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The blue and white Ford pickup pulled up to the curb outside of the small synagogue located at 2442 West Maple and the driver nearly exploded out from behind the wheel, slamming the door shut as he stalked around to the passenger side and the sidewalk. "Chief, not another word on the subject, please?"

Blair watched as Jim unconsciously rubbed the back of his neck, as if trying to ease tension there. He carefully closed the door on his side of the truck, not wanting to add any more stimuli to Jim's obvious headache even if Jim had slammed his door. He'd pretended not to notice when Jim had sucked down a couple of Tylenol as they got into the truck back at the station, but from the way the detective's brow was lined he could tell the sentinel was still in pain. "Sorry, man. It's been a long, ugly day for both of us. I'll shut up now, and we can discuss our theories later. Okay?"

"Sounds good to me. Thank you." Turning his back on Blair, Jim walked up the steps to the entrance of the small building. Yanking open the door, Jim stepped into the darkened interior.

Lunging forward, Blair barely caught the door before it slammed shut in his face. Now what in the hell was wrong with Jim? He'd been sick to his stomach that morning and obviously was working on a killer headache. Maybe he was coming down with the flu. A sick, grouchy Jim was all they needed on a messy case like this. He wondered if he had any of his all-natural cold remedy in his desk at the station. Maybe he could convince Jim to take some once they got back. Sighing, Blair followed the sentinel into the temple.

Jim waited just inside the doorway, trying to will away the pain from his headache while allowing time for his eyes to adjust from the bright sunshine to the dimness inside the place. Blair had insisted on talking about the various types of sacrifices practiced by the tribes of South America, adding in tidbits of information about other sacrificial practices from all over the world. Jim had barely been able to keep the coffee he'd had that morning down as the anthropologist had presented the pros and cons of the transverse thoracotomy versus the midaxial thoracotomy as the most efficient way of removing the heart from a living victim.



Blair picked up a black yarmulke from a basket on a table just inside the door, and settled it on his head somewhat hesitantly, mumbling something about needing a hairpin. "Uh, maybe I should do the talking here?"

Jim couldn't see a reason why Blair shouldn't do the talking. After all, the kid knew more about Judaic practices than Jim did and hopefully wouldn't step on anyone's toes. Jim looked around the interior again, still not seeing anyone. "Sure. You seem to be in a talkative mood anyway." He waved Blair forward then followed the younger man deeper into the building, perching one of the yarmulkes carefully on his short hair.

It wasn't until the old man was right behind them, gently clearing his throat, before Jim realized he and Blair weren't alone. He practically jumped out of his skin when the man's sandpaper and smoke voice cut through the silence of the room.

"Can I be of assistance, gentlemen?" The man, who had to be in his late sixties, or early seventies, was wearing clothing similar to the ones found at the crime scene that morning; a white shirt and black jacket, over equally black pants, with a white yarmulke trimmed in blue.

"Shalom, Rabbi. Please excuse our intrusion." Blair smiled lightly, directing Jim out of his way as he approached the darkly attired man. "My name is Blair Sandburg. This is Detective Jim Ellison of the Cascade PD. We're looking for someone who can tell us a little bit about Stan Rabinovich. We found he'd listed the synagogue as his address."

The man smiled at his partner. "He's my new administrative assistant. Moved here from New Jersey about four months ago. Oh! Where are my manners? I'm Rabbi Abraham Gottlieb, shalom." He nodded his head in greeting, his dark eyes twinkling in humor as he looked at Blair. "You wouldn't happen to be Jewish, would you, Mr. Sandburg?"

"I've not practiced any faith in quite a while, but I'm open-minded about all that I've come into contact with," Blair explained as he handed the man a business card from his pocket. "I'm a teacher of Anthropology at Rainier and a consultant with Cascade PD. Detective Ellison is leading the investigation into Rabbi Rabinovich's--"

The old man snorted. "Stan is forever complaining about the way some of the members of his study group are 'harassed' by the neighborhood children. Is that what this is about, Detective?" The rabbi looked Jim directly in the eyes, and Ellison flinched from his gaze.

