Production No. CVT523

written by:

edited by:
Karen and Urban Angel


There are some scenes in this episode that may not be suitable for our more sensitive viewers.
Viewer discretion is advised.

She watched the knife blade glisten in the firelight, catching the reflection of the flickering flames and casting a faint orange glow onto the face of her murderer. Like the knife reflecting the light of the flames, his eyes reflected the light of his madness. His face gleamed with ecstasy as he held the knife high overhead, poised above her heart. Time slowed and took on a surreal quality as the blade began its descent. Unable to move, she couldn't take her eyes from the instrument of her death as it carved its way through the night towards her breast. Her scream rent the air like the knife that sliced her skin.

The sound and the victim died simultaneously, suddenly enveloped by a silence as soul- shattering as the scream had been. A soft chanting began, growing in both its volume and intensity until the surrounding forest echoed with the sound and joined the ghastly chorus.

The Master held the knife aloft and watched as droplets of blood slid languorously off the curved tip, glistening sickeningly in the flames of the alter fire and landing on the earth in an ever- increasing pool. He closed his eyes and sighed in contentment, completely sated.

All would be as it should be again.

Jim Ellison sank gratefully into the thick cushions of the sofa and sighed deeply. After taking a long swig of his beer, he leaned his head against the pillow at his back and closed his eyes.

A sniffle and the shuffle of socked feet heralded the arrival of his spring-cold stricken partner, Blair Sandburg. "Hey, Jim," he rasped, diverting into the kitchen to fix himself a cup of tea.

Ellison's only response was raising his bottle in a half salute before taking another long draw.

"Jim?" Concern clouded Sandburg's face as he gazed at the back of his partner's head. The teakettle whistled for his attention, and he paused to pour the boiling water into his cup. Dunking his tea ball in the steaming liquid, he crossed to sit on the couch next to Ellison. "Jim, what's wrong, man?"

Jim forced his eyes open and locked his ice blue eyes with Blair's slightly bleary dark blue ones. "How are you feeling?"

"Better. I'll be back at work tomorrow. And don't change the subject. What happened today? What's wrong?"

"Did you watch the news tonight?"

Blair blinked, slightly disconcerted by Jim's seemingly abrupt change of gears. "No, I took a nap this afternoon and just now woke up. Why?"

"There's been another one..."

"Oh, man! Not another one! Dog, cat, what?" Blair took a sip of his tea to calm his indignation. "I was hoping we could find this creep before he killed another animal." Blair shuddered, recalling the recent string of animal mutilations that had all pet owners in Cascade concerned. Some of the more prominent owners in the community were putting a great deal of pressure on the mayor's office to find and arrest the demented offender. Bowing to the pressure, the mayor had tossed the hot potato to Major Crime. Captain Simon Banks had then assigned it to his own particular bloodhound, Jim Ellison. A couple of days into the investigation, Blair had come down with a nasty cold, and his sentinel had relegated him to the warmth and safety of the loft, complaining that Blair's herbal cold remedies were wreaking havoc on his senses. Blair suspected the complaining was a thinly veiled disguise for Jim's Blessed Protector mode, but since he really did feel like crap, he wisely chose not to push the point. Thus, Jim had spent two days, alone, tracking down virtually non-existent leads in an effort to locate the perpetrator.

Jim massaged the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. "It wasn't an animal this time," Jim broke into Blair's tirade.

"What?" Blair's features registered his shock at the revelation.

"It wasn't somebody's pet, it was somebody's daughter," Jim reiterated. "A 21-year-old Rainier co-ed. Melissa Wakefield, 5'2", brunette, green eyes. According to those who knew her, a very pretty girl. She's not pretty anymore. Mutilated, just like the pets." Jim grimaced. "Psycho cut out her heart, removed her eyes and ears, and butchered her breasts and genitals."

Blair paled. "Oh, God."

"Yeah, oh God," Jim sighed bitterly. "And we've got no leads. Nothing. Just a tip from an anonymous caller on where to find the body. Not one damn thing else!" Jim sprang to his feet and paced the length of the living area. "And now this monster's progressed to human beings."

"Are we sure it's him?" Blair asked, "I mean, could it be a copycat?"

"He's gotten too many of the details right for it to be a copycat. Things we haven't published to the media. And, as bad as it sounds, I hope it's not a copycat. One of these sickos is bad enough; two is unthinkable. No, it's him and he's escalating. God, the things he did to that poor girl..." Jim shuddered involuntarily, glad that his partner had been spared viewing the grisly scene. He couldn't shield him from horrors such as this forever, but he would be grateful for each missed "opportunity."

