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Summary: In the aftermath of a hostage situation, all is not well with Blair. Jim tries to discover what it was that traumatized him so severely.

Note: This story takes place soon after the third season episode, Crossroads.


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Winner: Outstanding Case & Action Story (Gen)




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Nominee: Favourite Drama Story




Revolution
By Fluterbev

May 2004




Strobing lights, emitting from a multitude of parked emergency vehicles, pulsated in a dissonant rhythm. They generated a myriad of multicolored reflections, bouncing off the jagged spears of glass in what remained of the storefront window; illuminating the scene with a disorientating riot of color.

A radio crackled, and a disembodied voice issued a barely comprehensible status report. "Copy that," the uniformed officer holding the radio responded. Then he turned to Simon Banks. "They're bringing the hostages out now, sir."

Taking a long draw on his cigar, Banks nodded, his eyes fixed on the door of the building. A uniformed cop emerged first, followed by two female figures; the more diminutive of the two wrapped in a blanket, and leaning heavily on the EMT supporting her. Banks spared them hardly a glance, his gaze fixed on the dark doorway behind them, his breath unconsciously held as he waited.

At last, two more people emerged from inside. Another EMT and a familiar man walking by his side, similarly wrapped in a blanket, but unsupported. Banks let go his held breath with a huge sigh, swirls of gray smoke delineating the exhalation. Then dropping his cigar to the ground, he crushed it unthinkingly underfoot, and started forward.

When he had almost reached the emerging figures, he called out, "Sandburg!"

Blair's head shot up and, from under the fall of hair, huge eyes squinted and then focused on him. Sandburg licked his lips, and acknowledged, "Simon." The word was little more than a whisper.

Banks moved to Sandburg's side and, putting out an arm, moved to help steer the smaller man towards the waiting ambulances. But Blair shook his head, and dug in his heels. "No. Simon, I'm all right. I'm not hurt."

Simon met the eyes of the EMT over Blair's head, and the man nodded. "He's a little shook up, Captain. But he should be fine. He waived treatment."

Looking back at Blair's colorless face, Simon wasn't so sure of the wisdom of that but, at the same time, wasn't surprised. Sandburg danced to the beat of a different drummer where modern medicine was concerned, and most likely intended to meditate his way through the aftermath of this experience, or something along those lines. He nodded. "Okay, Blair. Over here, then. You can sit in my car."

Blair nodded his assent. He glanced at the EMT. "Thanks, man. Later."

The medic patted him on the back before moving away in the direction of the ambulance. "Take it easy, Blair."

Simon kept a hand on the small of Blair's back as they moved over to where his car was parked. Blair was unaccustomedly quiet, grasping the blanket with a white knuckled hand where the edges met in front of his chest. He was probably shocky, Banks surmised. But in one piece, at least, he acknowledged with weary relief. Wanting to reassure himself that Blair was, after all, really here, he found himself asking inanely, "Are you all right, Blair?"

Sandburg nodded as they reached Simon's sedan and stopped. "I'm fine." He swallowed. "I'm fine, man," he repeated; as though to convince himself it was true.

Simon unlocked the door, then leaned across, turning on the ignition and the heater. Blair slid in, letting out a huge sigh as he sank into the comfortable passenger seat. After a couple of conspicuously deep, conscious breaths, he looked up at Simon, who kept watching him anxiously. "Does Jim know?" he asked.

Simon put a hand on Blair's shoulder, and patted it. "He's on his way, kid. I spoke to him ten minutes ago. He was stuck in traffic on the airport drag, but he should be here soon."

Blair nodded, not meeting Simon's eyes. "Thanks," he said simply.

Simon regarded him worriedly for a moment, then made a decision. "I'll go and find you some coffee, or soup, Blair. Something to warm you up. Just relax while I'm gone, okay? I won't be long."

Blair nodded. As the Captain strode away, he leaned his head back on the seat, turning to look wearily out at the multitude of squad cars and vans. The hypnotic lights pulsed unceasingly and, as he watched them, Blair's eyelids began to droop. He closed his eyes and, like a picture on a movie screen, the events of this morning played out in his mind....

***

Blair drew his Volvo up outside The Whole Earth, and turned off the engine.

At this early hour, there were only two other cars in the lot. The wholefood cooperative store had only opened its doors five minutes ago, so he was in good time to pick up the organic vegetables he wanted. There were only two deliveries a week to this store, from local suppliers, and unless you got here early on delivery day, a lot of the good stuff was often already gone. Blair smiled to himself in approval. He didn't always manage to get here in time, but today he'd made it.

Humming to himself, he absently locked up the car, trepidation about what would happen later dominating his thoughts, despite his satisfaction. Jim was due back home this evening, having extended his leave from one week to two, so that after leaving Clayton Falls he could head down to San Francisco and visit Carolyn Plummer.

Blair had been feeling more than a little insecure about the solidity of their partnership, ever since Jim had jetted off unexpectedly to Clayton Falls. He was still feeling some regret that he and Simon had followed Jim; although, as it had turned out with everything that went down once they’d got there, it had been a good thing they had. But leaving aside the events that had panned out, Blair still questioned the wisdom of having gone along with Simon's suggestion that they gatecrash Jim's solitude.

Sure, when they’d confronted him, Jim had emphatically said that he just wanted a vacation, and that it wasn't anything more sinister than that. He had rebutted Blair's offer to move out of the loft they shared, but in a backhanded kind of way - he had, at the same time, accused Blair of being in his face too much.

The fact that Ellison had since extended his week away from home - and from Blair - to two weeks, quite frankly, worried him. Because it wouldn't be the first time in Blair's life that he’d outstayed his welcome. He had long since learned to recognize the signs, and he was unhappily certain that he was seeing some of them now, despite Jim's somewhat ambiguous assurances to the contrary.

Blair intended to cook something nice for dinner, in the hopes that both the time away and the warm welcome on his return might prompt Jim to come clean with him. If Jim wanted him out of the loft, then fine, he would go - they didn't have to live together to be partners. But he sure as hell was not going to leave without first trying to salvage what was left of their friendship - they had both gone too far down that road together to just throw it all away. The dissertation was not an issue - Blair already had more than enough data to finish it. But the thought of their comradeship becoming less than it had been was more painful than Blair could have imagined.

Shrugging off his worries about Jim, Blair headed inside. As he stepped into the store, the wind chimes just inside jangled harmonically, as the breeze from the door blew them, their bell-like peal gradually stilling to a suggestion of ethereal sound. Blair closed the door behind him, and went up to the dreadlocked individual behind the counter. "Hey, Tim. How're you doing?"

Tim looked up from where he stood reading a newspaper. "Hey, Blair! Still fraternizing with the enemy, man?"

Blair chuckled, not offended in the slightest. "You got it, man. My mom thinks I'm gonna start wearing jackboots."

Tim grinned, the piercings in his lip lending the smile a lop-sided appearance. "Don't knock jackboots, dude. Got some myself. Those suckers are built to last."

Tim's sartorial mixture of army surplus and Indian tie-die made the statement entirely plausible. Blair just grinned as the store's proprietor went back to his perusal of the news and, moving on, he picked up a wicker basket and headed towards the fruit and vegetable rack.

He was reaching across to pick up a mango, when his hand collided with someone else's, the owner of which apparently had the same goal in mind. "Excuse me..." he began, then recognized his competitor for the fruit. “Kerry! Hey, how are you?"

The short-haired woman straightened, and waved her prize under his nose. "Quicker than you, honey, that's for sure!" She dropped the mango into the basket at her feet, and held out her arms to Blair.

They moved together in a hug and, when something unexpected impeded Blair from getting too close, he gazed down at her swollen stomach in wonder. "Oh man, you did it! Oh wow! When's the baby due?"

Kerry put a hand on her belly. "Any day now. Junior's ready, and I swear, I am more than ready. I am so tired of asking Sharon to tie my shoelaces for me."

At the mention of Kerry's life partner, Blair drew in a breath to ask after her, when...

BANG! BANG!

***

Blair jolted awake, breathing hard, his hands flailing out as somebody grabbed him by the shoulder. A familiar voice hauled him back from the grip of memory. "Whoa, hey, easy, Chief. Settle down! It's me."

Turning, Blair looked into Jim's face, as his friend stood leaning towards him, into the open door of Simon's car. Sandburg swallowed. "Jim?" he whispered.

Ellison nodded, his brows drawn. "Yep. Hey, partner." Jim patted Blair's shoulder before letting go then he straightened, gesturing vaguely back towards the epicenter of activity. "Simon called. He told me what he knew, and that you were involved. I got here as fast as I could, but the traffic was at a standstill. You doing okay?"

Feeling oddly disconnected, Blair vacantly considered Jim's question for a moment, before answering, "Uh, yeah. Yeah I'm fine, man." He blinked slowly, trying to swim out of the fog of unreality, but instead found himself drifting off again, the image of Kerry's radiant face in his mind's eye morphing, as though in slow motion, to a look of utter horror.

Jim's voice once again broke into Blair's reverie, tugging him back to the present; his hand a heavy, reassuring weight once again on Blair's shoulder. "Chief?" There was an odd note of caution, and perhaps compassion, in Ellison's quiet voice. "Simon said there was a fatality. Was it someone you knew?"

"Yeah," Blair whispered. And the images burned into his brain tore him, unresisting, back into their hold...

***

With an instinct borne of three years riding with Jim, Blair dropped instantly to the floor, dragging Kerry down with him, as the gunshots blasted out. His arm covered Kerry's head, where she lay trembling beside him.

In the silence that followed, the wind chimes tinkled softly, in a mockery of the calm that had existed just before the storm.

After a few seconds, Blair raised his head, looking for the source of the commotion.

A man, holding what looked like a revolver, was peering over the counter, from behind which Tim's unmoving jackbooted feet were protruding. A vivid red splatter on the wall behind the counter confirmed what Blair had feared - that Tim had been shot at point blank range. Whether he was dead or alive, Blair couldn't tell. But the feet were not moving.