"Uh, not exactly, sir. When was the last time you saw Rabbi Rabinovich?"

"Oh, sometime last night. After eight, I think. He received a call about then, seemed very concerned about the caller and left. I don't think he's made it back, or if he has, he's out again. Probably still counseling the caller from last night. Why?"

Jim nodded to Blair, who carefully approached the man's side, ready to catch him should the news shock the old man that much. "Rabbi Goetlieb, there's no easy way to tell you this," Jim started to explain but the rabbi interrupted him.

"Something's happened to Stan, hasn't it, Detective?"

"Yes, sir. I'm afraid so." Jim hated this part of any murder investigation, telling the survivors that someone they knew, loved, or worked with, was gone. "His body was found early this morning, over at Forest Grove Park."

The older man seemed to age ten years in a few seconds as he leaned against Blair, who helped the gentleman into a nearby seat. After a few moments of silence, he said, "How--what happened to Stan? Was it a heart attack?"

Blair shook his head. "I'm sorry, but no." He glanced up at Jim, who could see the question of how much to tell the man in his eyes.

"We're pretty sure he was murdered. Was there anyone you know of who disliked Rabbi Rabinovich? Perhaps one of these people he complained was harassing him?" Jim asked.

The man studied his hands for a moment, muttering under his breath. "I knew no good would come of his studies.... Warned him, time and again, the cost that he'd pay in the end for delving into the Mysteries before he was ready...." His voice trailed off.

"Sir?" Blair drew the rabbi's attention back to him. "You said earlier that Rabbi Rabinovich ran a study group?" Rabbi Gottlieb nodded. "Was he studying or maybe even teaching Kabbalah?" Blair asked quietly, concern crossing his face as he and Jim watched the old man rock back and forth on the seat.

"Yes, but he had yet to reach his mastery. I don't support the idea of learning the Kabbalah, not until the student is fully and well versed in the way of all things Judaic, but Stan was persistent." The rabbi's faced tightened with outrage. "He even sought to teach those not of the Faith! Gentiles and New Agers who were only interested in the Kabbalah Mysteries for their own use, not for enlightenment!"

Jim stepped back, the fire of the older man's anger at odds with his gentle appearance.

"Foolishness! Stan knew better! He'd read the warnings! Knew how others who taught outside the Faith had faltered, ending up dead and lost forever to Zion! I warned him, time and again, that he was on the path to ruin, but he wouldn't listen to me!" The rabbi gathered himself, settling down and visibly swallowing his anger. "Forgive me, I shouldn't speak ill of Stan. I need to make arrangements. The body must be buried within twenty-four hours. Where can I find him?"

Reaching into his back pocket, Jim pulled out his wallet and withdrew a business card, which he handed to the now quiet man. "Once the autopsy is complete, you can find Rabbi Rabinovich at the City Morgue, sir. Just ask for Doctor Dan Wolf when you get there."

Rabbi Gottlieb took the card, looked it over before shoving into a pocket, and then stood up. "Gentlemen, thank you for coming in person to tell me of Stan's death. Now, if you'll excuse me?" He shuffled off, shambling down the path between the rows of benches and disappearing behind a door. Soon after the door closed behind the rabbi, the sound of a woman wailing broke the silence of the synagogue.

Walking back out into the bright sunshine of a nearly perfect afternoon, Jim realized he felt like shit. His headache hadn't eased up at all, he'd just managed to piss off a holy man, and no matter what he did, Jim couldn't help but wonder if Rabbi Gottlieb was a possible suspect in Rabinovich's murder. The anger and the fear he'd seen in the older man was surely questionable. "Chief? Was it just me or did the Rabbi seem a little upset over Stan's studies?"

"You mean in his learning the Kabbalah?"

Jim nodded.

"It's not all that uncommon, Jim. Rabbi Gottlieb strikes me as a more traditional Kesoch, and the more conservative Rabbis don't like Kabbalahism. Smacks of 'new age' crap to them, even if it is a practice that goes back many thousands of years."

