Jim sat next to his friend on the park bench, admiring the bright, partly cloudy sky above them. They had eaten in silence, and as Jim took the last bite of his sandwich, he glanced over at Sandburg. Blair was staring at some indefinably distant point, his half-eaten sandwich held loosely in his hand and resting in his lap.

Jim had wanted to let Sandburg enjoy his lunch before mentioning the newscast. The reporter's words kept echoing through his brain, twisting his stomach. Just what kind of heat would be coming down on Sandburg's head? What kind of investigation was being launched? What were the potential penalties? Fines, probably. He doubted prison. God, he hoped not prison. He didn't think the D.A. could pin any kind of crime on Sandburg, but if federal grants were involved, perhaps there was some kind of federal criminal statute Sandburg had violated. In his years as a cop, Jim couldn't remember ever hearing about a case of federal grant fraud, but it wasn't the type of case he'd likely have dealt with even if such a crime existed.

Best case scenario -- financial penalties. But what would that mean for Sandburg? The kid had no money. Even if he joined the police force, his paycheck would likely not be enough to cover those kind of financial penalties. Could the government end up attaching his wages? Just how much grant money had Blair used during his studies? It had to be a hell of a lot more than a cop makes in a year. Maybe more than a cop makes in five years. Maybe even way more than that.

Damn. Whichever way he looked at it, things were bad for Blair. Really bad.

The possible revocation of his master's degree was just the icing on the cake. Another slap in the face. How could they take away something Sandburg had already earned... something he'd accomplished years before he'd even met Jim?

Looking at the totality of the circumstances, how much did one Sentinel secret weigh against all that?

"Chief, what is the Office of Research Integrity?

Blair looked at him, uncertainty crossing his face. "I don't know much about it other than it's some federal entity that looks into misconduct involving NIH grants."

Jim nodded. That's what the reporter had said, but Sandburg hadn't heard that part of the broadcast. He wondered whether Blair had known before he stepped behind that podium the full ramifications of his press conference. Did he know about the ORI? About the possible revocation of his master's degree?

And did he know now about the ORI? Had the university or the ORI contacted him already and he'd simply kept quiet about it?

Jim shifted uncomfortably on the bench. If the investigation was news to Sandburg, he hated having to be the one to give it. But better me than someone from the university or the ORI. "On the news back there, the reporter was talking about a possible ORI investigation into your, uh... confessed misconduct."

Blair shrugged and looked down at his sandwich. "Oh... I was wondering about that. I mean, I used lots of grants in my studies, one of which was from the NIH."

"What can they do to you?"

Another shrug. "Don't know. I never heard of anybody getting investigated by them before. I don't know that much about them." He looked back up at Jim. "Maybe they can make me pay back the grant money?" He sighed. "In which case, they might as well put me in jail because that money was spent on the research projects, and it's not like I've got a secret stash of cash laying around." He chuckled, a hollow, bitter sound. "I'm totally broke. The Volvo and my laptop are all I've got to my name, and they won't come close to paying back even that one NIH grant."

Jim took a deep breath. "What about if I refinance the loft?"

Surprise flickered in Blair's eyes. "Uh... Thanks, Jim. I'm not sure whether that would put a dent in the grant. I don't know how much the loft is worth or what kind of equity you've got in it, but even if you own it free and clear and could pay off the entire grant, I wouldn't let you do it." He offered a soft smile. "I gave that press conference knowing what I was doing. It's worth it knowing it did what it was supposed to -- protect you. If you risk financial ruin to pay off one of my grants, it's a hollow victory. And if the other grants come into play, it won't even touch them. You know how much an expedition costs?" He shook his head, giving another small chuckle. "A lot, man. A lot."

Jim leaned back. Suddenly the air seemed very, very heavy. "What are you going to do?"

Blair offered a wry grin. "You mean besides skip town, go where the wind takes me, hide under some rock where no one can ever find me?"

Jim didn't return the smile. That scenario hit a little too close to his fears.

