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The Auction, Gen Version

This version will be posted on Starfox's Mansion, but I thought I'd post it here in the interim. This is very similar to the slash version just, um, shorter. On to the story!


Story by Arianna
Illustrations by Peter Neverland
Beta by StarWatcher

This story has been written for the Moonridge 2006 Online Auction and I thank Janet for the original idea.

And I dedicate it to Gerri, for your incredible, awesome generosity in the donation you made to win this story! Thank you so much!


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Detective Blair Sandburg loped down the hall to the Records Department, while his partner, Jim Ellison, waited impatiently by the elevator. Annoyed, Sandburg wished that Ellison would just go on up to the sixth floor instead of waiting – it wasn't as if he couldn't find his way and he felt foolish having a baby-sitter. But he'd only graduated from the Academy a little more than a week before and there were some ... well, maybe quite a few ... brothers and sisters in blue who weren't taking kindly to having a liar and a fraud in their midst, let alone one that had been promoted before a number of no doubt far more worthy others to the prestigious detective slot in Major Crimes. So Jim had taken it upon himself to shadow Blair around the department, with the hope of encouraging the natives to be courteous, if not actually friendly. Forget welcoming.

Blair understood Jim's good intentions and even appreciated them – the intentions, not the thunderous escort service. They were friends, still best friends despite having weathered stuff that would have destroyed most friendships, and now they were officially partnered as detectives. So Jim was just being friendly and solicitous, ensuring that he got a warm welcome to his new place of employment.

Friendly and solicitous. Yeah, right. Like a rabid wild dog was friendly and solicitous. The perpetual scowl Jim sported was as good as a sign that stated, 'Approach at your own risk'. Blair's lips twitched in unconscious wry amusement. He could never figure out why Jim's hostile expressions were so successful in intimidating his colleagues. Surely other cops knew he'd never do anything to actually physically hurt them. It was posturing, pure and simple, the alpha warrior letting the others know they were to stay away from his possessions. Which was all mildly amusing if one didn't mind feeling like a 'possession'. Grimacing, Blair pushed the irritable thoughts away, feeling disloyal for even thinking them. Jim was his partner and Jim was only trying to ease his way, the best way he knew how. In his own way, Jim was showing that he cared.

Bottomline, the 'protector' thing wasn't working. If anything, it was only telegraphing that he couldn't handle the hostility on his own – or maybe that he couldn't be absolutely trusted to wander around the PD without a chaperone. Either way, it wasn't good. Or necessary. Blair had been prepared for some degree of backlash and resentment; he didn't expect to be welcomed with open arms. He knew it would take time for his notoriety to die down, maybe a good long time. Nor did he blame anyone for how they felt; they didn't know the truth. They could only know what they'd seen on the news, and in the carnage of MCU after Zeller had ripped through, shooting the place up. That wouldn't have happened, nor would Simon and Megan have been shot, if Jim hadn't been distracted and blinded by cameras and rabid journalists on the night they'd set things up to catch the assassin. Instead, Zeller had gotten away and there had been hell to pay. In some respects, he supposed he was still paying. But, God, if he was going to go up against armed and dangerous bad guys as a cop in his own right, let alone face the even more alarming prospect of defence attorneys disputing his legitimacy as a witness in future court cases, surely he could be expected to handle the sneers and whispers, or even outright jeers, of his new colleagues. None of it would be pleasant, far from it, but there was no way around it; he just had to pay his dues and get through it.

Besides, Jim's impersonation of a caveman protecting what was his was disconcerting. Made him feel like a wimp, as if he couldn't take care of himself. No question, Jim was an alpha male and Blair didn't usually have a lot of trouble with the role of beta. In his mind, they weren't in any kind of competition and it was his job to support Jim at work, to help him with his senses, to do what he could to help solve the cases they were assigned. He'd always felt that way, and now he was being paid to do the job. But too many people had always speculated about the exact nature of their relationship. The speculation hadn't mattered before because, for one thing, they'd always been friends, just friends and, for another, he'd only been an observer, not a fellow cop who had to 'measure up'. But in a matter of weeks, everything had changed and they were in a whole new game – and, true to form, they hadn't discussed the new game plan. Now people were speculating about Jim's senses and the 'secret' was increasingly threatened, despite the press conference. Many wondered why Jim tolerated his presence after the debacle of the dissertation – and why Simon had gone to bat for him. Rumours were rife and the worst part was that the rumours were mostly true, however much they tried to pretend otherwise. But Blair was determined to do all he could to take the heat, to keep the attention on himself and away from Jim until people lost interest and stopped wondering what was truth and what was fiction. So he was reconciled to being something of an outcast. So long as the antipathy didn't deteriorate to delayed backup in the field and pose a risk to their lives, he could live with the grumbling. Sticks and stones, and all that crap. No big deal in the great scheme of things.

