Rag and Bone

Written for the Spook Me Ficathon.

Many thanks to T Verano for her most helpful and thorough beta reading.





"A fool there was and he made his prayer
(Even as you and I!)
To a rag and a bone and a hank of hair
(We called her the woman who did not care)
But the fool he called her his lady fair-
(even as you and I!)

'The Vampire' by Rudyard Kipling


The hunger's become both an enemy and a friend. The cramps in his belly, well, they hurt, as does the scrape of damp, dank concrete against his face as he tries and fails to find a comfortable position. But only the dead feel no pain. And he's starting to anticipate the agony as a break in the monotony.

The thirst is simply a constant; an unvarying, unrelieved torment. He can't decide what he'd sell his soul for, though; water, or the chance to stretch out his legs.

At first he was scared and angry but now he's just bored.

If he wasn't delirious, he thinks that might worry him.



*****


Two Weeks Earlier

Jim stared down at the body, plagued by a sense of wrongness that he couldn't quite pin down. Blair felt it, too, judging by his restlessness and his pallor; though that could have been down to his desire to get the hell out. Blair didn't deal well with murder victims, and this one, young, blonde, once pretty, would be pushing a lot of his buttons. He was over by the window now, staring out at the rain striking the pane, with his fingers drumming a matching beat on his leg, because he knew better than to touch anything.

Jim didn't have buttons when it came to murder. Just a quiet determination to find the person responsible, no matter who the victim was.

Okay, a dead child, that was maybe a little harder than most to deal with.

This was no child; he estimated her to be late-twenties, though the way in which she'd died made it hard to tell. Gaunt, filthy, her broken nails crusted with blood as if she'd used them to claw her way free of some prison -- or attacked someone -- and she was lying in the middle of a clean, comfortable apartment that was, apparently, her home.

What's wrong with this picture?

"Jim? We're ready to take the body now."

Jim turned his head and gave the medical examiner a brief smile as they both stepped out of the way of the two men lifting the corpse onto a gurney. "Sure, Dan. I've got a witness to question but I'll swing by later and see what you have for me."

Dan rolled his eyes. "Make it much later. Even tomorrow. I need to autopsy the victims from that house fire on Ridgeway, and I was hoping to get home before midnight --"

"Dan…" Jim wasn't above cajoling if it got his case moving quickly. "This one's a real challenge. Interesting."

Dan pursed his lips. "They're all interesting," he said. "But, yes, there're a few points --"

"Oh, God, where are they taking her?"

The voice from over by the doorway was high, distressed, and Jim winced. Dealing with distraught friends and family wasn't high on his list of favorite activities. His only witness -- the victim's roommate -- had been removed from the scene while the Forensics team did their initial sweep. The building superintendent had grudgingly unlocked the apartment across the hallway, number 212, currently empty, and let them use it. She'd been given a chair, a cup of coffee, and a uniformed officer to watch over her until Jim had finished his own examination of the crime scene.

The uniform hung back, his face sheepish, as if her dash forward had caught him off guard. Jim made a mental note to talk to him later and replace that look with one of pure misery. Idiot.

Dan shrugged and walked toward the door, giving the woman blocking it a sympathetic pat as he passed her. "Later, Jim," he called back.

Jim took a deep breath and went to deal with his witness. The woman who shared Anna Bancroft's apartment was disturbingly similar to the dead woman. They were about the same build, with the same light hair, although Diane Simons had hers done up in a complicated twist, not hanging in a snarled, grimy tangle.

"Where?" she repeated.

Jim really didn't want to be blunt, but it was difficult to dress up the truth. "To the morgue. The medical examiner -- that man you just saw -- will need to do an autopsy --"

"Oh, my God!"

He gave her a tight, patient smile that was meant to be reassuring, and led her back into 212, after giving Blair a whistle to get his attention and a crooked finger to get him moving.

The apartment was furnished with the basics and was clean. The air smelled damp, rather than stuffy, as if the windows had been opened recently and the rain-soaked air had swept through them, though they were closed now. Diane sat down in the chair she'd been in before; upholstered back and seat, but with smooth wooden arms that she gripped, her fingers flexing nervously.

Blair took a seat on a deep, comfortable couch opposite her. A nice couch; if it hadn't been upholstered in fire-engine red, Jim would have approved of it wholeheartedly, but he couldn't picture it in his loft, not really.

"An autopsy…" Diane shuddered. "That's horrible."

Blair leaned forward, his pallor replaced by a more natural color. "You know, some tribal cultures consider --"

Jim suppressed a sigh and joined Sandburg on the couch. He was ninety percent sure Blair made these stories up. Ninety-two percent sure. One day, he was going to care enough to do some research on them and eliminate the eight percent of doubt. He allowed Sandburg thirty seconds to explain about releasing spirits through painted patterns on the skin along lines of force (if he didn't live with him and know he was clean, Jim would swear the kid was high on something other than life) and then shut him up with a terse, "Chief".

"Yes, Jim?" Wounded blue eyes. Oh, he'd pay for that later. Blair had ways.

"I'd like to ask Ms. Simons --"

"Diane," she said, too automatically for it to carry any suggestion of intimacy or flirtation. "I'm -- I was Anna's cousin."

That explained the likeness.

"And you live with her in that apartment across the hall? Number 215?"

"Just recently, yes." Diane blew her nose with a prosaic efficiency that made Jim feel better disposed toward her. He wasn't unsympathetic, but he needed to start work here, and so far she hadn't been very helpful. "My place had termites and I didn't want to go back… she said I could stay here. It's been about a month, I guess."

"And the date you last saw her…?"

Diane met his eyes, her own dry now, shadowed with bewilderment. "I don't know what you mean. Breakfast. I saw her today at breakfast." The two apartments had identical layouts and she gestured vaguely toward the small kitchen, visible through an archway off the main living room and then frowned as if she'd expected it to be the one she'd eaten in.

It was five in the afternoon. The woman who'd just been carried out of her former home had been severely dehydrated, her cheeks hollowed by hunger.

"Breakfast?" Jim repeated. "That's just not possible. You saw the body --" Blair gave him a disappointed look as if he'd been callous.

"Oh, my God." Tears welled up again. "I know, I know, okay. But I swear it was today, I swear. She -- she spilled her juice and it ran off the table onto my skirt and I had to change and I was late and I yelled at her, can you believe that? And when I came back out, she'd gone and I never -- I never saw her --" The tears choked up the halting account of a scene Jim imagined had played out in more than one household in the city that morning. Blair had done it to him only the week before, except it'd been that green sludge he drank and it had crawled across the table, giving them both time to get out of the way.

He'd given the kitchen table in 215 a cursory glance and seen the sticky residue coating it -- smelled it, too; sweetly acidic. Orange and tangerine. It had been wiped up; he'd seen the tracks the cloth had made through the pooled liquid, but juice was tenacious and whoever had done the cleaning hadn't done it well. His vision had sharpened as he looked for fingerprints, and he'd just found a partial and was losing himself in the intricate whorls when an elbow in his ribs had jolted his concentration.

He received a second jab in the same spot and realized that his attention had drifted again. God; twice in the space of thirty minutes? What the hell was wrong with him? This time it had been the nap of the fabric on the arm of the couch, luring his fingers into stroking it over and over. His fingers were faintly sticky and he sniffed them curiously. Citrus. Juice from the table in Anna's apartment? Had he touched it when he was zoning? He'd have to ask Sandburg later.

Blair gave him a casual, rather than meaningful look, covering for him perfectly, and brought him back into a conversation which seemed to have been all empty reassurances that you never knew, did you, but you couldn't live life thinking that way, yadda-yadda.

He gathered his thoughts and resisted the urge to tread on Sandburg's foot or something by way of repayment for the painful dig. Diane was staring at him, her eyes speculative, and he wondered, as he always did, if he'd drooled or something. God, he hated zoning.

"We'll need to track Ms. Bancroft's movements after she left here," Jim said, and took out his notebook and pencil to avoid that searching look.

"Well, she went to work, of course," Diane said. "She's a legal secretary at Paulson and Downs, over on Century Road, two blocks away. She's been there for, oh, five or six years, I think."

"Okay." Jim made a note of the address. "And you didn't speak to her at all after that? No phone calls, e-mails?"

"No." Diane shook her head. "I'm between jobs right now; I was in a hurry this morning and stressed because I had an interview." Her mouth twisted in a rueful smile and then quivered. "I didn’t get the job and I spent the afternoon going around half a dozen agencies. I got back here planning to take a long soak and cry on Anna's shoulder over a bottle of wine, but the door was open and there were all these people and I pushed past them and I saw Anna -- oh, God!"

"I know," Jim said, hoping that she wasn't going to cry again. "And that would have been --" He consulted his notebook. "About 4.20 p.m.?"

"I suppose so," she said vaguely. Her voice sharpened. "Sorry, but I didn't check my watch."

"It's okay," Blair said, shooting Jim an admonishing look. "The police who responded to the 911 from the apartment told us when you got there."

She gave him a grateful smile. "Did they? Well, that's kind of them."

It wasn't the way Jim would have described officers doing their job, but he let it pass.

"You identified the body --"

"They made me," she said, transferring her gaze to Jim again. "When I said I lived there, they took me over and made me -- made me look, made me -- she smelled." Her hand came up to cover her mouth. "I feel sick."

"I can imagine how distressing it was, ma'am," Jim said. He could hear how wooden he sounded and he didn't know why he was finding it so difficult to sympathize with her. He could tell Blair was going to be all over him when he left, wanting to know why he couldn't lighten up at times like this; show a bit of empathy. Nice to have something to look forward to, along with the autopsy.

He stared at her. "Can you explain the condition of the body? You're certain it was your cousin, Anna Bancroft?"

Her heartbeat was steady, her eyes unblinking. "Yes, of course I'm sure. And, no, I can't, I just --" She lifted her hands helplessly. "It's impossible."

"No," Jim said. "It's just strange." He ignored Blair's snort and continued questioning her, making notes like 'single', 'quiet', 'hasn't dated in a year' and a direct quote, delivered with convincing force: 'Enemies? Anna? No!'.

When he thought he had enough to be going on with, he stood. "I'll need you to come down to the station and make an official statement tomorrow morning, Ms. Simmons. Around nine, please." He passed over his card. "Here's my number if you can think of anything that might have a bearing on this."

She took his card and stood, glancing around. "I can't -- where can I stay? Can I go back --?"

"To the apartment?" Jim shook his head. "The Forensics team will be in there for a while and it's an active crime scene. And you won't be able to remove anything from there, either. I'm sorry."

She bit her lip. "Oh. Not even clothes -- a toothbrush?"

"Sorry."

Blair was a solid lump of disapproval by his side but Jim didn't care. Procedure was procedure.

"Maybe you can stay here," Blair suggested. "We could ask the superintendent."

Diane sniffed wetly. "Just across from where she -- I couldn't possibly."

"There's a motel at the end of the block," Jim said tersely. "How about you check in there for the night?"

"We can drop you off," Blair said, his eyes bright with the zeal of a man doing a good deed. "We're going that way."

Jim opened his mouth to point out that they weren't and then closed it again. He didn't have anything to hold her on, but that didn't mean that he wanted to lose track of her. "Sure."

She picked up the large purse she'd been carrying when she walked in, according to the uniforms; a purse that had been searched with her permission and revealed nothing beyond the usual crap and clutter women carried around with them. Jim remembered picking up Carolyn's purse once and being shocked at the sheer weight of it. "Thank you." Her smile wavered when it was focused on Jim and warmed appreciably when it moved to Blair. "And whoever did this --?"

"I'll find him," Jim promised. "Or her."

"Or what," Blair muttered, low enough that Jim guessed it was meant just for his ears. "Man, talk about freaky."

Blair sure had a knack for summing up a situation.


*****


"Roommate? Cousin?" Mr. Paulson shook his head slowly, a measured rejection of what they'd told him. "No. Impossible. Anna was my late wife's niece -- which is in no way why she was hired, in no way -- and she has no cousin named Diane. Impossible. No."

Paulson's repetitive manner of speech was driving him crazy, but Jim forgot his annoyance and concentrated on absorbing this new data. "You're sure?"

Paulson rolled his eyes expressively. "Why, yes, Detective, I am. But don't take my word for it." He leaned over and pressed a button on the intercom on his desk. "Mary? Come in, please."

"Who is --?"

"She's Ray Downs' secretary," Paulson said. "Anna's best friend." Annoyance seemed to impose unnatural brevity on him.