Surreptitiously, trying not to draw the gunman's attention, Blair turned his head around, trying to see if there was an alternative way out besides the main door, which the guy was currently blocking the way to. But his attempt to locate an escape route came to an abrupt halt when the gunman spoke. "Hey! You two! On your feet."

Blair shared a wordless look with Kerry, the terror in her face matching what Blair felt, although he desperately tried to project confidence and reassurance back to her.

As he rose, Blair gave Kerry a hand to help her to her feet, and she cumbersomely pulled herself up from the floor. He nodded at her, trying to give encouragement, and after guiding her to stand slightly behind him, raised his hands above his head in the universal gesture of surrender, moving in front of his frightened friend so he could shield her with his body.

The gunman just watched, his demeanor relaxed, and a sardonic smile on his face. He was dressed in army fatigues, ironically similar to some of the clothes that Tim was wearing, and had a physique to rival Jim's. He fixed his eyes on Blair. "So chivalry's not dead then, you sad hippie. She your little woman, then?"

Blair licked dry lips, and said carefully, "She's a friend." He swallowed, then continued, "Look, man, you don't need her. If you're looking for a hostage, you can have me. But please, let her go. She's pregnant."

The guy was watching Blair avidly, his mocking grin widening as Sandburg spoke. "Step away from her," he ordered, raising the revolver and pointing it at Blair.

"Please..." Blair objected.

But the gunman abruptly lost his grin, his face twisting with anger. "I said MOVE!" He stepped menacingly towards Blair, the revolver aimed unerringly at his head, and Blair had no choice but to step aside. The moment Kerry was revealed, the gun shifted to point at her.

Keeping the gun aimed at Kerry, the gunman looked at Blair. His tone was conversational. "I'm going to explain something to you, hippie, before I kill you. You see, I hate people like you; people like her. People like that guy I wasted over there. You are all a blight on God's green earth, with your 'alternative' lifestyles and your 'free love'."

The gun didn't waver from where it pointed unerringly at Kerry, but the guy now focused his entire gaze on Blair. "Me, now," he continued, "I love this country. I want to serve any way I can. So I tried to get into the army. But because I did some time, way back when, they turned me down. I can't blame 'em. Rules is rules, after all. But it bugs me, all the same."

He shrugged, and moved to perch casually on the edge of the counter, the gun still aimed at Kerry. "So, I got to thinking," he carried on, "how else could I serve? And it came to me. Not all the dangers to this great country come from the outside. And you know what I decided? I can do my duty by eliminating some of the scum who drag this fine country down. I can take out some of the cancer at the root. I'll make my statement, and go out in a blaze of glory. And no one will ever forget it."

The guy was obviously out of his tree. But Blair knew he had to reason with him, just the same. It was their only chance - the gunman had already proved himself capable of cold-bloodied murder, and Blair had no doubt that he was capable of killing both of them without a second thought. "Look, man," Blair said, in what he hoped was a reasonable tone of voice. "I understand you're feeling a little disappointed about the army thing, but hey, we're not to blame for that. I don't know what you think this place is, but I'm just here to buy a few vegetables, you know? And so's she. And Tim," he swallowed, "He's just the guy who runs the business here. That's all it is, man, a business. Somewhere to buy food. It's not a haven for free love, or whatever you want to call it. We're all on the same side here, you know?"

Shaking his head, the guy said, "Will you just listen to yourself, hippie? You are proving my point. Scum like you will do anything, tell any lie, to save your own hide. I mean, look at you." The gun moved, as he used it to gesture towards Blair. "Look at that hair, those clothes. And as for her," he pointed it back at Kerry, and she flinched. "She looks more like a man than a woman. How she ever got that baby inside of her doesn't bear thinking about. What the hell do you people think you are doing? Polluting our society, with your sinful ways. Cowards and queers, all of you. I'm doing everybody a favor."

Oh god. How did you reason with a bigoted madman? Desperately, aware of Kerry trembling beside him, Blair pleaded, "Please, man, just let her go. Do whatever you want to me, but let her go. She's done nothing to you, and her baby is innocent. You can use me to make your point. But don't hurt her."

The guy gave Blair a long look, then pointed the gun back at Kerry. "Brave words, little man. But I wonder if you really mean it?" He took a breath, and glanced behind him at the door, then looked back at Blair. "I'll make you a deal, hippie. I'm a fair man. I'll let one of you live. And I'll tell you what - the choice of which one it's going to be is up to you. But before you insist on it being her, I'll warn you. It won't be as easy as that. It'll all depend on whether you really do have some courage in that scrawny frame of yours, or if it’s all just big words."

The man gestured towards the door with the gun, then back again at Blair. "Here's your first test, hippie. Get over there. Lock the door, put the 'closed' sign up, and pull the blind. Then come back over here. While you do it, I'll keep the gun pointed at your little friend here. You'll have your chance to make a break for it. But if you do decide to run off, I'll shoot her; first in the stomach, then in the head."

As Blair went cold all over at the image that threat presented, and Kerry let out a frightened gasp, the gunman carried on. "And here's the rest of the deal. If you do what I say, and then come back over here, I'll keep my part of the bargain. I'll let her live."

He grinned, a feral grin. Then proclaimed, "And I'll shoot you instead!"

***

Sandburg was pretty out of it right now. Apart from a few monosyllabic answers to Jim's questions, he seemed unwilling or unable to say anything about what had happened.

His behavior worried Jim. During three years of riding with cops, Sandburg had turned out to be remarkably cool under fire, and had a tendency to bounce back pretty quickly from the perilous situations he found himself in. Occasionally, when the adrenaline rush faded, he had gone through his moments of post-traumatic venting, but Jim had never seen him react quite like this before. It was as if Blair wasn't quite present.

Leaving his partner resting in the car, Ellison made his way over to where Simon was talking to some of the other officers on the scene. He waited for a break in the conversation before interrupting. "Sir?"

Banks turned around. "Jim! I was wondering when you'd get here. If you're looking for the kid, he's in my car."

"I know, Simon. I was just with him." Jim paused, looking around. "What happened here?"

Banks frowned. "Didn't Sandburg tell you?"

Jim shook his head. "He hasn't said much of anything. All I know is what you told me on the phone."

"Hm." Absently, Simon rubbed the back of his neck, eyeing the shattered shop front. Then he looked back at Jim. "Well, from what we can make out, the perp went into the store a little after nine o-clock this morning. He shot dead the store manager, a guy named Tim Meredith, and held Sandburg and another customer - a woman, Kerry Atkins - hostage for the rest of the morning. The call came in to the PD around noon. It seems a customer turned up, and when she couldn't get in, she peered through a gap in the blind, and managed to catch a glimpse of a guy holding a gun on a male hostage. From what we know now, it must have been Sandburg. The rest is history."

"Has Kerry Atkins given a statement yet?"

Banks shook his head. "She's in no shape, Jim. She's in the hospital now, and from what I've heard, it sounds like she's gone into labor. Poor kid is nine months pregnant."

Jim wiped a hand over his chin. "Jesus."

Banks's grim face matched Jim's own. "Yeah, I know. Well, anyway, I sent Rafe over there to talk to her, but it could be a while. You want to get Sandburg's statement, Jim? He seemed pretty shook up before, so I didn't want to rush it. And I was going to take him a hot drink from the diner over there, but I got sidetracked here."

Jim nodded. "I'll take care of it, sir."

Instead of taking Blair coffee, Jim decided that they should head straight over to the station, so they could get his statement out of the way. With a little prompting, his partner drifted from Simon's car into the truck, although still seemingly in a daze, and he now sat silently beside Jim as he drove.

Worried by Blair's uncharacteristic behavior, Jim ventured, "Hey, Chief?"

Sandburg blinked, as if focusing, and turned to glance at Jim. "Jim? Uh, yeah, what, uh, what is it, man?" Incoherent though it might be, it was the most Jim had heard out of Blair since he arrived.

"You doing okay, buddy? I guess you're feeling a little shaken up right now. But it's over. You're okay." He glanced at Blair again, who was staring off into space. "Hey, Sandburg?" Blair seemed to have drifted off again. "You with me here?"

"Uh huh," Blair answered, though he clearly wasn't.

Briefly, Jim considered the wisdom of just taking Blair home. Then he mentally shrugged off the suggestion. Maybe, once they reached the familiar surroundings of the PD, Sandburg would snap out of it. It was better this way, he thought. Get the paperwork over and done with, then his partner could go home and kick the furniture, or scream, or meditate, or do whatever he needed to do, to put the experience behind him.

Beside him, oblivious to Jim's dilemma, Blair stared unseeingly off into the distance, still lost in memory...

***

There was really no decision to make. Hyper-aware of the gunman's scrutiny - a tangible, oppressive presence at his back - Blair walked over to the door, glancing in horror at Tim's body as he went past the counter. If he had entertained any doubts before about whether Tim was still alive, they were silenced now, as he registered the gaping hole in his friend's skull.

It took only seconds to turn the sign hanging there around to 'closed', and to bolt the door. Next, Blair pulled down the blinds on the door and the window. Dust motes, shimmering in the sunbeams through the glass, were mercilessly extinguished along with the light, as the interior of the store was thrust into a funereal dimness.

Blair knew he should feel something; fear, maybe, or panic, during these last few seconds of his life. But instead, he felt incongruously composed as he turned and walked steadily back towards Kerry and their captor. Calmly, he met the intense gaze of the man who was about to become his nemesis, and knew a brief moment of regret that Kerry would have to see this. And he sorrowfully acknowledged that his sacrifice would most likely be wasted, because it was unlikely that the madman would allow Kerry to live, despite what had been promised.

Blair managed not to flinch, as the gun came up to point unerringly at his forehead. Instead, he kept his eyes on those of the gunman. And he waited.

And waited.

And waited.

The gun lowered.

"Jesus Christ, hippie," the man said, admiration in his tone. "You've got balls after all!"