The problem was, Jim wasn't reconciled to the necessity of simply enduring and ignoring the all too understandable antagonism. To the contrary, the whispers and not so discreet commentary royally pissed him off, and he stomped around in a state of perpetual irritation. Frankly, Blair reflected, it was getting on his nerves and he was pretty sure Jim's obviously defensive behaviours were only fueling the predictable if unwelcome speculations about why he'd been given the badge, and why he was still living in Jim's apartment. And that worried him a lot. No way did they need anyone wondering if maybe all the hoo-haw about Jim being a sentinel was true. Nor did they need anyone believing he was little more than Ellison's boy-toy, or that Simon would countenance such a bizarre reason for allowing him to join MCU as a detective. God, it had been so much easier to handle the whispers and snide comments, the sidelong looks and the not so subtle jibes when there'd been nothing concrete to deny. Now ... now he felt like he was living a lie and he knew that Jim felt the same way – and the more they protested, the more Jim 'loomed' and scowled and growled, the more uncomfortable they both became with the charade. He'd tried to tell Jim to back off and let it go, but he'd just gotten a laser-like glare and a grated, "Live with it, Chief," for his trouble.

Stifling a sigh and pasting a smile on his face, he checked his momentum and slid around the doorframe into the cavernous file room that housed the departmental records and archive. His smile widened when he saw the clerk on desk duty was the long, lanky and infinitely sexy blond, Cindy-Lou Makins from South Carolina. Her drawl alone was enough to warm the cockles of any man's heart and those big blue eyes could be downright lethal. "Hey, Cindy-Lou!" he called, hopeful that the easiness they'd known weeks before, well, before the press conference, wouldn't have evaporated as it had with it seemed everyone else in his life. "You got those files I requisitioned this morning?"

Looking up, she grinned and nodded as she stood to move to the counter. "Right here, darlin'," she crooned as she hefted two large, well-stuffed interoffice envelopes and handed them over to him. "Just need your John Henry and you're good to go."

Relieved by the congeniality of her manner, he cheerfully signed the register. "Thanks," he murmured gratefully, glad that the casual friendship they'd shared for the past few years seemed intact. He smiled again and turned to go, but she called, "Blair, hon – now that you're finally legal, are you going to volunteer for this year's charity auction?"

Pausing in the doorway, he looked back over his shoulder. "Uh ... no, I hadn't planned to," he stammered, surprised at the suggestion. Every year, the PD held a big auction of the single men and women who were prepared to climb up on the stage and be embarrassed by the lively bidding for a chance for dinner in their company. Oh, it was definitely a good cause; the money went to various organizations that cared for impoverished and homeless children in Cascade and, God knew, they needed every dime they could get. All things being equal, Blair would have been glad to volunteer but it wasn't exactly a way to maintain a low profile – and he sure didn't need to garner any more attention that he was already being accorded. For years, he'd tried to get Jim to volunteer, as only employees were allowed up on that stage and, as an observer, he hadn't been eligible before.

"Well, you better 'plan to', sweetcheeks," she drawled, flirting outrageously. "Ah've been savin' up my shekels and I want my chance to score ... dinner ... with you." Other women in the department looked up at the banter and chuckled at Blair's evident discomfiture. "Matter o' fact, ah've taken the liberty of submitting your name this year." Batting her eyelashes, she smiled like the Cheshire cat as she informed him, "Ah do believe that ya'll be number seven on this year's program."

"Oh," Blair said, nonplussed on so many levels that he found himself uncharacteristically at a complete loss for words. But when he saw a shadow of anxiety flicker in her eyes, and she asked quickly if he minded very much, he blinked and shook his head. "No, I don't mind," he assured her warmly. "In fact, I'm flattered. Thank you."

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Relieved, her grin again bright, she waved him on his way.

Back in the corridor, he rolled his eyes and hastened back to his partner – who had evidently heard the whole exchange and appeared distinctly unamused.

"Jim, it's for charity, man," he cajoled, hoping to lighten the fierce scowl. "It'll be fun."

"Uh huh," Ellison grunted as he pressed heavily on the elevator button. "If she wins, she'll eat you alive."

Grinning cheekily, determinedly cheerful, he riposted merrily, "A man can dream, right? Besides, you're just jealous."

Jim snorted and shook his head, his expression grim as he refused to be drawn into the banter.

"Geez, would you lighten up?" Blair complained, beginning to resent the implied censure, again on so many levels that he wasn't exactly sure whether to be affronted, appalled or simply deeply angry. There was no reason for Jim's hostility, not on any level.

But Jim turned ice cold eyes upon him. "Lighten up? Correct me if I'm wrong, Sandburg, but aren't you the one who keeps preaching that all you need to do is keep a low profile and things will cool off? Everyone in the department who isn't on duty shows up at these yearly auctions and you know it. Parading your wares to entice bids isn't exactly the way to prove what a sober and serious detective you are."