The door opened and a young woman, eyes swollen, face tear-blotched, came in. "Yes, Mr. Paulson?"

"These… gentlemen wish to ask you some questions." Paulson's gaze went to Sandburg as if to underscore the irony of calling cops gentlemen, especially when they looked like hippies. Jim had introduced Sandburg as his partner, without elaborating on his role, so the assumption that he was a cop was understandable. He didn't think Sandburg looked any worse than usual, but he was used to him. "About Anna."

"She was such a lovely woman. I don't understand it." Mary sniffed, her gray eyes blinking away tears. Jim was starting to feel soaked in grief, dripping with it. "She left here at four -- a little early, but she wanted to do some shopping and she'd --"

"Yes, yes, I told her it was in order," Paulson said, waving his hand impatiently. "She'd stayed late the night before. Quite in order, quite."

Mary gave a helpless shrug. "And she was fine."

"She left at four?" Jim said. The 911 call from Anna's apartment had been logged at 4:05. Two blocks. Stairs. It wasn't impossible, but people would have noticed a woman breaking Olympic records for the sprint. Anna walked to work, according to Paulson, and she didn't own a car. They'd have to check to see if she'd been picked up by a taxi. "Are you sure?"

Paulson's breath exploded in an outraged puff of air. "Detective Ellison! I saw her leave myself. Four precisely. Not a minute earlier, not a minute later."

Mary nodded. "That's right."

"Her cousin arrived home at 4:20," Jim said, thinking aloud. "The uniforms were already there. From the 911 tape, Anna made the call herself."

He'd heard it, a weak, unraveling whisper, husky and defeated, five simple words: Anna. I'm Anna. Help me.

"Impossible."

"And then her cousin arrived and identified the body."

"Her cousin?" Mary gave Jim a doubtful look. "I'm sorry, I don't know --? What cousin?"

"Diane Simons," Sandburg said helpfully. Jim let him talk. "She lived with Anna."

"What?" Mary shook her head firmly. "No. No, she didn't. Why, I was over at Anna's every week; we had a girl's night, you know, watched a movie, drank a bottle or two of --" She caught Mr. Paulson's eye and cleared her throat. "A glass of wine, chips, if we weren't dieting, you know… we talked…neither of us is seeing anyone and we--" She shook her head again and the broken fragments of sentences became whole, decisive statements. "She lived alone. It was a one-bedroom apartment, for heaven's sake, and even when I'd had too much to drink, she never asked me to sleep over; I always got a taxi home."

Jim felt his face slacken with shock, quickly followed by panic. One bedroom? Shit, of course there was only one. There had been a tiny spare room -- smaller even than the space Sandburg inhabited -- but it had smelled musty, unused, and there had been no bed, just a table piled high with boxes.

Fuck.

"What was she wearing?" Blair asked abruptly as Jim tried to make sense of it all. "Anna, I mean, when she left work."

Paulson frowned and hesitated long enough that Jim wouldn't have trusted anything he'd said, but Mary answered at once with a description of the outfit Diane had been wearing. The body had been dressed in jeans and a long-sleeved cotton shirt; Diane in a white silk top and navy suit.

Diane Simons, last seen checking in at the Plaza Motel (Cable TV! Complimentary Newspaper and Continental Breakfast!), had just moved to the top of his suspect list.

In fact, right now, she was the only name on it.

One bedroom.

How the hell had he missed that?

*****


"I don't know, Jim," Blair said for the third time. "I missed it, too."

"It's my job not to miss blindingly obvious -- Hey! It's a green light, buddy, green; move it, will you?"

"I don't think he can hear you no matter how loud you yell." Blair being soothing was just about the most annoying thing on the planet. "And we're almost there."

"Yeah." Jim gave him a sidelong glance. "And if she's still there, whoever the hell she is, I'll cook dinner all week, okay?" He slammed his hand against the wheel, jarring it painfully. "I can't believe this. Simon's going to -- God."

"He'll understand."

"Will you just give it a rest?" he snarled. "I screwed up. Big time. Simon's going to rip me a new one and I deserve it."

Sandburg nodded, his hair falling across his face. "That's it, Jim. Put on the hair shirt. Start the self-flagellation early --"

"Do you mind?" Jim inquired acidly. Blair dealing out sarcasm was better than sympathy, but not by much. "I'm being realistic."

"None of this makes sense."

"That's supposed to be news, Chief?"

"No, think about it. We've gotten so caught up in finding out that Diane isn't who she said she was that we're overlooking the other inconsistencies."

Jim opened his mouth to blast Sandburg -- and maybe the idiot who'd just cut in front of him, too -- but changed his mind. The kid was right.

"Yeah… nothing adds up. The whole case is screwy, start to finish."

"Alive and well in one place; dead and --" Blair shuddered. "Skin and bone, man, skin and bone, somewhere else."

"It's impossible," Jim said. "Which is good."

"It is?"

"Yeah." Jim signaled a right and turned into the motel's parking lot. "Because it means we can forget about trying to make it make sense."

"Huh?"

Jim turned off the engine, feeling suddenly better about the whole deal. "Sure. Forget about what we were led to believe -- and look at it a different way; a simpler way."

He watched Blair get it, his mouth rounding in a silent 'ohh…' of comprehension.

"We only have Diane's word for it that the body was Anna's," Jim said, spelling it out. "From the photographs in the apartment, it was a reasonable match, but let's face it, the way that body looked, it could have been anyone."

Blair grimaced, obviously remembering the state of the corpse. "Yeah."

Two people, not one in two places. And 'Diane' was in Anna's clothes…

Blair jerked upright, the seatbelt tightening with a clunk and spoke what Jim was thinking. "Jim! It was her! Anna was Diane!"

"Faking her own death, you mean?" Sandburg nodded. "It's neat and tidy," Jim said slowly, already finding the weaknesses in the theory, "and you're right; Diane sure as hell looked more like the woman in the photographs than the victim did, but you're forgetting the 911 call; she told us her name was Anna with her dying breath."

"That doesn't mean she wasn't lying," Sandburg said.

"Cynicism," Jim said with an approving nod. "Huh. I'm rubbing off on you. Fair point, especially as Anna had only just left work, with witnesses to prove it who know her well and had no reason to lie." He thought it over. "And that Anna was healthy and fit and the body wasn't -- but why fake your death? And who was the body?"

"My head aches," Sandburg said after a short silence, in which Jim could almost hear his brain working furiously.

"No kidding," Jim muttered and got out of his truck, only to discover, as expected, that Ms. Simons had checked in, yes, but wasn't in her room, and, from the absence of her coat and purse, wasn't ever planning to check out officially.

*****


They got back to the station, with Jim prepared to face Simon's wrath, and discovered that he was in a meeting. Jim headed down to the morgue with an unaccustomed feeling of relief, Blair lagging behind, his reluctance clear.

"You don't have to, you know."

"It's easier every time." Blair was already fish-belly-white and breathing shallowly through his mouth.

Jim put his hand on Sandburg's arm and guided him into an alcove by a row of filing cabinets. "Blair -- you don't have to," he repeated. "I'll fill you in. Go back upstairs; grab us both some coffee, and if Simon turns up, keep your head down, okay?"

"You zoned today," Blair said, his full lower lip jutting out stubbornly. "Suppose it happens in there?"

God, the kid drove him nuts, but Jim couldn't think of anyone else he wanted backing him up. Affection, unspoken, unacknowledged, was always present between them, had been from early on, but there was respect, too, and it was that emotion that made Jim draw back his hand after a single pat delivered to Blair's cheek. Belatedly, he realized that he was still holding onto Blair's arm, not that Blair was trying to break free. He glanced down at his hand, curled around the green and brown plaid of Blair's shirt and absently rubbed his thumb over the swell of muscle. The pattern danced in front of his eyes, complex, an intricate weave of shades and strands --

"And that makes twice," Blair murmured. His hand had just delivered a hard tug to Jim's hair, leaving a patch of scalp stinging.

"Sandburg, can you find a kinder way to snap me out of these?" he demanded.

"I tried talking, I tried shaking you," Blair said patiently. "After the hair pull, I was going for something even more drastic, so just be glad it worked."

"What were you going to -- no, don't tell me." Jim stepped back. "Okay, you're with me. Don't faint, don't puke, don't make me say 'I told you so'."

Blair sniffed and then went a shade paler. "God, the smell down here…"

"You get used to it." Jim eyed him with some sympathy. "There's a jar of goop inside the door that you can smear under your nose; supposed to cut the stink down."

"I tried that, remember? Gave me a rash."

"Oh, right."

"But it's not a bad idea," Blair said. He patted himself down and then extracted a small brown bottle from his jeans pocket.

"What the hell is that?"

"Essential oil. Lavender."

Once opened, the scent of the oil made Jim's nose prickle and his eyes water until he'd gotten used to it. He didn't bother asking why Blair was carrying it around with him, but it helped Blair to endure the morgue for a full three minutes longer than his previous best, and that was enough time for them to discover that the body on the table was Anna.

Fingerprints didn't lie the way people did and Anna's prints were on record following a minor burglary at her apartment four years before. She hadn't requested that her prints be destroyed after the investigation was over (it had been a local gang of teenagers paying for their addiction, not to drugs, but the latest in clothes, games, and computers) and they were there in the system.

"The body's severely dehydrated and judging by the stomach contents, or lack of them, she hadn't eaten for a few days, but that's not what killed her," Dan said, his hands deft as they parted the lank hair on Anna's head. "See that? What you have there is a standard blunt force trauma. I noticed it at the scene but I wanted to do some X-rays to make sure. And from the marks on her wrists and ankles, she's been tied up. Rope. I found some fibers in her skin and sent them to the lab and they should be able to give you the type."

"Someone hit her with something," Jim summed up. He shook his head. "Just wasn't enough to torture her…"

Dan gave him a curious look. "We don't know what happened yet, Jim."

"She couldn't have fallen -- weak from hunger -- hit her head?" Blair asked from the doorway, his words escaping on carefully shallow breaths.

"No." Dan sounded definite. "From the location of the depression, that wouldn't have been likely; it's on top of her head and the skull's caved in -- look, you can feel the floating fragments of bone under the skin."

The door closed on Blair's rapidly retreating figure and Jim exchanged a grin with Dan. "He's getting better."

"Hey, any day he doesn't pass out is an improvement," Dan said dryly. He chewed his lip. "Jim, I don't recall seeing anything near where the body was lying that she could've hit her head on."

"Nothing close," Jim agreed. "She could have staggered a few yards?"

"Not a chance. Not after that killing blow. And given her physical condition, I don't think she could have traveled far, so where was she being held without food or water?"

"Beats me," Jim said. "It can't have been in the apartment; the only room that had a lock was the bathroom, and it was as flimsy as they usually are --"

"And on the inside of the door," Dan pointed out, beating Jim to it and earning himself an eye roll. "Plus there would have been a water supply."

"Yeah…We'll find it," Jim told him. Anna's fingernails had been choked with dust as well as her own blood; she'd broken free of somewhere.

Jim was just glad there had been no splinters of wood mixed in with the dust and blood. Blair's head was filled with enough gruesome images for one day; if he started thinking that she'd been inside a coffin, well…

*****


"What do you mean, all the prints in the apartment -- both apartments -- match Anna Bancroft's?"

Simon wasn't yelling, but his voice still hurt Jim's ears, each syllable a hammer blow of sound and fury.

"Captain, I don't get it either." Jim made a helpless, palms-up gesture. "We interviewed the neighbors and no one saw Anna arrive, just the police, and then this Diane woman. Which doesn't mean much; someone not making any noise and with a key could have easily slipped in unnoticed. The two apartments are at the end of an L-shaped corridor; the short end, and the elevator's just around the corner."

"Pretty private," Simon conceded. "Not going to help us." He shot Jim an exasperated glance. "These fingerprints --"

Jim had remembered seeing Diane's hands gripping the wooden arms of the chair she was sitting in and got the Forensics team to lift prints from the chair in 212 and the table in 215. The results hadn't been what he wanted to hear. Simon wasn't the only one feeling frustrated.

"I saw the Simons woman's hands on that chair, Simon, and she didn't have a chance to wipe the prints off. And that juice spill was recent."

"She could remembered she'd touched the chair and doubled back to take care of it," Simon said. He arranged the papers on his desk into a pile, stared at them, and then tossed them aside to fan out untidily. "When you were interviewing the employer, maybe."

"If she'd wiped the chair, where did the prints we lifted come from? Anna was in the morgue by then," Blair pointed out, bringing Simon's fulminating glare down on his head.

