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Summary: The conspiracy tightens its net.

Author's Note: Fifth and final story in The Dawn to Dark Series.
 
The Darkness Will Flee from the Light

By Fluterbev

February 2004


Captain Simon Banks had a headache.

It kind of went with the job. Captains in the Cascade Police Department were well paid for shouldering the stresses and strains that came with the responsibility of their position. And it stood to reason that the Captain of Major Crimes, generally regarded as the elite command in the whole of Cascade PD, would have more responsibility than most.

So Banks had plenty of justification for his headache, even without a missing sentinel and his civilian partner to worry about.

"Come," he bellowed at the knock on his office door. Even without lifting his head from his hands, he recognized his secretary's light step as she came over to the desk. He and Rhonda had worked together for so long that there was almost telepathy between them. No one was better than she at anticipating his needs, and he would have been mortally ashamed if their mutual consideration hadn't gone both ways when the need arose.

A glass of water and two Tylenol magically appeared in front of him. "Bless you, Rhonda," he said, reaching for them.

Rhonda took a seat as he picked up the glass, then waited patiently as Simon washed the pills down. Pain fogged eyes focused on her, and Banks groaned. "Don't tell me. That was the good news, huh?"

Rhonda smiled ruefully. "Chief Warren's secretary called. He wants you to meet him at 9.00 in his office."

Banks looked at his watch. It was just after eight AM now. Good, at least the painkillers would have time to kick-in. "Uh huh. What else do we have today?"

Rhonda opened her notepad. Banks didn't really need to ask - he could, in theory, find out his schedule from the on-line system if he chose to do so - but he and Rhonda always went through this ritual first thing in the morning. He knew that his staff appreciated the personal touch, and he always found it helpful to connect with Rhonda in this way. It seemed to make things go much more smoothly.

Rhonda efficiently ran down the list of meetings and deadlines, and Banks inwardly sighed in relief. The first meeting with his boss notwithstanding, his schedule today was fairly light. But only until something urgent came up, he mused pessimistically, potentially throwing the whole thing out of kilter. Ah the life of a police captain.

Rhonda was just walking back out into the bullpen, when she paused. "Oh, and Captain," she said, "Blair called earlier. He said something urgent had come up, that he was going to check something out at Conover; and that you'd know what it was about. He said he'd call you later."

As she exited and closed the office door, Banks put his head back in his hands. Damn. And he had just started to feel better.

***

A short while later, fortified by aspirin and black coffee, Simon's headache, if not his mood, had improved.

Before heading over to the Chief's office, he had tried to call Sandburg, but the damn kid's cell-phone was switched off.

The question was, what was Sandburg up to now? If their former observer had headed to Conover, he could only be there for one reason - to look into the death of Alex Barnes three days ago. Inwardly Simon cursed. Given the circumstances, Sandburg had most likely spent a restless night, putting two-and-two together and coming up with five.

If Simon was honest with himself, he would grudgingly admit that the timing of Barnes's death had unsettled him too; they already had one apparently dead, but actually missing, sentinel. But with the recent evidence of surveillance on Sandburg's movements, this was no time for the kid to be haring off alone to conduct his own investigation.

Banks's reverie was interrupted when the Chief's secretary appeared in front of him. "Captain Banks, Chief Warren is ready for you now."

He thanked her, and followed her into his boss's office. Chief Warren rose, and motioned Simon to a seat as his secretary discreetly exited and closed the door. The Chief moved over to the coffeepot. "Black, no sugar?"

"Please." This was obviously going to be a long meeting. The Chief only offered coffee when time allowed.

Banks took the proffered coffee, and the Chief sat back down. Warren was all business now the social niceties had been observed. "I'll come to the point, Simon. I've been made aware that you have been conducting an investigation into a certain closed case."

"Sir?" Banks frowned. The only closed case he had on his desk so-to-speak, was Jim's 'death'. And only he and Sandburg knew about that.

Warren looked grim. "The death of Detective Ellison," he clarified, disturbingly confirming Simon's train of thought.

Hedging, Simon said, "Reviewing closed cases is something I do regularly, sir. My responsibility, as you know, includes the quality review of documentation and procedure after the fact…"

The Chief cut him off. "Ellison's death was not a Major Crimes case, Captain, even if he was a Major Crimes detective, so it is not within your remit to review it." Warren's tone and expression were uncompromising. "The coroner recorded a verdict of accidental death, and the case is closed. I'm telling you to leave it alone."

