"Mayor, this is Bob Dale with Channel Five news. If you have a moment, I'd like to confirm that Blair Sandburg, the grad student who faked his thesis on Sentinels, is entering the police academy and will be joining the Cascade PD. Is this true?"

The mayor leaned back in her chair, suddenly tense. "What is your name again?"

"Bob Dale. Channel Five news."

"And where did you get your information?"

"I'm not at liberty to say. Can you confirm it?"

"For now, I think I'll go with 'no comment.'"

"I see. I was hoping to get your take on this situation before we air. Specifically, I'd like to know if you foresee any problems with a self-admitted fraud being allowed on the force. Do you think such a man is the type of person Cascade would like to have as one of its finest? What about his impeachability in court? Or --"

"I'm sorry, Mr. Dale, but I really can't discuss this at the moment."

"I understand. I would hope that you understand the voters in the upcoming election have a right to know that you care about the quality of the city's police force."

The mayor suppressed a curse. "Yes, I'm well aware that elections are coming up."

"So, would you care to make a comment before we air?"

She thought about it for a moment. "I have not heard anything about Blair Sandburg joining the police force. However, if such a thing is true, I share your concerns about the quality of our officers. I would not support the city employing such an individual in the sensitive arena of law enforcement. Our police officers are some of the best in the nation, and I'm proud of the integrity and dedication each of them demonstrate. I would not want to jeopardize that reputation by allowing a self-professed fraud to join their ranks. The people of Cascade should be able to trust the officers sworn to protect them."

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Jim swiveled in his chair, rubbing absently at his injured leg. He eyed Sandburg sitting near the corner of the desk, his head bowed as he read over his statement on the Zeller shooting. After a few seconds, he seemed to sense eyes on him and looked up, meeting Jim's gaze and offering a smile.

"It's fine. Nothing I want to add or change."

Jim nodded and snatched the sheet from the desk. "Great. I'll give this to Rhonda and then, if you're up for it, you and I can head out and grab a bite to eat. My treat."

Blair shrugged. "Yeah, that sounds good." He glanced at Simon's office. The captain's dark figure was marginally visible through the narrow gaps in the blinds. "So, uh..." His eyes flicked nervously back to Jim. "Simon insists on working, huh? I never expected him back so soon... I'm glad though. Glad he and Megan are okay."

Jim nodded, grinning. "Yeah, me too. You know Simon. He's too stubborn for his own good. Megan, too. Maybe she'll return from her vacation mellowed out."

Blair shook his head. "Nah. Remember how she was when she first got here? I doubt a week in Australia is going to make her less like that."

Jim gave an exaggerated sigh. "I suppose you're right, Chief. Well, I can enjoy the quiet while it lasts." He cracked another smile and rose from his chair, paper in hand. "I'll turn this in, then we can leave." His grin widened. "And maybe we can stop off at a barber shop on the way."

Blair smiled, holding it a few seconds too long. "Hey, man. I meant it. I'm not cutting my hair."

Jim chuckled as he limped to Rhonda's desk. "We'll see about that, Chief." The assistant wasn't in her chair, so he dropped the finished report in her box. He turned back to Blair as the young man shrugged into his jacket. "Where do you want to eat?"

Blair grabbed Jim's cane. "Whatever you want is fine with me... and you're not leaving without this."

Jim looked heavenward. "I wasn't going to, but I don't need it to shuffle the few steps to Rhonda's desk." With a smile, he took the cane from Blair and headed toward the hall.

"How 'bout Pernici's?" Blair offered.

"Sounds good." He hobbled alongside Blair as they made their way to the elevator.

Jim threw a sidelong glance at his friend, trying to gauge Blair's mood. The kid acted like he was all right, but his steady joviality seemed forced. He waited until they were secluded inside the elevator before saying anything.

As soon as the doors closed, he leaned against the wall to face the young man. "Sandburg, are you okay?"

The smile returned to Blair's face, and he shrugged. "Yeah, sure."

"I know it's been a... well, the past few days have been a roller coaster. Things have happened fast. Are you...?" He shifted the weight completely off his bad leg, giving himself a moment to collect his thoughts. He almost hated to ask the question looming foremost in his mind. "Are you okay with the badge and the academy? Becoming a full-fledged detective?"

Blair sighed, his shoulders slumping. He kept his eyes on the numbers above the doors. "I, uh... To tell you the truth, Jim, I'm not sure."

"So you're not sure you're going to accept?"

Blair finally looked at Jim, his mask of casual nonchalance slipping, revealing the fear and uncertainty that lay beneath. "I don't know." He shook his head, swallowing hard. "I don't know what I'm going to do. I was all prepared to pack up and head out. I didn't know what I was going to do, but I knew I wanted to try to remain your friend. Really, though, I figured no one in Cascade would hire me until well after the heat from the press died down. So, I was thinking I might have to go someplace else, at least for awhile."

Jim tensed. The moment he'd seen the press conference, he'd wondered whether he'd be saying goodbye to Blair. He'd hoped that, by offering the kid a badge, he'd give him a reason to stay.

Blair continued, his voice dropping. "I never expected Simon to hand me a badge. I'm touched by the gesture, really. And I do need a paycheck, man. Desperately. I want to be your partner." He smiled, a genuine one this time. "That's the best part about it. You and me. Official." He bounced on the balls of his feet. "Real partners. It's more than I ever thought possible."

Jim found himself mirroring Blair's smile. He did like the thought of that, yet he knew there was more to consider than just the partnership. "But?"

Blair's smile faded. "But I don't know about the gun thing. I've fired one a few times since hooking up with you, but this would be on a daily basis, and my chances of someday having to shoot someone go way up." He looked back at the numbers above the door, his voice suddenly unsteady. "I know many cops get through their whole careers without ever firing a shot." He paused, watching as the indicator for the garage lit. "But they're not in Cascade, partnered with James Ellison." He threw a smile at Jim to soften his words.

