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The difference of opinion - it wasn't heated enough to be an argument - had been going on for several minutes as Jim and Blair waited in Jim's truck for a meet with an undercover cop.
"All I'm saying," Jim said at last, "is that it would be nice to know that if I got into a jam, that you can cover my back."
Blair shook his head. "Uh-uh. No way, man. I'm not going around packing. My deal is that I'm here strictly - strictly - as an observer."
Jim opened his mouth to reply, then paused. "Somebody's coming."
It was several seconds before Blair heard the approaching motorcycle, just before it swung round a corner into view and then coasted to a stop in front of the truck.
"It's him," Jim said, and opened his door. He swung out and Blair watched as the two men exchanged some words, then moved easily into a hug. They drew apart and continued talking, too quietly for Blair to hear.
The biker turned away, mounted his bike and just as he was moving off, Jim yelled, "Danny!"
Danny had no time to react; there was the sound of a shot, and Danny fell off his bike. Jim rushed over, grabbed the fallen man and dragged him into cover. He glanced back at the truck. "Blair! Get down!"
Blair, although he was still stunned by the sudden violence, immediately ducked, opened his door and dropped to the ground just as a bullet shattered the glass. He scrambled over to Jim, who had already begun CPR on the fallen man.
"Call an ambulance!" Jim gasped.
"It's too late," Blair said quietly. Although he had never met Danny, had never seen him before that evening, he felt a stab of grief for the wasted life. "He's gone." (paraphrased from The Killers - Gail Morgan Hickman)
Danny Choi's death - senseless to everyone except the killer, for whom it was income, and the man who had paid for it, who saw it as the just reward for betrayal - reaffirmed Blair's determination that he would not carry a gun.
A few weeks passed - and then Blair's warehouse home was destroyed, and he moved into Jim's walk-in closet, which doubled as a spare room. For the first four days, Blair shared it with a number of boxes; curiosity led him to open one on the first night, after Jim had gone to bed, finding it contained the kind of items that he had discovered in his grandparents' attic on one of Naomi's occasional visits to them, on a day so wet that nothing seemed to be moving outside - things that were old, slightly worn, but were still useable, kept in reserve in case the replacement items broke down; things that for whatever reason weren't needed at the moment, but might be some day. One box contained camping gear. This 'room' was obviously Jim's 'attic', although Blair thought he remembered Jim saying something about having storage space in the basement. However, it made sense to keep stuff in here; more convenient.
On the third day, Blair returned Larry to the University's animal unit. He would miss the little ape, he knew, but he couldn't continue the study; Larry's exposure to real violence had compromised it. It would be possible to get a paper out of it, but he would have to juggle his data quite a bit. Still, it wouldn't be the first time that circumstances meant that one of his papers had contained details that played slightly fast and loose with the facts. The trick was to do it convincingly. In any case, Jim had been remarkably forbearing over the twice that Larry had trashed the loft; the least he could do was make his final half week as peaceful for Jim as possible.
On the evening of the fifth day, Blair walked into his 'room' to find that not only had the boxes gone, a bookshelf and a chest of drawers had suddenly appeared, as well as a small table beside his bed. He stared for some seconds, then swung around.
"Unless you're desperate to move out at the end of the week, you're welcome to stay," Jim said quietly.
There was a note in the older man's voice that Blair was sure he hadn't realized was there; a note that said he would be horribly hurt if Blair turned him down, but that he would understand. They hadn't known each other very long, but Blair already suspected from what he had seen of Jim's interaction with other people that he had a permanent expectation of being rejected, although he was not sure why; that even if he was Blair's Holy Grail, he half expected Blair to look for more congenial company in a room mate.
"If you're sure," Blair said, "I'd certainly like to stay. I'm enjoying your company, and not because you're a sentinel. That's incidental. I'd be happy to live here with you even if you weren't a sentinel. Now - what about money? I'll need to pay you some rent."
Jim shook his head. "The loft is mine, paid in full, so I don't need rent to help me cover a mortgage. How about we split the bills for the utilities, house insurance and food - sound fair?"
"More than fair," Blair said. "Thank you."