Bristling at his boss's interference, but wisely not showing it, Simon asked, "Is that an order, sir?"

"Yes." Warren's expression was closed, the statement final.

What the hell? "May I ask why?" Simon knew, as did his boss, that the Chief didn't have to explain himself. An order was an order, to be obeyed, not questioned. But he and Charles Warren had worked together too long, and had too much respect for each other, to leave it at that.

Warren looked down a moment at his linked hands on the desk-top, then up to fix his stare on Banks. "All I can say is you are moving into territory outside the remit of Cascade Police Department."

Damn. So the Chief had had his orders. "Are we talking government involvement, sir?"

"I'm not at liberty to say." After allowing Banks a moment to digest, Warren continued, "I want you to understand, Captain, that it's not just your ass on the line here. I'm telling you to leave the file alone, period. No more secret meetings with Ellison's partner, no more visits to the family of witnesses. There is no case for you to investigate. Do I make myself clear?"

Damn. And Banks thought he had been careful. "Yes sir," he conceded. "Perfectly clear."

Warren rose to dismiss him, the meeting clearly over, and Simon put his untouched coffee down as he went out.

A short meeting after all. But somehow Simon felt years older.

***

Lee Brackett was not amused.

The female sentinel, Alex Barnes, was proving to be a vast disappointment. Sure, she would most likely be able to fulfill the requirements of the contract, but that was beside the point.

This whole deal was no fun if he couldn't play a little.

Once again, he cursed Sandburg. The documentation was supposed to be accurate. The thesis had even been headed towards the Nobel Prize committee, for Christ sakes! But for all the detailed results of the tests Sandburg had reportedly conducted on Barnes, there was not one hint in the dissertation of how to deal with her current condition.

"Sloppy science, Sandburg; sloppy science," Brackett muttered irritably as he entered the cell. Moving to the bedside, he put a hand out, resting it on the forehead of the woman lying there. Alex didn't move, her gaze fixed on, or rather through, the ceiling. She didn't acknowledge his presence at all.

"Hey, sweetheart, how are we today?" Lee asked.

Her unfocused gaze didn't waver. "His eye is everywhere," came her dreamy voice. "I and he are one, seeing all. His breath stirs me, and sweeps across the earth."

"Whatever." Brackett shrugged. "Why don't you try coming back from, uh, communing with the almighty, hey precious? I'd really like to get to know you properly, but it's difficult when you're so far away."

Barnes gave no sign that she had heard him. Under her breath she was muttering "I soar, oh how I soar, breath is the wind and I am the air…"

Sighing in disgust, Brackett left her alone.

***

As often happened in situations like this, Blair Sandburg was pissed as hell.

Sure, later on (assuming there would be a 'later on' for him), he would most likely revisit the experience without the benefit of adrenaline; the delayed stress likely to create reactions anywhere on a sliding scale from the shakes to outright vomiting.

But now - sitting alone, in a featureless room on a hard chair - now, instead of being crippled by fear, he simmered with a righteous rage, which would erupt just as soon as these bastards took the damned gag out of his mouth.

Blair had suffered a nightmare journey after being put in the back of the white van. The hood his captors had put over his head, combined with the gag between his lips, had made breathing a frightening chore. Terrified and desperate for more air, it had been all he could do to hold himself together and stay conscious.

Once he had gotten over his initial panic and realized he was not going to suffocate, Sandburg had attempted to get his head together and focus on listening to the men who had taken him, to gain some clue as to who they were and what this was all about.

It had been a totally fruitless endeavor. They weren't talking - about anything.

Blair had been made to lie face down on the floor of the van, his hands secured behind him. When after a while he had stirred to ease the aches and cramps engendered by this uncomfortable position, a foot had landed in the small of his back and pressed. Okay, moving was not allowed. He got the picture.

The journey felt like it had gone on forever, although sense-deprived as he was, Blair found it difficult to estimate with any accuracy how much time had actually elapsed. He found himself noticing differences in road texture as they traveled, and tried to take note of the changes, remembering stories of kidnap victims he had heard who had traced the route they had been taken in just that way.

For a long time the ride had been smooth and uninterrupted, as though they were traveling fast on a freeway. They appeared to turn off, and this new road had sharp bends that threatened to roll him around; which he would have done but for the increased pressure of the foot on his back keeping him still. Another turn, and the next road was bumpier, the velocity of the van not seeming to be so great.

