Nature's Conspiracies: IV

by Francesca

Author's disclaimer: Their guys, my words.

Author's notes: Thanks to Miriam and Em Brunson for spot-on beta work as always. This is the provisional conclusion to Nature's Conspiracies; as the more astute of you have already figured out, this plot isn't really ever going to end. Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!


Blair Sandburg blinked at the sight of the black Lincoln towncar parked at the end of Pine Hill Drive. "Man, are those guys still here?"

Jim stared at the car as they drove past it, then shook his head. "Nah. Different guys, different license plate. It's the next shift, I guess." He took a left and began to loop the Mercedes back around to the other side of the woods. "Looks like a pretty standard sort of stakeout to me."

"I can't believe they think we're still here."

"Why not? It's Christmas. People go home at Christmas."

"You don't, normally," Blair objected.

"Good thing they don't know that." Jim pulled the Mercedes over to the curb and switched off the engine.

"Well, what the hell am I doing here at Christmas?" Blair demanded.

"You're my nice Jewish boyfriend. Where else are you gonna be?"

Blair made a face. "Oh, yuck, man."

"As far as they know, right?"

"Yeah, I guess — but 'yuck' anyway."

Jim pulled the keys out of the ignition and turned to look at Blair. "Okay, so I figure we'll get back in there, spend the evening with my Dad, and then lead the parade back to the loft. Then we'll do whatever 'bug-finding-script' you've come up with."

"Okay, right." Blair reached for the door handle, and then stopped and looked over at Jim, who was just sitting still in the driver's seat. "So are we going, or what?"

"I'm just psyching myself up for an evening with my Dad." Jim blew out a breath.

"Hey, he's not such a bad guy," Blair protested. "He's just trying to deal with this stuff — and he's been a real help to me."

Jim snorted. "Yeah, right — all of a sudden he's Grandpa."

Blair blinked. "Grandpa?"

"Yeah. Mr. Sweetness and Light. Cause now he's not directly responsible for me — you've taken that job off his hands. Now he can be Grandpa — all smiles and presents — because if anything fucks up, it's your fault and not his."

"Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa! Wait just a fucking minute! Are you implying that — "

"'He's been a real big help to me,'" Jim mimicked. "What the fuck am I — a newborn? Why don't you get him to sit for me on weekends so you can go out and talk to other grownups?"

Blair just stared at him. "Where the hell is this coming from?"

"You know, I was a goddamned army ranger," Jim said, stabbing himself in the chest with his index finger. "I'm a goddamned police detective. I'm gonna turn forty this year."

Blair raised his hands high. "I am not engaging this," he said firmly. "This is not a Sentinel thing, this is a you-needing-therapy thing. You're almost forty, man — so try and act like it, okay? Sheesh." Blair reached for the handle and got out of the car, slamming the door behind him.

Jim sighed and got out, too. "Look, all right, I'm sorry," he called to Blair over the roof of the Mercedes. "It's just that he's got this way of making me feel about ten years old."

"Well, you're not," Blair pointed out. "So get over it, already. Just say 'please' and 'thank you' and 'Merry Christmas', all right?"

"All right," Jim said grudgingly.

"And I am not, like, your surrogate dad or your nice Jewish boyfriend or any of that stuff. That stuff creeps me out." Blair shuddered.

Jim's lip twitched. "All right. Sorry about that."

"I mean, just — yuck, man!"

Jim grinned and led the way back into the woods.  


Jim stopped short suddenly, sending Blair careening into him with a stifled, "ooof — what?"

"Just checking the perimeter," Jim whispered. "Shut up."

Blair nodded and shut up and a moment later Jim nodded and jerked his head forward.

Jim moved, and Blair grabbed a fistful of his jacket and followed. And it was somehow easier to do this trip in reverse; eventually the woods thinned out and they hit the manicured part of the yard, running across it silently until they were flattened against the side of the house. They eased their way sideways until they hit the window, and then Jim ducked down and slid into it feet first, vanishing out of sight.

