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The Auction, Gen Version, Part II

Blair was yawning and, predictably, shivering in the post-dawn chill as he huddled in his jacket, but he made no complaint about their early departure. The weather didn't look promising. Clouds hovered over the distant peaks and the wind was sharp, but at least it wasn't raining. Sandburg dozed for the first hour of the drive, and then roused himself when Jim stopped at the local village store where they shopped whenever they were in the area. Less than an hour later, they were again on the road, heading through the forest toward the campground along a picturesque river. For the rest of the journey, Blair chattered cheerfully about whatever came to mind, the weather, the likelihood of catching some fish before it started to rain, how beautiful it all was, how clean the air. Talking about nothing much to pass the time and fill the silence between them.

Once they reached the campsite, they quickly set up their tent and unloaded their supplies and gear, securing the camp before pulling on waders and ambling to the river bank with their poles and nets. The sun was valiantly doing its best to burn off some of the cloud cover, and light spangled on the water. The trees and the high wall of the mountain slope across the river cut the wind, and they could hear birdsong and the chittering of a squirrel as they sloshed into the water, venturing out until the river flowed over their knees. Flicking their rods, the lines flashed over their shoulders and back, the glittering flies falling to dance lightly on the surface. Gradually, the peace and tranquility of their surroundings sank into them, and tension eased from their shoulders and backs.

An hour passed serenely while they flicked their lines, reeling in slowly and casting again, and again. And then Blair gave a low, triumphant hiss, "Yesss!" when he got a bite and he flashed a grin at Jim before letting the line play out before carefully drawing the fish in. When Blair pulled it from the water a few minutes later, Jim was ready with the net, and he gracefully swept it under the wriggling body, the iridescent scales of the ten-pound trout shimmering silver in the light. Carefully, Blair removed the hook, and then Jim carried the catch to shore, to wrap it in moist leaves to keep it fresh for their lunch.

An hour later, Jim caught his own fish, another good-sized trout that would do nicely for dinner. With a soft cheer of congratulations, Blair slipped the net closed, tying it off and then securing the captured fish in the shallows where it would live for the rest of the afternoon. After that, having enough food for the day but reluctant to leave the quiet pleasure of the water, they released what they caught, stopping only briefly at noon to cook Blair's fish over a campfire and savour its delicate flavour before venturing back into the water.

When the sun dipped behind the mountain and the shadows began to lengthen, stealing the heat from the day, they decided to go for a walk before dinner. "God, it's beautiful here," Blair murmured as they sauntered along the river, occasionally casting smooth stones to watch them skip across the water before sinking from sight.

"Yeah, it is," Jim agreed quietly with a slow smile, before moving closer to loop his arm around his friend's shoulders and turn him back toward their camp. While Jim cleaned and prepared the fish, Blair chopped vegetables for a stirfry, and they set both pans over the flames. In minutes, the meal was ready and, while Jim dished up, Blair put on a pot of coffee. The homey scent of woodsmoke, freshly cooked food and coffee mingled with the sharp, clean tang of the pines; the gurgle of the river joined with soft whisper of wind and birds twittering in the trees to create natural harmonics to accompany the simple meal.

But the light was going fast as dark, heavy clouds gathered overhead, and the flames danced wildly in the freshening wind.

"Gonna rain," Blair observed philosophically with a glance at the heavens.

"And soon," Jim replied with a sniff and glance toward the west, where the clouds were heaviest. Lightning flickered in their depths and there was a distant, low rumble. "Let's clean up and secure everything before it hits."

The next few minutes were a scramble of activity, as Blair took their pots, plates and implements to the water, and Jim banked the fire before carrying their supplies into the tent. Sandburg had barely gotten back and inside when the first curtain of rain rushed past, splattering the ground heavily. Lightning streaked the sky just before thunder boomed overhead, and Jim flinched, ducking his head instinctively as he covered his ears.

"Whoa, that was loud," Blair exclaimed softly as he reached out to grip Jim's arm. "Get the dial down, man," he urged, his tone low and calm.