More twists and turns ensued, and Blair began to lose the thread. The painful bouncing of the van as it went over ruts, the discomfort of the cold metal floor he was pressed against, and the sweat that he could feel trickling over his face and neck in the stifling hood, began to dominate his attention. Trying to ease the pain in his neck from holding his head to one side for so long, he squirmed uncomfortably, only to feel the heel of the foot on his back press down sharply, just to the point of pain, and he subsided.

That small example of casual, unnecessary brutality had been the point when his emotions had made the transition from petrified to totally pissed-off.

Finally, the van had slowed and come to a standstill, and Blair had been hauled up and out, like a piece of livestock. Stumbling blindly between two of his kidnappers, he had eventually been brought in here and made to sit. To his tremendous relief, the hood had been removed; but not, unfortunately, the gag and the restraints binding his hands. Then they had left the room.

And here he had waited. For what felt like an eternity.

As the sweat cooled on his face, Blair shivered. He glanced around the room again, feeling a little disoriented now he could finally see again. Which was no doubt what they had intended.

A too-bright electric light lit what appeared to be a small, windowless, cell-like room. The chair he was on was the only furniture. Craning his neck behind him, he could see a spy-hole in the metal door. He was about to get up out of the chair to explore further, when the door opened.

Half-expecting it to be Brackett, he was surprised when he didn't recognize the man who breezed in, demanding with an unmistakable air of authority to the lackeys accompanying him that Blair's gag and restraints be removed.

The moment he was freed, Blair exploded. "What the hell is going on?" he croaked, his dry mouth coarsening the words. "Who are you people?" He made to rise, but a hand landed on each shoulder, pushing him back into the chair, as the two lackeys moved to flank him. Rubbing his sore wrists, he settled down, glaring angrily.

The man who appeared to be in charge watched him with measuring eyes; apparently unruffled by Sandburg's hostility. "We are the good guys, Mister Sandburg. That's really all you should be concerned with."

Not Brackett then, unless this guy was lying. "CIA?" Blair challenged.

The man smiled coldly. "I am actually a Federal Agent. I'm part of a multi-agency taskforce, yes, including the CIA, but also a number of others."

Resentment in every word, Blair asked, "Do you have a name?"

The guy pulled a wallet from his pocket and held it up in front of Blair. "Special Agent Tom Dryden."

Blair would have to take his word for it - he couldn't read it clearly without his glasses, which he had lost during the scuffle. Affecting to look anyway, he said, "So why have you brought me here?"

The wallet was folded and put back. Dryden motioned to the two suits to let go of Blair, and they stood back; no doubt ready to intervene again should Sandburg do anything they didn't like. "We had no choice, Mister Sandburg. Your amateur sleuthing was beginning to make noise in all the wrong places. As it is, you may have put our whole operation in jeopardy, as well as endangering the life of Detective Ellison."

Oh god. "Where is he?" Blair demanded.

"Not far from here, as it happens. We have Brackett under surveillance. We've been watching him for some time now. About three months, to be more exact."

So Kelso's intelligence had been wrong. These people - assuming they were the same people Kelso had mentioned - hadn't lost Brackett after all. "Is Jim all right?"

"Well," Dryden said conversationally, "Apart from the fact that Brackett has been experimenting on him like a lab animal, using your thesis as his source of ideas for torture, I guess he's pretty much doing all right. For a sentinel being bombarded by daily sensory overload, that is."

The flush of anger drained out of Sandburg's face. Trying to process the horror loaded into Dryden's statement, Blair suddenly felt like he couldn't breathe.

Then he was abruptly grabbed and hoisted aloft. Underneath his neat suit, the Fed was all muscle. The chair clattered out of the way, and Dryden slammed Sandburg into the wall, his face inches from Blair's.

"Did you really believe," he snarled, "that Ellison being a sentinel was a secret?" Dryden's face was twisted with contempt. "We select few," he went on, "have known about Ellison's sensory abilities since Peru. This task-force was formed to keep an eye on him, on his career, and to keep the knowledge that he was a sentinel under wraps. Eventually, when the need arose, he would have been called on to do his duty, to use his abilities to serve this country. As an ex-Ranger and covert operative, he would have understood that."