Draining the last of his tea, Blair carried his cup into the kitchen and began rinsing it out. "You know, Jim, I've been thinking about this a lot the last couple of days. Jeopardy! not withstanding, it's not like there's a lot of quality daytime television available to stimulate the mind. And don't even get me started on the talk shows. Anyway, some things have been bothering me about this case, like those strange scents you picked up at each of the scenes, and the nature of the wounds. They seem more ritualistic than random."

"Like some sort of religious ceremony or something?" Jim's interest was piqued. Blair frequently picked up on the small details in ways the other detectives didn't, and his insights were frequently right on the money.

"I'm thinking cult, actually," Blair expounded, tucking an errant curl behind his ear and dragging a tissue under his reddened nose. He returned to his previous position on the couch and tucked his feet comfortably beneath him. Funny how it worked: his head had the cold, but it was his feet he couldn't keep warm.

"Cult? As in Satanic?"

"With the news that he's now killed a person, it's more like Satanic-wannabe," Blair clarified.

"You've lost me, Chief." Jim shifted his position on the couch and faced his partner. He massaged his pounding temples, attempting to will away the impending headache.

"It's a complicated topic, Jim, that's for sure, and a lot depends on whose research you choose to believe. Some hold that Satanic cults are not so much true Satan worshippers as they are disillusioned Christians. They rebel against the tenets of Christianity in the worst way they know how, which is by worshipping the Devil. It's kind of a conundrum, really. To believe in the devil, you have to believe in God. So, following that line of thinking, those who worship Satan are really just practicing a form of reverse Christianity." Blair frowned and dragged a hand through his hair as he sought to capsulate the conflicting information.

"On the other hand," he continued, "'true' Satanists or members of the Church of Satan, founded by Anton LaVey in 1966, don't actually believe in the Devil or in any God. LaVey's Satanic Bible, or the Demonic Manifesto, as it's called, defines the philosophies of Satanism as man being the master of his own universe. A Satanist believes he can blame no higher power for his success or failure. They choose to celebrate the strength and pleasures of the flesh, rather than despise them."

"However, there are isolated sects that take LaVey's 'pleasures of the flesh' to the extreme and practice rituals that are very carnal in nature. And then there are a few short-lived groups that practice their own form of Satanism, based on misinterpretation of The Satanic Bible, combined with a little Hollywood imagery and their own fertile imaginations. They tend to play at it for a while, then let it go."

"That's fascinating Chief, but how does that help us?"

Blair stood and began to pace, slipping unconsciously into lecture mode. Jim mentally cringed, still sensitive to reminders of Blair's personal and professional sacrifice. No matter how often Blair assured Jim he was where he wanted to be, Jim couldn't help but feel guilty that Blair had given up his academic dreams and reputation to protect his sentinel. With a mental shake, Jim quickly tuned back in to his partner's explanation.

"...but, something just doesn't feel right about this. He's not following LaVey's Satanism, and he seems to be embellishing on the rituals laid out in Conrad Robury's Black Book of Satan. It's almost as if he's combining elements of different cult-based religions or even making them up as he goes along. But one thing's for sure: he's not a 'true' Satanist. In fact, he's worse than what most people imagine Satanists to be. While research does provide some conflicting data, it's generally accepted that true Satanists do not go around performing sacrifices- - animal or otherwise. There are some documented cases of animal sacrifice, but their human sacrifices tend to be more symbolic than actual. In other words, someone is symbolically sacrificed, but they get up and walk away at the end of the ritual."

"Sounds sort of like you're defending them, Sandburg."

"I'm not condemning or condoning, Jim. I'm simply stating the facts, as I understand them. Whether or not I agree with their beliefs doesn't negate their right to hold them any more than someone has the right to tell a Christian, a Jew or a Buddhist that they're wrong."

"So, killing someone's pet is okay, as long as it's all in the name of religion?" Jim snapped.

Blair held his temper, realizing that Jim's anger wasn't totally directed at him. "Of course not, Jim! Have you even been listening to me? I just told you that this guy isn't a true Satanist, that Satanists don't conduct sacrifices, and that I don't have the right to tell someone whom they can and can't worship. Don't you think that's just a bit neo-Nazi, man? It doesn't mean I agree with it, it just means I acknowledge their right to believe what they want. It's a tough subject, Jim."