***

Jim steered the strangely passive Sandburg into an interview room. He left Blair there for a few moments, and then returned, placing a steaming paper cup in front of his motionless partner. "Here you go, Chief," he said encouragingly, taking a sip of his own coffee as he took the seat across the table. Then, as Blair absently lifted the cup to his lips, Jim asked, "You up to giving a statement, buddy?"

"Uh, sure," Blair answered, taking a sip of the coffee, then curling both hands around it as he placed it back down on the table.

Inwardly, Jim sighed. So far, eliciting any kind of a response out of Sandburg had been like squeezing blood out of a stone. Hoping that getting down to business would encourage Blair to recover some of his normal equilibrium more than the offer of sympathetic platitudes, he reached over to switch on the tape recorder.

After completing the formalities of introducing himself and Sandburg for the record, Ellison prompted, "Okay, Blair. In your own words, can you tell me what happened today at the wholefood store, The Whole Earth?"

Even as Sandburg opened his mouth to oblige, his mind was racing ahead, the memory as vivid as if he was still there...

***

Hardly daring to breathe, Blair stood unblinking as the man lowered the gun, face fixed in a sardonic smile. "Who'd a' thought it," the gunman said, laughing shortly and shaking his head. "A tree hugger with attitude and a pair of big ones! It's not every day that Dale Carleton gets proved wrong. No siree."

Even as Blair's body reacted to the shock of reprieve, his clenched fists mercilessly containing the tremors that fought to escape his grasp, the innate anthropologist inside Blair kicked in, as he recognized this ritual for what it was - a test of his manhood, equal to any that he had ever faced. A test of his worthiness as an adversary. Of his worthiness to be allowed to live. A test that, apparently, he had passed.

At least, for the moment.

A few years ago, while Blair had been working on his masters' degree, he had traveled to Irian Jaya - the Indonesian half of New Guinea - on a summer field trip. It was one of the few remaining places on earth where remote peoples still existed that had never had any contact with the outside world. And in an encounter with one such tribe, Blair had faced a similar test.

He had trekked into the jungle, accompanied by a local guide, seeking a remote clan of Kombai, who, local rumor suggested, had never yet encountered a foreigner. Contact was made, and after a slightly inauspicious beginning, Blair and his guide were brought into the village.

It was there that the real test began. No sooner had they arrived, than tribal warriors, brandishing spears and shouting threats, surrounded the outsiders in a terrifying show of might. And Blair knew at that moment, with crystal clarity, that his reaction to that demonstration of power would determine not only the success or failure of his expedition, but also the success or failure of his career as an anthropologist.

And, more critically at that precise moment, whether he would live or die.

So he had done then exactly what he had to do now. He had stood his ground. He had shown no fear. And he had stared death right in the eye.

And death had backed off.

Death, in this case, now had a name. Dale Carleton was studying Blair, a quizzical look on his face. Then, abruptly, he moved, gripping Kerry by the arm and shoving her towards Blair. "Take her, hippie. Over there." He motioned towards the wall with the gun. "Sit down and keep quiet. I'm gonna get me something to eat, while I decide what to do with you."

Blair caught Kerry, and held onto her as they moved to the place Carleton had indicated. "Are you all right?" he whispered to her. She was pale, and he could feel her shuddering beneath his hands.

"Been better," she whispered back hoarsely. Blair supported her as she awkwardly squatted and then sat, the wall at her back. Then he lowered himself down at her side. Wordlessly, they reached out to each other, right hand to left, their fingers entwining; Kerry's other hand curling protectively around her belly. And together they watched as Carleton rifled through packets and cartons, stuffing some of the contents in his mouth and discarding others.

And they waited.

***

Getting Blair's statement had so far been, Jim considered, like pulling teeth. Somewhere along the line, his ebullient partner, who never used one or two words where a dozen would easily do, had turned into Robo-Observer, spouting weird, stilted cop-speak. "The perp entered the store." What happened next? "The perp shot the store manager." And after that? "We were held hostage for a number of hours."

After a short while, which was really all it took to get the bare bones of the statement - given the clipped sentences Sandburg seemed set on talking in - Jim snapped off the tape recorder. "Blair," he said, with some exasperation. "Relax. You don't need to try to be a cop here, all right? Just answer the questions in your own words. You've done this before, Chief. You know what I'm saying. Just be yourself. All right?"

When Blair nodded, Jim put the recorder back on. To his disappointment, Blair continued in much the same vein, his account precise but lacking in detail, and his answers to the questions Jim put to him short and emotionless. It was only when Jim asked directly, "Did he threaten to shoot you?" that Blair's heart rate sped up, but he still gave no outward sign of emotion. "Yes."

"When was that?"

Blair avoided meeting Jim's eyes. "Several times."

Jim frowned. "Several times? What, two times? Three? Or more?"

Blair licked his lips. His voice, which had remained steady, now faltered a little, and beads of sweat suddenly stood out at his hairline. "More."

There was something going on here, Jim realized; something that had happened, which he was only now getting to. Watching his partner intently, he queried, "Apart from shooting Tim Meredith, did the perp fire the gun at any other time?"

Blair's respiration was getting shallower, a ghastly pallor suffusing his face. "Yes," he blurted, clamping his mouth shut as soon as the word escaped. He didn't look at Jim.

Carefully, Jim queried, "At you?"

Sandburg suddenly clapped his hand over his mouth, swallowing convulsively, and Jim snatched up the plastic wastepaper bucket, getting it in position just in time.

And as Blair retched, the events he had been trying desperately not to think about came back to him in perfect recall...

***

Blair shifted on the hard, cold floor, his tailbone aching from remaining in the same position for so long. As he had several times in the past couple of hours, he whispered in Kerry's ear, "Hey, how are you doing?"

She winced, her eyes tracking their captor, as he paced agitatedly back and forth across the room. "I'm okay, but I need the john real bad. Junior keeps kicking my bladder. And I've got really bad backache."

Blair followed the path of her eyes, to watch as Dale Carleton measured the floor with long, restless strides yet again. He briefly considered the wisdom of alerting the guy to Kerry's plight, and just as quickly dismissed the thought. The man they were dealing with was hardly rational, and for some time now seemed to have forgotten their presence. It was a state of affairs that would be in their best interests to maintain for as long as possible.

During the time they had been sitting here, tensely watching their increasingly manic captor, any number of escape plans had crossed Blair's mind and been discarded. His cell phone was in his car, Kerry's was in her bag across the other side of the store, and Carleton had ripped out the wires of the phone on the counter, so calling the cops was not an option, even if they could have managed it without being detected. The guy was bigger than Blair and looked pretty strong, so he didn't care for his chances in a scuffle. Besides that, Carleton was armed, and there was no way Sandburg would go up against him while he had the gun - especially not when there was Kerry and her unborn child to consider.

So instead, they played a waiting game. He and Kerry were still alive, nearly two hours after Carleton had killed Tim, and the killer had paid them no mind since he had forced them to sit down.

The gunman was currently mumbling under his breath, and seemed to be sweating profusely, leading Blair to the certain conclusion that whatever drug had sustained his bravado was now wearing off. Increasingly frequent sidelong glances in their direction came as a gradual warning that Carleton's memory of their existence had returned, and Blair's body tensed; Kerry's painful grip on his hand indicating that she, too, had become aware of their renewed peril.

Carleton halted abruptly, mid-pace, turning ninety degrees and striding purposefully towards them. He stopped a few inches away from where Kerry's feet were outstretched. "Get up," he barked, gesturing towards them with the revolver.

Blair got to his feet as quickly as his stiffening muscles allowed, then gave both hands to Kerry as she lumbered upright. Aiming the gun straight at Kerry, Carleton addressed Blair. "You, hippie. Find two chairs and put 'em there, in the center of the floor. Then come back here. Try anything, and she dies."

Blair held up both hands. "Okay, man," he replied. "No problem. Relax." His tone aimed for conciliatory, and he was both surprised and relieved when his voice remained steady.

"Just do it!" Carleton, it seemed, was out of whatever passed with him for patience, and Blair hurried over to the counter, averting his eyes from Tim's body as he snagged the chair from behind it. After placing it where Carleton had indicated, he moved into the back office to find the chair Tim used when he worked at his computer.

And stopped, abruptly, as his eyes fell on Tim's cell phone, lying on the desk.

Carleton's voice startled him out of his daze. "If you're not back out here in two seconds, hippie, she's gone! Now move!"

Snatching up the phone, and putting it in his jacket pocket, Blair shouted, "Hey, I'm coming! I'm just getting the chair, man, like you said." As he spoke, he pulled the chair out from under the desk, and wheeled it in front of him out into the main store. Carleton watched him as he moved it into position, the gun still aimed at Kerry where she stood against the wall.

As Blair moved back over towards them, his hands raised, Carleton sneered, "You took your time, hippie boy. You better not be up to anything. Because if I think you are, your girlfriend here..."

"Hey!" Blair interrupted angrily. "I was just doing what you said, all right? I got the damn chairs. Why don't you just leave her alone, huh? Or better yet, just let her go. You need a hostage, man, you got me. She doesn't deserve this!"

"Shut up!" Carleton snarled. "And sit down - over there. Both of you! Move! Now!" He yanked Kerry away from the wall, and gave her a shove that would have sent her sprawling if Blair hadn't been there to catch her. She let loose a frightened yelp, and the impotent anger which had impelled Blair's outburst simmered almost to boiling point at the pinched look of pain and fear on her face.

With no option but to obey, Blair and Kerry sat down on the chairs. Carleton moved over, and placing his hands on the back of the office chair that Blair had taken for himself, he pushed and spun it around until Sandburg was facing Kerry. Then he moved to stand beside him.

Blair kept his eyes focused on Kerry, as they shared a wordless look. And he somehow managed not to pull away when the muzzle of the gun came to rest against his temple; despite his guts turning to slush.

Carleton spoke, the anger of a moment ago now transfigured into an incongruous joviality. "Hey, hippie?" he said. "You ever see that movie, The Deerhunter?"

When Blair didn't immediately answer, the gun dug a little harder into his temple. "Yes," he ground out.