Swallowing hard to keep from flashing back in anger, Blair flushed and turned away. Jim was only parroting his own words back at him. "Consider it an initiation rite, of sorts," he finally muttered testily. "Doing my job is one way of gaining acceptance but celebration in the informal culture is an even greater indication of belonging."

"Still an anthropologist, huh, Chief?" Jim retorted flatly. "Even after all that's happened." But he didn't sound pissed off anymore, just hollow and sad.

Blair closed his eyes and his lips thinned as he bowed his head under the weight of Jim's persistent if wholly unwarranted guilt, and he wished the damned elevator would come. "Let it go, Jim," he murmured wearily. "Please, man, would you just let it go. We're past all that."

He could feel Jim look at him bleakly, but the elevator doors finally, mercifully, opened and the car was nearly full, putting a stop to their conversation. Mutely, they got on and rode it up to the sixth floor, both of them painfully aware of the dark looks several fellow travelers visited on Blair. He did his best to ignore them and to pretend he didn't know that Jim was glaring daggers back at them. Time. It would take time and there was no way on earth to rush the process of acceptance.

What was more aggravating was that there also didn't appear to be any way on earth to get Jim to take off his hair shirt and stop grieving for what he continued to believe Sandburg had lost by defending him and safeguarding his privacy. Blair had argued until he was hoarse that it had been his choice, his decision and he had no regrets. Increasingly, he couldn't decide if he was more angry or hurt that Jim didn't seem willing to believe him, didn't trust him to be telling the truth. Given that actions always said more to Jim than mere words ever could, he'd thrown himself into the training at the Academy and donned his weapon and his badge with nary a hesitation every morning, determined to be the best partner he could be. But even the actions and his focus on the job at work didn't seem to have any positive impact. So, he was out of ideas about how to convince his friend that he was okay, really okay, better than okay, with how it had all turned out.

They had to get past this. He could live with the looks and the whispers and the snide remarks, but Jim's guilt and distrust of his word was corrosive and could destroy them. Dammit, if Jim still didn't trust him, didn't believe him after all they'd gone through, and all they were to one another, then Blair didn't know if he ever would – and no partnership, however well-intentioned or strongly committed, could indefinitely survive that kind of doubt.

And he dearly wished Jim would quit looming, already! It was embarrassing.


Jim frowned heavily as he followed his partner toward their desks but though he appeared furious with the world, it was himself he was most angry with. He didn't need Sandburg to tell him to back off or to let things go – he knew perfectly well that he was out of line, but he couldn't seem to get a grip on his emotions. Too much had happened that he hadn't reconciled and he had that antsy feeling that goes with waiting for the other shoe to drop. Like an itch he couldn't reach, a scent he couldn't quite make out but he knew, he knew just as he'd known there was something wrong before he'd ever realized there was another sentinel in the city – he knew there was threat in the air, hovering near, just on the periphery of his senses. And it was driving him crazy.

Glancing toward his boss's office, he saw Simon watching him with a worried frown. Jim's lips thinned as he looked away, only to pick up on the covert surveillance by his colleagues who followed their progress through the office out the corners of eyes or surreptitiously, while appearing to read reports or files. His jaw tightened and his shoulders twitched. Dragging in a deep breath, he tried to force himself to relax, but it was no good. Tension coiled in his gut and tightened his chest.

Blair studied him with narrowed eyes, his expression just short of being exasperated. Wordlessly, he slid half the files he was carrying onto Jim's desk before turning to drop into the chair behind his own. "Let's just finish this assignment," Sandburg muttered as he turned his attention to the file on the top of the stack.

Jim nodded tightly, pulled off his jacket and hung it on the hook behind him, before settling in his chair. This was the last set of files they had to review to ensure all the cases since his senses had come online could withstand scrutiny. It was boring, excessively tedious work, but it had to be done. Sooner or later, someone was going to raise a challenge and as hard as they'd tried – as Blair had tried – to get the genie back into the bottle, it was only a matter of time. On the one hand, Jim would be very glad when this review was finally complete. He'd been tied to his desk, going through files on his own for nearly a month: all the time that Sandburg had been taking weapons and self defense training, and taking the exams the Academy threw at him to determine his fitness to carry a badge, plus the more than a week since the kid had reported for duty as his partner. Once these last files were done, they'd be free to be assigned new cases. Jim swallowed heavily at that thought. Much as he hated paperwork, he couldn't say he was straining at the leash to get out onto the streets where Blair wouldn't be an observer anymore, but a cop, packing a weapon. The thought of Sandburg deliberately drawing fire in a lethal situation to create a diversion or protect civilians twisted in his gut and locked the muscles of his chest, making it hard to breathe. Closing his eyes, he banished the image and told himself, as he had been telling himself for weeks now, that he had to deal with the inherent and profound change in their relationship that came with Blair putting on a badge and strapping on a weapon. This was what he wanted, right? To have Sandburg be his official partner? So the threat, the danger, came with the turf. That's just the way it was. The way it had to be.