Nodding, Jim drew a deep breath and let it out slowly before lifting his head and sighing as the pain eased. Thunder rumbled again and wind buffeted the sides of the tent, chilling the air. Rain pattered harder on the canvas, falling so thick and fast that their view of the river outside was obscured. Jim turned on a small lantern and reached for the coffee pot to pour two mugs, handing one to Blair, who took it gratefully. Hunched against the cold, sitting so closely together their shoulders touched, they sipped the hot beverage and listened to the storm.

Blair took a deep breath of the rain-cleansed air and let it out in a long, satisfied sigh. "This was a really great day, man," he reflected with quiet happiness, leaning a little against Jim to reinforce his words. "Thanks for suggesting we come up here."

Feeling the slight shiver of cold rippling through his friend's body, wordlessly Jim draped an arm around Blair's shoulders to warm him, and was warmed in his turn by the quick smile of gratitude before Sandburg bowed his head to sip again at his coffee. "Chief," he asked, oddly hesitant, "could we talk?"

Startled by the tone, Blair looked up, surprise and concern darkening his eyes. "Talk? Sure. About what?"

Avoiding eye contact, Jim shrugged diffidently and took a small gulp of coffee. Unconsciously, he tightened his grip around Blair's shoulders and his hand rubbed slowly up and down Sandburg's arm. Swallowing, he said uncertainly, "You said a few things the other day that, well, that I've been thinking about ever since." Blair's eyes narrowed and a small frown furrowed his brow, but he didn't say anything, so Jim continued, "About feeling like a puppet on the end of my string. And, uh, and that you think I don't know how to be happy."

His lips parting, Blair's gaze fell away and he shifted uneasily. "I'm sorry," he said. "I was upset and ... and I shouldn't've said that stuff."

"Do you really feel like some kind of puppet that's getting jerked around?" Jim persisted, unwilling to just let it go. But when he felt Blair stiffen beside him, he wondered if he should have left well enough alone.

Sandburg slowly turned the half-empty coffee mug in his hands. "Sometimes," he admitted finally, his voice low. Lifting his face to look directly at Jim, he continued solemnly, "But not the way you think." His gaze drifted around the tent as he sought for words to express his feelings. "It's not that I feel you're jerking me around, not at all. And taking the badge, becoming a cop, that's not about being your puppet, or only doing what you want me to do – I'm doing what I want to do. But ... but when you follow me all over the PD, and don't let me handle things on my own, I feel as if you don't trust me, or as if, I don't know, as if you don't think I'm capable of handling myself, you know?" Looking back at Jim, he added hurriedly, "I know you're just trying to protect me, man, and I appreciate it. But sometimes it's suffocating. And it gives people the impression that ... that either I need to be watched, or that ... that I'm not man enough to look after myself in what we both know is a hostile environment."

His lips thinning in chagrin, Jim's gaze dropped away as his shoulders sagged in discouragement. "I ... I want to make things easier, that's all," he muttered.

Gripping his knee firmly, Blair gave him a little shake. "I know that, Jim. Honestly, I do know that – and I guess that's why I didn't say anything right away, when I should have. But I can handle the jerks, Jim. And, maybe more importantly, they have to see that I can handle them, you know? You've got to give me some space." When Jim sighed and nodded unhappily, Blair nudged into him with his shoulder. "C'mon, don't feel bad. I know it's been hard on you, too." When Jim still didn't say anything, Blair sighed and leaned his head against Jim's shoulder. Staring out at the night, he murmured quietly, "Actually, I think it's been harder on you than on me. For one thing, you can hear a lot more of the bullshit than I can. For another, it's put your own position – the respect that you've earned – in question with some of your colleagues."

"I don't care about –" Jim growled, but Blair cut in firmly, "It has to hurt, man, whether you admit it or not. You said so yourself the other day ... that it's a mess. That your reputation as well as mine has been called into question, at least in some minds. And I'm really, really sorry about that." Sighing, he pushed his hair behind his ear. "But if we don't let them get to us, if we just do our jobs, we'll get past this. I know we will. Besides, it's not like we've got a lot of choice but to, well, just live with it until things get back to normal."

"Normal?" Jim echoed hollowly as he drew Blair closer and rested his chin on his friend's head. "What's normal, Chief?"

Snickering softly, Blair allowed, "That's a good question, man. Normal for us, I guess. Doing what we've been doing for years – solving crimes. Me helping you with your senses when you need it, watching your back. Except I'll be able to do that better, now that I've finally accepted the need to be trained."