The pressure eased off, as Carleton went on, "You know, that's one of my favorite movies, man. Guess what my favorite part is. Go on."

With a growing sense of horror, Blair bit back an answer until the gun dug in again. He swallowed. "I don't know," he muttered.

"Oh c'mon, hippie," Carleton said, the bizarre note of camaraderie still in his tone. "You can work it out. I'm sure you can. It's that scene, at the end of the movie, right? Christopher Walken and the other guy, with the gun? Playing Russian roulette? You do know, right?"

Blair could hardly find the word. "Yes," he somehow forced himself to say.

"Yeah, of course you do. It's a great scene, man. And you know what? I've always wanted to do that. Russian roulette. Not myself, of course. But I've always wanted to be there, while someone else plays."

The gun jabbed Blair hard once again, and this time, he couldn't restrain his flinch. He had no choice but to listen, as in the same, affable voice, Dale Carleton confirmed the inexorable, dreaded track of his realization. "Guess I'm going to get my wish, huh?"

Blair couldn't answer. And the despair and terror which washed through him was echoed in Kerry's expression, as they locked horrified gazes across the space that separated them.

***

Leaving Sandburg briefly, Jim detoured to the men's room to flush away the mess in the wastebasket. At the same time, he pondered his friend's behavior. It was not unknown for Sandburg to react emotionally in the aftermath of a dangerous situation; but he tended to do so in private, once he was safely at home. On one or two occasions in the past, Jim had been privy to this post-event breakdown, like the time when Blair had been rescued from Lash; but for the most part Sandburg resisted having an audience when he processed.

But now, Blair's composure had crumbled in the public setting of the PD, and he had crashed with a vengeance. Ellison had left Sandburg in the interview room, sitting bent over the table with his head lowered onto trembling hands. Jim had wrapped his own coat around his partner's shaking shoulders, since Blair had apparently, at some point, lost the blanket he had been wrapped in. And Jim still didn't know the details of what had gone on to produce such a reaction in his friend.

He made his way to the break room, so he could get some water from the fridge. On the way back out, he bumped into Simon Banks, who had apparently just returned, as he was still wearing his coat. "Jim," Banks acknowledged. "How's Sandburg?"

Ellison shook his head. "He's pretty shaken up. I've almost finished getting his statement, but..."

"Jim," Simon interrupted. "Take him home. You can finish up tomorrow. There's no urgency. Hell, the kid was held hostage. This has got to be bringing up some bad memories. You know how he was the last time."

Jim winced. The last time. Jesus.

On that occasion, Blair had been kidnapped by his date, who had turned out to be a conscienceless drug dealer. In the aftermath of that disaster, Sandburg had been arrested. And he had pretty much sulked for ages afterwards; with good reason, it had turned out, once his witness statement came to light, because his life had been threatened constantly during that whole ordeal. Being taken into custody had just been the icing on that particular unsavory cake.

And in the time since then, Sandburg's former wariness about guns had escalated almost to the status of a phobia. It hadn't stopped Blair from dealing with firearms when he had to, as part of his work with Jim - hell, he had even fired an automatic weapon himself, albeit reluctantly, when they had been on Storm Island a while back. But Ellison knew that the memory of a gun in his face came back to Blair periodically, haunting him in the form of flashbacks and nightmares.

The reminder of all of that now led Jim to wonder what had gone on in this present case. The perp, Dale Carleton, had apparently been armed with a vintage, police issue, Smith and Wesson .38 Special, and the sicko had no doubt used it to force the compliance of his hostages. It went a long way towards explaining why Blair was currently having such a hard time dealing with all of this.

Simon interrupted Jim's musings. "How was your trip?"

Jim shrugged. "It was good. Carolyn's doing well."

Simon was watching him measuringly. "I was a little surprised when you stayed away for an extra week. You find what you were looking for?"

"I guess I did."

"And now you're back. Are you going to make any changes?"

Jim felt a little exasperated at Simon's impromptu interrogation. "Look, Simon, I took a vacation. That's all. End of story. I thought we already hashed this out." Jesus. Sometimes it was as if Simon and Sandburg thought they owned him.

Simon was still fixing him with his forthright stare. "We were going to. But other things got in the way, remember?"

As if he could forget. Unbidden, a memory rose of Blair's pale, sick face, as he was transferred onto a gurney, and taken to the isolation tent in Clayton Falls. The memory, combined with his current worries about Blair, dashed water on the flames of his rising ire. Chastened, he said, "Look, Simon. I needed a break; needed to think some things over. I took a vacation, I got my issues all 'processed', as Sandburg would say, and now I'm back, and ready to start over. There's no problem here. At least from my side."

Simon nodded. Then, apparently deciding to leave the matter there, he reiterated, "Take the kid home, Jim. I'll see you in the morning."

"Thank you, sir." As Banks moved away into the bullpen, heading towards his office, Jim made his way back into the interview room. Sandburg hadn't moved; and seemed, in fact, almost to be drifting off to sleep. "Hey, Chief," he said softly, and Blair jerked at the sound, lifting his head up. His eyes were red. Smiling reassuringly, Jim asked, "You ready to go home, buddy?"

"Wuh, what?" Blair seemed half-asleep. He rubbed his eyes, as if trying to wake himself up. "What about my statement?" he asked hoarsely.

Jim passed him a bottle of water, which Blair accepted gratefully. As the other man twisted open the lid and took a swig, Jim answered, "We'll finish it up in the morning."

Blair wiped the excess moisture off his mouth with the back of his hand, and nodded. "Okay, man."

Feeling oddly protective of his traumatized partner, Jim couldn't resist placing an arm around him as they rode down in the elevator to the station garage, and just as oddly, Sandburg permitted his touch without protest.

Finally, they were in the truck. Jim put the heater on high as he drove down the exit ramp, trying to warm Sandburg up. Beside him, Blair was still and silent, and during the journey home, Ellison constantly threw him concerned, sidelong glances.

But Blair kept his peace, still lost in the memory of his ordeal...

***

The barrel of the gun an unyielding, cold promise of death at his temple, Blair's mind raced, adrenaline and terror lending the situation a jagged, crystal clarity. Apart from indulging in a fantasy of power and violence over his victims, it was clear that the gunman was using them - quite literally - as a captive audience that he could unload his warped views upon. And if Blair could play on that need of Carleton's to be taken note of, to be listened to; then perhaps he could keep the guy talking, and delay the inevitable long enough for some way out of this situation to present itself.

But that was Plan B. "Hey." A distant part of Blair was amazed that his voice didn't shake. "You want to play Russian roulette? I'm game. Just hand me the gun, man. I'll go first." If he could actually get hold of the revolver, just for a second, then this would all be over. Was Carleton so desperate to play out his game, that he would underestimate Blair's willingness to retaliate with force?

Carleton's incensed reaction proved what a long shot that had been. Far too long, apparently. "Jesus Christ, hippie, you think I'm stupid?" He poked the gun hard into Blair's temple, and Sandburg couldn't restrain a wince. "No way, you long-haired freak. You already surprised me once. You don't get your hands on my piece. We do this my way. Comprende?"

Plan B it was, then. "Look, Carleton, this isn't some movie, all right? This is for real. You kill me, or her, there are gonna be consequences for you. I work for Cascade PD, okay? I have important contacts there. If you let us walk out of here, I could talk to them, put in a word for you. I could say that you killed Tim by accident. You don't have to go through with this, man."

Carleton put back his head, and roared - actually roared - with laughter. Despite his apparent mirth, the gun didn't budge an inch from Blair's temple, even though it shook with the strength of his guffaws. After a few moments of raucous chuckles, he gasped out, "You work for the cops. Damn, but that's a good one. What the hell do you do - polish the floor? You got 'important contacts' in the janitor's office?"

Blair tried to force a steadiness that he absolutely did not feel into his answer. "I'm an anthropologist. A consultant." Keep the guy talking; remind him he's dealing with living, breathing human beings. Appeal to his militaristic nature. Become someone he can deal with. "I work with Major Crimes, and I'm partnered with a cop, a detective. Hey, I see the darker side of life every day, all right? I know the world isn't perfect, and I understand what you're trying to do. But this isn't the right way to draw attention to your cause. This will just turn people away."

Carleton had stopped laughing, and was now regarding Blair intently. "Oh, hippie," he said, shaking his head, in a parody of sorrow. "You have got it so wrong. I'm telling you, the day is comin' when the common man will take part in a revolution. When deviants and weaklings will be washed from the face of the earth, leaving only the strong in their wake. 'Survival of the fittest', like that guy Darwin said. And I'm up there, in the vanguard of that revolution."

Blair couldn't help but wonder at the incongruity of Carleton's eloquence. And seeing an opening in the gunman's argument that he could use, Blair retorted, "But Darwin didn't mean it that way, man. He meant fittest as in those most suited to their environment, not fittest as in the strongest or fiercest. We live in the modern world. Physical strength in human beings is not the primary factor in ensuring the survival of the species. What about strength of character, of intellect? Every advance in civilization has emerged from people's minds, not from violence. You've got it all backwards!"

But the light of true fervor was in Carleton's eyes. "You so-called 'new age' freaks have no right to talk about strength of character. You are a blight on god's green earth, watering down the might of the human race. You want to know about strength? About valor, huh? You ever hear of Garrett Kincaid, hippie? And the Sunrise Patriots?"

Oh god. Had he ever. "Yeah," Blair answered cautiously, "I've heard of them."

"Then you've gotta know, that man is an American hero." Man, this was all they needed, Blair thought despairingly. For this guy to be a disciple of Kincaid. Fanatically, Carleton carried on, "Hell, he's a hero to all mankind. If I hadn't been stuck in the joint when that whole thing here in Cascade went down, I'd have been there with the great man himself, dealing with those traitors you say are your cop buddies."

Blair shook his head, but the renewed pressure of the cold barrel against his flesh stayed his movements. "Killing innocent people doesn't make you strong, man."

The gun dug in viciously. "Shut the fuck up, hippie." Then it was suddenly removed from Blair's temple, only to reappear against his lips. "You talk too much. I got a better use for that mouth. Open up."