Blair crouched down and tried to follow, then hesitated, not knowing whether to go in head-first or feet first. But Jim had gone in feet first, so that decided that. He swung his legs into the window and slowly eased himself forward, clutching on to the frame tightly. And then he felt Jim's grab his legs and take his weight and so he let go and let Jim pull him into the damp, dark basement.

Jim carefully put him on his feet and then nudged him toward where the staircase was. Blair obediently walked forward until his foot hit the staircase, and then he was climbing the wooden steps, hand trailing along the wall. When they reached the top, Blair felt blindly for the doorknob and tried to turn it. It didn't move.

"It's locked," he whispered.

"Well, knock." Jim's voice was infuriatingly reasonable.

Blair shrugged and knocked loudly. "Uh — Bill? Open up! It's us."

He heard a frantic shuffle and then the door being unlocked and then the kitchen light was shining in their faces. William Ellison looked worried for a moment, and then relief slowly spread across his face. "Well, hey. You made it back okay."

"Yeah, we're perfectly fine," Jim said, pushing past Blair into the kitchen. "How are things here on the Western Front?"

"Just fine," William Ellison said. "That car's still out there, though. I sent Sally out to do my errands today and didn't leave the house. Nobody unusual's been in or out. I tried to make it seem like we were having a grand old family Christmas in here."

"Well, uh — tonight we will," Jim said firmly, flashing a broad smile at his father. "If that's okay with you — if you can take on two more for dinner."

William brightened. "Of course, of course," he said. "Sally will be so pleased." He crossed the kitchen to the doorway and called out, "Sally — you'll never guess what!" He glanced back at Jim and Blair. "I think she's making fish, tonight. Christmas Eve and all that. You eat fish, don't you?"

"Sure," Jim said.

"Yeah," Blair said, nodding. "I love fish."

"Come on into the living room and have a martini," William Ellison said, leading the way. "You'll have a drink on Christmas Eve, won't you, Jimmy? And Blair, I know you will." He loped off toward the bar.

"Uh — sure, Dad," Jim said awkwardly, following his father. "Yeah, okay."

"Please." Blair watched as William slid the top off his huge cherrywood bar.

"Thank you," Jim echoed with a sidelong glance at Blair.

"Merry Christmas," Blair said, and grinned approvingly.  


Jim quickly got to his feet and took the dishes from Sally's hands. "Wait, let me help you with that."

"You don't have to," Sally said, shaking her head.

"Well, I want to," Jim said, smiling at her. "Indulge me."

"I can help, too," Blair said quickly, tossing his napkin onto the dining room table and getting up.

Sally now looked downright distressed. "No, no, Mr. Sandburg, please — "

"Blair, go sit with my father in the living room," Jim directed, gathering up more plates. "I've got this area under control." He pushed open the swing door into the kitchen with his hip and went through.

"Uh — okay, sure," Blair said. "Sally, everything was just terrific."

"Thank you!" Sally smiled nervously at him and then followed Jim into the kitchen, carrying the empty fish platter.

William stood up and gestured at the other door. "Shall we?"

"Sure," Blair said, and followed him out to the living room.

When they were sufficiently far away from the dining room, William dropped his voice and said, "I'm not sure Sally quite knows what to make of you, you know?"

"Well," Blair replied, genially, "most of the time I don't know what to make of myself, either."

William laughed and clapped him on the shoulder before sitting down on the sofa. "I mean," William murmured, "of course she knows you're Jim's partner. With the other thing..." William glanced over at the dining room and quickly made a so-so sort of gesture with his hands. "Who knows, you know?"

"Which other thing?" Blair asked, lowering his voice to match William's conspiratorial tone. "The other thing, or the other other thing?" He had to force himself not to smile.

"Either thing," William whispered back quite seriously. "Though she probably knows about both things, she's known Jim long enough. Probably knows him better than I do."

"So you don't ever talk about it?" Blair asked curiously.

"No," William said, glancing over again at the door.

"What did you tell her about last night?"