Conscious that his hands had tightened into fists, Jim forced himself to relax and drummed his fingertips on the desk on either side of the file he'd opened to loosen the muscles. On the edge of his peripheral vision, he could see Sandburg covertly watching him, a perplexed expression on his face, his eyes darkly shadowed with concern. His nose twitched, picking up the distinctive scent that clung to Simon's clothing and he looked up, to watch the Captain approach.

Banks looked from him to Sandburg and back again before planting his palms on the edge of Jim's desk and leaning forward to demand with a low growl, "What the hell is going on with the two of you? You can cut the tension around here with a knife and it's beginning to affect morale. Is it being tied to a desk that's got you going stir-crazy? If so, take those files and review them at home. In fact, make that an order. Come back when you're done."

"Fine," Jim grated, slamming the folder closed and standing to grab his jacket.

Simon straightened and cast a questioning glance at Blair, who shook his head and shrugged helplessly. Banks scratched his cheek and then crossed his arms, his head cocked slightly to one side. "Jim – whatever is going on with you needs to stop. If you need to talk –"

Lifting his hands, palms out, Jim slowly shook his head. "I know, I know," he allowed, the words rushing out on a sigh. Glancing at Sandburg, he frowned slightly with concern before his gaze fell away and then sought out Simon's. "I can't explain it," he offered, his tone a soft rasp of frustration. "It's like ... like I can feel something's about to go down, but I don't have a clue what."

Banks quirked a brow and studied Jim intently for a long moment then, with a glance that included Sandburg, he rumbled irritably, "Well, figure it out." Blowing out a breath, he allowed his expression to soften along with his tone as he went on, "It's probably just nerves, you know? The idea of Sandburg packing a weapon –"

"Oh, hey, thanks for the vote of confidence," Blair chimed in, rolling his eyes.

Simon chuckled dryly, without humour. "You'll do fine," he stated firmly. "You know it, and I know it, but ..." he gaze flicked over Jim, "I think your partner is having a tough time making the transition."

"Tell me about it," Sandburg grumbled, but a smile crinkled at his eyes and around the corners of his mouth. "Can't order me to stay in the truck anymore."

"Like you ever paid attention," Jim groused, appreciating the banter and the effort they were both making to help him relax. Picking up the files, he added, "These'll take us a couple days."

"No problem; things're quiet right now," Banks said magnanimously. "By the time you're done, it'll be the weekend. So I'll see you – bright-eyed and bushy-tailed – on Monday."

"Thanks, Captain," Blair replied as he shoved his stack of files into his backpack. "We'll, uh, sort things out."

"You do that, Sandburg," Simon directed. "Let me know if there's anything I can do to help." Jim looked away, resenting the underlying implication of their exchange but unable to deny that he was the one who badly needed sorting.


The swish of wipers smacking away rain pellets that spattered the windshield and drummed on the roof of the cab underscored the edgy silence between the two men. Jim scowled at the traffic, his eyes narrowed against the headache that pounded inside his skull, and Blair stared moodily out at the dreary afternoon, his hands curled into loose fists on his thighs. When they got to the loft, Blair pulled his heavily-loaded backpack over his shoulder and Jim grabbed the files he'd carried out and they dashed through the rain to the building, and then tramped up the two flights of stairs. Inside, shivering a bit from the chill, they stripped off their jackets and hung them on the hooks by the door. After dumping the pack and the stack of files on the table, Blair moved into the kitchen to put the kettle on to boil, while Jim started a fire. Neither of them seemed inclined to turn on any lights to dispel the grey gloom of the storm-shrouded afternoon. Scant minutes later, cinnamon-scented steam rose from the two mugs of tea that Blair prepared, and he carried them into the living room, moving to stand beside Jim who was now morosely staring out the balcony windows that streamed with runnels of rain.

"Here, this might help your headache," Sandburg murmured quietly. When Jim took the proffered mug, Blair shifted away to sit on the sofa, his gaze drawn to the fire's bright promise of warmth.

Jim inhaled the steam, letting the scent fill him and he felt some of the tension ease from his neck and shoulders. After blowing over the surface of the hot liquid to cool it, he sipped carefully and savoured the taste as he swallowed. The warmth settled some of the roiling emotion in his belly. Sighing, he turned from the rainscape and sank into his chair. They sat in silence for long minutes, each carefully not looking at the other.

Finally, Blair set his mug down on a coaster on the coffee table and turned to face his partner. "Talk to me," he said quietly but firmly. "Tell me what's got you so twisted up you can hardly function."

Turning his face away, Jim stiffened and he shrugged.

"C'mon, man, don't do this," Blair snapped, and then closed his eyes, forcing himself to relax. Restlessly, he raked his hair back from his face and sank back against the cushions. "You told Simon that you feel like something is going to happen, right?" he tried again, keeping his tone level. With no little trepidation, he asked tentatively, "Is this like, uh, when Alex first came to town and you could sense danger but didn't know the source, or what?"

