing about that mask to make anyone want to steal it. I mean, aside from the fact that it's worth fifty thousand dollars. It's not worth killing for. It just isn't."

"Well, someone may think it is. And we've got to find out why."

"Jim, I've examined every inch of it. There's nothing."

"Examine it again." Jim slammed a fist into the palm of his hand. "We've got to get that list of buyers. You couldn't come up with anything?"

"No, man, sorry. I'll go back to the gallery tomorrow. There's got to be some way to get that information."

"Okay." Jim looked at him. "You sure you've got time?"

"Sure." He didn't, but he wasn't going to disappoint Jim. "No problem."

"Great. You'd better get to bed, Sandburg. I want you to be awake tomorrow."

"Okay, okay." Blair drained his beer, and tossed everything in the trash. "Um, Jim?"

"Yeah?"

"I've got to warn you. Tonight's session with Dr. Hawthorne was pretty intense. She said--she said the nightmares might get worse, for a few days."

The pale eyes pierced him. "Okay, Partner. Anything else?"

"No. That was it. Good night."

"Good night."

Blair went to his room. He couldn't ask Jim now; his partner was too distracted by the news about Wainwright. Tomorrow. He'd ask him tomorrow.





"Sandburg!"

He jolted awake, heart hammering, and stared into the darkness. Jim. Jim had called him. God, he sounded mad. Trying to get his sleepy brain to figure out what he could have done to cause Jim's anger, he slid out of bed and opened the door of his room.

"Yeah, Jim?"

Jim stood in the living room, wearing only his black boxers, arms crossed over his massive chest. The only light burned in the fireplace, casting shadows and gold on Jim's bare skin. His eyes glittered like pale sapphires. Smiling slightly, Jim beckoned to him.

"Come here."

He went cold. "What?"

"Come here."

He couldn't move. He couldn't go into the living room. He couldn't. "Why?"

Jim moved so fast that he had no time to react. Long strides brought the big man close in seconds. Jim grabbed him by the hair, dragged him through the dining area into the living room, and shoved his head down, stabbing a finger at the rug.

"This is where I found your blood. Right here."

God, the blood was there, he could see it, spreading across the rug, staining the floor. He tried to look away, but Jim wouldn't let him. The fingers tightened in his hair, the other hand closed around his arm, holding him there.

"This is where he did it, isn't it, Sandburg? This is where he fucked you."

"Jim--"

Jim jerked his head back. "Isn't it?"

He closed his eyes, breathing the word. "Yes."

"And you let him do it, didn't you? You didn't even try to stop him. You just lay there and let him shove his cock up your soft little ass."

"No! I--"

"You should have died, Sandburg. You should have died before you let him touch you. But you didn't. You let him fuck you, and you let him do it here, in my apartment. My territory. You think I can just let that go? Do you?"

"Jim--"

Jim forced him to his knees, in the blood, and knelt behind him, whispering in his ear. "You're my Guide, Sandburg. Mine. But he put his mark on you, and he did it in my place. We've got to fix that. And you know how, don't you?" The hand left his arm and slid down the back of his shorts. "Don't you?"

"No! God, Jim, please!"

He fought, but Jim pushed him down easily, ripped his boxers and t-shirt away so that he lay naked in his own blood. Jim wrenched his legs apart and knelt between them. He felt Jim's cock hard and hot against his ass.

"It's the only way, Sandburg. You belong to me, and this will prove it, to him and to you."

"No! Jim, please! Don't do this! Please!"

"Sandburg!" Jim took him by the shoulders. "Sandburg!"

"God, please! Please don't!"

"Blair!"

The hands turned him over, shaking him. He gripped hard-muscled arms, trying to push them away, tried to get up, but he couldn't, he wasn't strong enough. Jim held him down, and all he could do was beg.

"Jim, please! Let me go!"

The shaking grew violent, lifting him up, Jim's fingers digging into his upper arms. "Blair! Come on!"

He twisted desperately, but he couldn't break Jim's grip. "Let...go!"

"Blair! For God's sake, wake up!"

He stared up into Jim's face, at the ice-blue eyes searching his, the bruises around one eye-socket. The pleas died on his lips. Jim stopped shaking him and pulled back, but didn't let go.

"Blair? Are you awake, Partner?"

Blair tore his gaze from Jim's. He was in his room, in his bed. Not in the living room. Not--God, what had he--He couldn't breathe. He couldn't--

"Jim--please. Let--let go."

Jim held on. "Are you with me, here?"

"Yeah. I'm--awake. I--I can't--" Shudders racked his body, his skin crawling under Jim's fingers. "I can't--please!"

Jim released him, and he fell back, fighting to breathe, to stop the shudders that threatened to make him sick. He closed his eyes, but the dream was there, waiting, and he opened them again, to see Jim standing over him, a look of such helplessness on his face that Blair wanted to reach out to him, to put a hand on his arm as Jim had done so many times for him. He couldn't move. He couldn't bring himself to touch his friend. Guilt twisted inside him, and he turned his face to the wall.

"Blair?" There was an edge of fear in Jim's voice that Blair had never heard before. "Can you talk to me, buddy? Do you need a doctor?"

"No. I'm--okay." Calm. He had to be calm. For Jim. "It's just--just another--an--anx--"

"Anxiety attack?"

He nodded. Relax. God, relax! Breathe. Don't think about the nightmare. Don't think about anything. Just breathe. Breathe. God, he couldn't! His chest hurt so bad it was like a giant hand squeezing him. He couldn't get any air. Oh, God, maybe it wasn't an anxiety attack. Maybe it was something worse.

"Blair," Jim said gently. "Blair, look at me. Listen to me."

He turned his head toward Jim, trying to keep the panic from his face, knew he wasn't succeeding. "Jim--hurts."

"I know, Partner. You have to relax, okay? Listen to my voice. Can you do that?"

He nodded, couldn't speak.

"Everything's okay, Blair. You had a bad dream, but it's over. It can't hurt you. You're safe here. Take it easy, now. Easy. Just breathe, Partner, that's all you have to do. Relax. Breathe. Close your eyes."

Terror flashed through him. Blair opened his mouth to refuse, but Jim shook his head.

"It's okay. You can do it, Partner, there's nothing there that you don't want to be there. Now, come on, close your eyes."

He obeyed, and there was only darkness.

"Good. That's good, Blair. Now, think of--think of our camping trip, last summer. You remember, we went up into the mountains? You found that spot that overlooked the lake, with the circle of trees, and you said it reminded you of some ancient site you'd visited? Remember that? Remember how beautiful it was? How quiet and peaceful? You sat there for the longest time, just gazing at the water, never moving. You looked like you belonged there, like you were some kind of forest spirit and that was your place. And you never said a word the whole time. I said Simon would never believe it. And he didn't, either, remember?"

Blair smiled, remembering the Captain's skepticism. The pain was gone, and the panic. He was breathing normally. He opened his eyes and pushed himself up to sit. God, he was tired.

"You okay, Partner?"

He nodded. "Thanks, Jim."

Jim regarded him steadily. "That must have been one hell of a nightmare."

"Yeah." He suppressed a final shudder. "Guess Dr. Hawthorne was right."

"Guess so. Think you can go back to sleep?"

"Not--for a while."

"Want me to stay?"

Part of him screamed "No!". But a bigger part wanted Jim to stay so badly that he was ashamed. Either way, he couldn't look at the older man. "You don't have to."

"Okay."

Jim pulled the desk chair to the bed and sat down. Blair felt himself blushing, and knew Jim could see, which only made it worse.

"Really, man, you don't have to stay. I'm fine now."

"I know." Jim smiled. "Lie down, kid. Think good thoughts."

He couldn't help a small smile of his own. "Will I be able to fly?"

"In your dreams, Peter Pan. In your dreams."

Blair lay back, staring at the ceiling. After a while, Jim reached over and snapped the light off, but Blair could still see him, a solid figure, motionless in the chair, waiting patiently for him to fall asleep. He should ask Jim now to go to counseling with him. But the image filled his mind of himself as Peter Pan, flying over the streets of Cascade. The image changed to Jim, and he almost laughed aloud at the idea of his friend the cop in leafy tunic and tights. He should ask.

He looked at Jim: the pale eyes were closed, his chest rising and falling in regular rhythm. Blair smiled. Jim could sleep anywhere, under any conditions. Must be his Ranger training.

Blair turned onto his side, and closed his eyes. "Think good thoughts." Heh. Maybe he'd get back to sleep after all.

Bluebook spread across the steering wheel, Blair sat in the Corvair across the street from the Hatch Gallery, waiting for it to open. If he were with Jim, they could have just waltzed in any time, but by himself, he didn't think it was a good idea to try demanding entrance. He wasn't a cop, Hatch was under no obligation to let him in or to let him fool around with the gallery's computer. Of course, if he didn't, he'd have to deal with Jim, but Blair didn't want to push it. It was so much easier to get things from people if you stayed on friendly terms with them. He wasn't exactly the type to play the hardnose anyway. Now, if he were eight inches taller, more muscular, tougher looking--Hell, if he were Jim--then he could get away with it. But he wasn't any of those things, so he'd stick to the method that worked for him.

"Nice try, Diana," he muttered. Uncapping the red pen with his teeth, he wrote, "2 1/2 pages, and you haven't said anything" below her answer to the final question. He shook his head, and grinned. She hadn't said anything, but she hadn't said it really well. He scribbled beneath it, "50% for style. Don't do it again." That would give her a 75. She should be doing better, but she spent a lot of time daydreaming in class.

Blair tossed the book into the "done" pile--that made three, only sixty-four to go--and picked up the next one. It was a good thing he hadn't bothered to take the box of tests out of the car last night. He hadn't expected the gallery to open so late; without the tests, he would have had nothing to do but think. And thinking was something he didn't want to do right now. Thinking brought back yesterday, and a roomful of students staring at their teacher who'd been "sick" and had just flipped out in front of them. He had to face them all again tomorrow. He had to, because his only alternative was to tell Dr. Cranmore, the head of the Anthropology Department, that he couldn't teach anymore, and he was not going to do that. Ponytail was not going to make him quit.

And thinking about it was not going to get the tests graded. Blair sighed, and opened the book, holding it across the steering wheel. He'd intended to get up with Jim and get started on these this morning, but Jim had evidently thought he needed sleep, because he'd turned Blair's alarm off and left without waking him. Blair hadn't woken up until eleven o'clock. Right now, he was torn between being mad at Jim's presumption and grateful for the extra sleep.

Something rapped on the window. Blair jumped, and his hands pressed on the steering wheel, setting the horn off. Toni LeClaire stood outside the car, sheltered under a scarlet umbrella. Her suit today was purple, beneath it a print blouse in purple, red, and black. She smiled, and Blair rolled down the window.

"Are you waiting for me, Mr. Sandburg?"

"Hi. Uh--no, actually, I'm waiting for the gallery to open."

"Then you're not here to take me to lunch? Too bad. Well, enjoy your wait, Mr. Sandburg."

Toni started across the street. Blair hastily rolled up the window and all but dove out of the car, hurrying to catch up with her.

"Toni!"

She reached the sidewalk, and paused, waiting for him, but didn't turn around. Blair walked around to stand in front of her. Rain misted his eyes, making her shimmer like a being from another world.

"Toni, I would love to take you to lunch. I really would."

"But?"

"But I--um--I've only got ten bucks. So unless you want fast food...."

She laughed, and moved past him to the gallery door. "Don't worry, Mr. Sandburg. I've already had lunch."

"Blair," he said. "Call me Blair. Please."

Toni took a set of keys from her purse, and unlocked the door. She pulled it open, and looked back at Blair. "Are you coming, Blair Please?"

"Um--yeah."

Blair followed her inside. She locked the door again, shook the water off her umbrella, and handed it to him. "Put this out back for me? I'll tell Geoffrey you're here."

"Maybe I should ask him first?"

Toni waved a hand. "He won't mind. Go play."

Blair shrugged. "Okay."

Umbrella in hand, he headed for the back room, pushed open the door, and stopped. Rupert Crowley looked up from the desk. Today's wardrobe choice was brown with faint hints of gold, right down to the smoky topaz stud in his ear. Rupert killed the pc and stood up, the better to intimidate with his three whole inches of height over Blair.

"Well, if it isn't the boy-genius, back again. Where's your partner, the real cop?"

"He's out doing real cop things," Blair replied, his tone deliberately cheerful. "I'm going to take another look at the computer."

He turned away from Rupert to hang Toni's umbrella and his jacket on the coat rack next to the door, taking his time, hoping Crowley couldn't see that his hands were shaking. Ponytail's voice echoed through his head, smug and sure: "Blair Sandburg, boy-anthropologist."

He didn't see Crowley move. Rupert's voice spoke close to his ear--too close--and he whirled, his arm colliding with the coat rack. It started to fall, and he lunged to catch it and set it upright again. Crowley watched his performance, and smiled.

"Sorry. Didn't mean to startle you."

Sure you didn't. Asshole. "No problem. What did you ask me?"

"If you've found out anything. About the murder."

"Sorry," Blair said shortly. "Can't talk about it."

Crowley's smile widened. "You mean Ellison hasn't told you."

"Oh, he tells me everything." Blair smiled, whispering, "But we're not supposed to tell the suspects."

Rupert's smile vanished. "I'm a suspect?"

"Sure." Blair widened his eyes. "You didn't know? Boy, nobody tells you anything around here, do they, Rupert?"

Rupert moved closer, his washed-out eyes narrowing. "Why am I a suspect?"

"You'll have to ask Detective Ellison. He's a real cop, he's better at explaining these things."

Blair tried to move past him. Crowley grabbed his arm. He started to say something, but Blair didn't hear the words. "Get away!" was all he heard and thought; "Get away!" was all that mattered. He fought blindly, shouting, and came to himself to find Crowley backed into the door, and his own legs against the desk, a good ten feet away.

"Don't you ever touch me again, man!" His fists were clenched; he wondered if he'd hit Crowley; he couldn't remember. He opened his hands, raked the hair back from his face. "You want to know anything, you ask Ellison. I've got work to do."

Rupert left the room without a word. When he was gone, Blair closed the door, sat down, and turned on the computer. He was trembling, his breath coming in hard gasps. He felt sick, and stupid. God, he was so stupid! He'd probably scared the shit out of Crowley, convinced him he was some kind of maniac. If he'd hit the guy, Jim would kill him. No, he couldn't have hit him. If he had, Crowley would be yelling "assault and battery" at the top of his lungs. There was nothing Rupert would like better than to get the "boy-genius" in trouble with his partner, Blair knew that, but he didn't know why. What did Crowley have against him? The dislike was mutual, but Crowley had started it. Could Rupert be the killer? No, not by himself. Arthur Hatch had been 6'4". There was no way one man could have hanged him like that. Unless he was unconscious, but even then, Blair didn't think Rupert was strong enough to manhandle someone so much bigger than himself. He couldn't do it, and he was pretty sure he was in better shape than Rupert.

Rupert had been surprised that he was considered a suspect. That seemed kind of dumb, considering. To Blair, it was obvious that everyone at the gallery would be a suspect, but maybe it was just because he'd been working with Jim for so long. Or maybe Rupert's surprise was faked, to make him look innocent. Should he tell Jim that Rupert had tried to intimidate him? Probably. Whether he would, was another question.

Wow. The shakes were gone. And he was breathing fine. Maybe police work was good for him. He'd have to try that one on Jim, see if he swallowed it. But for now, he'd better look for that list.

Four hours later, he was no closer to finding a list of who had bought the Mombatu masks than he'd been when he started. Nothing he could find, no cross-reference, no file, no directory, offered any clue as to what had become of the masks. If there had ever been a list, someone had purged it. Someone who knew more than he did about computers. Blair put his head in his hands. What was he going to tell Jim? "Sorry, man, I know you were counting on me, but I just wasn't good enough?" He couldn't do that. He couldn't fail Jim, not now.

The door opened. Blair looked up, expecting Geoffrey Hatch, or worse, Crowley. But it was Toni, carrying two steaming mugs of--

"Coffee, Mr. Sandburg?"

"Thanks. That would be great."

Toni handed him one of the mugs and came around to stand beside his chair. "I heard the shouting earlier. Was Rupert being horrible to you?"

"It wasn't him. Well, it was, but--I've been kind of--touchy, lately. He pushed the wrong button."

She gazed skyward. "I apologize for him. He's not usually quite so rude. He's been very upset about Arthur's death."

"More than you?"

Toni smiled. "That's a Detective Ellison question."

"Sorry." Blair smiled sheepishly. "Guess I've been hanging around him too long."

"No, it's a good question. Rupert is more upset than I am. Of course, he would be."

"Why?"

Toni looked puzzled. "Well, they were lovers."

"What?"

"Rupert didn't tell you?" Toni bit her lip. "I shouldn't have said anything."

"No, Toni, this is important. Rupert should have told Jim." Why hadn't he?

"Well, they were very discreet. Maybe Arthur didn't want anyone to know."

"How do you know about it?"

"I saw them together once, when they thought they were alone. They didn't see me, fortunately. I'd have died of embarrassment, intruding on a private moment like that."

"So you never asked Rupert about it?"

"I couldn't possibly. It wasn't my business."

"You know, I'll have to tell Jim about this."

"I know." Toni sighed, and drank some coffee. She nodded at the pc. "Any luck?"

"No." Blair sipped his own coffee. "And I've run out of places to look."

"You're giving up?"

He shook his head. "I can't. Jim's depending on me."

"And that means a lot to you, doesn't it?"

"Yeah."

Toni put a hand on his shoulder. "You'll find it, then."

He looked at her, and wished that she would stay there forever. "You think so?"

"Oh, yes." Toni took her hand away, and Blair's shoulder felt cold. "Were you able to reach Mr. Wainwright?"

Blair nodded. "He sent us his mask. And now he's dead."

He almost clapped a hand over his mouth. What was he doing? He shouldn't have told her that. Not that it was a secret, exactly. Anyone who read a Boston paper would know. But she was a suspect, and Jim probably wanted Wainwright's death kept quiet. God, Jim was going to kill him. Why couldn't he keep his big mouth shut? Toni was staring at him, her cinnamon-colored skin gone dull.

"Dead? My God, Blair, what happened?"

"His house was broken into. Whoever broke in, killed him."

"Do you think it had something to do with the mask?"

"We don't know for sure. Jim thinks so. That's why he wants this list." Blair took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. "God, I shouldn't be telling you this."

"Blair, I swear to you, I had nothing to do with this. You don't have to tell me anything else. But I want to do what I can to help."

Blair looked into her dark eyes. "I believe you. I do. And I'd be grateful for any help you can give me. So would Jim." But he's still gonna kill me.

Toni glanced at the door. "I should go back out on the floor." She made a face. "Makes it sound like a car dealership, doesn't it?"

She slid off the desk and moved to the door, the ringlets that tumbled down her back swaying with her movement. Toni opened the door, and turned toward Blair.

"Maybe you should look at the problem from another direction."

Toni shut the door. Blair stared at it, then at the computer screen. Yeah. Great. What direction? What was left? He'd tried everything he knew about computers, and he not only couldn't find a list of buyers, he couldn't tell if there had ever been one. For all he knew, he was wasting his time looking for something that had never existed in the first place. A wry grin spread across his face. Kind of like looking for a Sentinel before he'd found Jim.

All right, what information did he have? The masks were Mombatu. How many were there? He didn't know, he hadn't counted when Jim showed him the pictures. Jim would know, though. They'd been shipped from Kenya to Arthur Hatch. Who had shipped them? He didn't know that, either, but there must be a record of it somewhere, so Jim probably knew that, too. Arthur Hatch had sold them all, and they had no idea who he had sold them to. Except for the one Toni had sold, to Thomas Wainwright. Who was now dead. Jim thought Wainwright's death was connected to the mask. If there was a list, and the killers had it, that would explain how they had found Wainwright. But what if there was no list? If there was no list, then the only people who knew about Wainwright, aside from cops and Blair himself, were Toni and anyone Toni might have told. Which probably meant Rupert Crowley and Geoffrey Hatch. Which meant that they really were suspects. Real suspects, not just a formality because they worked there suspects. And he'd just told her that Wainwright was dead. But that didn't matter, did it? If she was one of the killers, she already knew; if she wasn't, there was no harm done.

Toni wasn't a murderer. He knew she wasn't. Jim would scoff at him, tell him he was thinking with the wrong part of his anatomy, but he knew, he felt it. Jim could have gut feelings, why couldn't he? Jim would say because he wasn't a cop, he didn't have the training, the experience. But he was an anthropologist, and a teacher. He'd had to go with his gut feelings lots of times, in the field. And with students. Why shouldn't that apply here? He was right about Toni, he knew he was. The fact that she was incredibly beautiful, sexy, and intelligent had nothing to do with it. It wasn't as though he thought he had a chance with her, because he didn't. He couldn't. She'd never--not with him. He just trusted her, that was all.

Toni came back in, carrying a portable phone. "Telephone, Mr. Sandburg. It's Detective Ellison."

"Oh. Um--thanks." Blair rose to take the phone from her. Toni smiled, and left him alone to talk. "Hi, Jim."

"How's it going, Partner?"

"Not so good. I found something out, though."

"What's that?"

"Rupert Crowley and Arthur Hatch were--um--a couple."

"Crowley told you that?"

"No. Toni."

"Hmmm. Ms. LeClaire's a font of information, isn't she?"

"Hey, come on, Jim, we were just talking. She wants to help."

"I'm sure she does, Sandburg. Remember what I told you."

"Yeah, yeah, keep it professional. I know, man."

He could hear Jim's grin. "So, no luck with the computer, huh?"

"None. I'm trying to come at it from a different direction."

"And what direction would that be, Professor?"

"Any direction I can find, Jim. I'm not giving up."

"So you're gonna be hanging around there for a while?"

"Yeah."

"Okay, Partner. Let me know when you're ready to pack it in and I'll pick you up."

"No, that's okay, Jim, I've got my...." Pack it in. Pack it. "Jim, I've gotta go. I just had an idea. I'll call you if it pans out, okay? Bye."

He was already out of the chair. Blair thumbed the phone off and shot out of the office, searching the gallery for Toni. There! He rushed up behind her and touched her sleeve.

"Toni, the other day, you said something about--"

"Young man." An imperious voice cut through his words. "Miss LeClaire is helping me."

The woman had to be eighty years old, but she was taller than Blair, and gripped a silver-headed cane with a firmness that said she'd used it before and wasn't afraid to use it again, especially on short, rude, long-haired men. He hadn't even seen her. Toni turned toward him, looking flustered. Oh, shit, he'd probably just cost her a sale.

"I'm really sorry, ma'am. I shouldn't have interrupted. I--" Blair's eyebrows shot up. He gestured at the painting on the wall in front of them. "Is this what you're buying?"

The old lady wasn't mollified. "Thinking of buying, young man. And quite prepared to change my mind, at the moment."

"Change your mind? But, ma'am, that's a Lopez!"

"I am aware of that."

"But did you know that this is from her ongoing 'Mind/Jungle' series, in which she explores the connection between the darkness in herself and in the deepest, oldest part of the rainforest?"

"And how do you know that?" the woman sniffed.

"She told me."

"The artist told you? Personally?"

"Yeah, I met her a few years ago, when I was on an anthropological expedition. Well, actually, I was sort of on vacation from it when I met her. Y'see--"

"And she explained this to you?"

"Uh-huh. She's really a fascinating person. Y'know, the critics say this is her best work to date, and I think they're right." He shook his head. "God, I'd love to own a Lopez."

"Then why don't you?" the woman demanded.

"Who, me?" Blair smiled. "I'm just a grad student. I couldn't afford to buy one of her brushes."

"So, you think this is a good investment?"

"I wouldn't know about that, ma'am. I just know it's a beautiful painting."

"Yes. It is." She turned to Toni. "Very well, Miss LeClaire, I'll take it. Have it sent to my home. Better yet, have this young man deliver it."

Toni flashed him a smile. "I'm sorry, Miss Palmer, but Mr. Sandburg doesn't work here."

"Sandburg." The old woman turned her formidable gaze back to him. "Blair Sandburg?"

"Uh--yes, ma'am." Blair gave her a puzzled smile. "How did you know?"

"Elsie Cranmore and I have been friends for a very long time. She has mentioned your name on several occasions. The next time I see her, I can tell her that I understand."

Dr. Cranmore had talked about him? "Understand?"

"What she means, of course. Perfectly." She pointed her cane at him. "I shall have you for dinner, Blair Sandburg."

"Dinner?"

She barked a laugh. "Don't look so alarmed, Mr. Sandburg. You'll be a guest, not the main course. I don't eat young men." A spark flashed in her eyes. "Anymore."

Blair laughed weakly, and watched her out. Rupert jumped to open the door for her, but she strode by without acknowledging him and settled herself into the back of an old Rolls Royce. The car drove away, and Blair turned to a smiling Toni.

"Who was that?"

"That," she said, "Was Olive Palmer."

"The richest woman in Washington?"

"The richest person in Washington," Toni corrected. She squeezed Blair's arm. "And you have just made me an enormous commission, Mr. Sandburg. Now, what did you want to say to me?"

He had to think a minute. "Oh, right. When I was here before, you said something about packing slips. Do you keep copies of all of them?"

"Yes. In the back room."

"Then you'd have copies of the packing slips for the masks, right?"

"Yes."

"Can I see them?"

"Of course. But--"

"What?"

"They're filed in alphabetical order, by the customer's last name."

"You're kidding." Blair's shoulders slumped. It would take days to look through them all. How was he going to do that and still get the midterms graded? He had to do it. He had to find out where the masks had gone, no matter how long it took. Jim was counting on him. But so were his students. And he had that paper to write. Dammit!

"Don't look so dejected." Toni put her arm through his and started to walk him to the back room. "I'll help you look."

"Thanks, but don't you have to work?"

"Don't worry. I could work for a month and not make what you just made for me." She raised her voice slightly. "Rupert will be happy to handle the customers, won't you, Rupert?"

"Of course." Rupert smiled. "You and the boy-genius have fun."

He should say no. What if she tampered with the evidence, or hid something from him? But, God, he needed the help. And what could she do with him right there? She could pass over the slips he needed and pretend they weren't there, that's what. But she wouldn't do that. Would she? Oh, hell. He could always go through the stuff she'd looked through later. It wouldn't be any more work than he'd have to do without her. And if she did really help, it would save time. Right? Right.

Toni led him to a long, low, two-drawer file cabinet that took up the entire wall behind the desk, and opened the top drawer. There were thousands of slips. Thousands. Blair shook his head.

"No. This is ridiculous. There's got to be a better way." His brain finally kicked into gear. "The slips are numbered, right?"

"Yes, but--"

"I know, you file them in alphabetical order. What number are you on now?"

"285037."

"And about how many pieces do you sell in a month?"

"It varies. It might be only one or two. It might be dozens."

"Last month. How many last month?"

"I'm not sure. Only five or six, I think. We were closed for a week, after--"

"After the murder. Okay. Arthur Hatch was killed two months ago. The masks were all sold before he died. When did they come in?"

"About a month before."

"How many were there?"

"Twenty-four."

"Okay. So we look for--say--the last fifty numbers, maybe the last hundred just to be safe. That way, we can just flip through without having to read them all. I'll start at this end of the drawer, you start at that end, and we'll meet in the middle."

Blair knelt on the floor and pushed the first file folder open. Toni pulled the last three out of the drawer and dumped them on the desk, then sat down to look through them. It was tedious, mindless, boring--like the worst research a hapless TA could be assigned--but Blair was determined to do it, to keep his mind focused on those numbers. If he missed one, he'd have to do it all again, and he was not doing this twice. Not even for Jim.

In the middle of the "C" file, he found one. He stared at the piece of paper in his hand, scarcely able to believe it: Roberta Chilson; Phoenix, Arizona; mask--Mombatu.

"I've got one," he said softly. It hit him then, and he all but shouted. "I've got one! This is gonna work! This is great! This is so great!"

He was on his feet now, so was Toni, her smile nearly as broad as his own. He waved the packing slip over his head, and threw his arms around her. After a minute, he realized what he was doing and let her go, backing off. His face flamed.

"Sorry. I--um.... Sorry."

Toni smiled at him. "Don't be. Shall we keep looking?"

"Oh. Yeah." He smiled, held up the slip. "Twenty-three to go."

Toni sat down, and Blair went back to his file. Idiot! What the hell was the matter with him, grabbing her like that? He was lucky she hadn't hit him, or screamed or something. She hadn't seemed to mind, though. Maybe.... No, she was just being nice, that was all. Making allowances for the "boy-genius" geek moron headcase. He was so stupid!

A packing slip dangled in front of his face. Blair grabbed hold of it, looking up to meet Toni's eyes. "You found one?"

She raised her eyebrows, and grinned.

"Yes!"

Blair took it from her, and put it with the other one. Three hours later, they had them all, twenty-four packing slips, each with the name and address of the buyer of a Mombatu mask, including one in the name of Olive Palmer. They'd done it! They'd found them. He had to call Jim. He dashed out of the back room to get the phone, but Crowley was using it and not only didn't hand it over, but didn't sound like he was going to be off any time soon, no matter how long Blair stood there or how desperate he looked. His eyes strayed to the staircase, and his body followed, carrying him up the stairs at a run. Geoffrey Hatch had a phone. Maybe...

"Mr. Sandburg." Hatch had been sitting behind his desk, but he stood up when Blair appeared, his brow creasing. "Is something wrong?"

"No. No, everything's great. I found what we've been looking for. I just need to call my partner, if that's okay."

"By all means."

"Thanks." Blair picked up the phone, and punched in the number of the loft.

"You were able to reconstruct the list of buyers?" Hatch asked.

"Not exactly." No answer. Blair dialed Jim's number at the station. "We found the packing slips."

"Ellison's line, this is Ballard."

Shit. "Ballard, this is Blair Sandburg. Is Jim around?"

Ballard instantly adopted a sickly-sweet tone. "Sorry. He's out with the Captain."

"Where?"

"Jealous, sweetheart?"

"Just tell me where he is, Ballard."

"Arresting some bad guys."

"Fine, I'll call his cell phone."

"I wouldn't do that."

"Why not?" Blair demanded. He was really sick of this guy.

"Emergency calls only. Captain's orders. Is this an emergency, Sandburg?"

"No."

"Oh, too bad. You want me to tell your boyfriend you called?"

Blair slammed the phone down, startling Hatch, who raised his eyebrows.

"Problem, Mr. Sandburg?"

Great. Real mature, Sandburg. While you're at it, why don't you throw the man's phone across the room? "Sorry. I can't reach him right now."

"I see. Will you be much longer? The gallery's closed for the night."

"Uh--no, I'm just about done. I just need to make some copies of the packing slips."

"Fine."

Blair went back downstairs, to find Toni already at the copier. Crowley was off the phone, and stood just inside the back room, shrugging into a raincoat. Blair tried to feel sorry for him--after all, Crowley had lost a loved one--but he couldn't.

"Thanks for all your help, Rupert," he said as he walked by.

"Does this mean you won't be back?" Crowley asked, sounding more cheerful than Blair had ever heard him.

"No, you'll see me again. I'm pretty sure Detective Ellison will want to talk to you."

"Why?"

Blair shrugged. "Oh, just in case there's anything you forgot to tell him last time." He smiled. "You might want to think about it."

Rupert scowled, and walked out. Blair started to put files back into the cabinet. Toni finished at the copier and returned to the desk. Blair gave her a smile.

"Thanks. I really appreciate the help."

"You're welcome. What did Detective Ellison say?"

"Nothing yet. I couldn't reach him, he's working on another case."

"That's too bad. You should go out and celebrate."

"It's a little early for that. We still don't have the murderer. Besides, I should have had these weeks ago. I should have thought to look somewhere besides the computer. If I had, maybe Thomas Wainwright would be alive now."

Toni snatched the files out of his arms and dropped them into the drawer. "Blair Sandburg, that makes no sense at all."

Blair looked up. Toni stood very close to him. In her heels, she was exactly his height. Her chocolate eyes gazed straight into his. She smelled faintly of spices: cinnamon, like her skin, and others he couldn't name. "Huh?"

"How could having the names of the other buyers possibly have kept Mr. Wainwright from being killed?"

He couldn't think. "I don't know. Maybe--maybe we could have found the killer."

"And maybe not. Maybe having the names won't help at all. It's ridiculous to blame yourself for that man's death, and I won't permit it."

"You won't?"

"I won't." Toni sighed. "Maybe you'll be more sensible when you've had dinner."

"Dinner?"

"With me."

"But--I still only have ten dollars."

"And I have a very large commission, thanks entirely to you. Help me spend a little of it. There's a Cajun restaurant just down the street. It's not authentic, of course, but it's as close as you Northerners can come."

Bad idea. "I--" Bad idea. Jim would kill him. She was a suspect. She was beautiful. She was standing only inches away from him. And she wanted to take him to dinner. "I love Cajun food."

They finished cleaning up, and Blair stuffed the packing slips into his backpack. He picked up the copies, glancing around the room. He didn't want to take them with him: he wasn't sure he should be carrying evidence around, and something told him it wasn't a good idea to have the originals and the copies in the same place. Hmmm. Well, why not?

Blair went to the file cabinet, pulled the top drawer open, and dropped the copies into the "E" file. "E" for evidence. He shut the drawer, pushed the lock in, and took the keys, tossing them into his pack. Jim could bring them back when he came to talk to Crowley again. He turned away from the cabinet, and glimpsed something dark from the corner of his eye. Something in the doorway. Blair moved quickly to the door. Geoffrey Hatch and Crowley stood in the gallery, talking, each man wearing a dark raincoat.

"Blair?" Toni came up behind him. "Is something wrong?"

Wrong? What could be wrong? He was such a wreck that he was seeing things, he'd probably have a flashback during dinner, and his partner was going to kill him for going out with a suspect. Aside from that, everything was fine. Blair shook his head. "Just an overactive imagination. You ready?"

