Familiar Stranger

(Part Four)

It was surreal to watch Jim being interviewed--the same kind of surreality that pervaded nightmares, the ones where you're watching something terrible unfold, frozen in place, unable to do anything, incapable even of screaming. That's how Blair felt, paralyzed and impotent.

He rested his forehead against the glass as the IA investigator splayed Jim open, and he wasn't even permitted to offer a few whispered words of encouragement. That had been his deal with Simon. He could observe, but he couldn't interfere. His promise alone probably wouldn't have stopped him if he'd thought he could get away with it. But Simon was there, and Simon was watching.

Besides, the last thing he wanted was to make things worse for Jim. Things were already bad enough the way they were.

He stared straight ahead, but he could still feel Simon's eyes on him. He pretended not to notice. He'd run out of things to say to him. He'd run out of patience with this whole stupid thing. He kept his attention focused on Jim instead, wishing desperately that he was the Sentinel. So he could know what was happening behind that granite expression, behind those hard agate eyes. He could only imagine what Jim was feeling. It must be a special kind of hell for someone who was so proud and so private to be forced to admit such intimate details about his private life, to answer questions that should never have been asked in the first place, not if there was any decency left in the world.

Beside him, he could feel Simon stirring restlessly.

He ignored him and stared at Jim through the glass. His face was so stark he looked like he was carved out of some kind of unforgiving wood. Blair had seen that expression before--when Jim found out that Lila was an assassin, when he realized that his father had always known about his Sentinel abilities, when he thought Blair had betrayed him with the dissertation. This was what unbearable pain looked like on Jim Ellison.

Simon cleared his throat. "So, Sandburg--"


"You're pretty quiet over there."

"You told me to keep my mouth shut. So that's what I'm doing."

Simon sighed. "That's not what I said, and you know it. I just can't allow you to feed Jim answers using the Sentinel thing. It's not right. I have to do my job."


"You know, I'm used to the ice man routine from Ellison when he's pissed off at me, but not from you. So if you've got something to say to me, I'd appreciate it if you'd just come on out with it."

He shook his head. "I don't have anything to say."

"So you're just going to stay pissed at me, huh?"

"I'm not pissed."

"Oh, yeah? Well, you're doing a pretty good imitation of it right now."

"This isn't anger. It's disappointment."

"What?" Simon said.

"You heard me. I'm disappointed in you."

"What the hell for? Just because I'm not willing to throw out the whole rule book, not to mention the damned law, on Jim's behalf?"

He shook his head. "No. Because you're so willing to believe that Jim is guilty, and you ought to know better. He's never given up on you. Not when everyone thought you were dead in Peru. Not when they were trying to frame you for murder at your high school reunion. Never. Not once. I think you owe him a little of that same trust in return. And that's not what I'm seeing here today, quite frankly."

"Maybe you're underestimating me, Sandburg. Did you ever think of that?"

Blair didn't answer. What was happening on the other side of the glass grabbed his attention instead. Jim's lawyer was trying to end the interview, but Branson just wouldn't stop.

Is that why you get off on fucking guys against their will? Huh, Jim?" he asked, his tone relentless. "To make up for being a bottom slut at heart. Is that why you like to make them bleed? Why you rape straight men? Is that it, Jim? Does that make you feel like a big shot? Huh? Like you're a real man?

Blair could literally feel his own heart pounding in his chest like it was a straining piece of machinery. Don't do anything stupid, Jim, he repeated over and again in his head, like a mantra or a subliminal message.

He watched Jim follow his lawyer to the door.

But Branson kept on taunting him. Is that what happened with Sandburg?

Blair felt his mouth go dry and his throat close up painfully. Don't do anything stupid because of me, Jim. Don't. Please.

Is that why you're out raping these other men? Was he straight and you couldn't have him? Or did he want to make you into his little bottom boy and that hurt your fragile ego?

Blair curled his own hands into fists as he watched Jim pull his arm back. No! Jim! Thankfully, Jim's lawyer caught his hand and whispered something into his ear. He lowered his arm and looking somewhat chastened. Thank God. Thank God. The lawyer hustled Jim out of the room before he had the change to do anything else crazy.

Blair could feel Simon let out his breath in relief. "I'm glad Jim's lawyer seems to know how to handle him," Simon said.

Blair nodded. "Yeah." But then they didn't quite know what else to say, and they both just stood their shifting their weight, awkwardly quiet.

"Well, I guess I better go see how Jim's doing," he finally said.

"Yeah. That's probably a good idea."

He started for the door.

"Don't forget your bag," Simon said to him. He held out a small, canvas gym bag.

Blair shook his head. "Oh, no. That's not mine. I left my--"

"Sandburg," Simon said sternly. "If it isn't mine, then it must be yours."

He drew in a deep breath, pissed, ready to tell Simon off, that he knew good and well what he owned and what he didn't. And then the light went on.

"Uh-- Yeah, you're right. I mean, who else could it belong to?" he said, going along with it.

Simon nodded. "My thinking exactly."

Blair took the bag, unzipped it part way and looked inside. It contained copies of the case files. He felt his face go warm.

"Um, Simon, about what I said earlier--"

Simon waved him off. "Just put all that knowledge you've been acquiring over at Barton College to good use and find something. The lab is-- well, let's just say there are delays on processing evidence just at the moment. But it's not going to be long. So you need to dig up something we can use soon. And when you do, for God's sake, call me immediately. The last thing we need is Jim going after this guy on his own."

He nodded. "Thanks, Simon. And I really am sorry--"

Simon waved him off. "Let's consider it forgotten. Okay, Sandburg?"

He smiled gratefully. "I'll call you when I find something."


Blair went out into the hall. Jim was still conferring with his lawyer, and he waited a respectful distance away, letting them have their privacy.

Finally, the two men shook hands, and the lawyer got into the elevator.

He approached Jim. "Hey, man. You okay?"

Jim just shook his head, as if he couldn't frame the words.

"Let's go home, huh?"

Jim nodded.