He shook Blair a little. "You think that Brackett kept his mouth shut about Ellison being a sentinel while he was in prison? Man, he made enough noise to wake the dead, but we kept it contained, under wraps. The secret of Jim Ellison's sentinel abilities was safe, restricted to those who wouldn't abuse that knowledge. But do you know what the crunch was? What went wrong?" He shook Blair again. "Do you? Huh?"

Blair just looked back in shock, breathing harshly.

"You went wrong, Sandburg. You made your research public. You told the world Ellison was a sentinel. You think your little declaration of fraud was enough to put it right?" He laughed mirthlessly, shaking his head. "Not a chance. The damage was done."

He shook Blair again, like a dog with a bone. "Because of you, Sandburg, there are people here and abroad who now know that sentinels exist today, and not just in pre-history. Not all of those people have this country's best interests at heart, and some have exactly the opposite. One of them, someone in an extremely influential position, helped Brackett get out of jail, because that person would like to get a brand-new sentinel of his very own, and he saw Brackett as the man to help him get it.

"So your friend Jim," he made the word an insult, "is being put out to stud to supply him. And the lucky mare is Alex Barnes." He grinned, letting go of Blair, and wiping his hands on his own lapels as if touching Blair had left a distasteful residue. "Congratulations. Your carelessness has helped Brackett to start his own sentinel breeding program. Because it won't stop with one baby sentinel. Oh no. Brackett fully intends to keep 'em coming, so he can sell them to the highest bidder."

Blair was speechless with horror. He barely registered Dryden's next words. "Our biggest mistake was allowing you to continue to work with Ellison. You should have been warned off long ago. Any one of us in the task force could have taught him what he needed to know to control his senses. Instead we let a wannabe hippy freak, whose idea of secrecy is jerking off in the shower, guide Ellison."

He backed towards the door. "Have a nice day."

Blair slumped back against the wall. He didn't register Dryden and the others leaving, or the door clanging shut behind them. Slowly he slid to the floor and dropped his head in shaking hands.

***

As Brackett walked along the corridor, he pondered the current status of the operation.

After studying Sandburg's comments in the dissertation on the primal sexual attraction between the two sentinels, Brackett had considered forcing them to mate like the animals they were. But since acquiring Alex Barnes, that idea had gone out of the window.

The woman was seriously nuts. She wasn't, apparently, paralyzed, but never moved her body independently - aside from her lips as she rambled incessantly. She failed to respond to any direct sensory stimuli at all, as though her senses were so far out of her body that her flesh had no significance. She was doubly incontinent, and the Doc had resorted to tube-feeding her through her nose, as had been the case in Conover, because she was totally incapable of feeding herself.

All in all, a hell of a disappointment. And she would have been a fine-looking woman once, before her body went to seed.

Still, he mused, as he reached his destination, at least the contract stood. The Doc had reassured him that she was fertile and capable of carrying a child. They would just have to go down the artificial insemination route.

Using his key-card and punching in the code, he let himself into his other sentinel's cell.

The room was dimly lit and set at a constant balmy temperature, providing a low stimuli-environment. In the first few weeks, Brackett had kept Ellison in varying stages of discomfort, lowering his physical and emotional resistance as he explored the limits of his sensory abilities. But now that phase two was beginning, he wanted his sentinel in tip-top condition, and that included providing an environment where he could rest his overworked senses for part of the time.

The sentinel was lying on the hospital-type bed. He didn't stir but somehow Lee sensed he was awake.

Mindful of Sandburg's notes about two sentinels in close proximity, Brackett decided to test whether Ellison was aware of Barnes's presence in the building. "You feeling any urges to, uh, rearrange the furniture, Ellison? Or throw anything out of your cell?"

Ellison's voice was hoarse, as though he had a sore throat, or had been screaming. "I feel an urge to rearrange your face, Brackett," he rasped, "And throw your ass out of my cell."

"Cute." Brackett had heard worse threats from the guy. But they were just so much hot air. He stepped closer. "You're not looking so hot. Is something spiking? Touch, hearing, what?"

Ellison's expression was unreadable. "It's the metal. I think I have an allergy. How 'bout you take them off?"