They all left together. Crowley and Hatch went around back to their cars, but Blair and Toni walked to the restaurant, sharing the scarlet umbrella. The restaurant was in a cellar; they descended the steps to a room that was small enough to be intimate, with tables covered in creamy linen, fresh flowers, and candles in crystal lamps. In faded jeans and a sweater, Blair was definitely underdressed, but the maitre d' took no notice. He also greeted Toni by name, which probably accounted for it. On his own, Blair was sure he'd have been thrown out. In this place, ten dollars wouldn't buy him an appetizer. He suddenly felt guilty.

"Maybe we should go someplace else," he offered.

Toni smiled and patted his hand. "It's a very big commission. And this is my favorite restaurant."

"Okay."

What was he doing here? He must be out of his mind. Toni was intelligent, beautiful, and used to money. He was a headcase, living on grants and the pittance the University paid him. He was completely wrong for her. For her? Face it, Sandburg, you're wrong for any woman. You're not even a man, you're a--a victim. You should leave, right now, and never go near Toni again. But she kept her hand on his. And he stayed where he was.

They ordered: crawfish stew to start with, then gout en court bouillon for her and crab etouffee for him. She called for wines he'd never heard of, that sounded, and tasted, expensive. And they talked. He was awkward at first, knowing he didn't belong there, didn't belong with her, but Toni drew him out, telling him of her childhood, and her studies at Tulane, interspersing her stories with questions about him. He started with monosyllabic answers, but before dessert arrived, he was telling stories about the places he'd been, and the tribes he'd studied, and she was drinking in every word, and he felt more at ease than he had in a long time.

They walked back to the gallery, talking, and Blair escorted Toni to her car, parked behind the building. It was a Jaguar, new, shining silver in the lights. Blair stopped talking, and stared.

"Wow."

Toni smiled. "Aren't divorce settlements wonderful?"

"I guess they must be."

She opened the door, and turned back to Blair. "Come to my apartment? I'll give you some real Cajun coffee."

Jim wouldn't just kill him, he'd skin him alive. "I shouldn't. My--"

Toni kissed him, lightly, her lips tasting of coffee and chocolate. He returned the kiss, and another, his mind exploding with the impossibility. Lips parted, and her tongue brushed his lower lip, then darted inside his mouth. Ponytail's lips ground against his, his tongue thrusting into Blair's throat.

"No!"

Blair pushed her away, into the car. Toni stared at him, fear in her brown eyes, fear of him.

"Oh, God." He couldn't look at her, couldn't meet her gaze. "Oh, God, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I didn't mean--I--"

He turned away from her, pushing his hair back. He should go, just get out of here before he scared her any more. But he didn't want to leave her thinking he was some kind of monster. God! He was a monster. Only a monster would do something like that, react violently. Tears filled his eyes, and he looked to the sky, determined not to let them fall. Great, Sandburg. First push her, then cry in front of her. Now swear you'll never do it again, just like all the other abusers.

"Blair?" Her soft voice, shaking only a little. "What's wrong?"

He shook his head. "You'd better get out of here."

"Not until you tell me."

He looked at her then, unable to believe what he'd heard. "Are you nuts? You don't--you don't know what I'll do."

"I know that you were more frightened than I was, just then. Why, Blair? What's the matter?"

"I can't--do this."

"Why? Are you gay?"

He almost laughed. "No. I am not gay."

Hardness crept into her tone. "Because I'm black?"

"No! God, no, that's not--you're incredible. I can't believe you'd even go out with me."

"Then why?"

"I--" God, he wanted to tell her. He wanted to tell her so badly. But what would she do? What if she was revolted by the truth, revolted by him? He couldn't stand to see it on her face, hear the disgust in her voice. "I just--can't. Not now. I'm sorry. I wish--I wish I could."

"So do I."

Toni got into her car, and shut the door. In the tinted windows, he saw his own reflection, blackness all around him. The car started, and the window whispered down. Toni looked out at him.

"Good night."

The words were out of his mouth before he could think. "Can I call you?"

"When you can tell me why."

The window went back up, and she drove away. Blair walked out of the parking lot, across the street to the Corvair. He dug the keys out of his pack, and slung it across one shoulder. With his luck, the damn thing wouldn't start. He couldn't believe it. First, he risked Jim's wrath by going out with a suspect, then he freaked out when she kissed him! Toni would never go near him again, not if she was smart. And he would never be able to tell her. He put the key in the lock.

Something heavy rammed into his back, slamming him up against the car. He tried to turn, to get a look at his assailant, but a hand tangled in his hair and forced his head down. Cold metal touched the back of his neck, and Blair heard the click of a hammer cocking. He closed his eyes, heart drumming in his chest, and waited to die.

"Don't move," a man's voice ordered. "Don't turn around."

The hand let go of his hair, but the gun stayed. The pack was jerked roughly from his shoulder. Blair opened his eyes, struggling to find the breath to speak.

"There's nothing in there you want, man," he said. "Just papers."

"Shut up."

The hand started patting him down, searching his pockets. Blair tried not to feel it, not to be aware of the man's touch, not to panic.

"Look, man, I've only got ten bucks. It's--"

"Shut up!"

The gun dug into his neck. The hand found the ten, and pulled it out of his jeans.

"I want you to count to fifty, real slow. If you turn around before then, you're dead. You got that, genius?"

"Yeah."

The gun left his neck. Blair heard running footsteps, and forced himself to look. There was no one on the sidewalk, or the street. He must have ducked into an alley, or down a side street.

Shit, shit, shit! Blair's fist pounded the hood of his car. The bastard had stolen the packing slips. Jim was going to kill him. Jim was absolutely going to kill him. If he hadn't gone out with Toni, this would never have happened. But no, a pretty woman smiled at him, and he threw everything Jim had taught him away and followed her like some brainless adolescent. "Keep it professional," Jim had said. "She's a suspect." And he had assured Jim that he would. But he hadn't. He'd done just what he wanted, and now he'd lost the only evidence they'd been able to find! God, he was so stupid! How was he going to tell Jim? Sure, there were copies, safely locked up in the gallery, but how could he tell him he'd lost the originals to a mugger? Jim would be furious. Jim would never trust him again. Jim was going to kill him.

The car keys had fallen out of the lock. Blair bent down to retrieve them, and started to shake. Oh, God, he'd--That guy could've killed him--could've done anything--and Blair wouldn't have been able to stop him. He'd've just--taken it, like he had with Ponytail, just lain there helpless, too weak to defend himself, while a bigger, stronger man did whatever he wanted. Oh shit. Oh shit, not again--

Blair slid to his knees and vomited on the sidewalk, trying to pull his hair out of the way and keep from collapsing at the same time. When it finally stopped, he fumbled the key into the lock, opened the car door, and crawled onto the seat, pulling himself up. It took four tries to get the key into the ignition, but the Corvair started right away. He sat for a long time, staring at the steering wheel, before he could breathe normally again and the shaking subsided enough to let him drive.

Jim pulled into the parking lot at 3 A.M. The Corvair was there, but he'd figured it would be. He hadn't heard from Blair, which must mean the kid hadn't found anything at the Hatch Gallery and had just gone home. Oh well, it had been a long shot anyway. There was a light on in the loft: either Blair was still up, or he'd left it on for Jim. He hoped Blair was in bed and sleeping, peacefully for a change. But knowing Blair, that was unlikely.

After three months of work, they'd finally gotten those extortionists, Price and Watson. Simon had wanted to go out and celebrate, and Jim had agreed, though he'd had a twinge of conscience about leaving Blair alone in the loft. He'd almost called the kid to tell him he'd be late, but the possibility that Blair might actually be sleeping had stopped him. The last thing Blair needed was to be scared awake by a phone call from his roommate. Besides, he'd already left a message before they went out to make the arrest.

As he climbed the stairs, Jim could hear music playing in the loft, Chris Smither, the song one Jim didn't know. He paused outside the door, listening.


The Devil ain't a legend, the Devil's real.
In the empty way he touched me where I hardly feel,
The empty hole inside me,
The nothin' that could ride me
Down into my grave. It does not heal.



God, that was cheerful. He liked a good blues song himself, but there was something about this one that disturbed him. This was not the kind of thing Blair should be listening to.

Hoping that Blair hadn't put the chain on the door and gone to bed--he'd done it before--Jim turned the key in the lock, and pushed. The door swung open without resistance. He stepped inside, tossed his keys into the basket with Blair's, and stopped. What the hell?

Blair was kneeling on the floor in the living room, his back to Jim. He was wearing boxers and a t-shirt, his usual bedtime attire, and he was moving, but what he was doing, Jim couldn't see from that angle.

"Sandburg?"

No answer. Jim shut the door and approached his partner, moving around him to see what he was doing. Blair knelt on the rug, both hands on a scrub brush, pushing it back and forth over the same spot. There was a bucket of soapy water near him. Blair dipped the brush in, and went back to scrubbing. Jim crouched down beside him, but Blair didn't turn to look at him, or stop what he was doing. Blue as the center of a candle flame, his eyes were fixed on the rug.

"Blair," Jim said softly. "What are you doing, Partner?"

Blair didn't react to his voice. He dipped the brush again, and resumed scrubbing.

"Talk to me, buddy. What are you doing?"

Blair lifted the brush, and stared at the rug in dismay. "It's still there." He dunked the brush once more, and scrubbed harder. "I've got to clean it up. Jim'll be mad. Jim doesn't like it when things are messy."

Jesus, what was he saying? Was this a flashback of some kind? Was Blair even awake? His eyes were open, but--

"Blair, listen to me," Jim said, keeping his voice calm. "It's okay. You can stop now."

He shook his head, still scrubbing, never looking at Jim. "No. No, I can't. It's still there."

"What's still there?" Jim asked, dreading the answer.

"The blood. The blood's still there. It won't go away, and it's my fault. Jim'll be mad at me."

"It's okay, Blair. Jim won't be mad."

"Yes. He will. Jim likes it clean. And I can't--I can't get it out."

Blair scrubbed again, harder than ever. Jim watched him,

uncertain what he should do. If Blair was asleep, should he wake him? If this was some kind of hallucination, what should he do about it? What if he did the wrong thing? What would it do to Blair? He had to do something.

"Blair," he said. "It's Jim. Can you hear me, Partner?"

"Jim?" The brush stopped. Blair stared at the soapy patch on the rug. "I'm sorry. I tried to clean it. Please don't be mad at me."

"I'm not mad, Blair. You did it. It's clean."

Blair frowned. "No, I can still see it. I can still see the blood."

"No, Blair." Jim gently pried the brush from Blair's fingers and set it aside. Blair's hands were freezing, the skin white and wrinkled. "It's clean, see? You did a good job, Partner. It's never been so clean."

"It hasn't?"

"Nope." Standing, Jim took Blair's arms and carefully lifted him to his feet. "Come on, now, Partner. It's time for bed."

Blair allowed himself to be led until they reached the door to his room. There, he balked, looking back at the rug. "I've gotta clean it up. There's blood--there's blood everywhere. Jim'll be mad."

"You cleaned it, Blair," Jim said, tugging him forward. "There's no more blood. It's all gone. No more blood, Partner."

He pushed Blair down to sit on the edge of his bed. God, the kid's t-shirt was soaked. He was shivering, but didn't seem to be aware of it.

"Stay there."

Jim went to the bathroom to get a towel. He came back to find Blair in the same position, staring at nothing.

"Raise your arms, Blair. Over your head."

Blair did as he was told. Jim eased the t-shirt off and looked around for something else. A sweatshirt was balled up at the foot of the bed. Jim grabbed it, towelled the kid dry, and put the sweatshirt on him. It was his Cascade PD shirt. He hadn't realized that Blair still had it.

"Okay, Blair, lie down."

Blair obeyed. Jim pulled the covers up to his chin. "You did a good job, Blair. The blood's all gone. Now close your eyes and go back to sleep."

The blue eyes closed. In moments, Blair was breathing deeply, as though he'd been resting there all night. The song was still playing. Blair had set his cd player to repeat it endlessly.


They told me I was breaking through when I was
breaking down,
By the time I learned the difference they had
long left town.



Jim shut it off, and went back to the living room. He covered the wet spot with towels to soak up the water, then dumped the bucket and stashed it under the sink with the brush. That done, he turned out the light and went upstairs to his own bed. Afraid that Blair would get up again, he slept lightly, his hearing tuned to the slightest noise. At 5 A.M., he was awakened by the sound of Blair's racing heart, and ran downstairs, hoping to reach him before the screaming started. He shook him, calling his name, but Blair didn't wake.

"Don't kill me, don't kill me. Please don't kill me."

"Blair." Jim shook him again, harder this time. "Come on, Partner, wake up."

Blair's eyes flew open. "Oh, God, I'm sorry! Please don't kill me!"

"Blair, it's all right. No one's going to kill you. You're safe. Come on, now."

Blair's eyes focused, seeing him, and Jim knew he was awake at last. The dismay on his partner's face was more than Jim could stand.

"Jim, I'm sorry."

"Blair, it's okay. There's nothing to be sorry for."

Blair shook his head. "You don't understand. I--"

"It was just a nightmare, Partner. That's all. Try to go back to sleep."

"But, Jim, I have to--I--" Something crumbled behind the clear blue eyes. Blair looked away from him, down at the blankets.

"Do you want me to stay?"

Blair shook his head. Curls fell into his face, but he didn't move to push them away. "Go back to bed, Jim. I'm okay."

"You sure?"

"Yes."

If there'd been the slightest hesitation, Jim would have stayed. But Blair sounded certain, and he didn't want to argue, so he left him and went back to his own bedroom. After he'd gone, Blair's heart rate and breathing slowed down. Eventually, Jim knew the kid was asleep again, and he allowed himself to relax. He fell asleep to the beating of Blair's heart and the sound of his breath.





Jim heard Blair get out of bed, heard his bare feet take him down the hall to the bathroom. He listened until he heard the shower start, then rolled over and went back to sleep for an hour. The click of the alarm clock's internal mechanism woke him just before it was due to go off, and he turned it off before the buzzing could start. Something smelled good. Coffee, eggs, cheese, green and red peppers, onions... Sandburg was cooking. He hadn't cooked since he got back from St. Sebastian's. Jim hoped there was nothing weird going into the eggs. He couldn't smell anything, but you could never quite tell with Blair.

Jim slid out of bed and went downstairs. Blair was at the stove. He was already dressed, in a blue sweater and faded jeans. The faint, herbal scent of his shampoo mingled with the odors of the cooking food.

"Good morning."

Blair's head came up like a rabbit scenting danger. "Um--morning. Breakfast in ten, okay?"

He nodded, and headed for the bathroom. Ten minutes later, he was showered, shaved, dressed, and sitting at the table while Blair served him the biggest Mexican omelet he'd ever seen, accompanied by a mound of spiced potatoes, and handmade tortillas.

"What brought this on?" he asked.

Blair shrugged, avoiding his eyes. "I just felt like Mexican."

Blair's own omelet was less than a quarter the size of Jim's, and contained nothing but eggs and cheese. Something was up. While he ate, Jim kept an eye on his partner. Blair played with his fork, took a bite or two of the omelet, sipped a little coffee, and proceeded to tear a tortilla into tiny pieces, some of which actually found their way into his mouth. He didn't talk, and he never once looked directly at Jim.

"This is good," Jim said. "In fact, it's better than good. It's delicious."

"Thanks."

Blair's smile vanished, and he went back to destroying his tortilla. Jim finished eating, and poured himself another cup of coffee. Might as well get it over with.

"What's wrong, Partner?"

"Huh?"

"Come on, Blair, your heart's beating so hard I could hear it without Sentinel senses. What's wrong?"

Blair fixed his gaze on the shreds of tortilla scattered around his plate. "I--have to tell you something. And then I have to ask you something."

"Go ahead."

Blair hesitated so long that Jim's own heart began to pound. Come on, kid, you're scaring me here.

"I did something really stupid."

Relief coursed through him. Stupid, he could deal with. "You didn't quit counseling?"

Blair smiled briefly. "Not that stupid."

"Okay. Then tell me."

"Well, remember yesterday, when we were on the phone, and I told you I had an idea?"

Jim nodded. "It didn't work out?"

"No, it did. I gave up on the computer, and went to the packing slips. And we found them. All twenty-four of them."

Jim smiled. "That's great! Why didn't you call and tell me?"

"I tried. Ballard said you were only taking emergency calls."

"Ballard told you that?"

"Yeah. He said it was Simon's orders." The blue eyes flashed up at him for a second. "Wasn't it?"

"No." He was going to stay calm. He was going to stay calm until he could get his hands on that son of a bitch and smash his face in. What if Blair had been in trouble? What if-- He was going to stay calm. "So, where are the slips, Partner?"

Only a Sentinel could have heard. "I lost them."

"Lost them?" Jim echoed. "What do you mean, you lost them? What happened?"

"Well, Toni made copies for me--"

"Toni?"

"Yeah. She helped me find them in the first place. When I couldn't reach you, I didn't know what to do, so I locked the copies in the file cabinet at the gallery. Then I put the originals in my backpack, so I could take them home and give them to you. I was going to go home right away."

"But?"

"But--Toni asked me to dinner."

Jim shot to his feet. "You had dinner with a suspect? Sandburg--"

Blair held up his hands, whether to forestall the lecture or defend himself, Jim couldn't tell and didn't care. "I know, Jim. I know it was stupid. I knew it was stupid when I did it, but-- she'd really been a lot of help, you know? And I--I thought--"

"No, Sandburg, you didn't think. You let your hormones do your thinking for you. How many times have I told you--"

"I know, man! I shouldn't have done it, and I'm sorry! I really am. It won't happen again, Jim, I swear."

"That's great." Jim nodded, gripping the edge of the table to keep from launching himself over it to strangle the smaller man. "That's wonderful, Sandburg. You're sorry, you'll never do it again. And meanwhile, she's got the slips."

"She--?" Blair shook his head. "No, Jim, Toni doesn't have them."

"THEN WHERE ARE THEY?" Jim roared.

Blair shrank back in his chair, his face blanching whiter than the tortillas. Blair's voice spoke in Jim's memory, while his image scrubbed at a non-existent bloodstain: "Jim'll be mad."

God. Jim turned away, covering his eyes with one hand. God, what was he doing? He was behaving exactly as Blair had feared, fulfilling his nightmares. What was wrong with him? No matter what Blair had done, he had no right to terrorize him. No right at all. God, he was some kind of monster. As bad as Ponytail.

"Jim?" Blair's voice was very small. "Do you want me to quit? As your observer, I mean? Because, I will, if that's what you want. I mean, you deserve a partner who can at least follow orders, I know that. So--"

Softly. "Shut up, Sandburg."

Jim forced himself to face the kid. Blair closed his mouth, and swallowed hard. There were tears standing in his eyes. Jim moved toward him, and Blair stiffened in the chair, but stayed where he was. Jim pulled another chair out from the table, and sat down.

"Blair, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have yelled at you. I had no right."

"Yes, you did."

"No. No, I didn't. It was wrong, and I'm sorry. You made a mistake, and you're sorry. Tell you what: You forgive me, and I'll forgive you. Okay?"

Blair stared at him for a moment, then nodded. "Okay."

Jim smiled. "Okay, Partner. Now, what happened to those packing slips?"

Blair's heart rate increased again. He regarded Jim warily, but found the courage to speak. "I got mugged, Jim. The guy took my pack."

"Mugged?" Jim's eyes narrowed, searching his partner closely for signs of new injuries. There were none. But-- "He didn't hurt you, did he?"

"No. He stuck a gun in my neck, but that was all."

"Did you get a look at him?"

Blair shook his head. "By the time I turned around, he was gone. I'm sorry, Jim."

"It's not your fault. Where did this happen?"

"Across the street from the Hatch Gallery, when I was getting into my car to go home."

"Was Toni with you?"

"No, she was gone. She had her own car."

"You said the mugger took your pack. Did he take anything else?"

"My money."

"So, it could have been just a mugging."

"Just? Jim, do you think this had something to do with the case?"

"It might. Who knew you had those slips?"

"Everyone at the gallery." Something came alive in Blair's eyes. "Genius!"

"What?"

"The mugger called me 'genius'."

"So?"

"So, Rupert Crowley kept calling me 'the boy-genius' yesterday."

"You think Crowley was your mugger?"

"I don't know," Blair admitted, though Jim could see that he wanted to believe it. "I thought the guy was bigger than that, but--I'm not sure."

Jim nodded. "I think I'll bring Mr. Crowley down to the station for a little talk this morning."

"You think he might be the murderer?"

"He's looking better for it all the time. If your girlfriend's telling the truth, he and Arthur Hatch were lovers. We only have his word for it that he knew nothing about the masks. And if he lied about one thing--"

"He might have lied about everything," Blair finished.

"Exactly. I'll pick up the copies of the slips later. You said you locked them in the gallery's file cabinet?"

"Yeah, they're in the 'E' file. I took the keys and put 'em--Oh no." Blair paled. "Jim, they were in my backpack. If Crowley took it..."

Jim grabbed the phone and punched in Geoffrey Hatch's number. It was answered almost instantly.

"Geoffrey Hatch."

"Mr. Hatch, this is Detective Ellison. I'm sorry to call so early, but can I ask you to meet me at the gallery right away?"

"Detective, I am at the gallery."

Shit. "Don't tell me: there was a break-in."

"Precisely. How did you know?"

"I'll be there in fifteen minutes, Mr. Hatch."

Jim hung up the phone. "Dammit!"

Blair flinched. "I'm sorry, Jim."

"It's not your fault."

"Then whose fault is it?" Blair shoved a stray curl behind his ear. "I did everything wrong."

"No, you did everything right. Except maybe going out to dinner with Toni LeClaire."

"Oh, man, I'm sorry!"

"Sandburg, it's not your fault. You couldn't reach me, so you did what you could to safeguard the evidence. Crowley could've followed you home and stolen your pack in the parking lot. There was nothing you could've done."

Blair shook his head, but said nothing. He wouldn't be convinced, not yet. And Jim didn't have the time to stick around and try. He ran upstairs to get his wallet and watch, came back down to find Blair clearing the breakfast dishes. He headed for the door. Something Blair had said earlier came back to him, and he stopped.

"What did you want to ask me?"

Blair went still. "It can wait."

"I don't think so, Partner. Ask."

Blair put the plates he was carrying into the sink. He stood there for a minute, not looking at Jim, heart hammering in his chest. Finally, he took a deep, shaky breath.

"Would you go to counseling with me tonight?"

That was it? "You need a ride? Sure."

"No, Jim." Blair was studying his hands as though he had to memorize every line. "Dr. Hawthorne said--she thinks it would be good if--she wants you to come to the session with me."

"Together?"

"Yeah. She said--we might be able to communicate better in a neutral setting."

Jim nodded. "Fine."

Blair's stare shifted to him. "You don't mind?"

"I don't mind." Jim put his jacket on, picked up his keys, anything to keep his hands occupied. He wanted so badly to put his hand on Blair's shoulder, to reassure him with touch as he so plainly couldn't with words. "Blair, I told you: anything you need. I meant it."

"Even after--this mess?"

"Before, after, or in the middle, Partner."

Blair shook his head. "Thanks, Jim."

"Anytime, kid. I'll pick you up here at 6:30." Pulling a twenty from his wallet, Jim laid it on the kitchen counter. "Take that until you can get some money from the bank. No arguments."

"But, Jim, I only had--

"What did I just say?"

Blair bowed his head, but Jim could see the grin curving his lips. "Yes, sir. Sorry, sir. Won't happen again, sir."

Rolling his eyes, Jim went out the door, calling back over his shoulder. "You're welcome, Junior."

The front door of the Hatch Gallery had been shattered; shards of glass littered the carpet, and Jim twisted as he went in to avoid stepping on them. Steve Connelly was there, along with three other uniforms he didn't know by name. Connelly was talking to Geoffrey Hatch who, understandably, did not look happy. Hatch was wearing perfectly pressed slacks, a sweater, and a leather jacket. Not bad for a man who'd been yanked out of bed because his gallery had been burglarized. Toni LeClaire and Rupert Crowley were there also, both in jeans, his black, hers red. She wore a long red sweater and no makeup. He needed a shave. Jim approached Hatch and Connelly.

"Mr. Hatch. Steve, what's the story?"

"The alarm came in to the service at 5:43, sir," Connelly said, all but saluting. "We were notified at 5:45. My partner and I arrived approximately four minutes later, and entered the building. There was no one here."

"What's missing?"

"Three paintings," Hatch said. "Including a Lopez that was sold yesterday."

"How valuable were these paintings?"

"The Lopez was sold for five hundred thousand dollars; the others, no more than five thousand each."

"Is there anything else missing?"

"That has yet to be determined, Detective," Hatch replied. "The thieves were also vandals. They made a shambles of the back room."

Hatch was right. The desk had been overturned, the computer monitor smashed, boxes broken open, their contents scattered.

Everywhere, there was paper. If Sandburg's copies were in there--and Jim doubted it--it would take hours to find them. The lock had been broken off the file cabinet, but there was no damage to the drawers themselves. Jim took Steve aside and told him what to look for, leaving it to him to put someone on the search. Together, they approached Geoffrey Hatch.

"Mr. Hatch, I'd like to speak to you in your office."

Hatch said nothing, simply led the way upstairs. Nothing there had been touched, but that was no surprise. Hatch seated himself behind the desk, Jim and Steve in front.

"Mr. Hatch, can you tell me where you were at 5:43 this morning?"

Hatch's eyes were cold. Jim tuned in until he could hear the man's rapid heartbeat. "Are you implying that I broke into my own gallery?"

"Mr. Hatch, this was no break-in. The officers arrived here six minutes after the alarm went off. There is no way anyone could have done all this and been gone in under six minutes. Whoever did this let him or her self in with a key, turned off the alarm, took his sweet time wrecking the back room and choosing which paintings to steal, reset the alarm, locked the door, and then smashed it and left. The file cabinet was opened with a key, too. If it had been broken into, the drawers would have been pried open. They weren't. Now answer my question, Mr. Hatch: where were you at 5:43?"

"In the shower. I had planned to play golf this morning."

"Is there anyone who can verify that?"

"No. I live alone."

"What about 11:30 last night?"

He was guessing at that. The gallery closed at nine. Assuming Blair and Toni had gotten along at dinner, they'd probably have been back here around that time. Hatch looked puzzled, but answered without hesitation. His heartbeat was back to normal.

"I attended a charity event. I can give you the names of several people who saw me there."

"Thank you. How many people know the keycode to the alarm?"

"Rupert, Toni, and myself."

"No one else?"

"No. Unless my brother told someone."

"Does that seem likely?"

"No."

"May I have your permission to search your car, or do I need to get a warrant?"

"Go ahead, Detective. But you won't find the Lopez stashed in my trunk, if that's what you're hoping."

Jim bared his teeth in a smile. "Something like that. I'd like to speak to each of your employees separately, and I'll have to ask you not to converse with each other until I'm done."

"If you insist."

Hatch stood up. Jim remained seated, but Connelly rose with Hatch to escort him down the stairs. On the top step, Hatch paused and looked back.

"By the way, Detective, where's your partner today?"

"Teaching. Why?"

Hatch shrugged. "Just curious. He seems to be a very intelligent young man."

"He is."

Moments later, Connelly came back up the stairs with Toni

LeClaire. Jim had moved to the chair behind the desk. Toni took one of the chairs in front, and Steve remained standing. Like Hatch, she had no alibi for the time of the break-in. According to Toni, she'd been home sleeping, alone, at the time. When he asked her about the night before, she looked surprised.

"Didn't Blair tell you?" Toni's heart rate increased, her eyes narrowing. "Is he in trouble? Is that why he's not here? It's all my fault, Detective. I did everything but drag him to that restaurant. I thought you'd be so happy when he gave you the packing slips that you wouldn't mind." She put her hand on Jim's arm. "Are you very angry with him, Detective Ellison?"

"I was," Jim said, wondering why he was telling her this. "I got over it."

"Good." Her heartbeat slowed to a normal rhythm. "Blair worked hard yesterday. He's so afraid of disappointing you."

"Did Blair tell you that?"

"No, of course not. But it shows, Detective. He's just like a little boy trying to please his big brother." Her heart sped up again. "If Blair's not in trouble with you, where is he? Is he all right?"

"Why do you ask?"

Toni glanced at Connelly, and leaned in closer, her voice so low only Jim could hear. "He was behaving--a little oddly last night, just before we said good night. He seemed frightened, but he wouldn't tell me why. I nearly cried just looking at his face." She met Jim's eyes. "Is it something terrible?"

"You'll have to ask Blair."

"But you know?"

"I know," he admitted.

"And you're helping him?"

"I'm doing my best."

"Good."

Well, at least he met with her approval. Why did he think he should be relieved? "Ms. LeClaire, I'd like permission to search your car."

Her eyes widened. "I don't suppose I can clean up a little in there first?"

"We'd prefer that you didn't."

"I was afraid of that."

Connelly brought Rupert Crowley up last. Crowley flung himself into a chair, where he slouched like a sullen teenager.

"Where's the boy-genius?"

"Funny," Jim said. "Everyone wants to know where Sandburg is. What's your interest in him, Crowley?"

"None whatsoever. I just want to make sure he's not coming."

"Why?"

"Because I don't like the arrogant little prick." Crowley smiled. "He assaulted me yesterday."

"Yeah?" Jim lounged back. "I heard it was the other way around."

Crowley's heart skipped. He shifted uncomfortably, but his voice was cool. "He's a liar. I touched his arm to ask him a question and he went crazy. He threatened me. Has he been tested for drugs lately, Detective?"

"Where were you at 11:30 last night, Crowley?"

"At a club. The Cobra. Do you and the--your partner ever go there, Detective?"

"Did anyone see you there? Anyone who'd remember you?"

Crowley shrugged. "I doubt it. Did you know he went out with Toni, Detective? Or are you the permissive sort?"

Jim stood up. "Officer Connelly, I think Mr. Crowley, here, wants to continue this down at the station."

Connelly moved to stand behind Crowley's chair, setting one heavy hand on his shoulder. Crowley squirmed, his heartbeat so fast that Jim thought he might faint.

"No," he said hastily. "This is fine."

Steve was grinning, and Jim had to fight to keep a straight face. "Oh, this is fine?" he echoed.

"Yes."

Jim flattened his palms on the glass desktop and leaned forward, practically in Crowley's face. "Then I suggest you answer the questions and cut out the smartass remarks. Think you can do that, Rupert?"

"Yes."

"Good." Jim sat down, nodding at Connelly, and Steve took up position beside Crowley's chair. "Now. You said you were at the Cobra last night. Aren't you supposed to be in mourning?"

"My employer died two weeks ago, Detective. I have a life."

"Your employer? I heard he was more than that, Rupert."

"You heard wrong."

"Are you telling me that you and Arthur Hatch were not lovers?"

"Who told you that?" Crowley demanded.

"That doesn't matter, Rupert. All that matters is that it's true. Isn't it?"

"All right, yes, we were! But only for a few months. We broke up three weeks before he died."

"Before he was murdered, Rupert. Arthur Hatch didn't just die. Someone killed him. Why did you break up?"

Rupert scowled. "He found someone else."

"Who?"

"I don't know his name. Some boy."

"A kid?"

"A college student." Rupert sneered. "Barely out of diapers. Just like your partner, Detective."

"So what happened, Rupert? Arthur dumped you for a younger guy, so you got mad and killed him? Is that it?"

"No!"

"No? What about the masks, Rupert? Tell me about them."

"I don't know anything about the damned masks."

"I think you do."

"Well you're wrong!"

"Where were you at 5:43 this morning, Rupert?"

"In bed."

"Alone?"

"Yes."

"No luck at the club, huh, Rupert? Everybody's going for the younger guys these days? Bet that pisses you off, doesn't it?"

"I did not kill Arthur Hatch!" Rupert shouted.

"I'd like to search your car, Rupert. You got a problem with that?"

"Search anything you want, Detective. You won't find anything."

All three cars were parked out back. Toni's Jaguar had already been searched. Other than cd's, books, clothes, and a collection of coffee cups, they'd found nothing. Two of the uniforms were in the process of searching Hatch's Mercedes. Pulling on a pair of latex gloves, Jim approached Crowley's BMW, keys in hand. Before opening the door, he used his Sentinel sight to scan the interior, but saw nothing unusual or out of place. He opened the doors, felt under and between the seats, searched the glove compartment and cd rack, slid a hand inside the cd player. Nothing. He popped the trunk and hood, got out of the car, and went to the trunk first. A tan blanket was folded neatly inside. Jim lifted it, revealing a jack, a crowbar, and a brown leather backpack, worn from years of being carried everywhere from the halls of Rainier University to Kenya and the jungles of Peru. Even if he hadn't recognized it on sight, Jim would have known it for Blair's pack: the leather carried his partner's scent. He picked up the backpack and faced Crowley.

"That's not mine," Crowley declared.

"No, it's not. It was stolen from my partner last night. You're under arrest, Rupert."

Crowley stared, all trace of attitude vanished. "What for?"

"Armed robbery, to start with. Then there's breaking and entering, grand larceny, and a whole bunch of other things, eventually. Up to and including the murder of Arthur Hatch."

Jim sat down at his desk and unwrapped the double jumbo cheeseburger Taggert had brought back for him. Four hours of interrogating Rupert Crowley, with or without his lawyer, was more than anyone should have to deal with. Ah. Perfect. Grease ran off the burger, sliding over his hands. He opened his mouth to take a bite, and the phone rang. He wiped one hand clean and picked it up.

"Ellison."

"Hi, Jim."

"Hey, Partner." What, did the kid have some kind of remote cholesterol detector? "How'd your class go?"

"Fine. What happened at the gallery?"

"We arrested Rupert Crowley."

"For the murder?"

"Not yet. We don't have the evidence. But we've got him for breaking into the Hatch Gallery, and for robbing you last night."

"We do?"

"Yep. Your backpack was in the trunk of his BMW. All your stuff was still in it."