Blair glanced away, his gaze returning to that indefinably distant spot he had been so engrossed with earlier. "I guess I'll just take the punches and roll with them. Whatever happens, happens. I just keep telling myself that things could be a lot worse." His voice dropped. "Simon and Megan might not have made it... or that bullet could have hit you instead. Or your secret could be out, you and Simon could be disciplined for keeping it from the brass, maybe even lose your jobs. You'd never know any peace if the world knew about your abilities and you couldn't be a cop... and knowing Simon went down with you, neither would I, actually. Next to all that, what's one anthropologist's career?"

Jim stiffened, surprised at hearing his own thoughts flipped around and thrown back at him. "It's just money. I could make those payments easy."

Blair shook his head. "It's not your responsibility, Jim, and it wouldn't help much, anyway. Let's just wait and see what happens before we start making any decisions."

~~~~~~

"Got your message. Sorry it's taken me so long to get back to you, but I got tied up with a patient. What's up?"

Dr. Harrison leaned back in his chair and gestured to the empty seat near his desk. "I wanted to talk to you about Barnes." He waited as the graying psychiatrist dropped into the chair and propped one foot casually on the opposite knee. Dr. Jason Feinberg was Alex's clinical psychiatrist, but the man was only peripherally involved with Harrison's research.

"What about her?" Feinberg asked.

"Have you seen the news about that grad student who claimed he found a cop with five heightened senses?"

Dr. Feinberg nodded. "Yeah. Haven't been following it, though. I take it you've called me here because it relates to your research?"

Harrison nodded. "In a way. You know the grad student's name is Blair Sandburg?"

Feinberg's eyes widened. "No, I didn't. I've only caught a few glimpses of the news, but I've been too busy lately to pay it much attention." He leaned forward. "That's damn interesting, though, considering."

"I know. I think we're beginning to get a few pieces of the puzzle. Why did Alex go after Sandburg? The police report is pretty vague on that."

"But if Sandburg was researching heightened senses..."

Harrison nodded. "And Alex has demonstrated heightened senses, so it's reasonable to assume she might have been one of his subjects."

"But her senses are all over the map. It's been very hard to differentiate hallucinations from nonhallucinations with her, and it'll be even harder to measure her senses because of her mental state. She's not exactly cooperative."

"I know."

"So, what are you thinking?"

"I'm thinking maybe I should shift portions of my research dealing with her. So far she's been one of my least cooperative patients, so I was thinking about nixing her from the study because she's shifting the data."

"What? You think she's a Sentinel?"

"Sandburg claimed his data proving the cop -- the same one who arrested Alex, by the way -- has heightened senses is fraudulent."

"I sense a 'but...'?"

Harrison smiled. "But... He did claim to have legitimate data otherwise, something about ancient source material. Anyway, just because he claims he made up the data on Ellison doesn't mean that the theory of Sentinels is bogus. Maybe we should start looking at Barnes differently. Up until now we've assumed that her apparently heightened senses are a product of her mental instability, but what if it's the other way around? I went back over the police file on her, and there's mention of an alarm that seemed too loud. Plus, you know she was originally picked up when she crashed her car and started wandering the street taking her clothes off, claiming the headlights were too bright and her clothes were itchy."

"Yeah, but she's not exactly mentally stable. That evidences the beginning of her mental degeneration."

"Perhaps. But I say we look into it, modify our tests and see whether we can pinpoint how heightened her senses are, and whether she has all five heightened senses."

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

"Yes, Mayor --" Simon was cut off by the voice on the other end of the line. He listened, trying to find the right moment to interject, his hand steadily tightening on the receiver.