"Told her it was one of Jim's police cases," William replied, tapping the side of his nose.

"Ah." Blair nodded sagely. "Riiight."

Just then Sally appeared in the doorway. "Do you want to have coffee in here?"

"Sure," William Ellison said, looking to Blair for approval.

"Fine by me," Blair said. Sally nodded and disappeared back in the direction of the kitchen.

"So is there anything you can tell me about what's going on?" William asked quietly.

"Not really." Blair shrugged helplessly. "I mean — we've got some theories — we're sort of hoping that the guy who knows hasn't told anybody else. But it's all still speculation at this point." Blair sighed.

"Hmmph. Bastard."

"Totally," Blair agreed. "But it's probably not a worst-case scenario, anyway."

"Well, that's good news." William looking over at Jim, who was pushing through the door from the kitchen carrying a huge silver tray.

"Right," Jim said, bringing it over and bending to put it down on the coffee table. He balanced the tray on the edge of the table while sliding the coasters aside; in the Ellison household, coffee rings were clearly verboten. "We got coffee, we got cups, we got milk, we got sugar."

"Hey, that's great," Blair said, brightening. As long as they had something to do — eat, drink, drink some more — there was a chance Jim might make it through this. "Thanks."

"Merry Christmas," Jim replied, smirking at him. "Be right back — gotta get the dessert tray. Sally's totally out of control in there." Jim shook his head and turned back toward the kitchen.

"Meanwhile, I meant to ask you," William asked Blair once Jim had gone. "What's with the golf bag?"

Blair rolled his eyes. "It's got a built-in minibar."

William chuckled and shook his head. "That kid is so full of shit."

"I know," Blair said.

"All right, who's having dessert?" Jim was carrying an even bigger tray this time.

"Gosh," Blair said, staring at it.

"Yeah." Jim nodded and put the tray down. "If it isn't on this tray, it doesn't exist." Sally came up behind him, beaming proudly. "This is like, obscene, Sally." Sally looked pleased at the compliment.

Jim sat down next to Blair and Blair whispered, "I just had pie at lunch."

"Shut up and eat cake," Jim muttered back.

"Right," Blair said, and helped himself to a big slice, glad he'd already slid through all the small windows he was gonna slide through that evening.  


Jim was safely in the truck, warming up the engine, while Blair somehow found himself still stuck at the door, struggling to leave with his Christmas spirit still intact.

"No, no, I'm serious!" Blair yelled, batting away the envelope that William Ellison was trying to foist on him.

"So am I!" William yelled back. "I mean it! Take it!"

"I don't want to take it!" Trapped between William and the door jamb, Blair raised his arms and waved them around furiously.

"Blair, just shut up and take it already!" William maneuvered to the side and tried to shove the envelope into Blair's jacket pocket.

"I'm Jewish!" Blair yelled. "This isn't my holiday!"

"Well, Happy Hanukkah, then!" William said, fisting his jacket and holding him still while he jammed the envelope in.

"Hanukkah's over!" Blair said, scrambling to pull the envelope out again.

"Stop being such a pain in the ass and stand still!" William Ellison bellowed, sounding so much like Jim for a second there that Blair did stand still out of pure shock. William forced the envelope down deep into his pocket and glared at him. "It's for emergencies! Emergencies, okay?"

"Bill, really, I — "

The truck door slammed and both of them turned around, the envelope momentarily forgotten. "What the hell kind of Punch and Judy show are you two performing out here?" Jim asked, coming up the path from the street.

"It's nothing," William said, stepping back and glaring at Blair. Oh, yeah, right — like this was his fault.

Jim looked at Blair. "Nothing," Blair sighed, relenting.

"Merry Christmas, Jimmy," William Ellison said, giving Jim a quick hug. "Merry — whatever — Hanukkah," he said to Blair, and then he smirked and shut the door.

Blair glared at the closed door for a minute and then threw up his hands. "Jesus Christ, that guy is such a — "

Jim slung an arm around Blair's neck, turning it into a loose headlock, and began to drag him down the path to the truck.