It was the start of a fairly fraught period in their lives. Blair was kidnapped and nearly killed; Jim was thrown off a train and nearly killed. A rogue CIA agent turned up who knew about Jim's senses; Blair fell in love, Jim fell in lust; a visit to a monastery saw them caught up in the Mob's attempt to kill the man who had betrayed them. Simon and Daryl ran into problems in Peru, and not long after that Simon, visiting his home town, was accused of murder by a bent cop. Jim's defence of his old partner proved to be justified.
And then Blair had an unexpected visitor.
Jim was semi-relaxing as he studied the report he had taken home; a murder case that he had been forced to abandon some three years previously for lack of evidence, and that memory suggested had elements in common with a current murder. Once or twice, as he read, he nodded as he found the remembered details that he had thought matched, and found that they did. This wasn't necessarily a serial killer - not unless they could find evidence of more, similar, murders - not necessarily just in Cascade. It might be a repeat killer; it might be a copycat.
Footsteps stopping at the door interrupted his train of thought. He glanced at the time - no, Sandburg wasn't due home just yet; he hadn't lost track of time. He put the report down on the coffee table as there came a knock at the door. He rose and crossed to open it.
The young man standing there grinned almost ingratiatingly. "Er... hi. Is this where Blair Sandburg lives?"
"Yes, but he's not home at the moment."
"Oh... er... where might I find him?"
Jim studied him for a moment, concentrating on the stranger's pulse and respiration. He could sense some nervousness, but no ill intent; and stood back. "Come in," he said. "Blair should be home in half an hour or so, unless he's been held up by a student - "
"Student? I understood he was working with the police."
"Officially, he only has a ride along," Jim said. The guy didn't seem in any way hostile, but Jim decided he'd rather underplay the role Blair had adopted as unofficial profiler for Major Crime. "He's studying the work of the PD for his doctoral dissertation."
"Doctoral dissertation? Way to go, Blair!"
Well, that sounded friendly enough, Jim thought. "I'm sorry, I didn't catch your name?"
"Oh. That's 'cause I didn't give you it. I'm well enough known in my circle that I keep forgetting people outside it don't know me. I'm Mike Cathcart. You're Detective Ellison?"
"Yes... I don't think I've heard Blair mention you."
"No, you probably wouldn't. I haven't seen him for nearly three years. We were never actually friends - more like friendly rivals. You know what it's like when you're competing regularly against someone who matches you for skill; you either hate them or respect them. I don't think anyone ever hated Blair; he was generous in defeat, gracious in victory, and we were all sorry when he gave up the sport."
"Shooting," Cathcart said as if were the most obvious thing in the world.
"Shooting?" Jim said blankly. "Blair won't handle a gun... he's a total believer in gun control."
"Still?" Cathcart said sadly. "I'd hoped he was over it by now... "
"Over it?" Jim demanded. "Over what?"
Cathcart looked at him. "If he hasn't said anything," he said, "I'm not sure it's my place to tell you."
"All right. Will you at least tell me about the competitions?"
"Oh, man!" Cathcart said. "I'd been competing for a year or so when he first showed up, joined the club I was in. He was twenty-one, and inside a year he was consistently one of the top three marksmen in the club. He was a natural. The two of us... well, mostly he won, occasionally I did - but he was a consistently better shot that I ever was. Then a couple of years later, he quit. Gave up. Sold his guns - said he wouldn't need them again."
"So what you're saying - " He was interrupted by the door opening; hearing it, Cathcart glanced around.
"Hi, Jim - Mike?"
"Hello, Blair. Long time no see."
Blair nodded. "Must be close on three years. What brings you here, man?" There was a slightly wary note in his voice.
"Well... I was hoping to persuade you to come back into the club. Since you left, nobody's ever come close to matching your top score - "
"Not even you?"
"Thanks for the compliment, Blair, but we both know you were far better than I was, even on an off day."
Blair glanced at Jim. "How long have you been here, Mike?"
"Long enough to spill some interesting beans, Chief," Jim said. "But what he didn't tell me was why you gave up."
"It wasn't your fault, Blair," Cathcart said quietly. "Nobody blamed you - not even Pieter. Hell, you were exonerated at the enquiry into Rudi's death."
"I blamed me," Blair replied.