They waited for the elevator together and went down to the parking garage. When they got to the truck, Blair headed for the passenger side, but Jim reached out for his arm. He turned, and Jim pressed the keys into his hand.

"Sure, man. Sure," he said.

Jim nodded, wearily, gratefully, and got in. Blair walked around to the driver's side and tried to push down the sense of panic that threatened to flood him. Jim asking him to drive felt like those very few times as a kid when he'd seen Naomi cry. The world felt like it was all turned upside down, and he didn't have one damned clue how to fix it.

He got in, stowed the bag Simon had given him, pulled his seat belt on and headed off.

You've got to calm down. You're not going to be any good to Jim if you panic. Take deep, cleansing breaths. That's good. Okay, so you've got the case files. That's got all the information you were missing before. Use it. Go back over your profile. Comb through every last scrap in the files. Find what the cops are missing. Walk Jim through his examination of the crime scenes. Maybe there's something his senses picked up that he's not even realizing. The two of you have been in deep shit before. You can figure this out. You know you can.

He stole a glance at Jim out of the corner of his eye. He was slumped in his seat, resting his head against the glass, staring unseeing out the window.

"Hey, man," he said softly.

But Jim jerked in surprise anyway.

"I'm sorry," he said.

Jim shook his head. "That's okay, Chief. Not your fault."

"I just want to stop off at my apartment and get my laptop. Okay? I want to go back over my profile and see what I'm missing."

"How are you gonna do that, Chief? We don't have--"

"Yes, we do." He pointed to the bag. "Simon gave me this."

Jim seemed to perk up a little. He opened the bag. "Copies of the case files. He gave you copies of the case files?"


"But I thought--"

"So did I," Blair said. "But I think he's just trying not to tip his hand too much. If he came out and supported you too openly, then the brass might take him off the case, too. And then he wouldn't be able to help us at all, and we'd really be up shit's creek."

"Oh, God." He could hear Jim breathing heavily. "I really thought Simon-- He acted like--"

"I guess he's trying to appear objective and impartial. So there's no question after the fact of a cover up or anything."

Jim went silent a moment. "It hurt to think he would believe I could do something like that," he finally admitted.

Blair nodded. "I can only imagine."

"Thank you, Blair."

"For what?"

"For not even hesitating."

Blair smiled. "Like there was ever a question."

"There is in a lot of people's minds." Jim's voice sounded raw. "I could hear them whispering about me while I was waiting to be interrogated. Even the people who want to believe me--" He shook his head. "And then when I was in the box and you didn't-- I thought maybe you'd changed your mind."

"No! What? When I didn't what?"

"You didn't talk to me. I dialed my hearing up. I could make out hearts beating in the other room, and I knew one of them was yours. But you didn't say anything. I know it's stupid. But I just thought you would. And so, then I thought you must be so disgusted that--"

He reached over and grabbed Jim's arm. "The only thing that disgusted me was all the shit that IA prick was able to get away with. It set a brand new low mark for the whole department. And the only reason I didn't talk to you was because I promised Simon I wouldn't. He didn't want me 'feeding you information' and interfering with the investigation. He was keeping an eye on me the whole time, so I couldn't even get away with just letting you know I was there and that I was on your side. But I am on your side, Jim. You don't ever have to doubt that. Okay?"

Jim just sat there for a minute, and Blair was afraid he didn't believe him. But then he finally nodded. "Thanks, Chief." His voice was choked, and Blair realized he was barely hanging on.

As much as he would have loved to comfort him, to rub his back and encourage him just to let go, he knew what Jim really needed was to get a handle on his emotions, so he could feel more in control. And so he went quiet and let Jim deal with it in his own way.

He turned onto his street and found a spot to park.

"I'm just going to run up and get the stuff I need. You want to wait here?"

Jim shook his head. "I'll go," he said.

"You sure? It'll just take me a minute."

"I want to go with you."

"Okay, man," Blair said. "Whatever you want."

They both got out and locked up the truck. Jim followed him into the building.

"It's the fifth floor," Blair told him, as he headed for the steps.

"No elevator?"

Blair snorted. "Yeah, right."

"Isn't there a city ordinance that says there has to be an elevator in a residential building that has more than three stories?" Jim asked, sounding like his usual cop self.

Blair smiled to himself. Hey, if worrying about my living arrangements takes his mind off this shit for a little while, then I'm all for that.

"I'm pretty sure the guy who owns this building is lining somebody's pockets," Blair told him, giving Jim more ammunition.

"And look at this lighting, Chief. Half of it is burned out. That's got to be dangerous at night, from both a safety and a security standpoint."

"I know, man. Every time I go down the stairs in the evening, I'm scared I'm going to break my damned neck. But I've called. I've written letters. It's gotten me bupkis."

"I hate money-grubbing assholes like that."

"Tell me about it."

They climbed the last set of stairs, and Blair unlocked his door. He stepped inside, and Jim followed him in.

"Geezus, Chief," Jim said, taking in the tiny, shabby space. "This is where you've been living?"

"I know it's a little rough around the edges, but it's basically fine."

"It's a hovel, Sandburg."

Blair laughed. "No, Jim. Tell me what you really think. What can I say? I'm back to being a poor student. This is what I can afford."

Jim shook his head and pointed to the dripping kitchen faucet. "Does that always do that?"

Blair sighed. "I'm afraid so. It was more complicated than what I could fix, and the landlord doesn't return my calls."


"Like you said, he's a money-grubbing bast--"

"No. Why would you go on living here?"

"I already told you--"

"But why wouldn't you just come home?"

"You know why," Blair said softly.

Jim looked away.

"Hey," Blair said, putting a hand on his arm. "It's not so bad. Really. I just thought it would divert you a little to get up in arms about my crappy landlord."

"It's not a joke, Blair. I don't want you living like this. You deserve a hell of a lot better." Jim's face showed his distress.

Shit! He'd completely miscalculated Jim's reaction. It hadn't occurred to him that he would feel guilty, as if he'd somehow caused it, not when it had been completely Blair's choice to move out.