"I mean, really, Jim — he just doesn't know how to take no for — "

Jim let go of Blair and shoved him toward the truck. "Get over it. Just say please and thank you — "

" — and Merry Christmas," Blair snorted, getting into the truck. "Yeah, right."

Jim got in on the other side and slammed the door shut, then turned to look at Blair. "While you were modeling a mature father-son dynamic — " Blair opened his mouth to protest, but Jim steamrolled over him. " — I was listening to our friends back there." Blair closed his mouth and swallowed, nodding. "They've radioed in that we're on the move, and that they're going to follow us."

Blair had to force himself not to glance over his shoulder. "Yeah, okay. Right. So let's go home and get today over with, already."

Jim nodded and shifted the truck into gear, pulling away from the curb.

Blair felt in his pocket for the now-battered envelope. "Man, your dad really is something, though. He made me take this." He waved the envelope at Jim.

Jim shrugged. "Whatever — he likes you. Didn't know what to get you for Christmas. Plus, he must be feeling pretty helpless about this whole Ziegler thing — when he doesn't know what to do about a problem, he throws money at it. It's just what he does."

"Still," Blair said, ripping the envelope open. "It wasn't necessary. He's already helped by — " Blair reached into the envelope and pulled out a fistful of green. "Holy shit!" Blair boggled. "Jim, man — this is, like, a serious chunk of change, here!"

Jim glanced over at the cash but seemed unfazed. "The market was up this year."

"Like I noticed." Blair shook his head. "Jim, I can't take this money! We've got to give it back."

"Blair, we've got bigger problems right now, okay?" Blair turned his attention to Jim, seeing the tight set of his mouth, and noticed that Jim was glancing into the rear view mirror every few seconds. "If we survive the next few days, we'll figure out what to do about returning your Christmas present, all right?"

"All right," Blair said apologetically. He jammed the money back into his jacket pocket. "I'm sorry. I just got caught up, there."

"Well get uncaught. You got your script ready?" Jim asked.

"I got an outline," Blair said, scrambling to pull the notebook out of his backpack. "We might have to improvise a bit."

"With your handwriting, I'm sure of it," Jim muttered. "All right — so run it by me. I'm listening."  

10:53 P.M. 852 PROSPECT, APT. 307

Blair paused outside the door to #307, key already in the lock, notebook held up so both of them could see it. Taking a deep breath, he met Jim's eyes and mouthed, "Five, four, three, two — " and pushed the door open.  


JIM: (angrily) Chief, I told you that you left the light on! Goddammit, it's been on all night and all day!"

BLAIR: I thought we were coming back here. Besides, I always leave the light on at night. So we don't break our necks coming home.

JIM: Well, I wish you wouldn't. It's a waste of electricity.

BLAIR: Don't be such a tightwad. One light is not such a big deal. Put it on my half of the bill if it makes you feel better.

JIM: It won't make me feel better.

(Sound of JIM and BLAIR taking coats off, hanging them up on hooks.)  


JIM: (going to fridge) Do you want a beer?

BLAIR: Are you kidding? I haven't recovered from last night yet. What the hell does your father put in those martinis?

JIM: I don't know. It tastes like pure rubbing alcohol.

BLAIR: I think he drinks too much.

JIM: That's why I don't normally drink when I go over there. He doesn't know when enough is enough. But it was Christmas, and we were celebrating your promotion and everything.

BLAIR: It was fun. Even though we maybe overdid it. Oy, my head.

JIM: Well, at least we didn't have to drive.

BLAIR: Like I would let you drive in that condition.

JIM: Just as well. I hate driving at night anyway. It hurts my eyes.

BLAIR: (laughing) Well face it, man — you're almost forty!

JIM: Don't remind me.

BLAIR: You're not the man you used to be.

JIM: You'll get there, Junior. Just you wait.

BLAIR: I need to take a shower and get out of these clothes. I've been wearing these clothes for two days now.

JIM: Well, go ahead. I'm going to watch the news.  