"You always did just fine," Jim told him, his voice tight.

"Thanks. I appreciate that," Blair murmured huskily. But then he cleared his throat and said more firmly, "You've got to let the guilt go, Jim. Over what happened. I don't know how many different ways I can say it, but none of it was your fault. And it turned out okay. There's nothing to feel guilty about."

Tensing, Jim started to shift away, but Blair snaked an arm around his waist and held him close. "Don't pull away, man," he entreated. "Please. This is tearing us both apart. It's more important than anything those assholes at the station can ever say or do. If we can't get past this, we've got real trouble."

For long minutes, there were only the sounds of the rain beating on the tent and splashing into puddles on the ground outside, and the whine of the wind cracking through the branches of the trees around them, snapping the canvas of the tent. Finally, Jim sighed heavily and then asked distantly, "How can you say this is what you want?" Grimly, he carried on, "You gave up your career, everything you've worked half your life for. You never wanted to carry a weapon. Getting mixed up with me is probably just about the worst thing that ever happened to you. Your life would be so much different. Hell, Chief ... of course I feel guilty. You lost everything, up to and including your reputation for honesty, let alone your dreams, because of me, my senses. If –"

But whatever else he might have said was cut off when Blair smacked the back of his head sharply as he sat up and twisted around and up onto his knees to face Jim squarely. "Enough!" he practically bellowed. "For God's sake, Jim! Who chased after you four years ago begging to be allowed into your life? To work with you? Huh? And why did I do that? Do you remember? Yes, absolutely, for my career, my life's work. And what was that life's work about?" When Jim didn't answer or look at him, he gripped Jim's arms and shook him. "Finding a sentinel!" he insisted vehemently. "That was my dream, you know that! God, I told you nearly two years ago that I had enough material for a dissertation, but I didn't write it because I didn't want to stop working with you." When Jim's gaze rose to meet his, and he could still see uncertainty there, he went on compellingly, "You're my holy grail, Jim – not some stupid paper about you. Not some degree. You're my career, man, not some musty lecture hall filled with indifferent students and interminably dull faculty meetings. When that paper was leaked, you're right. I nearly lost my dream, nearly lost everything that held any meaning for me. I nearly lost my chance to keep working with you. That ... that press conference was absolutely an act of utter desperation. I could only hope and pray it would be enough to ... to maybe fix things between us. So we could at least still be friends. And I didn't know – when we met up at the hospital afterward – I didn't know if would be enough. When you said ... you insisted that I'd given up my life, I agreed with you, but I didn't mean the university. I meant you, working with you, because I thought it had gone too far to ever be salvaged. But, but you and Simon ... you guys saved me, man. When you offered me the badge ... you guys saved me. Saved my dream. Let me have my life back. Don't you understand that? That that's all I wanted, all I ever wanted? Just to keep working with, living with, you."

His voice cracked and he had to swipe at his eyes. Jim looked away, embarrassed by the emotion and, seemingly, still sorrowed. "Because I'm a sentinel," he rasped with hollow emptiness, more to himself than to Blair.

"Only at first," he replied softly, once again leaning against Jim. "But mostly because you're the best friend I've ever had and I love you, man," he said with unaffected candor. "I love working with you. And ... and if I wasn't there to back you up, I'd always be worrying myself sick about you, about whether you were getting the support you need, or if you were in danger because nobody understands your senses like I do. And, well, over the years, I've come to really love what we do together, you know? Catching the bad guys. Making the city a little safer. Protecting people. I really love being part of all that. And, and I love living with you in the loft, even with all the stupid rules," he added with a gamin grin. "Oh, I know, eventually I guess we'll have to get our own places, but I don't really want to, you know? I don't want to leave the loft 'cause it really does feel like home now. I love the times we share together, talking, teasing, watching games, going for walks, or fishing, like this. I love every minute I spend in your company. I've never been happier in my life than I've been these last few years with you, even with the pretty hairy messes we got ourselves into. But our friendship always helped guide us back home again. Please, man, don't feel guilty for making my dreams come true."

Jim tightened his lips against the emotion that surged in his chest; he sniffed and swallowed hard to clear away the lump that had risen to clog his throat. Turning his head to bury his face in Blair's hair, he asked, "You mean that, Chief?"