"Not according to the law, Sandburg. Killing someone's pet is illegal, and murder is a felony. End of story."

"No disagreement from me there, Jim. This guy has got to be stopped. Whatever he believes, he's gone over the edge. In a way I kind of feel sorry for the Satanists, because he's going to give Satanism a bad name."

Jim shook his head in wonder at his roommate's thought processes. "'Gonna give Satanism a bad name'," he muttered, then quickly raised his hand to stop the anticipated retort. "I know, I know, Sandburg; freedom of religion and all that. First Amendment rights aside, how does this information help us find this psycho?"

Giving up on the diversity lecture, Blair frowned. "I wish I had a clue, Jim, but I don't. I'm going to have to do some poking around on the Web to get a feel for where this guy's coming from. Maybe then I'll have some better answers for you."

"A sick mind is where he's coming from," Jim pronounced as Blair busied himself setting up his laptop. "Before you get started on that, how about eating something?"

"Yeah, whatever," Blair confirmed absently, already losing himself in his intended research.

Jim scrounged in the refrigerator for something quick and easy to prepare. His hand drifted toward the leftover spaghetti, but he immediately flashed back on the image of Melissa's horribly mutilated body and quickly opted for chicken soup - much less graphic and easier on his stomach.

The phone rang and Blair swore, "Damn! Thirty seconds later and I'd have been online already! You can never beat a telemarketer to the punch!"

Being closer to the phone, Jim grabbed it on the second ring and barked out a gruff "Hello?" A genuine smile crossed his features, "Hey, Naomi, how are you? Or, more appropriately, where are you?... Really? For how long?... That's great!...Yes, I'm sure, Naomi... All right, let me give you to Blair before he yanks the phone out of my hand."

Blair flashed a glare at his roommate, but immediately grabbed the phone. "Mom? Hi!" He rolled his eyes tolerantly. "I'm fine, Mom, it's just a cold. Trust me, Jim's making sure I take care of myself. In fact, he's driving me crazy." He swiftly ducked the unseen, but nonetheless expected, swat to the back of the head. "Hey, really? That's great, Mom! When will you be here?... Yeah, that's cool." Blair's face grew serious. "C'mon Naomi, if Jim says he doesn't mind, then he doesn't mind. It's over, water under the bridge. We've moved on, so should you." He listened for a moment, then gave a quick laugh. "Well, yeah, I guess you've definitely physically done the moving on thing. Maybe now it's time you emotionally moved on, too... We're fine, Mom, really. We'll be glad to see you. Do you need me to pick you up at the airport?... Aw, c'mon, that's not necessary... Okay, okay, I give up. Why don't you have the cab drop you at the station? That way you can say hi to everybody. They've all been asking about you... Okay, see you tomorrow, then." He turned to Jim, "She's coming tomorrow," he informed him needlessly.

Jim smiled indulgently, "I figured that part out, Chief."

"She's still nervous about everything that happened."

"I know. I don't know how to make her understand that I'm fine with it all. I thought we had that all straightened out when she visited before."

"Yeah, well, that was in the middle of that business with Allison, you know. Being targeted for murder because some psycho chick thinks you're your son's girlfriend sort of takes your mind off other things, I imagine. And she pretty much just passed through that time. This time she'd like to stay a while. Hang in there with her, Jim, she'll come around in time."

"How about you, Chief?"

"Huh?" Blair wondered if the cold was making him a little slow on the mental uptake. Jim seemed to be talking in non-sequiturs tonight. "How about me what?" Then it hit him. "Oh. Are you feeling guilty about the dissertation again, Jim? Man, you have got to get over that! It's done, finished. I don't know how to convince you that I'm okay with where I am! We all made mistakes, the shit hit the fan and I did what had to be done to fix things. Let it go, Jim. I have."

"Okay, Chief. I've got you. No more guilty feelings," Jim promised, ruffling Blair's curls. Yeah, right. "Now, c'mon, Darwin. I'm starved and you've got research to do. And you're going to go to bed at a reasonable hour tonight. If you're determined to go to work tomorrow, I want you as rested as possible. I don't want to have to drag your sorry ass from place to place." Jim's light tone and smiling eyes belied any malice in the statement.

"Yeah, yeah. You're going to make someone a good mother, someday, Jim."

"Watch it, Sandburg."