"'We', Sandburg? Since when are you part of my forensics team? Did I miss a memo?"

"Give the kid a break, Simon," Jim protested. "He's right."

Simon got up and poured himself some coffee. "This doesn't make sense."

"Twins?" Jim hazarded.

"With the same fingerprints?" Simon shook his head. "And there's no mystery about this woman; she's lived here all her life; the uncle would've known if she had a twin."

"Uncle by marriage," Jim said, but he knew Simon was right. This case just wasn't adding up.

*****


For the second time that day, Jim stood in Anna Bancroft's apartment. Something Dan had said had been nagging at him. Weak as she was, Anna couldn't have walked far -- and why go to her own apartment to call 911; anyone would have made the call for her once they saw the state she was in.

Unless she'd been held close enough that it made sense to go there.

The dust in her hair was still being analyzed, but Jim had taken a pinch of it in his fingers when Dan was washing his hands and it had been from standard plasterboard as far as he could tell, mixed in with detritus from cobwebs.

"She was kept around here, I'm sure of it," he said to Blair. He stared at the walls. "Not in here, because we'd have found a hiding place… but close."

Blair stood beside him, his hands in his pockets. He still smelled of lavender but the scent was muted now, already absorbed into the complex, ever-changing superficial smell Blair carried with him unknowingly. Jim wondered sometimes if people realized just how impossible it was to cover up the natural scent of a body. He could cut through all of the red herrings of soap, shampoo, and deodorant and identify the core smell, the signature scent, the one no amount of scrubbing could erase. It wasn't susceptible to being broken down; it was elemental, tagged in his head with a name for people he knew well.

Blair… Blair smelled nice.

"If she clawed her way out of somewhere, made the phone call, and then was hit on the head, who hit her?" Blair asked.

"I don't know. The Diane woman, most likely."

"And who was masquerading as her at the office?" Blair persisted. "Diane again?"

"I don't know," Jim ground out. "I don't know how the fingerprints can be the same; I don't know why she was targeted, why she was left without food or water, why she was killed --"

"You can guess that last one," Blair said, his voice soft. "Someone had to stop her talking."

Jim turned and looked at him. Blair's eyes were shadowed with tiredness, as if the day had worn him out, but he was there, he was sticking close. "She said enough, Chief. She asked for help. And we didn't get there in time."

"No, we didn't." Blair stepped closer, and closer he didn't smell of lavender; it was as if Jim was drawn in deep, inside Blair's personal space, with everything else outside. "But you're here now, Jim. Look down. Follow her tracks from the phone. Follow them back to the point of origin."

Blair was running his hands up and down Jim's arms, encouragingly, the touch firm and confident. When had they gotten this relaxed around each other? That had to have a point of origin, too, but it was so early on, Jim couldn't isolate it.

He broke away reluctantly from Blair's touch and did what Blair had suggested. His fingers could feel the grit of dust deep in the carpet pile, a wavering line of it. He followed it back to the front door and, with a lack of surprise that was in itself a shock, across the hallway to the doorway of the empty apartment.

"In there?" Blair asked. "Jim, are you sure -- no, cancel that, of course you are. Sorry."

"We'll need the key," Jim said absently, still crouched down, the grit and dust digging into his fingers like Braille for Sentinels. "Stay here and don't let anyone in."

Blair swallowed. "Uh, sure." Jim straightened and began to walk to the elevator, just around the corner. Blair called after him. "Jim?"

"What?"

"Don't take too long, okay?"

He raised his hand in a reassurance of sorts and hid his grin because really, Blair jittery with nerves wasn't that amusing.

And he didn't blame him. This case was stirring up some memories neither of them wanted to surface.

*****


Jim fitted the key in the lock and then paused and took out the key to Anna's apartment and compared them. "They're the same," he discovered.

"Really?" Blair peered at them. "Huh. What're the odds?"

"I don't know, but remind me to have a talk to the supervisor before we leave," Jim said, scowling. "So Diane could get in here any time she wanted, nice and quiet. Interesting."

"If you say so." Blair pushed the door open and walked in, flicking on the lights using a knuckle, not a finger, the way Jim had taught him. "So where do we go from here?"

Jim dropped to one knee and ran his fingers over the carpet. "Right where you're standing, Chief, so get out of the way."

"How the hell did I miss this?" he asked Sandburg a short time later when he'd found where the trail ended, behind a couch in the spare room. "It's like I walked around here blind."

Blair frowned. "It isn't like you, Jim. I mean, you weren't looking for anything, not in this apartment, and you never came into this room, but your senses, they see more than you consciously realize, and I'd have expected them to --"

"Yeah. Me, too. Especially once I found that sticky patch on the arm of the couch out in the other room. Diane must have come in here after breakfast and brushed against it; she wouldn't have walked around with her hands like that for long." Jim hauled the couch farther away from the wall without much difficulty; cheap piece of crap, the trailer-trash cousin of the aristocrat in the other room, and revealed an irregular hole in the wall.

Anna had been kept in a space no wider than a coffin, in the darkness. A soiled gag and frayed ropes were in the small space, thrown there by her captor, Jim guessed, tidying up the evidence. Diane must have come back, killed Anna after she'd realized she'd called for help, tidied up in Anna's own apartment, dumped the evidence in this one, and left quickly, knowing the police were minutes away from arriving. Then she'd walked in a short time later, all shocked face and facile tears.

Bitch.

He saw threads hanging from a nail where Anna must have painstakingly worked at the ropes which bound her; smelled the sour, organic reek of waste and the acrid stink of fear.

"Anna got free. She couldn't have known if Diane -- Anna --"

"Call her Diane for now." Blair's hand was a warm pressure on his shoulder.

"She couldn't have known if she was alone in the apartment, or if it was safe in her own, but she had to try." Jim ran his fingers over the ragged hole in the wall. "I don't know where she got the strength to break this down."

"People can do a lot more than you'd expect when it's life and death." Blair edged forward, frowning, intent. "And think about it; she had to get put in there. The wall would have been weak in places."

Jim nodded. "Yeah; I can feel the lines of a hatch or something. It's been plastered over; the paint smells fresh."

"No way of getting water or food to her once she was in there?" Blair shuddered. "God, that's just -- God."

"Easy, Chief."

"Why not just kill her?" The words burst out of Blair. "Hide her body -- yeah, okay, I can get that, but this? Who does this to someone? Why?"

"It's not your usual murder method," Jim agreed. "I guess the killer could have gotten a sick thrill out of living in her home, knowing she was dying slowly a few yards away --"

"Jim." Blair was ghost-pale. "Don't, okay? I'm going to be having nightmares for weeks."

"Then we'll both be losing sleep," Jim said. "You're noisy when you're tossing and turning."

Blair gave him a sidelong look. "You'd hear me?"

Jim smiled at him, and hoped it looked rueful, not guilty. "Hard to miss what you do when you're right underneath me."

"You hear a lot more than you should."

"I hear a lot more than I want to," Jim corrected him. "And before you ask, no, I don't -- not when you're --" He was blushing. A veteran of barracks living, and he was blushing trying to tell Blair that when it came to any number of bodily functions, Blair had more privacy with him than he would have with a normal roomie. "I dial it right down. Always. Right away. I go deaf. You're on your own, pal, you got that?"

"Hey." Blair patted Jim's thigh. "Easy. I know. And it's not like I'd mind --" He visibly reconsidered. "No, I would mind. Am I blushing? I feel like I'm blushing."

Jim smiled fondly, relaxed, distracted from the horror a foot in front of him. "Are you kidding? I could cook wieners on your face."

Blair punched his arm and they exchanged grins Jim was fairly sure qualified for a label of 'goofy'.

"It still doesn't make sense," Blair said.

Jim's grin faded. "Still doesn't," he agreed.

He went back to Anna's apartment on an impulse, and picked up one of the photographs of her in the living room. She was smiling in it, a mischievous, triangular smile, turning conventional prettiness into something charming. It was Anna in the photograph; no doubt about it; her desk at the office had duplicates of two of the photographs here, and Mary had confirmed that they were of the Anna she knew. He tried to match her face to the woman he'd questioned, the woman with her fingerprints, but one had been smiling, the other crying, a wad of tissues hovering around her face.

"Pick out a feature. Her ears, maybe," Blair suggested. "I read somewhere that they don't change, no matter how old you get." He walked over to a bookshelf and returned with another framed photograph in his hand. "Here. You can see her ear in this one."

"I don't know, Chief."

"You can do it." Blair didn't sound reassuring or overly confident; he just sounded casual. "Someone you saw a few hours ago? She's in your recent memory, Jim, as easy to access as something in your wallet. Just look for her and match it with this photograph."

Sometimes, he thought he could do things just because Blair believed he could. God help him the day Blair decided all Sentinels had the power of flight; he'd find himself shivering on a rooftop, ready to jump.

He sat down on Anna's couch -- no red for her; it was a bland, flowered fabric -- and closed his eyes; let Blair's voice coax him until he reached his goal. And when a picture, a snapshot culled from the movie of the day, was hanging bright and clear in his mind, he opened his eyes and stared down at the photograph in his lap.

"It was her," he said flatly. "It was her. It was Anna we interviewed."

"They both were…" Blair sounded interested now, in a way that was separate from sympathy or outrage. Intellectually captivated by a puzzle. He moved from the arm of the couch and slid down beside Jim, who didn't shift over, so that Blair was tucked into a small space, their arms bumping, their thighs aligned. "Single white female…"

"I remember the movie," Jim said. "But Anna didn't have a roommate. And no one could mimic her well enough to fool people she'd known for years."

"Someone did, though." Blair's forehead was furrowed. "Someone stole her life, all of it, borrowed it, used it, lived it --"

Jim chuckled. "Put like that, Mrs. Donnelly never bringing back our colander pales into insignificance, doesn't it?"

He expected Blair to smile, but instead he got a questioning, vaguely amused look that made him move over, ceding a few inches to Blair, just so that he could turn and meet that quizzical gaze. "What?"

"'Our' colander?"

Jim flushed. "Well, mine, I guess. Look, what difference does it make? Focus, huh?"

"I'm focused," Blair assured him. "I'm --" He broke off. "Body thief."

"Yes, you said that --"

"Skin-walker."

"What?"

"Name a culture and I can tell you their shape-shifter legends. They all have them: Greek, Celtic, Norse, Japanese… it's a persistent myth."

"Sure," Jim said. "Emphasis on 'myth'. Not real. A story. Or do you really think people go around turning into bulls to seduce young women?"

"Zeus and Europa," Blair said approvingly. "Nice. And, yeah, not literally, maybe, but it's an approach a lot of men think works pretty well if you mean building up their muscles, making a lot of noise, testosterone flying."

"But not you," Jim said, softly, gently, goading Blair. "You're more the kind who'd turn into a --"

"The words 'golden shower' had better not be what you had in mind," Blair warned him, his lips twitching.

Jim shook his head sadly. "For a god, that Zeus was a kinky kind of guy."

"Oh, I'm kinky," Blair said airily. "You have no idea of the depths of my depravity. I just don't go in for that one."

Jim gave the top of Blair's head a friendly knuckling. "So that's where my spare cuffs went."

"No, they're in the top drawer of your nightstand," Blair said promptly. "Along with the feather duster, and yes, I will get you drunk enough to 'fess up about that one day."

"Chief, you're killing me here." Jim shook his head. Feather duster? Not likely. He could just imagine the sneezing fit that would trigger. Real sexy. "Joking aside, Simon's going to have us both committed if you even breathe a word about shape-shifters."

"What if it's true?"

"Blair…" His automatic protest died away. Why argue, when he was so indisputably in the right? Blair was just fucking with him, anyway. "Fine. Shape-shifter, it is. Case solved. We look for the dead woman's live copy and we lock one of them up and bury the other."

"We still don't know why Anna was kept alive," Blair said, as if Jim hadn't just heaped sarcasm all over him. "Most shape-shifters kill the original."

"Will you stop this?" Jim said, his voice tight with irritation. Blair wasn't usually this persistent about a joke that wasn't going down well. "We've done all we can here. Time to go home."

And dream of thieves and skinless men, changing, transforming… and a woman dying slowly, voice and hands silenced, within her home, surrounded by her life, out of reach, just out of reach.

And that was like another Greek legend, but Jim knew all about Tantalus. He had since Blair had moved in.