"The slips?"

"No. They were gone."

Blair's voice fell with his hopes. "Oh. What about the copies?"

"Gone, too. Sorry, Partner. You did all that work for nothing."

"No, Jim. It's my fault."

"Don't start, Sandburg."

"Did you search his apartment yet, Jim?"

"Yeah. We found the paintings stolen from the gallery, and the keys to the file cabinet."

"He was pretty stupid, huh?"

"Most of 'em are, Partner."

"I guess." Blair was silent for a moment. "Why'd he do it, Jim?"

"Jealousy. Arthur Hatch dumped him for someone else."

"Oh." There was a problem with that theory. Jim waited, to see how long it would take Blair to figure it out. While he waited, he took a bite of the cheeseburger. He was still chewing when Blair said, "Jim. What about the masks?"

Bingo. Eight seconds. "What about them?"

"Well, if Crowley killed Arthur Hatch because he got dumped, then where do the masks fit in?"

"You think they should?"

"Come on, Jim, they have to. Why else would he steal the packing slips? If the masks had nothing to do with Arthur Hatch's murder, then Crowley wouldn't care who found out what happened to them. He wouldn't have had any reason to steal the slips or break into the gallery."

"Unless he was trying to throw us off. Make us think Hatch was killed because of the masks."

"Do you think that's it?"

"It could be. You said there's nothing about Wainwright's mask that would make it worth killing for."

"Yeah, but Jim, there are twenty-three other masks out there. Maybe one of them is worth killing for."

"Maybe. Do me a favor, Partner. Try to remember as many of the names from the packing slips as you can, and write them down."

"Okay, man. Um, you should ask Toni, too."

"Ms. LeClaire's already working on it."

"What?" Outrage filled the younger man's voice. "Jim, you figured all this out already, didn't you?"

"It occurred to me."

"Then why'd you let me go through it all again?"

Jim grinned. "Just testing, Professor."

"Jim!"

He laughed. "Don't worry, you passed. See you later, Partner."

Jim hung up the phone, and ate his cheeseburger. It was cold, but the call had been worth it. He'd make a cop out of the kid yet. Hell, Blair was already a cop in everything but name and paycheck. And respect. Okay, so he was young. And he didn't look like a cop. Or act like one. And they couldn't explain exactly what it was that made him so invaluable without telling everyone about the Sentinel thing, which Jim was not prepared to do. None of that mattered. Blair was his partner, and should be accepted as that. Period.

Jim wiped his hands and opened the top drawer of his desk. He'd stopped by Records earlier and asked Sandy for a copy of the calls that had come in to his phone yesterday. She'd obliged cheerfully, not quite hiding her disappointment that Blair wasn't with him. Jim popped the tape into the player, set the volume so low that no one else could hear, and turned it on. He fast-forwarded to Blair's call, received at 9:03 P.M., and listened to the conversation between his partner and Martin Ballard. Then he played it again. And again.

"Ellison!"

"Huh?" Jim started, looked up to meet Joel Taggert's eyes.

"What's up with you, man? You all right?"

"Yeah. Sorry, Joel, I was just--concentrating." Jim shut the tape player off. "What can I do for you?"

"Have you got the Anderson file?"

"Yeah, it's--" Martin Ballard walked past the door, heading down the hall to the men's room. Jim heard the door close. He stood, grabbed a file from his desk, and thrust it into Taggert's hands. "Excuse me, Joel."

Ballard was washing his hands when Jim entered the men's room. The stalls were empty; there was no one else in the room. Good. Ballard looked up. Jim kept his voice quiet and even.

"We need to have a talk, Ballard."

"What's the matter, Ellison?" Ballard grinned. "Not getting any at home?"

Jim grabbed Ballard's shirt and shoved him up against the wall, holding him there with an arm across his throat. "Listen very carefully, Marty. When my partner calls, you don't lie to him. You don't tell him he can't reach me. You put him through. Do you understand that?"

Ballard tugged on Jim's arm, trying to pull it away from his throat. His eyes were bulging, his heart pounding, and he was starting to sweat. "I don't know what you're talking about, Ellison."

"You know exactly what I'm talking about, Marty. Sandburg called here last night, looking for me. You told him I was only taking emergency calls."

"Did he tell you that?"

"You calling my partner a liar now, Marty?"

Anyone else would have known better. Not Ballard. "Yeah, I'm calling him a liar. And I'll bet he lied about other things, too."

Jim went still, easing the pressure on Ballard's throat. "What other things, Marty?"

Deceived by the lightness of his tone, Ballard got brave. And even more stupid. "You know, Ellison. He put out for another guy, then got scared you'd find out. So he cried rape. Chicks do it all the time. You think your little piece of ass is any different?"

Jim yanked Ballard away from the wall, slammed him back again. He wanted to kill him. He wanted to rip the disgusting bastard's throat out. He could do it. They'd taught him a lot in covert ops. Ballard was pale, sweat running down his face, but he tried to tough it out.

"Let go, Ellison. I'll bring charges."

"No you won't, Marty. Because if you do, I'll play the tape of your conversation with Sandburg for the Captain." Ballard turned gray, and Jim smiled. "You forgot incoming calls are taped, didn't you, you stupid shit? It's all there, 'sweetheart', every word of it."

"So?"

"So? Sandburg was calling to tell me he'd found evidence vital to a murder case we're working on. Because of you, he didn't get through. Because of you, he was robbed at gunpoint, and the evidence was stolen. Because of you, my partner could have been killed. What do you think the Captain would do if he heard that, huh, Marty? You do exactly what I tell you, or the tape goes straight to Banks."

"What--what do you want?"

"I want you to treat my partner with the respect he's earned. That means no more insults, no more innuendos, no more lies. You don't talk to him unless you have to for police business, and when you do, you're polite. You don't talk about him at all, to anyone, unless it's to say what a wonderful job he's doing and how much you wish you could be half the cop that he is. And if he ever calls me again, and you answer the phone, you put him through to me no matter where I am or what I'm doing, and you do it immediately. Now, you'd better understand all this, Marty. Because if I even hear a rumor that you're not showing my partner the proper respect--and you'd be amazed how good my hearing is, Marty--if I hear even a rumor, I will give that tape to Captain Banks. But before I do, I will pound your sorry ass into the ground. Is that clear, Marty?"

Ballard's eyes were practically popping out of his head. "Yeah."

"Good." Jim released Ballard, and stepped back. "Now get out of here."

Ballard fled the men's room. Jim turned to the sink and washed his hands clean.

"You're not nervous, are you, Jim?"

"No."

Blair was on his feet, pacing the waiting room. He'd sat down for about two seconds when they first came in; since then, he'd been moving. Jim sat in one of the chairs, watching him.

Blair hadn't said a word about last night's episode with the scrub brush. He didn't even seem to have noticed the towels on the living room floor this morning. Maybe the kid didn't remember it. But Jim did, and the more he thought about it, the more it disturbed him.

Blair glanced at him, pushed his hair back. His heart was going a mile a minute. "'Cause there's nothing to be nervous about. We're just gonna talk."

"I know, Sandburg." Hoping to calm the kid down, he added, "I've done this before."

That stopped him. "You have? When?"

"Every time I shoot someone in the line of duty. When I came back from Peru. And--" Might as well tell him now. "While you were at St. Sebastian's."

Blair sank into the chair beside Jim, turning to face him. "Why?"

Damn. He shouldn't have brought it up. This was not going to help. But he wouldn't lie to the kid. "You remember what happened when Danny Choi was killed?"

"Yeah, your senses kept cutting out on you, because--" The puppy-dog eyes locked on his. "Oh, Jim, it happened again? Because of me?"

Jim shook his head. "Not because of you, Blair. Because of what happened to you. Because I couldn't stop it."

"But you did stop it, Jim."

"Not until after he'd--hurt you. And I was almost too late."

"But you weren't too late, man, you saved my life. Again. Jim, you can't feel responsible for what he did."

Jim almost smiled. "Wanna bet?"

Blair shifted gears into Guide mode. Jim could see the transformation of his features, from scared kid to brainy anthropologist. "Your senses aren't still going out on you, are they?"

He did smile then. "No, Doctor Sandburg, they're fine now."

Another shift. Rare anger sparked in the blue eyes, lightning in a clear sky. "When were you planning on telling me about this?"

"I just did."

"Jim--"

"Blair, you had enough to worry about. I didn't want to add anything else. Okay?"

Blair heaved a sigh. "Okay."

Which meant it wasn't. Dammit.

The door opened, and Doctor Hawthorne came out. She wore a deep green jacket, and a long skirt of the same green, patterned with violets. Jim instantly thought of camouflage. He and Blair rose, and Dr. Hawthorne smiled.

"Blair," she said. "Jim, I'm glad you came. Come in."

Blair went in first, and laid claim to one of the chairs. Jim took the chair opposite him.

"Did you think I wouldn't come, Doc?" he asked.

"Blair thought you might be a little uncomfortable with the idea," she said. "Would you gentlemen like coffee, or tea?"

"Coffee," Jim replied, at the same moment that Blair said, "Tea, please."

Dr. Hawthorne just smiled. Minutes later, they all had their respective beverages, and Dr. Hawthorne was seated on the couch. Blair kicked off his shoes and drew his legs up in the lotus position. Jim sat with both feet on the floor. He wasn't particularly thrilled about being here--he'd never really been comfortable in therapy, though he had to admit it had helped him--but if this was what Blair needed, he'd do it for as long as he had to.

Dr. Hawthorne got things started. While she talked, Blair closed his eyes, breathing deeply, trying to calm himself. His heart slowed down a little, but not much. God, what was the kid afraid of?

"Jim, I asked Blair to invite you here tonight because I've received the impression that you're finding it hard to be completely honest with each other. Blair's rape and the subsequent attacks were traumatic for both of you. More so for Blair, of course, but you are both in the process of recovery. During this period, you share many of the same feelings. Articulating them can be difficult, particularly when you have the added burden of wishing to spare each other pain."

Jim frowned. "Are you saying we're so worried about hurting each other that we lie?"

"Not lie, necessarily. Hold things back. Hesitate. I suggested to Blair that you might find it easier to be open with each other in a neutral setting."

"With a referee, in case things get rough."

"And also to get the ball rolling," she added.

Jim nodded. It made sense. If he knew Dr. Hawthorne, she already had plans for them, something to do with exploring their feelings. Just the kind of stuff he hated. He'd do it. But first--

"Before we do anything else, Doc, there's something I need to ask Blair about."

Blair's eyes flew open, his expression so alarmed that Jim had all he could do not to reach out to him. "What is it, Jim?"

"Do you remember seeing me when I got home last night, Partner?"

Blair shrugged, the alarm only slightly lessened. "Sure, Jim. You woke me up from a nightmare."

"Before that."

"Before?" Blair shook his head, glancing at Dr. Hawthorne. "No, man, I was asleep."

Damn. This was going to terrify the kid. But he had to say it. "Blair, when I got home last night, you were in the living room, trying to scrub a bloodstain that isn't there out of the rug."

Blair's mouth dropped open, and he started to shake his head, his eyes focused somewhere in the distance. Dr. Hawthorne called him, and he blinked, turning to look at her.

"It's all right, Blair," she said. "It sounds like you were walking in your sleep." She shifted her gaze to Jim. "Was he aware of you?"

"No. His eyes were open, but he didn't see me. He answered me when I talked to him, though, and did what I told him. I wasn't sure what to do, so I tried to play along with him until I could get him back into bed."

"When you spoke to him, what did he say?"

"He was upset--scared. Of me." Blair winced, his gaze fixed now on the floor. Jim continued. "He kept saying he had to clean up the blood, or I'd be mad at him."

"Blair, do you remember this at all?" Dr. Hawthorne asked.

"No."

"Do you have a history of sleepwalking?"

"No. I don't--I don't think so." He raised his eyes to hers. "Will I do it again?"

"You might. Situations of extreme stress can cause episodes like the one Jim described."

"I know what caused it," Jim said. "Blair was robbed at gunpoint last night. The thief took some evidence he was carrying. Blair blamed himself, and was afraid I'd blame him too. I'm ashamed to say that he was right."

"No, Jim," Blair said softly. "It was my fault."

Jim closed his eyes for a moment. "Blair, listen to me. It was not your fault. You should never have had to handle that evidence alone. And it won't happen again. Next time you call me, I guarantee you'll get through. But that's not the point, here. The point is that you were so afraid of me you walked in your sleep and then you had a nightmare about me killing you."

"It was just a nightmare, Jim," Blair said hastily. "It doesn't mean--"

"It wasn't the first one," Jim said, determined to have it all out. "You've had other nightmares about me, worse than that. God, Blair, I've heard you. You scream my name, and beg me to stop. No matter what I say or do, you still think I'm going to hurt you, don't you?"

"No, Jim." Blair shook his head, but wouldn't look at him. "No."

"Yes you do."

"No! You don't understand."

"Then tell me, Partner." Jim leaned forward in his chair, as close as he dared to get. "Right here, right now. Explain it to me. Please."

"I can't, Jim," Blair whispered. He was trembling, and there were tears in his eyes. "You'll hate me."

"Because of your nightmares? Blair, how big a jerk do you think I am?"

"I don't. I don't think that."

"Then tell me."

A breath. "I can't."

"Blair, look at me. Come on, Partner. It's me, it's Jim, your Blessed Protector, remember?"

Blair closed his eyes and threw back his head. Tears slid down his face. Slowly, the blue eyes opened and met Jim's. Jim made his voice as gentle as possible.

"Blair, whatever it is, you can tell me. I won't get mad. I won't hate you. You've trusted me with your life, Partner. Trust me with this."

Blair opened his mouth, and looked away from him again. He bit his lip, and Jim watched his chest rise and fall, his nostrils dilated as though he were in physical pain. Minutes passed before he managed to speak.

"I--I've been dreaming about--the attacks. Sometimes, it's like--reliving them. Everything's exactly the same. Other times, it's different. Instead of ending, they go on. Or it'll be happening someplace else. Or--" Blair fought to get the words out. "Or instead of Ponytail r--raping--me...."

"It's me," Jim finished for him. Oh, God. No wonder. No wonder Blair was so terrified every time he woke him from a nightmare. The nightmares were all about him.

"I'm sorry!" Blair choked. "God, Jim, I'm so--sorry."

"No," Jim said, shaking his head. "No, Blair, there's nothing to be sorry for. God, kid, it's not your fault."

Blair stared at him. "You don't--you don't mind?"

"Of course I mind." Jim bowed his head, and ran his hands over his face. His leg muscles tensed, wanting to get up, but he forced himself to stay seated, and to keep his voice quiet. "I hate that you're having these dreams, Blair. I hate that you're afraid of me because that--bastard--stole my face when he hurt you. I don't think I've ever been so angry. About anything. But I'm angry at him, Blair, not at you. If I had him here now, I'd--" His fists were clenched so hard they were shaking. Jim forced his hands open, rubbed them on his knees. "He took your trust away from me."

"God, I knew you'd think that!"

"Because it's true, Blair. I know you still trust me with your life. You trust me not to hurt you physically. But you thought I'd hate you because of these nightmares. You didn't trust me to understand."

"I'm sorry."

"It's not your fault. Ponytail did this to you--to us. We're just going to have to work through it. I want you to understand that you can tell me anything--absolutely anything--and I won't hate you. I might get mad--hell, I'll probably get mad--but I'll never hate you. You're my partner, kid. You're stuck with me."

Blair gave him a small smile, his voice soft. "Thanks, Jim."

Blair's heartbeat was slowing to normal, but he needed time to compose himself. Jim looked away from him, giving him as much privacy as he could. Dr. Hawthorne gathered up the teapot and cups and disappeared into the kitchen area. She returned a few minutes later with fresh coffee and tea. By that time, Blair was pretty much recovered.

"So, what now?" he asked, pouring himself a cup of the fragrant tea.

"Now, we'll go over the ground rules for some discussions you can have at home. I'd like you to talk to each other every day, if possible. And before you tell me you do, I don't mean talking about police work or school work or what you want for dinner. I mean honest, open discussion of your feelings. You've made an excellent start tonight. I'll give you a list of assignments you can try until you're comfortable enough to broach any subject either of you needs to discuss."

Jim held up his hands. "Whoa, Doc: assignments? Are you talking about emotional homework, here?"

Dr. Hawthorne smiled. "That's an apt description."

"I dunno, Doc. I'm not good with that New Age, touchy-feely crap."

"Then you'll be pleased to know that these are proven aids to therapy that have been accepted practices for decades. You don't have to do them, of course, but I believe some structured assignments would make it easier for both of you; at least, in the beginning."

Jim looked to Blair. "What do you think, Partner?"

"We don't have to do it if you don't want to, Jim," Blair answered. But his eyes sent a different message, one Jim couldn't ignore.

"Okay, we'll try it."

Dr. Hawthorne gave them a list of rules, which mostly had to do with agreeing that neither of them should feel guilty about what Ponytail had done, a requirement Jim wasn't sure he could live up to. Dr. Hawthorne had helped him tone down those feelings when he was seeing her--it was guilt that had made his senses cut out on him, just like it had been when Danny was killed--but they hadn't gone away completely, and he wasn't sure they ever would. Even though he knew it was impossible, that he couldn't have anticipated Ponytail, he still felt like he should have done something to prevent Blair's rape. But he agreed to the rules, as did Blair, though the kid blushed and wouldn't look at either Jim or the doctor.

"So, are we about done here, Doc?" Jim asked.

"Not yet, Jim. You asked your question earlier. Now it's Blair's turn. Blair, do you have anything you want to ask Jim?"

"Um, yeah." Blair turned his teacup around and around in his hands. He raised his eyes to Jim's. "But, Jim, you've gotta promise to be honest with me, man. No trying to spare my feelings. Okay?"

"Blair, I--"

"Jim, please. I need to know the truth."

"All right. I promise. Go ahead."

Despite his promise, Blair hesitated, finding new fascination in the cup. When he spoke, it was in a rush. "Do you ever think about getting another partner?"

Jim almost laughed. "Another one? I've got all I can do to handle you."

"No, man." Blair was blushing again. "I meant, instead of me."

"Why would I want to do that?"

"Come on, Jim, I'm an embarrassment. I can't even take care of myself. I can't watch your back the way another cop would."

"No," Jim agreed. "You watch my back better than another cop would. You help me to use these Sentinel senses, and you keep me from zoning out. No one else could do that. Okay, so you've gotten into some situations you couldn't get out of on your own. So have I. All cops do, that's why we have partners. As far as taking care of yourself, I've seen you do it plenty of times. So you use ingenuity instead of your fists, or a gun. Believe me, Blair, I'll take a partner with a brain over one with a gun any day."

"You will?" Blair asked.

"Yep."

"So, you don't want another partner?"

Jim rolled his eyes heavenward. "No, Sandburg, I don't want another partner. I've got a partner. He's a smartass kid, but I think I can make something out of him. You got that?"

"Yeah." Blair was grinning. "I got it."

"Good."

"Very good," Dr. Hawthorne echoed, smiling. "There's one more thing I'd like to work on tonight, if you're willing."

They gave her their full attention.

"Blair's nightmares are causing you both a great deal of stress. There's a technique called controlled dreaming that allows the dreamer to end unpleasant dreams, or even to program the subject of the dreams before going to sleep. Eventually, Blair, you may be able to do that yourself. But right now, the trauma of the rape is still too recent. What I'd like to do is teach Jim to help you to switch the nightmares off, or to wake you up without having to touch you."

"How?" Jim asked. "I've tried calling him, but it just doesn't do it. I end up having to shake him, and it scares him."

"If this works, all you'll need is a code word, which you'll repeat until Blair comes out of the nightmare."

"If it works?"

"This method requires a great deal of trust on Blair's part, which might not be possible in this situation. Ponytail mimicked your voice as well as your appearance. If the sound of your voice reminds him of the attacks, this won't work."

Jim turned to Blair. "It's up to you, Partner."

"I'd like to try it," he said. "How do we pick the code word?"

"You choose it," Dr. Hawthorne answered. "It should be a word that reminds you of a time when you felt peaceful, calm, happy, and safe. When Jim says the word, it should trigger those feelings again."

"Just make sure it's something I can pronounce," Jim said.

"Okay. Let me think for a minute." Blair closed his eyes, leaning back in the chair. A slow smile spread across his face. "Got it."

"Well, come on, Darwin, what is it?" Jim asked.

Blair opened his eyes, the smile still illuminating his face. "Transcendent."

Jim drove out of the parking lot and glanced beside him. Blair was sitting still, gazing out the window, a small smile on his face. He wasn't scared, or nervous. Jim couldn't remember the last time Blair had been so calm. It must be left over from the trance Dr. Hawthorne had put him in to test the code word. Jim grinned. Maybe Blair should be hypnotized more often.

"That went pretty well, huh, Partner?" Jim asked.

Blair's smile grew a little wider. "Yeah. It did."

"What do you say we go out to eat?"

"You want to celebrate?"

"No, I want to eat. How about that Thai place on Chestnut?"

"Sounds good. But--um--I didn't get to the ATM."

"My treat."

Blair shook his head. "No, man. I feel guilty letting you pay all the time."

"Then next time, you pay. Okay?"

"Okay."

Dinner was good. Blair's calm wore off, but it was replaced by animation. He talked, and ate, and drank countless cups of the smoky jasmine tea he liked so much. Jim was content to listen, contributing the odd word here and there, mostly nodding as Blair's words flowed over him in a familiar, welcome stream. He continued until the check came, and Jim reached for his wallet. Blair abruptly sobered, turning his attention to the white cup in his hand.

"What is it?" Jim asked.

Blair's gaze flicked up to him, and down again. "Jim." He gulped the last of the tea, while Jim waited. "You're not paying for my counseling, are you?"

"No, Sandburg, I'm not."

"Then who is? The Department?"

"No." Might as well tell him. He had a right to know. "The feds."

"Why?"

"It was part of the deal."

"What deal?" Blair demanded. Smoke-blue eyes fixed on him. "Jim, tell me you didn't trade them Ponytail for my therapy."

"Sorry, Partner. That's exactly what we did."

"No." Blair's voice was getting louder, drawing the attention of the other diners. "Dammit, no! He should have gone to prison!"

"Yes, he should have," Jim said quietly. "But the feds wanted him, and there was nothing we could do about it. We could have filed official complaints, but we would have lost. Simon knew that. So he did the best he could: he told the feds he wouldn't make a fuss, if they agreed to pay for all your medical expenses. Plus some compensation for your pain and suffering."

"Compensation?"

"A hundred thousand dollars."

Blair's eyes went wide. "Are you kidding me, man?"

Jim shook his head. "It should show up in your account in a couple of months."

"A hundred thousand...." Blair raised the cup to his lips, realized it was empty, and put it down again. Jim could see the ideas flash through his eyes, thoughts of what he could do with that much money. They stopped suddenly. Blair's face went stony, and he pushed the cup away. "It's not enough."

"Simon did his--"

"That's not what I meant, Jim. I'm grateful for what Simon did, I really am. But it doesn't matter how much it is. It's not enough. It could never be enough."

"I know."

They left the restaurant and went home. Blair didn't say another word, and Jim didn't feel much like talking either. He should have lied, told Blair the Department was paying for his therapy. The kid would never have known the difference. But he didn't like lying. And when the money showed up in his account, Blair would have known it didn't come from the Cascade Police Department.

Damn. Maybe he should've lied anyway. If he had, Blair's good mood might have lasted until he went to bed. If the kid could just get one peaceful night's sleep--just one--maybe he'd wake up in the morning a little less scared of the world, a little more sure of his place in it. And if he got one, maybe he could get another one, and another one, until the nightmares stopped being inevitable. Maybe then, Blair would stop looking so drawn, and pale, and small. Maybe he'd stop flinching, and stammering. Maybe he'd stop being afraid. Just one night. God, was that too much to ask?

Jim parked the truck, and peered up at the loft's windows. The shades were up, and light shone out through the glass.

"Did you leave a light on?"

Blair glanced up. "Yeah. Why, is something wrong?"

"Just checking."

Blair led the way up the stairs and opened the door. He stepped inside, and stopped. His heart slammed in his chest, and his breathing went ragged, his head shaking slowly.

"Oh... No," he breathed. "Oh, Jim."

Jim drew his gun, and pushed the door wide, gazing past Blair into the loft. The apartment had been ransacked. Not destroyed: very little of what he could see had been broken, or torn apart. But furniture had been overturned, pillows, rugs, and books scattered everywhere. Pots and pans littered the kitchen, and all the cabinets hung open, as well as the oven and refrigerator.

Without thinking, Jim grabbed Blair's shoulder and shoved him out into the hall. Blair stiffened under his hand, and made a strangled sound in his throat, but Jim couldn't worry about that now; his partner's safety was his first concern. He held a finger to his lips, warning Blair to silence, and turned up his hearing. He heard his own heartbeat, immediately tuned it out. Then Blair's, still rapid with fear, his lungs struggling to draw in air. Tuning that out was harder, but he managed. He remembered something Blair had taught him, and piggy-backed his hearing on his sight, sending it into the loft in search of intruders. Nothing. No other heartbeat, no sound of another's breath. Whoever had done this was gone.

Holstering his gun, Jim turned to Blair. "It's okay. Come on in."

Blair's eyes darted past him. "Are you sure?"

"Trust me, Partner. They're gone."

Blair edged into the apartment, looking everywhere and nowhere, trying not to see the mess. Jim flipped open his cell phone, punching in Simon's number. Blair moved past him, heading slowly toward his room.

"Don't touch anything," Jim called after him.

If Blair heard, he didn't react. Jim went after him.

"Banks."

"Simon, it's Jim. Somebody trashed the loft."

"Anything missing?"

"Dunno yet."

"I'll send a forensics team over."

"Thanks."

He hung up. Jim put the phone back in his pocket, and followed Blair into his room. It had been tossed, too, though to Jim's eyes it didn't look much worse than usual. The closet had been emptied, its contents thrown onto the floor. Books and papers were everywhere. Blair's laptop was half-buried under blankets that had been ripped from the bed, but it looked to be intact. The bed had been pulled away from the wall, as had all the other furniture, and the wall-hanging had been torn down. Artifacts covered the mattress: some, Jim had never seen before; the others had been hung on the walls, or set on Blair's desk or nightstand. None had been damaged. It didn't look like anything was missing, but Blair was staring and pale, hugging himself as though someone had kicked him in the gut. Oh no.

"Blair, where did you put the mask?"

Blair didn't answer, didn't even acknowledge him. Jim raised his voice.

"Blair! The mask. Where did you put it?"

Blair started, and looked away from the wreck of his room, his eyes finding Jim. "In the hamper."

"What?"

"You know, Jim, the laundry hamper. Where we put the dirty clothes."

"Yeah, I know," Jim said, recovering. "I'm just surprised that you do."

Jim strode down the hall to the bathroom and lifted the lid of the hamper. He pushed aside a couple of damp towels and a pair of Blair's argyle socks before he found the box and pulled it out. The mask was inside, safe and protected. Jim brought it back to show Blair.

"What made you put it in there?"

Blair shrugged. "I just thought I should hide it."

"Well, it's a good thing you did, Partner."

"You think that's what he was after?"

"It's a good bet."

Two hours later, forensics was done and on their way out the door. Jim had been over the entire loft, but had found nothing. Whoever had broken in had left no trace behind, not a single hair, thread, fingerprint, or bit of revealing dirt. Nothing was missing. Thanks to Blair, they hadn't found what they came for.

Jim closed and chained the door, then picked up the mug of chamomile tea he had brewed and carried it to his partner. Shooed out of the kitchen, dining area, and even his own room, Blair had taken refuge on the stairs leading to Jim's room. He sat with arms around drawn-up knees, shivering a little, his leather jacket still on. Jim handed him the mug, and he accepted it gratefully, blowing on the tea to cool it before taking his first sip.

"Chamomile?" he said. "Oh, man, that's no good, it'll put me to sleep."

"That's the idea," Jim said.

Blair shook his head. "I can't, Jim. I've got midterms to grade."

"Sandburg, it's already after midnight. You need to get some sleep."

"I don't have time," Blair insisted. "Anyway, I don't want to sleep."

"Blair, it's okay. They're gone. They won't be back." Not tonight, anyway.

"I know, man, but--"

"What? Come on, Blair, you can tell me. You can tell me anything, remember?"

Blair shook his head. "It's stupid."

"Probably. But suppose you tell me anyway."

Blair rolled his eyes, then looked down at the mug in his hand. It took him a while, but he got it out, blushing furiously. "He was in my room, Jim. He--touched my stuff. I don't--I don't think I can sleep in there tonight."

Great. Now what? "There aren't a whole lot of choices, Blair." He couldn't suggest the couch. Blair wouldn't go near the living room. But the kid needed sleep. "How about we trade, Partner? You sleep in my room, and I'll sleep in yours."

Blair turned his head to look up the stairs, thinking about it. His gaze returned to Jim. "I can't ask you to do that."

"You're not. It was my idea. Take it or leave it, Sandburg."

Blair hesitated. "You really don't mind?"

"It's only for one night." Jim assumed his sternest expression. "There's just one condition."

"What's that?"

"If I'm going to sleep in your room, you can't be out here grading tests. You go to bed now, got that?"

Meekly. "Okay, Jim." Blair stood and started up the stairs, carrying the mug of tea with him. He paused at the top, leaning over the railing. "Thanks, Jim. Good night."

"Good night, kid." Softly. "Have transcendent dreams."





Blair floated between sleep and waking, and thought he could stay there forever. He felt so good, so utterly relaxed and at ease. Better than he'd felt in a long time. He shifted position slightly, and settled back onto the pillow without opening his eyes. Sunlight bathed his face and one arm with delicious warmth, and he luxuriated in the sensation. He was never getting up. Never. Not as long as the sun--

The sun! Blair bolted upright, his heart slamming so hard that it hurt. There was no morning sun in his room. God, where was he? Where was--

Blair fell back again, covering his face with his hands. Idiot. He was in Jim's room, Jim's bed, and Jim was downstairs in his. God, he'd acted like a child last night. Like a little boy who had to sleep in Daddy's bed so the bogeyman wouldn't get him. Except that he'd kicked Jim out of his bed and taken it over himself. God, he was such a wuss!

He couldn't believe Jim had let him do this. His father never had. He had a still-vivid memory of being sent back to his own bed, alone, when he'd come crying to his parents after a nightmare. His mother had wanted to let him stay, but she'd never been much good at standing up to her husband, and Benjamin Sandburg wouldn't weaken his son by coddling him, no. He'd been two years old, and he remembered.

Not that he'd never slept in his parents' bed. When his father was away on business, his mother had sometimes let him stay with her, and made him swear not to tell his father. And he hadn't. Even at that age, he'd known there were things you didn't say to Benjamin Sandburg. He'd never forgotten. But one day, he had reached the point where he didn't care. And found himself on the street, forever banned from his father's house. He hadn't seen his parents since that day.

He'd used to wonder what his life would be like if he'd done as his father wanted and given up his study of Sentinels. He didn't do that anymore. If he'd switched to some other topic, he would never have met Jim, and that was something he didn't want to think about. What would Jim have done if Blair hadn't been there to tell him what he was, to guide him in the use of his abilities? Would he have gone crazy? Or would he have suppressed the abilities, as he had when he came back from Peru? Jim had needed help, and Blair had been there, at exactly the right time. He'd always thought it was just an incredible coincidence, but what if it wasn't? What if he'd been meant to be there for Jim, if it was fate? What if he'd never really had any choice in his field of study? What if his whole life had been preparing him to be Jim Ellison's Guide?

That was a scary train of thought. If it was true, then maybe his break with his father had been predestined. Maybe whoever was orchestrating this had wanted him alone, so he'd attach himself to Jim, latch onto him in place of the family he'd lost. The family he'd never really had, if he was being honest. What about Jim? Was it the same for him? His marriage to Carolyn had fallen apart in less than a year, leaving him alone, isolated. Would Jim be alone forever? Would he? If he got serious about a woman, would he get his heart broken every time? Would Jim ever trust a woman enough to tell her about his Sentinel abilities? Did Sentinels have families? What about their partners? He was definitely going to have to look into this.

"Sandburg, you planning on getting up today?" Jim called from downstairs. That sounded weird.

"I'm awake," Blair answered.

"That's not what I asked you," Jim said.

"Okay, I'm up then."

"No, you're not."

No, he wasn't. And he didn't want to be. Jim's bed was comfortable. It was at least twice as wide as his own, and there were no sharp-cornered books lying in wait to jab him when he moved. He stretched, and wriggled down beneath the covers so that the comforter reached his chin. His feet were nowhere near the end of the bed. Jim's feet must have hung off the end of his bed. Blair grinned, and closed his eyes. He didn't want to move. He felt himself drifting, and knew he could be asleep again in seconds. He'd forgotten what it was like to be so relaxed. A few more minutes couldn't hurt...

He opened his eyes to see Jim stacking folded shirts on a shelf. The older man was dressed, shaved, and ready to go. Uh-oh. Blair brushed a curl out of his face, and Jim glanced his way.

"I'm up," Blair said.

"That's what you said two hours ago."

What? Blair turned over to squint at the clock on Jim's nightstand: 9:15. Shit. He threw the covers back, and stumbled out of the bed, catching himself on the railing before he went over. Jim started toward him.

"Careful, Partner."

"I'm okay, man. Why didn't you get me up?"

Jim laughed. "I know when to quit. Watch the stairs, this isn't your room, remember?"

"Yes, Mom."

Jim didn't bother to answer. Certain that his toes would freeze off before he reached the bottom, Blair took the stairs at a near-run and hurried toward his room. He hesitated at the door, remembering how it had looked last night, all his things flung everywhere, even his bed, torn apart and handled by whoever had broken in. He hadn't thought of the mask at all. He'd been convinced that--

But it wasn't. The intruder had wanted the mask, that was all. And he hadn't found it, because Blair had hidden it. Jim had been pleased. It was about time he'd done something right. Now if only he could keep it up. He'd start by not being afraid to go into his own bedroom.