Finally, the female voice paused, allowing Simon his opportunity. "Ma'am, Sandburg's been associated with this department for roughly four years. He's proven himself a dedicated, responsible --"

The mayor cut him off again. "My decision is final. There's nothing further to discuss."

"But --"

The familiar, annoying hum of an inactive line rang in his ear, and, stifling a curse, he set the receiver almost reverently in its cradle. "Damn."

Movement in the bullpen caught his eye, and he looked through the slatted blinds of his office window to see Sandburg strolling toward Jim's desk. His chest tightened, and he took a deep breath before rising from his chair, ignoring the twinge of pain in his side caused by Zeller's bullet.

Sometimes, he really hated his job. 

Walking slowly to his door, he opened it and, in a low voice, called out, "Sandburg."

The young man's head swiveled toward him. "Yeah?"

"Can I see you in my office, please?"

A hint of confusion mixed with concern flashed across Sandburg's face, but he simply nodded and offered a small smile as he moved forward. "Yeah, sure."

Simon stepped aside to let Blair into the office, then closed the door behind him. "Where's your other half?"

"The little detective's room."

Simon's lips twitched upward. "Ah. Duty calls."

Sandburg grinned. "After the lunch he had, I'm sure he'll be in there for a good five minutes." His smile faded, and he leaned against the table at the back of the office. "So what did you want to see me about?"

Simon's face turned serious, and he sighed heavily, leaning against his own desk and trying to ignore the ache in his side. The doctor had told him he should continue to use the wheelchair for another week, but there was no way he was going to be confined to the chair when he was perfectly capable of moving around on his own.

He looked at Sandburg, wincing inwardly at the expectant, anxious look in the young man's eyes. "I have something to ask you, and I'd appreciate a totally honest answer."

Blair swallowed, his Adam's apple bobbing slightly. "Okay."

"Do you want to be a cop?"

Blair blinked. "Uh.... What do you mean exactly? Do I want to be Jim's partner? Yeah."

Simon recognized the evasiveness and tried to soften his expression, hoping Blair would see him as a friend instead of the captain of Major Crime. "What I mean is, God forbid something should happen to Jim in the field tomorrow or next week or next month... would you still want to be a cop?"

Blair pursed his lips, his gaze shifting to the large window overlooking the city. "You mean without Jim? On my own?"

"Or partnered with someone else?"

Blair took a deep breath and looked back at Simon. "No."

Simon nodded. Asking the question had only been a formality. He'd already known what the answer would be. He remained silent for a few seconds, choosing his next words carefully as he studied the young man in front of him. The set of Blair's shoulders... the lines in his face... the look in his eyes... All those things told him that Sandburg was in a fragile state at the moment. 

"You know I have a great deal of respect for you, Sandburg?"

Blair's eyes widened a fraction, revealing a hint of surprise. "Thank you. I... " He shifted against the table, looking suddenly uncomfortable. "You know I respect you, too, right?"

Simon smiled gently. "You'd better. I'm the captain, after all."

Blair returned the smile, and some of the tension drained from his shoulders, easing the lines on his face. "Yeah... So you keep reminding me." His smile faded, but his eyes remained warm and relaxed, almost forgiving. "Say what you have to say, Sim... sir."

Simon's smile vanished. "The mayor called. She's not happy about you entering the academy."

Blair stiffened, the tension returning. "I see." He nodded slowly and shrugged. "I understand. No problem. I, uh... I was kind of thinking of turning it down, anyway. You know how I feel about guns. I just don't see myself carrying one every day. It doesn't feel right."

"Blair--"

"No, really." He pushed off the table. "Don't sweat it, Simon. I mean, I appreciate the gesture and the strings you probably had to pull to be able to offer it to me... That means a lot, believe me, but I'm okay about it. Really."