*****


By the end of the week, Anna Bancroft's death -- or disappearance -- or both -- was no closer to being solved than it had been on the first day. Blair was meeting Jim's occasional gibes about his shape-shifter theory with a bland indifference and refusing to talk about it, and Simon had gotten tired of making asides, in a voice loud enough for people three desks away to hear, about detectives who were considerate enough to give murderers free rides to motels, to make escaping justice really easy.

Jim spent time each day reading over the statements from Anna's co-workers and neighbors, trying to pin down the time the swap had been made between the real Anna and the impersonator, and failing. The switch, if switch it was, had been seamless. No employment agencies in Cascade had a Diane Simons on their books and without fingerprints he couldn't track her down under her real name. And he still hadn't come up with an explanation about the fingerprints. He'd known criminals who'd sanded their prints off their fingers, and he'd seen movies where spies wore false fingerprints over their own, but those stratagems were a little far-fetched given Anna's mundane life. Anna had been a normal woman in a normal job. Paulson was a lawyer, sure, but involved in nothing more exciting than the occasional divorce case. Small-time, respectable, a dead end.

The autopsy gave him a rough timeline for how long Anna had been without water -- three days -- but it didn't help. He had nothing.

And each night, he was dreaming of being suffocated, mummified, and was sleeping with the covers shoved to the bottom of the bed because he couldn't bear the feeling of being trapped.

*****


Jim stirred his spaghetti sauce with one hand and groped for his wine glass with the other. Once he'd opened the bottle to add a splash to the sauce, it'd seemed like a good idea to pour them both a glass, and he was feeling a mild, pleasant buzz.

The tap of Blair's fingers on his laptop's keyboard merged with the clunk of the wooden spoon in a homely, familiar way.

"This is nice," Jim offered, moved to words.

Blair turned his head and smiled. "Yeah? Smells good from here."

"I didn't mean the --" A knock at the door interrupted him and he paused, automatically reaching out with his senses. One person, heartbeat a little hurried; could have used the stairs; could be agitated. It wasn't an exact science, no matter how many tests Blair ran. The data his senses gave him could be interpreted so many different ways.

"I'll get it." Blair stood and stretched his arms high, working out the kinks after being bent over his computer for an hour. Jim watched the teasing reveal of Blair's stomach as his T-shirt rode up high, Blair's slow, deep breath making his ribs and hip bones stand out sharply. The pattern of dark hair feathered on skin was, viewed objectively, fascinating, but there was very little about Blair's body that Jim could be objective about.

Blair lowered his arms and caught Jim staring. Jim refused to look away, even when the mild surprise in Blair's eyes turned knowing, hot.

They were adding straws to camels' backs with each look, each touch, each foray into flirting. Someone would break soon, fall to their knees. Maybe they both would. It was enough for Jim to know the attraction wasn't as one-sided as he'd always thought it was. For now, it was enough.

The knock at the door was repeated and Blair mimed an 'oops', his face happy, and loped over to answer the door. Jim shook his head, smiling, and scooped up a spoonful of the sauce to taste.

The spoon was still in his hand, dripping sauce, when Blair cried out, the sound holding a note of shock and fear, primal and pure enough to raise the hairs on Jim's body. He was moving toward Blair and the threat an instant later, the spoon still gripped in his hand until he tossed it aside.

Blair backed away and pointed at the empty doorway. "Jim -- it was her --"

"Diane?" Jim snapped.

"Yes, but -- Jim, wait, she wasn't --"

"No time, Chief." He spared a thought for his gun, but the corridor outside the loft was empty; he had to hurry. "Call for back up; get people over here," he threw over his shoulder as he set off at a run, thankful for the shoes he was wearing because he'd taken some trash out earlier and forgotten to remove them. The long apron was a pain in the ass, though, flapping as he ran.

By the time he reached the street, he knew he'd lost her. It was Saturday and the crowds of shoppers made it easy for a single woman to merge with them. He scanned the street, stretching his vision until his eyes blurred, the blue of the distant water of the bay telling him that he'd gone too far.

Fuck. Furious with himself for not being the one to answer the door, he retraced his steps, ignoring the curious or openly amused glances he was getting. It was a fucking apron. So fucking what?

When he got back upstairs, the loft door was open and there was a current of fresh air pouring out through it. Concern gripped him. Had she had an accomplice? Someone who'd come in through one of the other entrances to the loft?

"Sandburg!" he called out, after a cursory glance around. "Blair, where are you?" The draft was coming from Blair's room; he walked in and saw that the external door in there was wide open. Blair lay across the threshold, blood staining his forehead.

In the kitchen, the sauce bubbled; burning, sticking to the bottom of the pan.

*****


"I just need to rest." Blair touched his finger gingerly to the dressing on his forehead. "Not concussed, not hungry -- sorry about the sauce, man -- just got one hell of a headache and I need some time to regroup, okay? You've got people looking for her and at least we know she's still around, so it's all good."

"Chief --"

"You're hovering." Blair lay back and tugged a blanket high, until it was tucked under his chin. He closed his eyes. "Go 'way, Jim."

Jim chewed the inside of his cheek. "Okay," he said reluctantly. He checked that the exterior door was secure, gave Blair one final look, and went to deal with the spilled sauce, scorched pan, and -- inevitably -- Simon.

*****


"He heard a noise, went to investigate, and when he opened the door someone hit him. He didn't see who, he didn't see what."

"Does Sandburg walk around with his eyes closed or something?"

Jim gave Henri a cold look. "Not that I've noticed."

Hands held up, Henri backtracked. "Hey, the kid got hit hard; maybe he did see something and he's just forgotten it."

"Maybe." Jim eyed the stack of paperwork on his desk meaningfully and hoped Henri would take the hint that he really didn't want to listen to Blair get second guessed. "I'll pass on the good wishes."

"What?" Henri looked sheepish. "Yeah. Tell Blair I'm glad he's got a hard head, okay?"

Jim glanced up. "Tell him yourself."

They watched Blair walk over, the dressing on his forehead reduced to a Band-Aid, his step jaunty.

"Man, I thought his skull was fractured, the way you were going on." Henri shook his head and gave Jim's shoulder a friendly punch. "The kid looks fine."

"Yeah…" Jim said thoughtfully. "Just fine."

Except he still hadn't gotten Blair to tell him why he'd cried out like that, and whatever else Blair had wanted to tell him about Diane had been lost, a minute or two of his life sliced out of his memory by that single blow.

And Diane Simons had vanished again, leaving Jim wondering what the hell she'd wanted in the first place, and how she'd found out where they lived.

Questions, puzzles, impossibilities… he wanted answers, dammit, and they seemed to be in short supply.

Like anything resembling encouragement from Blair, whose easy warmth and smiles had been abruptly redirected this morning to Sandra Sullivan in Missing Persons, a statuesque redhead who'd turned Jim down when he'd asked her out a year earlier.

*****


He can feel the world around him, hear it distantly; knows, somehow, when it's night and when it's day, although he's blindfolded and drenched in darkness, inky and absolute.

Absolute… absolution.

If this is hell, he's dead, and if he's earned this fate, he doesn't know how. He mewls, a soft, dry sound caught in the thickness at the back of his throat that fails to escape the gag he's wearing. Leather and buckles to silence his voice; metal cuffs around wrists and ankles. His captor's learned a lesson.

He can't escape as Anna did, and the reserves of strength his body and will possess are exhausted.

He thinks he knew this was waiting for him when he stared into Anna's prison and fought back panic. For a moment, all his pity had been directed inward, not at her -- he'd known. Oh, God, he'd known.

Like Anna in her final moments, he needs to say his name, to claim it, but he can't make a sound. He conjures up an image of a lemon, white flesh, oily peel, yellow, bright, and pictures the juice trickling over his lips and tongue. The answering dampness of saliva is barely felt -- he can't cry, either; he's tried -- so he settles for thinking his name, over and over, and he ends, as she did, on a silent plea.

Help me.



*****


Jim stood in a doorway across from the entrance to Major Crimes on Monday morning, and watched Sandburg move through the bullpen bestowing smiles and nods but never actually stopping to talk to anyone.

A man on a mission. Yeah. Said mission being to reach Jim's desk for the time-honored ritual of the candy snatch. Jim always had a stash of chocolate bars in a certain drawer, and selfishness and bad karma be damned; he didn't share.

The drawer was opened with -- Jim focused his vision -- the key from Blair's locker at the Rainier gym. That it fit the drawer lock was probably a sign from the universe for Blair that Jim's Snickers belonged to him.

Blair sat down in Jim's chair, performed some deftly casual breaking and entering under the noses of the city's finest, and smiled triumphantly as his fingers closed around his goal.

Jim was already moving when the drawer was opened.

"Looking for something, Chief?"

The calm of Jim's voice was heavily edged with satisfaction. He'd never been able to prove Blair was responsible for the thefts because no one had come forward as a witness. Blair should feel flattered; if he'd been thought of as an outsider still, they'd have told Jim what he was doing and thrown him to the wolves unhesitatingly. On the other hand, Jim knew that he was sometimes just a little too good at his job for everyone to like him, and watching the Detective of the Year failing to track down a petty thief was amusing.

Not that Blair would have thought of it as theft, Jim supposed. More an extension of the mi casa es su casa principle. He would never have swiped as much as a paperclip from anyone else's desk, but Jim was his roomie.

As he'd expected, that was the route the defense took.

"My roomie, my buddy, my pal," Blair wound up after a minute of impassioned pleading for mercy. Jim went for skeptical with a bit of menace, eyebrows raised, fingers drumming on a bicep, arms folded across his chest so said bicep was bulging. "See why this is perfectly okay?"

"I see that I've caught a sticky-fingered sugarholic," Jim said. "Maybe I should dig around in that drawer myself and find my spare cuffs. Take you down to Processing and book you."

Blair chuckled uneasily as if there was just a little too much bite to Jim's tone, just a little too much animosity in the gaze leveled at him. "You'd look like an idiot."

Jim swept the room with a cool stare. People hid grins and ducked their heads. "Yeah, I think I know how that feels already, thanks."

"What?" Blair stood and faced retribution on his feet like a man, which didn't impress Jim much. "Jim, don't you think you're taking this too seriously?"

"I trusted you," Jim said flatly. "Asked you pointblank if it was you only this morning, and you looked me in the eye and swore it wasn't."

"Yes, but --"

"You lied to me." Jim's hands slammed down on his desk and he leaned in, his face inches away from Blair's. "I don't like liars," he said, literally spitting the words out.

Blair wiped the saliva from his cheek and Jim felt his face flush. Okay, where had that come from? He hadn't really been mad, but it was as if he'd talked himself into it. "Hey, man…" Blair began awkwardly. "I'm sorry, okay?"

Anger, swift and hot, scorched through him and burned away his momentary uncertainty. Betrayal. The candy, the lies, the smoldering glances Sandra had gotten this morning, giggling like a fucking teenager, both of them…

"You always are, buddy."

Ignoring the startled faces of the people close enough to have overheard him, Jim left the room, his back rigid, moving fast. He couldn't disengage his attention from Blair, though, and he heard him give a whistle, a slow 'whew' of amazement, and then the crinkle of the wrapper as Blair tore the candy bar open, obviously considering it his by right now.

Arrogant, grabby little fucker….

He glanced back. Blair was getting a few disapproving glances from people nearby, but he gave them a sunny smile and licked a chocolate-smeared finger clean.

*****


"Are you still mad at me?"

Jim's hands tensed on the wheel but he didn't answer.

Blair sighed. "I'll buy you another Snickers; hell, I'll throw in a Hershey's bar, too."

"Drop it."

"Look, I just want to --"

The truck swerved as Jim took it out of traffic and into a parking space, a horn blaring disapproval of his impulsive action.

"Jim, you're scaring me here." Blair was wide-eyed and sincere. "Seriously. You're not yourself, you know?"

Jim turned in his seat. This close to Blair the emotions that had been tormenting him all day were intense enough that he felt as if he was a breath away from screaming. Everything felt subtly wrong, an inch to the left, a shade too dark. "Give me your hand."

Blair extended his hand hesitantly and let Jim cradle it in one of his. Jim bent his head and inhaled, a sharp sniff followed by a longer one, his nostrils flared, his eyes closed.

Where was it?

"What the hell are you doing, Jim?"

He couldn't name what he was looking for here, but he wasn't finding it.

He lapped at the fingers Blair had licked clean of chocolate a few hours earlier, his tongue delving between each digit, tracing the web of skin and the shape of the nails. A multitude of odors and tastes but he couldn't taste Blair.