Time froze to a single moment, as a cold, hard invader forced its way between Blair's jaws. The entire world narrowed to the racing pulse in his ears, and the acrid taste of metal and gunpowder on his tongue. Unbidden, Blair's frantic eyes sought Kerry's - his only safe harbor in this nightmare - to find no hope of succor in her wide, terrified gaze.

The world condensed still further; to the harsh ratchet of the hammer as the round was chambered, the vibration transmitting obscenely along the barrel into his mouth.

Breathing ceased; an agonizing, endless expectation of death.

Abruptly the weapon was yanked out of his mouth.

Blair sat paralyzed with horror, as Carleton whined, "See what you done, hippie? You're ruining this, distracting me with your oh-so-clever talk. I ain't finishing this so soon. It's time to play." As he spoke, he expertly opened the cylinder and tipped the revolver backwards, tapping out the bullets decisively on his palm.

As Blair's held breath burst out in a gasping, panting explosion of air, he could only watch, too shocked by what had almost happened, to take advantage of the critical interval that Carleton was effectively unarmed. One bullet was deftly reinserted, and the gunman grinned as he spun the cylinder. "I always wanted to do that!"

The cylinder was snapped back into place, and Carleton leveled the gun first at Kerry, then at Blair. "So let's play, hippie. Think of it as a battle between the forces of good and evil. God will decide who has the right of it - me and the fine men who'll come after me, or you, and your new age weirdoes, with your immoral, sinful ways. But just to make it more interesting, let's see what you're made of, huh?" His expression was uncompromising, like granite. "You passed the first test, and proved me wrong when you faced the threat of execution like a man. Now let's see how far you're willing to go, how deep that courage runs. Let's see how far I can push you before you make me kill her, to save your own skin."

He smirked at Blair, as he went on, "I told you I'd let one of you live. Well, I'm a man of my word. Your choice." He swung the gun away from Blair once more, and pointed it directly at Kerry's swollen belly. The young woman shook in terror, as Carleton addressed Blair, the gunman refusing to deal directly with Kerry as he had all along, as though she was of absolutely no consequence. "Her brat, or your brain. Which is it going to be?"

Despite his bone-deep terror, Blair didn't even hesitate. "Me." He tried and failed to swallow, his mouth parched, the residue of the gun's presence a foul reminder on his tongue.

The gun was swung back once more, and the end of the barrel was pressed hard on the center of Blair's forehead. Willing Kerry to look anywhere but at him, Blair fixed his gaze on Carleton's impassive face, and begged hoarsely, desperately, "Please, man, don't make her watch."

"Tough, hippie." The gun pressed painfully against Blair's brow, his whole body jerking in reaction as the hammer was pulled back once again, the ratcheting clicks of engagement a deafening death-knell.

Carleton smiled. And pulled the trigger.

***

As Jim parked in his usual spot on Prospect, the ratcheting noise of the handbrake being engaged seemed to shake Blair out of the stupor he had been in ever since they had left the PD. But the racing heartbeat and harsh breathing that suddenly resounded in Jim's sentinel ears, did not seem to be a change for the better.

Sandburg had raised both hands to his forehead, which he was rubbing furiously. Concerned, Jim put a hand on his shoulder. "Hey, easy, Chief. We're home. You okay?"

Sandburg didn't answer right away, seemingly unaware of Jim's touch; and briefly, Ellison considered heading out again to the emergency room at Cascade General. He was beginning to wonder if Blair might actually be injured in some way that was not visible, and which for some reason he didn't want to admit to. The possibilities, quite frankly, worried the hell out of him. "Blair?" he prompted again. "You're scaring me, buddy. What's going on?"

Sandburg's frantic rubbing slowed, and he took several deep breaths before looking up at Jim. His eyes were red-rimmed with exhaustion. "I'm fine," he responded unconvincingly. "Where are we?" He squinted around, then nodded. "Oh, home. Good. That's good."

He reached for the door handle, but Jim halted him with an arm across his chest. "Chief? Be straight with me. Do you need to see a doctor?"

"No, man." Blair didn't make eye contact. "I'm not hurt. I'm okay."

Jim was not convinced. "Sandburg, don't bullshit me."

It was apparently the wrong attitude to take, as Blair's expression darkened. "Hey, back off!" He forcefully pushed away Jim's restraining arm. "I said I'm okay, man. Just leave me the hell alone!"

His partner's sudden, animated anger was such an about-turn, that Jim was left speechless as Sandburg fled, slamming the door of the truck closed behind him. As he watched Blair disappear into the building, Jim continued to wonder what the hell had happened to get his partner into this unstable, mercurial state.

By the time Jim had gotten his luggage from the truck, and let himself into the apartment, Blair was already in the shower. After taking his cases up to the loft bedroom to unpack later, Ellison busied himself in the kitchen, putting water on to boil for noodles, and making a pot of the chamomile tea that Sandburg favored; hoping that a dose of normality would help Blair to deal with whatever demons were bugging him.

Sandburg was in the shower so long, that the simple meal was cooked before he emerged, shuffling towards his bedroom enshrouded in towels and a dissipating cloud of steam. Jim set the table, keeping a weather eye on Blair's closed bedroom door. Eventually, just as Jim placed two bowls of pasta and sauce on the table, Blair resurfaced, his expression sheepish. He moved over to hover near Jim. "I'm sorry, man. I was out of order," he offered contritely.

Jim made an effort to keep his tone level and his worry under wraps as he sat down at the table. "No big deal, Chief. C'mon, dinner's ready. Let's just eat, huh?" He took a mouthful of pasta.

Blair shook his head. "I'm not hungry. I... I think I'll just go and crash. Okay?"

"Whatever." Jim swallowed, and then as Sandburg began to turn away, said, "Hey, I made some tea, if you want some. That chamomile stuff you like. It may be a little lukewarm by now, though."

A slight smile showed that Blair was aware of, and appreciated, the effort Jim had made to strive for equilibrium. "Thanks, Jim. I'll take a cup with me."

As he continued to eat his dinner, and later while he sat on the couch watching TV, Jim kept his senses partially attuned to Sandburg, who was closeted in his bedroom. His friend took a while to settle down, and for a long time it sounded like various books and papers were being leafed through and then discarded, as though Blair was unable to concentrate for long on any one item of reading matter.

Finally, Jim heard the bed creak, and the gentle rasp of cotton against skin, as Sandburg lay down under the covers. His friend began a familiar deep breathing exercise, one that he had once taught Jim as a method of relieving stress; and as he monitored his friend's gradual relaxation, Ellison felt his own breathing slow to match Sandburg's, as he simultaneously let go of his own nervous tension.

Jim dozed for a while after Blair dropped off to sleep, his head thrown back on the couch, the sound of the television a droning, meaningless buzz on the edge of his consciousness. He had been traveling all morning, and even if this whole mess hadn't been waiting for him, he would still have been pretty tired out after his trip. In a languid moment of semi-lucidity, he considered rousing himself enough to go up to bed, but couldn't find the motivation or the energy. Instead, he began to drift off to sleep where he sat.

It was in that twilight state on the very edge of dreams, that he was shocked awake by a loud series of thumps and Blair's panicked cry - "No! Get it off! Get it off..."

Bolting upright, Jim sprinted into Blair's room, to find Sandburg standing by the bed, his hands scrubbing and pawing at his forehead. Expecting Blair to be still in the throes of a nightmare, Jim was a little surprised to find him wide-awake and apparently aware, despite his odd, manic behavior.

"Chief?" he asked worriedly, going straight over and taking Blair by the shoulders.

Blair reached out both hands to grasp Jim hard by the shirtfront, his hands bunching up the material. "Get it off. Oh man, get it off!" He looked up at Ellison pleadingly. "It's still there! I can feel it! Get it off, Jim, please!"

Shifting to cup his partner's face in his hands, Jim soothed, "Blair, let me see." His thumbs rubbed reassuringly at Sandburg's temples, as his friend's frantic pleas died away. "Shh, it's okay." He nodded approvingly as Blair managed to calm himself down. "That's it, buddy. Just let me see."

Jim zoomed his sight in to the center of Blair's forehead, and there, like a third eye, was a mark, an almost-bruise. Two concentric circles, the exact diameter of the .38 revolver Jim knew that the perp had been armed with. Combined with that, a faint residue of gunpowder was still embedded in Sandburg's skin, despite the shower the younger man had taken earlier, and the ferocious scrubbing he had continually subjected himself to.

Blair was gazing avidly at Jim as he focused on the mark. "Can you see it?" he demanded.

Dialing back his vision, Jim dropped his eyes to meet Blair's desperate gaze. He nodded. "I see it. He held the gun at your head; pressed it in hard. I can see the imprint. There's a little gunpowder residue; not much." Understanding, somehow, that Blair desperately needed this validation of his ordeal, he went on, "The gun had been fired earlier, judging by the residue. Quite a bit earlier - there's no burn, so the barrel wasn't hot."

Now that Jim had articulated details that Blair had previously found himself unable to utter, his tongue was miraculously freed. "He shot Tim, man. Then he made us sit on the floor for a long time before he..." Blair choked to a halt. "Before he..."

Ellison put both arms around Sandburg and pulled him close, as Blair's breathing became ragged. "I know. It's okay," he murmured.

But still unwilling to relax, to accept comfort, Blair pushed Jim away, his hands still clutching the front of Ellison's shirt. In an agonized voice, he forced himself to articulate what had happened. "He pulled the trigger, man. He wanted to... to play... like in that movie, the Deerhunter, you know? And he... before that, he... he put it... the gun... in my mouth."

Jesus. No wonder Sandburg was freaking out. "Oh, Chief..."

Blair was shaking his head. "I can still taste it. I can still feel it. Oh god..." Sandburg's voice tailed off, his complexion becoming a ghastly shade of green. "Gonna puke." Blair gagged, and Ellison immediately hauled him out of the door, hustling him rapidly into the bathroom, as Sandburg desperately clamped a hand hard over his mouth. They got there just in time. While Blair retched stinking bile into the toilet bowl, Jim crouched behind him, helplessly rubbing Sandburg's back as he convulsed and shuddered.