Blair opened the door, expecting the mess from last night. His furniture was back in place. The laptop sat on his desk, along with three stacks of books, a bunch of notebooks, a collection of pens, and artifacts set out in neat rows. The hanging was back on the wall, his clothes were put away, the bed--God, the bed was made. Jim had cleaned up. Blair scowled at himself. Idiot. Of course Jim had cleaned up, how else could he have slept in here? But this went way beyond what he'd had to do. This went way beyond anything Blair had ever done. How was he ever going to find anything?

Oh, that's nice. Be an ingrate, Sandburg. Why don't you go yell at Jim for daring to put your stuff into some kind of order? Okay, so it's not your kind of order. Jim did you a huge favor here, and you're going to thank him for it. After you've had your shower.

Blair moved into the room, looking around. God, even the dirty clothes he'd been meaning to throw in the hamper were gone. Had Jim done his laundry, too? Did that mean he'd-- There was a gray square on the end of the bed: Jim's Cascade PD sweatshirt, neatly folded. Jim had left it for him. Blair felt himself blushing. He should wash the sweatshirt and give it back to Jim. But he knew he wouldn't. Not yet.

Half an hour later, they left the loft. Blair had managed to find a navy blue sweater, jeans, and a clean pair of socks. He carried the box of midterms, and Jim carried Wainwright's mask, still in its protective box. A travel-mug of coffee and a bagel balanced on top of the bluebooks; Jim had already eaten his breakfast. They loaded the boxes into the back seat of the truck. Blair set the mug in the cupholder, grabbed the bagel, and jumped up into the passenger seat. Jim started the truck, and pulled out of the parking lot.

"Damn," Blair murmured.

Jim heard, of course. "Forget something?"

"Sort of. I left my notes for the paper I'm writing in my office. I'll have to go pick them up later."

"We can go now."

"No, man, we're already late."

"Don't worry about it."

Blair shook his head, but didn't argue. Jim wouldn't listen anyway. He just hoped Jim wouldn't get into trouble for this. It was all right for him to wander in and out of the station when he felt like it, he was just an observer. But Jim was a cop, and Simon liked his people to show up on time. Well, if Simon yelled, he'd take the responsibility. Or he'd try to, anyway. Jim operated on the belief that he was entirely responsible for anything either of them did that was even remotely connected to police work. Technically, he was, but Blair hated the idea that something he'd done--some stupid mistake he'd made--could put Jim's job in jeopardy. Not to mention his life.

Jim's voice broke his thoughts. "Earth to Sandburg."

"Huh?"

Jim smiled. "I said, how'd you sleep last night?"

"Oh. Good. At least, I think so. I didn't walk or anything, did I?"

"No. You stayed put."

"Great. Thanks for letting me--um--trade. Did you sleep okay?"

"Fine." Jim glanced at him, then turned his attention back to the road. "So, no nightmares?"

"No, I--" No nightmares. None. "Jim, this is great!"

"It's about time."

"No, man, you don't get it. I slept in your bed, and I didn't have any nightmares!"

"I get it, Sandburg."

"No, you don't, Jim. This means that you're definitely not the cause of the nightmares. If you were, then me sleeping in your bed would have made them worse. I'd have been screaming all night. I knew it couldn't be you, man, I knew it! And this proves it."

Jim smiled again. "Well, good."

"Good? Is that all you can say?"

Dryly. "I'd jump up and down and do a dance, Sandburg, but it's a little awkward right now. Though you seem to be doing okay."

"Sorry, man."

"Don't be. Just don't spill coffee in my truck."

When they reached Rainier, Jim parked the truck in front of Hargrove Hall and Blair jumped out, racing up to the second floor to retrieve his notes. He knew exactly where he'd left them. All he had to do was grab them and run out again, and hope he didn't run into any students with questions about their midterms. After Tuesday's fiasco, he'd never understand how he'd found the courage to show up for yesterday's class, but he'd done it. Though a few of the students had been a little edgy--especially Joshua, but he couldn't blame the poor guy--most had been pretty cool about the whole thing. Anyone would have thought teachers freaked out in front of their classes all the time. Their attitude had made it a lot easier for him. By the time class was over, he'd almost managed to relax, and he was actually looking forward to teaching next Tuesday. Provided he got all the midterms graded.

Blair walked into his office, and stopped dead. No. Oh no, not here, too. God--

A hand clamped over Blair's mouth, jerked him back against a hard body. He fought, trying to pry the hand from his mouth, but his assailant was bigger, stronger, and he couldn't get free. Dragged behind the door, he tried to bite the hand over his mouth, but couldn't work his jaws apart. Cold metal touched his temple, and he stopped struggling. He didn't have to see it to know it was a gun. The door closed. A familiar voice spoke in his ear.

"Stay real quiet, genius, or I'll have to blow your head off. And that wouldn't be good for either of us, would it?"

Blair shook his head. The hand left his mouth, and an arm slid across his throat, tightening just enough to let him know it wouldn't be smart to move. Ponytail's arm snaked around his neck, lifting him off his feet, cutting off his breath. No. No! Don't think about that. This isn't Ponytail, it isn't! Think of a way to let Jim know what's happening. There has to be a way.

"Where is it?" the voice demanded.

Stall, Blair. Maybe if he got tired of waiting, Jim would come up here after him. "Where's what?"

The arm tightened, and the gun jabbed his temple. "Don't jerk me around, genius. Where's the mask?"

In the truck, with Jim. "It's at the police station."

"Bullshit!" The hammer cocked. "You've got five seconds."

Oh God, oh God, Jim, come up here, please! "I swear, man! That's where it is. The mask's worth fifty thousand dollars, you think the cops would just let me take it home?"

The pressure of the gun eased slightly. "You'd better be telling the truth, genius."

"I swear! Come on, man, you know it's the truth."

"I know you're shit-scared."

The arm whipped away from his throat and shoved him forward. A foot tripped him, and he fell, sprawling on his stomach. The hand gripped the collar of his jacket, and the gun touched the back of his head. Oh God, he was going to die. Jim!

"Listen, genius. Tell your boyfriend Ellison you can't work on this case anymore. Tell him you don't know anything else, or you're not interested. Hell, tell him you're too scared, he'll believe that."

"I can't--"

"Do it!" The gun dug into his skull, forcing Blair's head to the floor. "Or next time, I'll use this."

The gun and the hand were gone, and the voice spoke from above him. "You know the drill, genius. Count to fifty before you move."

The door opened and closed. Blair lay on the floor, unable to move. He started to shake, and his stomach twisted. He swallowed rapidly, sucking in deep breaths, refusing to be sick. Not this time. Get up, Sandburg! Go after the guy, yell for Jim, do something! Move!

"Damn, damn, dammit, dammit, dammit!"

Jim watched Blair disappear into the building, and settled back to wait, smiling to himself. The kid had actually slept through the night, for the first time since that bastard Ponytail attacked him. He'd hated to get him up this morning, but he needed Blair today, and he hadn't wanted to leave him alone in the loft. Not after last night. The break-in had really shaken Blair, so much that Jim had slept only lightly, expecting to have to wake the kid from at least one nightmare, possibly more. That he hadn't was a minor miracle, and one Jim hoped to repeat with greater frequency. As long as there were no more shocks, there was a pretty good chance of that happening.

Jim glanced at the building. No sign of Blair. What the hell was taking him so long? He was just supposed to run in, grab his notes, and run out again. Okay, it hadn't really been that long, but...

Jim could see Blair's office window from the truck. He piggy-backed his hearing, turning it up to the maximum, and tried to find Blair's voice among the rest of the noise. If he was chatting with some co-ed, he was in trouble.

"I can't--"

There! That was Blair. Another voice interrupted, male, slightly deeper than Sandburg's.

"Do it! Or next time, I'll use this." Seconds later. "You know the drill, genius. Count to fifty before you move."

Oh God. Sandburg! Jim vaulted out of the truck, drawing his gun. He leaped up the steps and crashed through the doors into the building, racing for the staircase to the second floor. As he set his foot on the first step, he heard Blair's voice again, progressively louder.

"Damn, damn, dammit, dammit, dammit!"

Jim passed a student on the stairs, but barely glanced at him. Others were milling about in the hall, with one or two teachers, and some others Jim couldn't readily identify. The door to Blair's office opened, and Blair emerged, looking around wildly. He was pale, and from fifty feet away, Jim could see that he was shaking.

"Blair!" Jim shouted. "Are you all right?"

"Jim!" Blair focused on him and pushed away from the door, moving toward him. "He was here! The guy who mugged me."

"What does he look like?"

"I don't know. He grabbed me from behind." Blair looked around helplessly, then raked his hair back with a trembling hand. "I'm sorry, Jim."

"It's okay, Blair." Jim wanted to grab him, make sure he was in one piece, but he was afraid of sending Blair into hysterics. The kid looked okay, but with Blair, you could never tell. Jim put up his gun. "Why don't we go back to your office, and you can sit down?"

"My office!" Blair moaned. "Man, it's a mess! That jerk ransacked it, looking for the mask."

"We'll get it cleaned up," Jim said. "After forensics has been over everything."

They went in, and Jim closed the door. He righted the desk chair, and pointed to it. Blair dropped into the chair, still shaking. He put his head into his hands, breathing deeply, trying to slow his racing heart. Jim called in to Simon, and looked around the room. Blair was right, it was a mess. The floor was a sea of paper and artifacts, shelves had been dragged from their places, the bulletin board torn from the wall. Fortunately, just as in the loft, there was very little breakage. Either the guy was a considerate burglar, or he hadn't wanted to draw attention to himself with the noise.

Blair's head was still in his hands, but the trembling had lessened, and his heart rate was closer to normal. Jim grabbed another chair and sat down near him.

"You okay, Partner? You want some water, or anything?"

"I'm fine, Jim." Blair lifted his head. Instead of the fear Jim had expected to see, the blue eyes snapped with anger. "I want to get this guy, Jim. He threatened to kill me!"

"I know. I heard."

"You did?" Blair stared at him. "You were listening? Jim, did you know something was wrong?"

Jim smiled. "Sorry, Sandburg, no psychic powers today. I just wanted to know what was taking you so long."

"You thought I was wasting time." Bitterly. "Nice to know you have such faith in me."

"Hey, I have faith in you. It's just that you're easily distracted."

"I am not!"

Jim held up his hands. "Let's save the argument for later, okay, Partner? Tell me what you remember about this guy."

"Nothing, man. I told you, I didn't see him."

"Where was he when you came in?"

"Behind the door. He grabbed me--put a hand over my mouth and a gun to my head."

"He put a hand over your mouth? Was he wearing gloves?"

"No."

"So he may have left fingerprints. How tall was he?"

Blair shook his head. "I don't know, Jim. Taller than me. My head hit his chest somewhere, or maybe his shoulder."

"See, Partner? You know more about this guy than you thought. What about his voice?"

"It was the same guy who mugged me. He kept calling me genius. And it wasn't Rupert Crowley."

"You're sure?"

"Yeah. He talked a lot this time. It wasn't Crowley's voice."

"What did he say?"

Blair related the entire conversation, including the order for Blair to beg off the case. Jim kept tight rein on his anger; it wouldn't do any good now. Interesting, that this guy wanted Blair off the case, but not Jim. Why would he see an anthropologist as a bigger threat than a detective? It must be Blair's education that worried them, his specialized knowledge. Them? Yeah, them, had to be. The guy who'd threatened Blair wasn't the brains behind this; there had to be someone else. And it had to be someone connected to the Hatch Gallery. For Blair's sake, Jim hoped it wasn't Toni LeClaire. But she was a suspect, right along with Rupert Crowley and Geoffrey Hatch. She could have arranged Blair's mugging, and planted the evidence in Crowley's car and apartment. And there was nothing to say she hadn't helped Blair find those packing slips because she needed them as much as they did. The question was still why? What was it about the masks that had gotten Arthur Hatch and probably Thomas Wainwright killed, and Blair threatened with murder? Why were they worth so many lives? Dammit, they needed some answers! Starting with the name of the son of a bitch who'd threatened to kill his partner, while he sat outside in the truck.

"Jim?"

He focused on Blair. The kid's breathing and heart rate were just about normal, but he was still pale. "Yeah?"

"I've been thinking. Maybe you should look around before forensics gets here. You might spot something they'd miss."

"Good idea."

No point in telling the kid he'd been doing that already. He'd needed the nudge to get back on track anyway. Blair said the guy had been behind the door. Might as well concentrate there next. He checked the floor first. Nothing. No footprints, no missing buttons, no conveniently dropped ID with name, address, picture, and best time to make an arrest. He scanned the door, and the wall. Something moved, and Jim locked on it: a hair, stuck to the wall, long, but too light and way too straight to be Blair's. Well, well. The guy was getting careless. He must have leaned against the wall when he heard Blair coming. Jim plucked the hair off the wall, and turned to Blair.

"Our guy's a blond, Partner. You got something to put this in?"

Blair opened a drawer in his desk and pulled out an envelope, placing it in Jim's waiting hand. Jim dropped the hair in and sealed the envelope. He continued his search, but hadn't found anything else when forensics arrived. The minute they walked in, Blair stood and edged toward the door.

"Jim, I'm gonna--um--"

Jesus, he was white. "You okay, Partner?"

"I'm fine, Jim. I just need to get some air."

"Why don't you wait in the truck?"

"Yeah. Okay."

Blair slipped out the door. While he explained the situation to forensics, Jim kept half an ear on his partner. Blair made his way down the hall quickly, speaking to no one, and all but ran down the stairs. He reached the ground floor, and headed for the doors, pushed through them and started down the steps, but didn't make it to the bottom. At first, Jim assumed that Blair had met someone he knew, but there was no conversation. Blocking out the voices of the forensics team and the other people in the building, Jim concentrated solely on Blair. Blair's heart was racing, his breathing fast and shallow--too shallow. God, not again!

Jim ran out of the building, bursting through the doors to see Blair sitting on the steps, head in hands. Jim wasn't the first to reach him. A bearded, gray-haired man stood behind him, slightly to his right. The man glanced at Jim, then stretched out a hand and laid it on Blair's shoulder.

"No!"

Blair twisted away, launching himself off the steps. He hit the ground and rolled, then pushed himself to his feet. The bearded man stared, astounded by Blair's reaction. Blair's eyes found Jim, and locked onto him, ignoring everything else. Jim descended the steps and approached Blair slowly.

"Jim," he gasped. "Jim--"

"It's okay, Partner." Jim kept his voice calm. "Everything's okay. You're all right."

Blair shook his head, wrapping his arms around his ribs. "Jim, I can't--breathe."

He swayed, and would have fallen, but Jim caught his shoulders and lowered him to his knees. Blair was fighting for each breath, his heart beating double time. Jim squatted in front of him, still holding his shoulders, expecting him to wrench himself free at any moment, but Blair didn't seem to notice Jim's touch.

"Blair, listen to me. You can breathe. You're talking to me. That takes air, doesn't it? This is nothing to worry about. It's just another anxiety attack."

"Yeah, I--I--ok--okay."

"Take it easy, Blair. You don't have to talk. All you have to do is relax."

Blair sat back on his heels, never taking his eyes from Jim's. "Jim, I--when he--grabbed me, I--I thought--"

Oh, God, he should have realized. "Blair, this guy's not Ponytail. Ponytail's gone, and he's never coming back. He can't hurt you anymore."

"I--know! I--just--" Blair shook his head, unable to find the breath to continue.

"You flashed back. I know, Partner. I'm sorry."

"Not--your--"

"Not my fault. I know. But I'm sorry anyway. Blair, we'll get this guy. Him, and whoever he's working with. We'll get them together, Partner: you and me. We'll put them in prison."

"That's--what you--what you said--about--"

"Yeah, but these guys aren't shapeshifting Sentinels. We'll get them, I promise. This arguing isn't helping you, Partner. Come on, now, I need you to relax for me. Close your eyes and relax. Can you do that?"

"Yeah. Just--just--"

"What, Blair? What do you need?"

"Just don't--don't let go--okay?"

Jim squeezed Blair's shoulders lightly, doing his best to hide his astonishment. "I won't, Partner. Now close your eyes. Think of those people you told me about last night, the ones who live in the trees."

"The--Kombai," Blair supplied, his eyes closed, but his mouth, as always, open.

"Shut up and concentrate, Sandburg," Jim growled.

Blair obeyed, his heart already starting to slow down. He'd be fine in a few minutes, thank God. Once he could breathe again, Jim knew Blair wouldn't be able to tolerate his touch. He didn't understand how Blair could stand it now, when the bearded man's touch had evoked such a violent reaction. But he didn't want to analyze it. It had been too long since he could offer Blair reassurance with a pat on the back or a hand on his arm, light, brotherly touches that had become second-nature to him, before Ponytail made them unthinkable. Soon enough, he'd feel Blair stiffen under his fingers and pull away. But for now, he kept his hands on his partner's shoulders, and allowed himself to smile.





Blair followed Jim into the bullpen, glancing at the clock. Oh, man, 1:30! Simon would have a fit. He knew he shouldn't have let Jim talk him into going to lunch before they came in. Forensics had left his office at eleven, and he and Jim had spent an hour and a half cleaning up. The papers would all have to be sorted, but at least they were off the floor. And he'd found his notes on Wainwright's mask, so he'd be able to write his paper. That was about all he'd done, really. Jim had taken care of most of the cleanup. Blair had fled the office three times, each time thinking he could never go back in, each time getting madder at himself and at the man who had turned him into this coward who crouched in the hall. After the third time, the anger had taken over, and he'd torn through the office, snatching up papers and returning artifacts to their places. Jim hadn't said a word. But when they were done, Jim had practically dragged him to an organic vegetarian place that he knew Jim hated, where Blair had drunk an entire pot of ginger tea laced with licorice, kava-kava and ginseng, the combination intended to soothe without making him drowsy. Watching Jim force down tofu, tomato, and goatcheese on four-grain bread was an experience never likely to be repeated in Blair's lifetime. He owed Jim big for this. He owed Jim for a lot of things, but this particular debt could probably be taken care of by a trip to Wonder Burger. He could stand it, as long as he didn't actually have to eat anything.

There was one good thing about his office being ransacked: the guy had probably left fingerprints. Forensics had lifted a lot of prints from the door, the wall, and the shelves. Most of them would be Blair's own, but there was a good possibility of at least one belonging to the mugger. If the guy had a record, they'd have a name and a picture, and they'd finally be getting somewhere with this case. Which would make Jim, and Simon, happy.

Jim picked up a fax from his desk, studied it for a second, then passed it to Blair. "Ms. LeClaire's list of names. See how it compares to yours, would you, Partner? I'm going to check in with Simon."

Blair couldn't help stealing another glance at the clock. "Do you think that's a good idea, Jim? Maybe if we just kind of sat here quietly, Simon wouldn't notice what time we came in."

"Sandburg, I told you not to worry about it. Simon knows where we've been. He's not going to take my head off."

"Why tempt fate?"

Jim shook his head. "Just take a look at these names, okay, Partner? I'll be back in a few."

Jim headed for Simon's office. Blair watched him go in, and waited for the explosion, but it didn't come. Guess Jim was right. Sitting down in Jim's chair, Blair turned the computer on, fished a disk out of the cheap replacement backpack he'd bought yesterday--he couldn't wait to get his old one back--and slotted it in. He called up his list of names, and checked it against Toni's. She only had five names on her list; he had nine. Three of hers also appeared on his, and he'd listed Thomas Wainwright just to make sure the final count was twenty-four. That left them with ten new names, but they only had locations for seven. Blair looked at the phone. No. He couldn't. She wouldn't want to talk to him. Dammit, Sandburg, think of someone besides yourself for a change.

Blair picked up the phone and punched in the number.

"Hatch Gallery."

Deep breath. "Hi, Toni, it's Blair Sandburg. I--um--wanted to thank you for faxing those names over."

"You're welcome," Toni replied. She didn't sound mad. "What else can I do for you?"

Great, Blair, you're transparent. "Get some addresses from the computer?"

Fifteen minutes later, he had addresses and phone numbers for each of the ten names.

"Thanks, Toni. I'm--really sorry about the other night."

"I know you are. Blair, was it really Rupert who robbed you and the gallery?"

"I'm not supposed to talk about that, Toni. All the evidence points to him."

"But that doesn't mean--" She sighed. "I just can't believe he could do something like that."

"No one ever wants to believe that someone they know could do this kind of thing."

"I suppose not. Blair, are you all right? Detective Ellison said you were, but..."

"I'm fine, Toni. Thanks. I, um, I have to go now. We have to call these people. If you think of anyone else, would you let us know right away?"

"Of course. Good-bye, Blair."

"Bye."

Blair hung up the phone, and put his head in his hands. God, he'd practically hit her, and she asked if he was all right. She shouldn't be so nice to him, he didn't deserve it. Not that it mattered. She wouldn't go out with him again unless he could tell her what had made him freak out the other night, and he was never going to be able to do that. He'd had all he could do to tell Dr. Hawthorne, and she was his therapist. How could he ever tell a woman he was attracted to that he'd been--

Raped. Raped, Sandburg, you were raped. God, bad enough you can hardly bring yourself to say the word, now you're back to not being able to think it? Wonderful progress you're making. Really impressive. Don't forget to tell the doctor that you turned violent because a woman tried to kiss you. She'll love that one. I can hear her now. "Blair, I think you should consider in-patient therapy. Just until we can be certain that you're not a danger to others." "But Doctor, as long as women don't kiss me and men don't touch me at all, I'm fine." "I'll be the judge of that, Blair."

"Sandburg? You okay?"

Blair jerked his head up. Taggert stood in front of the desk, a folder in his hand. Blair gave him a weak smile.

"Hey, Joel. I'm fine. Just thinking."

"Uh-oh." Taggert grinned. "We're all in trouble now."

Blair rolled his eyes. "Why does everybody say that?"

"Because we all know how your mind works, Partner."

Jim was back, carrying two mugs of what smelled like Simon's special chocolate almond coffee. No, make that one mug of chocolate almond, which he deposited on the desk, and a mug of the regular stuff for himself. Jim didn't like flavored coffees. Blair vacated Jim's chair for his own, picked up the mug, closed his eyes, and inhaled the fabulous aroma. Too bad they never tasted quite as good as they smelled.

"Okay, Joel, he's distracted," Jim said. "What can I do for you?"

"I am not distracted," Blair objected, keeping his eyes closed. "I'm listening to every word."

Taggert chuckled. "I'm on my way to Simon's office. I just thought I'd return the Anderson file."

Blair heard the file drop onto the desk, and the sound of Taggert's footsteps moving away. "Later, Big Guy."

"Yeah."

Jim sat down. A moment later. "Hey, Partner, ten names? That's great."

Blair shook his head. "It's not good enough, Jim."

"It's ten more names than we had before."

"But there's still thirteen more out there somewhere." And because of me, we don't have them. He wouldn't say that out loud. Jim would only leap to his defense, whether he deserved it or not. "Jim, I know I saw them. I saw them all, I just can't--" Blair's eyes flew open. He turned to face Jim, nearly spilling the coffee. "Jim! I know what to do!"

Jim struggled to suppress a smile. "What?"

"It's so obvious, I should've thought of it before. I saw all the slips, I just need help to remember what I saw. It's like when you see things, but don't take notice of them, and we use relaxation techniques to go over what you saw again."

"Will that work for you?"

"Well, I'll probably need actual hypnosis, but yeah, it should. I did see them, Jim, I know I did."

Jim picked up the phone and dialed.

"Who are you calling?"

Jim held up a hand to quiet him, and spoke into the receiver. "Dr. Hawthorne, it's Jim Ellison. I wonder if you could do me a favor?"

"How do you feel, Blair?"

"Good."

"Are you comfortable?"

"Uh-huh."

A tape recorder hummed in the background. Dr. Hawthorne's voice was pitched low, the tone soothing. Across from her, Blair sat in the armchair he'd used last night, eyes closed, hands resting loosely in his lap. In that state, he looked so young and small that Jim's protective instinct kicked into overdrive; he had to force himself to sit still, when what he wanted was to place himself between Blair and the world. Nothing was going to hurt Blair here. The kid was fine. Dr. Hawthorne continued.

"Blair, I want you to go back to Wednesday. You're at the Hatch Gallery, looking through the packing slips for the names of the people who bought the Mombatu masks. Are you there?"

"Uh-huh."

"Good. Now, we're going to compress time a bit."

"Cool," Blair interrupted.

Dr. Hawthorne smiled. "Yes, it is pretty cool. We're going to skip over the time you spent looking, and go straight to when you found the first slip, okay?"

"Okay."

"All right, Blair, you've found the first packing slip. You're holding it in your hand."

A smile lit Blair's face. "I've got one. I've got one! This is gonna work! This is great! This is so great!"

Jim smiled to see his partner so elated. He'd had no idea this was so important to Blair. No wonder he'd been so upset when the slips were stolen from him.

"That's wonderful, Blair," Dr. Hawthorne said. "Now, I want you to look at the slip, and tell me what it says."

Blair's eyes opened. In the dimmed office light, his pupils were dilated, turning his eyes ocean-dark. He looked at the slip he believed to be in his hand, and read, "Roberta Chilson, 525 Crossview Rd, Phoenix, Arizona."

Yes! It was working. Dr. Hawthorne glanced at Jim, and turned back to Blair. "That's very good, Blair. Thank you. Now, we're compressing time again. You've found the second slip."

"Not me," Blair said. "Toni found it."

"All right. Can you see it?"

"Yes. She gave it to me."

"Will you read it, please?"

Blair complied, rattling off the name and address just as though the packing slip really was in front of him. In this way, Dr. Hawthorne took him through the rest of the search, asking Blair to read each slip as it was found, until they had all twenty-four names and an address for each.

"Excellent, Blair," Dr. Hawthorne said finally. "You've done a wonderful job, you've found all the packing slips."

"I've gotta call Jim," Blair said.

"Jim already knows. He's very proud of you."

"He is?"

Dr. Hawthorne looked to Jim, and nodded.

"I sure am, Partner," Jim said. "You did a great job."

Blair beamed. "Thanks, Jim."

"All right, Blair, we're finished," Dr. Hawthorne said. "I'm going to count to three. When I'm done, you'll be back in the present, relaxed and alert, and you'll remember everything. Do you understand?"

"Yes."

"Good. One, you're leaving Wednesday, now it's Thursday. Two, now it's Friday, at 3:30 P.M. You feel relaxed and alert. Three."

Blair blinked, looked around, and ran a hand through his hair. A slow smile spread across his face. "I remembered."

"Yep." Jim grinned. "You were right, Partner."

"Cool! I wasn't sure it would work. Thanks, Dr. Hawthorne."

"You're very welcome." Dr. Hawthorne popped the tape out of the machine and handed it to Blair. "In case it starts to fade."

"Appreciate it, Doc." Jim stood up. "You ready to go, Partner?"

"Sure, Jim."

Favoring Dr. Hawthorne with another smile, Blair moved to join Jim. Dr. Hawthorne watched them out, and called after them.

"Don't forget to do your homework."





Blair hung up the phone and gulped cold coffee, grimacing at the taste. That was the seventh call he'd made to a mask buyer, and the fourth message he'd had to leave. Only two had been home, and one guy didn't even have an answering machine. Where were all these people? At least the two he'd talked to had agreed to hand their masks over to the local police, to be shipped to Cascade for Blair to study. Jim was calling all the police in the buyers' cities, to explain the situation and ask for some interstate cooperation. He was on the phone with the Phoenix police now. Blair got up to get fresh coffee, but stopped when he heard Jim's exclamation.

"What was that? Are you sure? Sorry, of course you're sure. When?" He listened for a while, scribbling notes on a pad. "Yeah, got it. Thanks. I'll be in touch if anything turns up at this end."

Jim hung up, gazing into the distance. Blair put his mug back on the desk. "What's up, Jim?"

"Chilson's mask was stolen two days after Arthur Hatch was murdered."

"What? Is she all right?"

Jim nodded. "She wasn't home."

Blair sank into his chair. "Man, we've gotta get hold of these people. Any one of them could be next."

"Chances are good that other masks have been stolen already, Partner."

"Oh, man. I hope no one else has been hurt."

"Damn." Jim spread one hand across his eyes, rubbing at his temples. "I wish we'd had these names sooner."

"I'm sorry, Jim."

Jim's hand slammed down on the desk. Blair jumped at the sound, looked up to meet neon-blue eyes filled with exasperation, quickly quelled by the famous Ellison self-control. Blair wanted to shrink into his chair, or better yet run, but that was never the way to go with Jim. It was okay to be afraid, but cowardice was not something Jim could understand. Blair stayed where he was, and waited.

"Blair," Jim said at last. "When are you going to stop taking the blame for things that aren't your fault?"

"It is my fault, Jim."

"No, it's not. Blair, listen. Just listen. Don't try to analyze what I say, or find some hidden meaning in it, because there isn't any. When I said I wish we'd had the names sooner, I meant exactly that. I wasn't accusing you, or blaming you. Hell, Partner, if it wasn't for you, we wouldn't have the names at all. You're the one these guys are scared of, not me. They know that without you, we wouldn't have squat. That's why they want you off the case.

"But they're wrong."

"They're not wrong. You found the names, you know about the masks, you've had contact with one of the murderers. You and that convoluted brain of yours are our best chance of solving this case. But I need you to be able to concentrate. You can't waste your time trying to figure out ways to blame yourself for everything that goes wrong, or beating yourself up for every mistake you think you've made. It's bad for your self-esteem." A spark of humor lit Jim's eyes. "And my temper."

Man, where had all that come from? Had Jim been talking to Dr. Hawthorne while he was hypnotized? Blair sighed. "I know you're right, Jim, I do. I just--" He shrugged. "I'll try to turn off the guilt switch. But I can't guarantee anything."

"Just try, Partner, that's all I'm asking." Jim picked up the phone and handed it to Blair. "Better keep calling. Simon wants all these people contacted before we get out of here tonight."

Blair groaned. They could be here all night! He didn't have time for this. He still had more than half of the midterms to grade and that paper to write on Wainwright's mask. He could explain it to Jim and beg off of phone duty, but that would put twice the load on Jim's shoulders, and that wasn't fair. He was supposed to be Jim's partner. Partners didn't make excuses, they just did the work. No matter how long it took.

Blair punched in the next number on the list. The phone was answered on the second ring by a man with a deep, cultured voice.

"Palmer residence."

"Hi, this is Blair Sandburg, I'd like to speak to Ms. Palmer, please."

"I'm sorry, Mr. Sandburg, Miss Palmer is away for the weekend. May I take a message?"

Damn. "This is really important. Do you know where I could reach her?"

"I'm not at liberty to say, sir."

Blair took a moment to stare at the phone. This guy was right out of the movies. "Um, look, I'm a consultant to the police department. My partner and I are working on a case that could involve a mask Ms. Palmer purchased from the Hatch Gallery. It's not safe to have it in the house."

"Is there something dangerous about the mask, Mr. Sandburg?"

"No, not the mask; the people who are after it. You should turn it over to the police right away."

"I'm afraid I can't make that decision, sir. Miss Palmer will have to be informed."

"Then give me a number where I can reach her, and I'll talk to her."

Silence for a moment. Then, "Very well, sir."

Blair got the number, thanked the man, and hung up, shaking his head. Jim put his hand over the mouthpiece of his phone.

"Somebody give you a hard time, Partner?"

"I think it was the butler."

A smile twitched at the corners of Jim's mouth. "You mean, the butler did it?"

Blair groaned, and rolled his eyes. "Just call the cops, Jim. I'll handle the jokes."

Jim went back to his call, and Blair tried the number the butler had given him. He had to talk his way past five different people before Olive Palmer finally got on the line. He explained the situation to her, and waited for her pronouncement.

"I will not turn the mask over to the police," she said. "My security is more than sufficient. However, once I have returned to Cascade, Mr. Sandburg, you and Detective Ellison are welcome to examine the mask, provided that it does not leave the house."

"When will you be back?"

"Tuesday. I shall expect you for lunch at noon, Mr. Sandburg. Don't be late. I abhor tardiness."

"Yes, ma'am," Blair said hurriedly. "Twelve o'clock on Tuesday. We'll be there."

Blair hung up the phone. Jim had ended his call seconds earlier. He fixed Blair with a baleful eye.

"We'll be where?"

Blair glanced around the bullpen. No help there. "Um, Olive Palmer's. For lunch."

"What?"

"Sorry, man, it's the only way she'll let us look at her mask."

Jim shook his head and went back to the phone. "Keep calling, Sandburg. And don't make us any more lunch dates."

He called. He called for hours, trying to reach an actual person at each of the mask buyers' numbers, not daring to just leave a message. Finally, just after midnight, Blair reached the last name on his list. He explained the situation once more, hoping he didn't sound like a recording after so many repetitions, and obtained the woman's promise to turn the mask over to her local police.

Blair dropped the phone into its cradle and slumped down in his chair, closing his eyes. Done. They were done. They'd called them all, talked to them all, or to someone in their families. Jim had been right. Out of the total of twenty-four masks, thirteen had been stolen from the buyers. Only two more people had been hurt during the robberies, and none had been killed. Thank God.

Jim shoved a bunch of folders into one of his desk drawers. "Let's pack it up, Partner. Time to go home."

And thank God for that, too. He hadn't graded a single test today. He either had to do some when they got home, or get all fifty or so remaining done over the weekend. Damn. Blair stuffed things into his backpack, looking around for the box of tests. He found it shoved into a corner and started to pick it up, but Jim beat him to it, and nodded at the door.

"Lead the way, Partner. I'm right behind you."

Blair did as he was told, preceding Jim to the elevator. He pressed the button for the garage level, and rubbed one hand over his face.

"Jim, I've been thinking."

"What about?"

"The guy--the mugger. Who is he?"

Jim shrugged. "The fingerprints may tell us."