In desperation, he sucked the middle finger into the heat of his mouth and kept it there, rolling it on his tongue until Blair tugged it free, words tumbling out. "Jim, man, Jim, that's just gross, you know? You can't do that -- what's going on with you?"

He opened his eyes and stared into Blair's, from blackness to drowning in blue in an instant. "I don't know."

That was the truth. Blair encouraged him to give into what he sometimes called Jim's caveman side, the two of them sharing a smile and a memory over the word, but Jim usually resisted -- as much as he ever could resist Blair when he pushed. That way lay a loss of control and he valued control.

Tempting, though. The guilt he felt about slamming a babbling stranger into a wall had long since faded, because, like the punch line of a joke, that was no stranger; that was Blair. And Blair hadn't minded. He'd pushed back, his finger stabbing Jim's shoulder, his expression fierce, determined. Earnest. Not scared. Never scared.

Jim had been the frightened one.

"That makes two of us, buddy," Blair snapped.

"Does it?" A shudder ran through Jim, startling him. "I think… I think I'm coming down with something. A cold. Flu. Something. My senses… they're working, but they're not working right."

Blair reached out to feel Jim's forehead and Jim batted his hand away irritably. "Don't. You know I hate that."

Blair's hand dropped back into his lap. "Yeah. Sure. Sorry."

They drove the rest of the way in silence and Jim went to bed early. Jim had nightmares again, bad ones, and he called out Blair's name more than once. Blair didn't answer, or pad softly up the stairs to cajole him awake, his voice a lifeline, though, so he must have been screaming in his head, not aloud.

*****


He woke to find Blair crouched over the fireplace, coaxing a flame alive. It was cool; late October, with the trees wearing shreds of leaves, but a fire in the morning wasn't worth the effort; they were up and out too quickly to get cold.

Through the railings, he watched. Papers. Notes. Why was Blair burning what he usually recycled, or kept stacked untidily in his room? The papers were dark with Blair's handwriting but Blair's hands were scrunching them into balls too fast for Jim to read them.

"Hey," he called down impulsively. "What're you doing?"

Blair whirled around, still crouched, and for a moment his face was blank, literally, the sunlight striking it and wiping it featureless, nothing but a dazzle. Jim blinked; Blair moved, and it was just Blair again, smiling up at him. "Two birds, Jim; spring cleaning and taking the chill off the place."

"Only you would spring clean in fall, Sandburg." He yawned. "Why don't you forget that and start the coffee?"

Blair hesitated and then nodded. "Sure."

Jim kept him busy so that the untended fire began to die, still vaguely curious about what Sandburg was doing. Wrong of him to be so nosy; they were Sandburg's papers; he had a right to burn them; hell, for all he knew, they were returned love letters and the kid was taking Jim's once given advice about destroying the evidence.

Once in his head, though, the need to read the papers became overwhelming. He refused to allow himself to analyze it, but deep down he knew that it was based in jealousy, which was pretty fucking sick --

He let Blair have time to toss the last sheaf of papers onto the flames and close the glass door of the fireplace, and then watched Blair's shoulders relax as ash billowed up in a soft, gray puff, sparks flying. He chivvied Blair out of the door and down to their respective vehicles.

As soon as Blair had driven away to his first lecture, Jim ran back upstairs, consumed with a rising urgency he'd given up trying to analyze.

The loft, so recently abandoned, looked exactly the same as when he'd left it, which in itself was somehow startling. The smell of coffee still hung in the air; Blair's toast crumbs still littered the counter… and the fire, the quick, hungry fire, was still eating.

He rescued what he could, using a set of barbecue tongs and a damp tea towel to extract the papers and smother the flames.

Then he used every trick Sandburg had ever taught him to pry into Sandburg's life.

He had salvaged about a third of the papers, but even those he could barely read, soft black curls of ash, no more, were all the same.

Notes on shape-shifters. Detailed, precise. What the hell?

Destroying them made sense; the case was a sore point with them both and he knew Simon, and Blair himself, put the blame for Diane's second escape squarely on Blair's shoulders. Jim didn't. He blamed himself.

But making the notes, page after page of them -- Blair's suggestion had been a joke, a nod, maybe, to the approaching Halloween season and the strange, perplexing case itself. Blair had brought it up; they'd goofed around; end of story.

These notes had taken hours. Days. And Sandburg didn't have much spare time.

Jim washed his hands, got a notebook, and made notes on Blair's notes, separating out the pages with tweezers and trying not to breathe in the smoke.

Then he rekindled the fire and stayed until the flames had consumed the pages, before cleaning up just well enough to hide his tracks.

Halfway down the stairs, an hour late for work, and knowing he'd have to find an excuse mundane enough that no one would bring it up in front of Blair, he stumbled, his belly cramping up, the pain severe enough to bring him to his knees.

God -- God -- What was it? Not his appendix; that had gone at the age of thirteen; not the onset of a stomach virus; his guts weren't churning and loose and he didn't feel like puking.

Just the relentless squeeze of hunger, familiar from his first days in the jungle after his rations had run out. He'd come close to starving then, injured from the crash, wandering around in circles, delirious, scared to eat something that might be poisonous, his survival training only kicking in after his body had become too weak to hunt.

Hunger. Not something that went with the toast, coffee and juice he'd had an hour earlier. The cramps eased, leaving him lightheaded and giddy. He hauled himself up and then froze.

He smelled lavender.

Faint, barely there, teasingly elusive, but lavender. Since that day in the morgue, he'd smelled it on Blair a lot and had finally, casually, asked him why he carried it.

And Blair had told him, a growing twinkle in his eyes as Jim's expression had given away his relief. "You thought it was for something kinky, didn't you?" he'd said after demonstrating just where on his temples he rubbed it in to ease the headaches he sometimes got. "Come on, Jim; lavender? It's not all that edible."

"Too much information, Chief," he'd replied hurriedly. "And why you can't just use aspirin like everyone else…"

But he hadn't smelled it on Blair for a few days. Not since --

Not since Diane's visit.

He put his hand on the wall and let its solidity ground him. What was he thinking here? How insane was it to take a joke by Blair as a possibility and to suspect Blair of being --

"God, I can't even say it," he muttered, his voice loud in the stairwell.

And he couldn't discuss it with Blair, the one person he'd usually turn to about something this screwy.

That, more than the way Blair smelled, or didn't smell, more than the burned papers, more than the subterfuge he'd employed to read them, bothered Jim. Losing Blair's support was something he dreaded, even as he occasionally chafed at Blair's constant presence in his life. He knew he needed Blair's help still with his senses, and that wasn't a comfortable thought given his own inclination to solitude and Blair's dilettante nature, but Blair had never let him down and he'd grown accustomed to sharing his life with the man.

Falling in love with him -- that he wasn't used to. He still didn't know where the hell that had come from, just that it had and he was dealing with it as best he could.

And how ridiculous was it that part of him wanted to believe Blair wasn't -- wasn't his Blair, just to explain away the hot and heavy flirtation with the Sullivan woman?

"Fuck." That helped and he said it again, his voice rising. "Fuck." His fist hit the wall, the impact leaving his arm numb and his knuckles bleeding, and the wall undamaged.

Walls… blood… oh, God, was Blair being held somewhere, trapped as Anna had been?

Jim licked the blood from his knuckles and let the act itself and the taste and smell of the blood waken every primitive impulse he had. He closed his eyes and filled his mind with images of Blair, saturating his senses with data from memories. He didn't need anything of Blair's to know his scent; didn't need a photograph to remember the shape of his mouth when he smiled.

Blair was locked into his mind, indelible. Blair was his and Blair was -- His stomach clenched painfully again and he smiled, baring his teeth. Blair was hungry. That meant he was alive.

He threw back his head and sniffed the air, delicately, carefully, and then turned, tracking the scent of lavender. He wasn't even sure it was real; it hadn't been there an hour ago, hell, it hadn't been there a few minutes ago, but he didn't question its guidance.

Not when it might lead him to Blair.

It took him back up the stairs to Blair's room and the external door. He went through the doorway and up, climbing to the roof. It was raining now, a light, persistent patter that wet his face and damped down the scent, but it was stronger here, even with the wind blowing, and he could still follow it.

He found Blair bound, bent double, unconscious, blindfolded, and gagged, at the bottom of an air vent. Shoved through the access panel to fall ten feet, wedged there like a cork in a bottle, the grille covering the vent locked shut.

Blair had been so close. All this time, so close.

Dying, close to him, and he hadn't known.

He was making sounds that weren't words, anguished, grieving, and they were all he could hear, echoing in his head. He had to stop so he could listen for Blair's heartbeat, but he couldn't. He collapsed to his knees, staring down at a man he couldn't reach, his hands scrabbling at cold metal, when all they wanted to touch was Blair.

"Blair --" He'd found words -- that word -- and he clung to it, repeating it over and over until he realized he was matching it to Blair's heart, a faint, sluggish beat from below.

"Blair!" He was shouting it now, as if volume would accomplish something, but Blair was too close to death to hear his name.

Training took over from instinct and he fumbled out his cell phone, his brain jolted onto a different track now that he knew Blair was still alive. His thoughts crisp and decisive, he flicked through a mental list of who and what would be needed to get Blair out and minister to him. No use him going down there now; he needed a rope; some way to haul Blair out as the shaft was too deep to be able to hoist him up and too narrow to make maneuvering easy.

He hated that. To be this close -- to be forced to leave Blair down there for a moment more while he went for rope --

He took a steadying breath and blinked at his phone until it came into focus. Okay, his eyes were wet and that had to stop. Stupid to have tears in his eyes when Blair was alive, found, safe now. He had to call 911 and --

"You found him."

The only thing that would have made him look away from Blair was that voice. He turned, the phone gripped in his hand, and looked across the roof at the thing he'd been living with for the past few days.

Living with, talking to, touching -- bile rose in his throat, thin and acid, and he spat it out, which felt like a fitting greeting.

"I wondered if you would. Impressive. I suppose it was a test, of sorts." Not-Blair smiled engagingly. "He likes testing you, doesn't he?"

In so many ways, Jim thought, estimating the distance between them. Would he have time to draw his gun before it attacked him? Or would it run? He hoped it would run. He wanted a reason to shoot it.

"I wanted it to be you, you know." The shifter nodded, expression earnest, raindrops starring his glasses. "I saw you and I knew -- you're special, the most special body ever."

Diane's speculative stare after he'd zoned… God, yes.

"Sentinel." The word was split into three separate syllables, equally weighted, and filled with delight. "Sentinel. So rare, so few… and now I can be one."

Enough. He had questions, but they could wait. Blair needed to be taken out of his prison before it became his coffin. Jim slipped his phone back in his pocket and casually reached back to draw his gun out of his holster.

It lay, cool and heavy in his hand, and then his hand was light, empty, and the shifter was close, laughing up at him, blue eyes sparkling. It had his gun.

"Did you see that, farseeing man? Did you hear me?"

"No…"

"No." The shifter nodded, childlike, pleased. "I can make you Not-see, Not-hear. I did before, in the apartment, and you didn't notice lots of things, did you?"

"I didn't notice," Jim agreed. "How old are you?"

The question startled it, he could tell.

"How old is Blair Sandburg?" it said doubtfully.

"No. I know how old he is." He knew more than that about Blair, so much more, but he was guarding his thoughts, atavistic terrors stalking him.

The rain was easing off; a lemon-pale sliver of sun visible behind a gray fluff of cloud. Surreal to be facing a nightmare in a bright, open space like this.

"How long have you --" He couldn't call it living. "Existed. How long?"

"Forever…" The word was a sigh, infinitely weary. "So many changes… I always want to stay but the bodies I make wear out so fast. Faster these days. I remember when I could use a body for years, but now -- weeks, if I'm lucky. Yours might last, Sentinel-man."

A section of Blair's notes came back to him, as if whispered in his ear. Once in a new shape, it's said that when the original body dies, the shifter's resemblance slowly begins to fade, over time, as if a link has been severed. (Chk; parasites who lose their host; sig. or not? Ticks, symbiotes??? Spiritual link involved? Two-way/one-way?)

"Forever," Jim said flatly, wondering what Blair had seen when he'd opened the door, what had made him call out; Diane, or a blurred, fading copy of her. Even, maybe, his own face staring at him? Or Jim's? God. "No, not buying it. A century? Two? How long, freak?"

Anger sparked. "I am eternal. Undying."

Jim smiled savagely, all teeth and snarl. "You're history, buddy."

Something to fight. A known enemy. It was all he needed.