He tugged at Jim's sleeve. "I'm sorry, man. I didn't mean to-- Look, I've got what I need. Let's go on back to the loft, okay?"

Jim nodded, but he didn't say anything. Blair nudged him outside and locked up. They trudged back down the stairs and out to the truck without a word. They rode the rest of the way in silence.

When they got back to the loft, Blair took off his jacket and hung it up. Jim didn't even bother. He sank down onto the sofa and closed his eyes, still dressed for the out-of-doors. Blair left him in peace. He went into the kitchen and poured them both a glass of water. It was the only beverage Jim had in the house. He brought both glasses and sat down beside Jim.

"Hey, man," he said. "Here. Drink this. I noticed they didn't give you any water down at the station. You're probably all dried out."

"My head is killing me."

"Dehydration will do that to you. Not to mention tension."

"I wanted to kill that prick," Jim admitted softly.

"I know."

"I'm so, so sorry, Chief."

Blair frowned at him, puzzled. "For what?"

Jim wouldn't look at him. "For what he said about you. All that shit about the dissertation. Ever since you gave that press conference, I've just been hoping that people would let it go and forget all about this fucking Sentinel stuff. And now it's getting all raked up again, and people will-- I'm just so sorry you have to put up with the whispering and the grief. It's more shit that you don't deserve, and I'm just really sorry about that."

"Jim, how is that your fault? Did you set out to be unfairly accused of a crime you didn't commit to get people talking again? Of course not. You don't have to worry about me. I can handle whatever people have to say about me. If small-minded people want to believe the worst, I'm not going to let that bother me. I can't. And neither should you."

"I just-- I'm tired of seeing you hurt."

"And I feel the same way about you."

Jim fell silent. Finally, he said, "So what do we do about this?"

"Well, first of all, I think you should go take a shower and try to relax a little."

"I don't need--"

"Yes, you do. You're so keyed up your shoulders look like they're about to snap. A shower will do you good. Try to imagine that the water is washing away the experience of what happened down at the station. Trust me. You'll feel better afterwards."

"And then what?"

"And then we'll go over the files, sort through your sense memories, see what the other cops missed."

"What if we don't find anything?"

Blair shook his head. "We can't think that way. And besides, just statistically speaking, there's got to be something. This guy is good, but he's not perfect. Not by a long shot. He's too emotionally invested in what he's doing to be flawless. So what we have to do is find the flaw."

"I hope you're right," Jim said, skeptically.

"I am. Think about it, Jim. How many criminals have you ever dealt with who have been perfect?"

Jim thought about it a moment and then shook his head. "None."

"That's right. Because it doesn't exist. The perfect crime. The seamless criminal. That's TV, not real life. So go unwind a little, and I'll get up to speed on the details. Then we'll start nailing this bastard to the wall. Okay?"

Jim smiled, for the first time that day. "Okay, Chief. That sounds like a good plan."

He got up and headed to the bathroom. Blair set up the laptop and went online. He pulled up the site of a local grocery store that delivered orders placed over the Internet. He checked off a list of staples and the ingredients for a couple of quick meals, filled in all the necessary information and sent the order over the store's secured server.

Then he opened his profile, took out the case files and began reading through them. He was nearly finished when Jim came out of the bathroom, towel wrapped around his waist. He headed upstairs to dress, and the doorbell rang.

"Fuck!" Jim cursed loudly from his bedroom.

And then it struck Blair that he must think it was the police coming to arrest him.

"Hey, Jim, no. It's okay, man. I just ordered some groceries from The Emporium. That's them now."

"Shit!" He heard the bed springs creak as Jim sat down heavily.

"You okay, man?" he called up.

"Yeah, Chief. I just-- Thanks for getting the food."

The door bell rang again, insistently.

"No problem," he told Jim and went to answer it.

He took the bags from the delivery boy and was about to pay him when Jim, now dressed, materialized behind him. He handed the guy enough money to cover the bill and a tip.

"Thanks," Jim told him and closed the door.

"I had that," Blair said, as he carried the food into the kitchen.

Jim shook his head. "Forget it, Chief. I've seen where you're living. I'm not going to have you paying for my groceries."

Blair sighed. "I'm not starving or anything." He pulled stuff out of the bag and began putting it away.

Jim joined him at the counter and helped him stow the supplies. "Still."

"Okay, man. Whatever. So, let's whip up something quick and easy. I got tomato soup and stuff for grilled cheese. I figured we could both use some comfort food. I already set up shop over on the coffee table. So let's eat, and then we can dive into work. Okay?"

Jim nodded. "Sounds good, Chief. Hand me the butter, and I'll start the sandwiches."

"Okay, man. I've got the soup covered."

Jim pulled out a skillet and set to work slicing the cheese. Blair opened the cans, poured the soup contents into a pot and sat it on the stove.

"It still feels the same," Jim remarked, as they moved around the kitchen.


"This. Us here in the loft together, making dinner, not getting in each other's way despite the fact there's about three feet of space in this kitchen."

"We're a good team."

"Yeah. We are."

Jim stopped to look at him when he said that. His face was naked and intense, and Blair's chest suddenly hurt.

And then Jim looked away. "The butter's melted enough, don't you think?" he asked.

"Uh-- Sure, man. Looks good to me."

They finished making dinner and ate it at the dining table. They quickly cleaned up. Blair grabbed a couple of sodas, and they settled onto the sofa.

"So here's a copy of my original profile," he said, handing Jim the print out.

Jim quickly scanned it. "You do realize that this damned thing sounds exactly like me, don't you?"

"Don't get all testy. That's just what I came up with before I had access to all the information. And besides, the similarities are all superficial. The profile isn't at all like you in some very significant ways."

"You're going to have to clue me in here, Chief. Because I'm not seeing any big differences. And you, yourself, have told me in the past that I have control issues. It seems to me that's what this is all about." He waved the piece of paper.