Opening the driver's side of his truck, then reaching over to unlock Blair's side, Jim pondered his friend's words for a minute. "What exactly is Kabbalah?"

"It's the study of the mysteries of the Torah, about the occult wisdom of the ages. I remember reading somewhere that a Kabbalah Master could do things similar to what we've seen Tibetan monks do."

"Yeah, right." Looking over his shoulder to make sure the way was clear before pulling into traffic, Jim couldn't shut off his thoughts on the subject. "What if this *was* a hate crime? Maybe Rabbi Rabinovich was murdered because he was studying this Kabbalah stuff?"

He felt the bench seat shudder and shake as Blair's whole body seemed to shiver. "Oh, man. Don't even go there, Jim! Bad enough that you're thinking this is a hate crime, but now I get the idea you're looking at Rabbi Gottlieb as a possible suspect!"

"Sandburg-- He is a suspect."

Blair stared at Jim for a moment, his eyes wide, then he deliberately looked away. He didn't say another word on the way to Rainier.

After dropping Blair off at the university, Jim returned to the station to find that Taggart, Rafe and Connor had finished going through all the crap from the park and were out doing follow-ups with witnesses from that morning. Sinking into the chair at his desk, he booted up his computer, intent on checking the backgrounds of Stan Rabinovich and Rabbi Abraham Goetlieb. There wasn't much. Rabinovich had a minor traffic record back in New Jersey, nothing spectacular, and Gottlieb had a completely clean driving record. Both men were in the police database as complainants, mostly for vandalism calls and the more recent 'harassment' complaints filed by Rabinovich.

"Jim?" Henri Brown's voice cut through his thoughts and he looked up at the detective. "Desk duty sergeant from down stairs just called, said she was sending up a woman to talk with you." His confusion must have shown on his face for Brown's next words were clarifying. "The woman claims to have some information on Rabbi Rabinovich."

The woman that wandered into the bullpen was around 45 years old with strongly chiseled facial features that hinted at the beauty she must have been in her youth. 'Probably will age as well as that woman from that TV series about a nosey novelist who solved crimes,' Jim thought as he stood up from his desk and walked over towards the brunette. "Can I help you, ma'am?"

Bloodshot, swollen gray eyes looked up at him from a height of about five-foot nothing. "I hope so. I'm looking for a Detective Elson?"

"Ellison, ma'am. And you found me. Sergeant downstairs send you up?"

"Yes, she did. I heard about Rabbi Rabinovich's death this morning and I wanted to talk to you about it."

Seeing that she seemed to be a little nervous, Jim nodded as he motioned for her to follow him. "Maybe you'd feel more at ease if we talked in private, Ms...?"

"Oh! Esther Rosen. Thank you very much, Detective." She followed him into the break room where he offered her coffee, which she declined. "No, thank you, but I really can't stay too long. Rabbi Gottlieb will start to panic if I'm not back at the synagogue before too long. Poor man, he's a fine Rabbi, but no sense of organization." She sat down at a table, placing the small structure between herself and Jim.

"I take it you work at the synagogue, Ms. Rosen?"

"Yes, I'm the secretary."

"I'm sorry for your loss. You said you might have information for me?"

"Abraham said that Stan died last night?" Jim nodded in confirmation. "I'm not sure it's connected, but we received a call at the synagogue, well, the office really, I didn't recognize the voice but since the man asked for Stan by name I handed the phone to him."

Recalling the interview with Gottlieb, Jim ventured forth with a question. "Would that have been around eight or so?"

"Just after. I was working late, correcting a few things in the newsletter before sending it off to the printers. Anyway, I really couldn't help but overhear a few things and, the more I thought about it, the more I became sure that you might need to know about the nature of the call."

Years of working the job had taught Jim to be resourceful and, since he hadn't thought to grab his notebook from his desk before coming in here to talk with Ms. Rosen, he grabbed a couple of napkins and pulled his pen from his pocket. "It could help us narrow down the field of suspects. Please tell me what you can recall of the conversation."