"No, not exactly," Jim rasped, his gaze on flickering reflections of the firelight on the floor. Grimacing, he chewed on his lip as he thought about it. "Maybe, a bit."

Frowning thoughtfully, Blair studied his friend, wondering if he was going to have to play twenty questions to bring some focus to the discussion. "Okay," he muttered and scrubbed his face with his palms before continuing. "Let's work it through." Absently drumming his fingertips on his thigh, he asked, "Are your senses acting up? Are you seeing, hearing, or smelling something that's not right or ... maybe out of place?"

Slowly, Jim shook his head. "It's, it's like an itch, sort of," he replied uncertainly, grudgingly, hating his inability to be precise. "Like we're being watched, stalked. I can't explain it."

Blair's gaze narrowed and he stiffened as he leaned forward. "Watched?" he echoed. "Well, we are being watched, by just about everyone these days," he went on carefully. "Maybe you're reacting to the, um, hostility in the air around us at work."

"Maybe," Jim allowed but without much conviction, still not making eye contact. "Feels like more than that."

"You, uh, seemed even more unreasonably angry than usual after I left the Records Department," he ventured.

Jim's expression hardened and he snapped a sharp glance at Blair. "You just can't resist making an exhibition of yourself, can you?" he grated harshly. "Even when it's important to keep a low profile for a while, you just can't resist flirting –"

"Whoa! Just hold on a minute," Blair cut in, his hands lifting defensively, his tone angry. "Is that what this is about? You're still pissed off because I agreed to be in the auction?"

"You're the one who said it was important to keep your head down and just do the job, Sandburg," he growled. "But, oh, no. The first pretty girl who –"

"Smiled at me, Jim," Blair cut in again, seething. "That's it, that's all. The first real smile anyone – and I mean anyone – has given me in a month! What?" he demanded as he surged to his feet, too agitated to sit still, and began to pace. "I'm supposed to glower at the world like you do every damned day? Well, pardon me for thinking she was being nice, and that the auction might be fun. For Pete's sake, it's for a good cause! So excuse me for feeling like maybe I could act a little normally for a few minutes, maybe be myself, you know, and not some morose little puppet dancing at the end of your string. Dammit. Am I supposed to be miserable just because you don't have the first clue about how to be happy?"

"Smile?" Jim echoed, frowning heavily as he tried to assimilate the flood of words. "Puppet? What the hell are you talking about?"

"I'm talking about being sick and tired of everyone treating me like someone just died, like I'm either fragile or ... or something offensive," he ranted, waving his arms. "Jesus, Jim, you follow me around, looming like the wrath of God if someone looks at me sideways or mutters something you don't want to hear. And you – you're the worst of all. You ... you're miserable all the damned time. You're not sleeping, you pick at your food, you get angry at the least little thing, and I'm fed up with your self-imposed suffering. If I can pick up the pieces and move on, why can't you?"

"It's not that simple," he retorted, pushing himself to his feet to go stand and stare out at the rain.

"What's not simple?" Blair demanded, moving to stand beside him. "Huh?" When Jim turned his face away, he crowded closer and gripped his arm. "Talk to me, dammit. Don't shut down like this. What the hell is going on with you?"

Wrenching away from the touch, Jim turned to glare down at him. "None of it is simple," he snarled. "None of it. Not the fact that you trashed your career and that half the people downtown think I'm some selfish shit for letting you do it, while the other half think I keep you around because you're a good fuck. Either you're a liar and a fraud, or I am – and that means that nobody can really trust either of us anymore. I can't believe that doesn't bother you. Anymore than I can believe that it's as easy as you try to pretend to pick up the pieces, as you put it, and move on. And I can't believe that you won't get so fed up with everything eventually that you will do just that – move on. So I wonder why we even bother trying."

Blair gaped at him and blinked, slowly shook his head and then threw up his hands as he turned away. Vibrating with tension, he paced the length of the floor and then turned back to face Jim, who was watching him intently. Raking his hair back off his face, he took a breath and held out his hands. "Okay, so what do you want to do? Are you saying you want to quit? That you're sorry I accepted the badge? That you don't want me to be your partner? What?"

"No, I'm not saying any of that," Jim rasped.

Blair stared at him, his face a rigid, pale mask. "So you're saying you don't trust me to stick it out. So trying is a waste of time. Because I'm sure to fail. Is that it?"

Jim rolled his eyes and looked away but shook his head tightly. "I'm not saying that, either," he sighed as he rubbed the back of his neck. "I'm ... I'm saying that it's a mess. That it's not as easy as you want to pretend it is." Lifting his gaze to Blair's troubled eyes, he added, "And I guess I'm saying that I don't know if or when it will ever get better, for either of us. I don't know what to do about that, how to fix it. I hate that. It feels ... impossible. And I think ... I think you're going to end up being hurt. More hurt than you already are. And I hate that, too."