"That's just what I'm getting at, Jim. The perp is all about domination, as a form of control. Control and domination are not at all the same thing. You feel a strong need to be in charge of your life. Most people do. The perp, on the other hand, can only feel like he's in control of his life if he's dominating other people. To feel strong, he has to have somebody else at his mercy, to make them feel weak. That's so not you. You have a strong will, but you're never a bully. When you run across someone who's weaker than you are, you don't try to take advantage of them. In fact, you go into protective mode. That's your Sentinel nature at work. It's also just who you are. A good guy. The perp doesn't have a clue who he is without other people to reflect him back to himself. But you-- Well, you've told me on any number of occasions. You don't need me or anyone to tell you who you are."

"Chief, I didn't mean--"

He put his hand on Jim's arm. "No, you were right. You don't need anyone to tell you who you are. You have a very healthy sense of self-definition. And that's the absolute polar opposite of who the perp is."

"You really think so?"

He nodded. "Definitely. And there's another aspect that goes along with that. This guy looks outside himself for answers. He never takes responsibility. You always do. In fact, you're always trying to take responsibility for things that aren't even your fault. This guy is always looking to lay blame somewhere else for the things that keep going wrong."

"His life is pretty screwed up, huh?" Jim asked.

"Oh, yeah. Pretty much everything is a mess. His family life was a horror. He's incapable of forming and maintaining meaningful relationships. He keeps screwing up his professional life. I'd say he probably has a very bad case of thwarted ambition. If he was military, he was probably enlisted. Or if he was an officer, he wouldn't have advanced very far. With his unstable personality, he would have been repeatedly passed over for promotion. In civilian life, he'd have a hard time holding a job."

"So he blames the people around him for all that?"

"Indirectly, I think. He believes everyone else has it easier than he does. He's got a real chip on his shoulder about that. He'd be completely twisted up inside with envy over somebody like you. Somebody who's special, the way he wants to be." Blair blinked, putting the pieces together. Then he slapped himself on the forehead. "Oh, my God!"


"Shit! Shit! Shit!"

"Chief, what is it?"

"That's it. Envy. It's why he picked you."

"You mean, it's why he framed me?"

Blair shook his head. "No. It's not a frame. At least, that's not what he intended. He freaked out when the last victim fought back and ditched the shirt and the knife in a panic. He wouldn't have purposefully left clues pointing to you."

"What the hell does he want with me then?"

"He wants what you have. Your confidence. Your success. That's why it seemed to me like he was two different people. Because he was, sort of. He was pretending to himself to be you. That's why you fit the profile so well. He would only pick someone to emulate that he had things in common with, that he could identify with. You have similar backgrounds and outlooks. Only he feels that your life is going a lot better than his is. You're a kind of paragon for him."

"So-- He wants to be me?"

"Sort of."

"But Lash is dead, and there couldn't possibly be another freak like him out there."

"This guy isn't like Lash, except that they're both magical thinkers. Lash was trying to erase his own identity by assuming other people's. When he killed, he was trying to kill his own fucked up personal history. Our guy is trying to perfect himself, to cure his own weakness."

"What are you talking about, Chief?"

"His homosexuality."

"That's not a--"

"I know. It's not really a weakness. But that's how he sees it. It's what he was taught by his father, to prize traditional masculinity. And he tries. But his desire for other men gets in his way. It clouds the way he sees himself. Everything that goes wrong, he blames it on his homosexuality, almost as if it's something separate from him, like a curse or a monster or something, this thing that takes him over and destroys his life."

"How is being like me going to help him with that?"

"Um--" Blair hesitated, guilt overtaking him. "You have to remember that he's a magical thinker. So he's looking for something that will make him special, that will protect him from the 'monster.' He sees you as special, and so he's trying to take your power and make it his own."

"My power--"

Blair swallowed hard. "Your Sentinel abilities. At least, I think that's it. I'm sure he must have seen the story on TV or read about it."

"He wants to be a Sentinel?"

Blair shook his head. "Not really. I doubt he actually understands or cares about your senses. He just likes the idea that you have these extraordinary abilities. He probably sees you as a kind of superman. And he thinks if he could be you, if he could take what's yours, then he'd be a superman too, and he'd be impervious to everything. He'd have no weaknesses."

"He thinks that would cure his homosexuality?"

"No, not his homosexuality. I don't think he wants to give up men. If he did, he would have gone about this all differently. He would gone to one of those religious groups or attacked women or something else. I think it's really the conflict that he's trying to cure. He wants to be able to be with men and not feel weak."

Jim made a face. "And this is what he came up with?"

Blair laughed. "I know. It's twisted. But it does make a certain perverse logic. At least, it does if he believed that you were--"


Blair hesitated. "Gay," he said, carefully.


"I'm sorry."

Jim shook his head. "No. It's okay. It's just that I'm not-- I mean, I've had a lot more relationships with women than I have with men. And I haven't-- with a man-- since Jack."

"I think-- I'm sorry, Jim. I really am."

"What, Chief?"

Blair sighed. "He probably thought we were lovers. I mean, I live with you, and hell, there are people down at the station who really ought to know better who wonder about us. The whole dissertation disaster is probably what inspired him. It looked like I betrayed you. He really identifies with that. In fact, I think this whole mess started because he felt betrayed by someone close to him."

"A lover?" Jim asked.

Blair nodded. "Someone who walked out or cheated or tried to change the rules on him. That coupled with the Sentinel thing and your high profile as a cop and your hero status from Peru--it all attracted him. In his eyes, you're a man just like him, but you've managed to reconcile the conflict. You're strong, and yet, you're gay. Just what he wants to be. And then, when I gave the press conference and took back what I'd said, when I'd reversed the betrayal, so to speak-- Well, that must have made you seem powerful in an almost god-like way."

"And that's what he really wants? To reverse the betrayal?"

"Yeah. Well, it's all wound up together. The betrayal made him really feel his weakness. Remember how I said that he was into domination?"

Jim nodded.

"Well, this last lover wouldn't put up with it. He rebelled in some way, and that made the perp feel out of control and vulnerable. So he's looking for a way to mend this precipitating event, and by doing that, to salvage himself, to make himself perfect and impervious, the way his father told him he had to be."