"Yeah, man, I do. With all my heart," Blair affirmed, locking his arms around Jim's body, to hug him tightly. "I'm sorry, Jim. I guess I thought that you'd figured that out."

Jim hesitated and then asked the question that had haunted him for weeks. "Then, I don't understand, Chief. I really don't. Why, if you didn't want to quit, why did you write the dissertation – and why did you leave my name in it?"

"Ah, Jim," Blair sighed. "It was never meant to be my dissertation, man. I wrote it for you. Only for you. Nobody else was ever supposed to see it."

Closing his eyes tightly, Jim encircled him in a warm embrace, and let his doubts and grief, his guilt seep away. He had to swallow again before he could rasp hoarsely, "You're my best friend, too, Chief. I hope you know that."

"I know that, man," Blair replied teasingly with a watery laugh. "But it's good to finally hear that you know it, too." Sniffing, blinking hard, he pulled a little away. "So, um, are we good now?"

"Yeah, we're good," Jim told him. Fondly, he combed his fingers through Blair's curls, and then asked, "So you really think I don't know how to be happy?"

Huffing a low laugh, Blair shook his head as he sat back and purposefully raked his hair off his face. He gazed at Jim affectionately, his lips curved in a half smile, but sadness lurked in his eyes. "I don't know, man," he murmured. "Sometimes I wonder. I mean, I know you don't reveal your feelings the way I do. And, um, you're more of an introvert – you need quiet and peace, tranquility, to be content, whereas I'm a lot more exuberant by nature, more of an extrovert that gets energized by being around people. I think sometimes, maybe even a lot of the time, you find me exhausting to be around. And you've had to learn, over and over again, to guard your emotions, to not hope for too much, because ... well, because people have let you down. Important people. Like your mom and dad, Steven, your senior officers, women you've loved ... me. It's, uh, hard to be happy if you're worried about letting go and trusting that the good stuff in life will last, you know? Sometimes ... sometimes I think you're afraid to be happy. As if it might be bad luck, or something. And, well, you never get much time to just be happy, to feel good. There's always some horrific case to work on, and you never quit until it's done – and then there's another one and you start all over again with the long hours and the burden of knowing you're running against the clock, trying to catch some perp before he or she kills again. You hardly ever have time to just chill out, you know? To just do things you enjoy doing."

Feeling uncomfortably as if he'd just been stripped bare, as if all his defences had been breached, Jim's gaze jerked away and he frowned as his jaw tightened. Crossing his arms, he wasn't sure what to say or even if there was anything to say. Blair reached out to lightly grip his arm, grounding him, letting him know he wasn't alone; nonverbally giving him the message that it was okay, he didn't have to be strong, not now, not all the time. Grimacing, he sighed. "Well, when you put it like that," he muttered wryly, trying for humour and not quite making it. "Makes me sound like a basket case."

Blair's grip tightened as he hastened to say, "Ah, hey, not at all, man. You're a rock. The strongest, most intrepid guy I've ever known. It's just that ... that I wish you had more fun, you know? That you had more chance to relax and laugh and, I don't know, just play."

"I do okay," Jim contested with a diffident shrug.

"No, it's not okay, man. Bare contentment is never enough for true happiness; isn't the same as being charged up by passionate energy, because you love, really love what you're doing and how your life is turning out. Jim, do you even know what makes you happy? Or what would make you happier, if you could have or do anything you wanted?" Blair asked gently. "Like, well, for instance, would it be better for you if I, uh, if I finally found a place of my own and let you have your space and your life back?"

"No," he blurted with solidly categorical decisiveness, without thinking.

"Well, it's just that I've been wondering, since you went to Clayton Falls – that was a pretty clear cry for peace and quiet, you know? And you shouldn't have to leave your own home to find peace."

Jim rubbed the back of his neck and shook his head. Given all that had happened since, how many times he'd come too close to losing Blair – seeing him lying dead at the fountain, believing Sandburg was going to leave because of the dissertation disaster – he could scarcely remember why he'd thought it so urgent to get away for a few days. About all he recalled about Clayton Falls was how scared he'd been when they'd carried Blair into that isolation tent, terrified that he'd never see his friend alive again. "Moving out wouldn't make me happy, Chief," he asserted firmly.