Blair's gaze fell away, but his expression softened at the helpless, poignant tone of concern for him in his partner's voice and his rigid posture eased. Restlessly, he walked in a small circle and then leaned against the pillar. Crossing his arms, he nodded to himself. "Okay," he murmured. "I understand that it feels impossible right now. And I don't have any easy answers about how to make things better in a hurry." Looking up at his friend, he said softly, "But I didn't take the badge as some consolation prize in the game of life, Jim. I accepted it because, more than anything, I want to be your partner. I want to keep working with you. I want that more than I want anything else in my life." His gaze drifted around the apartment as he continued quietly, "I know you hear a lot more of the crap downtown than I do, and I'm sorry it's so hard to listen to. But we can't ... can't let what other people think determine our choices or how we live our lives."

Pushing away from the post, he slowly approached Jim, and then stood close to look up at him earnestly. "I know you'd like to set the record straight, that as much as it ... bothers you to let people know about your senses, you'd rather bite the bullet than let the world believe I willfully lied. I know you think I went too far with that press conference. And I know how hard it must be for you to hear that a lot of people think we're lovers, that you'd abandon your principles about truth and honesty just to keep me around." Reaching out to grip Jim's arms, he stated firmly, "Believe me, I really do know all that – and I'm sorry it's so hard for you right now. But you don't owe me or anyone any public explanations about your senses or anything else. Your privacy is your right. And it will get better. Eventually, it will get better."

"It's hard on you, too, Chief," he replied soberly. "You can't tell me it isn't."

Blair sighed and nodded as he let his hands fall away. "It will get better," he reiterated stubbornly. "And, hey, if I get up on that stage next week and make a spectacle of myself for the ladies, at least that might kill at least half the rumours, right?" he added with a wan smile. "At least people won't keep thinking I'm your boytoy."

Jim snorted and his lips quirked in a small, unhappy smile. Reaching out, he gripped Blair's shoulder, and then drew him into a hug. "I wish I could make things right," he murmured sadly. "You deserve a better life than this."

"I've got the life I want," Blair asserted and then gently pulled away. "So ease up on yourself, okay? I'm not a kid, Jim. You don't have to protect me from the jerks and the bullies. Hell, man, I learned a long time ago how to survive in the playground. I learned not to care that the other kids thought I was weird or different or that I didn't 'belong' 'cause I was new in the neighbourhood. This isn't a whole lot different – and it's not like I haven't been around for going on four years already. It won't take long for people to ... to just accept that I'm not going anywhere, that I'm in for the long haul. You don't have to be my bodyguard."

Jim grimaced and rubbed a hand over his mouth, but he nodded reluctantly. Still, he hesitated and a slight frown puckered his brow as he stared into the distance.

"What?" Blair asked.

Jim looked at him and he shrugged almost helplessly. "I still feel that itch, Chief," he muttered uneasily. "Like ... like there's something I'm missing. Like there's a threat I'm not figuring out here."

Sandburg studied him thoughtfully. "Okay," he allowed. "Maybe there is something almost subliminal going on, that you're picking up unconsciously. You said that you feel as if we're being watched, right?"

Jim nodded but didn't add anything.

"And maybe you've heard something – at the station? On the street? Something that you didn't quite catch maybe. A tone or a phrase?"

"Maybe," Jim agreed distantly.

"Alright, well, all we can do right now is try to be alert – pay attention when you get a warning buzz or whatever that itch means. You said it was sort of, but not quite, like what you felt when Alex hit town, right? Like someone or something is invading your territory, maybe?"

Jim's gaze flickered to his and held as he nodded. "Yeah," he muttered, impatience in his tone, irritated that he couldn't grasp whatever it was.

"Okay, well, let it go for now," Blair said briskly. When Jim gave him a startled look, he went on, "If you relax and think about other stuff, it might surface on its own. And maybe it's just the pressure and all the shit going on downtown that's got your senses rattled." When Jim looked like he was about to argue, Blair held up his hands to forestall further fruitless discussion. "I'm not saying that it is – just that it could be." Glancing at the files stacked on the table, he added, "In the meantime, partner, we've got our work cut out for us and we should probably get at it."

"Yeah, you're right," he agreed somberly, but he looped an arm around Blair's shoulders briefly as they moved to the table. "You're sure you're okay with ... with everything?" he asked uncertainly.

Blair flashed him a genuine grin as he nodded. "Yeah, man. So long as I get to keep working with you, I'm good."

"Okay, then," Jim replied and allowed some of the tension to ease out of his body. As they settled at the table and each opened a file, he suggested, "You know, if we get through these by tomorrow night, we could maybe go fishing on the weekend."