"I don't mean to be dense and keep asking the same question, Chief. But I fit into this-- How?"

"You've done exactly what he wants to do, as least as far he sees it. He believes you're gay. He knows you're successful, confident, strong, all those things he wants to be. You have special powers that set you apart. And, to him, it appears that you've been able to use your special abilities to reverse a betrayal by a lover, which is his primary ambition. So he's got to get that power for himself. He wears your shirt and carries your knife like they're-- I don't know. Some kind of talisman. Like he's trying to channel you or something. So he can take what's yours."

Horror slowly registered on Jim's face. "Including you. He wants to take you. That's why the last three victims--" Jim looked dangerously pale. "Oh, my God, Chief. They all looked like you. That's why. Shit!"

He held onto Jim's arm. "Don't freak out. It's okay."

"Like hell it is. I promise you one thing though, Chief. He might want you, but he's sure as hell never going to get you. Over my cold, dead body will he ever put his sick, perverted hands on you. Like bloody, fucking hell."

Blair blinked at Jim, surprised by his vehemence. "He doesn't want me. Not really. I'm just a symbol, too. Like your shirt or your knife. He doesn't really see other people as people. He's too caught up in himself. Other people only exist for him as a function of what they can do for him. He must think I'm somehow part of the key to taking your power. That's why some of his victims look like me. But even then, he's really trying to dominate the person from his own history."

"That's why he tells them he has to punish them for being disloyal."

"Yeah. He's trying to put whoever rebelled against him back in his place."

"So why does his choice of victim keep changing?"

Blair pulled out the pictures of the victims and arranged them in order of the attacks. "You see it?" he asked.

Jim frowned. "I don't know how we overlooked it. I guess we got so focused on the idea that he didn't have a type that we missed it."

Blair shook his head. "You couldn't have seen that it was a pattern until the most recent attack. There just wasn't enough of them to tell that it's not random, that he had a shift in target. But now, it's clear. The first two were blondes, with short hair, slight builds and brown eyes. The last three have longish, curly hair, sturdier builds and blue eyes. Like me," he said, shifting uncomfortably.

He felt Jim's hand alight on his back. "But the second and third attacks came so close together," Jim said. "That it just seemed like there was no pattern That he didn't have a physical type."

Blair nodded. "And without a theory about why he's doing this, why he would be looking for surrogates for two different men, then it would have been nearly impossible to put the pieces together."

"But why--" Jim paused. "I feel like it's bad luck even to ask this question."

"You know there's no such thing."

"I know. I know. Okay. So why hasn't he-- Why go after surrogates?"

"That's a good question. I'd say either he can't confront his former lover for some reason. The guy moved away or won't see him or something. Or he's just too afraid to do it. And with me-- Well, I think there's a relatively sane part of him that knows this is all nonsense. He doesn't go after me, because that would puncture the illusion. And the illusion is the only thing that keeps him going. If he didn't have it, he wouldn't be able to live. I really don't think I'm in any danger."

"We're not going to find out. I don't want you going anywhere alone until we've caught this asshole."

"Jim, I have to go to class and--"

"I'll go with you."

Blair shot him a skeptical glance.

"What the hell else do I have to do, Blair? I'm suspended. Just let me do this, okay? If anything happened to you because of me-- I just-- I want to keep you safe."

"I appreciate that, man. I really do. And, okay, if that's what you really want. Then knock yourself out. Follow me to the bathroom if that makes you feel better. But this isn't because of you. I'm the one that got the dissertation leaked. This guy probably wouldn't have targeted you if it weren't for that. So if it's anybody's fault, then it's mine."

"Look, Chief, you didn't get the dissertation leaked. It just happened. I meant what I said in that interview today. I don't blame you. It was no one's fault. I just wish to God I'd never been an asshole about it. Then maybe you wouldn't--"


"Maybe we could have found some other way to fix it. Maybe you didn't have to throw away your whole career."

Blair shook his head. "I don't think there was anything else we could do, Jim. At least, not anything that would have really put people's suspicions to rest. I honestly believe this was the only way."

"I hate this way."

"I know. Me, too," Blair said sadly. "But we can't afford to dwell on this right now. We have to stay focused on solving the case and clearing your name."

Jim looked away, but Blair could see from the set of his jaw how unhappy he was. "I guess you're right, Chief," he said. "I still don't know how we'll catch him. Or explain how he has my shirt and knife."

"There was no evidence of a break in?"

Jim shook his head. "None."

"And you didn't sense anything? Like someone had been here?"

"No, but-- Well, I've been so exhausted lately that I pretty much keep my senses dialed down to a normal level when I'm not using them for work."

"Jim! You know they tend to get erratic when you try to squelch them."

"I know, Chief. I do. I just haven't had the energy for them lately."

"Have you been zoning?"

"No, but I've had these horrible headaches."

"You have to let your senses go, man. Trust me. It might not feel like it, but it takes a lot more energy to keep them reined in all the time than it does to deal with the occasional glitch."

"I'm sorry, Blair. I just don't know if I can do that."

He put his hand on Jim's arm. "Yes, you can. Don't worry. I'm here. I won't let you get overwhelmed. I promise."


"Just close your eyes and relax. Breathe deeply."

Jim settled back against the cushions, and Blair could feel the tension slowly start ebbing from his body.

"That's good. Okay, now picture the dials. Have you got them?"

Jim nodded. "Yeah."

"Good. Okay, I want you to release the dials. Just let them go. Let them settle at their own natural level."

"It's going to hurt."

"It should just be for a second. If something gets stuck too high, you can push it back down. Stay relaxed. Okay? You ready?"

Jim nodded.

"Okay. Let the dials go."

Blair watched him closely. Jim's face contorted in pain.

"Chief!" His hand reached out.

Blair took his hand and held onto it. "I've got you. Is it getting better?"

Slowly, Jim's face began to relaxed, and then he opened his eyes. "Yeah. It's-- It's okay."