Brackett glanced at the welded metal bands circling Ellison around both wrists, both ankles, waist, throat and brow. Chains led from them to heavy metal rings set in the frame of the bed, holding him completely immobile. Some might call it overkill, but Brackett believed in being cautious. Ellison was resourceful, and good at hand-to-hand, and though Lee was confident he could take him if he had to, especially in his current debilitated state, what was the point in taking the chance he might get loose? The sentinel was going to be here for a long time - probably the rest of his life - so it made sense to keep him secure at all times.

The allergic-to-metal gag was a tack Ellison had attempted before. "You running out of idea's, Jimbo? ‘Cause that was pretty lame."

Jim kept his gaze on the ceiling. "Can't blame a man for trying."

Brackett nodded. "Don't suppose I can." He decided to change the subject. If Ellison didn't want help with his sensory spikes, then so be it. "I came to tell you I have a few more tests for you. The orderlies will be by in a while to bring you to the lab."

"Oh joy." There was no hint of fear in Ellison's sarcastic retort.

Brackett put his hand on Ellison's arm, and he could feel the muscles bunch as the sentinel tried not to flinch. "See you later, Jim."

Ellison's tone didn't waver. "Looking forward to it."

Brackett exited the cell, and after a moment, Jim started to shake.

Outside the cell, Brackett watched Ellison lose it on the CCTV monitor. He smiled happily. These moments of surrender were what he lived for.

***

To say that Simon Banks was not a happy man was an understatement.

Upon getting back into the Major Crimes bullpen, he had been unable to adequately reflect on Chief Warren's edict, as all hell had broken loose. An ongoing corruption case of Brown and Rafe's had broken wide open, and he had spent the rest of the day in meetings with his detectives, the Mayor, the press, and everyone else who felt they had a stake in it.

It had been a hell of a day.

Now it was close to seven o'clock in the evening, and despite having been on duty for almost twelve hours, Simon's work wasn't even nearly over. Taking advantage of his first moment of peace since arriving in the bullpen that morning, Banks swallowed a couple of antacids, and sat down at his desk to investigate what other shit had hit the fan while he had been fully occupied with today's crisis.

As he thumbed through the pile of reports which had made a mountain in his in-tray, he belatedly remembered Sandburg's message. He thumbed on the intercom. "Rhonda?"

“Yes Captain?” His secretary sounded tired. It had been a difficult day for her too.

"Did Sandburg call back?"

“No, there was just the one call this morning. Do you want me to try and get hold of him?”

"No, that's all right. I'll do it. Listen," he said kindly. "Why don't you call it a day? I'll see you in the morning."

“I will. Thank you, sir.” There was relief in her voice. “I'll be in early to catch up.”

"Goodnight, Rhonda." As he switched off the intercom, Banks marveled at her conscientiousness. If ever she decided to leave Major Crimes, he was screwed. Then he turned his attention back to contacting Sandburg. Picking up the phone, he called the loft first, and when there was no answer, the university. When he tried Blair's cell, it was switched off.

Damn. He hoped Blair wasn't making himself incommunicado again. The kid had been seriously down after they had visited the Reillys; and ever since Jim's supposed death, avoidance had pretty much become a depressed Sandburg's modus operandi.

Well, he didn't have time to deal with it now. Sighing, Banks turned back to his paperwork.

***

Sandburg had no awareness of how much time had elapsed.

Since Dryden had dropped his devastating series of bombshells, the already shaken Blair had gone over the edge into pure shock. It was as if his mind had experienced a whiteout; the enormity of what needed to be processed beyond his ability to comprehend.

Finally his awareness had drifted back, and with it his wits. And now his ever-analytical brain began to put it all together.

Jim's hyperactive senses had never been a secret, and Blair - and Jim - had been naïve in the extreme to ever assume that they had. The government, and probably the military, had apparently staked a claim in Ellison long ago.

And now Jim was being tortured, with a bastardized version of tests that Blair himself had devised.

That was reason enough for guilt on its own. But despite agonizing over what Jim might be going through, Blair realized he didn't buy into the rest of the blame Dryden had heaped upon him. Blair had only ever acted in Jim's best interests, mistakes notwithstanding. There was no way he could have known the far-reaching consequences of his work being made public.

Consequences which apparently included the breeding of sentinels like animals, for the use of those who intended harm. A plan which included Alex Barnes and Jim being brought into contact once again; and Blair didn't want to think what effect her presence might be having on Jim in these circumstances.