The next morning saw a much-improved Blair Sandburg breezing through the doors of Major Crime, smiling and fielding the various calls of well-wishers. True to his word, Jim had insisted he eat some chicken soup and a grilled cheese sandwich and had virtually disconnected Blair's Internet connection at what he deemed a "reasonable hour." However, Blair wasn't about to admit to Jim that he felt better for the full night's sleep. The overly protective sentinel did not need that kind of positive reinforcement.

As Blair settled at his desk and powered on his PC, Simon Banks, Major Crime's captain, appeared in his doorway, surveying his territory with satisfaction. A place for everyone and everyone in their place, he mused, sipping his new vanilla-hazelnut flavored coffee blend and sighing in contentment.

"Ellison, Sandburg. A moment of your time, please, gentlemen." Without waiting for acknowledgement, Banks turned back into his office and settled himself behind his desk. As Ellison and Sandburg entered, he waved toward his ever-filled coffee pot in invitation.

"No thanks, sir," Jim declined, barely concealing his aversion to the flavored brew. "Another new blend?"

"Yep. Vanilla hazelnut. Delicious. Would you like some, Blair?"

"Uh, no thanks, Simon." Blair thought quickly for an excuse and beamed when he came up with, "With this cold, I wouldn't be able to fully appreciate its unique flavor."

Not fooled for a moment, Banks growled, "Your loss, gentlemen. Now, what have we got on this maniac?" Simon knew he didn't need to elaborate on which maniac.

"Blair has a theory, sir." Jim winced as Blair chose that moment to sneeze noisily into a ragged tissue.

"Sorry," Blair snuffled.

Simon waved off the apology, handing Blair another tissue. "What's your theory?"

"Well, it's kind of thin right now, but I'm thinking we're dealing with some sort of cult. It's not just some disturbed creep taking out his frustrations on helpless animals. It's deeper than that. I spent some time on the Web last night..." Blair paused to toss a glare at this partner and Simon elected to let the incident pass without comment. Sometimes it was better to let them live in their own world than to be a party to their convoluted explanations. "...I was researching Satanic cults, trying to confirm my suspicions. It's been a while since I studied the subject, so I needed some backup. Anyway," he continued hurriedly, catching Simon's impatient glance, "I was thinking about the nature of the mutilations..." he shuddered at the memory of the poor, defenseless animals that had been reduced to evidence in a sickening murder case as well as the latest victim as described to him by Jim. "...and it struck me that the wounds were consistent from animal to animal. All of them had their hearts cut out, as well as their eyes, ears and sexual organs. And, according to Jim, so did Melissa Wakefield. What at first seemed like random violence now appears to follow a pattern."

"Damn," Simon swore. "We had noticed the pattern of mutilations, but you're the first one to suggest a cult connection, Sandburg. So, proceeding on the assumption that you're right, how do we find this guy?"

Blair shrugged morosely. "I haven't figured that part out yet, sir."

"Well, start thinking about it Sandburg! You know, I think the rest of Major Crime would benefit from this knowledge, too. Why don't you write up a quick synopsis of your theory? We'll distribute it to the uniforms and the rest of the team. Maybe it will generate some input from someone's snitch."

"Glad to, sir."

Banks turned his glare on his top detective and demanded, "What's on your agenda today, Jim?"

"Well, now that Sandburg's with me, I thought I'd take another look around the murder site. It was pretty... overwhelming...yesterday," Jim admitted reluctantly, stoically fighting the urge to close his eyes against the memory.

"That's putting it mildly, Detective," Simon commiserated. "Okay, if that's everything, get out there and catch this creep."

As they exited Banks' office, Jim lowered his voice and sought his guide's assistance. "If you're feeling up to it, Chief, I'd like to go out to the murder site now, before anyone has a chance to disturb anything. I know Forensics has been over it already, so there's that to contend with, but I think I can filter them out with your help. There was just so much blood and gore yesterday that I couldn't get the dials under control."

Blair practically beamed. His sentinel needed him. What better affirmation of his decision could he ask for? "Sure, Jim. I'm fine. It's just a cold, man. But, if it'll make you feel better, I'll wear my fur hat," he offered.

"It will not make me feel better, Sandburg. You wear that fur hat and some dumb, unsuspecting poacher's likely to take a pot shot at you, and I'm going to have to arrest him," Ellison teased as they headed for the elevator.

"Man, don't get me started on that whole killing Bambi thing!" Sandburg warned as the elevator doors closed behind them, swallowing Ellison's chuckle.