"And you still do?" Cathcart asked. "Blair, the boy wanted to die."
"I know that - but he should have jumped off the top of a building or something. He didn't have the right to make someone else responsible for his death."
"Would someone please tell me what happened?" Jim asked.
Blair sighed. Shoulders slumped, he sank into a chair and leaned his head on his hands. "I was careless," he said. "I was caught short, so I went to the john and left a loaded pistol where I thought it was safe - but it wasn't. One of the other guys had brought his seventeen-year-old son along - and while I was away, the boy took my gun and shot himself."
"Turned out he'd left a suicide note," Cathcart said, "though his parents didn't find it till they finally cleared his room, months later. As for 'caught short' - turned out you'd a nasty dose of food poisoning, didn't you. All you could think about was getting to the john before you crapped your pants."
"I didn't have time to unload it without crapping my pants, but I could have thought to take the gun with me."
"Why? In a gun club, with everyone knowing how to be careful? And in any case, as you rushed out, you asked Marty to keep an eye on it, remember? If it was anyone's fault it was Marty's, for allowing himself to get distracted. Nobody expected... If it hadn't been your gun, Blair, he'd have taken his father's, maybe asking if he could try it. Think how much worse it would have been for Pieter if it had been his gun."
"If he hadn't had the opportunity that day, he might have changed his mind."
"He wouldn't have changed his mind," Cathcart said. "He was devoted to his grandmother, and she'd died. He wanted to join her - simple as that. If you're going to assign blame, it rests far more on the shoulders of the priest who spoke at her funeral about the dead being with their loved ones for eternity."
"How do you know that?"
"Pieter told us, when he eventually came back to the club about six months later. Apparently the priest refused to officiate at Rudi's funeral, saying that suicide was a sin and as a result of that sin Rudi would never see his grandmother again; that he would burn in hell for all eternity. The funeral director found a humanitarian 'preacher' to handle the funeral. Pieter has never been back to chapel since."
"My fault," Blair moaned.
"No!" Jim said. "Not your fault that a priest was so narrow-minded that he added to the parents' grief. Not your fault that the boy thought that by killing himself he'd join his grandmother. Not your fault that his devotion to his grandmother outweighed his affection for his parents. Not your fault that his father wasn't watching him closely enough, so that he had the opportunity to take your gun and shoot himself. And not your fault that the guy you asked to keep an eye on it didn't.
"Forgive yourself, Blair. Yes, carry on espousing gun control if you want; but stop blaming yourself for something that - to judge from everything Mr. Cathcart has said - wasn't your fault."
"That's right," Cathcart said. "The enquiry cleared you of any culpability, remember. Marty was the one who got a slap on the wrist.
"We'd have let you know about the suicide, but nobody knew how to contact you," Cathcart went on. "We knew you'd left Cascade immediately after the enquiry; we didn't know you'd come back until I saw True Crime last night. Checked with the TV studio, and got this address."
"Have to admit that seeing you on True Crime made me think you were over your hangup about guns, but Detective Ellison says you're an observer, a student writing about the cops for your dissertation."
Blair sighed. "Yeah. I don't really need a gun in the classroom. Thanks for coming, Mike, for telling me all that. It helps a little... but I won't come back to the club."
They spoke for a few more minutes, then Cathcart took his leave.
Once Cathcart had gone, Jim said, "That explains why, the odd time you have had to handle a gun, you looked as if you knew what you were doing. You did know."
"I enjoyed the target shooting," Blair admitted. "In some ways I'd like to go back. But I'm aware now, in a way I never was before, of the responsibility involved in having a gun. Even if it hadn't been my gun Rudi used... It stopped being a sport and became something deadly. I always knew it was dangerous, but I'd never realized before just how deadly it was."
Several weeks passed. When Jim said nothing further about the possibility - desirability, even - of Blair's taking official (and, as it had turned out, unnecessary) firearms training to allow him to carry, Blair decided that Jim had accepted his refusal and would leave it at that. Life continued as before.
The yell from Simon Banks' office held a note that made Jim drop everything and hurry over. As he entered, it was to see Simon putting down his phone.