Hugging self-righteousness to himself like a shield, Blair girded himself with hatred. Because for all that he had done, for all his mistakes and the consequences of his actions, what these people - this so-called 'task-force' - had done, was far, far worse.

They had stood by and watched, doing nothing, while Brackett had abducted and brutalized Jim.

And for that, he would never forgive them.

***

Later that night, James Ellison lay sleepless, unable to move from the spread-eagled position the manacles and chains held him in on the uncomfortable bed. His muscles - what was left of them - ached from being unable to shift position for so long, and so he breathed deeply, as Blair had taught him, attempting to control the discomfort by a combination of relaxation-meditation and dial manipulation.

He steadfastly refused to dwell on the latest torturous session he had endured earlier at Brackett's hands. The sick bastard was still keeping up the pretense of 'testing'; but Jim knew different. He could smell Brackett's excitement. The pervert was getting off on it.

The constant hiss of white noise masked any sound outside his cell; or so that smug bastard Brackett believed. Jim smiled grimly to himself. Brackett was using the knowledge in Blair's dissertation as though it was gospel. But as Ellison had once told Blair, the tests Sandburg had done had, in actuality, only scratched the surface of Jim's sensory abilities. Brackett had no idea what Jim was really capable of.

So now Jim extended his hearing outward, after first acknowledging and dismissing the white noise, which he had learned to filter out early in his captivity. He could hear Brackett talking on the phone. "It's not a problem," he was saying. "She doesn't need to be sane; in effect she's just a womb."

“The Senator doesn't like it,” the accented voice on the phone replied. “He wants to meet you face to face. There is a lot at stake."

"Okay, okay." Brackett's tone was conciliatory. "I'll get a flight tomorrow. But he really has nothing to worry about."

“He'll be the judge of that.” The phone went dead, and Brackett cursed under his breath. Then Jim heard the rustle of paper, sounding like pages turning, as Brackett presumably picked up something to read.

Good, thought Jim. It looks like Brackett will be going away for a while.

Shifting his hearing from Brackett, Jim listened until he reached another bubble of white noise. He pushed effortlessly through it.

"… fire in the earth, scorches my eyes, I taste it with my flesh, so hot, hot, hot, I hear the brightness… a hawk swoops, my talons devour eternity…"

The rambling voice of the mad sentinel moved Jim to intense pity. No matter what Alex had done, no one deserved this living hell. Jim shuddered. Only he knew how close he had been to joining Alex in her madness; how he had longed with every fiber of his being to crawl once more into the flotation tank in Sierra Verde to see the eye of God.

And now, Brackett intended for Alex's ravaged body to carry a child. His child.

Bereft of any hope for himself, living each day in pain, fear, rage and humiliation, Jim at long last felt peace and calmness wash over him as he made his decision, and accepted what he had to do.

He would find a way to die before he allowed Alex to be used in that way.

***

It was past ten o'clock when Simon Banks got home that night. He let himself into his house, and going straight to the kitchen, yawned widely as he opened the fridge, withdrawing a carton of milk.

He went to sit at the table, drinking from the carton as he perused the take-out menus. As he switched his attention from Chinese to Thai to pizza and back, he idly reflected that this ritual had become a regular part of his life. He couldn't remember the last time he had cooked a meal, but it must have been several months ago. Probably just after Jim's funeral, when he'd invited Sandburg round...

Sandburg! Simon lifted his eyes from the menu and groaned. With all that had happened today, he had forgotten about the kid and his impulsive trip to Conover. Then there was the Chief's embargo on further investigation of Jim's disappearance. Simon needed to bring Blair up to speed on that, so they could decide where to go from here.

He lifted the phone, and dialed the loft. After a few rings, the machine picked up, and Simon waited until the beep. "Sandburg, pick up the phone. Sandburg, damn it! Pick up! Okay," he sighed in exasperation, "call me as soon as you get in. No matter what time." He put the phone down, and tried Blair's cell. Still switched off. Finally, he dialed Blair's office number, but it just rang and rang.

Putting down the phone, Simon felt another headache building. He was tired and hungry, and still wound like a spring after his difficult day at the PD. He wanted nothing more than to put his feet up in front of the TV, eat his take out and down a few beers.

But the truth was, he was worried. He and Sandburg had been in almost daily contact since Blair had told him about Jim's abduction. And the kid hadn't called back, like he'd promised. Something about Blair's continued silence just didn't feel right.