Blair smiled widely and his eyes sparkled with relief. "Okay," he nodded. "Good, that's good. 'Cause I didn't really want to move out, you know? But ... am I right, Jim? That it's not easy for you to be happy? Or that you don't let yourself be happy?"

Rolling his shoulders, Jim shifted and scratched his cheek. "I've never really thought about it," he admitted. "Is this something we really need to talk about?"

Gazing at him bemusedly, Blair replied, "You're the one who brought it up, man. But, no, we don't have to talk about it ... only ...."

"Only what, Sandburg?" Jim groused, wondering why he'd thought this was something they should discuss; but he could still hear the plaintive tone that had been in Blair's voice two days before, a kind of anguish underlying his frustration.

"Only I'd like you to be happy, but happiness is a state of mind, a kind of choice – nobody else can make us happy," he reflected solemnly. "For instance, can you name five things that really and truly make you feel happy? Or even just the last time you were uncomplicatedly, unconditionally, really, really happy?"

Rubbing his mouth, Jim thought about that. "It's not all that complicated," he finally replied, but there was shy, vulnerable expression on his face when he replied candidly, "The last is easy – it was when you agreed to come onboard as my official partner."

Genuinely surprised and deeply touched that his decision had been such welcome news to Jim, he squeaked, "Really? You're not just saying that? Kidding around to placate me?"

"No," Jim returned sardonically, embarrassed by the bright emotion and gratitude gleaming in Blair's eyes. "I thought you knew that."

"Ah, Jim," Blair sighed with a sappy sentimental smile. "You don't know how much it means to me to know that. That it wasn't just a sense of necessity or misplaced guilt in thinking you owed me some kind of lifeline. I am so glad to know you really wanted this official partnership."

Uncomfortable with the emotion brimming in the kid's eyes, Jim waved a hand toward the rain-shrouded river as he said, "And other things that make me happy? Well, doing this, fishing, camping, just being out of the city – I enjoy this. I'm happy doing this. Watching a good game on TV. Enjoying a good meal. Getting a really bad guy off the street. That feels good. Really good."

"That's good, man. That's four things that we can make a point of doing as often as possible, and the city will even pay us for one of them. Got one more?" Blair encouraged cheekily.

Jim gazed at him thoughtfully and seemed about to speak, but then he hesitated and looked away. "Four'll do for now," he said, his tone brooking no argument. Blair quirked a brow but resisted making any further comment. Relenting, Jim grinned at him. "Hey, four out of five ain't bad, kid. You happy now?"

Snickering, Blair nodded. "Yeah, man. If you're happy, I'm happy." Tilting his head, he looked up at the canvas above that was still being battered by rain and wind, and added with feigned woefulness, "But I'd be happier if it would stop raining!"

"Yeah, yeah, cold and wet is your world, Chief," Jim teased as he turned to roll out the sleeping bags. Tossing his friend a blanket, he added, "Wrap this around yourself."

Snatching it from the air, Blair pulled the warm wool around his shoulders, grinning merrily as if all was right with his world. "Hey," he said, "it's too early to go to sleep. I brought a deck of cards." Before Jim responded, he pulled his backpack from the corner and rifled in it. Looking up, he waggled his eyebrows. "A little poker, maybe? Or twenty-one?"

"Feeling lucky, are you?"

"Yeah, man. Fortune favours –"

"Fools," Jim interjected, silencing Blair with a finger against his lips, and then laughed at the disconcerted look on Blair's face. "Deal the cards, Chief. I'm feeling brave."

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Blair snorted as he pulled the deck from the well-worn package and began to shuffle.

Later, several dollars poorer, Jim listened to the soft snuffling snore of a fast asleep Sandburg and smiled. But his throat thickened and he had to blink at the sting in his eyes as he thought about the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth things in his life that made him happy every day, whether he revealed his feelings openly or not. The sound of Sandburg sleeping nearby. Sandburg giggling merrily. Sandburg, safe and, best of all, part of his life.


The storm had passed by morning, leaving the world sodden, with clouds still scudding menacingly overhead. Squatting by the fire, scrambling eggs for their breakfast while Jim measured out the coffee for the pot, Blair glanced up at his partner. "Jim?" he asked. "You haven't seemed to be feeling that antsiness out here. Like we're being watched?"