"There's a situation at Rainier," he said. "A student with a gun. He's already shot a lecturer and two students. Sandburg's in the room - sort of; he was in a book closet looking for something so the guy didn't see him and he called it in, but he's stuck in there, hiding behind an open door. Far as Sandburg could tell, the moment anyone moved the guy shot him. After he called 911, Sandburg called me. Get over there and see what you can do."
Jim nodded, turned and ran.
By the time he reached Rainier there were already half a dozen police cars there, their occupants crouched behind them; and, further back, three ambulances. He looked towards the building. A figure was half visible at one of the windows, ducking backwards and forwards, in and out of sight, actually moving between two windows in an uneven rhythm, its attention clearly split between the room it was in and the police outside. He studied the figure at the window, and shook his head. Superb marksman though he was, he couldn't make the shot; there was no pattern to the movements. The best he could hope to do was aim for one specific spot and see if he could make the shot fast enough if the guy appeared in his sights, and that wasn't good enough.
In one of the windows the glass was broken.
Using the vehicles as cover, he wriggled over to the nearest black and white. He didn't know many of the Patrol cops, but these were two he did know. "What's happening? The perp made any demands?"
Nat Hacker shook his head. "He sees movement out here, he shoots. He's gotta have more than one gun, though. We know he's shot at least three people inside; Jon Davis got here first, made the mistake of coming in with his siren going. Soon's he got outa the car, the guy winged him, but he managed to scramble round the car into cover. His partner's just a rookie, but he did everything right; called it in, told everyone to kill the sirens, padded the injury to stop the bleeding. Everyone else came in quiet, slipped outa the cars when the perp wasn't looking. We're just waiting now to see what he wants, take him out if we can - but he's not giving anyone a chance to take a shot at him. Hear there's a negotiator on the way, but... Say - " He looked suddenly hopeful "You've made some damn' hard shots - any chance...?"
"No. Not from here. If he had any sort of pattern to his movements - but he doesn't. I'm going to try to get inside; if I can get to the door of the room he's in, I should manage to disable him."
For the first time since Jim's arrival beside him, Hacker looked at the truck, then back at Jim. "Don't tell me - Sandburg's in there?"
"He was the first one that called 911, though I'd guess there were some other calls too. He's in the same room, but hidden in a closet. He's pretty inventive when it comes to weapons... so I'm guessing that the perp is out of any kind of direct line, or there's nothing in the closet but books - nothing he could use to throw at the guy."
Using the cars as cover, Jim wriggled backwards, watching the windows; the perp showed for a moment, then ducked back out of sight; Jim seized the chance, scrambled to his feet, and ran for the building, knowing that if the guy looked out again quickly, he was a target. However, he reached the wall safely, and moved to the entrance, noting that outside, on the side away from the gunman, was a crowd of students.
As he was about to step inside, another vehicle drew up beside the ambulances, a vehicle that had 'Cascade News' painted on its side, and he cursed silently. How had the press heard about things so fast? All they needed now was for Don Haas - or any of his colleagues - to show up! The last thing he wanted was some reporter getting in his face; he slipped quickly inside the building. Several members of staff were hovering just inside the door, clearly not sure what to do. He nodded to them as he headed up the stairs, seeing relief on their faces as they recognized him.
It was easy enough to see which room the perp was in; it had to be the one - the only one - with a closed door. Luckily the top panel was glass. He could see the open door of the closet; the students sitting in frozen stillness in their seats; the three who lay on the floor; the lecturer slumped over his lectern, blood dripping from it to the floor; and the perp, currently a little to the side of the window, constantly moving.
Interesting, though; the perp was paying attention to the students in the room, and to the windows, but seemed to have forgotten about the door... or was he so sure that everyone in the building had made a run for safety, and that he could see who was outside, that he was simply ignoring it? Silly, if he was; surely he was aware that police cars could - would - stop on other parts of the campus!
Gun in hand, Jim approached the door on silent feet; reaching from the side, he turned the handle gently, cautiously; then slammed the door open, even as he began to say "Cascade Po- "
The pain stabbing his upper chest was almost unbearable; he wouldn't have thought it possible for anyone to react as swiftly as this guy did. His mind moved quickly, even as he felt himself beginning to fall. He threw out his arm as if trying to keep himself upright, and tossed the gun into the open door of the closet.