"I'm afraid it won't be all that much. Like I said, I didn't recognize the voice so I doubt it was one of the synagogue's members, but from Stan's reaction I think he knew the man." Esther Rosen bit her lower lip in an unconscious gesture before continuing, "He got a little antsy, waving his free hand around so much that I was afraid he'd knock the stacks for the newsletter out of order, so I moved them beyond Stan's reach. Stan asked the caller where he should meet with him, that he wanted to talk with him face to face and, after a few minutes of silence on Stan's part, he said he knew the area well and he'd be there in about an hour."

"Do you have any idea where Rabinovich and this caller were to have met?"

"No. He never wrote it down and, when I asked, he told me not to worry so much and that the caller was a good man, just a little lost, spiritually speaking, and he'd been taking care of himself for years." A sad smile crossed her face. "He said it jokingly, with that nice smile of his, and within a few minutes, he'd left the grounds and... " She took a deep breath, wiping her eyes clear of the tears which Jim could see building up, before she spoke again. "That was the last time I saw Stan, Detective."

Jim escorted Mrs. Rosen down to her car, using the trip to stretch his legs and grab some fresh air. He also used the time away from the bullpen to think about the Rabinovich case. With what little she'd given him, he now had the idea that the killer had lured the rabbi from the synagogue. Armed with that fact, and the corroborating testimony by Rabbi Gottlieb, Jim was sure he now had the time frame for the phone record pull, provided he could get an attorney from the DA's Office to sign off on a warrant and persuade a judge to sign the thing. Everything they had turned up so far pointed to the idea that Rabinovich knew his killer, which could take this case straight to premeditated murder and a possible death penalty for the perp. Providing he could catch the guy first.

Stepping off the elevator, back on the floor which housed his unit, Jim heard Blair's excited voice and followed it to the Captain's office. "Mind if I join you?" he asked as he poked his head in the door.

"Come on in, Jim." Simon Banks said as he waved him in. "Was your latest interview on the Rabinovich case productive?"

"Yeah, I just need to run the info by the DA's office and see if I can get a warrant to pull phone records for the synagogue. According to Mrs. Rosen, the rabbi may have been lured out by whoever killed him."

"That's a start. Blair, tell Jim what you turned up on your end." Ellison followed the captain's gaze to where his guide sat on the couch, laptop computer balanced on his crossed legs, and at least three books opened to various places scattered on the seats he wasn't sitting in. The idea that Sandburg was pursuing his own investigation of the Rabinovich case irritated him and Jim bit his tongue to keep from saying something he would regret. Even as he quashed his irrational response, Jim wondered why he felt so damn agitated over this case. The anthropologist had proven himself time and time again as a good investigator. Why was he getting uptight about Blair's involvement?

Pushing his glasses up on his nose, Blair looked up from his seat on the couch as Jim entered. The flicker of anger that crossed the sentinel's face didn't escape his notice. "Uh, Simon, this is just a half-formed theory based on some similarities. I don't have anything conclusive at this time."

The captain glared at him over the rim of his coffee cup, and Jim perched himself on the corner of the conference table, folding his arms across his chest. Blair brushed his hair back with both hands and cleared his throat. "Well, uh, when I saw Rabbi Rabinovich's body this morning, I knew I'd seen it somewhere else. Not the rabbi himself, but the positioning, the stone, the angle of the wound--" Jim's eyes were starting to roam the room and Blair knew he was losing his audience. "And, uh, so when I went back to school I picked up some books that were helpful, but I found what I really wanted on the internet, on a site about the Aztecs. I downloaded the graphics to my computer."

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He flipped the laptop around so that Jim could see the image on the screen, a drawing of a figure in an awkward, bent backwards pose, as another figure used a knife to cut out the victim's heart. "This is from the Codex Nuttall, a translation of a Mixtec screen-fold book by an anthropologist named Zenia Nuttall in the early 1900s. There are a number of other codices dealing with the Aztecs, dating from the 1500s, most of which were transcribed by Franciscan monks--" Now Simon's eyes were beginning to glaze over. "Anyway, to make a long story short, the various codices all contain descriptions of human sacrifice." He opened up another graphic. "This illustration is from a paper presented in the 1970's on the sacrificial methods employed by the Mayans and Aztecs. As you can see, it's quite similar to the wound on our victim." He glanced at both men, waiting for a response.