Ellison paused and thought about it. "No," he agreed. "I don't."

"So, maybe it is just the general atmosphere at work," Blair postulated.

"Maybe," he replied slowly, but he didn't sound convinced. Frowning, he tried to grasp the tickle in his mind but it was too fleeting.

Sandburg studied him for a moment and chewed on his lip. "You want to try some focused meditation or light hypnosis, to see if we can tease it out?"

Shaking his head, Jim poured water into the pot and set it on the grill over the fire. "Nah, not today. Let's just enjoy being here, okay?"

"Sure, man," Blair agreed readily, and then dished out the eggs. He swiftly sliced a tomato onto both plates and then handed one to his friend.

After they'd eaten and cleaned up the campsite, they once again donned their waders and headed to the river, planning to fish for the rest of the morning, and then pack up their gear after lunch. There'd be time for a hike, if the weather held, before they had to return to the city.

But they'd only been fishing for little more than an hour when Jim heard the distinctive brill of his cell phone, up in the tent. Cursing under his breath, figuring that nobody would be chasing them down with good news, he slogged out of the river and jogged up the slope. He caught the call on the last ring, just before it tripped over to messaging. "Ellison," he barked, definitely not happy to have their weekend interrupted.

"Jim? Simon," Banks said, his tone grim. "Where are you?"

"We're about two hours out of town, fishing," he replied. "Why? What's up?"

"I just got word that Kincaid is on the loose."

"What? How did that happen? When?"

"Nearly two weeks ago," Simon told him. "They were transporting him to Sheridan, when the van went off the road – no witnesses. The vehicle had exploded and all the remains were badly charred. The body count was right – but Forensics has just determined that Kincaid wasn't one of them. The Warden called me as soon as he was informed."

"Shit," Jim cursed and rubbed his forehead as he looked down at Blair, who was making his way out of the river to see what was going on. "Okay, we'll head back right away. We'll meet you at the station."

"What's going on?" Blair asked, frowning in concern at the expression on Jim's face.

"Kincaid has been on the loose for two weeks," Jim reported tersely. "C'mon, let's get things packed up. Simon will meet us at the office."

"Oh, man," Sandburg groaned as he squirmed out of his waders. Giving his partner a meaningful look, he ventured, "I'll bet that antsy feeling is back."

"You got that right, Chief," he agreed grimly. As they hastily packed up the camp, and loaded their gear in the truck, he told Blair as much as he knew about what had happened – which wasn't a great deal.

"You think he's in Cascade, don't you," Blair stated as he climbed into the truck and buckled the seat belt. "Somehow, you've been sensing him."

"Maybe," he grunted as he turned the ignition switch and put the vehicle in gear. "Not sure."

"Nah, you heard or saw something – not him personally, maybe, but something twigged your radar," Sandburg insisted. Staring out at the passing trees as Jim gunned the truck along the rutted road, he braced himself with one hand on the dash. "He told us, man," he grated. "When they hauled him off after the trial, he told us he'd make us pay."

"Yeah, well, he's not the first guy to make that vow," Jim returned phlegmatically. "Goes with the territory." He gave Blair a wry glance and then asked, "You still glad you accepted that badge, Chief?"

Blair turned to face him, and lifted steely eyes to meet his own. "Oh, yeah," he said firmly. "I'll be very glad to officially help put that headcase back behind bars where he belongs." The truck lurched and rocked violently, and he scrambled to keep from banging into the doorframe. "Geez, Jim," he complained, eyes flashing, "would you slow down! We can't catch him if we're dead!"

Ellison quirked a brow and his jaw tightened as his foot pressed down harder on the accelerator. Blair groaned theatrically as he rolled his eyes and shook his head, but he broke into helpless laughter at the wild ride while he concentrated on holding on, and missed the smile that ghosted over Jim's lips before he settled down and focused on his driving.