"Now that sounds like a plan I could get behind," Blair agreed enthusiastically, relieved to see an all-too-rare smile flit over his friend's face. As he turned his attention to the file in front of him, he dared to hope that they'd finally made some progress in clearing the air and lightening the tension between them.


That night, lying on his back and staring up at the skylight, Jim rubbed at the dull ache in his chest as he reflected on what Blair had said that afternoon: 'It won't take long for people to ... to just accept that I'm not going anywhere, that I'm in for the long haul.'

God, he hoped it was true, both that people would accept it and leave them alone, and that Blair really was going to stay for the long haul. But he'd been painfully honest when he'd revealed his fear that it would all prove to be too much – too much aggravation, too much hassle – and that Blair would throw in the towel and move on, disappear from his life. Or that Blair would decide that he really didn't want to be a cop after all, and decide it was all a huge mistake. Thinking about how angry he'd gotten as he'd listened to Cindy Lou's harmless flirting earlier in the day, he grimaced and swallowed against the sudden dryness of his mouth and throat, and the ache in his chest sharpened. He wasn't entirely sure what that ache was about, but he knew it had something to do with his fear of Blair leaving, of things changing. He didn't want to think too much about why he didn't want anything to change between them or in their life together. So, instead, he worried at the feeling that there was something else that had disturbed him. Something he'd picked up on but he couldn't quite grasp. He had a vague impression of a low comment, almost a whisper, 'It's all set,' with a nasty tone of ... hate, maybe? Something he'd heard just as Blair had come out of the Records Unit and was heading toward him. Something about the auction? What the hell was it?

His lip twisted and his jaw tightened as he wondered if what he'd felt had been jealousy, pure and simple. That the only threat was the threat that Blair might fall in love with someone and want to move on. Was that it? Was he really that petty? That needy? That unwilling to countenance any change in their relationship? That possessive? Blowing a long breath, Jim pressed his eyes closed and slowly shook his head. He didn't want to be that kind of person. Blair ... Blair meant the world to him and he really wanted the kid to be happy, to have a good life. But the ache peaked again, filling his chest, pressing into his throat when he thought about Blair wanting another kind of life.

Frustrated, he rolled onto his side and punched his pillow into a more comfortable shape. Closing his eyes, he focused his attention on the soft sounds of Blair's breathing and heartbeat. 'The first real smile anyone – and I mean anyone – has given me in a month!' Was that true? Jim frowned and scrubbed at his forehead, dredging up memories of the past uncomfortable month. 'I'm talking about being sick and tired of everyone treating me like someone just died, like I'm either fragile or ... or something offensive. Jesus, Jim, you follow me around, looming like the wrath of God if someone looks at me sideways or mutters something you don't want to hear. And you – you're the worst of all. You ... you're miserable all the damned time. You're not sleeping, you pick at your food, you get angry at the least little thing, and I'm fed up with your self-imposed suffering. If I can pick up the pieces and move on, why can't you?'

It was true, Jim realized, chagrined. The people who knew or guessed at the truth typically gazed at Blair with unspoken but heartfelt grief for what he'd gone through, and what he'd given up; those that didn't treated Sandburg like a pariah. And he'd been no better than anyone else. Though he'd only wanted to provide a protective presence, Blair had been caught in the terrible isolation of one obviously very lonely man who was doing his best to pick up the pieces and face his new life as best he could, with little real support or understanding from anyone. Sighing, Jim gazed bleakly into the darkness. For all he'd been doing his best to be supportive, he'd only succeeded in frustrating Blair and ... and, well, leaving himself lonely and isolated as well.

Fleetingly, he wondered why Blair was so committed to him, why Blair had given up so much for him. It occurred to him that if he knew the answers to those questions, if he understood why Blair had made those choices and sacrifices a month ago, then he might not feel like it was all too good to last. But, deep down, he was afraid it was misguided guilt or misplaced loyalty, or something equally as ephemeral and unlikely to last, so he let the questions drift away as he always did. Then he frowned with the memory of Blair's other comments, that the kid felt like a puppet on a string and that he thought Jim didn't seem to have a clue about how to be happy. Those comments bothered him a lot but there was nothing he could do, then and there, to deal with them.

He wasn't sure that there was anything that could be done. He wasn't unhappy exactly, just unsettled and uncertain; uncomfortable with the lies and bullshit, and with the undeserved crap that Blair had had to deal with since the press conference. Hell, as far as being happy went, he'd been ecstatic when the kid had said he'd take the training necessary to earn the badge. Ecstatic and immensely relieved that what they had, their friendship and partnership, wasn't over but would be a constant in his life. Frowning, he wondered if Blair had any idea how happy he'd been and still was at Sandburg's decision to stay and be his partner. He just sort of assumed that Blair knew, but maybe he didn't.