When there was finally nothing else to bring up, Blair sat back on the bathroom floor, leaning into the steady arm Jim put over his shoulders. He ran a shaking hand over his face, which was wet with involuntary tears. "I'm sorry, man," he said hoarsely. "This is... humiliating."

"Chief," Jim tried to reassure, "You've just survived a life-threatening situation. You've gotta expect some reaction. Now you know that - you've been here before. Hell, I've been here before. You just gotta get this out of your system. And there's only you and me here, buddy. There's no problem, okay? Just relax. Keep breathing."

Blair nodded tiredly, and they remained there together for a few moments longer while he got himself together. Then, as soon as Sandburg was a little steadier, Jim helped him to his feet and, while Ellison detoured to the kitchen, Blair headed to the living room where he huddled on the couch, wrapping himself up in the colorful throw which usually adorned the back of it. The TV was still on and, as Jim came over and handed Blair a bottle of water, his roommate was absently flicking through channels.

"Shift over." Jim nudged Sandburg's feet aside as he handed him a bottle, and Blair complied without a word. Sandburg unscrewed the lid of the water and took a few mouthfuls. Then, after placing the bottle on the table, he brought one hand up once again, to scrub at the phantom sensation of the gun at his head, and Jim gently caught his wrist. "Don't, Chief. Don't."

"I can't help it, man. It feels like it's still there!"

The despair in Sandburg's eyes and voice prompted Jim to act. "Hey, c'mon. Come over here." He pulled the cushion from behind him, and laid it in his lap. "C'mon, Chief." He pulled at Blair's hand until his unresisting friend lay down, his head on the cushion. Then he laid his hand on Blair's brow, covering the mark that only he could see clearly, but which Sandburg could constantly feel.

"Jim?" Uncertainty laced Sandburg's voice.

But Jim knew what he was doing. "Shh. It's okay, Blair. Just relax."

Blair sighed and closed his eyes; either prepared to accept what was being offered, or too exhausted to protest. Gradually Jim felt Sandburg become more and more boneless, as his body let go the fight reflexes that had been sustaining him all day. Soon his breathing evened out, as a measure of the safety that had been stripped from him was returned, in the security of Ellison's care.

As the sentinel sat there, guarding his partner's sleep, an odor, sharp and ammoniac - which he had noticed earlier but given no mind to - impinged once more upon his nostrils. Sniffing like a bloodhound, he identified the direction of the stench, and piggybacked his sense of sight onto his sense of smell to locate the source. His senses converged in Sandburg's bedroom, landing on Blair's discarded jeans, which had earlier been flung haphazardly into the corner.

Jeans which were saturated in urine.

Jim frowned in dismay, guessing what that particular loss of control must have cost his partner in terms of dignity and self-esteem. And lying with his head on Ellison's lap, Blair stirred restlessly, the events of the day still evidently playing out in his dreams...

***

The sound was so unremarkable, that it came as an anti-climax.

snick

Unable to breathe, his eyes fixed in horrified anticipation on the merciless face of his doom, it was only when Carleton shifted the revolver away from his forehead, that Blair actually registered he was still alive; that the innocuous click of the hammer falling onto an empty chamber had not, in fact, sealed his fate.

This time.

A gasping, desperate exhalation involuntarily escaped Blair's control, as realization struck. And he barely had time to acknowledge his reprieve, as the gun was pointed once again at Kerry's abdomen. "That was fun," Carleton said evenly. "Let's go again, shall we? You," he smiled mirthlessly, "Or her?"

Stunned into mute silence, Blair struggled to gather his wits sufficiently to answer, as he gasped in frantic lungful after lungful of air.

But Carleton was evidently low on patience, and was not going to allow any recovery time. "C'mon, hippie, choose! You got two seconds, or she gets it."

The threat, and the look on Kerry's agonized face as she sat in the chair opposite, was enough to shock Blair back into the game. "Me, you asshole!" Anger, habitually his crutch in dire circumstances, erupted forth, despite the fact that Blair couldn't seem to get enough air in his lungs. "Hey, we made a deal, you jerk! Leave her alone!"

As the gun swung back towards Sandburg, both adversaries were surprised by the introduction of a third, shaky voice, as Kerry, silent up till now, pleaded tearfully, "Blair, I... I'm so sorry..."

"Shut the fuck up, woman!" Carleton's hand swung again, the gun now in Kerry's face. "You shut that mouth, right now. This is men's business. You just sit there and look pretty." Carleton sniggered nastily. "Though I guess you can't manage that. So you'd better just sit there!"

Their captor's misogynistic insults were ignored, as Kerry sent Blair an eloquent, unspoken entreaty across the scant feet that separated them. There was another, blameless life at stake here; and Kerry could not, despite the horror of the situation, offer up her life in lieu of Blair's, when that of an innocent unborn child was tied up so intimately with her own. As her eyes begged for understanding and forgiveness, Blair nodded his acknowledgement, while simultaneously hoping that his sacrifice would not be in vain.

Because he would do what needed to be done to preserve that life - as well as the life of the child's mother - even though it meant the certain surrender of his own.

"Hey man," Blair directed at Carleton as the gunman finished haranguing Kerry, "C'mon, I chose already! Me, okay? I choose me." He ruthlessly concealed his fear beneath belligerence. "Let's just get on with it!"

"All right," Carleton agreed, obviously eager to get back to business. The gun came to rest once again on Blair's forehead, and Sandburg tried not to wince as the gunman pressed it in, hard, a terrified, inner voice uttering ceaselessly within, 'oh god oh god oh god...' as he contemplated his last few seconds of life.

Once again, the hammer was pulled back, the vibration echoing bone deep inside Blair's skull.

Carleton grinned his shark's-toothed grin. And pulled the trigger.

snick

The gun was retracted once again.

"Damn, hippie," Carleton was saying, as Blair's whole body shook in reaction. "I thought that'd be it for sure. How the hell did you get so lucky?"

How, indeed, a distant part of Blair wondered sardonically. But he didn't utter the thought, as at that moment in time, he seemed to have lost all power of speech. Instead, he panted helplessly through the aftermath of survival, as Carleton pointed the gun once again at Kerry...

And the tableau froze, as an unfamiliar musical cadence emitted from Blair's pocket.

The sound made no sense to Blair's traumatized mind, until Carleton lurched towards him, his face a mask of fury: "What the hell?" Sandburg sat motionless as the gunman fumbled towards the noise, reaching into his victim's jacket pocket. The volume of the jingle increased as Tim's forgotten cell phone was extracted. And the pitch rose and fell, in a weird Doppler-like effect, as Carleton flung it violently through the air in an arc, curtailing the music forever as the phone crashed into pieces against the wall.

The silence in its wake was deafening.

Then, as if the incident had not occurred, Blair watched, aghast, as Carleton coolly pointed the revolver once more at Kerry. "Let's try again, hippie." He asked, his expression and tone showing absolutely no mercy. "You, or her?"

There was no choice. No choice at all.

"Me," Blair whispered.

Once again, Blair was forced to endure the familiar, terrible feel of the barrel of the gun on his forehead, as Carleton calmly eased back the hammer. And pulled the trigger.

snick

Adrenaline surged through him in a confusion of shock and relief. His heart trying to leap right out of his chest, Blair was only vaguely aware of a rush of warm, wet heat, as his bladder involuntarily voided itself over his thighs.

Carleton seemed ecstatic, as he cast an eye over Sandburg's embarrassment. "Ooh boy, I got you there." He was grinning gleefully. "You losing it, hippie-boy? You reached your limit yet?" Carleton pulled back the hammer again, flexing his fingers around the grip. "You've been lucky so far. But this is number four. Six chambers, so we got 50/50 for a bullet this time. What'll it be? You or her? You ready to cave yet, hero?"

And somehow, the defining of that stark statistic eroded Blair's last scrap of endurance, and he prayed that this time he would meet his death. Because if he somehow survived this fifth attempt, he honestly wasn't sure he would be able to find the courage to choose himself over Kerry for a sixth and final time.

Clenching his fists, Blair made himself look at Kerry's pleading gaze, her hands curled protectively over the life she carried within her. The visual reminder of what was at stake was enough to sustain him. He licked lips gone dry with terror, trying to find one scrap of moisture with which to lubricate his voice. "Me," he rasped, closing his eyes on the instrument of his death.

Carleton smiled as he pressed the gun to Sandburg's forehead. "Say goodnight, hippie."

***

In the PD break room later the next morning, Jim yawned widely as he poured two mugs of coffee. It was a measure of how tired he was that he didn't hear Simon come up behind him until he was greeted. "Hey, Jim. How's Sandburg?"

As Ellison turned to face his Captain, he considered how to answer. Blair wouldn't thank him for letting Banks know how screwed up he was. But Simon was a friend, and whether Sandburg accepted it or not, Jim knew he cared. "It was a pretty rough night," Jim confided. "He told me some of what went down, but he's having a hard time dealing with it. He was finding it difficult even to talk about."

"Understandable, from what I heard." Simon was shaking his head, admiration in his tone. "Rafe got a statement from Kerry Atkins. You know the perp played Russian roulette with them?"

Jim sighed. "I guessed it was something like that, from what Blair said."

Simon nodded. "Yeah. Well, apparently, it came down to a choice between the woman or Sandburg. Sandburg was forced to choose over and over which of them the guy would fire at - and he volunteered himself every single time. The kid saved her life, as well as that of her baby, at the constant risk of his own. He kept himself together throughout the whole thing. I guess he's entitled to a bit of a breakdown now it's over."

"I guess," Jim agreed. God, Simon didn't know the half of it. Ellison had spent the entire night fielding off Blair's nightmares. By the time morning arrived, the two of them had ended up curled together on Blair's futon, Jim's hand covering the place on Sandburg's forehead where his friend could still, hours afterwards, feel the phantom pressure of the gun. It had seemed to be the only thing that had given him any respite from the memory.