The lift came to a sluggish halt, and the doors slid open. Fortunately, the garage was relatively deserted, so Jim continued the conversation as he limped alongside Blair. "I know it won't be easy, Chief, but you have my word I'll do my best to watch your back."

Blair looked at him, a warmth filling his eyes. "Hey, man, I know that." His smile returned. "Look, I'm just a bit overwhelmed now. What it comes down to is that I want to be your partner. There's absolutely nothing I'd rather be doing than being out in the field with you, helping you with your senses," his smile turned momentarily sad, "even if there's no dissertation to go along with it."

Jim nodded, allowing himself to relax. He slapped a hand on Blair's shoulder and stopped in front of the truck. "Chief..."

Blair patted the hand on his shoulder. "I know. Don't worry, man. Everything's gonna work out okay."

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

"... and Mr. Sandburg's admission that he faked his thesis on Sentinels has already reached government ears. Officials at Rainier University have commented that the federal Office of Research Integrity, an entity that investigates misconduct allegations involving studies funded by the National Institutes of Health, has already contacted them about launching an investigation into the graduate student's misconduct."

Doctor William Harrison looked up from the coffee he was stirring and eyed the photograph of the grad student placed in the upper right hand portion of the screen above the reporter's head. Grabbing the remote from the lounge table, he took a sip of the hot liquid as he raised the volume.

"University officials have also said they plan to conduct their own investigation into the validity of Mr. Sandburg's master's thesis on the same subject, and if they find evidence of similar fraud, may revoke his master's degree."

Harrison frowned. He wasn't certain how the scandal surrounding Sandburg's dissertation on heightened senses would affect his own work. On one hand, if Sandburg had published the thesis, odds were, from what little Harrison knew of the thesis through the media and the excerpts released, that it could trump his own research, even though he wasn't studying Sentinels. The past two years of excruciating work could have been rendered obsolete before his study even came to its conclusion.  On the other hand, as his own work studied the relationship between heightened senses and mental illness, the fiasco surrounding Sandburg's thesis on heightened senses might make the scientific community slightly more skeptical about his research.

Still, he'd rather have to push a bit harder to get his work accepted than have the whole thing trumped by another researcher beating him to the punch.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Blair held the door to the deli open while Jim shuffled inside, leaning heavily on his cane. He pointed to an empty table and stepped in line. "You sit down, I'll order. You want your usual cheesesteak?"

Jim nodded. "Yeah. Thanks."

"No problem."

Jim sank into his chair when one word jumped out from the drone of a reporter's voice playing on a television hanging from the far wall. "Mr. Sandburg's admission that he faked his thesis on Sentinels has already reached government ears." A photograph of Blair popped up in the upper corner of the screen, and Jim cursed silently, his eyes darting immediately to Sandburg who, thankfully, seemed blissfully unaware of the report as he studied the menu hanging over the cashier's counter.

Jim glanced back at the screen as the reporter talked about the possible investigation. What the hell? Jim's jaw went slack. He'd thought it bad enough that Sandburg had given away his career, but he hadn't even thought about the possibility of an investigation being launched against his friend. What kind of penalties could they slap Sandburg with?

A few of the patrons seated at other tables began to lean in toward one another, and the steady hum of voices dropped to near silence as they whispered, a few pointing toward either Blair or Jim. He deliberately chose to tune out their words, but met the few stares directed his way with a warning glare.

The drop in background noise caught Sandburg's attention and made the television volume seem significantly higher. Blair looked around, obviously seeing something in Jim's face, because his brow furrowed.

"... of Mr. Sandburg's master's thesis on the same subject..."

Blair stiffened, turning slowly to face the television, his back to Jim. When the reporter mentioned the possible revocation of his master's degree, Blair flinched so slightly that only Jim, who knew what to look for, could have noticed the reaction.

Shit. Jim's grip on his cane tightened, and he had the sudden urge to fling it at the television. Of course, he repressed that urge, opting instead to remain seated in his chair and let his gaze confront those who dared to look at him.

The woman in front of Blair took her order from the counterperson and moved to the soda machine. Blair stepped up to the cashier and gave his order. "One cheesesteak sandwich on white, extra onions." He recited the order flatly, his voice never wavering. "One turkey sandwich, easy mayo. Mustard. Wheat bread." He paused, taking a deep breath. "To go, please."

The next few minutes were torture as Jim waited for the staff to make the sandwiches and watched Blair maintain his stoic stance at the register. When the cashier began to ring up the order, Jim remembered he'd offered to pay, something he felt the need to do since his friend had given up his only source of income to protect Jim as a sentinel. He used his cane to push himself out of the chair and limped to the counter, pulling out his wallet just as Blair reached into his own pocket for his.

"I got it." Jim pulled out a twenty and handed it to the man.

Blair glanced at him, his eyes flat and his expression even. "Thanks."

Shit. Jim suddenly realized how his gesture might have looked to the dozen patrons staring at them. Bad enough they all thought Sandburg was a fraud, now they probably thought he was a charity case, as well. "Don't worry about it." He raised his voice a bit louder than necessary. "Least I can do since you saved my life up on that roof." He tapped his cane on the floor for emphasis.

"Thanks." Blair flashed a weak smile at Jim as he grabbed the take-out bag and walked toward the door with slow, even steps, his back rigid and his shoulders straight.

Jim followed close behind, and as soon as they got outside, Blair's shoulders sagged a fraction and he released a long sigh. "I hope you don't mind that I ordered it to go. I thought maybe we could go eat at the park, or something."

Jim smiled, hoping it looked genuine. "Sure, Chief. It's a nice day for it."


Continue to Act II