"Sandburg, if you're just out with some girl, I'll kill you," he muttered, rising and reaching for his coat. He grabbed his car keys and headed out.

***

Finally, Blair couldn't take it any longer. He hammered on the door. "Hey! Hey out there! This comes under the definition of cruel and unusual, you know that? I need the john! Like right now! And I'm getting seriously close to just going in the corner here. Hey!"

To his surprise, the door opened, and he stepped back. "About time, man!" he said as two guys came in. "I mean, when a man's gotta go a man's…"

"Shut up." The first guy motioned to his compatriot, who moved forward and placed a metal bucket into Blair's hands. They both grinned, as though finding the situation hilariously funny; then they stepped out, pulling the door closed behind them. Blair could hear them laughing uproariously outside.

He looked down at the bucket in his hands. "Great," he said. "Just great."

***

Jim's truck - or, for the moment, Blair's - was parked in its usual place outside 852 Prospect. Putting a hand on it as he passed, Simon noted that the engine was cold. He glanced up at the balcony of Blair's third-floor apartment, registering that the lights were off.

Too wound up to wait for the elevator, Simon took the stairs two and sometimes three at a time. Arriving at apartment 307, he knocked loudly, and paused. Then knocked again.

At the lack of response, the scenarios going through his head were not pretty. He didn't think that Blair was suicidal, not really, especially now there was hope that Jim was alive; but the wrongness he felt made him consider it. Hell, that time Blair had done a runner after the dissertation fiasco, no one had seen the warning signs then either; not even Jim. The kid was a hell of an actor when he was depressed.

Deciding his worries justified any intrusion of privacy, Simon found the key that Jim had given him a while back and used it. He pushed open the door, and turned on the light. "Blair?"" he called? "Sandburg?"

Meeting only silence, Simon looked in every room. Sandburg wasn't there, and his bed was unmade. Jim's bed also had the cover thrown back, as though it had been slept in; but nothing else looked particularly out of place. Not that Simon would really be able to tell, he mused. Sandburg's idea of order did not necessarily equate with Simon's.

Going back into the kitchen, Banks noticed that the message light was flashing on the machine, so he pressed the 'play' button.

The first message was from the university. “Blair, this is Cheryl, Dr. Thomson's secretary. He asked me to call you at home since you're not in. I'm just calling to let you know that as you missed the meeting this morning, I'll e-mail the minutes to you. Hope you're okay. Bye.”

The next one was a different voice. “Hi Blair, this is Susan. I've had a few 101 students in to see me, saying you missed your class this morning. Hope everything is okay. Call me in the Department office when you can.”

Damn, this wasn't looking good. Blair took his teaching seriously; even more so since he had been reinstated. The next message started. Simon recognized the Head of Anthropology's voice - he had met him a while ago after the Ventris case. “Blair, this is Stanley. It's just after three-fifteen. I'm a little concerned that you haven't contacted us, and that you've missed three 101 lectures. If there is a problem, please let me know so we can arrange for someone else to take your classes. Call me as soon as you get this.”

The last two messages were from himself, so Simon skipped them.

The anxious feeling deep in his gut blossomed into a full-blown certainty that something bad had happened. God damn it, he thought, what the hell has Sandburg gotten himself into now?

***

Lying immobile in the middle of the night, there was little for Jim Ellison to do except think.

Now he had made up his mind, his dilemma was simple. How could he possibly kill himself, when he couldn't even scratch his own nose? They didn't even let him get up to relieve himself; instead keeping him in godawful adult diapers. The so-called 'orderlies' - just another name for sadistic thugs in this case - cleaned him and fed him, no doubt increasing the kick Brackett got out of his continued humiliation.

So what means was left to him to end his own life?

It was strange, he considered. Thinking about actually being dead didn't bother him at all. He knew from what he'd heard that Brackett intended to keep him this way for a long time, and that was much harder for him to handle than the thought of dying.

It would be a relief to end this torment; the endless close confinement, and the ever-present stomach-churning anticipation of agony. Jim knew that he was a strong guy, able to withstand a lot; otherwise he would have never made it in the Rangers or some of the situations he had found himself in as a cop. But recently the awareness had been growing in him that he was reaching the end of his endurance. And he really didn't want Brackett to have the satisfaction of seeing him break.