It was harder than he expected to hurt the body in front of him, but after the first few punches, the expression on the shifter's face was so alien that he stopped caring. He stepped back far enough to be able to kick the gun out of the shifter's loose grip and let it skid across the roof.

He could feel the shifter try to blur his senses again but it didn't work this time, not when he was ready for it. He evaded it; zoned, purposely, briefly, losing himself in the slow trickle of a raindrop down the shifter's cheek, his hands clamped around the shifter's neck, squeezing hard.

Blair's body -- he'd never fought with Blair; he'd offered to teach him some moves, but Blair had always put him off, uncomfortable with the idea for reasons he'd never fully explained. The shifter was knowledgeable, but it was using this recreated copy of a body in ways the body wasn't used to and the shifter hadn't been inside it long enough to train it.

Jim was winning, tasting victory, when the shifter stopped fighting and pressed close, ignoring the blows he was raining down on it and wrapping its arms around Jim in a tight hug.

"I can give you this."

The words were soft, insinuating, accompanied by a lewd, slow writhe, but there was a thread of desperation running through them. "He knows you want him, but he hasn't let you -- I would, I'd let you do anything -- I wouldn't take your body, I promise -- I'd stay like him --"

"I don't want it from you." Liar, he added silently. All of it lies.

Blood on his knuckles again, but not his.

And not Blair's.

He wasn't sure when he realized he had to kill it. It went against his training as a cop, but he'd been a soldier for so much longer, and he'd been born a Sentinel.

Protect and serve. He'd never done anything else his whole life.

He couldn't think past the killing to the consequences, but they didn't matter. Until this thing was dead, he couldn't help Blair. And it had to die, because as predators went, it was deadly, and as he couldn't think of it as human, it was outside the system he'd sworn to uphold.

He snapped its neck in the end, a brutally effective twist of his hands, an action, a movement, they hadn't performed for five years, but he did it smoothly and well.

The wet crack was sickening, final, and he grunted in satisfaction, primitive emotions rising only to ebb away as the body slumped in death at his feet.

It changed, its features softening, running together like butter in the sun, until it was an amorphous shape, a bag of bones, literally, sharp points of them held sloshing within a sack of flesh.

Throwing up was tempting, but he watched, still on guard, as the shape at his feet continued to change, shrinking, drying up, crumbling, until all that remained was a desiccated heap for the clean wind to scatter.

Handy, he thought distantly, and called 911. Then he went to get some rope from the camping supplies, moving with a reckless speed.

*****


"I don't like this." Simon's face was set in stubborn lines. "I don't want to hear this, Ellison."

Jim stared past Simon's shoulder at the door to Blair's hospital room, most of his attention on what was going on in there. Blair hadn't woken when Jim had hauled him to the surface and freed him, hiding his bonds in a corner of the roof to be retrieved and disposed of later. Less complicated that way. Blair hadn't opened his mouth to take the water Jim had poured over his torn, dry lips, either -- but he'd made noises when Jim straightened his cramped-up body that would have been screams if he'd been able to scream.

Jim had soon been shouldered out of the way by the medics working to get an IV drip in Blair's wrist, but he'd had chance to drag shaking fingers through Blair's hair, matted and limp, and murmur an unheard reassurance to Blair that it was all right; he was safe.

"Then ignore me, Simon. It won't change anything and it doesn't matter."

Nothing mattered now he had Blair safe and that thing was dead.

"It doesn't matter? Jim, that's your friend in there and yesterday he was fine, dammit, and now --" Simon shook his head. "If I hadn't seen him myself yesterday I wouldn't believe it, but I did, and this isn't possible. They say he's been without water for days and he was drinking some damn herbal tea yesterday -- I could smell it in my office, with the door shut!" Simon breathed hard. "Impossible."

"He's been without water since he was taken on Saturday afternoon," Jim said. Almost three days. Two days, seventeen hours. They'd asked and he'd had to work it out; the simple calculation becoming incomprehensible, meaningless numbers, jumbled in his head. "We were drinking wine and it made him thirsty, so I gave him a bottle of water and he was drinking that when the shifter --"

"Suspect," Simon said automatically.

"When the shifter came to the door." He remembered being annoyed that Blair had asked for the water, because he'd been chopping onions and the smell would cling to anything he touched, like the fridge handle, but when he was standing right by the fridge, making Blair walk over had seemed churlish.

That bottle, three-quarters-drunk when the knock came, had probably saved Blair's life.

"Jim…" Simon said helplessly. He moved closer, his hand hovering before coming down on Jim's shoulder. Jim let himself get pulled into a brief, hard hug, Simon's fist pounding his back. "The kid's tough."

"He's not waking up." Jim focused on the voices of the doctor and nurse in Blair's room, and relayed what they were saying. "They've gotten him stabilized and they don't think there's going to be any lasting damage to his kidneys, but he's not waking up, Simon."

"He will." Simon said it with a quiet certainty that was only partially reassuring because he didn't know everything.

"His notes said there was a link between the copy and the victim -- suppose killing the shifter was the wrong thing to do, Simon?" Voiced, his fear took on weight.

Simon leaned in close, his eyes hard. "I didn't hear that confession, Detective. I didn't hear it, and I don't want to hear it, you got me? Blair was kidnapped and the investigation is ongoing."

"You can't bury this that way," Jim said. "By letting people know he was kidnapped, I mean. Too many people saw Blair yesterday, looking normal. And then there's the Bancroft case. We'll never solve that now and you can't link Blair to it without making it really messy. Think about it. This has to be an accident as far as the hospital is concerned; I'll pay his bill myself so he doesn't have to claim for it. No police investigation needed, no one at the station finds out, and Blair takes a week off work with the flu or something."

He was talking as if it was fact that Blair was going to wake soon and wake sane, as if that would make it happen.

"Jim." Simon closed his eyes and visibly fought for control. Jim waited, trusting Simon to think fast and decide on a course of action with the same speed. "Okay. I'll take care of the Bancroft case getting sidelined. One of the ones we never get to crack. Your record can take it. But Blair -- Jim, I don't see how we can hide this."

"It depends on his condition when he wakes up." When. It had to be 'when' not 'if'. Simon was right; Blair was tough. He'd hung on in there until he was rescued; he wasn't going to give up now, and if he tried, Jim wouldn't let him. Hope was beginning to stir within him; real hope, not wishful thinking. He could hear Blair's heartbeat clearly, slower than normal, much slower, but strong. Slower… God, yes, of course… "There's a bruise on his forehead that's going to be a problem but we keep it simple; we don't tell people he's in the hospital and no one will come visiting at my place if they think he's going to sneeze all over them." He gave Simon a worried look. "When I called you, you didn't tell anyone where you were going and why, did you?"

Simon shook his head. "No. But the doctor's going to be asking questions about the marks on his wrists and ankles."

"He can ask all he wants and assume anything he likes; if Blair doesn't want to tell him what happened, he can't be forced to."

Simon chuckled. "I dread to think what Blair would come up with as a reason for wearing cuffs and a gag if he put his mind to it."

Jim winced theatrically, too accustomed to a cop's habit of leavening a tragedy with humor, no matter how inappropriate, to take offense at Simon's levity. "I know where you're going, and don't. Sandburg in leather? Please."

Simon's face sobered. "Fine. We'll try it your way. Just don't mention that there was someone else on that roof, okay? No one saw you and the, uh, the shifter?"

Jim thought back. "I don't see how. And there's no evidence. I told you; it --"

"Melted like the Wicked Witch, yeah." Simon sighed. "Did I mention how much I hate this?"

"Yes," Jim said, his attention still split between Simon and Blair. "Oh, call the university and tell them he's sick, will you, but don't go into details."

"What am I, his social secretary?" Simon grimaced. "God, this is risky."

"It's the only way, Simon," Jim said urgently. "Look --"

The door to Blair's room opened and a doctor came out. "I'm Dr. Maynard. And you are?" He glanced at them doubtfully.

"Captain Banks, Cascade Police, and this is Detective Ellison," Simon said, all authority now, flashing his badge at the man. "That young man is one of my people, and Detective Ellison's partner. His mother isn't in the country right now, so when it comes to next of kin, we're as close as you're going to get."

"I see." The doctor's expression had altered subtly, Jim noted, trying to analyze it. A shift from a generalized, automatic pity to something with more respect mixed in. Injured cops always did get treated well. "So he was working undercover, then? The marks on his body -- he's clearly been kept bound and gagged, and I was wondering --"

Undercover? Jim opened his mouth to correct the man about Blair's status, but Simon forestalled him, equivocating smoothly and leaving Jim admiring the way Simon had just made the cover-up a hell of a lot simpler. "I can't comment on that, doctor, but let me put it this way; no one but Detective Ellison and myself are allowed to visit him, and I'd appreciate it if you treated him without asking questions he can't answer."

"Understood," the doctor said after a pause. He shrugged. "It's not as if I could ask him anything, anyway; the patient's deep in a comatose state."

"A coma?" Simon repeated, sounding horrified.

"No," Jim answered before Dr. Maynard could respond. "He's put himself into a -- a trance, that's all. Slowed everything down." Jim had walked in on Blair meditating, deep under, more than once. Never this deep, though.

The doctor frowned. "One hears of cases, but to be honest, most are wildly exaggerated stories."

"He meditates," Jim said. "His mother taught him. Trust me, if Sandburg thought it was a way out, a chance to stretch the time he could survive, he'd take it. He wouldn't die easy."

Simon gave a grunt of agreement and the doctor glanced at him. "If he could induce a trancelike state and lower his respiration and heart rate, it might have helped slow the effects of dehydration somewhat." The doctor looked torn between skepticism and interest. "I don't know why the state is persisting now, though."

"I want to see him," Jim said. It wasn't a request.

"I'm not sure that's wise." The doctor met Jim's cold gaze and sighed. "For a short while."

For as long as it took actually, but Jim didn't bother arguing. He closed the door behind him and left Simon to guard it.

Blair lay still, looking uncomfortable in the high, narrow bed, the white, stiff sheets drawn up. His skin was gray-tinged, wrinkled; old skin, but he looked better than he had an hour ago. Someone had given him a cursory sponge bath -- very much needed; Blair had smelled better, oh, God, yes he had.

"Hey," Jim said softly. He pulled up a chair and sat beside the bed, his hand finding Blair's. "You can wake up now, Chief. You're safe."

The hand in his was limp, heavy. He slipped his other hand under it and cradled it as he'd done in the car to the shifter's hand, then bent his head and breathed in, finding Blair's scent easily through the dirt and soap, the stink of loneliness and fear.

He smiled. "You're in there, aren’t you? Yeah, I know you are. I'm a patient man, Sandburg; I can wait."

"You suck at it." Faint, garbled, forced past a thick tongue, Blair's words were a tangled mess, but Jim heard them.

He dipped his finger in the water jug beside the bed and smoothed it over Blair's chapped lips, repeating the action when the lips parted eagerly. The water droplets trickled into Blair's mouth.

"More."

"Take it easy," Jim demurred.

"More." Blair's tongue licked avidly at his lips and dragged over Jim's fingertip; that, and the flicker of his eyelids as he opened his eyes, the only visible movement from him. Then his fingers clutched Jim's hand. "Jim."

Jim hesitated, searching his medic training to see if there was anything that said letting Blair drink too much was dangerous. He decided it should be okay. The drip was replacing electrolytes and raising his fluid levels gradually, but Blair's mouth had to taste like Jim's had the morning after his bachelor party.

"Rinse your mouth before you swallow," he ordered, and put his arm around Blair's shoulders, raising him a little and then holding a glass of water to his lips. "Tiny sips. Don't choke."

Blair eyed him sourly and took a greedy gulp, choked, and sprayed water over Jim.

"Told you so," Jim said with deep satisfaction even as his arm tightened comfortingly.

Blair drank slowly once he'd stopped coughing, and then put his head into the crook of Jim's shoulder. "Tell me you killed it." His voice was a whisper, hoarse and rusty.

"Simon doesn't want to hear that, but, yeah, I did."

"Tell me how."

Jim told him, terse sentences, in their own brand of shorthand, because this was Blair and he could fill in the gaps better than anyone Jim knew, and people would be coming through that door really soon.

Blair nodded when he'd finished and let Jim ease him down to the bed. "Knew you'd kill it."

"Had to."

"Yeah."

"Don't say it's a Sentinel thing and that I was protecting the tribe."

"Weren't you?"

"Maybe a little," Jim allowed. "Plus, there was the whole picking on you to copy deal. I owed it for that."