Just under two hours later, both detectives strode purposefully through the bullpen and into Simon's office. The Captain looked up as they entered and waved them to the chairs in front of his desk. Holding up a paper-thin file, he said disgustedly, "We've got nothing." Irritably, he slapped it back down on the desk and growled, "There was no real investigation of the 'accident' two weeks ago. The wreck was taken at face value – the van appeared to have taken a mountain curve too fast, slid off the edge of the embankment, rolled and burst into flames. The fact that it happened in the middle of the day with no known witnesses on a generally busy highway didn't raise any flags in the prison system. When the transfer vehicle didn't show up as expected, and failed to respond when called, a team went out to trace the route. Smoke was still curling from the wreck and a cluster of state police and rescue vehicles were at the scene when they arrived. Turns out, an anonymous caller tipped off the local state authorities to 'a bad wreck on the highway'. There were the remains of three bodies that were assumed to be the driver, guard and Kincaid. So ... nobody thought it was urgent to give us the news that Kincaid was apparently dead. The corpses were so badly burned that they needed to do DNA testing in order to release them to the appropriate families for burial. The guard and the driver tested out, but whoever the third guy was, he wasn't Kincaid."

"Kincaid's men hijacked the van, substituted a body and then, at some appropriate place along the highway, they crashed and burned the vehicle," Jim summarized tightly.

Nodding, Banks agreed. "Yeah, probably, but where along the route? Who knows? Could have happened right after they left Seatac Prison. There's an isolated strip of road between the prison and the main highway that can't be seen from the guard towers."

"And he's been on the loose for two weeks," Sandburg muttered irritably. "Man, that's twice he's escaped custody in the past year!"

Simon gazed at him balefully but evidently didn't deem the observation of the obvious worth commenting upon. Shifting his focus to Jim, he said flatly, "Kincaid could be anywhere. There's no reason to believe he's in Cascade."

Jim snorted and rolled his eyes. "Right," he rasped dryly. "The only surprise is that we haven't heard from him yet." Standing, he restlessly paced to the window and stared out at the street below. "Is there anything on his contacts while he was inside? Phone calls? Visitors? Who knew he was being transferred and when?" he asked, and then turned to face Banks.

"The Warden is getting the information on visitors and calls compiled," Simon sighed as he wearily pushed up his glasses and rubbed his eyes. "As to who was the informant?" He shrugged. "Could be almost anybody inside either one of the prisons. You know how the system works as well as I do. Model prisoners get a certain degree of latitude and are assigned clerical duties – and then peddle the information they scrounge to the highest bidder. A guard who sympathizes with Kincaid's 'cause' and who was informed the transfer was going to take place could have been the leak. Kincaid's troops could have threatened a secretary and coerced the information. Finding out how he got out isn't going to tell us where he is."

"We know he's here," Blair interjected heatedly. When Banks glared at him, and growled, "And you know that exactly how?" he retorted, "Oh, come on, Simon! We all know he can't stand to lose – and the three of us have been instrumental in taking him down twice. He's got too much pride to let that go. You need to make sure Darryl is safe and –"

Simon held up a hand to stop the tirade. "Darryl, thank God, is visiting his mother on the East Coast. I've already called the authorities there to ensure they're taken to a safe house," he grated. "But Kincaid's power base has always been here in the west, so I don't think they're in immediate danger."

Sandburg subsided, and sank back into his chair. "So, what is he waiting for? Why hasn't he made a move yet?" he asked, looking from Banks to his partner.

"He's playing with us," Jim replied hollowly. "Setting it up, whatever 'it' is."

Silence fell as the three men considered the situation and what they knew about their adversary. "He can't have much of an army left," Simon mused, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. "Most of them are still locked up."

"So another grand gesture, like taking over the PD or the stadium, is probably unfeasible," Blair added.

Jim nodded as he ambled back to his chair and sat down. "So he's more likely to either try to pick us off when we're not looking ... or ... or bring us to him, somehow. Using a lure."

Banks frowned. "If he was going to pick us off, he's had two weeks to do it. Nah, I think he wants to make us suffer, grovel maybe."

"That would sure appeal to his ego," Blair muttered.

Looking from one to the other, Simon said conversationally, "You know, standard procedure would suggest that the two of you should be placed in protective custody."

Jim snorted and looked away; Blair laughed humorlessly. "And the same SOP would suggest you should be right there with us," he drawled.

"Okay, now that we've agreed that's not going to happen," Simon returned wryly, "let's get our act in gear. We need to trace his potential supporters in town, follow up on men who were probably in his organization but not part of his last two operations. Friends, relatives, known associates. We should have the visitor and recent contact information from the Warden by tomorrow. Gentlemen, we have our work cut out for us."