Jim finally said, "And this means what? That our guy knows how to use a search engine? Or surfed by the Discovery Channel? Or maybe has taken Anthropology 101? I think you've just widened the field, Sandburg, not narrowed it."

Blair slumped back against the sofa cushions, Jim's words stinging even though they made sense. He began to shut down his computer. "Sorry, I just thought--"

"It was a good thought, Chief. But it's a little early to say this is the work of a guy with an Aztec fetish. It could just be somebody really pissed off at the rabbi, for whatever reason, and he happened to watch 'Pyramid Cultures of the World' last night."

"Well, I think it's worth pursuing, Jim. We still don't know if there's any significance to the painting on the body. You keep after it from this angle, Blair, just keep an open mind." Banks looked at his watch. "It's six o'clock, gentlemen. Any one interested in joining me for dinner?"

Blair finished tucking everything away in his backpack and got to his feet. "I'll pass, Simon. I've got papers to grade."

Jim caught up with him as Blair was picking up a notebook at his desk. "Look, Chief--"

"It's okay, Jim. You've had plenty of ridiculous ideas that didn't pan out, too." He pulled a small cloth pouch out of his desk drawer. "Hey, if you're still feeling bad, try some of this. It's my all-natural cold cure."

The sentinel took the proffered pouch with a grimace. "This stuff is nasty."

Blair grinned at him. "But it works. You might be getting the flu. Take some."

Jim gave him a one-fingered salute and a smile. "Yes, Dr. Sandburg. I'll see you at home later."

Laughing, Blair saluted back, then shouldering his backpack, he headed for home.

Blair entered his apartment to find the lights on and his girlfriend, Sky Kullien, in the kitchen. He'd given her a key about a month after they'd started dating, but usually she called before she dropped by. She glanced up at him, a smile lighting up her face. "Hey, baby. I'm running a little behind, but dinner should be ready soon."

He felt his brow furrow in confusion. "Um, not that I'm not glad to see you, but what are you doing here?"

She raised an eyebrow at him as she wiped her hands on the apron. "We have a date, remember? Me, you, blackened tuna?"

Setting his backpack down and hanging his jacket up, Blair walked into the kitchen. "I'm sorry. It's been a shitty day and I completely forgot."

Sky slid her arms around his waist and pulled him into a hug. Closing his eyes, Blair leaned into the embrace, feeling some of his tension leave him. Finally, he pulled back a bit, kissing her tenderly. "You don't know how much I needed that," Blair said as he released her.

"Day that bad, hmm?" She returned to seasoning the fish.

"Awful." He peered over her shoulder, watching her work. "Is there anything I can do to help?"

Turning her head, Sky kissed him on the cheek. "You can make a salad." As he opened up the refrigerator door, she asked, "You want to talk about it?"

He looked back at her as he reached for the lettuce. "What?"

"Your day. Do you want to talk about it?"

Blair thought about that for a few moments, filling his arms with vegetables, and carrying them over to the cutting board on the counter. He rummaged in a drawer for a knife, then said, "Simon came to the university to get me this morning. He needed me to come look at a crime scene." He paused, setting the knife down and running a hand through his hair as he tried to stop the memories from rushing back. Closing his eyes only made it worse, the image of the old man bent over the stone growing sharper as the scent of blood and the sickly sweet odor of decay filled his nostrils. He shivered, recalling the strange feeling he'd gotten as he approached the scene. Only this time he remembered when he'd sensed it before, as he sat chained to a dentist's chair in an abandoned warehouse. Lash!

"Blair? You okay?" He opened his eyes to find Sky's anxious gaze on him, her hand resting lightly on his chest. "Your heart's going a mile a minute. Do you need to sit down?"