Crouching behind the closet door, watching what was happening through the crack where the door met the wall, Blair's relief as the other door opened and Jim appeared turned to horror as a splash of crimson appeared on Jim's upper chest, followed almost simultaneously by the 'bang' of the gun. He began to move, to run to Jim then, as he heard the clatter of Jim's gun hitting the floor and sliding into the closet, his brain caught up with his instincts and he realized that letting himself be seen was a direct route to following the others who had been shot. But...
But he now had access to Jim's gun.
He bit his lip, knowing why Jim had thrown the gun towards him. Could he... could he? He hadn't actually fired a gun in three years. Good as he had been back then, he was out of practice; did he still possess the skill to hit exactly what he aimed for?
"You'll need to be faster than that to take me out, cop!" The fact that Jim was probably unconscious and couldn't hear the gloating voice didn't seem to matter. Blair watched as the gunman - who couldn't be a day older than eighteen - turned his attention back to the motionless students. "I'm only good for being used to help you, but left out of all the fun stuff, huh? Laughed at for being no good at sport - but not even the cops are faster than me with a gun!"
Now Blair understood.
It was sheer chance that he had been in the room - in the book closet, collecting a book that Dr. Pearson had borrowed from the university library some weeks earlier, and had forgotten to return - when this youngster - Pearson had called him Clive, in the second before he was shot, came in. Blair, on the point of walking out of the closet with the book, and stopped in mid-stride, already reaching for his cell phone when the second shot sounded. Another shot followed before his emergency call was answered - it had been that fast. He had made the call - and the one to Simon - under cover of the panicked voices of the other students before Clive had enforced silence by shooting another of the students. He had been quiet thereafter, just moving around, threatening to shoot, until the first police car arrived. He had fired twice out of the window, then quickly taken another gun out of a satchel slung over his shoulder; Blair had little doubt that Clive had more than one extra gun in there.
And now Blair understood what motivated the youngster. Blair had been just like him, once... too young to fit in socially, too clever to suit the jocks - too clever even for some of the geek students - though all of them were quite happy to pick his brain then pass on what he told them as their own answers; resented by at least some of his lecturers, who took his knowledge as a personal affront - between his childhood travels and his passion for books, Blair knew at least as much as most of them; and bullied - physically by at least some of his fellow students, mentally by at least some of his lecturers. But Blair had never been tempted to take a gun to his tormentors. The one time he had lost his temper and used his fists on one of the school bullies, he had been left in no doubt of Naomi's disappointment in him, in his lack of self-control (though he was never openly bullied in that particular school again). And once he went to Rainier at sixteen, there had been Eli Stoddard, a man who had understood him, encouraged him, was never too proud to listen to him... Had anyone, even his parents, ever given Clive support?
Well, he wasn't going to get anywhere trying to reason with the... yes, deranged student. Get him unarmed first... though if he still had other guns in his satchel, that wouldn't be easy. Once he was unarmed, try to talk him down; and if he couldn't? Aim to disable, but not to kill. He had a suspicion that what Clive was seeking was suicide by cop, but he would fight to his last bullet to put off the moment when his life was ended. He wanted to take with him as many as possible of the people that, whether he knew them or not, he saw as enemies.
Blair had no intention of obliging him. But he must move fast now; Jim was lying there bleeding, and Dr. Pearson hadn't moved since he collapsed over his lectern, the other three students were lying still, possibly dead, although he hoped not. Clive would want them to suffer, not be killed outright.
He dropped flat, and peered around the edge of the door. Clive was in view near the second, unbroken window, paying no attention whatsoever to the book closet - Blair guessed that Clive had expected anyone inside it to rush out when he started shooting, so assumed that it was empty. He reached out slowly and grasped Jim's gun, brought it up to firing position...
Although Clive was moving restlessly around the room, his main focus was near the two windows where he could look out from time to time to see what the people outside were doing. There was no pattern to his movements, but Blair had always been good at shooting random targets; he saw his opportunity, and fired.
Clive's gun was wrenched out of his hand, fell against the so-far unbroken window, and disappeared in a shower of broken glass.