"Right under your nose for days," Blair said, which was part of it, sure, but not the main part. "Had to piss you off, man. Like Lash."

"Well, yeah," Jim admitted. He'd somehow gotten hold of Blair's hand again. Lash. It'd been a while since he'd thought about that psycho, but the Bancroft case had brought back the bad memories in force. The Lash case had been a dress rehearsal for this, in some ways. "That and other reasons. Just so you know, when it comes to you, I accept no substitutes."

Blair's mouth quirked in a small, pleased grin that faded fast. "Had time to think down there. I remembered what happened just before I opened the door."

That exchange of looks, warm, promising…

"So, did you, uh, take it one step further? You know?" Blair made a grimace that managed, with a quirk of his lips and an eyebrow wiggle, to imply volumes.

Jim absorbed the implications of that being one of the first things Blair asked him about. They were many but they all added up to a bale of hay, not a few lousy straws. "No." Jim lifted Blair's hand to his lips and kissed it without feeling at all self-conscious, a simple declaration of intent. The kiss would have been given in a more traditional way, but Blair's lips were a chewed, chapped mess and Jim didn't want to crowd him. "He didn't smell right."

"Really?" Interest woke in Blair's eyes. "A perfect copy; how could he smell different? Man, we are so going to be discussing this later."

The door opened. Jim let Blair's hand slip away after one final, unhurried squeeze as the doctor came back in, his face stern. "Detective, you have to go now." He took in the sight of Blair, awake, aware, and his eyes widened. "Oh."

"Yeah, he's back with us," Jim said. "When he recovers enough to start flirting with the nurses, send him home."

"I've got your permission to flirt? Really?" Blair folded his hands on his chest. "More water. And this time, get it in my mouth, okay?"

*****


The next morning, Jim, who'd been told to go home by at least three people the night before and ignored them, returned to Blair's room. A stale bagel and lukewarm coffee were heading toward his stomach courtesy of the hospital's cafeteria, and a headache was already throbbing behind his left eye. He passed a nurse in the doorway of Blair's room, a basin in her hands and a towel draped over one arm, and gave Blair a quizzical smile after he'd closed the door behind him.

"Did you just have a bed bath, Chief?"

"They're not as much fun as they sound."

"You didn't answer my question." He sat down in the chair he'd slept in, his dreams uneasy still, and felt his ass go numb within seconds. "And, no, they're not."

"She said I could have a shower later when the drip came out, so I skipped it. Just washed my hands and face. Not sure I can walk that far -- my legs don't feel like they'll ever straighten out -- but I'll crawl if I have to. I want to feel clean again."

The drip might still have been in, but Blair was sitting up and he looked better. If Jim had been asked to define 'better' he wouldn't have been able to, but he could look at Blair without feeling a surge of anger and pity now, which was something.

"We need to talk," Jim said. The pain behind his eye wasn't going away. He hated doing this to Blair, but he didn't have any choice. They had to get their stories straight. "Let me know if you need to rest, but we really do have to talk."

"Yeah." Blair reached for the glass of water by the bed and drank from it, his hand trembling. He stared at it, frowning, and then brought his other hand up and cupped the glass. Jim didn't offer to help. Blair was coping.

"I wonder how long it'll be before I take that for granted." Blair said after setting the glass back down. "Wanting to drink and just reaching out for it… I dreamed about doing it in the hole, over and over, this endless loop of doing it, thinking, yeah, this time it's real. Stupid of me. How could I reach out when my hands were cuffed?"

Jim covered Blair's hand with his own. "Don't, Chief. It's over now."

"Yeah." Blair's voice was flat and his hand lay still under Jim's. "Keep telling me that."

"Why don't you tell me what happened instead?"

Blair sighed and closed his eyes. "Okay. From when I opened the door?"

"Sure."

Jim hesitated and then started to take his hand away. Blair grabbed it without saying anything, his eyes still shut, and Jim edged his chair closer and slid his hand inside Blair's, palm to palm. Blair's eyes opened.

"You've got to understand," he said conversationally, "that I was convinced about the shape-shifter theory. I'd been making notes --"

"I know. I read some of them," Jim told him.

"Only some?" Blair looked affronted which made Jim want to grin.

"The shifter burned -- no, I'll tell you later." Jim stroked Blair's knuckles with his thumb. "Go on."

"I was waiting to have enough data that you'd have to listen," Blair went on. "I was going to get you in a good mood first. Maybe even drunk."

As plans went, it didn't sound like a good one, but Jim resisted the temptation to point that out.

"So when I opened the door and saw it, I was surprised, hell, yes, totally, but I was also prepared, you know?"

"You always yell like a scalded cat when you're prepared for something?" Jim inquired mildly.

"Hey! If you'd seen it, you'd have done the same," Blair said, his face flushed with indignation. "It was changing as I watched; your face and Anna's, all mixed together, blending and swirling… it happened so fast I wasn't sure what I was seeing, and then you took off after it and I was trying to tell you --"

"Sorry." He was. If he'd listened, if he'd waited… "I left you alone. I'm sorry for that, too."

Again, he thought of Lash breaking in to find Blair, terrified, determined, waiting for him.

"You weren't to know it'd double back. And I was the worried one because --" Blair gave him a sidelong glance. "It was trying to look like you, and I didn't know -- when you came back -- how would I have known if it was really you?"

"I'd like to say you would've known, Chief, but I didn't, did I?" Jim felt a wash of shame as if he'd betrayed Blair in some way. "I saw you -- it -- lying there and I was so worried, I just wasn't thinking."

"It's okay," Blair said. "Really, Jim. Don't beat yourself up over it." He rubbed at his forehead with his thumbnail. "You can probably guess what happened; I heard a noise in my room, went to investigate, and wham! The last thing I remember is seeing its face change to mine, and it did something to its clothes, too… it was like I knew it wasn't wearing what I was, because, hey, my clothes were still on me, but unless I concentrated real hard, it looked like it was in my jeans and shirt. And then I saw this lump form on its forehead and all this blood trickle down its face and I realized my face felt wet and I, well, I passed out." Blair looked reflective. "It was one hell of a bruise."

"It took a chance," Jim said. "It must have just had time to dump your body and then --" He stood up, pacing around the room, thinking it through. "No, dammit; there wasn't time to truss you up and hide you, even if it'd already taken the cover off that vent beforehand. It went back out. It told me it needed to rest, and I left it in your room and I bet as soon as I did that, it went out of the door in there and did what it had to."

Blair shrugged. "I guess. I just know I woke up down there, in the dark, and wished I hadn't. Man, that hole wasn't fun."

Jim sat down again. "Chief, I know you're going to want to talk about that part of it and as you can't go to a therapist, you'll have to make do with me. I want you to know that I'll -- I'll be there for you, I promise I will."

"Even if you'll need therapy afterwards yourself," Blair said dryly. "Thanks, man, but no thanks. I'll process it solo."

"No. I want to hear. I need to know what you went through," Jim said, and meant it. "But right now, before they start asking you questions, you need to know some things."

He took a steadying breath and then filled Blair in on the events of the past few days, ignoring Blair's splutters over the candy theft and the flirtation because he knew damn well Blair was guilty on the first count, even though he wouldn't have lied about it the way the shifter had. And the flirtation, well, it was what Blair did.

Used to do.

He put his hand on Blair's leg and smoothed the blankets covering it until he could see the shape of it clearly. Blair's breath caught and he did it again, a slow, deliberate stroke of his hand.

"You do this to all witnesses in ongoing investigations?" Blair asked, his voice gratifyingly husky. "Because it's effective. Tell me what you want me to confess to, and I will; just don't stop."

Jim gave him a reassuring smile. "No one's going to be interviewing you."

Blair frowned. "Jim, it's a nice thought, but I don't see that you have any choice. I'm a material witness in a homicide investigation now. Not to mention a kidnapping."

"No." Jim met Blair's puzzled gaze. "The university and the people at the station have been told you're off for the week with flu. The people here, well, Simon lied, bless him. Told them you were working undercover, and they probably think you were captured and beaten up as a message or a warning, or something and then dumped on the roof. They won't ask questions."

Blair opened his mouth and then closed it. "Flu," he said finally. "You think we can pull this off?"

"I think we're going to have to try." Jim glanced at the phone by Blair's bed. "No visitors and no calling people, though. You're incommunicado until you can walk and that bruise has gone down."

Blair sighed. "I was looking forward to grapes, sympathy; one of those balloons with something cute written on it."

Jim shuddered. "I can do the first as long as you don't want them peeling for you, and I'll do my best on the second, but balloons? Chief, don't make me go there."

They popped and made him jump. He really didn't like that.

*****


Jim stared out at the sleeping city, the cool night air numbing the tips of his ears. Blair had woken, making harsh, angry, pitiful sounds. Jim had gone to Blair's room and held him, then curled up awkwardly beside him, on top of the covers, until Blair had fallen asleep again. Once that had happened, he'd gone out on the balcony, needing to feel space around him. Two weeks since Blair had been rescued and Blair's nightmares were getting worse. Jim's own sleep wasn't all that peaceful, either.

"I'm sorry."

Jim turned. Blair stood in the doorway, wearing a sleeveless T-shirt, shorts, and rising goose bumps, his hair wild. "I didn't hear you get up," he said.

Blair's lips pinched together in concern. "Are your senses playing up?"

Jim didn't have to check; he always knew when something was wrong with his senses; the world went flat and gray. "No. I was just thinking, I guess."

"About me." Blair raised his eyebrows. "About us?"

"Yeah." Jim made an effort to be noble. "Blair -- we don't have to do this. If that's what's bothering you. It can go back to the way it was --"

"Can't unspill the milk, man."

"No. But we can back away from breaking the jug." Jim swallowed, remembering the first -- only -- time he'd tried to kiss Blair once they were back home. It hadn't gone well. Blair had backed off, scrubbed his hand over his mouth, and given Jim a suspicious look that had turned to stricken when Jim had hastily apologized. The easy understanding between them in the hospital had faded somehow once he'd gotten Blair home. He'd been so busy congratulating himself on the success of the cover-up that he hadn't noticed at first.

Not until the kiss.

"Friends is good, Blair. We can do that, right?"

"You don't get it," Blair said. "You think the relationship idea is freaking me out? Jim, I've had that on my mind for over a year. I've worked through it. Centered myself. Which took three hours, six candles, and the last of the tequila Rafe got us from Mexico. I've been waiting for you to catch up for months."

"You could have said." All that time lusting and yearning like a fucking teenager and Blair had been waiting for him to catch a clue? Jim didn't know whether to feel annoyed or amused and which of them to direct the emotion at.

"And lost you through being pushy?" Blair shook his head. "Jim, you've seen what I do. I grab at people with both hands and they just… they slip through my fingers, you know? With you, I wanted you to do the grabbing."

"You think I wouldn't let go," Jim discovered.

Blair stared at him. "Would you?"

"Probably not." Jim licked his lips, needing the moisture, and conceded the point. "No. You'd be in safe hands, Chief." He frowned. "Wait. It's not the idea of getting into bed with me? So what is it?"

"Bed? Sex? Way to reduce it to bare essentials, Jim," Blair said, without giving the impression that he disapproved of that. "It's --" He bit his lip. "Okay, it'd be good if you laughed at this."

"If it's what's keeping you awake at night, it doesn't seem like something I'd find amusing."

Blair took a careful pace backward and looked poised to take more. "You killed it."

"You tell me you're sorry for that parasite, or think I've got some kind of bloodlust problem because I didn't hold back, and I'm getting you checked out by that doctor again."

"You didn't have a mark on you."

"It wasn't very good at fighting." He wished it had been. He could have hurt it more.

"Maybe -- maybe it was really good." Blair met his eyes, his own pleading for Jim to understand, laugh, make it right.

Jim worked it out in the space between breaths. "You think I'm the shifter." Cold. He was so fucking cold out here, wearing boxers and a robe. The temperature called for a sweater, jeans; he was shivering, dammit.

"I think you are -- or I dream I am -- I lie there and wonder if I'm still in there, trapped and none of this is real --" Blair faltered through a list of horrors and stopped. "There's no way to tell, Jim."

"Blair --"

"And you kissed me. You never kissed me before. Not like that. Maybe you're trying to confuse me, distract me --"

"It tried that with me," Jim said dully. "On the roof. Rubbed up against me and promised me anything."

"It did what?" Astonishment made Blair's voice squeak high. "I was right there! Dying! How stupid is that?"

Jim shrugged. "It knew it was about to die; I guess it would have done anything."