(Sound of BLAIR heading toward the bathroom. Sound of loud CRASH as Jim knocks over the lamp).

Blair had just almost reached the bathroom when he stopped, horrified — because the next line he was supposed to say was, "What the hell was that?" which, at this point, would be a helluva non-sequitur, since the goddamned lamp hadn't broken. It had just kind of bounced, then rolled, and then stopped when it hit the sofa, and then lay there, on it's side, balanced on the shade.

And Jim just stood there and blinked at it, then turned and glared at him, like it was maybe his fault the lamp didn't shatter into a thousand noisy pieces. Blair glared back, emphasizing the point that he wasn't the one who bought the fucking indestructible lamp in the first place. Hell, he didn't even like the lamp. It was an ugly lamp.

Jim turned to glare angrily at the lamp and then made a "what now?" motion with his hands. Blair gesticulated wildly in return, trying to convey "How the fuck should I know?" This was the "Breaking The Lamp" scene. The script said the lamp broke. He was following the script. Jim was following the script. Everybody but the fucking lamp was following the goddamned script.

Jim shrugged and mouthed something that might have been "Improvise". Blair nodded, swallowing down incipient panic as Jim quietly tiptoed over to the lamp. He picked it up silently, holding it high above his head and then threw it, hard, onto the floor, where it made a very satisfying breaking sound. Chips of porcelain flew everywhere.

"What the hell was that?" Blair yelled, hoping he sounded convincing.

Jim didn't answer for a second, apparently surprised his plan had actually worked. The surprise in his voice sounded convincing, anyway. "I was trying to turn it off."

With a sledgehammer, apparently. Blair suppressed a giggle and tried to remember his motivation.

BLAIR: How the hell did you do that? What the hell is the matter with you?

JIM: I was trying to turn it off!

BLAIR: That's why I leave the lamp on! So we can see what we're doing! For god's sake, Jim!

JIM: Be careful, I think I broke the bulb. There's glass on the floor.

(Sound of BLAIR turning on another lamp.)

JIM: Look, I'm sorry.

BLAIR: I 'll go get the broom. Don't cut yourself.

In the script, the broom had been a largely unnecessary prop. However, with the way Jim had smashed the thing, it was now a necessity. Oh well, Blair thought. Realism. He took a deep breath and waited for Jim to feed him the first line of Scene Four.  


JIM: Hey, Blair — have you been playing with this?

BLAIR: Playing with what? The lamp?

JIM: (sounding confused) Yeah. What the hell is this?

BLAIR: (coming closer) What?

JIM: (quietly) Oh, wow.

BLAIR: What?

JIM: Blair, look at this.

And Blair actually did look, and at first, he couldn't find the bug in the middle of all the lamp parts. He frowned, realizing that he wouldn't have recognized the bug if he'd seen it. Some detective he was.

JIM: Shit.

BLAIR: (shocked) What the hell! A bug! Who —

JIM: I don't know.

(Sound of JIM going into kitchen, getting bowl out of cabinet, filling it with water.)

BLAIR: What are you doing?

JIM: Disabling this thing.

Jim immersed the first bug in the water and then gave Blair a thumbs-up. Cool. One down, three to go. And to be fair, it was getting easier as they went along. Scenes Five, Six, and Seven ("Finding The Second Bug", "Finding The Third Bug", and "Gee, This Is Bad, Do You Think We Should Call Simon?") went without a hitch.

Blair bobbled a line in Scene Eight: "Who On Earth Could Have Done This, Jim?", which threw Jim off for a dangerously long second. However they got their rhythm back easily in Scene Nine: "Jim Isn't A Sentinel: Really," mainly because it involved lots of yelling:

BLAIR: Jim, come here and look at this. Is this a part of the stereo?

JIM: What?

BLAIR: (yelling) I said come here and look at this!!

JIM: (yelling back) All right, all right, I'm coming! Keep your pants on!

BLAIR: Just take a look at this. What's that?

JIM: What's what?

BLAIR: That! That, right there! What, are you blind or something?