The young student whirled, his hand already reaching into his satchel for another gun. Blair saw his chance and fired again; the bullet cut the strap and the satchel fell to the ground, taking Clive's other guns out of his immediate reach.
"Give it up," Blair said quietly as he used his left hand to push himself into a kneeling position, the gun in his right hand aimed steadily at Clive.
"You'll have to kill me first!"
"No. But I will disable you, probably permanently, if you try anything."
Clive glanced around, and Blair knew he was looking for someone to grab and use as a shield for his body, leaving only his head as a target; but the moment he had been disarmed, the students nearest him had moved as far away as they could. Then with an incoherent cry, Clive rushed towards Blair. Without giving himself time to reconsider, Blair fired again. Clive screamed and fell, his left knee a mess of blood and shattered bone.
Blair kept the gun aimed at the fallen man. He didn't know many of the students in this class, but he did know one or two. "Dan," he said, naming one of them without turning his head. "go and get the police and EMTs. Tell them officer down as well as four other casualties."
Dan rushed out. Blair scrambled to his feet as he said, "Anyone with first aid experience, have a look at Dr. Pearson and the other guys who were shot; just don't go near him - " He indicated the moaning attacker, whom he was still covering with the gun although his every instinct was telling him to go to Jim; but by giving him the gun, Jim had left him with the responsibility of protecting the class.
A minute or two later, clattering feet heralded the arrival of the police. The first one in - a cop Blair didn't know - aimed his gun at Blair, clearly not taking any chances with this armed unknown although in Blair's opinion it must have been obvious that the original gunman had been taken out of the game, otherwise Dan wouldn't have been able to get out. "Put the gun down!"
Blair raised his hands, carefully aiming the gun at the ceiling, his finger ostentatiously clear of the trigger. "Permission to unload it first, in the interest of safety."
"Ah, Stan," Nat Hacker said as he entered. "This is one of ours - he's Ellison's partner. You okay, Sandburg?"
"Yes - but Jim - "
Now that he had been recognised, now that the cops were here and could take over, Blair abandoned his sense of duty to the tribe and rushed over to his fallen friend. Jim blinked pain-filled eyes at him. "Good job, Chief," he managed.
"Jim. Turn the pain dial down!" Blair hissed.
"'S as low as I can get it," Jim murmured as an EMT joined them.
Blair looked at the man. "He's got drug sensitivities," he said and, his duty to his sentinel now taking precedence, proceeded to tell the EMT which drugs it was better not to administer...
One of the three shot students, Grant Wallace, was dead; everyone subsequently agreed that he was the one who had instigated the... yes, bullying of Clive Dunstan, the one who had most and worst mentally abused him. The other two students he had shot were Wallace's chief cronies, who had basically just followed where Wallace led. Clive had shot Dr. Pearson because he blamed him for not stopping Wallace - even although the abuse had always been where no faculty member could see what was happening.
Blair's reasoning was right; Clive had wanted to die, but he had also wanted to prove that he was better with a gun - the one practical skill he had - than even the cops. He did feel guilty for destroying the boy's knee, but accepted that he had had to stop Clive, been the only one in a position to do so, had warned Clive, and it was better than killing him.
Jim's injury, although painful, had been less severe than Blair had at first feared. Although the bullet had to be surgically removed, it had missed Jim's lung; after a few days in hospital, Jim was released although not medically cleared to return to even light duty.
The evening Jim got home, they were sitting watching television when Jim raised his head just before the knock on the door. Blair crossed to open it.
Blair let him in, and as he closed the door Cathcart went on, "We heard what happened - well, duh! How could we miss it? It was in all the papers, on the news... You haven't lost any of your old skill, have you?"
"It was a brilliant shot," Jim agreed.
"And you proved that you're good enough to not kill," Cathcart finished.
"I suppose... " Blair muttered.
"So... we were hoping that after that, you might at least think about coming back to the club?"
Blair looked at him; looked at Jim.
"Why not?" Jim said. "We could both go."
"I did enjoy it, back before Rudi... " Blair said slowly. He hesitated for a moment longer, before saying, "All right. We'll both go - and then we can see which of us is the better shot."
"There's absolutely no doubt," Jim said seriously, then grinned. "You'll beat the pants off me!"