Simon's voice broke into his reverie. "Is the kid with you?"

"Yeah." Jim gestured vaguely in the direction of the interview rooms. "He came in to give the rest of his statement."

Banks regarded him earnestly. "Tell him from me, Jim. He did good. Real good."

Ellison smiled his thanks. "I'll tell him, sir."

Banks took his leave, and Jim made his way to where he had left Blair. As he entered the room, he noticed with satisfaction that his partner was not, for the moment, rubbing at his head, and appeared lucid and calm. The frequent, habitual gesture was beginning to both irritate and distress Ellison, heralding as it did the apparent onset of a flashback. Maybe, he hoped fervently, Sandburg was now over the worst.

Taking the seat opposite Blair, Jim pushed the coffee towards him. "There you go, Chief," he said.

Blair smiled wanly. "Thanks, man," he acknowledged gratefully. If Jim was feeling tired, he had to concede that Blair looked frayed with exhaustion. But he was encouraged to note that Blair's equilibrium seemed to be returning at last.

Jim indicated the tape recorder. He wanted to get this over with as quickly as possible, so that he could take Blair back to their home territory to rest and recuperate. "You ready to get started?" he questioned.

Taking a sip of coffee, Blair nodded. "Yeah." He might look weary, but his tone was infused with pure determination. "Let's get it over with."

As he switched on the tape recorder, Jim felt a rush of pride run through him at his partner's fortitude. "Okay then, Blair," he began, getting straight down to business. "In your own words, tell me exactly what happened when you and Ms Atkins were sitting in the chairs. Tell me exactly what was said and done, and how it all ended."

Blair took a deep breath. Then he looked unflinchingly at Jim and began...

***

Nothing existed but the painful pressure of the gun on the middle of his forehead.

He had already taken his final breath, because he had lost the ability to breathe the second the barrel came to rest against his sweat-streaked skin. His heartbeat, fooled somehow into believing he was still alive when he knew he was as good as dead, still futilely pulsed blood through his veins in a deafening crescendo, obliterating all other sound.

His paralyzed lungs retained the odor of the last thing he would ever smell - the stench of his own sweat, urine and fear, and the sharp oily tang of cleaning solvent and gunpowder emanating from the revolver. The gun's deadly aromas found their echo on his tongue, a memento of its brief violation of his mouth.

Eyes closed, the final image burned into his brain was that of the cruel, grinning face of his murderer, avariciously anticipating his death. The face in his mind's eye was completely without mercy or compassion. And he lamented that, despite the beauty he knew to exist in the world, such evidence of man's inhumanity to man would be the final thing he would ever see in his life.

The moment, a precipice on the edge of eternity, lasted, it seemed, for all eternity.

And then, it happened. Time, which had stretched out endlessly as it eked out the last few seconds of his life, suddenly broke the speed of light.

CRASH

Even though he was expecting it, the noise startled him, his respiration kicking in with a gasp.

He never felt the revolver's deadly threat vanish, because the sensation of the end of the barrel on his head never went away. It was only when the gun fired immediately afterwards, and he heard the whine of the bullet as it sped past, and the shattering of glass fragmenting behind him, that he comprehended that, somehow, he was still alive.

Or at least he guessed he was. He didn't think he should be able to hear such things with a bullet hole in his head.

Someone was touching him, talking to him, the words making no sense. Cautiously, he opened his eyes, to see Kerry's face inches from his own, her lips moving incomprehensibly, and a second later, as if a switch had been thrown, he grasped the meaning of her words.

"...gotta help me, Blair." She was saying. "Find some duct tape or something, because I so do not want to deal with him if he wakes up."

Blair's eyes drifted from her, down to the floor, where Carleton's unmoving form lay, the remains of a smashed chair scattered around and upon him. He looked back up at Kerry. "What did...?" he tried to ask, but his mouth was so dry he could hardly get the words out. He licked his lips with a tongue that felt like sandpaper. "What," he tried again, with a little more success, "did you do?"

She smiled, wearily, but with a light of triumph in her eyes. "I waited until his back was turned. The son of a bitch had all his attention focused on you. Then I picked up my chair and smashed it over his head. He never knew what hit him! Score one for the pacifist scum, huh? That'll teach him to underestimate a woman!"

Blair tried to swallow. It had been so close. The chamber had, indeed, contained a bullet this fifth, critical time, as evidenced by the missile's fatal trajectory through the store window. And having had more than enough experience of guns to last a lifetime, Blair understood - as Kerry didn't - that the revolver with its hammer pulled back would literally have had a hair trigger. The slightest pressure of Carleton's finger could have blown his brains out, and it was sheer luck that the gunman had discharged the bullet towards the window as he had fallen, instead of at Blair.

Kerry was frowning. "C'mon, man. Snap out of it! It's over. We need to tie bully boy here up, and call the cops."

He nodded. "Right. Okay." As if on cue, sirens could be heard in the distance, getting closer. And Blair hoped, fervently, that somehow the police had been alerted to their plight and were on their way here. Because he wasn't sure right now if he had so much as the strength to talk on the phone, never mind restrain the unconscious form of Dale Carleton.

It looked like his prayers had been answered, when the sound of several emergency vehicles could be heard braking outside, the sirens cutting off abruptly; and blue flashing lights bouncing pulsatingly off the interior walls.

Suddenly, Kerry grimaced, as if in pain, and grabbed her stomach. The reminder of her vulnerability startled Blair out of his paralysis, and he rose rapidly from the chair and moved towards her. "Hey," he asked, "Are you okay?"

Kerry grabbed him by the arms, her fingers digging in painfully. "Oh Jesus, Blair." She gasped. "My waters just broke. Junior's comin'!"

***

After taking Blair's statement, Jim had spent some time reading through the one given by Kerry Atkins, before driving himself and Blair home to the loft. The two accounts depicted a disturbing scenario, in which Sandburg's selfless courage, as well as Kerry's bravery and impulsive act, had saved, in effect, four lives.

Because if Carleton had killed Blair after torturing him in that insidious way, Jim would have made sure the bastard never lived to stand trial.

He had also taken Simon briefly aside, when Blair was relaxing in the break room after giving his statement. "C'mon, Simon. I want in on this. I want that son of a bitch."

But Banks had shaken his head. "Jim, you are too close to this situation. I can't, in all sincerity, let you near him. Besides," he looked at Ellison earnestly, "there's no need. He sang like a canary already. Confessed to all of it. He seems to think that it was some act of war, and he's proud of what he did. The only part of his confession that didn't tally with their statements is that Kerry Atkins took him out. He insists it was Sandburg."

Jim had leveled a blazing stare on his boss. "So what now? What's going to happen to that sadistic asshole?" The anger that he had not felt able to show in front of Sandburg, in consideration of his partner's current state of mind, infused his words.

Simon had put a hand on the detective's shoulder. "I spoke to the DA. This is Carleton's third conviction for a serious felony, Jim. And he's a stone killer, with two witnesses to the fact that he murdered Tim Meredith. He's gonna get life this time. No question."

Now, back at the loft, Ellison and Sandburg sat side by side on the couch, watching but not watching a baseball game on TV. Periodically, Blair scrubbed at his forehead, trying self-consciously to disguise the action whenever he caught Jim watching him, by running a hand over his hair, or pretending to rub his eyes as if tired.

Eventually, Jim reached his limit. The next time Blair raised his hand towards his forehead, Jim grabbed it before it reached its goal. "Sandburg," he pleaded, "Don't. It's over, okay? You're safe now. Stop it."

But instead of the irritable comeback he expected, Blair just looked and sounded miserable. "I'm sorry, man. I know I'm a basket case."

Instantly contrite, Jim reassured, "No, you're not, Chief. I'm sorry I stopped you, okay? I'm just concerned. And I know you're just dealing with it. 'Processing'."

But it seemed Blair was not as convinced of that as his friend. "Jim," he said despairingly, "I never felt this way, even after Lash. I can't get it out of my head, man. The... the..." he stuttered, even the word bothering him. "The gun, man. I can still feel it!" He rubbed his forehead despairingly. "Every time I hear a click, I'm hearing him pull the trigger. And I can still fucking taste it!"

The way Blair was feeling was not unknown to Jim, after his years in the military. Hoping to show that he understood, he confided, "Chief, I knew a guy once, in the Rangers. He was Captain of another unit, a buddy of mine. He was posted to the Middle East. The mission went wrong somehow, and he was captured."

Usually, anytime Jim volunteered information about his past in the military, Blair could hardly contain his interest. This time was no exception, although Sandburg's enthusiasm was a little muted. "Yeah? What happened, man?"

Encouraged, Jim carried on, "His captors put him through hell. Seems they liked to perform mock executions."

Blair was watching him raptly, and his eyes widened in horror at Jim's words. But he didn't interrupt, which Jim took as a cue to continue. "They told him constantly he was going to die, Chief, and once a day, at a different time each day, he was taken outside and put in front of a firing squad. And each and every time, they fired over his head. But every time it happened, he wondered if this time was going to be the time, because he was certain that they were eventually going to kill him."

"What happened to him?" Blair asked cautiously, as though afraid of the answer.

Jim smiled grimly. "He was there for a week before he was rescued by his unit. He got a medical discharge after he came home. Suffered from PTSD. He spent a year in therapy." He shrugged. "We're still friends; send each other Christmas cards, that kind of thing. He came to my wedding."

"And...?" Blair was hesitant. "Is he... okay?"

Ellison nodded. "It took a while. For a long time, it was the same for him as it is for you right now; jumping at sounds, flashbacks, the works. But he got the help he needed, and he got through it. He has his own business now, in Seattle. Doing pretty well. I should take you over there, introduce you."

Blair's face was carefully blank. "I'm not sure that's a good idea, man."

Jim didn't want to push. "Whatever. But it might help you to talk to someone who got through something like that. He's a strong guy, Chief, and he's getting on with his life, despite whatever problems he still has. He's a survivor, just like you are. You're strong enough to get past this, just like you got past all the other shit you've gone through since you've been riding with me. It may take a while, and you'll probably need some help to get you through. Maybe therapy. And maybe it's overly optimistic to think you'll ever completely get over it. But you're strong. You can do it. And I'll be with you buddy, every step of the way."