Still, the entire goddamned thing was exhausting, and by the time Jim had dropped the final bug into the bowl of water Blair was lying flat across the sofa, wondering how it was possible to be this tired and this wired at the same time. "Please tell me that's it," he begged Jim.

"Yeah." Jim sounded like he felt, which was to say: like hell. "That's it. Drop curtain. Roll credits. Fade out."

"You're sure?" Blair asked, draping an arm over his eyes.

"I'm sure." He heard Jim collapse into the armchair.

"Hell, man — this shit isn't as easy as they make it look on T.V," Blair muttered.

"Yeah, and it took a year. Couldn't you have cut a little?"

Blair dropped his arm and looked at Jim. "What about my artistic integrity?" he deadpanned.

A pillow flew across the room and hit him in the face.

"See, that's typical. The writer never gets any respect." Blair grabbed the pillow and hurled it back at Jim.

"Be careful with that thing," Jim said. "We're down one lamp as it is." Jim got up and neatly propped the throw-pillow against the back of the armchair. "I'm beat — I'm going to bed."

"I'm beat, too — what time is it, anyway?"

Jim glanced at his watch. "It's a quarter to one."

Blair groaned with exhaustion and Jim grinned and offered him his hand. Blair took it and Jim yanked him up off the sofa.

"Hey, it's Christmas," Jim said suddenly.

Blair grinned. "Yeah, I guess it is."

"Merry Christmas." Jim fisted Blair's shirt and tugged him close.

"Merry Christmas," Blair echoed softly.

"I love you," Jim said seriously. "Thank you."

Blair tilted his head up and Jim tilted his head down and they kissed hungrily. Blair slid his hands around Jim's waist, and then up his back, getting hard again, despite the long evening, despite everything. He murmured into Jim's mouth, "I think I'm getting my second wind."

Jim laughed against Blair's mouth, gave him a quick, final kiss and then lifted his head. "It's too late. I'm too tired. You know, I'm not the man I used to be."

Blair laid a hand on Jim's chest and promised, "I'll do all the work. I swear."

"I — uh — " Jim stared at him for a moment, and inhaled deeply. "Uh, yeah. Sure. Okay."

They went upstairs and Blair kept his promise — he straddled Jim and rode him hard, hands rhythmically clenching Jim's strong shoulders. Jim gasped and ran his palms up and down Blair's chest, occasionally reaching down between them to grope and stroke Blair's cock. But Blair's pounding rhythm seemed to distract him, and eventually Jim's fingers closed around Blair's nipple ring, tugging on it idly.

That, Blair thought wildly, was just the best thing ever and then some, and he threw his head back and just let himself feel. Jim's hardness sliding deep inside him. His own hardness rubbing slickly against the tight muscles of Jim's smooth, washboard stomach. The jolts of pleasure that shot through him whenever Jim gathered the wherewithal to pull at his piercing. Each tug seemed to magnify his pleasure by the power of ten.

And then Jim was tugging and tugging and tugging and the jolts of pleasure were coming so fast and furious now that he just had to end it — had to end it for himself anyway. Blair sank down hard on Jim's erection and leaned back on one flung-back hand. He reached down for his cock with the other and closed his fist around it tightly and started to jerk himself off roughly, fucking his fist, listening to Jim's violent, erotic gasps, meeting his eyes breathlessly — c'mon Jim, c'mon Jim, come on, Jim come on Jim come on

Blair sucked in a ragged breath and came, feeling his own hot heavy cock pulsing wildly in his hand — and then Jim was shoving forward wildly, all straining muscles and masculine strength — and Blair was slammed down on his back and his legs were in the air and Jim was in him again, thrusting deeply, and hitting his prostate BANGBANGBANG —

— and that was it, really, that was all he wrote, because his head was suddenly swimming and he was barely conscious and Jim flopped forward onto him and sort of passed out and this was plenty comfortable enough a way to sleep anyway.  