~~~~~~~

Jim splashed the cool faucet water on his face and looked at his reflection in the mirror. Small lines framed his icy blue eyes and deeper ones decorated his forehead. He sighed heavily. He was old. Somehow, the years had snuck up on him, and soon -- too soon -- he'd officially be an old man. 

Retired. 

Facing the grave.  

And what had he accomplished in his life? Not much. Sentinel of the Great City. Big deal. He huffed a shallow, bitter laugh. What did that mean, anyway? At the end of his life, what would he look back on with fondness? What would he consider the important things? His career? His senses? 

His friends. 

He swallowed hard and closed his eyes. He had no real family. By all accounts, he was pretty much a loner -- Or rather, he had been -- until a few years ago.

Now he had two relationships in his life that he could stake claim to -- his friendships with Blair and Simon. But what should he do when the two were in conflict, pitted against one another by his unique abilities? Keep the secret and cover Simon's ass while hurting Blair, or go public and put his and Simon's careers on the line to salvage Blair's?

Shit.

Jesus Christ, Chief. How did things get so screwed up?

He thought back to the incident at the deli. How long would the public remember Sandburg? How long would the kid have to endure the stares and whispers? A few weeks? A few months? And how long could Sandburg maintain his obviously forced air of casual nonchalance? How long could he pretend it didn't bother him?

Because it did bother Sandburg. It had to. And even if it doesn't bother you, Chief, it sure as hell bothers me.

Opening his eyes, he faced his reflection again, meeting his own steely gaze. Then he looked away, his eyes drifting to the door. Sandburg was on the other side of that door, a few feet down the hall, probably sitting at his desk, feeling out of place, no doubt, since he really didn't have anything to do. 

Jim hoped the guys were behaving themselves. Oh, he knew Rafe, Brown, and Joel still welcomed Blair and would watch out for him, but they didn't really know the truth, so he could only imagine what they were really thinking. Were they tripping over themselves trying not to say the wrong thing to Blair? God, he hoped not. Sandburg would pick up on their discomfort and it would just make him feel more awkward and out of place.

Megan and Simon knew the truth, though. At least Blair could still look a few people in the eyes and know for sure they still respected him. 

He focused on his hearing, tilting his head slightly as he tried to hone in on the bullpen. Sounds rose from the background. Laughter. Footsteps. A woman's voice...

"... better than I thought it would be, actually, but not worth more than matinee price."

He moved past that distraction and focused further, catching another conversation. A man's voice...

"... yeah, I know. Unbelievable..."

He frowned. Come on. Focus... The bullpen. Blair's voice. Rafe's. Joel's. Simon's.... 

He pushed his hearing farther, ignoring the hint of a headache that threatened to blossom behind his eyes, and ran into the drone of a television or radio. A heated, evangelical voice filled with passion pounded from speakers...

"... no man shall have greater love than this, that he should give his life for a friend..."

His hearing snapped back, and he straightened as if struck. His eyes drifted heavenward. If someone or something was trying to send him a message, they sure as hell weren't being subtle about it. 

A few years ago he would've balked at the notion of spirits and mystical forces influencing reality, but that was before he'd seen spirit animals and ghosts. That was before Incacha's spirit had helped him reach into the spirit world and bring Sandburg back from the Other Side. Before the vision at the temple. Before the ghost of Molly had called to him for help... 

He never had been comfortable with all the mysticism involved with being a Sentinel. Back in Peru after his chopper had gone down and the Chopec had found him, Incacha had helped him deal with the re-emergence of his heightened senses. And, yeah, Incacha as the tribal shaman had been a whole lot more into the mysticism than his hipper, more worldly counterpart, Blair Sandburg. Not that Blair shied away from the spiritual stuff. In fact, Blair seemed more than willing to acknowledge and even advocate that aspect of the Sentinel thing. But the big city was different than the jungles of Peru, and whereas Incacha had embraced the spirit world -- often with the aid of substances that were illegal in the United States -- Blair Sandburg used more conventional, acceptable methods, including white noise generators and legal herbal remedies, leaving the vision-spiritual thing to Jim Ellison, Sentinel of the Great City.

Well, except for the peyote-like substance that Simon had called the kid on during the Molly incident. Jim smiled at that memory, recalling the sheepish, guilty look on Sandburg's face when Simon had growled out the results of the lab tests.

"Do you want to be a cop?"

Huh? Jim's head snapped up at the intrusion of Simon's voice. He turned around, expecting to see the captain behind him, but he was still alone in the restroom. 

"Uh.... What do you mean exactly? Do I want to be Jim's partner? Yeah."

Blair's voice. Jim realized he was hearing parts of their conversation -- probably in Simon's office. Odd, though. He hadn't consciously been focusing his hearing on finding them after his initial, aborted attempt, but once he'd stopped trying and just started thinking about them, he found them, probably more on a subconscious level. He was sure Sandburg would be able to explain it to him more precisely. 

At the moment, however, he kept his hearing tethered to their conversation. 

"What I mean is, God forbid something should happen to Jim in the field tomorrow or next week or next month... would you still want to be a cop?"

Jim tensed. What the hell was Simon getting at?

"You mean without Jim? On my own?" There was a slight tremble in Blair's voice.

"Or partnered with someone else?"

Jim heard Blair take a deep breath and answer, "No."


Continue to Act III