"Then I guess we'd better get started," Jim agreed dryly as he stood.

Pushing himself to his feet, Blair muttered, "Well, it was a fun weekend while it lasted."

"The fishing was good, huh?" Simon observed archly as he leaned back in his chair.

Pausing in the doorway, Jim said over his shoulder, "Yeah, real good."

"Hummph," Banks muttered, aggrieved. "Nice of you to invite your friends."

"Ah, hey, Simon," Blair apologized with a stricken expression. "We only decided to go at the last minute and, uh, we only have a two person tent, you know?"

"I do have my own tent, Sandburg," he rumbled, patently unappeased. "A simple phone call was all that it would have taken."

When Blair looked utterly crestfallen, Jim and Simon exchanged glances and both burst out laughing. Waving them on their way, Banks chuckled, "You're too easy, Sandburg. Way too easy."

Belatedly realizing they'd been yanking his chain but good, he gave them both stern looks, and wagged a finger at each of them as he threatened, "I'll get you for that – and it won't be pretty."

"Yeah, yeah," Simon smirked. Pleased to have lightened their mood, he growled with playful ferocity, "Go on, get to work!"

Flipping him mock salutes, they headed purposefully to their desks.


Day after long frustrating day passed as they chased down promising leads and got nowhere fast. Oh, they tracked down a dozen probable members of the Sunrise Patriots, but none of them were still at their last known addresses, nobody knew where they'd gone, and they'd dropped totally out of sight. Not even their most reliable snitches had anything for them. Two weeks – now going on three – had been more than enough time for Kincaid to get his ducks in line and, more than once, they cursed the fact that they'd not known he could be at large until it was too late to get a handle on his activities.

"He's got to be holed up somewhere, either in the city or close," Blair muttered in frustration as he searched through recent real estate and rental records. "Somebody's got to buying food for them."

His palms pressed together, fingertips at his lips, Jim scowled as he thought about that. They'd papered the city with wanted notices and posters and every cop on patrol had been thoroughly briefed on the men to keep a lookout for, as well as the vehicles registered to those men. Nothing. Not a whisper.

"He's gotta have a front person," he said flatly. "Someone nobody is noticing."

Tapping a pen on his desk blotter, Blair looked over at his partner. "Somebody who seems innocuous. Innocent. But, man, that sure doesn't fit the usual Aryan hunter profile of his recruits."

Jim licked his lips and nodded, his head cocked slightly to the side as if straining to hear something.

"What?" Blair asked, his voice pitched low as he looked around the bullpen. "You hearing something?"

"Huh?" Ellison grunted, looking up and appearing distracted until he blinked and focused, though he rubbed absently at one ear. "No. No. It's just that ... that I feel like I'm missing something."

"Something you heard," Blair postulated, squinting as he thought about the implications of Jim's evidently unconscious mannerisms that linked to his hearing.

Grimacing with frustration, Jim threw up his hands. "I don't know!" he growled.

"Okay, okay. Relax ... let it go," Sandburg soothed. "It'll surface. Just needs the right trigger. When we get home tonight, if you want, we can try some focused meditation."

The muscle in Jim's jaw rippled as he gazed at his partner. He didn't enjoy meditation like Sandburg did; relinquishing even that margin of control always left him feeling vulnerable. Reluctantly, he nodded. There wasn't much choice.

But, later, when they settled in the living room after dinner, the attempt proved to be an exercise in futility because they didn't know what might have alerted Jim subliminally, or where, or when. So there was no point to use as a reference for enhanced concentration and memory retrieval.

"I'm sorry, man," Blair sighed after having tried various generic promptings, like whether Jim remembered a scent or seeing someone that had left him wary or uncomfortable. When he'd asked in his low, mellow tones if Jim had heard anything that had triggered concerns, Jim opened one eye and arched a wry brow, and then they both snorted and shook their heads. Jim had scarcely been hearing anything else. It was all just too vague.

Jim looked away, discouraged but not wanting Blair to feel responsible for his failure to grasp the itch in his head, to make sense of it. "Nah, that's okay," he replied quietly. "You were right in the first place, I guess. If I stop worrying at it and just relax, the right situation or trigger will probably bring it back."




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