Yellow police tape fluttered lazily in the cool spring breeze, warning all who approached: Police Line -- Do Not Cross. As if anyone would really want to, Blair thought darkly, pulling his jacket tighter about his body. He ducked beneath the tape to follow his partner into the scene of the most recent crime-- a hike-in campsite about 30 minutes outside of Cascade. Under other circumstances, it would have been a tempting place to visit. Surrounded by towering lodge pole pines and underscored by the faint gurgle of a nearby stream, so lovely a place should have conveyed a sense of peace. But Blair could feel none of that. His soul ached with the sadness that a young, vibrant life had been forfeited there and with the conviction that there would be more before the case was solved.

"You okay, Chief?" Ellison's concern for his partner was clearly etched on his face.

"Yeah, fine," Blair lied. They both knew it and ignored it. "Where do you want to start?"

"The body was over here." Jim moved cautiously, trying not to disturb the dense carpet of pine needles under his feet. Unbidden, memories of the previous day's scene flooded his mind and senses. The stench of blood, the almost unrecognizable mutilated body of the victim, seasoned forensics personnel dashing from the scene in horror. Jim had very nearly had to join them. It had simply been too much sensory information to deal with, and Jim had found himself incapable of effectively filtering through it all. He had given up in frustration and had resorted to searching for clues the pre-sentinel awareness way.

He stopped in a clearing and waited for Blair to join him. When he did, and viewed the area, Blair's breath caught in his throat. Even the day after, there was so much blood! He choked back a groan and swiftly closed his eyes, fighting to keep his breakfast where it belonged.

"Chief?" Jim's hand on his shoulder comforted Blair more than he cared to admit.

"I'm okay, Jim," he lied again. "No wonder you couldn't focus yesterday. This is horrible!"

It wasn't the clearing, as such, that elicited Blair's response. It was large and flat, perhaps 20- feet square. The packed earth bore testament to the recent passage of many feet. A fire pit marked the center of the square, the blackened embers carelessly kicked about, as if to hurriedly extinguish the flames. But it was the blood-soaked earth that underscored the grisly scene. There appeared to be several pints of it spilled-- long since dried, but which had obviously run in rivulets from the body. Blair wondered how long the poor girl had suffered to lose that much blood and shivered at the thought.

"Yeah," Jim acknowledged softly. "It's horrible. You gonna be able to handle this, Blair? 'Cause it's ok if you can't, buddy."

"I'm okay." Blair tried to infuse his voice with a confidence he didn't feel. "But thank God I can't smell anything with this cold, though. I'm not sure I could take it if I could smell it and see it. What about you?"

"I've got smell turned down to almost zero. Like I said, it was all pretty overwhelming yesterday. With your help, I think I can handle it today, though."

"Let's do it, then," Blair declared, ready to complete their task and get the hell away from the disturbing scene before him. In a well-practiced move, Blair placed his hand on Jim's back to ground him, and Jim cast his sensory net out, one sense at a time, beginning with sight. Blair waited patiently, knowing Jim would alert him if he found anything significant, and kept his eyes carefully averted from the blood-soaked ground ahead of him.

Finally, Jim shook his head in frustration. "Nothing new," he pronounced sullenly. "A few threads of cotton and some black candle wax scattered throughout the blood, but Forensics probably already has samples of those."

"Definitely lends credence to my cult theory," Blair mused.

Jim simply nodded his agreement and took a deep breath. "We'll go ahead and collect the ones they missed, just in case, but I don't see anything earth-shattering." He sighed resignedly. "I'm going to have to use smell."

Blair barely suppressed a shudder at the thought. He'd smelled much less blood at other crime scenes and it hadn't been pleasant. He couldn't imagine how awful the sight before him must smell. "I'm here, man," he assured his partner. "Just take it slow, one notch at a time. Don't let it overwhelm you." Easier said than done, Sandburg, he chided himself. But Jim simply nodded and closed his eyes, lifting his head slightly as if to catch the various scents on a passing breeze. He suddenly shuddered, and Blair quickly stepped in to steady him with both hands.

"Filter it out, Jim. You can do it. Catalog the smell and cast it aside. The blood doesn't exist anymore. Tune it out and concentrate on the other scents." Jim noticeably calmed and Blair continued a soft litany of meaningless assurances-- anything to distract his partner from the overpowering stench.

Jim frowned, his olfactory senses assaulted by a myriad of odors.