"You sure? Nothing's too high? Because you can still lower it."

He shook his head. "No, it's good. It's normal. Well, not normal, but you know."

Blair smiled. "Yeah. I know." And then he frowned. "Don't do that anymore, okay, Jim? It's fine to dial down your senses for a specific reason, for a limited amount of time, but I don't think it could possibly be good for you to keep them pushed down all the time. Those headaches you were getting were a message."

Jim nodded. "Okay, Chief. I mean, I know you're right. I won't do it anymore."

"Good. So why don't you close your eyes again, and this time, concentrate on the loft. See if you smell anything that doesn't belong. Okay?"

"Okay, Chief. But it might have been a while since this guy was here. The trail could be cold by now."

"Yeah, I know. I'd just like to try."

Jim shrugged. "Why not?" He closed his eyes again and breathed deeply.

"Now slowly dial up your sense of smell," Blair instructed him. "Do you have it?"


"Okay, now slowly filter out the smells you know belong in the loft and see if there's anything left that doesn't belong."

Jim nodded. "It's gonna take a minute."

"No problem."

Blair watched him for any sign of a zone out and waited.

After a few moments, Jim frowned.

"You got something?" Blair asked.

He wrinkled his nose and opened his eyes. "No, it's just these damned cleaning supplies. They stink. And they're overpowering everything else."

"I thought we found products that didn't bother you."

"I've been so busy I hired somebody to clean the apartment for me. Apparently, they believe in Lysol."

"So, this is a cleaning service? Do you give them a key? The same one opens the front door and the storage area. It would have been easy to make a copy."

Jim shook his head. "Mrs. Talbot upstairs mentioned that her great niece Missy was looking for work cleaning houses to make extra money for college. Mrs. Talbot already had our keys anyway, so she just let her in when I was gone. But I'm sure it's neither one of them."

"No, of course not. But--"

Blair got up and headed to the phone.


"I don't think Missy would have brought her own cleaning stuff. She would just have used whatever you had around the house."

He dialed.

"Hello, Mrs. Talbot? Hi, it's Blair Sandburg. Yeah, it has been a while. Well, I'm here with him now, but I haven't moved back in. No. Yeah, I miss being around here, too. Look, I had a quick question for you. Jim's allergies have been acting up on him. Yeah, he does have a lot of problems with that. We're trying to figure out what the problem is. Do you know if Missy brings any of her own cleaning supplies when she comes, like Lysol maybe? So she always uses what's here. No, no. That's great, actually. Jim's not allergic to the stuff we have on hand. Thanks for the information, though. It helps us whittle down the possibilities. Okay. You take care, too. Bye, Mrs. Talbot." He hung up.

"So no Lysol?" Jim asked.

Blair shook his head.

"So the perp sprays Lysol to cover his trail?"

"He believes you're a Sentinel. He's ex-military. He's well-organized. There's every reason to believe he'd come prepared. Hell, he might have taken a damned bath in the stuff, if he thought that would put you off the trail."

"Whatever he did, it worked."

"So now we just have to figure out how he got your keys."

"I really can't imagine, Chief. No one else besides Mrs. Talbot has them but me. You didn't--"

"Give anyone else a copy while I lived here? Nah, man. No way. Wasn't that covered under house rule #126?"

Jim blinked at him. "You could have-- I wouldn't have--"

Blair grinned widely.

"Okay, so it would have bugged me," Jim admitted.

"It's not like it was any big deal. Who would I have given the keys to anyway?"

"Still-- It was supposed to be your home, too. If you come back, no more house rules. Except the ones we both agree on."

"Jim, you know why I left. Nothing's changed."

"I know. It's just--" He paused. "We don't know exactly what will happen-- If I end up-- If I'm not around, I want you to live here in the loft."

Blair shook his head. "Stop. Just stop it. I don't want to hear it. That's not going to happen."

"But just in case--"



"I don't want to think about it. Please, Jim."

Jim sighed. "Okay."

"I'm sorry. It's just-- You're not going anywhere, man. Okay?"

Jim nodded. "Okay, Chief."

"Good then. I'm glad we got that straight."

Jim went quiet, but he fidgeted restlessly. Finally, he said, "I've been wondering all evening. Aren't you going to ask me about today?"

Blair almost had to ask him what he meant, but then he realized. "No," he said.

"No?" Jim asked, surprised.

"No. I figure you've already been interrogated enough about your personal life today. But if you want to tell me, that's different. Then I'd love to hear it."

"It's kind of scary, but that shithead Branson-- Well, there were some things he was probably right about."

"I doubt that."

"I wish it weren't true. Believe me. But about me and Jack and Emily-- I just don't know."

"Did you love Jack?"

Jim nodded, his eyes lowered. "Yeah. I did. Or at least, I thought I did. Looking back on it now-- I don't know if it was really love or just an intense amount of gratitude. I was a wreck before him, Blair. Being in Peru and then working Vice--" He shook his head. "It all took its toll on me. When I started working with Jack, it felt like I finally had my head above water again. You know?"

Blair nodded. "I think I do. So how did it start with you two?"

Jim rolled his eyes. "Stupidly. Which probably isn't too surprising. We went out after our shift one night and got hammered. Jack liked to drink, and I liked the company. We must have been at the bar for hours. Somehow, though, we did manage to stumble back here, arguing the whole way. Everything was always one big pissing contest with Jack. We were going at it over who could hold their liquor better, and that turned into who could still get it up. I said something along to the effect that he couldn't get it up if I sucked his dick for him. And he just froze and looked at me. And the way he looked. Hell. And then we were on each other, and it was like neither one of us was drunk at all. We were both so hard, so desperate. Before I even knew what was happening, I was on the floor, on my back, and Jack was on top of me. And his hands were all over my body. And then my clothes were gone. And then he was in me."

"Your first time?" Blair asked, gently.

"Yeah." Jim closed his eyes. "God, it hurt. He just did it with some spit. Afterwards, he couldn't say he was sorry enough for hurting me. He really wasn't all that sober. He was always careful after that."