"What if they don't?"

"Then we figure it out."

"Do you have any ideas?"

"Right now, I'm thinking maybe the boyfriend."

"Whose boyfriend?"

"Arthur Hatch."

"You think his lover killed him?"

"It's a possibility, Sandburg. Not a certainty. Whoever this guy is, he's not working alone. He's not smart enough."

"So, Rupert, Toni, and Geoffrey Hatch are still suspects?"

"Yeah."

He didn't want to think about it. But his brain wouldn't stop trying to make connections, no matter how much he wanted it to shut down and contemplate only sleep. He could tell himself it was his anthropology training, or working with Jim, but he'd be lying to himself. It was just the way his mind worked.

Halfway home, he ventured, "Jim?"

"Yeah?"

"Rupert told you about the boyfriend, right?"

"Right."

"So, maybe he could tell you more about him. What he looks like, maybe even his name."

"Maybe. But his lawyer won't bring him in until Monday."

"You already called her, huh?"

Jim nodded, jaw-muscle jumping. "She had plans for a long weekend. Wouldn't want to interrupt them for anything as insignificant as a murder investigation."

"Right." Blair echoed his partner's disgust. Until his brain made one more connection. "Hey, great. That means we get the weekend off, too."

"Unless something else comes up. You have plans?"

"No. But the U has plans to boot me out if I don't get my work done on time."

"Just don't overdo it, Partner."

"Jim, when have you ever known me to overdo anything?" Blair demanded.

Jim actually turned his head to stare at him. Blair flushed, and sank down in his seat.

"Okay, man, okay," he muttered. "Just forget I asked and get your eyes back on the road."

"Hey, Jim, you home?" he called, shutting the door.

No answer. He tossed his keys into the basket, saw Jim's already there, and his jacket hung neatly on its hook. He hung his own jacket next to it.

"Jim? Come on, man, I know you can hear me."

Nothing. He moved past the kitchen counter. There was something on the floor in the living room, but in the dim light, he couldn't make it out.

"Jim?"

Something was wrong. Something was wrong. His stomach twisted, and a voice in his head screamed at him to get out, but his legs carried him forward, toward the living room and the dark object on the floor. He didn't want to see. He didn't want to--

"Oh God. Oh, God, no."

Jim. It was Jim, lying motionless on the floor, his eyes open, a hole in his forehead, the back of his head a mass of brains and blood and shards of bone.

"No." He bent down, reaching a hand toward the still form. It couldn't be real. "No."

An arm snaked around his throat, jerked him up and off his feet. A gun touched the side of his head, and a voice he knew said,

"I told you what would happen if you lied to me, genius. I said I'd be back. Your cop friend got in the way. It's your fault he's dead."

"No!"

He couldn't breathe. The arm lowered, setting him back on his feet, but didn't ease the pressure. He choked, and the voice spoke in his ear, but it was a different voice now, a deeper, harsher voice.

"You shouldn't have lied to me, Chief. You shouldn't have shot me."

He was ice. Body, mind, heart. He couldn't move, couldn't breathe, couldn't speak. Ponytail's tongue touched his ear, burning. Fire engulfed his body, freeing his limbs from the ice, and he fought, but Ponytail laughed and threw him to the floor. He tried to get up. Ponytail dropped to his knees beside him and seized his neck, pushing his head back down, grinding his cheek into the floor, into the blood. Jim's blood.

"Why'd you shoot me, Chief? That was a stupid move. You could have been my Guide. Now you have to die. But not yet."

Ponytail tore his clothes off, wrenched his legs apart, and knelt between them. Huge, rough hands ran over his ass, fingers dug into the firm flesh. Ponytail's hot, hard cock rubbed the cleft between his buttocks.

"No! Please, God, no!"

Ponytail laughed. A third voice reached him then. Soft, insistent, soothing, muting Ponytail's laughter, an echo that was now, that reached to his soul and pulled it out of hell to a place that was green and alive. Below him were woven branches and soft mats, below them an infinitude of greens: emerald, viridian, olive, jade, malachite; shaped as broad umbrellas, splayed fingers, or narrow swords. Above him was the sky, intense azure, dotted with clouds like foam, so close he could almost touch. Beside him were smiling, brown-skinned people, with black hair and dark, shining eyes. A baby sat in his lap, gurgling happily, one dimpled fist clenched in his hair. A young woman smiled shyly and lowered her eyes. Cobalt and citron, a bird perched on a nearby roof, greedily eyeing a bowl of fruit. Butterflies danced over the treetops. A breeze carried the scent of distant blossoms. He sighed in contentment, and smiled. Here was peace, and light, and life. It was like nothing he had ever known. It was--

"Transcendent."

Blair stretched, and opened his eyes. Jim stood next to the bed, his forehead creased in worry, intense azure gaze fixed on him. Blair smiled.

"Hey, Jim."

"You okay, Partner?"

"Yeah, I'm great." Jim's brow smoothed. Blair glanced around, thought processes briefly kicking in. "You used the code word, didn't you?"

Jim nodded. "It worked, huh?"

"Oh, yeah." Blair smiled again. "You can go back to bed, man. Sorry you had to get up."

"Not a problem, Partner." Jim smiled at last. "Good night."

"Night, Jim."

Blair closed his eyes, and wriggled under the covers to get comfortable. Nightmare flashed through his mind, gone almost before he recognized it, replaced by golden light and green shadows. Leaves rustled, and the calls of gem-colored birds lulled him back into sleep.





"No...no...no, dammit, we covered this!"

Blair's red pen scratched across the bluebook spread open on the table before him. His muttered comments were as clear to Jim as the music coming from his headphones, some stuff full of drums and rattles that Jim could tolerate as long as it didn't get any louder. It made an interesting background to the Jags game.

Leaning forward, Jim reached into the pizza box on the coffee table, but came up empty. He eyed the two pieces of pineapple pizza still at Blair's elbow, and for a moment, considered trying one. Blair claimed it was delicious. Which should be enough to warn him not to go anywhere near it. Besides, there was just something unnatural about putting fruit on pizza. Tomatoes didn't count.

"No! Geez, Joshua, I explained this to you."

Jim shook his head, smiling a little. Blair had woken up happy this morning. He'd come bouncing out of his room almost like his old self, prattling on about the wonderful dreams he'd had, with no memory of the nightmare that had made him cry out in his sleep. Until his steps had brought him toward the living room, and he'd stopped, all the color draining from his face. He'd recovered quickly, but something gained had been lost in those few seconds. He'd eaten breakfast, parked himself at the table, and hadn't moved for more than five minutes since, even to eat.

"Aaaaaaaaargh!"

Blair flung the bluebook down the hall, and tossed the pen after it. Yanking the earphones off, he put his head down on one arm and pounded the table with his fist.

Jim got up and went to the refrigerator. He grabbed two bottles of beer, opened one for himself, and set the other on the table in front of Blair. Blair raised his head, gazing at the bottle.

"Thanks, man." He removed his glasses, and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Why don't they listen?"

Jim shrugged. "They're kids, Professor. They've got better things to do." He took a long swallow. "You were a kid, once. Last week, wasn't it?"

Blair regarded him sourly. "I paid attention in class."

"I'll bet."

"I did!" Blair's declaration rang through the apartment. He thought a moment, and amended, "Mostly."

"Uh-huh."

Blair twisted the cap off the bottle and brought it to his lips. "I never flunked a test."

"Not everyone's as smart as you are, Einstein."

Blair shook his head, a blush creeping over his face. "The test's not that hard, Jim." He drank, and pushed his hair back. "Maybe I'm just a bad teacher."

"Maybe they're just stupid."

A grin curved the full lips. "It's a possibility."

Blair sighed, and got up to retrieve the book and pen he'd thrown. He looked tired. Maybe he'd gone back to teaching too soon. Or back to being his partner. Blair would've been better off if Jim hadn't asked for his help in the Hatch case. Certainly, he would have been safer. Jim had needed Blair on this one; he still did. But it wasn't right to put so much pressure on him, after what the kid had been through. It wasn't right to put him in danger. Maybe he should-- No, Blair would never let Jim exclude him now. He'd plead, and argue, and insist that Jim couldn't solve the case without him. And he'd be right.

"Why don't you take a break, Partner?"

Blair sat down again without looking at him. "I can't, Jim, I have to get these done."

"An hour off isn't going to--"

"Jim."

"Okay, half an hour. Relax, watch the rest of the game, get your mind on something else. You've been at this for twelve hours, Sandburg."

"Jim, I don't have time." Blair turned in his seat to look at him. "Do me a favor, man. Next weekend, get yourself a date, will you?"

"A date?"

"Yeah, man, you need to get out of the apartment."

"Sorry, Casanova, some of us don't have a string of women just waiting for us to have a free night."

Blair grinned, and shook his head. "Come on, Jim, are you seriously trying to tell me you can't get a date? What about Victoria Smith, in Vice? She likes you."

"Vicky Vice?" An image of the six-foot, blonde Detective Smith pressing weights in the gym passed through Jim's mind. "No thanks, Sandburg."

"Jim, she's a fascinating woman."

"And she could probably take me two falls out of three."

Blair waggled his eyebrows. "It'd make for an interesting date."

"A little too interesting for me, Chief."

Blair looked away, his smile fading, and Jim realized what he had said. Damn.

"Sorry, kid."

"No, man, it's okay." Jim could see the effort it took for Blair to meet his eyes again. "I--I want you to call me that. It's--one of the things I miss most."

"Yeah?" Jim studied the younger man's hopeful, distressed face. "Are we into homework, here?"

"I guess so, man."

"Okay." Jim finished his beer and sat down, facing Blair. "What else do you miss?"

"Women," he said automatically, but his smile didn't reach his eyes. Blair ran one finger across the tabletop, his heartbeat increasing speed. "Sleeping. Being able to walk out on the street by myself without being afraid."

"What do you miss most?"

Without hesitation. "You, Jim."

Jim frowned, and spread his hands. "I'm right here, buddy."

"That's not what I mean, man." Blair shoved his hair behind his ears. "I miss the way we used to be. Easy. Comfortable. You know?"

"Yeah." Jim nodded. "I know, Partner."

Blair looked at him again. "Your turn, Jim. What do you miss most?"

Jim shifted in his chair. "This is gonna sound weird."

"No, it's not," Blair replied calmly. "Tell me."

Jim clenched his jaw, then forced the words. "Touching you."

Blue eyes flashed up at him, and Jim looked away. "I told you it would sound weird."

"No, man," Blair insisted. "It doesn't. I know exactly what you mean. You're a very sensual man, Jim. Don't freak on me," he added hastily. "That just means that your senses are important to you. You're a Sentinel, man, they'd have to be, even more than to other people. Touch is a part of that. You touch people all the time. You use it to convey emotions that aren't apparent on your face or in your words. They've gotta have some outlet, and yours is your touch."

"Thank you, Dr. Sandburg," Jim deadpanned.

"Am I wrong?" Blair demanded.

"No," Jim admitted. "You're not wrong. Does it bother you that I do that?"

"No." Blair studied the table again. "Well, it did at first. I was taught that it was wrong for men to touch each other, that it wasn't--normal. I knew that was stupid, Jim, I did, but--stuff you learn as a kid gets ingrained, you know?" Blair glanced at him, looking for approval, for God's sake. Jim nodded, and he continued. "The first few times you tapped my face or put a hand on my shoulder, I didn't know what was up. It made me kind of uncomfortable, but I didn't want to say anything, because I didn't want to make you mad at me. Then I figured out why you did it, and it was okay. After a while, I--I liked it. It made me feel--accepted. Like you weren't just tolerating me, you really wanted me around. It was kind of like--like you were my big brother, or something."

"Yeah." Jim nodded again. The kid really did understand. "Just like that."

The eyes flew up. "Really, Jim?"

"Really."

"Man, I wish...."

"Don't worry, Blair, we'll get there."

"I hope so, man. It's getting kind of lonely in here by myself."

"Yeah," Jim said quietly. "I know exactly what you mean."





Blair followed Jim into the squad room, grinning at everyone they passed. The weekend hadn't been exciting, but it had been productive. There'd been no emergencies to disturb them. He'd gotten all the midterms graded, written his paper on Wainwright's mask, and still had time to take in a movie with Jim last night, for the first time in two months. He and Jim had even done their homework, which would make Dr. Hawthorne happy. Okay, they'd skipped Friday, but she didn't have to know that.

Dumping his pack beside his chair, Blair took off his jacket and hung it on the rack beside Jim's. He turned to see Martin Ballard approaching Jim's desk, a sheet of paper in his hand. Jim stood to meet him, smiling. Blair busied himself with his backpack. Ballard usually ignored him, and that was the way he liked it.

"Marty," Jim said.

"Ellison," Ballard replied. Seconds later, "Sandburg."

Blair's head snapped up. He glanced from Jim to Ballard. "Uh--hi."

Ballard handed the paper to Jim. "This came in for you ten minutes ago."

"Thanks."

Ballard went back to his desk. Jim watched him all the way, but Blair kept his eyes on the Sentinel. Something was weird here. "Jim--"

"Why don't you get us some coffee, okay, Partner?"

Jim fixed his attention on the paper in his hand. Blair looked from him to Ballard again. "Yeah. Okay, man."

Blair went to the coffee station, poured two cups, grabbed a donut for Jim and a bagel for himself, and went back to the desk. Something was definitely up between Jim and Ballard. Whatever it was, it had to be connected to his phone call last Wednesday. Maybe he shouldn't have told Jim about it. On the other hand, if it kept Ballard from acting like an asshole, maybe it was a good thing he had.

Blair set everything down on the desk. Without taking his eyes from whatever he was reading, Jim reached for his coffee.

"Thanks, Chief."

The corner of Jim's mouth twitched downward. He glanced at Blair, unsure of his reaction. Blair held his breath in dread. Nothing. No flash of Ponytail's face, or of his voice. He let out his breath, and smiled.

"You're welcome, Jim."

Sitting down, Blair dug into his backpack. While Jim prepared for his ten o'clock interrogation of Rupert Crowley, Blair went over the notes for Tuesday's lecture, revising and making additions. Most reiterated material that Keith swore he'd covered while substituting for him. Blair didn't exactly doubt him, but even his best students had missed one or two points, and Blair had concluded that Keith's definition of what constituted coverage differed from his own. So he'd go over the material again, and they'd better pay attention, because he was quizzing them on it on Thursday. They wouldn't like it so soon after the midterm, but he had to do something to make sure the information was drummed into their heads.

At about 9:30, Jim's phone rang. "Ellison. Hi, Serena. Uh-huh." He listened for a few minutes, muttered, "Damn," thanked her and hung up.

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

"No go on the fingerprints from your office," Jim replied. "They've got yours, and mine, and no match for any of the others. Our guy doesn't have a record."

Blair shook his head. "Man, I hope Rupert knows something."

"Me, too, Partner. We could use a break in this case."

Ten o'clock came and went with no sign of Rupert Crowley or his lawyer. As each minute passed, Blair watched Jim's jaw clench tighter and tighter. By 10:25, he was on the phone to Rupert's apartment. He waited a few minutes, then slammed the receiver down and picked it right up again. Simon chose that moment to come out of his office.

"Ellison! Where the hell is Rupert Crowley?"

"I don't know, sir." Jim sounded surprisingly calm. "There's no answer at his apartment. I'm about to call his--"

"Detective Ellison?"

A woman entered the bullpen. Blair's eyebrows rose. She was in her mid-thirties, tall, with strong features, dark eyes, and a stylish cap of thick black hair. A gray power suit was tailored to fit her slender frame. Tiny gold hoops dangled from her ears. Those, a modest chain, and a plain gold wedding band were her only jewelry. She carried an expensive black briefcase that screamed "lawyer". Jim met her gaze coolly.

"Nice of you to drop in, Ms. Alvarez. Where's your client?"

She looked flustered for a moment, but recovered quickly. "I thought he might be here."

Jim pretended to look around, then spread his hands. "We don't have him. Where is he?"

Her fingers clutched the handle of the briefcase. "I don't know, Detective. Mr. Crowley was supposed to meet me at my office at nine. He hasn't called. I can't reach him."

"So, you're telling me Crowley jumped bail."

Ms. Alvarez shook her head. "I don't think so. I don't believe Mr. Crowley would do that."

"No. Of course not."

"He's an innocent man, Detective," she snapped. "He has no reason to run."

"They're all innocent, Ms. Alvarez," Jim replied. "Isn't that what they tell you?"

"Put out an APB on Rupert Crowley," Simon barked. "Jim, get to his apartment, see what you can find."

"Yes, sir." Jim stood up. "Let's go, Chief."

Blair hastily stuffed everything back into his pack and followed Jim out the door. Twenty minutes later, Jim parked the truck in front of Rupert's apartment building. They sat for a moment, looking up at the fourth floor windows.

"You think he's in there?" Blair asked.

"Only one way to find out." Jim started to get out of the truck, and paused to look back at Blair. "You want to wait out here, just in case?"

"I'm not afraid of him, Jim."

Blair opened the door and jumped out, heading for the building. Jim caught up to him in seconds.

"I didn't say you were, Partner. But Crowley doesn't like you much."

"I don't like him, either." Jim opened the door, and Blair ducked under his arm, entering the apartment building. "Now, the blond guy with the gun: him, I'm scared of."

"Don't worry, Sandburg," Jim said. "He won't get another crack at you. As of last Friday, you're under twenty-four hour police protection."

"I am?" This was the first he'd heard of it. Why hadn't Jim told him earlier? They stepped into the elevator, and Jim pressed "4". Oh no. "Jim, is that why you were home all weekend?"

"I was home because I was home, Sandburg. If I'd wanted to go out, I'd have gotten a baby sitter."

"That didn't work out too well, last time." Blair closed his eyes, unable to believe what had just come out of his mouth. God, why was he so stupid? "I'm sorry, Jim. I didn't mean--"

"No, you're right, Blair." Jim stared straight ahead. "I promise, this time I'll do a better job."

The elevator stopped, and Jim got off. Blair hurried after him. "Jim, it wasn't your fault."

"Then whose fault was it?"

"Ponytail's. Come on, man, you know that."

Jim glanced at him. "Yeah. My head knows."

"Well, clue the rest of your body in, will you, Jim? No guilt allowed, okay?"

A grin curved his lips. "I'm working on it, Partner."

Jim stopped short, and flung an arm out to keep Blair from passing him. Blair craned to look around his taller partner. The door to apartment 403 stood slightly ajar. Drawing his gun, Jim listened for a moment before proceeding.

"Stay behind me, Chief."

"Do you hear anything?"

Jim shook his head. He reached the door, kicked it open all the way, and waited. Nothing. No sound or movement that Blair could hear, and by the look of it, nothing Jim could hear either.

"Cascade PD, Crowley," Jim announced. "If you're in there, come out."

There was no reply, but Blair knew Jim hadn't expected any. The apartment had to be empty: Jim would have told him if he'd detected a heartbeat. He was just following procedure. That, or he didn't trust his Sentinel abilities.

That was not a thought Blair wanted to have. He pushed it aside, and crept into the apartment behind Jim, as ordered. The place definitely belonged to Mr. Beige. The walls were cream, the carpet tan, the furniture blond wood upholstered in tan and off-white tweed. There was no color anywhere that Blair could see. Even the pictures on the walls were in shades of brown. Rupert had to be the most boring guy on the face of the earth.

Jim sniffed the air. "Stay here."

He moved off down a short hallway, into another room. Blair waited a couple of minutes, but Jim didn't come out again. "Jim?"

No answer. Damn, Jim could be zoning on something. Blair went after him. He had to back Jim up; that was his job.

"Jim? Man, are you o--Oh. Oh, God."

Jim stood just inside Crowley's bedroom, hands at his sides, the gun forgotten in his right. There was color in this room. Splashed on the walls, spattered on the carpet, streaking the chair where what had been a man slumped, staring at the ceiling with unseeing beige eyes. Red. Red everywhere. So much red. And fallen from one hand, a gun: black.

Jim stirred and moved to block the doorway, freeing Blair from the sight. He had to speak twice before Blair really heard.

"Go wait out in the hall."

Blair looked at Jim, nodded, and turned to go. His mind was numb, blank, empty of thought. His vision was filled with red. Behind him, he heard Jim flip his cell phone open and punch in a number.

"Simon? It's Ellison. We found Rupert Crowley."

Pushing against the tide of cops and coroners, Jim exited Crowley's apartment. The hall was deserted, except for one small figure, sitting on the floor with drawn-up knees, his back to the wall. His face was pale, his expression enough to break your heart. Jim sat down next to him, careful not to touch him.

"You okay, Partner?"

Blair didn't look at him. "I'm fine, Jim."

"I'm sorry."

Blair shook his head. "I've seen bodies before."

"That doesn't mean you should have to see another one."

"Comes with the job, man."

"Not your job."

"Sure it does. Now." Blair leaned his head back against the wall. "Jim? Do you think Rupert really...?"

"The M.E.'ll tell us that, Chief. But I don't think so."

"So you think he was murdered?" Blair thought for a moment. "I don't get it, Jim. If Rupert was in on it, why would they kill him? And if he wasn't, why would they go to all the trouble of framing him, and then kill him?"

He could think of half a dozen reasons. But all he said was,

"That's what we need to figure out, Partner. Best guess is, someone didn't want Crowley to talk to us."

Clouded blue eyes closed. "Man."

"Yeah." Jim got to his feet. "Come on, Chief. Let's get out of here."

Unthinking, Jim extended a hand to help Blair up. Blair opened his eyes, saw the hand, and froze. His heart rate increased, so fast that Jim thought of birds startled into flight. He kept his hand out, waiting. Blair stared at it, unmoving, for a long moment. At last, he reached up and clasped Jim's forearm. Jim gripped Blair's arm in turn, lifting him to his feet. They disengaged immediately, but even that brief contact had been enough for Jim to feel the tremors running through Blair's body. Blair wouldn't look at him. He was breathing so hard that Jim was afraid he'd keel over, but the younger man started walking, heading for the elevator. Jim followed, keeping an eye on him, trying to decide whether what just happened had been progress or setback. They left the building without another word spoken between them.





Blair led the way into the loft, tossing the mail into the basket with his keys. They could sort through it later. He wasn't expecting anything interesting, and most of it was probably Jim's anyway. Jim's keys hit the basket as Blair was turning to hang up his jacket. He hung Jim's, too, and headed for his room to dump his backpack. His stomach growled, and he put a hand over it, hoping Jim hadn't heard. He hadn't been able to eat lunch--the idea had been almost enough to make him lose breakfast--but the queasiness had slowly worn off, and now he was starving. At this point, he could've eaten a Wonder Burger. Fortunately, Jim had suggested Chinese take-out. Crab Rangoon, szechuan chicken, orange beef, moo shu pork--they'd ordered all his favorites. He knew Jim had done it on purpose, because Blair had seen Rupert Crowley's body, and he felt slightly guilty letting Jim coddle him. But not guilty enough to change the order.

When he came out of his room, Jim was setting out plates and chopsticks. Blair put water on for tea, and got a beer out of the refrigerator for Jim. He'd spent most of the afternoon and early evening studying the masks they'd received today. So far, they'd told him nothing. He was pretty sure they were all authentic, but he had to conduct more tests to be certain, and Simon wouldn't let him take the masks home anymore. The Captain said it was too dangerous, and Jim backed him on it. After Friday, Blair supposed they were right, but he still thought Jim could take that blond guy if he dared to show up again. The guy had never dealt with a cop; he'd definitely never dealt with a Sentinel.

If only they could figure out who he was. Jim thought he might be Arthur Hatch's boyfriend, but that was only a guess. He might not be the brains behind it, but he'd probably had a hand in killing Hatch, and maybe Thomas Wainwright. And Rupert Crowley. Jim hadn't come right out and said that, but Blair had been around the police long enough to know that the most likely suspect was usually the one who'd committed the crime. Jim just didn't want to scare him.

But he wasn't scared, not really. Or maybe it was just that he couldn't get any more scared than he already was. Maybe he'd been so scared for so long that he was numb. Maybe he was just used to it. Or maybe he had faith in Jim. Jim would stay with him, twenty-four hours a day. Jim wouldn't let anything happen to him. As long as he was with Jim, he was safe.

Blair grabbed a piece of chicken and stuffed it into his mouth. Great. Now he was making Jim responsible for his safety. Sure, he'd done it before with the "Blessed Protector" bit, but that had been more a joke than anything else. This wasn't. And it was wrong. He had to be responsible for his own safety, he couldn't force that role onto Jim, no matter how willingly Jim might play it. Jim needed a partner who could watch his back, not one he had to watch out for every minute. Jim had been what he needed for so long; it was his turn to be what Jim needed.

"Something wrong, Chief?"

"Huh?" Blair snapped out of his internal lecture, meeting Jim's concerned gaze. "Oh. No, man, I was just thinking."

"What about?"

"This case."

"This case," Jim echoed, spearing a chunk of beef. "Is enough to drive the real Einstein crazy. We've got too many suspects, and no hard evidence. They all had opportunity, but as far as we know, only Rupert Crowley had motive, and his motive had nothing to do with those damn masks. Now he's dead, Wainwright's dead, Hatch is dead, and the only one we know for certain we can nail for any crime committed it against you. And all we know about this guy is that he's tall and blond. And that he may have been Arthur Hatch's boyfriend."

Jim shoved the beef into his mouth and chewed hard. Blair watched him warily. Whoa. It was like all his frustration had suddenly transferred itself to Jim.

"What did Rupert tell you about the boyfriend?"

"Nothing. Just that he was a college student. For all I know, Crowley never saw the guy."

They finished the meal in silence, Blair trying desperately to think of something--anything--that would help. There had to be some way to figure out who the blond mugger was. Jim put the leftovers away, and sat on the couch to watch TV while Blair retreated to his room. He opened his laptop, but couldn't concentrate. From the living room, he heard the rapid channel changes as Jim surfed with the remote. Blair shook his head. Normally, Jim hated channel-surfing. He liked to settle on one program and watch it all the way through. It was Blair who liked to skip from channel to channel, looking for anything that caught his eye, or his mind, then moving on when he'd had enough. Jim always complained that you couldn't see anything that way. But you could. Anything you saw, even for a fraction of a second, registered somewhere in your brain, whether you were consciously aware of it or not. Anything.

"Jim!"

Blair emerged from his room to find Jim heading toward him, gun in hand.

"What's wrong?" Jim demanded. "Are you okay?"

Blair held up his hands. "Sorry, man, everything's fine. I didn't mean to scare you. I just had an idea."

Jim put the gun on the dining table. "What idea?"

"What if you saw him?"

"Saw who?"

"The blond guy. The mugger. What if you saw him?"

Jim shook his head. "I didn't see anyone, Chief."

"Maybe you did. Come on, Jim, when he left my office, he didn't run through the halls waving his gun. If he had, people would have panicked. He would have tried to blend in, and if he's a student, that would have been easy. You may have seen him without knowing what you were seeing."

"That doesn't help if I don't remember."

"But you do remember, Jim. It's all in there, in your head, we just have to bring it out, the same way Dr. Hawthorne helped bring out my memory of the packing slips."

"Sandburg--"

"Trust me, Jim. Come on, man, I know what I'm talking about here." I hope.

Jim eyed him for a minute. "Okay, Svengali. I'll give it a try."

"Great. This'll work, Jim, I know it will. The first thing you have to do is sit down and get comfortable."

"Okay."

Jim walked back to the living room and sat down on the couch. Oh, God. Blair stayed where he was, unable to move. "Jim. What are you doing?"

"Getting comfortable."

"But...Jim, I can't--"

Jim faced him. "Yes, you can, Blair. It's a room, a space on the floor, that's all. I'm here. Nothing's going to happen to you. Trust me, Partner."

"I do, Jim."

"Then come on."

He did trust Jim. He did. With his life, with his fears--with his soul. He'd never trusted anyone as much as he trusted Jim. But still, he had to force himself to move, to cross the floor toward the living room. He could as easily have walked into Hell.

Jim waited on the couch, watching him. Blair reached the love seat, and stopped. His hands gripped the white upholstery, holding on, holding him up. He stared at the rug, the sections of red, blue, yellow and white. It was new. Jim had bought it while he was at St. Sebastian's, used it to cover the place where--where it had happened. But he knew where the place was, he knew right where it was. He'd never forget.

Gritting his teeth, Blair pushed away from the love seat and walked around it, toward the couch. He set his foot on the rug.

Jim's fists smashed his face, his stomach, his ribs, smashed him down to the floor, and he didn't know why. He couldn't stop it, and he couldn't fight back. Jim was too much bigger, too much stronger. He tried to shield himself, but after a while, he was too weak to do even that. He just lay there, while Jim hit him again and again, and he prayed that it would stop.

It did stop. Blair thought that Jim would leave him alone then, but a light came into the icy eyes, a light he'd never seen before, and terror choked him. He tried to get up, but Jim pushed him back down, Jim held him down and forced him onto his stomach, worked his pants off and knelt between his legs.

"Blair!" An iron grip seized his shoulders. "Blair!"

"No!" He fought to get away. "Don't! Leave me alone! God, please!"

Blair tore free, threw himself back, scrambled to his feet to face his attacker, to face--

"Jim. Oh, God, Jim." He dropped his head into his hands, pushed his hair back and held it there. His face burned. Breath came hard. He couldn't meet Jim's eyes. "I'm sorry, I--I'm sorry. I had a--"

"A flashback, I know." Jim's voice was soft. "Blair, this is my fault. I shouldn't have made you come into the living room."

"No, man." Blair shook his head, daring to raise his eyes. He winced at the pain on Jim's face. "I've gotta go in there sooner or later. Just--not yet, I guess."

"We've been making progress," Jim said. "I thought, maybe... I rushed you. I'm sorry. I've never been very patient."

Blair stared at him, noting the muscle twitching in his jaw again. "Jim, you're the most patient man I know. You've put up with the flashbacks, the nightmares, the anxiety attacks--How many people would do that? You haven't pushed me, or made me do anything. You've encouraged me, listened to me, let me lean on you. You've done everything you could to help me through this. Anyone else would've kicked me out; you're going to counseling with me. I've never known anyone like you before, Jim. You're--you're the best friend I've ever had."

Jim's eyes bored into him. Oh, God, he shouldn't have said it. Jim thought he was some kind of lunatic. Say something, Sandburg! Try to save the situation before it's too late. He opened his mouth to babble some nonsense, and Jim smiled.

"Thanks, kid," he said. "Same goes for me."

Blair closed his gaping mouth. Get your brain off hold, Sandburg. "Really?" Oh, that was brilliant.

"Really." Jim's smile widened. "You think I'd put up with all this crap if it didn't?"

"I guess not." Blair answered his smile, breathing easier now. "Hey, Jim?"

"Yeah?"

"You think we can count this as homework?"

"Works for me," Jim replied. "Now, what about helping me to remember who I saw?"

"Oh. Right." He'd forgotten all about it. "Um, sit down, Jim. Close your eyes, relax, take deep, cleansing breaths. You know the drill."

Jim pulled a chair out from the table and sat down. He obediently closed his eyes and started the deep breathing Blair had taught him. Blair sat on the table, facing Jim, and folded his legs into the lotus position.

"You're gonna scrub that table when we're done, Sandburg," Jim said without opening his eyes.

"Shut up, Jim. You're supposed to be relaxing."

Blair closed his own eyes for a minute, trying to match his breathing to Jim's. When he opened them again, the lines of tension had been smoothed from Jim's face, and his hands lay loosely in his lap. Good.

"Okay, Jim, now you're going to go back to Friday morning. You're outside Hargrove Hall, in the truck, waiting for me. You hear my voice, then the mugger's. You know something's wrong, so you get out of the truck and go inside. Now, you're going to slow things down, do a slow-motion replay of everything you saw. You know who you're looking for--a tall guy with blond hair. You can ignore everyone else. But if you see this guy, then I want you to freeze the replay and take a good, long look. Okay?"

Jim nodded.

"Okay, man, tell me what you see."

Jim frowned in concentration. "There's no one on the steps. When I go through the doors, there's a bunch of co-eds moving down the hall, and a middle-aged man, heavy, dark-haired. I get to the stairs, and start to go up. There's a student coming down: male, Caucasian. Blond."

"Great. Okay, Jim, don't open your eyes. Take a good look at him, memorize his features. You got him?"

Jim nodded. "I got him."

"Good. Now, keep going. Tell me who else you see."

Jim shook his head. "A bunch of students. Girls, mostly. One guy's blond, but he's too small, shorter than you. Teachers. A silver-haired woman, with a cane. A sandy-haired, tweedy guy with a beard. You, coming out of your office."

Jim opened his eyes. "That's it, Chief. If our guy was there, he had to be the kid on the stairs."

"Great. So you remember him now?"

"I remember him. All we have to do now is put a name to the face."

"No problem, Jim. If he's a student at Rainier, his picture'll be on file. They keep copies of everyone's ID photos."

"No problem?" Jim scowled. "Sandburg, there are twenty thousand students at Rainier."

Blair shrugged and slid off the table. "Look at it this way, Jim. It's easier than looking through mug books."

Jim sighed. "Well, I know what I'll be doing while you're teaching tomorrow."

"Hey, at least you won't be wasting your time playing bodyguard." Blair yawned hugely. "I'm gonna turn in, man."

"So early?"

"Jim, it's after midnight."

"I know, Sandburg. For you, that's early."

"Yeah, well." Blair yawned again. "I'm tired. Good night, Jim."

"Good night, kid."

Blair went into his room, closing the double doors behind him. He had no idea why, but he was about to fall asleep on his feet. And he wanted to be rested tomorrow. He had a feeling he'd need all his wits about him to survive lunch with Olive Palmer.

Removing his jeans and shirt, Blair pulled on a pair of sweatpants, dug Jim's Cascade PD sweatshirt out of the bedclothes, slipped it on and crawled into bed. He lay on his side, thinking of tomorrow's lecture, the reactions he'd get from the students when they got their midterms back, what Olive Palmer might serve for lunch, aside from anthropologists--anything to avoid thinking of what had happened in the living room. Within minutes, he was asleep. In the morning, he had no memory of any dreams. But Jim looked tired when he came downstairs for breakfast.