Blair dug in his jacket pocket with one hand, making sure his other hand continued to firmly grip Jim's shoulder. He wrestled a small notebook free from the confining fabric and clenched it between his teeth while he dug for a pen. Tucking the notebook under his thumb on the hand that rested on Jim's shoulder, Blair instructed, "Tell me what you smell, Jim. Talk through it, man. Use me as your catalog. I'll write down what you tell me. Then you can discard that odor and move on to the next. You can do this," he assured his partner.

But Blair almost dropped his pen when Jim whispered, "Fear. I smell fear." Oh, God. Then he quickly composed himself and wrote it down. They would analyze what had triggered that response in Jim later. "Sweat. Lust." It was definitely not a pretty picture Jim was painting. "Wood." Jim cocked his head a bit, struggling to separate and identify the odors. "But not pine. It smells like the wood I used to build your bookcase last year... oak. Wax, from the candles. And some sort of fragrance or spice. I've smelled it before, but I can't place it."

Blair waited, and then realized that several seconds had passed since Jim had identified a scent. "Whoops," he muttered as he glanced at his partner. He recognized the slack jaw and canted head as the beginnings of a zone out. "Hey, Jim. C'mon back, man. You did great, but now it's time to let it go and come back. Follow my voice, Jim."

Jim shook himself and opened his eyes. "Sorry, that's all."

"That's all?" Blair snorted in amazement. "I'd hardly describe this much information as 'all', Jim!"

"Yeah, well, I don't feel any closer to figuring out who this madman is," Jim groused, turning and stalking back through the forest toward the truck. Blair jogged a few steps to catch up with him and they continued the hike out of the woods in silence, each pondering the meaning of the clues they'd found.

The partners strolled into the station later that afternoon after finishing a late lunch. Between his cold and the lingering effects of the crime scene, Blair had felt anything but hungry, but Jim had insisted they eat. Blair had finally acquiesced, but had adamantly refused to even consider Wonder Burger as an option. So, they'd ended up at one of Blair's favorite health food restaurants, and Jim had obligingly listened to yet another Sandburg nutritional treatise with ill- concealed good humor. As long as Blair ate, Jim could put up with anything.

They settled at Ellison's desk, attempting to decipher the significance of the information Jim had gleaned at the murder scene.

"The black candles and the oak scent definitely support the cult theory," Blair reflected aloud, rocking back in his chair. The angle was so precarious that Jim had to fight the urge to jerk the chair back onto all four feet.

Instead, he opted to pursue his partner's line of reasoning, "I understand how the black candles figure into the equation, but how does the oak fit in?"

"Oak is commonly used as an altar material in Black Masses, usually covered with a black cloth."

"Black Masses? This is getting weirder all the time, Sandburg."

"I told you it was complicated, Jim, and kind of hard to explain."

"Then don't bother. I'll take your word for it. Let's just go on the assumption that we're looking at some sort of ritual here. Now that you mention an altar, I do recall seeing a couple of pretty deep indentations in the ground near the center of the clearing. I guess that could have been where the altar sat, huh?"

"Probably. I would assume the victim lay on the altar during the ritual. But I can't imagine that she'd just lie there and let this psycho cut her up. She had to have been drugged or something."

"Give the boy a kewpie doll," Serena Chang announced, dropping an autopsy report on Ellison's desk. "Drugged to the teeth, according to her blood work. Not that we had that much blood left to work with." The crack earned her a black look from Ellison and a slightly sick one from Sandburg. "Sorry, a little morbid humor there," she apologized.

Jim waved off Serena's apology with an apology of his own. "We just got back from the scene, so we're a little sensitive right now. Could you tell what she was drugged with?"

"It appears to be an extremely complicated combination of natural herbs and roots, but I haven't been able to break it into its individual components yet. I'll let you know as soon as I make any progress. I just needed a break, so I decided to walk the information I have so far up this way."

"Thanks, Serena. I appreciate your quick turn around on this. Keep up the good work and let me know if you find anything else, okay? This creep's really starting to get under my skin."

"I'll assume you didn't mean that as a joke, Jim," Serena kidded as she walked away. Ellison frowned at his unintentional pun and made a great show of examining the file in front of him. He was distracted a moment later by a disturbance in the bullpen and smiled as he recognized the familiar voice at the center of the commotion. He looked up in time to see Naomi Sandburg breeze into the room and smiled. Is the ability to dominate a room upon entering it a Sandburg thing? he wondered. So far, he'd seen Blair do it, Blair's Uncle Obediah do it, and now Naomi had done it. Definitely a Sandburg trait.