"Were you okay? I mean, with--"

"Getting fucked?"

Blair nodded.

"Honestly, I didn't really know how to feel about it. I mean, I'd messed around with guys before, but it was all kid's stuff. Me and a buddy jerking each other off. One guy I knew back in the Rangers got carried away one night and blew me. But that was it. So when Jack-- There was a part of me that was totally freaked out by it. But there was another part that liked it. I mean, really liked it."

"So how did it end?"

"Jack, he-- Well, he was a man of big appetites. He loved cars and going to the track and getting drunk and fucking. That's what I was to him. A way to fill that appetite. He enjoyed fucking me. He used to say: Guys know what guys like. But it was never any more to him than that. And then he met Emily. And that was that."

"That must have hurt."

"Yeah, it did. I guess I'd been pretending to myself that it was something else. The night he gave me his it's been nice but speech, I felt like I'd been kicked in the gut."

He reached for Jim's hand. "I'm so sorry."

Jim shook his head. "It just wasn't meant to be. I didn't know shit about making a relationship work and neither did Jack. Plus, I let him get away with too much crap. I idolized him, and he needed that like a hole in the head . That's why Emily was good for him. She called him on his shit. I feel the worst about that, about Emily. She never knew about Jack and me. If she had, she wouldn't have slept with me. I was an asshole, and I took advantage of her. Branson really wasn't that far from the truth."

"You did it out of revenge? I find that hard to believe."

"Not revenge, not exactly. But I didn't exactly want Emily simply for herself, either. I guess I just wanted to feel closer to Jack. But that was a really shitty thing to do to Emily."

"Cut yourself some slack, man. You're only human."

"Tell me about it."

Blair stared off into space, thinking.

"What?" Jim asked, softly.

"I didn't have a clue."

"That was the point."

"But why?"

"Why didn't you tell me?"

Blair's face went warm. "Well-- I guess--"

"You thought it would matter."

"Yeah. I did," he admitted.

"So did I."

"It's kind of stupid, isn't it?" Blair asked.

"Looking back on it now? Yeah. At the time? Not at all. It was the most important thing in the world."

"Why was that?"

"I just didn't want it to color our friendship. I didn't ever want to touch you and feel you tense up, like you were trying to decide if I was just being friendly or trying to make a move on you. I don't know why, but I dreaded the thought of that so much."

"You know it wouldn't have happened like that, right?"

Jim smiled. "At least, I'd like to think it wouldn't have." And then he started fidgeting again, and Blair could feel the awkwardness radiating off. "It's getting late, Chief. I think we should wrap this up for tonight."

He tried not to sound disappointed. He tried not to feel dismissed. "Sure, man. I think we've probably done all we can for now. Tomorrow, we can start working on how to catch this jerk."

Jim nodded and stood up. "That sounds good."

"Let me just get my stuff together," he said and started gathering the case files and his notes.

He knew it was probably for the best.

"If you want-- It's so late. Why don't you just crash here? That'll give us a head start in the morning."

He looked over at Jim. "I don't know--"

He didn't know what Jim wanted, what he was offering. If he was offering.

"You could stay in your old room." Jim drifted over to the French doors and opened them. "I got another bed for it. I could make it up for you."

Blair watched Jim closely, looking for signs. And then he could see. He could see in Jim's face all the things he would never say, the fear and the need and, most miraculously of all, the want. He weighed his options carefully, and then he stood up and walked over to him.

"Yeah, I could do that," he said. "I could sleep by myself in that little bed." He took a step closer, making himself at home in Jim's personal space. "Or I could sleep upstairs with you."

Jim's face was open and vulnerable and pleasantly stunned, a look Blair had always hoped to see.

"It's probably not a good idea," Jim offered half-heartedly, his breath growing heavier.

Blair shook his head. "Probably not." He ran his hands up Jim's chest and wound them around his neck. Jim's arm wrapped instinctively around his waist. "But who's ever gonna know but us?" Blair asked.

"Nobody, I guess."

"Nobody," Blair murmured, his lips against Jim's cheek.

"I just don't want you to think-- I don't want to be like him."

"Never." Blair kissed his temple.

"I would never hurt you like that," Jim said earnestly. "Never force you against your will."

"I know." Blair kissed his neck and whispered in his ear. "But you've got to know that you would never have to."

And that did it. Jim was wrapped around him, kissing him, eagerly and quite well, trying to get him out of his shirt. The world feel away from him. All he cared about was getting them both upstairs to the bed without losing the contact of his body pressed against Jim's.

They kissed and touched and stumbled over to the stairs. There was a moment of danger about halfway up when he touched Jim's cock through his pants, and Jim jerked so hard with surprise and pleasure that he almost went tumbling head over heels back down the steps. Fortunately, Blair managed to catch hold of his shirt and pulled him in for another kiss, saving him from getting his head cracked open.

When they did finally make it up the stairs, Jim pulled back just long enough to ask, "Can I undress you?"

Blair unconsciously licked his lips. "Oh, yeah. Yeah."

And then Jim's hands were on him, and it was every wet dream he'd ever chastised himself for having about him. Jim's hands tangled in his shirt and pulled it over his head. Jim's eyes were on his body, looking at him like he was made out of something precious. And it made him so, so hard.

Jim kissed him again and ran a hand reverently down his chest. "God, Blair, could you be any more beautiful?"

And that set every liquid part of him to boil. He grabbed Jim by the shirt again, gently manhandling him, and kissed him soundly. Jim moaned, and Blair could feel the same sweltering heat that was inside him radiating back from Jim, a shared inferno. He stripped Jim's shirt off, and then he moved his hands to Jim's waist, to his belt buckle.

"Can I?"

Jim could only nod, out of breath, his face red.

Blair undid his belt, opened his pants and pushed them down Jim's long legs, taking his briefs along with them. Jim stepped out of the tangled clothes and kicked them away. Blair sucked in his breath. Sure, he'd caught glimpses of Jim undressed before, coming out of the shower or in the locker room at the gym. But he'd never had Jim standing before him naked, aroused and his. It was suddenly really hard to breathe.