At precisely twelve o'clock, Jim and Blair presented themselves at the gate to Olive Palmer's estate. Aside from certain select individuals, whose names the guard was not inclined to produce, only persons listed on a daily guest roster were allowed to pass the gates. The property was surrounded by a seven-foot brick wall topped with electrified wire. Guards with German Shepherds patrolled the grounds after dark. And the entire house was wired with an alarm system connected to a company that promised--and delivered--notification of the police within five seconds of an alarm. The only place Ms. Palmer's mask could possibly be safer was inside the Cascade PD evidence lockup. And Blair wasn't even sure of that.

Class had gone better than expected this morning. Jim had walked him to the door of the lecture hall and picked him up in the same place when the class was over, which was sort of embarrassing, but he hadn't really minded. The students hadn't whined too much about their midterm grades, and his lecture actually seemed to have cleared things up for most of them. There were exceptions, like Joshua, who'd spent the class reading the comments in his bluebook over and over, until he finally stormed out of the lecture hall. One of the comments had been an offer of extra help, but it didn't look like Joshua was going to take him up on it. Too bad. Without it, Joshua was almost certain to flunk the course. Blair hated to flunk people.

Two hours of poring over student ID files had brought Jim no closer to learning the name of the blond mugger. He'd complained all the way from the U to Olive Palmer's house about the time they were losing to keep this lunch appointment. Blair had done his best to ignore the older man, but he was starting to rethink last night's assertion that Jim was the most patient man he knew. They had to eat, and they had to get a look at the mask. He didn't seen the problem in combining the two with a chance to talk to Olive Palmer. In fact, despite a certain amount of nervousness, he was looking forward to it. His anthropologist's instinct said that the formidable Ms. Palmer could tell some fascinating stories about her younger days.

The driveway was a quarter-mile long, lined with old beech trees, their leaves stripped by the onset of winter. Jim parked the truck in the circle at the end of the driveway and got out, going straight to the front door. Blair took a moment to look at the house before hurrying to catch up with his partner. It was huge, three stories, made of brick and stone, with white window frames and black shutters. A brick carriageway shaded the front door, illuminated by a wrought iron lamp depending from a chain with links as long as Blair's hand. They climbed the steps to a door set with stained glass, and Jim rang the doorbell.

The door was opened immediately by a man who was three inches taller than Jim and at least twenty years older. Every gray hair was in place, his butler's uniform was spotless, and before he opened his mouth, Blair knew this was the man he'd spoken to on the phone.

"Mr. Sandburg, Detective Ellison, please come in. Miss Palmer is expecting you. If you will follow me, I shall conduct you to the Conservatory."

The butler led them through an entrance hall floored in gray marble, past a staircase with a polished balustrade that had to be mahogany. An enormous flower arrangement sat on a marble-topped table in front of a mirror with a crystal frame. Jim barely glanced at it, but Blair gaped unabashedly. He hadn't seen anything like this since he was a kid. Not in the States, anyway. Jim grinned at him and shook his head. Blair was tempted to make a crack about Jim being too cool to be impressed by wealth, but he restrained himself. Now probably wasn't a good time. He knew Jim was hating this. Especially because, at Simon's insistence, Jim was wearing a slate-blue suit, white shirt, and blue-striped tie. Blair looked down at himself. He'd been glad Simon couldn't dictate what he wore. But now he wondered if his gray slacks, blue silk shirt, and hand-woven, Peruvian patchwork vest would seem disrespectful. Maybe he should've worn a tie. Not that he owned one, but he could've borrowed one of Jim's.

The Conservatory proved to be a long room walled on three sides by floor to ceiling windows. Sunlight filled the room, and warmed it, despite the late autumn chill. A marble fountain played at one end of the room, the basin surrounded by plants. More plants were clustered in various places around the room, some potted in Chinese jars that Blair knew to be two hundred years old. Statues were scattered here and there, antiquities half-hidden by fronds. From the windows, the grounds could be seen: gardens on one side, clipped lawn on the other, the grass extending in a vast sweep of green to a line of trees in the distance. A square table dominated the center of the room, small, set with three places. The china was Spode, the crystal Waterford, the silver sterling, not plate. A footed silver bowl held a low, spreading arrangement of roses, anemones, and ivy.

Seated in a wingback chair, Olive Palmer watched them come in. She wore a simple dress of purple silk the exact shade of the anemones in the centerpiece. Next to the rich color, her white hair practically glowed. The butler announced them, withdrew immediately, and Ms. Palmer rose to receive them.

"Mr. Sandburg." Ms. Palmer shook his hand with a firm grip. She didn't quite smile, but her gray eyes flashed as they had at the gallery. "Detective Ellison, thank you for acceding to my wishes in regards to the mask. I trust you were favorably impressed with my security measures."

"Yes, ma'am," Jim admitted. "I was."

Ms. Palmer waved a hand toward the table. "Please, be seated. I won't keep you long, Detective Ellison. I know you're a busy man."

"Generally, I am, Ms. Palmer," Jim said. "But today, I'm just following Blair around."

"Do you do that often, Detective?"

"No, ma'am," Blair interjected. "Usually, it's the other way around."

"And what occasioned the reversal?"

"Blair's life was threatened," Jim said shortly.

"Because of the masks?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"I see. All the more reason for you to find these murderous thieves."

"Yes, ma'am."

The butler reappeared to serve the first course: a creamy asparagus soup. Ms. Palmer offered wine, but both men declined in favor of water. Jim was on duty, and Blair needed a clear head to do a proper examination of the mask.

"I spoke to Elsie Cranmore about you," Ms. Palmer said to Blair.

Blair's spoon stopped halfway to his mouth. "You did?"

"Yes. I told her she's a fool if she doesn't hang on to you once you've earned your doctorate."

"You told Dr. Cranmore that? But--you don't even know me."

"I know enough. I make it a point to learn as much as I can about people who interest me."

"But I'm just an anthropologist," Blair protested.

Ms. Palmer fixed him with a clear eye. "Young man, I seriously doubt that you are ever 'just' anything."

Blair felt himself blushing. "Jim, help me out here."

"Sorry, Chief." Jim grinned broadly. "She gets no argument from me."

Desperate to change the subject, Blair asked Ms. Palmer about her life. She proved to be every bit as interesting as he had suspected. She'd traveled all over the world, met people like Einstein, Albert Schweitzer, Freud, Margaret Mead, and Gandhi. They talked through the soup, the main course of lobster tails and artichoke hearts, and the dessert: triple-layer fudge cake topped with the darkest shaved chocolate and chocolate-covered cherries. Blair was in heaven. He could have stayed there talking to Ms. Palmer and eating for hours, days, maybe even weeks.

Jim hardly said a word throughout the meal. But he didn't look bored, which was good, and Ms. Palmer didn't press him to talk, which was better. Prodding only made Jim more tight-lipped than usual. He talked when he had something to say, which he did as soon as the coffee was served.

"Ms. Palmer, how well did you know Arthur Hatch?"

"Not well at all," she replied. "I knew him socially and in his capacity of gallery-owner, but we were not friends."

"You knew him socially. You mean, you attended the same functions?"

"Yes."

"Did you ever see him bring another man to one of these functions?"

"No. He always attended alone, or with a woman friend. I always found it odd that he should be so careful to hide what we all knew anyway. After all, such things are more expected in the art world. Wouldn't you say so, Mr. Sandburg?"

"Call me Blair, please," Blair said, smiling. "If you mean that the public expects more people in the arts to be gay, I'd agree. But expecting isn't accepting. Mr. Hatch's orientation might have been accepted in the art world itself, but he spent a lot of his time dealing with people who aren't a part of that. When it comes down to it, he was really just a salesman. I'd say that public opinion meant a lot to him."

Ms. Palmer regarded him over her coffee cup. "Well-reasoned, young man."

Blair blushed again. "Thank you."

Jim grinned at him across the table, and he knew he'd hear about this later. Ms. Palmer poured more coffee for them all, and turned her attention to Jim.

"Have you any more questions for me, Detective?"

"Yes, ma'am. How much do you know about the masks?"

"Nothing at all."

"Then what prompted you to buy one?"

"I have been a patron of the Hatch Gallery since its opening. Arthur kept me informed of new acquisitions, particularly those he thought would interest me. Or I should say, those he thought he could persuade me to buy. He told me about the shipment of masks before they arrived in this country. He was very excited about them. He said he was taking the gallery in a new direction."

"So he knew a lot about them?"

"I didn't receive that impression, no." Ms. Palmer sipped her coffee. "He said he had the advice of an expert from the University."

"Rainier?" Blair asked, startled.

Ms. Palmer nodded. "I don't believe he mentioned a name, but he did refer to this expert as 'he'."

Jim looked to Blair. "Any guesses, Chief?"

"I'd say Dr. Stoddard, but he's still in Borneo." Blair shook his head. "He wouldn't have done it anyway. No reputable anthropologist would advise anyone to purchase artifacts sight unseen."

"So we're looking for a disreputable anthropologist." Jim grinned at him. "Why don't I just read you your rights now, Chief?"

Blair bestowed a benevolent smile upon his older partner. "That sense of humor's coming right along, huh, Jim? Keep trying, you've almost got it."

"If you boys are quite finished," Ms. Palmer said dryly. "Perhaps you'd like to see the mask now?"

To Blair's amazement, Jim blushed. His own face went hot, and they answered in unison.

"Yes, ma'am."

Ms. Palmer led them through a series of opulent rooms filled with antique furniture and works of art that had Blair gawking. They came to the library, and Ms. Palmer stopped. The walls were covered in dark green silk, the windows curtained with matching fabric. Bookshelves stretched from floor to twenty-foot ceiling, the top shelves reached by a rolling staircase carved of mahogany. Comfortable chairs and small tables were scattered throughout the room. A Persian rug covered the floor. Statues nestled in niches: Greek, Roman, Asian and African. An 18th century desk faced one wall. Hung above it was the Mombatu mask Ms. Palmer had purchased from Arthur Hatch.

Blair moved closer, studying the mask. Like Wainwright's, it was studded with irregularly-shaped stones in a line from forehead to chin. It was smaller, the wood stained green, the eyes, cheeks, and mouth outlined in yellow. A stiff brush of animal hair encircled the edge of the mask. Blair lifted his hand toward it, but couldn't reach.

"Let me get that for you, Chief."

While Jim lifted the mask from its place, Blair surveyed the rest of the room. The far wall was dominated by a huge fireplace. In the place of honor above the mantel was--

"The Lopez!"

Blair approached the fireplace, staring at the painting. He turned back to Ms. Palmer. "It was stolen. They found it in--in Rupert Crowley's apartment. It's supposed to be in the evidence lockup." Blair looked to Jim. "Isn't it?"

"It was," Ms. Palmer declared coolly. "I convinced the Commissioner that the painting would be safer here."

"How?"

"His mother and I were very good friends."

"Oh."

Jim just shrugged. Blair had the feeling that nothing they found here would surprise him. He was beginning to believe that himself.

"Calm down, Blair, the painting is perfectly safe." Patting his arm, Ms. Palmer drew Blair away from the fireplace, back to the mask. She heaved a sigh, addressing herself to Jim. "Young men are so excitable." Lights sparked in her eyes, and a smile curved her lips. "It's one of the things I like best about them."

Blair sipped his tea, feeling guilty. Jim was waiting for him out in the truck, while he sat comfortably ensconced in Dr. Hawthorne's armchair, drinking tea, preparing to spend yet another hour talking about himself. If asked, Jim would insist that he didn't mind, but that just made it worse. Jim should be trying to solve the Hatch murder, or one of his other cases; instead, he was wasting his time baby-sitting for Blair, just as he'd wasted the entire afternoon watching him examine Olive Palmer's Mombatu mask, with no results. Blair had tried to get Jim to go back to the station for a while and come back to pick him up when he was done, but Jim had refused to leave him. Thank God Ms. Palmer had come back to check on them and all but commanded Jim to play chess with her. Blair had been surprised that Jim agreed, astounded that Jim knew how to play chess at all. The subject had never come up between them. Blair played, but only if he had something else to do at the same time, or the wait between moves drove him crazy. Patience had never been one of his virtues.

"What's wrong, Blair?" Dr. Hawthorne asked.

Bagged. Blair grimaced, and told her.

"So, you think Jim's time could be better spent elsewhere?"

"I know it could. Simon could assign a uniform to watch me, but Jim would never go for it."

"Why not?"

"Because the last time he did that, Ponytail kidnapped me. Jim blames himself. And I reminded him of it yesterday. I put my big fat foot right in it."

"And what if you hadn't said anything? How would Jim feel then?"

Blair shrugged. "Probably the same."

"Blair, your life has been threatened. Jim is worried about you. That's understandable, don't you think?"

"Yeah. But worrying about me shouldn't take precedence over doing his job."

"What do you think is more important to Jim: your life or solving this case?"

"My life. But it shouldn't be. Jim wouldn't put his own life first, he shouldn't put mine first either."

"I doubt that you could convince him of that."

"So do I." Blair put his teacup down and rubbed his eyes. "We wouldn't even be having this problem if I wasn't such a wuss."

"What do you mean?"

"The other day, in my office, the guy pushed me down and told me to stay there until I counted to fifty, so he could get away. He left, and I couldn't move. I should have gone after him, and I just lay there."

"If you had gone after him, he might have shot you."

"In front of witnesses? I doubt it."

"You don't know that. If he were desperate enough, he might very well have shot you, or some other innocent person. You made the wisest choice, Blair."

Blair shot to his feet, pacing. "I didn't make a choice! I couldn't make a choice! I was too scared. I didn't have to catch the guy. All I had to do was get a look at him. But I couldn't even do that. I couldn't even get up until it was too late." Blair raked his hair back. "God, I'm so useless! Blair Sandburg, easy prey, all-purpose victim. I should've killed him!"

"Who, Blair? Who should you have killed?"

"Him! Ponytail!" Dr. Hawthorne's office was gone. He was in the attic again, Jim's gun clutched in his trembling hands while Ponytail advanced on him. "I had the gun. He said I couldn't do it, I couldn't shoot him, but I did. I pulled the trigger, and he went down. But I didn't kill him. I couldn't even do that right."

"You stopped him, Blair. You saved Jim's life, and your own, and you didn't take another life to do it."

"But I should have! Don't you get it? He should be dead! But he's alive, and the feds have him, and we have no idea what they'll do with him. They might decide to let him out, they might make him one of them. Or he could escape. He could come back here, and we'd never know, because he could be anyone, literally anyone, and we wouldn't know until it was too late."

"He won't be back, Blair."

"You don't know that! Jim says the same thing, but you don't know, you can't know." Blair shook his head. "I should have killed him. I should have made sure he was dead, but I couldn't move. What if he tells them about Jim? What if he tells them, and the feds take Jim away? God, why didn't I kill him?"

"Blair, I want you to calm down," Dr. Hawthorne said. "I want you to sit down, and try to relax. Relax and listen to me. Listen, now. Do you trust me?"

Blair sat down slowly. "Yes."

"Then listen. Ponytail is not coming back. Whatever agency has him will not release him or allow him to escape. They know about his shapeshifting abilities, and they know he's insane. He's far too dangerous for anyone to attempt to recruit him, and I'm sure they're afraid enough of him to make certain he's held more securely than any prisoner they've ever had. As for telling them about Jim, he may have done so already. He'd have no reason to wait. But nothing's happened, has it? No mysterious men have tried to spirit Jim away."

"It's not a joke!"

"I know it isn't. Blair, Jim was a Ranger, he was involved in covert operations. He knows how these people work. Has he seemed concerned about any of this?"

"No."

"Then I think you should take your cue from Jim. Trust his instincts, rather than your fears. Do you think you can do that?"

"I don't know. I'll try."

"Good. One more thing, Blair. Do you think Jim would have wanted you to kill Ponytail?"

"I don't know."

"Don't you?"

"No," he admitted. "Jim doesn't kill unless he has to. He wouldn't want me to, either. And he wouldn't want me to have to."

He knew she was right. Jim didn't even like him to have to look at bodies; he'd never want Blair to be forced to take a life. But it didn't matter what Jim wanted for him. It didn't matter what it would have done to his psyche. He would never be safe, Jim would never be safe, because when the chance came, when the gun was in his hand, he'd failed. Ponytail was alive, and whatever happened, whatever consequences came of that, would be his fault.





Screaming for Jim, Blair ran from the shadows, his voice and footsteps echoing back at him from the darkness, confusing him. He didn't know where to go, which way safety might lie, so he ran straight on. Pain shot through his ribs, and he clutched his side, but he didn't stop, he couldn't. He could feel someone behind him, feel him, but when he turned his head, he saw only faceless shadows, moving silently, getting closer, closer, no matter how hard he ran.

"Jim!" he shrieked, and a hand grabbed his hair, yanked him back, slammed him into a body cold and hard as stone. Metal touched his neck; he flinched from the click of a hammer too close to his ear.

"I warned you, genius," the voice said. "You didn't listen. You get an F."

The gun's roar deafened him. The grip tightened in his hair, then the fingers fell away, ripping tangled strands from his scalp. The body fell back, dissolving into shadow, and he lurched forward. Jim stepped out of the darkness, gun in hand, and caught him in one strong arm. He clung to the older man, fighting to breathe. The shadows ebbed and flowed around them. Where the shadows touched, there was no light, no air, no life.

"Jim," he gasped. "Jim. He was gonna kill me."

"I know, Chief. It's okay. He's gone."

"No." He pulled back, staring around him trying to see into the darkness. "He's not gone. He's still out there."

Threads of darkness slipped between them, twisted into ropes and tendrils that twined around their arms and legs, slid around their chests. Shadow-fingers gripped wrists and ankles, wrenched him out of Jim's grasp, pulled them away from each other. He cried out, and shadow filled his mouth, tried to reach for Jim, but shadow held him back, shadow rushed away, carried him helpless in its current, and Jim dwindled in the distance, until he was gone, and there was nothing, only the darkness, and in his ears, the harsh laughter of a man who should be dead.





Jim sat up, heart pounding, and wiped sweat from his face and the back of his neck. Jesus, what a nightmare. He--

"Jim! Jiiiiiim!"

God, Blair. Jim leaped from the bed, automatically reaching for his gun, and forced himself to stop, to tune out the screams and listen. Two heartbeats: his and Blair's. There was no one else in the apartment. Leaving the gun on the nightstand, Jim rushed down the stairs and into Blair's room. The kid was tangled in the bedclothes, caught in the grip of nightmare, still screaming Jim's name.

"Blair," Jim called. Shit, he hated this stuff. "Blair! It's Jim. I want you to listen to me, buddy. Listen. Transcendent. Transcendent."

At the sound of the code word, Blair's breath caught. The screams stopped, and his body relaxed. "Transcendent," Jim said again, softly now, and he thought Blair might find a better dream, but the tousled head shifted, and cornflower eyes opened, finding him as he stood beside the bed.

"Jim."

"You okay, kid?"

"Yeah." One hand disentangled itself from the sheet to peel sweat-soaked hair off his face. "I did it again, huh?"

"'Fraid so."

Blair stared at the ceiling. "Man, I don't even remem... Shadows."

"What?" Shadows wrapped around his body, pulled Blair away from him. "What did you say?"

"Oh." Blair flushed. "Nothing, man, just something from the nightmare. It was a weird one."

"Yeah." I know. "Do you want to talk about it?"

"No. It's no big deal, Jim. I'm sorry you had to get up."

"Not a problem, Sandburg. You gonna be okay if I go back to bed?"

"Sure."

Jim turned to leave the room, but Blair's voice stopped him.

"Jim?"

He looked back. "Yeah?"

"Are you sure he's gone? Are you absolutely sure that he's never coming back?"

"I'm absolutely sure."

"Okay. Good night, Jim."

"Good night, kid."

Jim left Blair's room, closing the doors softly, and stood for a few minutes, waiting for Blair's breathing to change to a sleep-pattern. He hadn't lied to him. He was sure that Ponytail would never be back. He should have killed the bastard before; if he got another chance, if Ponytail ever managed to get out, he wouldn't fail. He'd kill him before he could get near Blair again. Of that, he was absolutely sure.





Jim sat at the table, reading the sports section while he drank his orange juice, one ear tuned toward the shower. Sandburg had left it too long again, the little hedonist. If he didn't get out of there soon, the hot water was going to--

"Shit!"

Smiling slightly at this bit of predictability, Jim turned the page. Minutes later, Blair emerged from the bathroom in a cloud of scent: herbal shampoo and soap, shaving cream, and deodorant. He had a towel wrapped around his waist, and was using another to rub his dripping hair. No blow-dryer for Nature Boy. Blair claimed they were bad for your hair, but a ringleted woman had once told Jim that blow-drying took the curl out, and he had a sneaking suspicion that vanity was the reason behind Blair's aversion. He wouldn't call him on it, though. He wasn't exactly in a position to judge what other people chose to do with their full heads of hair. Anyway, Blair would just accuse him of envy. It wasn't, of course, but he could see how Blair could build a case for it.

Blair disappeared into his room. He came out again in less than five minutes, fully dressed and scribbling something in a notebook. There was juice on the table for him. He drank it down without once taking his eyes from the notebook. He looked better. Still tired; there were dark circles under his eyes, but they were lighter than they had been, and his skin wasn't quite as pale. Compared to three months ago, he looked healthy, but there was still a long way to go.

Sensing the observation, Blair glanced up. "What?"

"Good morning," Jim said.

"Oh. Morning. Sorry, man, I was kind of absorbed."

"In what?"

"Nothing important. I just had an idea for a paper. What's for breakfast?"

"Depends," Jim replied. "What are you making?"

The blue eyes widened. "It's my turn? Sorry, Jim, I forgot." Blair got up and headed for the kitchen. "What do you feel like?"

"Eggs."

"Jim, you always feel like eggs."

"Yeah, and you hardly ever let me have them, Mr. Nutrition, so how about it?"

Blair sighed. "Okay, man, but don't blame me when your cholesterol goes off the chart."

Blair continued to complain about his dietary choices while he cooked. Jim considered asking for bacon, too, but decided not to provoke his roommate any further and settled for tuning out Blair's voice until scrambled eggs, toast, and coffee were set before him.

"Thanks."

Jim folded his paper and started to eat. Blair studied him for a minute, then went back to the kitchen for a bowl of some cereal that contained all the vitamins and minerals you could ever want, but tasted like cardboard. At least, to Jim. Blair claimed to like the stuff. While he ate, Jim felt the younger man's eyes on him. Turn about. He looked up.

"What is it, Chief?"

"You look tired. Did you get any sleep last night?"

"That's my question."

"No, it isn't. You can tell whether I'm sleeping or not. I have to ask."

"I had a little trouble getting back to sleep," Jim admitted.

"Did you have to use the word on me again?"

"It wasn't you, Sandburg." Jim hesitated. "I had my own nightmare."

"You did? What about?"

"What do you remember about yours?"

"Not much." Blair frowned. "Shadows. Someone was after me."

"But you couldn't see his face. He was part of the shadows. They were alive, somehow."

Blair nodded. "And they pulled me away from you." His eyes went wide again. "Jim! Did we have the same dream?"

"Sounds like it, Partner."

"Wow. This is--this is incredible. Why now?"

"What?"

"Well, I've been having nightmares for months. Why would we have the same one now? Do you think it means something? Do you think the panther's trying to communicate with us again?"

"Whoa, Chief, let's not jump to conclusions here. We had the same dream. It doesn't have to mean anything."

"But what if it does?"

"Then we'll find out, sooner or later. The panther wasn't in mine. Was he in yours?"

"I don't think so. But he still could have sent them."

"Let's just wait and see, okay, Chief? Let's not get excited over this."

"Yeah," Blair agreed reluctantly. "Okay. But I think we should tell Dr. Hawthorne tomorrow."

Jim shook his head. "I'm not comfortable with that."

"Come on, Jim, you lost sleep over this. It could be psychologically significant. We have to tell her."

He rolled his eyes heavenward. "All right, Dr. Freud. If it means that much to you."

All through breakfast and all the way to the station--including the detour to Rainier for Jim to grab stacks of student ID files and Blair to borrow some testing tools--Blair chatted on about dreams: their significance in various cultures, ways of interpreting them, alternate psychological views. Jim half-listened, wondering if there was any subject Blair didn't know something about. Simon was continually amazed by the kid's widespread knowledge. To tell the truth, so was he, but he didn't like to let either his captain or his partner know that. A lot of cases would have gone unsolved if Blair hadn't zeroed in on some obscure point. Blair was an observer with the department. He could easily have chosen to do just that, observe Jim, maybe help him with the Sentinel stuff, and nothing more. Instead he'd thrown himself wholeheartedly into police work, using every resource at his disposal--especially that convoluted brain of his--to help Jim solve his cases. Jim was proud of him for that. So proud that he'd never been able to find the words to tell him. Besides, he had the feeling that, if he did tell him, Blair wouldn't believe him. Not that Blair would think he was lying. It was just that the kid made an art of self-deprecation. And that was another thing Dr. Hawthorne needed to work on with him.

Blair threw the calipers down and flung himself away from the table to the windows. He didn't focus on anything outside; he just couldn't stand to look at the masks anymore. He felt Jim's eyes, and Simon's, on him, saw their reflections in the glass, Simon with his "What is the kid's problem?" look, Jim's brow creased in what seemed to be ever-present concern.

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

"This is a waste of time," Blair answered. "I'm not finding anything."

Thinking he couldn't see, Jim and Simon exchanged glances.

"You found out they were real, didn't you?" Simon offered.

"Yeah, but so what?" Blair turned back to the table, waving a hand at the masks, tools, and notes that covered its surface. "Three people died because of these, and what do I know about them? They're real. This one's one hundred years old, that one's three hundred. There's one for healing, one for fierceness in battle, three representing gods. Collectively, they're worth a lot of money. Individually, there's nothing worth killing people over. Nothing!"

"Sandburg, maybe you should take a break."

"That won't help." Blair pulled his hair back, pacing. "Someone's trying to steal them all back. But why? So he can keep them for himself? If that's true, why didn't he just steal the whole shipment before they were sold? It can't be Mombatu tribesmen trying to get them back: the mugger's American. So why? What is it about these masks that makes people kill for them? I can't figure it out, Simon. I just don't get it. I'm not doing any good here."

"That's not true," Simon said. "Everything you find out is more than we knew before."

"But it isn't any use." Blair sighed. "Maybe they already have the mask they want."

"No way, Chief," Jim said. "If they did, they wouldn't have been so hot to get their hands on Wainwright's mask. And they wouldn't have tried to scare you off the case. We just have to keep looking."

"For what?"

"You're the expert, Darwin. Anything different, anything wrong. Anything unique to one of the masks."

"They're all unique, Jim. Though of course, there are similarities of style, and materials." Blair slumped back into the chair he had vacated. "I don't know. Maybe if I do a comparison, check the details of each mask against all the others."

Jim nodded. "Sounds like a plan, Chief."

"Maybe. But I need to have all the masks together. And Ms. Palmer won't let hers out of her house."

Simon frowned. "Am I reading you right, Sandburg? You want to pack these up and take them to the Palmer place?"

"They'll be safe, Captain. Jim will be with me."

"I don't like it."

"But, Simon, unless I test every available sample, the comparison won't be valid. There won't be any point in doing it."

"He's right, sir," Jim chimed in. "I can bring the files from Rainier along and keep busy while Blair's conducting his tests."

Simon scowled. "All right. As long as the masks remain in your sight at all times."

"Yes, sir."

"Great." Blair opened the office door. "Thanks, Simon."

"Hold on a minute there, Chief," Jim called after him. "Aren't you forgetting something?"

"Huh?" Blair looked back, to see Jim gesturing at the mess on Simon's table. "Oh. No, man, I'm just going to call Ms. Palmer and tell her we're coming."

Blair headed for Jim's desk, hearing Simon's phone ring behind him, and the Captain's barked, "Banks." He picked up Jim's phone and punched in the number of the Palmer estate. The butler answered on the third ring.

"Hey, Wilkins, it's Blair Sandburg. Can I speak to Ms. Palmer, please?"

"I'm sorry, Mr. Sandburg, Miss Palmer is unavailable at the moment. May I help you?"

"Yeah. Jim--Detective Ellison and I have to come back and look at the mask again. And I need to bring all the other masks to do a comparison, if that's okay."

"I'm quite certain it will be, sir."

"Great. I just wanted to make sure security knows to let us in."

"You will encounter no difficulty, Mr. Sandburg. Miss Palmer has added you to the list of those visitors who are to be admitted at all times."

"She has? Wow. Um, thanks, Wilkins. See you later."

"I look forward to it, sir."

Blair hung up the phone and returned to Simon's office. "Hey, Jim, guess--" Uh-oh. Jim and the Captain were both on their feet, wearing identical cop no-expressions. "What's going on?"

"Sorry, Chief," Jim said. "We got a break in the Anderson case. Gotta go."

"Oh. Well, no problem, man, we can compare the masks tomorrow."

"You're not going along on this one, Sandburg," Simon said. "I want you at the Palmer estate. I'll send a team of uniforms with you."

"Oh." Great response, Sandburg. Try for something a little more articulate. "Okay. Who?"

"Connelly and Crow."

Jim stopped what he was doing. "No, sir. Not Connelly. Not after what happened last time."

"Jim." Blair waited until Jim looked at him. "That wasn't Connelly's fault, and you know it. He feels really bad about it. This will give him a chance to redeem himself in his own eyes."

Jim's jaw muscle twitched. "No. Assign another team, Simon."

"Jim, Connelly's a good cop," Simon said. "And Tabitha Crow's one of the smartest on the force. The kid will be fine."

Jim shook his head. "You're the captain, sir."

"I'm glad you realize that," Simon quipped. "I wonder, sometimes."

Simon moved past Blair, out of the office. Jim did the same, then whirled and stuck an admonishing finger in Blair's face. "You call in every hour on the hour, Chief."

"Is that an order, sir?"

"Yes," Jim growled. Sighing audibly, he turned away and moved through the bullpen with Simon. Blair heard his next words clearly, as he was meant to. "All the partners I could have had, and I get stuck with a wiseass."

"Yeah." Simon chuckled. "Payback's a bitch, ain't it?"





Blair bustled into the Palmer house with Connelly and Crow in tow, each carrying a box of masks. The butler held the door open for them, a bemused expression on his square-jawed face.

"Welcome back, Mr. Sandburg."

"Hi, Wilkins. Is Ms. Palmer home?"

"She's waiting for you in the Conservatory, sir."

"Thanks." Glancing back at the uniforms. "This way."

Blair led them through the house. He'd spent the drive over telling them about it, and about its owner. Steve hadn't seemed particularly interested, but Tabitha had asked a lot of questions about the history of the house and Ms. Palmer's possessions, sending Blair into full-out teacher mode. He'd always gotten along well with Tabitha, and with her daughter, an adorable two year old who insisted on calling him "Bear".

Ms. Palmer herself opened the doors of the Conservatory to them, ushering them inside. "Hello, Blair."

"Hi. Thanks for letting me come back."

"I want to do what I can to help catch these murderers," she said. "I believe Wilkins told you that you're welcome here any time."

"Yeah, he did." Blair felt himself blushing, and wished he could stop doing that around her. "Thanks. I'm honored. Really."

"You should be," Ms. Palmer replied, the spark back in her gray eyes. "I understood that Detective Ellison was coming with you?"

Blair provided explanations and introductions, advancing into the room. The small, square table they'd had lunch at yesterday was gone, replaced by a table long enough to accommodate all the masks and Blair's tools. Ms. Palmer's green mask sat in the table's center, and several powerful lamps had been set at intervals along its length.

"I thought you might prefer to work in here," Ms. Palmer said. "There's more room, and the light is better."

"Thank you."

With Steve's and Tabitha's help, Blair set up. The uniforms laid out his tools and unpacked the masks, but Blair insisted on lifting each mask from its box himself. Some of them were too fragile to withstand any but the most careful handling, and if anything happened to them, he wanted it to be his responsibility alone. Ms. Palmer stayed long enough to look at all the other masks, then left him to his work. Apologizing in advance for the dull duty they'd drawn, Blair began a meticulous comparison of the masks' every detail.

Less than an hour later, the Conservatory doors opened, and Wilkins entered, followed by two men pushing an enormous marker board on wheels. Wilkins carried a bag filled with a rainbow of markers and two erasers, which he handed to a befuddled Blair.

"Where'd this come from?"

"Miss Palmer ordered it, sir. She thought it might prove useful."

"Uh, yeah. Yes, it will. Thank her for me, will you, Wilkins?"

"Of course, sir."

Wilkins herded the delivery men out again. Blair immediately drew a huge chart listing all the various properties and materials he was testing, then began to write in the results he'd obtained for the first mask. He continued until a bored Tabitha took the job from him, freeing him to return to the testing. Thereafter, Steve and Tabitha traded off, one writing down the information Blair called out while the other kept official watch. Connelly was also designated timekeeper, to let Blair know when to check in with Jim. If he forgot, Jim would come charging down here, sure there was something wrong, and then kill him when there wasn't.

Just after the seven o'clock call, Wilkins rolled dinner in on a cart: sandwiches, coffee, and the rest of the fudge cake they'd had yesterday. Wilkins set a plate at Blair's elbow. Blair thanked him absently, and picked up one half of the sandwich, taking a bite without looking to see what it was. He started to chew, and stopped. Put the sandwich down, and pried up the top piece of bread. Tongue, hummus, horseradish, and sprouts. On pumpernickel. Blair chewed and swallowed hastily, shifting his stare to Wilkins.

"This is my favorite sandwich. How did you...? Never mind, I don't want to know."

Wilkins allowed himself a small smile. "Yes, sir. Will there be anything else, Mr. Sandburg?"