"Mom!" Blair exclaimed in delight, coming around the desk to deliver an enthusiastic hug. "You made it!"

"Of course I did, Honey, was there ever any doubt?" Naomi beamed at her son, and then noticed the dark circles around his eyes, the reddened nose and the dull look in his eyes. "You look worn out, Sweetie," she fussed. She turned to Jim, who had risen to greet her, and said, almost accusingly, "Jim, he looks worn out!"

Blair blushed in embarrassment and quickly stepped in to save his nonplussed partner. "Mom, it's just a cold, I promise. And it's just been kind of a long day, that's all. Jim's been taking good care of me, have no fear." He grinned at the glare his partner sent his way, knowing he would hear about breaking the unspoken Blessed Protector Code of Silence. Like it was any secret how he hovered whenever Blair was sick!

"Well, it's obvious you're not getting enough rest. And how long has it been since you've cleansed with burned sage?"

"We don't burn sage, Mom. Remember? Jim's allergic to it."

Naomi studied Jim, who managed to look anywhere but at her. "Yes, well, I don't understand how anyone can be allergic to such a cleansing herb, but what can you say. He is, so there it is." She turned in delight as Simon entered the bullpen. "Ah, Captain Banks! I must say you're looking much better than you did the last time I saw you!" She held out her hand disarmingly and Simon took it with a smile.

"Thank you, Ms. Sandburg, you're looking well, too. To what to do we owe this pleasure?"

"Oh, just got lonely for my beautiful baby boy." Naomi turned to beam at her son, who was blushing furiously at the attention they were attracting and wondering how long the bullpen razzing would last once Naomi's visit was over. "So I thought I'd drop in for a few days."

"Wonderful! Well, I have some business I must attend to for now, but I hope to see you again while you're here." Simon directed a quick glare around the bullpen as a non-verbal "get back to work" signal and disappeared into his office.

Taking their cue, the Major Crime detectives returned to their tasks.

Blair pulled a chair to the side of his desk. "I need to finish a report before we can leave, Mom, so why don't you make yourself comfortable?"

Naomi seated herself with a flourish and assured her son, "You go right ahead and do what you have to do, Sweetie. I'll be quiet as a mouse-- you'll never know I'm here!"

That'll be the day, Jim thought fondly as he busied himself with his own report.

That evening Blair insisted that he prepare a special dinner for his mother and partner. After handing Jim a beer and pouring his mother a glass of chilled water, he made shooing motions with his hands. "Go sit on the balcony and enjoy the fresh air or something," he instructed. "Out!"

Jim threw an arm around Naomi's shoulders and steered her toward the balcony doors. "Come on, Naomi. I've learned that you can't do a thing in the world with him when he gets bossy like this."

Blair snorted, muttered something about it taking one to know one, and loudly banged a few pots and pans for good measure. Soon the loft was filled with the heady aroma of simmering pasta sauce and chopped garlic and parsley.

On the balcony, Jim sipped his beer and listened semi-attentively as Naomi chattered about her latest adventure in Tibet. "I truly learn so much from the monks every time I'm there, Jim. It's just so amazing how cleansing meditation is for the soul. You really should try it, you know. It gets the mind and body back in sync and just sets everything back in place." Finally running out of adventure stories, Naomi desperately sought a "safe" topic. "So, tell me, what's been going on with you?"

"We need to talk, Naomi," Jim advised her gently. His eyes were compassionate as he locked his gaze with hers. If he had ever wondered what was meant by a deer-in-the-headlights look, he was pretty sure Naomi's qualified. Her eyes were wide and not just a little frightened and she seemed frozen in place. He couldn't recall ever having seen her so discomfited before.

"I--I don't know what you mean, Jim," she stammered. "I thought we were talking."

"No, we were doing a verbal dance, with you leading," Jim pressed quietly, "talking about everything except what we need to talk about the most-- the dissertation."

Naomi dropped her eyes and took a hitching breath. "Oh, Jim, I am so sorry," she began. "I shouldn't have..."

"Waited so long to come back and visit us," Jim finished for her with a small smile. "Naomi, I'm fine," he assured her, leaning forward to squeeze her twisted fingers encouragingly. "Blair's fine. We've worked through our feelings." Well, okay, so it's a small lie for a good cause, he mused, recalling Blair's admonition that it was time for him to get over it as well. "I think maybe you're the one with the most unresolved issues here."