"Look, man, I can deal with this myself, all right?" Sandburg was abruptly belligerent. "I don't need you to baby-sit me."

Jim blinked. Blair's change in attitude had come out of left field. "What the hell are you talking about?"

"I mean, don't put yourself out for me, okay? I know this has come at a bad time. And I don't want you to think I'm gonna use this as an excuse. The apartment down the hall went to somebody else, but I've been looking at the ads in the paper..."

Oh good grief. They were back to that again. "Chief, I told you before, I don't want you to move out! I just needed a vacation. A break. Time to myself. What is it with you? Why is that so hard for you to take at face value?"

Blair wasn't mollified. "Time to yourself, man, I understand. But we've lived together a while now, and I know that you are so not Mister Spontaneity. So, I don't believe you arranged that trip to Clayton Falls on the spot. You had it planned for a while, and you let me know you were going exactly one second before you left."

Jim's brows were drawn in puzzlement. He reached for the remote, and clicked off the TV, before turning back to Blair. "Sandburg, you don't own me. If I want a break, I'll take one. Just the same as you can. What's the big deal?"

Sandburg didn't answer for a moment, and the sudden, oppressive silence in the loft seemed almost tangible. Then he sighed. "Look, Jim, I just think it's time for me to move on, okay? We can still be partners, if that's what you want. I know I'm a mess right now, but I swear, man, I'll keep it together on the job, so I won't be a liability if you still want me to ride with you. But I think you need your space back."

Exasperated, Jim was on the verge of agreeing, until he took another look at the pinched, drawn expression on his friend's face. After three years, he had learned that despite the belligerent self-sufficiency with which he faced life, Blair seemed to constantly battle with an inner, fundamental desire to be needed; to belong. Not for the first time, Jim wondered about the demons in his friend's past. Because for a guy who had been surviving so successfully on his own wits since the age of sixteen, Sandburg's inner core concealed a roiling mass of insecurity.

Quietly, firmly, Jim said, "Chief, I don't want you to move out. I mean it. Those things I said in Clayton Falls; well, I was just surprised to see you, that's all. Don't make it into something it isn't."

Blair shook his head. "Jim, you obviously needed some distance from me. You still need it! You said I was always in your face. 'Observing'. Don't tell me there isn't some truth in that. You hate the research I do, the dissertation. We're friend's despite that, man, not because of it."

Jim sighed. In truth, he did hate it. He hated the fact that Sandburg dissected and documented his every move, and a large part of his motivation for the trip had been to get away from that for a while. Three years was a long time to spend under a microscope.

But somewhere along the way, he and Blair had become more, much more than researcher and subject. He cared deeply about Blair, possibly as much as he felt capable of caring about anyone; and he knew, in turn, that their friendship mattered a great deal to Sandburg.

Jim's musing on how to answer that problematic accusation, and thankfully (he thought with a little shame), his obligation to respond, were interrupted when Blair suddenly leaned his head forward. "Fuck!" Sandburg's hand went to his forehead, to the spot where Jim had seen the imprint of the gun, his fingers rubbing furiously. "Fuck. Fuck!"

Moving closer, Jim pulled Sandburg's hand away, and placed his own palm flat on Blair's forehead, his fingers combing upwards to rest in Sandburg's hair. He held it there, pressing slightly with the heel of his hand. "It's over, Blair. There's no gun; there's just me. It's over."

Blair's grasped Jim's wrist, holding it in place. "Oh, man," he murmured miserably. "I hate this. I really, really hate this." He leaned his forehead even harder into Jim's palm, trying desperately to banish the flashback, while Jim wrapped his other hand around the back of Blair's neck, rubbing reassuringly.

Finally, when Blair seemed a little more in control, Jim moved both his hands to Sandburg's shoulders. Holding him at arm's length, he looked earnestly into the younger man's haunted blue eyes. "Chief? Listen up. I don't want you to move out, okay?"

Blair blinked slowly, then after taking a couple of deep breaths, smiled wanly. "You're saying that because I'm a basket case just now, right?"

Jim shook his head, and rolled his eyes. "Sandburg, you've been a basket case as long as I've known you. Nothing's changed."

The younger man laughed once, shortly. There wasn't a lot of mirth in the sound, but still, it was a good sound. A healing sound. Jim realized it was the first time he had heard Sandburg laugh since before that godawful trip to Clayton Falls. Grinning in return, Jim said, "You got one thing right, Junior. We're friends. Okay? And this is your home. For as long as you want it. Basket case or not. All right?"

Smiling wearily, Blair nodded in resignation, seemingly unwilling to argue any longer. "Okay, man. Thanks."

Jim cuffed him lightly on the side of the head in answer. "No problem, partner."

As simply as that, normality began to resume, Blair borrowing from Ellison's strength as he gradually rediscovered his own. And the looming specter of Sandburg's dissertation, which constantly haunted Jim, retreated for the time being into the background. An unspoken barrier that, despite their care for each other, continued to lie between them.

***

EPILOGUE

Such an amazing contrast, Blair considered. The tensile strength of this tiny, fierce grip, combined with the translucent fragility of the miniature fingernails where they wrapped around his thumb.

"He likes you," Kerry quipped, and Blair lifted his eyes to where she sat hip-to-hip on the other couch with Sharon, the two women wearing matching, indulgent grins.

He glanced back down at the week-old baby in his arms, who was regarding him intently with an expression as old and wise as the hills. "How can you tell?" he asked, and the child shifted its rapt gaze from his eyes to his mouth as he uttered the sound.

Sharon yawned, stretching. "Because he was bawling his head off until you got hold of him." Beside her, Kerry had closed her eyes, leaning her head back, and Sharon turned to glance at her partner fondly. "Mommy's worn out," she stage-whispered.

"So," asked Jim, coming back from the kitchen with drinks, "Are you Mom or Dad, Sharon?"

"Jim!" Blair was appalled.

But Sharon just chuckled, as though she heard that all the time. "Does it matter?"

Jim didn't seem in the least embarrassed. "Nope. Guess not." He put the glasses down on the coffee table and leaned over to look at the baby boy in Blair's arms, who now shifted his gaze to this new, fascinating sight. "Hey, little guy," Ellison said softly, stroking the child's cheek with one long, gentle finger, and Blair marveled at Jim's tenderness. Then, as the little lips quirked, Ellison exclaimed, "Hey, he likes me! He's smiling at me!"

Her eyes still closed, Kerry said sleepily, "That's just wind, you big mook. He's too young to smile."

As if on cue, the child convulsed once, and a discharge of milky drool exploded onto the front of Blair's shirt. "Jim!" Sandburg grimaced. "Now look what you did! Get me a cloth, quick."

Jim grinned as he handed Blair an inadequate tissue. "Here ya go, Mary Poppins."

Blair snatched it off him it with mock bad grace, and tried ineffectually to mop up the stain. "You cause any more noxious emissions, man, I'm handing him over to you."

"Riiiight," Jim conceded unconvincingly, as he took a seat next to Blair.

The child's eyes were now closed, and transfixed by the sight of such perfect trust, Blair studied his features - the rosy flush of healthy, impossibly soft skin, the dark lashes resting feather-like on porcelain cheeks, concealing eyes of bottomless, liquid blue. The soft puff of air in and out of tiny lungs...

Lungs, which had almost been stilled forever, before they had even had a chance to take their first breath of air.

"Hey," Jim's soft voice broke into his reverie. "You okay?"

Intrigued that Ellison had correctly interpreted his morbid train of thought, Blair looked up. "You reading minds now, man?" he asked.

In answer, Jim clapped a hand on Blair's shoulder, and squeezed it gently before letting go, and as the warmth of that support infused Blair, and banished his demons of the moment, Jim addressed their fully-grown guests. "So, do you have a name for him yet?"

"We're still trying to decide." Kerry had opened her eyes, and she and Sharon were watching their interaction with interest. "We thought that we should commemorate Blair somehow."

Sandburg groaned. "God, please don't call him 'Blair'. Take it from one who knows; that is a cruel and unusual thing to do to a child."

"Oh, we wouldn't do that to him," Sharon chuckled, as Kerry let out a loud guffaw. "Never fear, man. No, you have a middle name, right?"

Blair nodded, unaccountably moved by the fact that they really meant to name the little one for him. "Yeah. It's Jacob."

"We were thinking 'Jack'," Sharon went on.

Kerry nodded in assent at her partner's words. "It's a bit like Jacob. And we like the idea of a name that can't be shortened."

Looking down once more at the perfect, sleeping features, Blair murmured wonderingly, "God has been gracious. God has shown favor."

"Chief?" Jim's quiet, concerned question broke into his reverie.

"It's what his name means," clarified Blair, glancing up at him. "From the Hebrew." He smiled down again at the baby.

Jim's hand had once more found its way to his shoulder. And as Jack slept peacefully in his arms, here in the safety of their home, a tentative tendril of peace crept into Blair's soul, healing as it went. "'Jack'. I like it," Blair whispered. "It suits him."



The End




Comments are welcome, but are absolutely not necessary - all of my stories are offered freely and without obligation. If you do wish to comment below please sign your name/pseudonym if you are not logged-in to Dreamwidth or Open ID, or alternatively you can email me at fluterbev@gmail.com



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Date: 2007-08-01 12:11 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] klgrem.livejournal.com
Oh wow. This is just one amazing story. I love writers who can do bad guys and you sure drew a fantastic picture. What a terrible position Blair was in.
I love when Jim takes care of him. :)
Thank you for this story.

Date: 2007-08-01 08:23 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] fluterbev-fic.livejournal.com
I'm so glad you enjoyed it! This story has a special place in my heart - it is the first WIP I ever posted in my personal journal, way back in the day. I met some of my closest online friends while I was writing it, so I remember the whole process very fondly indeed :-)

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