"Uh, no. Thanks, Wilkins."

By nine, he was examining the eighth mask, a representation of a warrior, 19th century, carved of dark wood, painted in red with slashes of yellow. Like many of the others, this mask was set with rough stones in a line bisecting the face and surrounding the eye holes. Unlike the others, all the stones were the same color, a pale, yellowish-white. Blair probed at one of the settings, looking for telltale signs of glue or some other modern means of keeping the stone in place.

The stone popped out, skittering across the table. Swearing, Blair grabbed for it, but the stone eluded his grasp and came to rest against the base of a lamp. Well, there was no glue. Now he just had to hope he could fit the stone back into its hole without causing any damage.

Light shone directly on the stone. Blair picked it up, and forgot to breathe. No. No, it couldn't be. No way. He leaned closer, studying the stone between his fingers. Not possible, Sandburg. You're dreaming. But...

"I think I found it."

"What?" Connelly and Crow chorused.

"I think I've found it." He stood, closing his fist over the stone. "But I can't tell for sure. I've gotta get to the U. There's a lab in the Geology Department I can use."

Steve glanced at Tabitha. "I don't know, Sandburg."

"You can come with me. I only need to bring one mask. Tabitha can stay with the others." Blair picked up the mask and laid it carefully in one of the boxes, then tucked the box under his arm. "Come on."

He wasn't going to give them time to argue. He had to know if he was right. Blair almost went straight out the front door, but decided he should let either Ms. Palmer or Wilkins know what was going on. After all the trouble she'd gone to for him, he couldn't just take off. Connelly trailing behind, he went from room to room until he heard voices and headed for them. He rushed into the room, focused on Ms. Palmer, and approached her.

"Hi. Sorry to interrupt, I--"

"Mr. Sandburg," said a familiar, cultured voice. "I had no idea you were an acquaintance of Miss Palmer's."

Blair turned. Geoffrey Hatch and Toni LeClaire were seated on the other side of a coffee table. As always, the man was impeccably dressed, in a navy suit and red tie, his hair carefully combed. Toni wore another suit, this one a deep, rose-red. She was still incredibly beautiful. He couldn't take his eyes off her.

"Uh--hi."

"Blair, how are you?" Toni asked.

"Fine. Great. You?"

"What progress has been made in the apprehension of my brother's murderer?" Hatch demanded.

The harsh tone jolted Blair back to reality. "I'm sorry, I can't talk about that."

"Arthur was killed nearly three months ago!"

"I know. I'm sorry, Mr. Hatch, you really need to talk to Detective Ellison. I'm just an observer." Blair turned back to Ms. Palmer. "Can I talk to you for a minute?"

"Certainly. Excuse us, please."

Ms. Palmer followed him out of the room. "You seem excited, Blair. Have you found something?"

"I think so. Officer Connelly and I are going to Rainier to check it out. If it's okay with you, Officer Crow's going to stay here with the masks. We'll be back later."

"Of course. On one condition."

"What?"

"If you determine that you have found the answer, I want to know what it is. I'm dying of curiosity."

Blair grinned. "After Jim, you'll be the first one I call." On impulse, he leaned over and kissed Ms. Palmer on the cheek. "Thanks."

Blair dashed off, laughing when Ms. Palmer called after him.

"Impudent child."

Jim wolfed down the last of his taco and unwrapped the burrito, scanning the page before him. Nothing. He wiped the grease from his fingers on the napkin and turned the page, kept turning pages while he ate, looking for a photo to trigger his memory. He'd looked through so many folders that his vision was starting to blur, and he had a persistent headache. But he wouldn't stop. It was war now, between him and the Rainier Registrar's Office. He was going to find Blair's mugger if it killed him.

Jim looked at his watch, then checked Simon's desk clock to verify. 9:45. Simon glanced up from the report he was reviewing on the Anderson arrest.

"Relax, Jim. He's not due to call for fifteen minutes."

"I know, sir."

"And don't forget, this is Sandburg. The kid's probably so absorbed in those masks, he doesn't know what day it is, never mind what time."

"Probably."

Jim forced his gaze from the clock back to the folders. Blair would claim he was being over-protective. Maybe he was. But after what happened with that bastard Ponytail, he was entitled to be a little over-protective, wasn't he?

Jim rubbed his aching temples. "Simon, you got any aspirin?"

"You have to ask?"

Simon reached into a drawer and tossed him the bottle. He took two, washing them down with coffee, and opened the next folder. The kid he'd seen on the stairs stared back at him from the ID photo.

"I got him, Simon." Jim crossed the room and slapped the file down on the Captain's desk. "This is the guy who tossed Blair's office and threatened to kill him."

"Jim, just because you saw this kid on the stairs doesn't mean he's the one."

"It's him, Simon," Jim insisted. "Fingerprints and a hair sample will confirm it, but I'm sure."

"All right. Bring him in for questioning. In the morning."

"Yes, sir." Jim picked up the Captain's phone. "I'm gonna call Sandburg and let him know."

"And check up on him," Simon murmured.

Jim pretended he hadn't heard. If he argued the point, he'd lose. He dialed Olive Palmer's number, and Wilkins answered.

"Yeah, this is Jim Ellison. Let me speak to Blair, please."

"I'm sorry, Detective Ellison, Mr. Sandburg left some time ago."

"What? Where'd he go?"

"I couldn't say, Detective. Officer Crow is still here. Would you like to speak to her?"

"Put her on." A minute later, Crow picked up the phone. Jim didn't give her a chance to speak. "Crow, where's Sandburg?"

"Blair found something on one of the masks. He and Steve went to Rainier to test it out at the Geology Lab."

His headache was suddenly worse. "When?"

"About thirty minutes ago."

"Thanks." Jim hung up the phone. "Why can't he ever do what he's told?"

"What's the kid done now?" Simon asked.

"Blair and Connelly went to Rainier to do some kind of test on one of the masks." Jim grabbed his jacket from the back of a chair and shrugged it on. "I'm gonna go out there and relieve Connelly so he and Crow can get the masks back into lockup."

"Uh-huh." Simon fixed him with a knowing eye. "Don't kill the kid, Jim. If Sandburg really has found something, we might need him to testify later."

"I won't kill him." Maybe. "I'll just let him know what I think of this little stunt."

"Look, Jim, I know you find this hard to believe--God knows I do--but Blair's a grown man, capable of making his own decisions."

"He's a protected witness, Simon. He's not supposed to go sneaking off by himself."

"He's not by himself. Connelly's with him."

"He should have called to tell me what he was doing."

"Sure he should. But he didn't. And you don't have a clue why, do you?"

"No," he said stiffly. "I don't." And he wasn't about to play twenty questions. He put on his stone face, but Simon had seen it too many times, and it had never intimidated the Captain.

"Come on, Jim, think about it. You and Sandburg have been looking for a break in this case for months. Now the kid thinks he's found it, but he wants to make sure before he tells you. He wants to present it to you on a silver platter."

Jim was stunned out of his anger. My God, Simon was right. "How do you know so much about him?"

"I don't," the Captain answered. "I know rookies. Now go get your partner, Detective. And if he has found anything, let me know."

"Yes, sir." Jim got halfway out the door, and looked back. "Simon, when he calls in, tell him I'm on my way, would you?"

"I'll tell him."





Blair unlocked the door of the Geology Lab, pushed it open, and flipped on the overhead lights. Connelly moved past him and set the box containing the mask down on the nearest table.

"Thanks, man."

Blair went through the lab opening drawers, pulling out the tools he needed and the strongest magnifier they had. He dumped them all on the table, slid onto a stool, and sat for a moment with eyes closed, trying to calm himself. The ride from the Palmer estate had taken forever. Connelly had insisted on obeying all the traffic laws, and had categorically refused to run the siren despite Blair's repeated requests. God, the guy was more of a stickler for rules than Jim, if that was possible. When they finally got here, they'd had to stop at the security office so Blair could wangle the keys to the Geology Building from the guards. He'd had a bad moment when the guard at the desk didn't recognize him. Fortunately, one of the other guards had reported in while they were arguing, and vouched for him. And now, at last, they were here. Now, he could find out if he was right.

Shifting the packing material aside, Blair lifted the mask out of the box and gently laid it down in front of him. He dug into his pocket, pulled out the stone he'd popped out by mistake, and held it in his palm, gazing at it. It looked like nothing, just an irregular, whitish pebble, in no way remarkable. Unless you knew what to look for. And Blair knew.

"How long is this going to take?" Connelly asked.

Blair shrugged, glancing at the ramrod straight ex-marine, who was dividing his attention between his charge and the door. "Shouldn't be too long. An hour, maybe? Why don't you sit down?"

Blair began his examination of the loose stone. At first, Connelly stood motionless, the ever-vigilant bodyguard, but after a while, he pulled out a stool and sat down. The man looked uncomfortable, and Blair wondered if it was the stool or the situation making him that way. Maybe he shouldn't have dragged Connelly out here without checking in with Jim or Simon first. He didn't want to get the poor guy in trouble. Of course, Connelly had radioed Dispatch with their location, so someone knew where they were. And he had to call Jim soon anyway. Before he did, he wanted to be sure. He wanted to be able to tell Jim he'd solved it, that he knew why the bad guys were after the masks, and why someone would consider them worth killing for. He wanted to show Jim that he could pull his weight again. But he had to be certain.

He saw Connelly move half a second before he heard the voice.

"Mr. Sandburg? Mr.--Whoa. Hey, man, chill, okay?"

Blair shot to his feet, twisting so quickly that he kicked the stool over and it crashed to the floor. Connelly faced the door, gun drawn. In the doorway, hands raised in the classic "put 'em up" pose, was Joshua Stanhope from his Anthro class. Wide green eyes shifted from Connelly to Blair.

"Mr. Sandburg?"

"It's okay, Josh," Blair assured him, trying to convince his heart of the same thing. "Connelly, Josh is one of my students. Give me a break and don't shoot him, okay? You have no idea of the paperwork I'd have to fill out."

"Yeah." Connelly grinned and holstered the gun. "Me, too. Sorry, kid."

"No problem." Joshua lowered his hands and walked toward Blair. He was taller than Connelly, though not as muscular, and he couldn't be more than a year or two younger than the cop, or Blair himself. "Geez, Mr. Sandburg, you've got a cop guarding you? What'd you do?"

Blair laughed. "It's a long story. What are you doing here, Josh? You're not taking geology, are you?"

"No. I want to talk to you. I went to your office, but you weren't there. Security said you were over here."

"Josh, this really isn't a good time."

Joshua shoved a lock of blond hair behind one ear. "Yeah? Well, I need to talk to you about my test."

"Look, Josh--"

"You flunked me."

Blair sighed inwardly. Time to be the tough teacher. "I gave you the grade you earned. Come by my office tomorrow, and--"

"You gave me a fucking F!"

"I'm not going to discuss this with you now, Joshua."

Blair turned away. Joshua grabbed his shirt, jerking him back around. "The fuck you're not!"

"Let go!"

Blair lost it. He fought to get away, no longer seeing Joshua, no longer seeing anything but his memories. Ponytail grabbed him and he struggled, shouting, tearing his shirt when the man tried to hold him. He punched and kicked, and Ponytail swore, throwing him up against a table. Someone tried to help, someone--Connelly. Connelly gripped Ponytail's arm, tried to pull him off, but Ponytail reached past Blair to pick up a microscope, whirled, and smashed the base of the instrument into Connelly's head. Connelly went down, already unconscious, blood streaming over his face. The bloody microscope shattered on the floor. Blair stared at the pieces, and the blood, looked up into Ponytail's smiling face. No. No, dammit, not Ponytail. Joshua. It was Joshua.

Oh my God, was Connelly dead? No, if he was dead, he wouldn't be bleeding. Would he? Blair tore his gaze from Connelly, staring at Joshua in horror. He couldn't breathe.

"You. You're the mugger. You broke into my office."

Joshua's voice deepened, became one he had heard before, one he had heard in nightmares. "You got it, genius." He smiled. "Aren't you gonna ask why?"

"He knows why."

Geoffrey Hatch entered the lab, carrying a gun. He approached Blair and Joshua, his demeanor as calm and businesslike as it had been at the gallery. He reached out, touched the muzzle of the gun to Blair's Adam's apple, and slowly slid it up his throat, forcing his chin up until he met Hatch's eyes.

"Don't you, Mr. Sandburg?"

Breathe, Sandburg, breathe. Hatch wants to have a chat, fine. Tell him what you think. Tell him anything, just keep him talking. The longer he's talking, the longer you've got to live.

"Diamonds," Blair said. "The stones in this mask are uncut diamonds."

"Precisely."

Hatch smiled at him like a teacher with an exceptionally bright student. Keeping the gun trained on Blair, he removed a cloth sack from his pocket and tossed it to Joshua. Joshua dumped the sack's contents onto the table: stones, yellowish-white. Working rapidly, he pried the diamonds from the mask, placed them in the sack, and filled the resulting holes with the new stones.

Blair looked past Hatch to Connelly, still unconscious, still bleeding. "Let me help him."

"No."

"Come on, man, he could die. At least let me stop the bleeding."

"Sorry. First aid for Officer Connelly doesn't fit in with the plan. It's nothing personal."

"Yeah, right, nothing's personal for you, is it? You killed your own brother."

"Not by choice," Hatch answered. "I was away on business when the shipment of masks arrived in Cascade. By the time I returned, Arthur had sold them all. My business partners--"

"Our partners," Joshua interrupted.

"Of course. Our partners--were seriously displeased. Something had to be done to mollify them."

"So you betrayed Arthur after all, huh, Lancelot?"

Hatch just shrugged, unaffected by the barb. Blair's eyes slid to Joshua, and he did his best to sneer. "That would make you Guinevere, right, Josh?"

Joshua's head jerked up, his eyes murderous. He snatched up a scalpel-sharp probe and advanced on Blair. "I'll cut your throat right here, genius!"

"Joshua!" Hatch barked. "We don't have time for this."

"He's calling me a faggot!"

"He's trying to stall for time, you idiot! Get back to work."

Joshua subsided, and went back to replacing the stones, darting a venomous glance in Hatch's direction. That was a happy little partnership. Blair waited about thirty seconds, then addressed himself to Hatch once more.

"You mean, Joshua wasn't your brother's toy-boy?"

"Joshua," Hatch warned. Blair didn't dare look at the student. Hatch shook his head. "I'd be careful, Mr. Sandburg. Joshua has a vicious temper, and he's really not happy about that F. To answer your question, yes, he did keep Arthur occupied for me. Arthur always did like blonds. It wasn't hard to lure him away from Rupert. And he was only too happy to branch out into African art on the advice of his new lover, the anthropology student."

"Joshua slept with him for money?"

"We all make sacrifices to achieve our goals."

"What was your sacrifice?"

"My brother."

"Yeah? How did Arthur feel about that?"

Hatch smiled. "I don't know. When you see him, why don't you ask?"

Oh, God. If he'd had any doubt before that these two intended to kill him, it was gone now. "Ellison's on his way here," he lied.

"I doubt that," Hatch said. "In any case, we won't be here much longer. Will we, Joshua?"

"Just about done," Joshua replied.

"You won't get away with this." I can't believe I said that. "Ellison knows about the diamonds."

"What diamonds?" Hatch said. "There are no diamonds in that mask. All Detective Ellison will know is that his young partner was killed by a disgruntled student. And that you were, unfortunately, wrong about the stones."

"So you get away with it, and Joshua takes the fall?"

"No way." Joshua pulled the drawstring shut on the sack and moved around the table to stand beside Blair. "I'll be out of the country."

"No, you won't. Ellison saw you on the stairs, Josh. You'll never get out of the country." Blair smiled. "You're screwed, man. Three murders or one, it's the death penalty for sure."

"Shut up." Joshua scowled and looked to Hatch. "Geoffrey."

"That won't happen, Joshua," Hatch said. "He's bluffing."

"No, I'm not," Blair said. "You're going down, Josh. Lancelot goes free with the diamonds, and you fry. Or do they still hang murderers? That would be poetic justice after what you did to Arthur, huh, Josh?"

"Shut up!"

Joshua backhanded him savagely. Blair stumbled back, tripped over Connelly's outstretched legs, and fell on top of the unconscious cop. Joshua turned back to Hatch.

"Is he right? You planning on letting me die in prison?"

"Of course not," Hatch snapped. "Don't be stupid, Joshua, he's trying to divide us."

"I'm not stupid!" Joshua shouted. "But maybe you think I am."

Blair wiped blood from his mouth. Neither man was looking at him. This might be his only chance. He rolled over, intending to get to his feet and run for it. His hand brushed leather: Connelly's gunbelt. Oh, God. Throwing a quick glance at the arguing men--they were still ignoring him--Blair slid Connelly's gun from its holster and stood up, hiding the gun with his body. He eased the safety off, and turned, cocking the hammer, raised the gun and pointed it at Geoffrey Hatch.

"Put the gun down, man."

His voice shook, but he managed to keep his hands steady, using both to hold the gun, the way he'd seen Jim do it countless times, the way he'd done it in the attic, with Ponytail. The argument ceased. Joshua gaped at him, but Hatch's expression didn't change. The older man turned to face him, cold eyes locking onto his.

"No."

Hatch's gun hand moved slightly, and Blair knew. He couldn't think. His finger squeezed the trigger, and Connelly's gun went off a bare second before Hatch's. The recoil sent him staggering, but he didn't fall. He wasn't hit; he didn't know where Hatch's bullet had gone. Hatch lay on the floor, bleeding. The gun had fallen from his hand and lay within six feet of where Joshua stood. Joshua looked from Hatch, to the gun, to Blair. He started to edge away from the table.

"Don't do it, Josh," Blair said, hoping it didn't sound too much like a plea. "I'm not good with this thing. I can't shoot you in the hand or the leg like Jim could, I just have to aim for the biggest target. I don't want to kill you." He remembered his office, and smiled slightly. "That wouldn't be good for either of us."

Joshua stopped where he was. Thank God. Now what did he do? They couldn't stay here like this all night. He needed to get help, but that meant herding Joshua out of the building, and he didn't think he could do that. He knew the bigger man would try something, and he really didn't want to kill Joshua, murderer or not. Bad enough he'd shot a man for the second time in his life, without shooting one of his students, too.

Joshua smiled. "You're shaking, genius."

"I just shot a man, Joshua. Maybe it doesn't bother you, but it does me."

"Too bad." Joshua took a step toward him, both hands raised, one holding the bag of diamonds. "I did that faggot, Crowley. Blew his brains out for him. All that blood. It was beautiful."

"Stay there, Josh." Blair cocked the hammer. "You can't be that crazy."

Green eyes bored into his. "I could be."

The hall went dark, every light shut off at once. Startled, Blair turned his head automatically. A mistake, and he knew it instantly, but it was too late. Joshua swung the sack of diamonds, knocking the gun from Blair's hands. The gun flew across the room, and Joshua dove after it. Blair knew he'd never reach it before Joshua, or be able to wrest it from him. He fled the lab, slapping the lights off as he passed, and pelted down the dark corridor.

Footsteps pounded behind him. He turned his head, saw a shadowy figure less than twenty feet behind him, and tried to run faster. He knew the corridor branched off, but he couldn't see where, so he ran in a straight line and hoped Joshua couldn't see well enough to shoot. A red EXIT sign glowed ahead, seeming impossibly far away. The footsteps drew closer, but he couldn't run any faster.

"Sandburg, get down!"

"Jim!"

Fingers tangled in his hair, yanked him off his feet, back against a hard body. Cold metal touched his neck. Blair's mind screamed "Get away!", but his body froze, knowing that touch, knowing it would die if it continued to fight. Joshua called out.

"I've got him, Ellison! You don't want me to blow his head off, you better let me out of here."

Jim's voice came out of the darkness. "I don't think so, Stanhope. Let him go. Now."

"No way. The genius comes with me, or he dies here. It's up to you."

"Give it up, kid," Jim said. "I'm not letting you out of here. I've got a clear shot."

Joshua snorted. "You can't even see me."

"Yes he can, man," Blair said. "He's got really good night vision."

"Yeah? Then I guess he can watch you die." Blair heard the click of the hammer next to his ear. "You never should have given me that F, genius."

The gun's roar deafened him. Joshua jerked back, and Blair launched himself forward, wrenching free of the fingers tangled in his hair. The gun clattered to the floor.

A massive hand closed around his arm. Blair cried out and fought to get away, striking out at an assailant he couldn't see. A voice shouted at him, but he couldn't understand the words, he couldn't listen, he had to get away! A second hand gripped him, holding him, pulled him toward a window, where weak light patched the wall. The light fell on his assailant's face, turning it white, and Blair strained to see the man's features. Jim. It was Jim, his eyes drained of color by the dim light.

Blair stopped struggling. "Jim?"

"It's me, Blair," Jim said. "It's okay. It's over. You're all right."

"Oh, God. Oh, God. He was--It was--"

"I know."

Jim gathered him in, holding him, and a part of him shrieked in terror at the touch, but Blair forced it down, shut it away with the darkness. He threw his arms around Jim's solid, unshakable body, and wouldn't let go.

Jim held Blair close, feeling the slamming of the smaller man's heart and the tremors shaking his body. Blair needed this, and Jim was willing to give it to him for as long as he wanted. The fact that he needed it too was just extra. When he'd heard those shots--God, he'd felt like the world was falling away beneath him, leaving him nothing.

"Are you okay, man?" Blair asked, his voice muffled by Jim's sweater.

"Yeah." Now. "You?"

"Yeah." The slender body stiffened. "Connelly!"

Blair pushed away from him, heading down the dark corridor at a near-run. Jim followed, and caught up to him easily.

"He's hurt," Blair said. "We need to call an ambulance."

"It's already on its way," Jim assured him. "I called in when I heard the shots. Hold on, Chief."

They had reached the lab. Grabbing Blair's shirttail, Jim pulled the younger man behind him. He stepped into the room, flipping the light switch. Connelly lay on the floor, bleeding from a gash in his head. Jim crouched beside him and put a hand to his throat. Connelly's pulse was strong.

"Oh my God," Blair breathed behind him. "Where's Hatch?"

"Right here, Mr. Sandburg."

Jim shot to his feet, hand darting toward the holster at his waist.

"I wouldn't, Detective Ellison. I'd be only too happy to shoot Mr. Sandburg."

Geoffrey Hatch had Blair by one arm, his other hand pressing a gun to the kid's side. Hatch's face was pasty, and he swayed on his feet. The fingers gripping Blair's arm were covered with blood.

Blair turned beseeching eyes on Jim, his face pale. Jim could see him trembling, and he cursed himself. Christ, he should have known! He knew Stanhope didn't work alone, he should have figured his partner would be here too. But he'd been so relieved that Blair was alive that it hadn't even occurred to him. He hadn't even thought to listen for other heartbeats. He hadn't done his job, and now Blair was endangered because of it.

Sirens, in the distance. "Give it up, Hatch," Jim said. "Your partner's dead. You'll never get out of this building."

"Your partner's alive, Detective," Hatch said. He pulled Blair toward the door, wincing when he moved his bloody arm, but the hand with the gun remained steady. "If you'd like him to stay that way, you won't try to interfere."

"No." Something came into Blair's eyes, something Jim didn't ever want to see again, something less than sane. He planted his feet, and refused to move when Hatch jerked on his arm. "I'm not going with you."

Hatch jammed the gun into Blair's side. "You shot me, Mr. Sandburg. I will return the favor, if you don't do as you're told."

"Fine," Blair spat. "Shoot me. Go ahead. The minute you do, Jim will kill you." Blair twisted in Hatch's grip, facing him. "Is that what you want, Geoffrey? Are you looking for a quick death? Jim will give it to you, just like he gave it to Joshua. Come on, man!" Blair shouted in Hatch's face. "Do it! Shoot me! I'll help you pull the trigger."

Blair put his hand over Hatch's. Hatch wrenched away from him, backing off, staring at Blair with dazed, uncomprehending eyes. Jim drew his gun, but he couldn't get a clear shot. Blair stood between them, his back to Jim.

"Blair, get out of the way."

Blair shook his head. "No, Jim. Let him shoot me if he wants to."

"I should." Hatch was slowly regaining his composure. "If not for you, everything would have worked perfectly. The prospect of prison is not appealing."

They could all hear the sirens now. Hatch gave a half-smile, and shrugged. "A quick death seems the best alternative."

"No!" Blair cried.

God, Blair! Jim tackled him, shielding the smaller body with his own. A gun went off, but there was no impact of bullet into flesh, no burn, no blood. He raised his head and gun-- But there was no need. Hatch was sprawled on the floor, half his head missing.

"Jim?"

Blair lifted his head. Jim shifted off him, placing himself between Blair and Hatch.

"Jim, he--"

"I know." He lifted Blair to his feet, still blocking his view of the body. "Simon's here, and the ambulance. I want you to go back to Connelly while I go meet them. Okay?"

Blair nodded. Jim turned him around and gave him a little push to get him started toward the lab. He watched him go in, then loped down the corridor to the stairs. Descending to the basement, he turned the lights back on, climbed back up to the ground floor, and went outside to let Simon know the situation was over.

Twenty minutes later, the ambulance was gone and forensics was going over the scene. Simon chewed a cigar while Jim filled him in on what had happened. As much as he knew of it. Blair hadn't made a statement yet, and wouldn't have to until tomorrow. He stood by the windows in the back of the lab, hugging himself. He looked so small and pulled into himself that Jim was reminded of a little boy he'd seen once, the only survivor of a bomb blast that had destroyed his family's house. The EMT's had wanted Blair to go to the hospital with Connelly, but he'd refused, insisting that he was fine. Aside from a rapidly darkening bruise where someone had hit him, he was fine. Physically.

"Ellison? Are you listening to me?"

Jim started guiltily, refocusing on Simon. "Sorry, sir."

Simon shook his head, turned to look at Blair. "Why don't you take him home?"

"Thanks, Simon."

Blair spotted Jim's reflection in the window and turned to meet him. He was still pale, still shaking, but Jim knew he couldn't help by holding him now. The crisis was past; Blair would never allow himself to be touched.

"Hey, buddy," Jim said softly. "You okay?"

Blair gave a sickly smile. "Sure, Jim."

"You want to tell me what that was all about, before?"

"What do you mean?"

"Blair, you practically begged Hatch to shoot you. Why?" Jim lowered his voice even more. "Do you want to die?"

The blue eyes went wide. "No, man. No, I don't want to. I just--I just got so mad all of a sudden, so sick of being everybody's hostage or shield or victim, that I--" Blair shrugged. "I guess I lost it."

"I guess you did." Jim locked his gaze with Blair's. "Don't do it again, okay? The next guy might take you up on it. Besides, you scared the shit out of me."

"Sorry, Jim. I promise, I won't do that again."

"Good." Jim smiled. "Let's go home, Tough Guy."

They left the lab. Jim steered Blair around Hatch's body, and tried to do the same around Stanhope's, but Blair wouldn't be deflected. Simon stood watching Serena do her preliminary examination. Blair stared down at the body. There was a neat hole in Stanhope's forehead, the only clear target Jim had been given. The sightless eyes were green.

"He was one of my kids," Blair said.

"He was only a year younger than you," Jim said.

Blair didn't seem to hear. "He seduced Arthur Hatch, then he helped kill him. He killed Rupert Crowley. He would have killed you, me, anyone."

Serena pulled a cloth bag out of Stanhope's pocket. "What's this?"

"That's why he did it," Blair said.

"What is it?" Simon asked.

Blair gazed at the bag as though it were the most uninteresting thing on earth, and turned away, heading for the stairs. "A bunch of rocks."





Jim pushed the loft door open, ushering Blair inside. He dropped his keys in the basket, tossed the mail after it, and took off his coat, holding his hand out for Blair's. Blair gave it almost absently and moved toward the table, where he stood looking at nothing in particular. He hadn't said two words during the drive from Rainier, just stared out the window, the color washed out of his eyes by night.

"It's good to be home, huh, Chief?" Jim said.

"Yeah." Blair's smile flashed by so fast that Jim almost didn't catch it. "It is."

"Why don't you go on to bed? We've gotta be at the station bright and early tomorrow."

Blair shook his head. "I can't sleep yet."

"Yeah, I'm pretty wired myself." Jim grabbed the teakettle, filled it with water, and plunked it down on the burner. "How about some of that tea you're always going on about?"

Blair looked at him. It was an odd look, but anything other than the vacant stare was good. "What kind?"

"I don't know. Something that helps you get to sleep."

"I've got something already made up. It's in the cabinet, in the baggie marked with the z's."

Jim searched the cabinet, spotted the bag, and took it out, studying the contents. "What's in it?"

"Pau d'arco, kava-kava, valerian--a little of this, a little of that. You know."

Jim shrugged. "If you say so, Partner."

He busied himself measuring tea into a pot, guessing at the amount. When he didn't hear any choking sound from Blair, he assumed he was doing it right. He put the tea back in the cabinet, and turned to see Blair pick up the phone.

"Who you calling, Chief?"

"Ms. Palmer. I promised to let her know what was going on."

"Sandburg, it's after midnight. She's in bed."

"Jim, studies have shown that many older people actually require less sleep than--"

"Tomorrow, Sandburg."

Blair looked at the phone, grimaced, and put it down. "Yeah, okay. You're probably right."

He slumped into a chair at the table. The water boiled. Jim filled the pot, and carried it and two cups to the table.

"You want anything to eat?"

"No."

They sat in silence while the tea steeped, Blair staring at the table, or the far wall, Jim surreptitiously studying his partner. Blair had shot Geoffrey Hatch. He hadn't killed him--Hatch had taken care of that himself--but it was only the second time Blair had ever fired a gun, the second man he'd ever shot, and the first one had been Ponytail. The bleak stare had to have something to do with that, but Jim didn't want to press Blair to talk about it. Not yet. He had no doubt that the shooting would be added to the list of things for Alice Hawthorne to work on with him. If Blair didn't want to talk about it with Jim, he didn't have to. And to be honest, Jim wasn't sure whether he wanted Blair to talk about it with him. He didn't know what to tell him, how to make it easier to live with. Blair had done what he had to do to survive, and he hadn't killed anyone. But shooting someone, no matter the justification, tore a hole in your soul. In time, the hole would close, for most. But the scar would always be there. And now Blair, who should never have had any, would have two. And Jim knew there was nothing he could do about it.

Jim poured the tea, and slid a cup in front of Blair. "Hey."

Blair started, and looked down at the cup. "Oh. Thanks, man." He raised the cup in one hand, blew on the tea, and took a sip.

"You okay, Partner?"

"Yeah. I'm just worried about Connelly."

"He'll be okay. He's got a hard head."

"He has to, around me."

"Tell you what, Chief. We'll go visit him tomorrow, as soon as you're done with your statement. How's that?"

"You think he'll want to see me?"

"Yeah. I do."

Blair smiled briefly. "I'd like that." He stood up, still holding the cup. "I'm going to read for a while. If I pick something dry enough, maybe it'll put me to sleep."

"That should cover just about every book you have."

"Yeah." Another quick smile faded before he turned. "Good night, Jim."

"Good night."

Blair went into his room and closed the door. Jim drank the tea he'd made but didn't particularly want, listening to Blair move around his room, change his clothes, and finally climb onto his bed. There was no sound of pages turning, but the light stayed on.

After a while, the tea began to take effect. Jim smiled. How about that, the stuff actually worked. He took the empty pot and cup into the kitchen, washed and put them away, shut off the kitchen light and started toward the stairs. Halfway there, he changed direction and headed back to Blair's room. The light was still on, but there was no movement in the room, just the sounds of Blair's heartbeat and breathing. Jim knocked softly.

"Chief, you awake?"

Movement on the bed. "Yeah. Come in."

Jim opened the door and took a step into the room. Blair lay on top of the covers, propped on his elbows, wearing gray sweatpants and Jim's Cascade PD sweatshirt, the sleeves pushed up to free his hands.

"What's up, Jim? Something wrong?"

"No, everything's fine, Chief. I just wanted to say thank you."

Blair regarded him quizzically. "For what, man?"

"For solving the case."

"Oh." Blair thought about that. After a moment, a smile lit his features, this one reaching to his eyes. "You're welcome, Jim."

"Good night, kid. Go to sleep."

Blair yawned, and obediently slid under the covers. "Always giving orders. Go to sleep yourself, Detective."

Jim grinned, and left Blair's room to climb the stairs to his own. Blair was asleep before he got undressed. Keeping one ear attuned to his partner's steady breathing, Jim climbed into bed. Within minutes, he was asleep.

Blair stayed behind Jim all the way through the hospital to Connelly's room. He was trying not to be nervous, knowing Jim would hear the speed of his heartbeat, but he couldn't help it. He still wasn't convinced that Connelly would want to see him. After all, every time the poor guy got stuck guarding Blair, someone hit him in the head. This time, he'd sustained a concussion and required twenty stitches. Next time--in the unlikely event there was a next time--Connelly could die.

They had spent the morning at the station, giving their statements about last night's events. Blair had faltered only twice: when he named Joshua as one of the murderers, and when he recounted his shooting of Geoffrey Hatch. When he talked about the shooting, he'd started to shake, so badly that he'd had to leave the room to compose himself. He'd expected to be sick, but he hadn't been, and that disturbed him almost more than if he had. Did this mean he was getting used to shooting people? That next time, he wouldn't even get the shakes, it wouldn't bother him at all? Would he become like Joshua, taking pleasure in killing? No. No, he'd never be like that. He couldn't be. There'd been something wrong with Joshua's mind. There was nothing wrong with his. Well, nothing that a year or two of therapy with Dr. Hawthorne shouldn't cure.

But if that was true, then what was wrong with Jim? When he talked about shooting Hatch, Jim had gone white. His expression hadn't changed, but he'd bent over in his chair, as if he were in pain. Blair had been too busy with his own reaction to say anything, but he'd noticed. Since then, Jim had been quiet, beyond taciturn. He'd hardly said a word at lunch, or on the way to the hospital. More than once, Blair had started to ask him what was wrong, but each time he'd stopped, afraid that Jim would tell him.