He shook his head, still trying to make sense of the jumbled images and sensations. "No, no, I'm okay, just a little off kilter. Man, I haven't had a dead body affect me like this in a long time." He shuddered, and she hugged him, her hands running up and down his back.

"How do you feel?" Sky asked him.


"What do you feel, right now?"

Blair hesitated, unsure of where she was going with her question, but he answered as best he could. "I feel---dirty, filthy." He moved away from her, the feeling that he would somehow contaminate her overwhelming. "Shower. I need a shower--" He started in the direction of the bathroom.

He was stripping out of his clothes when Sky appeared in the doorway. "Scrub with this." She held out a container of sea salt to him. He recognized it as the one he kept next to the stove.


"Humor me, okay? If you don't feel better, you can say 'I told you so'."

When Blair took it from her, she left the bathroom. He stared at the container for a moment, recalling that sea salt and running water were a potent spiritual cleanser. He set the salt on the back of the toilet and turned on the shower. Once Blair had stepped under the stream of water, he picked up a washcloth, poured salt into it, then began to bathe.

As he scrubbed, his mind returned to the thought he'd had in the kitchen, his memory of being held captive by David Lash. He forced himself to examine his feelings, looking for the common denominator between then and now. Lash was dead, of that Blair had no doubt. So what was the same? The fact that Lash had bound and drugged his victims, as Blair suspected the rabbi's killer had? Was it the obvious attention to detail, to the ritual itself? Or was it something more primeval than that?

He stopped washing and stood under the hot spray of water, closing his eyes and concentrating on his breathing, taking himself through the self-relaxation techniques he used with Jim. When he felt completely calm, he let his memories of Lash come to the surface.

Susan Frasier. When he'd followed Jim into her bathroom, he hadn't been prepared for the sight of her still, cold body. At first he thought it wasn't real, that some weirdo had posed a mannequin in the water. Then it dawned on him he was looking at a dead woman, and that somehow made the scene even more bizarre. He'd rushed out of the room thinking no sane person could have done this. Turned out he had been right.

Was that what was going on here? Did a psychopath kill Rabbi Rabinovich? The more he turned it over in his mind, the more the similarities jumped out at him. The ritual, the display of the body, the obvious pride the killer had in his work--

The water temperature suddenly dropped to freezing, and Blair realized he'd been in the shower too long. Shutting off the tap, he got out and dried off, then put on his bathrobe. As he entered the hallway, he felt a prickling sensation akin to static electricity pass over his skin.

"What the...?" Blair exclaimed as he walked into the living room. The furniture in the dining area had been pushed back against the wall. In the now open space were candles, a large circle of nine votives surrounding five more.

Sky looked up from lighting the final candle. Smiling at him, she said, "I figured if we were going to do a cleansing, we'd do it right. I had most of the stuff we need still in my trunk from last week's druid meeting."

Blair hesitated for a moment, then shrugged. "Sure, why not? What do you need me to do?"

"Take off your robe, and enter the circle between these two candles." She indicated the ones closest to her. Once he'd done so, Sky followed him in, spoke a few words in Gaelic, and said, "The circle is now complete." Bending down, she picked up a small bundle of dried leaves from a pile of items on the floor. Blair recognized it as a sage smudge stick.

As Sky prepared to light it, Blair said, "Wait a minute, what about the smoke detector?"

She flashed him a grin as she ignited the smudge. "Way ahead of you. Yanked the battery out. Remind me to put it back in when we're done." She blew gently on the smoldering leaves until white smoke began to rise in the air. Holding the stick in her left hand, she pulled a bundle of feathers from the pocket of the Tweety apron. Using the feathers, she fanned the smoke over him in a downward motion.

She moved around him, working from his head down, the feathers wafting cool air across his skin. "That tickles," he protested.

"Sorry." Sky continued to speak, switching to the Gaelic she normally used for rituals. Blair's knowledge of the language was only rudimentary, but he recognized her words as a variation on the normal purification ritual the druids used in the grove.