Grimacing, Jim closed his eyes. He felt like a rat in a maze, running as fast as he could to ... to find a way out of what increasingly seemed to be a closed loop. Frustrated, exhausted, he willed his mind to force the futile thoughts away and he allowed the simple reassurance of the sounds of Blair's presence in the room below lull him into sleep. Just as he slipped into unconsciousness, he heard a distant, barely audible drawl in the depths of his memory. 'You're a good girl, Gail. I'm real proud of you, darlin'. Real proud.' But it was fleeting and ephemeral and was soon lost again in the far reaches of his unconscious mind.


Fortified by endless cups of coffee, they made good progress on the file review the next day, finishing it by mid-afternoon. With a gratified grunt of accomplishment, Jim closed the last folder and slapped it on the stack of those already completed.

"So, that's it," Blair sighed as he leaned back in his chair and drained his mug. "If there is a challenge at some point that you used your senses to gain a conviction, we can definitively show that you followed due process all the way along and the evidence chain is clear."

Nodding, Jim grimaced at his own empty cup and stood to make a fresh pot. "The staff in Records must be wondering why there was such an urgent rush on reviewing all our files from the past four years," he observed wearily, more than able to imagine the gossip.

Chuckling, Sandburg shook his head. "Nope, Rhonda has that covered."

Intrigued, Jim looked up from measuring out the freshly ground beans. "Really? I must've missed that. What's her story?"

"Well, she said she put the word out that we were going through them to make sure that I'd never over-reached my role as observer, and compromised the investigations," he explained. "She apparently pointed out that while I was an observer, it hadn't really occurred to anyone to check, but since I'm a cop now, the question might arise about whether I'd taken liberties in investigations before having the right to, well, investigate."

"It's plausible," Jim allowed. Leaning against the kitchen counter and crossing his arms while he waited for the coffee to percolate, he mused, "You think people buy it?"

Shrugging, Blair rose to rinse the dregs from his mug. "Most will, probably; especially the ones who want to be sure I toe the line and pay my dues, like everyone else has to do. Others, the ones we've worked with most over the years – nah. Your senses are something of an open secret in Major Crimes, or they wouldn't have gone along with Simon keeping me. And I'd be surprised if the people in Forensics and some of the uniforms on the crime scenes over the years haven't noticed that you pick up stuff that others don't." When Jim's expression clouded, he lightly touched his partner's arm and hastened on, "That doesn't mean they're thinking bad things about you, man. Just that they appreciate the need to be careful, you know? The people that matter still trust us, both of us."

"If you say so, Chief," he grunted as he turned to pour two fresh mugs of steaming coffee, wishing he could really believe that. Taking their mugs, they moved back to the table to pick at the muffins and donuts left over from breakfast. "You heard from Naomi yet?" he asked then, as if changing the subject.

"No," Blair replied, his tone indulgent. "It'll take her a while to process the fact that her darling baby boy has grown up to be a pig. She took it well, but it had to be a major shock to her system and her aura is probably still out of whack. I figure another month, maybe two, of meditation and she'll be okay with it."

Jim's brow quirked and his lip twisted, betraying his irritation, but he refrained from comment. Instead, he asked, "You given any more thought to suing the pants off Berkshire Publishing?"

Blair picked apart a dry muffin, and then set the broken bits aside. "Yes, I have," he finally replied slowly. "At first, I was inclined to let it go, let it all die down. But, now that we've got some distance from it and I've made a career change, I think I can credibly argue that I never intended it to be a dissertation, that I was planning on leaving academia, and I'd written it for my own amusement. They had no right to publish any excerpts of it – that was a wanton violation of my intellectual property rights. And, well, a settlement from them would go a long way toward clearing off my student debt load. So I thought I'd talk to Legal Aid next week, to get something going." He looked up at Jim. "That's if you're okay with me going ahead. There could be some residual publicity ...."

"Me? I'm fine with it – suing them would reinforce the fact that you'd never intended its release and I hope you make them pay through the nose for violating your rights."

Blair brightened and, his appetite returning, he popped a good-sized piece of muffin into his mouth. "You still want to go fishing?" he asked, the words a bit garbled.

Giving him a pained look, Jim replied dryly, "If I understood those muffin-muffled words, yeah, I figure we can pack up tonight and head out early tomorrow morning."

Swallowing first, Blair enthused with a grin, "Great!"

Haunted by Sandburg's comments of two days before, Jim did his best to scare up the ghost of a grin in return. But from the way Blair's gaze flickered and then fell away, he figured his attempt hadn't been particularly successful. Dammit, it was hard to raise a smile when his chest was aching from the pathos of his friend's simple joy at the thought of two days fishing, when all he could see when he looked at Blair was the kid's expression when he stood behind that microphone and ... and died another kind of death. Abruptly, he stood and busied himself with clearing the table, stacking the files neatly and then ferrying dirty dishes to the sink. "Well, then, let's get cracking," he said with forced cheerfulness. "Make a list of the supplies we'll need to pick up on the way while I clean up, and then we can get our gear together. We'll, uh, we'll order in an early dinner."





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