Blair woke up like that, upside-down on the bed and covered by a blanket of warm, heavy Jim. Not a bad Christmas morning, really, and considering it wasn't even his holiday, it was a damn sight more than he deserved. He smiled and raised his hand to caress as much of Jim's sleep-warm back as he could reach, and then he gently rolled Jim over onto his side so that he could move.

"Nuuuh," Jim muttered, and Blair leaned over him and murmured, "Shh, go back to sleep." He dropped a kiss on the side of Jim's face, and then yanked the covers out from the sides of the bed, pulling them to meet over Jim's sleeping body, wrapping him up like a tamale.

He grinned and put on a pair of sweatpants and a bathrobe and some slippers, then silently stole down the loft steps. Hot coffee. Hot shower. Maybe make Jim a nice Christmas breakfast: eggs and bacon and stuff.

Presuming, of course, that they had eggs and bacon and stuff....

He crossed into the kitchen and started the coffee brewing, then turned to inspect the contents of the fridge. Eggs — check. Bacon — check. Bread, did they have any bread...?

The phone rang and Blair jumped, startled — he quickly dashed to the cordless and grabbed it before the second ring could wake Jim up.

"Yeah — hello?" Blair said in a low voice, glancing up at the loft. No sound, no movement. He smiled — last might must really have zonked the guy out.

"Detective Sandburg," Paul Ziegler said, and the bottom dropped out of Blair's stomach. Instinctively, his eyes returned to the loft — but no sound, no movement, goddammit.

"Agent Ziegler. I, uh, didn't expect to hear from you again." Not like this, anyway.

"Well," Ziegler said, "I was just reviewing some files — "

"On Christmas morning?"

"I'm not particularly religious. Are you?"

Blair crossed to the balcony doors, opened them, stepped out into the cold clear morning air. "What can I do for you?" he asked, staring out at the white, choppy waves of the bay.

"I just wanted to congratulate you on your — performance."

"Thanks." The icy wind off the bay blew his hair back, away from his face. "Very kind of you."

"I really don't think that you two have any idea how talented you are."

"Thanks," Blair repeated. "Anything else?"

"Well, maybe."

Blair could hear the distant rustle of pages turning, and he clutched the phone tightly. "What?"

"Your files aren't complete. There's some information missing. Holes."

"Well, what do you need to know?" Blair asked, trying to keep his voice as normal seeming as possible. "Maybe I can fill in some of the blanks for you."

"Maybe." Ziegler sounded noncommittal. "But I'm not sure that your information would be reliable, Detective."

Blair frowned. "What the hell do you mean by that?"

"Well, just that you may not be the most objective person at this point," Ziegler said. "Particularly where your partnership is concerned. You said it yourself — you've gone native, Sandburg. You've crossed over."

Fucking! Insinuating! Sonofabitch! "Well, if I can't help you with anything," Blair said tightly, "maybe you want to tell me why you're calling me on Christmas fucking morning. I don't have ESP, you know."

It took him a second to hear that Ziegler was laughing. "You little prick..."  Ziegler's voice was a weird mix of amusement and awe.

"I don't have to listen to this," Blair said, and he was about to punch the OFF button when he heard Ziegler yelling, "No, wait, wait! Sandburg!!"

"I don't have to stand here and be insulted."

"I'm not insulting you, Sandburg, I swear. Hell, I admire you. But I really don't think you know what you've got there."

"I don't know what you're talking about."

"You know exactly what I'm talking about. Stop thinking with your dick and start thinking like an anthropologist. What you've got there, Sandburg — it's incredible. And what the hell are you doing with it? You ever stop to think about that? You ever stop and think about the possibilities?"

Blair stared into space, and then slowly dropped into one of the balcony chairs, oblivious to the cold. "Do you ever stop to think," Blair replied slowly, "that we don't want your goddamned career counseling? That our lives belong to us?"

He heard Ziegler's soft, sad exhalation. "You know what your problem is, Sandburg? You think small."

Blair was still sitting there on the balcony, holding the dead cordless phone, when Jim finally woke up and came to find him.  

The End