Blair closed his eyes against the strongly aromatic smoke, visualizing it bonding with the darkness he felt surrounding him, then being swept away. He opened his eyes as she brushed the smoke down his body. Reaching his feet, she fanned the last of the smoke away, then snuffed out the smudge stick. Putting both the feathers and the sage down, she picked up a bottle of Cobb Mountain Spring Water and poured it onto a white washcloth. Sky began to wipe him down, starting with his face.

He felt relaxed, peaceful and not at all tense. The bad 'vibes' he'd been feeling all day had dissipated, leaving him renewed, re-energized and-- Blair looked down at the top of her head as Sky knelt to run the cloth over his legs. His breath caught in his chest at an almost overwhelming rush of emotion. Say it. You know it's true. Just say it. Just tell her.

He blinked rapidly a couple of times, the last vestiges of smoke in the air stinging his eyes. Sky got to her feet, the cleansing done, and he was suddenly staring into those clear green eyes. Over the weeks they'd been together, he'd discovered that her eyes spoke volumes. Everything in her heart was visible there, if he just looked deep enough. Now all he saw was her tremendous love for him, and for a moment he was scared.

What if it's not enough? What if I say it wrong? What if--Sandburg, just say it!

He brushed his fingers over her cheek. "I love you..." He'd meant it to be strong and confident, but it came out as an emotion choked whisper.

Blair watched her eyes fill up with tears, then she smiled and kissed him. "You know I love you, too, darlin'." As the words left her mouth, a gust of air blew out the candles.

He heard the door to Jim's apartment close, then the shrill beep of his friend's smoke alarm, followed by a loud sneeze, and a bellow down the staircase. "Sandburg! What in the hell's going on down there?"

"Nothing, man, nothing!" he yelled back as, laughing, Sky spoke the words to open the circle. She tossed his bathrobe at him just as Jim started down the stairs.

Pulling into his normal parking spot outside of his home, Jim turned off the engine and sat there in silence for a few minutes. He and Simon had opted for dinner at the Outback Steakhouse where they had consumed a couple of massive steaks with all the trimmings and quaffed down a few beers. Not too many, since both were driving, but just enough to relax. Only, Jim wasn't fully relaxed. Something was tugging at his mind, something that Sandburg had said earlier about the ritualistic nature of the crime scene. He just wished he could remember what it was.

Letting out a sigh of frustration, Jim crawled out of his truck and, while putting his keys in his pocket, came across the small pouch Blair had tossed him earlier. "Sandburg's All Natural Snake Oil." He let go of a chuckle. "Might as well see if it works, but not tonight. Not sure how it'll react with the beer." Stuffing the pouch back into his pocket, he made his way into the building, stopping only to check his mailbox before using the elevator to reach the third floor.

Keying open his door, Jim automatically sent his senses ranging out, an old reflex action from all the times he'd come home to find Blair cooking something a little too exotic, or trouble waiting for him. Nothing. Now that Blair had his own place, just below Jim's, there was hardly ever any trouble waiting for him. Well, not counting that vegetable bomber guy.


"What the hell?" His smoke alarm started going off, the sound practically piercing his eardrums, then the scent hit him and hit him hard. "Aaaa-CHOO!" Sage.

"Sandburg! What in the hell's going on down there?" He crossed the floor to the staircase that connected the two apartments and started down the spiral just as Blair's voice drifted up to him.

"Nothing, man, nothing!" There was a hint of laughter in his friend's voice and the smothered giggling of a female spoke volumes as did the scene that greeted Jim's eyes.

Sandburg was shrugging back into his robe, but not before Jim saw more of his guide than he wanted to. Sky, wearing that damn Tweety Bird apron she'd gotten for Sandburg, was trying not to laugh as she glanced toward him. Stopping about halfway down the spiral staircase, Jim realized the hair on his arms was standing straight up. "Nothing, Sandburg? Then why do I smell sage, my fire alarm's going off, and you're standing in the middle of what looks to be a ritual circle nearly naked?"

Sky looked up from gathering the candles. "Cleansing ritual." She glanced at Blair. "You do feel better, don't you?"