"So sex with you isn't a fate worse than death; that's good to know."

"Sandburg!" Jim protested indignantly, and for some reason, that was all it took, because Blair was giggling, snorting really, but Jim loved him, so he'd call it giggling, and when Jim walked toward him, Blair was already moving forward. The clean, cold air was a good reason to hug each other close.

"You smell right," Jim whispered into Blair's hair. "You're not the shifter. I'd know. And I swear it's not me. I'm still a Sentinel and I don't think the shifter would be; it had your memories, but it wasn't you, Blair. It wanted my body because of the senses, but if it'd gotten it, I think it would've been disappointed."

Blair rubbed his cheek against Jim's, his smile invisible but tangible, his cheek muscles shaped by it. "Stop fishing. You're hot, senses or no senses. Prime real estate." His voice turned thoughtful. "Interesting idea, though, that the senses wouldn't transfer… They're so rooted in the spirit, and all it could copy was the body… yeah…"

"Test me. Anything," Jim said and tried not to make it sound like begging.

"Don't need to."

"Do it."

"Oh, man…" Blair exhaled. "It feels like this is more about me and my trust in you."

"Chief, this isn't about trust; it's about keeping you safe. I want you to do it. Do it." He meant every word. Blair could test him until every sense he had was fried; he didn't care. Blair was scared of him; fuck, that hurt. Blair had never been -- fuck.

Blair nodded. "Okay, I will. But I already know." He went to the balcony and looked down at the street. "I came in after you tonight, right?"

"Right," Jim said, joining Blair. "So?"

"The deli on the corner; the owner put a notice up in the window. I saw him do it as I walked by and I read it." Blair pointed. "There. I can see the window, but that's about it."

It was a long way and it was dark, but Jim was motivated and the store was close to a streetlight…

"Lost. A kitten. Black with green eyes, answers to Esmeralda. Call, umm, the edge of the paper's curling up and I can't read the number."

"You're amazing," Blair said.

He didn't feel amazing; not when he'd missed what was upsetting Blair all this time. "Enough?"

"Oh, yeah," Blair said. "Definitely."

Jim feathered a kiss over Blair's temple and tasted lavender. He was getting used to it now; it barely made his nose tickle. Blair sighed and snuggled closer which made Jim grin.

"What?" Blair asked suspiciously. "Are you laughing at me?"

Jim shook his head. "No. It's just…you wouldn't have done that if you didn't believe me. Hugged me, I mean. I like it. Don't stop."

"You're disturbingly sentimental when you're attracted to someone, you know."

"Yeah?" Jim considered that insight about as revelatory as the fact that he had a dick. "Does it bother you?"

"No. I reserve the right to make fun of it, though. I'm more the practical type."

"Sentiment won't stop me kicking your ass if you do."

"Threats of violence if I give in to my natural impulses; that sounds more familiar."

Jim kissed Blair's cheekbone. He wished Blair would kiss him back but the smooth skin under his mouth, with the promise of a rougher surface to explore along Blair's jaw and chin, was sufficiently beguiling to distract him. "I can think of some natural impulses of yours I'd encourage."

"I bet. Sorry I'm not delivering on anything I promised." Blair sounded desolate again, not flirtatious.

Jim fumbled for the right words and settled for, "You're tired."

"Yeah, I am. Haven't been sleeping."

"I've noticed." Jim shivered. The cold was striking up through the thin slippers he was wearing and Blair was -- shit, he was barefoot. "Inside," he said firmly.

Blair didn't protest; just turned and went inside. He drifted over to his room and hesitated outside it. "Jim --"

Jim made sure the balcony doors were locked and walked over to him. "Mmm?"

"Can I sleep with you?"

Yes. Please. Any time. "Blair -- there's no need to rush --"

"No, not that kind of sleep, not tonight; I'm just too tired to -- it's just --" Blair gestured vaguely at his bed. "He slept in there. I threw out the sheets -- God, I wish it could be anything he touched, but I can't replace everything, I know that."

"Oh, God." Jim sighed. "I never thought about that."

"My skin crawls," Blair said vehemently, his fingers scratching at his bare arms. "I think of him -- it -- and it crawls, like I'm trapped inside that thing and it's all over me, all around me --"

Jim caught Blair's hands and held them, watching the blood well up in three separate places on Blair's upper arms. "It's not, baby, it's not." He licked Blair's bare shoulder, wet warmth against chilled skin. "You taste fine. Smell fine. I'd know."

"Taste me. Make sure."

"Taste you?" Jim could see Blair's face, pale in the reflected light of the city, half in shadow. "Kiss you?" he said.

"Sure." Blair stood passive under the tentative press of Jim's mouth against his, and then swayed forward, his arms locking around Jim's body. His tongue flickered over Jim's lip, a question, a command, and Jim let him in. The soft, liquid spill of Blair's saliva mingled with his own and Jim swallowed, his throat working as he kissed Blair with more assurance.

The long kiss ended with both of them half-hard and breathless, hanging onto each other, communicating in soft, questioning murmurs. Jim couldn't stop his hands from moving in restless, curious caresses over Blair's body. Heat was gathered in the small of Blair's back and Jim pushed his hands under Blair's T-shirt and sought it out, spread it around. His fingers teased the line where back became ass, a shallow curve before the thrust of solid muscle below.

"Got more you can taste than spit and skin," Blair said.

"Thought you were tired."

"Ninety percent of me is asleep," Blair said. "Twenty percent is wide awake."

"I think you need to work on your math." Jim palmed Blair's cock through thin cotton and shuddered with a pleasurable ache of wanting. "Upstairs. My knees won't take this floor."

"They wouldn't have to for long."

Jim slung his arm around Blair's shoulders and got them heading toward the stairs. "You're not getting off that easily. I've waited too long for this to rush it."

"You get your mouth near my dick and I'll lose it," Blair warned him as they split up to take the stairs. "I've been waiting too long, period."

They stripped out of the little they wore, the loft filled with enough ambient light that Jim guessed Blair could see him, more or less. He wanted, not to pose, but to stand still under Blair's steady regard, basking in his approval. Blair desired him. Every message Blair's body was sending told Jim that, an emphatic, shouted, 'yes!' of approbation. And he hoped like hell that Blair could see well enough that Jim's own expression was visible. He had a feeling he was giving a lot away, standing there, hard and hungry, learning Blair's body, his senses open wide. It would be a pity if it wasn't getting picked up.

"How do you want to do this?"

"How do you?" Jim countered. "Blair -- have you ever --?"

"Had my dick sucked by a man?" Blair chuckled, a slight edge of nervousness showing, as if his crudity had surprised him. "Once. I was so drunk I'm not even sure I came." He frowned, and pinched his lip between his fingers, plucking at it in thought. "Nah. I came. Well, a blow job; who wouldn't?"

"I've never not," Jim agreed. "Whether it was a man or woman doing it." That seemed to cover the depth of their experience -- or lack of it. Thirty seconds later, he was kneeling on the bed, his body bracketed by Blair's spread legs, his hands holding Blair down because Blair had arched his hips at the first testing, tasting lick, looking wanton, wordlessly begging, and Jim liked that look too much to exchange it for flushed and satiated just yet.

The acrid salt of sweat and the musk-salt glossing the head of Blair's cock were present in every breath Jim took, coating the inside of his open, panting mouth. "Maybe I'll come," he said, and knew each word was airbrushed over taut, stretched skin because his mouth was so close to Blair's cock that the bush of rough silk hair curling around it was tickling his chin. He spoke, ending each statement, with a lick of Blair's cock, his tongue dragged from root to tip, sometimes slowly, sometimes a fast, wet lap. "Come first. Come on you. Because I want to. Just from this. God, I love you."

Blair broke free, violently twisting, his hands finding a precarious purchase in Jim's short-cropped hair. He got up on his knees and drew Jim's head down, until Jim was sprawled on his belly, propped up on his elbows, Blair's cock painting his lips, his cheek, hell, his nose, until he surrendered and opened his mouth.

Blair pushed the tip of his cock in, and then waited to go deeper for three long seconds Jim filled with all the welcome and encouragement he could, keeping his jaw loose, his tongue busy, the back of his fingers describing short, jerky arcs on the inside of Blair's thigh.

"Can't wait, gotta do it, gotta, oh, Jim, Jim, gonna come --" The breathy urgency of Blair's voice, panic-laced and exultant at the same time, made Jim moan helplessly. If his mouth hadn't been filled with cock, he would've -- no, what was there to say? Blair was doing what Jim wanted him to without being asked; fucking his mouth in powerful, choppy strokes, his hands possessive and oddly gentle.

He swallowed soon, choking because the angle wasn't good. His back, bowed like this, was killing him, too, but he didn't give a fuck. He managed to get a grip on Blair's ass, his nails digging in, and held Blair there for longer maybe than Blair wanted to stay, keeping that taste in his mouth and coaxing a final spurt of come out of the slick, swollen head. He usually swallowed fast, grimacing, but even though Blair's come tasted pretty much the same as everyone else's -- he didn't have a lot of memories to compare it to -- the intimacy of the act appealed to him in a way it never had before.

Blair eased free, gently but firmly, and stroked his hand over Jim's head. "God. If you ever want me not to come, don't say stuff like that, okay?"

"Meant it," Jim said.

Blair flopped back on the bed, his eyes glittering, his mouth a sin and a temptation. "Yeah. It sounded that way. I love you, too. Now come on me, if that's what you want, or tell me what you need me to do, because --"

Jim kneed Blair's legs apart again and got between them. He grinned, savage, wild, elated. "I've jerked off over you every night for months, Blair."

Blair laughed, the sound husky with arousal. "I love the visual I'm getting, whichever way I take that."

Jim took Blair's hand and put it on the ache of his cock. "Do it for me, this time."

Awkwardly, his expression intent, Blair got up on one elbow, closed his hand tight, and started to work the captured flesh. It took an embarrassingly short space of time and then Jim was shooting over the hair-dappled skin beneath him, pale squiggles and streaks of come decorating Blair's chest and belly.

Blair thumbed the slippery, tender head and then leaned in and ran his tongue through the mess. "Okay, that's an acquired taste," he said a moment later. He gave it one more cautious lick and then shrugged. "It's not bad, just…"

"Different?" Jim suggested. He waved a hand at the box of tissues on the night table, moved by a vaguely hospitable impulse.

"Thanks…. Want some? Yeah. Different."

"Want to acquire it?"

Blair gave him an amused look and disposed of both handfuls of used Kleenex. "No, Jim, that was the worst sex of my life and I'm going to join the brothers at St. Sebastian's."

"Riiiight," Jim drawled. "Sure you are."

They got under the covers and slotted their bodies together for a hug. Blair's breath was warm against Jim's shoulder and the patch of skin under Blair's left hand, curled loosely on Jim's hip, was starting to sweat.

"Blair?"

"Mmm?"

"I can't go to sleep like this."

"You want me to go?"

"No." Jim cleared his throat. "No. Just… we don't have to sleep all wrapped up like this, do we? Because I move. A lot. Carolyn used to say --"

"Jim." Blair's voice was firm. "Go over to your side of the bed. Shoo. Do your tossing, turning thing. I'm good. Just don't mention --"

"Sorry." Jim gave Blair a kiss half-penitent, half-regretful, and rolled over to his side, his hands finding the positions they always did, one tucked under his chin, the other flat against the mattress. He'd stay like that and then roll back again a few minutes later; always did. And, no, it wasn't anything like a dog turning around three times before lying down, no matter what Carolyn said.

"It's been a hell of a month," Blair said, his murmured words loud in the darkness.

"Yeah." It had been, but sleep was seductive and talking was not.

"Do you think there are more out there?"

"Don't know."

"There could be."

"Maybe."

"Jim --"

Jim abandoned his routine and turned, then hauled Blair in close again with an irritable grunt. "Go to sleep."

"You're scared, too."

Jim stared past Blair's head into the darkness, filled with monsters with familiar faces.

"They die, Blair. I'm not scared of anything I can kill."

There was enough truth in that for Blair to sigh and settle down, satisfied, but Jim couldn't sleep until he'd convinced himself that he'd know one if he saw it, and from now on, he was going to look.

And hope that soon he could look at Blair and not hear the sick crack of snapping bone and see blue eyes glaze over, empty of life.

Look at Blair without needing to make sure he hadn't been taken away from him again.

He turned his face into the soft fall of Blair's hair and breathed in.

Smelled lavender, and beneath it, Blair.

Did it again, just to make sure.


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