Naomi stared at her hands, clenched painfully in her lap. "How can you ever forgive me for giving away your secret, Jim? After you and Blair worked so hard to prevent anyone from knowing, I just pressed a button and threw it out there for the world to see." Naomi paused to gaze into the kitchen where her son continued to busily prepare dinner and then turned tear-filled eyes to his best friend and partner. "How can Blair ever forgive me?"

"You and Blair will have to work that one out, Naomi. All I can tell you is that I'm fine. You didn't know what you were doing. I won't tell you that I wasn't totally blindsided by what happened, and I admit I reacted badly, but it's over and we've all survived. We all made mistakes: you, Blair and me. You meant well, Naomi." Jim lurched to his feet and turned to face the bay, his eyes closed in pain. "I would never have wished for Blair to give up his academic career, but, God help me, I'm just selfish enough to admit that I wanted him by my side all the time." He turned back to face the woman squarely. "I've never had a better partner in my life, Naomi," he declared. "He's a good cop and a better man. He's smart and strong and compassionate and I'm proud to have him with me."

Jim suddenly found himself with his arms full of sobbing Naomi. He squeezed her tightly and looked up to see his grinning partner, whose eyes looked suspiciously wet as well.

"If you're groping my mom, man, I'm gonna have to defend her honor!" he declared playfully.

Naomi released Jim with a quick kiss and a tearful "Thank you" and then threw her arms around her son.

"Whoa!" Blair huffed wrapping his arms around his mother to draw her closer. "I love you, Mom," he whispered, knowing that, finally, no other words were necessary.

Jim, with a lighter heart but a brain on emotional overload, reached out to turn his family toward the living room. "I'm starving. Let's eat!"

Jim stretched languidly in his bed the next morning, feeling more at peace than he had in several days. The emotional talk with Naomi had been quite cleansing for both of them, he admitted to himself. Almost unconsciously casting his senses about the apartment (certain that Blair would have called it monitoring the well-being of his tribe or something equally anthropological), Jim smiled. Two heartbeats. Blair was still deep in slumber on the couch and Naomi was examining the inside of the refrigerator while quietly muttering imprecations against the men's eating habits.

Slipping on his gray bathrobe, Jim padded quietly down the stairs and greeted Naomi with a soft "Good morning."

She turned the patented, dazzling Sandburg smile his way and returned his greeting with enthusiasm. "Good morning, Jim! I hope you slept well."

"Very." Jim angled his head toward the refrigerator. "Nothing edible, I gather?"

"Depends on what you consider edible," Naomi chuckled softly.

"What with Blair's cold and my working on a case, neither of us has felt like doing a grocery run," Jim admitted. "Tell you what. As soon as Sleeping Beauty over there wakes up, we'll do a big Saturday breakfast out."

"Try to kiss me, Prince Charming, and I'll be forced to slug you," came a muffled voice from the direction of the couch.

"Then get your ass up off that couch, Princess, before I'm forced to do it. Your mom and I are hungry!" Jim winked at Naomi as he stealthily crossed the room and flung the covers off his half-awake partner, shouting "Kiss, kiss!"

Blair leapt off the couch with a surprised yelp and dashed into his room. "Jeez, man, give a fella a chance to at least get his eyes open before you start threatening to kiss him!" He grabbed his clothes and disappeared into the bathroom. "I'll be out in 15!" he promised before pushing the door closed.

Thirty minutes later, the trio slipped into a booth at a corner diner and smiled gratefully at the waitress as she poured three cups of steaming coffee. Blair attempted to stifle a huge yawn while perusing the breakfast menu.

"I think I saw your navel on that one, Chief. What time did you finally hit the sack last night?" Jim teased, closing his menu and tucking it back behind the ubiquitous condiment cluster.

Blair thought for a moment then shook his head. "One-thirty, maybe. I wanted to get a good start on that paper Simon asked me to do. It was fascinating stuff, and once I got started I just couldn't quit. I'm almost done."

"You're setting a bad example for me, Sandburg," Jim growled good-naturedly. "Reports should be delayed as long as possible. It's in the cop code."

Blair snorted in amusement and turned to his mom. "I found this terrific new shop not far from the loft. It's really eclectic. They've got all sorts of natural foods and carry tons of unusual herbs and spices. I immediately thought of you."

"I'd love to see it, Sweetie. I'm all out of sage," Naomi agreed, tossing a teasing look at Jim, who dutifully frowned.

"I'll pass, Sandburg. You always manage to think up some test for me at those places. I think I'll wash the truck instead."

Skip Commercial