"Yeah, honey, I do. Thanks." Jim tried not to grimace when his friend pulled Sky into an embrace and kissed her.

Jim sneezed again. "Damn it. You have some explaining to do, Sandburg. But upstairs where I can breathe." He shot a glare in the couple's direction and headed back up the stairs. Once there, he threw open the French doors to the balcony. A few seconds later the shrill tweet of the smoke alarm cut off.

Blair appeared from below, followed by Sky. Rubbing his arms, Jim paced across the loft. "Chief, you're really starting to worry me here. I can understand why you might want someone to do a--what did you call it--a cleansing ritual, Sky?" She nodded, sliding her arm through Blair's. "I mean, your place is a mess but a little elbow grease, soap and water would take care of that."

"Funny, Jim. Real funny," Blair snorted.

"Yeah, well I just call them like I see 'em, Chief." Jim walked over toward the big bay windows and pushed one open. "I just hope I can get rid of that sage smoke so I can sleep tonight." Seeing a puzzled expression on Sky's face, he told her, "I'm allergic."

"Oh! Blair! Why didn't you tell me? I am so sorry, Jim! I could've used something else if I'd known."

"Sorry, Jim. I didn't realize how late it was. I figured we could air the place out before you got home."

"No big deal. Naomi used to use the stuff, too. I'm getting used to it." He opened one more window Looking back at the two younger people, he asked, "So why did you need a cleansing, Sandburg?"

"Long story, Jim."

"He came home feeling a little 'dirty' after whatever he helped you with today." Sky had never been afraid to tell Jim exactly what was what and from her tone, he surmised she wasn't too pleased with him for some reason.

"The case bugging you, Chief? I appreciate your willingness to help me out, but if it's too much--"

"No, I'll be fine. But don't be surprised if you find me meditating quite a bit while we're working on this. It's disturbing."

"Okay. But you'll let me know if it gets to be too much?" Blair nodded and Jim continued, "Good. I'm not too sure about this new age stuff, but if it helps you get through this.... " Seeing the expression on both faces before him, Jim decided a hasty retreat was in order. "Well, on that note, I'm going to bed. You two have fun down there, but try to keep the sage burning and the noise to a decent level, will ya?"

The two-person chorus of 'good nights' and 'sleep wells' wafted back up the stairs. Once he got into bed, Jim managed to block out most of what was going on in apartment 207, but there was just enough getting though that he rolled over and opened the top drawer of his bedside table. He pulled out a box, took the two small items out, and stuffed them in his ears. The noise stopped. "Ah, bliss." Punching his pillow into a comfortable shape, Jim closed his eyes.

Blair snuggled up closer to Sky on the mattress and slid his arm around her waist. She made a soft little noise, and leaned back against him, but didn't wake up.

After Blair and Sky had gone back downstairs, they'd finally gotten around to making dinner. Or rather Sky had. He worked on grading papers until it was ready, and went back to them after eating. She'd cleaned up the kitchen, then relieved him of half the remaining stack of tests. She was a demon with the red pen, and between them, they had the grading done in no time.

Then it had been off to bed. And now here he was, an hour and a half later, still awake, thinking about what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. He must be getting old. He didn't have that same wanderlust he'd had in his youth. Hell, had four years ago. He had Jim, and the whole sentinel thing, two great jobs, a cool home of his own, with a mortgage, and a steady girlfriend. Oh, God, he was finally a grown-up. He had responsibilities.

But there were perks as well. Blair felt a grin cross his face, and he tilted his head down to plant a soft kiss on Sky's bare shoulder. He'd finally said the words. And instead of the panic he'd felt the last time he'd said them to a woman, he felt--right. This was where he was supposed to be. And maybe, if she felt this was where she was supposed to be too, they could make things a little more permanent. Not permanent, permanent, but maybe he could clean out a drawer in his dresser, and buy some more hangers for the closet.

Yeah, that's what he'd do. Tomorrow. Closing his eyes, Blair drifted off to sleep.

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