The nightmare he had shared with Jim darkened his mind. He had thought only part of it had come true: Joshua chasing him, grabbing him, dying. Was it all coming true? Were the shadows pulling him away from Jim, coming between them? Was that why Jim couldn't look at him when he talked about shooting Hatch? Did Jim see the shadows inside Blair, inside his soul?

Jim paused at the door, looking down at him. "It's not your fault, Blair."

Blair stared in alarm. Was Jim reading his mind? He shook himself mentally. Get a grip, doofus, he's talking about Connelly. "I know."

"Then breathe."

Blair took a deep breath and let it out slowly. It helped, a little. "Okay."

Jim pushed the door open and went in; Blair followed more slowly.

Connelly was sitting up in bed, gauze patching one side of his head, the hair around it shaved off. He was talking animatedly to Tabitha Crow and Simon. When he saw Blair, he stopped talking and his smile faded. Blair wanted to run. But he didn't. He wouldn't.

"How you feeling, Connelly?" Jim asked.

"Fine, sir. I'll be out of here tomorrow, and back on duty next week."

"Desk duty," Simon qualified. "For at least a week."

Connelly made a face. "Yes, sir."

No one said anything. Oh, God. Blair looked at the floor, glanced around at everyone but Connelly, looked at the floor again. No one said anything. He should go. No one said anything. Get out of here, Sandburg.

Connelly cleared his throat. "Uh, I'd like to talk to Sandburg alone, if you folks don't mind."

I mind. But he didn't say it, and everybody left. Oh, shit, here it comes. Try to act like an adult here, Sandburg, at least look the man in the eye. He managed to raise his head, only to see Connelly examining the bedclothes.

"That's quite a contusion you've got," Connelly said.

Blair resisted the urge to touch his face. He shrugged. "It's no big deal." Not compared to what happened to you.

"I'm sorry," they said together.

Blair grinned, and caught an answering smile on Connelly's face. "Really, man, it was my fault."

Steve started to shake his head, winced, and stopped. "No way, Sandburg, it was mine. I was supposed to be guarding you."

"You were guarding me, Connelly. You knew Joshua was trouble, but I made you go against your instincts. If I hadn't been so stupid--"

"Sandburg, he was one of your students. You're supposed to trust them, just like I'm supposed to trust other cops. You give them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe it wasn't smart in this case, but it was still the right thing to do. You're too young to be a cynic."

Blair arched one eyebrow. "Look who's talking, man! You aren't any older than I am."

Connelly folded his arms and tried to look mature. Or tried to look like Jim, Blair wasn't sure which. "Six months, kid."

"Big whoop," Blair scoffed. "How do you know that?"

"Your date of birth's on your observer ID."

"Oh. Right."

Connelly grinned. "Along with your height."

"Hey, I'm average height," Blair declared, adding under his breath, "Almost."

"Sure you are. You don't mind if I call you Shorty from now on, do you?"

"As a matter of fact--"

Connelly laughed. "Just kidding, Sandburg."

"Yeah. I think you need to have your head x-rayed again, Connelly. See if there's anything in there."

To his astonishment, Connelly laughed again. "You ever think about becoming a cop, Sandburg?"

"Who, me? Seriously?"

"Yeah. The Captain said you handled yourself pretty well last night. Said you damn near resolved the situation yourself."

"Simon said that?"

"Don't let it go to your head, Sandburg." The Captain came back into the room, Jim and Tabitha behind him. "I've got to get back to the station, Steve," he said. "Don't give the nurses too much trouble. And make sure you rest this weekend."

"Yes, sir."

"See you, Simon," Blair said.

"Not so fast, Sandburg." Simon loomed over him. "You left something out of your statement this morning."

"Simon, I spent four hours giving that statement!"

Simon assumed a pained expression. "Don't remind me. Just answer one question: How in the hell did you know those were diamonds?"

"Did you touch them?" Blair asked.

"What's that got to do with it?"

"Humor me."

"All right, yes, I did. They were sort of slick. Greasy, almost."

"Right. That's how I knew."

Simon frowned. "You just happened to know that?"

"Oh. No, I had an uncle who was a diamond-cutter in New York. He taught me a lot when I was a kid. Wouldn't let me do any cutting, though."

"Uh-huh. Sandburg, is there anything you don't know? Wait." Simon held up his hand. "Don't answer that. I can't believe I even asked." He stalked to the door and pulled it open. "I'm going back to work. Ellison, Sandburg, I don't want to see either of you again until Monday, is that clear?"

"Yes, sir," they chorused. Blair added, "Thanks, Simon."

Banks whipped his head around, glaring. "Sandburg--" The Captain's face softened. "You're welcome."





For the fifth time that day, Blair described what had happened in the Geology Lab last night. Dr. Hawthorne listened in silence, occasionally making notes. Jim watched Blair, until he reached the part where the hall lights had gone out, startling him, and Jim had to look away. Blair faltered, his heartbeat speeding up, and Jim knew he should meet the kid's eyes again, but he couldn't. God, how could he have been so stupid?

"You're lucky to be alive," Dr. Hawthorne said when Blair was finished.

"It wasn't luck," Blair said. "It was Jim."

"No." Jim shook his head vehemently. He looked up then, forced himself to meet Blair's eyes. "It wasn't me. I almost got you killed."

"What are you talking about?"

"The lights, Blair. You were doing fine, you got the drop on Hatch and Stanhope, you had everything under control. Until I turned the lights off. If Stanhope had killed you, it would have been my fault."

Blair stared at him with what looked like--relief? "Jim, that's not true."

"Yes it is."

"No, man." Blair's voice softened. "You heard the shots, you didn't know I had the gun. You were trying to save me. You did save me."

Jim just shook his head.

"Yes," Blair insisted. "Come on, Jim, you're giving me too much credit here. Sure, I had the drop on Joshua, but I didn't know what the hell to do with him. You saw him, he was crazy. I knew he was going to try something sooner or later, and I--I don't know if I could have stopped him."

"You shot Hatch."

Blair winced, and Jim cursed himself. Great, Ellison, remind him of it. "Hatch wasn't one of my students. Joshua would have gotten me, Jim. He knew it, and so did I. If you hadn't shown up, he would have killed me. Trust me on this, man, you saved my life. I'm just sorry you had to kill him to do it."

Jim's voice was quiet. "Better me than you, kid."

"Jim." Blair glanced at Dr. Hawthorne, who nodded encouragement. "Does it bother you that you killed him?"

"Yeah." Jim ran a hand over his face. "Yes, of course it does. But not nearly as much as it would if he'd killed you."

"You've probably heard this a million times, man, but: Do you ever get used to it?"

Jim gathered his words carefully. He wanted to get this right, to help Blair understand. "No. You never do. What you get used to is dealing with it by not dealing with it. You lock your feelings in a part of your mind where they can't interfere, and you do your job."

"Did you learn that in the Army?"

"Yeah. You have to, or you can't function. But eventually, you have to deal with it. Or you go nuts."

"Think I could learn it?"

God! "I hope not."

"Why?"

Jim hesitated. "Blair, there's--you're not gonna like this, but hear me out--there's an innocence to you, in the way you look at things, the way you react, the way your feelings are right there for everyone to see, so strong sometimes they knock me over, or remind me that there's something better in the world than whatever lowlife scum we're after. No matter what happens, no matter what you've been through, it's still there. If you had to kill someone, you might lose it. I wouldn't want to see that happen."

"I'm not innocent, Jim." Blair's voice fell to a whisper. "Not after Ponytail."

There was so much pain in those words that Jim had to clench his fists to keep from grabbing the kid's shoulders. "Yes, you are. He hurt you. He messed up your head and made you afraid. But he could only reach so far. He couldn't touch the things that make you Blair Sandburg. And I hope nothing ever does."

Blue crystal eyes met his, sifting through his words, expressions chasing each other across Blair's face. "Jim, I'm not a kid. You can't protect me from the world."

"I'm not trying to, Chief," Jim replied. "Just from the worst of it."

Blair forced a smile. "I thought you were trying to toughen me up."

Jim's mouth twitched. "That, too."

Dr. Hawthorne took that as her cue. "Is there anything else you'd like to talk about regarding last night? Jim?"

I was terrified. I thought Blair was going to die. And that he didn't care. "No."

"Blair?"

"No. Not about last night. But there's something else I'd like to talk about."

"All right."

Blair glanced at Jim and away again just as quickly. "I'm still having trouble letting anyone touch me. Men, I mean."

Jim, he meant. Jim knew it. He remembered their first homework session, where he had admitted to missing the casual touches that were second-nature to him. Blair had brought this up for his sake.

Dr. Hawthorne focused on Blair alone. "Blair, that's perfectly understandable, and perfectly normal at this stage in your recovery. There are cases where a survivor of rape goes through the rest of his or her life never able to bear the touch of another human being. These are extreme cases, and from what you and Jim have told me, I don't think that will happen to you."

"How do you know?" Blair demanded, the stark need in his eyes excusing his tone. "If I still can't let anyone touch me, how do you know I'll get better?"

"You already have. On at least four separate occasions, you've allowed Jim to touch or hug you."

"Yeah," Jim said. "But Doc, it's only when Blair's so upset that he doesn't really know what's going on. The minute he starts to recover, he gets scared again, and I have to back off."

"Yes. When his memory of fear becomes stronger than the fear of the moment."

"So what do we do? Keep him scared all the time?"

"He already is, Jim." Ouch. Should've kept your mouth shut, Ellison. Bad jokes are Sandburg's department. Dr. Hawthorne turned back to Blair. "Blair, when you let Jim hold you, how do you feel?"

"Safe." Blair looked at the floor, his face going red. "Protected. Like--everything will be all right now, because Jim will take care of it. I know that's stupid, but..." He shrugged.

"I don't think it's so stupid," Jim said.

Blair flashed him a quick smile, and returned his gaze to the carpet.

"And when Jim touches you casually, or accidentally? How do you feel then?"

"Terrified. I have flashbacks. Ponytail's hands are on me, and I have to get away. I want to run, or scream. But I can't."

"If I asked Jim to touch you now, do you think you could handle it?"

Blair's heart started to pound. "I don't know."

"Would you like to try?"

Blair forced his eyes up. "Yes. I'll try."

"Good. Now, I'd like you and Jim to sit on the couch. Not too close, but not so far apart that you can't reach each other. Blair, we're going to use your relaxation techniques to make you as calm as possible before we begin. We won't use hypnosis. It's important that you be fully aware at all times. Jim, I want you to monitor Blair's heartbeat and respiration. You'll know when he's relaxed better than I will. All right?"

Blair closed his eyes and began to breathe deeply, slowly, drawing air in through his nose, letting it out of his mouth. Jim watched him carefully, focusing all his senses on the young man beside him. He felt the warmth of Blair's body, smelled the sweat that had begun to form when Dr. Hawthorne's suggestion brought fear, saw his muscles relaxing, heard Blair's heartbeat slow until it regained the rhythm he knew better than his own.

"He's relaxed," Jim said quietly.

"Blair, open your eyes."

He did, but he couldn't bring himself to look at Jim.

"Jim, I'd like you to touch Blair's arm, very lightly and only for a second. Blair, I want you to be aware of your thoughts and feelings when he does it, whatever they may be. All right?" Both men nodded. "Go ahead."

Jim reached toward Blair. The kid watched his hand like a rabbit caught in a snake's gaze, waiting for it to strike. His heart slammed in his chest, and Jim heard his breath stop.

"Blair?"

"It's okay, man," Blair gasped. "I'm okay."

Jim's fingers brushed his arm so lightly that he wasn't sure Blair had even felt it, until a shudder shook the slender body.

"Blair?" Dr. Hawthorne prodded.

"I'm fine. I--I don't know why I did that."

"Flashbacks?"

"Not when he touched me. Before."

"You're anticipating."

"Tell me about it," he muttered, then winced at his rudeness. "Sorry."

"It's all right. Let's try again. Jim, this time I'd like you to stay in contact with Blair for a few seconds."

"Doc, I don't know if this is such a good idea."

"It's okay, man," Blair insisted. "Go for it."

Again Jim reached for him. Blair tried to relax, but he tensed before Jim could touch him, and remained stiff for as long as Jim's fingers were on his arm. Jim gave his arm a gentle squeeze before drawing away. Blair's eyes flew up, locked on his.

"Do that again."

"Blair, all I'm doing is scaring you. This can wait."

"No, it can't."

"If you're doing this for me--"

"Hey, I need this too. Come on, Jim." Blair tried to smile. "I promise not to pass out."

Jim wasn't sure Blair could keep that promise. But he did as Blair wanted, and laid his hand on his partner's forearm, squeezing lightly. Blair's heart was still hammering. Jim started to withdraw, but Blair's hand came down over his, holding it in place.

"It's okay," Blair said. A smile flickered about his lips, then grew steady. "It's okay."

"Are you sure?" Jim demanded.

"Yes."

Blair withdrew his hand. After a moment, Jim released his arm and looked to Dr. Hawthorne. "I'd like to try something else."

"Go ahead." She smiled. "You're doing just fine."

He turned his gaze to Blair, waiting until the younger man's eyes found his once more. "Blair, if you want me to stop, you'll tell me, right?"

Blair nodded, his heart pounding so hard that Jim could practically see it through his shirt. He breathed deeply in an effort to calm himself and watched as Jim's hand rose, moving toward him. He shifted his gaze to Jim's face, and Jim met the wide blue eyes, trying without words to impart reassurance and safety. His hand reached its goal: he grasped Blair's shoulder, fingers pressing just firmly enough to let Blair know he was there, solid and real, for as long as Blair needed him. Panic washed over Blair's features, his heart thudding with dread. Just as suddenly, the panic was gone. Blair's heartbeat began to slow, to return to its normal rhythm. Eyes still locked with Jim's, he smiled. There was no fear or hesitation. It was Blair's old smile, the one that shouted "joy!" and "life!" as though they were the same thing, the one Jim hadn't seen since the night Ponytail did his best to destroy Blair's soul.

Though his own would never be as pure, Jim returned the smile. Blair laughed, and threw his arms around Jim, squeezing as hard as he could. Startled, Jim glanced at Dr. Hawthorne and surprised her surreptitiously dabbing at her eyes. Jim grinned at her, and put his arms around Blair, holding his partner far more gently than Blair was holding him. That was okay; he could go without breathing for a while. But something was making his vision blur. Jim lifted a hand to rub his eyes, then used it to pat Blair's back. He felt kind of awkward, but it seemed like the right thing to do.

Blair pulled back finally, looking up at him, his own eyes wet. "Sorry, man."

Jim glared. "You'd better not be."

A smile tugged at the corner's of Blair's mouth. "Okay, I lied." Both eyebrows shot up. "Jim, were you crying?"

"Of course not," Jim replied stiffly. "I told you, crying's for sissies."

"And wimps," Blair said. "Don't forget wimps."

"Goes without saying."

"So, I guess I know where you stand, huh?"

"I guess you do." Jim glowered at him. "And don't you forget it, Sandburg."

"No, sir, Detective Ellison. I won't, sir."

"Wiseass," Jim growled. He cuffed Blair gently on the side of the head.

"Yes, sir." Blair grinned broadly. "That's me, sir."

Wrapped in a towel, Jim exited the bathroom and went upstairs to get dressed. He could hear Blair in his room, doing the same. Knowing the kid would take twice as long as he would, he'd made Blair shower early. If he had to go to this party, he didn't want to show up late. An insistence on punctuality was one thing he and Olive Palmer had in common. She never kept her guests waiting, and she expected to be treated with the same courtesy. Jim found that entirely reasonable. The concept of being fashionably late had never made sense to him.

Dropping the towel, Jim pulled on black boxers and went to the bureau for socks. He opened the drawer, and frowned. Laid atop his socks, folded neatly, was his old Cascade PD sweatshirt. He lifted it out, grabbed his black dress socks, and closed the drawer. The doors to Blair's room opened. He heard Blair come out, and almost called down to him, but changed his mind. It could wait a few minutes.

The rented tux hung waiting for him. Jim looked it over, shaking his head. He'd wanted a plain, conservative tuxedo, but Blair had talked him into one that replaced the cummerbund with a dark green brocade vest and matching tie, claiming it would give him "sort of a gambler look". Jim had only agreed to it to keep Blair from making worse suggestions, like the duster or the velvet frock coat. He didn't think Blair had been serious about those, but he wasn't sure. At least the jacket and pants were plain black.

Fully dressed, Jim slipped his watch on, picked up the sweatshirt, and went back downstairs. Blair was sitting on the couch, hair tied back and glasses on, scribbling something in one of his ever-present notebooks.

"Sandburg, what's this?"

Blair glanced up, and smiled. "Hey, man, you look nice. What's what?"

Jim held out the sweatshirt. "This."

Blair slid the glasses down his nose and peered over them. "That's your Cascade PD sweatshirt, Jim."

"I know that, Einstein. What was it doing in my sock drawer?"

"I thought you might want it back."

"You don't want it?"

Blair shook his head. "That's okay, Jim. It's been pretty warm lately. I don't need it anymore."

Jim studied the earnest face. Blair wanted to play this casual. Fine, he could do that. "Okay, Chief. But if you ever get cold, you know where it is."

"Yeah." Blair smiled. "Thanks, Jim."

Jim brought the sweatshirt upstairs and put it away. When he came back down, Blair was on his feet, waiting for him. Blair had gone for what the shopowner insisted was the latest thing: a collarless, midnight blue jacket with hidden buttons up to his neck, worn over a white shirt with a stand-up collar. There was a notch cut out of the jacket at the neck; it reminded Jim of a Nehru jacket with the collar cut off. He had to admit, though, the kid looked good.

"Not bad, Chief," he said. "You ready?"

First Blair's eyebrows, then his whole body bobbed in one of his patented "I think this is gonna be fun, but I'm still nervous" dances. Jim shook his head. How a kid who didn't even own a tie could enjoy getting dressed up in a tuxedo to go mingle at some fancy society party was beyond him. Blair read his thought, and grinned.

"Come on, Jim, you'll have a good time. It's Olive. You like Olive."

Jim tugged at his tie. "Why can't she have a backyard barbecue like everyone else?"

"She's having one of those next month. I'm making the chili."

"Oh, no. Not--"

"Jim, ostrich meat is good for you. You liked it before you found out what it was."

"If I can't get a hamburger, I'm not going."

"Jim, you really need to switch your dietary focus away from red meat. I've told you before, you should--"

"Not now, Sandburg." Jim held up his hand before Blair could launch into a lecture. "Someone's at the door."

When the knock came, Blair's heartbeat quickened. It might have been just normal anticipation, but Jim knew it was more. Even now, nine months after Ponytail attacked him, Blair got scared whenever there was a knock on the door. Sometimes, if he was alone in the loft, he wouldn't answer it. But he wasn't alone now.

"I'll get it," Blair said, already moving. He started to push his hair back, but stopped the motion before he touched it. Jim smiled a little. The kid probably had every strand arranged just the way he wanted it. Out to impress the debutantes, Sandburg?

Jim almost said it, but didn't. Actually, he hoped Blair was out to impress the women tonight, and he didn't mean Olive Palmer. Blair hadn't had a date since the disastrous dinner with Toni LeClaire more than six months ago. The kid was doing a lot better--he hadn't had a nightmare in weeks, and the fear that had been in his eyes for so long made only rare appearances--but he still couldn't bring himself to ask a girl out. It wasn't something they'd talked about, though they still talked a hell of a lot more than they had before. Blair just did not want to discuss his love life with Jim, and Jim had to respect that. But that didn't stop Jim from giving Blair the occasional nudge toward the occasional attractive female, hoping that one of them could interest him enough to take the step. God knew, there were more than enough women willing to go out with him. Some were even bold enough to do the asking themselves, but Blair always turned them down regretfully. At least the regret was there. That gave Jim hope.

He wasn't dating much himself, these days. He didn't like to leave Blair alone in the loft at night. At Blair's prodding, he'd taken Vicky Smith from Vice out a few times. He liked her, but she was a little too wild for his taste. He'd always preferred more refined women. Independent, but classy. He supposed that made him some sort of throwback, but he couldn't help it. In the last six months, he'd dated two or three other women, but it hadn't worked out with them, either. Probably because he always felt guilty about Blair being home alone. Maybe if Blair's love life got going again, his would get back to normal, too.

Blair shut the door and came back to the living room. He was carrying a card, and a tiny box wrapped in blue paper starred with silver.

"Present from an admirer?" Jim quipped.

Blair blushed and shook his head. "I don't know, man." He opened the card. "It's from Olive. It says, 'What would your uncle think?'"

"What uncle?"

"I only had-- Oh, no." Blair's eyes widened with alarm. "She wouldn't." He tore the paper off and opened the blue velvet box. "Oh, man! Tell me she didn't do this!"

"What is it?"

Wordlessly, Blair turned the box so Jim could see inside. Nestled in white satin were three faceted blue stones that glittered and flashed in the light. All were round, one about a quarter-inch in diameter, the other two half that. Jim looked from the stones to Blair.

"Sapphires?"

"No, man," Blair moaned. "They're blue diamonds."

Jim whistled. "Nice present."

"Jim, I can't accept these. Do you have any idea how much they're worth?"

"No, but I'm sure Olive does. She wants you to have them."

"But, Jim, I can't!"

"Why not? Olive's got more money than God, and no one to spend it on. If she wants to buy you a present--if it makes her happy--I think you should accept it and say thank you."

Blair's eyes swam with distress. "Do you really think so, Jim?"

"Yes," Jim replied firmly. "I do."

Blair stared at the box in his hand. "Okay."

He took the box into his room, and emerged minutes later with the largest diamond centered on his shirt collar above the notch in the jacket. He hair was down now. He pushed it back, and Jim caught a double glint of blue in his ear. Blair met Jim's gaze doubtfully.

"It's too much, right?"

"It looks fine."

"But--"

"It's fine, Chief." Jim clapped a hand to Blair's shoulder and steered him toward the door. "Let's go or we're gonna be late."







Thanks to a little judicious speeding, they arrived at the Palmer estate precisely on time. A valet parked the truck among all the BMW's, Mercedes, and limos. Blair bounded up the steps to the open door, Jim following at a more leisurely pace. Blair loved parties. Jim had worked security for some of these society bashes, and had warned him that they were usually about as exciting as an all-night stakeout, but Blair didn't care. Even if nothing much happened, it was a chance to study a subsection of society up close. Besides, this was Olive's party. There just had to be some interesting people here.

Wilkins was doing door duty. Blair lightly slapped the dignified butler's arm. "Hi, Wilkins. How are you feeling?"

"Fine, thank you, Blair," Wilkins replied.

"The echinacea worked?"

"Like a charm." Wilkins turned to Jim. "Good evening, Detective Ellison. I must say, you gentlemen look...like gentlemen, this evening."

"Is that some kind of crack, Wilkins?" Jim asked, smiling.

"Not at all, sir. You carry a gun."

Blair laughed, and Wilkins allowed himself a small, triumphant smile. A few months ago, Blair and Wilkins had started competing to crack each other up. Lately, Wilkins had a much easier time of it than Blair, but the fact that the butler was far ahead on points didn't bother Blair at all.

A pretty girl offered a tray of drinks. Blair smiled at her, and took a glass of red wine. Jim took a scotch, and the girl moved on. Blair watched her go, wishing he dared do more than smile. Wilkins cleared his throat.

"Miss Palmer recommends that you keep your wits about you tonight, Blair."

"She does?" Blair stared into his glass. "Why? What's going on?"

"I couldn't say."

Blair grinned. "But you know."

"Of course."

"What about me?" Jim asked.

"She didn't say specifically, sir, but I believe it would be wise."

Wilkins excused himself to greet some new arrivals. Jim and Blair exchanged mystified shrugs and went in search of their hostess. They found her holding court in the red room, named for the wall-covering of crimson silk brocade. The rest of the room--mirror and picture frames, ceiling, and chandeliers--was gilt. Huge vases of white porcelain were filled with crimson roses. There were at least three dozen people in the room, the men in tuxes, the women glittering in gowns and jewels. They might as well have been invisible. All eyes were drawn automatically to the back of the room, where Olive Palmer stood, erect and commanding, her hair and her simple, draped gown glowing white against the red wall. One hand grasped the crystal head of the ashwood cane Blair had given her for Christmas. The wrist of that same hand was encircled by a massive diamond bracelet, her only jewelry.

Blair went straight to her and kissed her cheek. "Olive, you look fantastic."

"Thank you, dear. Hello, Jim." Olive reached out and brushed Blair's hair back, exposing his ear. "I see my little gift arrived."

Blair's face burned. "Yes. Thank you. They're way too much."

"Nonsense. They suit you." Olive's gaze shifted to someone behind Blair. "Don't you think so?"

"Oh, yes," said a voice Blair recognized, sweet and slow as honey. "They match his eyes."

Toni. Blair turned to face her, knew he was staring, but he couldn't help it. Toni was wearing a strapless, form-fitting dress in a dark, muted purple, the long skirt slit up to her thigh. Diamonds sparkled at her throat. Pulled back from her face, her hair spilled down her back in an incredible mass of curls. Blair's hand twitched, wanting to touch them, to plunge his fingers into the fall of liquid obsidian. She was so beautiful.

Speak, Sandburg. "Toni. You're--you look--" Spit it out! "Hi."

God, Sandburg, you're such an idiot! Jim covered his mouth, trying not to laugh, and Blair gave serious thought to the feasibility of blending his molecules with those of the floor. Toni smiled.

"Blair," she said. "How are you?"

"Great. You?"

"Very well, thank you."

Okay. What now? Sorry I didn't get around to telling you I'm sorry that your boss was murdered by his brother, who then murdered your co-worker and shot himself? Yeah, that would go over well. In desperation, he turned to Olive for help, but she linked her arm through Jim's and drew him away with,

"Jim, there's someone I want you to meet."

Panic akin to his own flashed through Jim's eyes as Olive led him away. Toni laughed, and whispered to Blair.

"Olive's matchmaking again."

"You're kidding."

Grinning, he watched as Olive steered Jim to a small group of people, including a stunning redhead in black who had to be six feet tall in her heels. Introductions were made, and Jim smiled broadly, obviously impressed.

"She's a doctor," Toni said.

"Really?" Within a minute, Jim and the doctor had detached themselves from the group. Blair turned to Toni with a smile. "So, can I get a ride home with you?"

Toni laughed again. "Of course. You may need it." She reached out and adjusted the diamond stud in his collar. "Olive and I missed you at the gallery opening."

God, he was blushing again. "Yeah, sorry. We were going to come, but the case we were on got hot, and by the time we got off that night, it was morning."

"A policeman's lot is not a happy one."

"Sort of, except I'm not a cop."

"I know, but 'a policeman's anthropologist partner's lot is not a happy one' just doesn't have the same ring to it."

Blair grinned. "I think it's great that you and Olive are partners."

"So do I. I could never have afforded to take over the gallery on my own. She's so generous."

"She sure is." Blair fingered the studs in his ear self-consciously. "But hey, this way she gets first pick of everything."

"That's what Olive said." Suspicion entered Toni's gaze. "Mr. Sandburg, you didn't have anything to do with this, did you?"

"Me?" Blair looked around. "Want to go sit down somewhere?"

One fine eyebrow rose, but she didn't press the issue. "All right. I know just the place."

Toni took his arm and led him to the Conservatory, then out the French doors into the garden. A rare warm spell made the night pleasantly cool, and there were no clouds overhead to obscure the stars. The quarter moon didn't shed much light, but Olive had thought of that. Tiny white lights glimmered in the branches of every tree and bush, illuminating white peonies splashed with magenta, scarlet and purple anemones, banks of irises in bronze and gold, and roses of every size and hue imaginable, the combined scents almost overpowering even to someone without sentinel senses.

Blair and Toni strolled the paths, talking or just admiring. No one else had ventured out yet; they had the garden to themselves. A light breeze rustled the leaves, and Toni shivered. She was from Louisiana. To her, this was probably cold. Of course, she wasn't wearing as much as he was, either. Blair removed his jacket and draped it over Toni's shoulders, carefully lifting her hair so it wouldn't be caught. The soft curls slipped through his fingers like dark water.

"Thank you." Toni looked at him, and smiled. "Why, Mr. Sandburg, you shine brighter than the moon in that shirt."

Blair smiled, praying the light wasn't bright enough to show his blush. The white shirt was practically glowing, the silk so light it rippled in the breeze. He felt vaguely ridiculous, and hoped he didn't look it.

"What made you decide to move to Cascade?" he asked.

"Subtle change of subject," she commented, taking his arm again to ease the sting. "I'm not sure. I suppose I wanted to get as far away from my ex-husband as possible."

"Nasty divorce?"

"Not really. The marriage was a mistake; we were too young. We both found other interests. Mine was art history. His was other women."

"He must've been insane."

Toni smiled. "That's sweet. I don't blame him, really. Our marriage was over before he started cheating. What about you, Blair? What brought you to Cascade?"

Blair looked from Toni to the stars, his smile not really for her. "I think it was fate."

They walked for a while longer, then sat down on a bench set beneath a canopy of drooping branches laced with lights. Darker than night, Toni's eyes glittered with reflected stars. The dim light made her fine features even more delicate. Blair leaned toward her, drawn to her mouth, the full lips blushed with the color of wine. She lifted a hand to his hair, stroked one curling tendril.

Blair pulled back, staring down at his hands. "Toni, I--"

"What is it?" she asked softly.

He forced himself to look at her. "I'm so sorry about what happened in the parking lot that night. I never meant to hurt you."

"I know, Blair. I knew it then. You were so upset."

Blair bit his lip, his gaze sliding away again. "When I--when I asked if I could call you, you said, 'When you can tell me why'."

"I remember."

"I couldn't do it then. I wanted to, but I--I just couldn't."

Blair laid his hand on hers, half afraid she'd pull away. Toni turned her hand under his and folded her fingers over the back of his hand. Blair looked at their clasped hands for a moment, breathing deeply to calm himself, then raised his eyes to hers.

"I can tell you now."

Laughing, Blair dropped his keys into the basket. "One glass, man, I swear!"

"Sure, Chief." Smiling indulgently, Jim closed the door and put the chain on. "And just how big was this glass?"

Blair laughed again. "Jim, I am not drunk. I'm just happy. We've been to a great party. The food was fantastic, the setting was incredible, and there were some fascinating people. Did I tell you I met Torvald Lindstrom?"

Jim rolled his eyes. "Three times, Chief. And I still never heard of him."

"Trust me, Jim, it would be like you meeting Elliot Ness, or Sherlock Holmes." Blair opened the refrigerator. "You want a beer?"

"No, and neither do you. Sherlock Holmes wasn't a real person."

"I know that." Blair shut the refrigerator. Okay, fine. Jim thought he was drunk. He'd have tea, then. That should make The Man Who Would Be Dad happy. "Come on, Jim, I'm making a point here. You want tea?"

"No, thanks. I'm gonna go up to bed."

"Oh, man, how can you sleep now?"

"I dunno, Sandburg. Maybe because it's 2 A.M.?"

Blair shook his head. "Tough to get old, huh, Jim?"

"Keep it up, Junior, and you'll never find out."

Blair just grinned. Jim headed for the stairs, but Blair wasn't ready for quiet yet. "So, Jim, you're dating a doctor now, huh?"

Jim stopped on the stairs to scowl down at him. "I just met the woman, Sandburg, we're not dating."

"But you got her phone number?"

"Yes, I got her number."

"And you're gonna call her?"

"Maybe. How'd it go with Toni?"

"Great."

And it had. He'd told her about Ponytail's attack, about the rape, shaking the whole time with a fear he'd thought he was over. Toni had been shocked, but she hadn't drawn back, or looked at him in disgust. Instead, she'd tightened her hold on his hand. And she'd cried. For him.

"We're going out tomorrow night. What do you mean 'maybe', Jim?"

"What I said. Good night, Sandburg. Try to keep the noise down."

Blair watched his friend climb the stairs, and shook his head. He'd never understand how Jim could come home from a party or a big arrest or something equally exciting and just go to sleep. He could never do that. He needed time to wind down, to get everything straight in his head, to sort memories and emotions and come down from the adrenaline to a state where sleep was possible. The way he felt now, it was going to be at least an hour before he reached that state. So he might as well get some work done.

The teakettle whistled. Blair poured water into the pot and went to his room to get out of the tux and into a pair of light sweats and a t-shirt. He grabbed a notebook and his discman and returned to the living room, where he settled himself on the couch with a cup of mint tea. Chris Smither's Happier Blue cd was already in the player. Blair put the headphones on, pressed play, and leaned back, flipping his notebook open to a blank page.

Nine minutes later, the page was half-filled and "The Devil's Real" was playing. Movement caught the corner of his eye. Fear flashed, and Blair looked up, to see Jim standing behind the couch, his face set in the "worried about Blair, but don't want to come out and say it" expression it had worn so many times in the past nine months. Blair took off the headphones.

"What's up, man?"

"I thought you weren't going to play that song anymore."

"Oh. Yeah, I wasn't, Jim, but y'see, there's more to it than just the depressing stuff." Blair pulled out the headphones jack. Jim didn't need him to, but he wanted to hear it himself. "Listen."

It was hard luck and trouble, bad times too.
I know I had it comin', but I got through.
It was advice that you gave me
In a dream that saved me.
You said "Get a new life-contract that spells out your dues."
Took good will to find it, a clear conscience to sign it,
Now I dream about the good times and they all come true.



Jim shook his head. "You didn't have it coming, Blair."

"I know, man," Blair said softly. "But that's not the important part. The important part is that I got through it, and I did it with your help. That's what this says to me, Jim. That's why I like to listen to it."

A slow smile spread over Jim's features. "Okay, Chief." One large hand reached down to press Blair's shoulder. "Okay."

Yeah." Blair answered Jim's smile with one of his own. "I am."

End