Jim looked at him, his eyes pleading. It took a moment for Blair to understand what he wanted. When he did, he took Jim's hands and guided them to his waist.

"Please," he said.

He could feel Jim's hands trembling, even through the thick denim, as he unbuttoned his fly and pushed the jeans down over his hips. Blair quickly shucked them the rest of the way off. Jim held his arm to help him balance as he stepped out of them. It had been forever since he felt nervous about being naked with someone, but suddenly, with Jim, it was like the first time all over again.

Jim gently brushed his fingers along his side and over his hip, tracing with his thumb the hollow of his hip. Blair's lungs burned. He couldn't seem to make them work right. Jim looked into his eyes, his face filled with wonder.

"I can feel you," he said, his voice hoarse and amazed.

Blair pulled Jim into his arms, and it felt as if their skin was kissing. "I feel you, too."

"No, I mean I really feel you." Jim's hands ran lightly over his shoulders and down his back. "I can feel your blood moving through your body. The heat pulsing off you. The buzz of your skin. Your cells vibrating. I can feel everything. God, Chief. I feel you."

Blair blinked at him. "That's-- God. Have you ever-- before?"

Jim shook his head. "Never. But I don't think I've ever really let my senses go with anyone before. I didn't feel safe enough."

"But you do with me?"

Jim smiled at him and nodded. And then his expression turned more serious. "I think you're the only person I've ever really felt safe with, the only one I truly trust."

"Ah, Jim. Jim." And then he kissed him. And Jim's mouth was so sweet, so generous.

"God, I missed you, Blair."

"Me, too. Me, too. Missed you so much," he managed to say between kisses.

Jim gently guided him back a few paces and onto the bed. He lay back, and Jim lay on top of him.

"Is this okay?" Jim whispered against the skin of his throat.


Jim kissed his way down his neck to his chest. "I've dreamed about this."

Blair ran his hands down Jim's back, luxuriating in the feel of him. He'd always counted Jim's back as one of nature's more perfect works of art. But it felt gorgeous, too, strong and alive and beautiful.

"What did you dream, Jim?" he asked, breathily.

Jim kissed and teased his nipples. "I could always hear you."

"Hear me?" Blair asked, his face screwed up with pleasure as Jim gently suckled his nipple.

Jim pressed a kiss to his belly. "I could hear you when you touched yourself."

Blair felt his skin getting hotter. "You listened?"

"I'm sorry."

He shook his head. "No. It's okay. It's--" Just the idea of Jim listening to him jerk off made him so hard he had trouble talking.

"I know I shouldn't have, but I loved the way you sounded. So intense. So joyful. And I used to dream it was me making you sound like that."

Jim pulled at his nipple ring with his tongue.

"Ahhh!" he cried out.

Jim kissed behind his ear and whispered, "That's it. That's the way I always wanted it to be."

"Please, Jim."

"Please what, baby?"

"Touch me."

Jim pulled himself up onto his knees and smiled down at him. He stroked his belly and played in his body hair, teasingly following the tapering line down to his penis.

"You've got the most gorgeous cock, Chief." He pressed a kiss into the crease of his thigh, his breath stirring his pubic hair.

"I want you, Jim," he said, his voice shaking.

Jim caressed his hip. "I want you, too."

And then Jim's mouth was on him, and he realized that he'd never known anything about heat before. Because nothing had ever been blistering and charged the way it was to have Jim tonguing his cock head, licking in broad swipes along his shaft, swallowing him down. His belly tightened, and the muscles in his legs trembled. He ran his hands through Jim's hair and murmured soft, incomprehensible little nothings.

"Make love to me, Jim," he begged.

Jim pulled back from his cock, but continued fondling his balls. "I am, Chief," he said.

Blair shook his head, his hair sliding across the pillow. "Take me."

"Blair, I--"

He reached for Jim's hand and held onto it as hard as he could. "Don't give him any power, Jim. Remember? This is what I want. And I'm pretty sure it's what you want, too. So, please."

Jim leaned over and kissed him. "I do want it."

"Then do it."

Jim looked deeply into his eyes, and in that moment, it was like they could see into each other, like they knew. Jim smiled and nodded. And then he leaned across the bed. Blair listened to the opening and closing of the night stand drawers the way people listened to a favorite song, fondly, expectantly.

Jim kissed him again, and then the slick fingers were touching him between his legs, slipping inside him. "I love you," Jim whispered.

Blair blinked in surprise, and then his mouth trembled. And he finally understood, after all the long, lonely years. This was what he'd been waiting for. This was the lurking sense that something was missing, the empty place in the pit of his stomach. This was the cold feeling alone at night in his bed, and often enough, with somebody else in their bed. It was the dissatisfaction after every round of sex with someone whose only goal was to coax orgasms out of his body, to get off thanks to his hands or his mouth or his dick.

He'd been waiting all this time to make love with someone who not only knew his name, but who knew his heart.

Jim withdrew his fingers. "Are you ready?" he asked.

He nodded earnestly. "I've waited so long."

Jim knelt between his thighs and lifted his legs. "You don't have to wait any more." And then he gently pushed inside.

Blair eyes went big, and he moaned loudly. It had never been like this before. It had never been so good, so complete.

"Please," he begged.

And Jim began to move inside him.

"Touch yourself, Chief," he said. "I want to see you."

The raw need in Jim's voice made him tremble. He took his cock in his hand and stroked himself in time to Jim's thrusts. And all the little whimpers and sighs and the animal sounds that Jim had wanted to hear came pouring out of him.

"So gorgeous. So fucking gorgeous," Jim said, moving faster and faster inside him.

"Jim," he gasped.

"You are so beautiful," Jim told him, his face strained, his orgasm approaching. "And I love you so much."

"Love you, too. Love you so much," he said.

And Jim came, urgently, crying out his name. And before the world went gray on him, too, he realized this was something else he'd always longed for. Someone who would come because he told him that he loved him.

Familiar Stranger continued in Part Five.

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