Jim knew that Blair and Simon believed him dead - hell, Brackett had enjoyed tremendously telling him all about it, about their reactions; their grief. He knew that no one was going to come looking for him, and had buried his desperate hope for that kind of miracle long ago. In fact, he was glad that they had no idea he was still alive - he wanted both Blair and Simon as far away from Brackett's clutches as he could get them.

So, deeply though he regretted never seeing the people he cared about again, he knew dying was for the best. But how the hell was he going to do it?

Still considering the problem, Jim eventually drifted off to sleep.

***

Damn, but this floor was hard. And cold.

Blair had finally succumbed to exhaustion, and decided to try and get some shut-eye. Although it was impossible to tell the time of day in this windowless room, he estimated he had been a captive for several hours, and that it was probably now late at night.

Shifting again on the hard floor, he wondered, not for the first time, if these guys had ever heard of the Geneva Convention. Or basic human rights, like the right to water and food, neither of which had been supplied, despite his noisy protests.

They hadn't even allowed him a blanket. And man, but this floor was cold.

Oh well, Blair, he told himself. Look on the bright side. At least you got a bucket to piss in.

***

When morning came, with still no sign of Blair, Simon began to feel desperate.

He had spent a restless night at the loft, wrapped in a blanket on the couch; hoping against hope that Blair would walk in at any moment, having been simply on a date which had blinded him to his responsibilities.

At seven-thirty a.m., Simon rang Rhonda to say he would be in late, and went home briefly to shower and change. Then he headed up to the university.

Rainier was quiet at this time in the morning; but the office staff had started work, even if most of the students hadn't dragged themselves in yet. The Anthropology Office was a bustling hive of activity while the post was being sorted. Catching the eye of one of the secretaries, Simon pulled out his badge.

"Captain Simon Banks, Cascade PD. Can I have a word?"

The young woman looked a bit harried, but was polite enough. "Yes sir, what can I do to help?"

"I'm trying to locate one of your teaching assistants. Can you tell me if you've had any messages this morning or yesterday from Blair Sandburg?"

She frowned. This was obviously a sore point. "He's a Teaching Fellow, not a TA, actually. And no, we haven't heard from him - he didn't come in yesterday. I've had to arrange substitutes to teach his classes, which isn't easy as everyone already has a full load right now." Her tone was disapproving, and she appeared to be looking to Simon for sympathy. "The Head of Department is very disappointed in him, actually, and not for the first time. Is Blair wanted by the police? Has he done something wrong?"

Good grief. Maintaining his professional face with an effort, Simon said, "No, ma'am, he hasn't done anything wrong. But he is missing, and I'm concerned for his safety."

"Oh my." Her demeanor had done a rapid u-turn. Maybe she was just harassed after all, instead of simply malicious. Simon found himself reflecting on how lucky he was to have Rhonda. "Poor Blair. I hope he's okay. Is there anything I can do to help?"

Simon smiled his most ingratiating smile. "Thank you. As a matter of fact there is." He handed her his card. "Please inform your colleagues here and the academic staff that Mister Sandburg is missing. If anyone hears from him, I want to know about it, at any time of night or day. And perhaps you would be so kind as to let me into his office?"

That smile worked every time. With everyone except his ex-wife, of course. "No problem, Captain Banks," the now more-than-cooperative secretary replied, in what could only be described as a simpering tone. "Please, follow me."

***

Blair didn't feel as though his eyes had been closed for more than a few moments, when he was unceremoniously prodded awake. Two shadowy forms were looming over him, silhouetted in the bright electric light.

"Get up." A foot prodded him again, and Blair laboriously pushed himself upright. The cold of the floor had seeped into his joints, and he was still half-asleep, or he would not have tolerated the jerk's shoe in his side without a smart comment at the very least.

Once he was standing, the goons took hold of him, an arm each, and marched him through the open door into a corridor. "Hey!" he protested. "Hey man, where are we going?"

They ignored him, and trying to get his act together, Blair turned his attention to his surroundings. The corridor was featureless, sterile, with pipes running along the ceiling. It reminded him of an industrial factory building; the pale-green paint job also reminiscent of a military facility or a hospital.

It gave him the creeps.

Finally they arrived at a door, and one of the men knocked. A voice called "Enter," from within, and as the door was opened, Blair was shoved into the room.

***

An examination of Blair's office revealed nothing, confirming to Simon only that the anthropologist was as untidy here as he was at home. Shaking his head, Simon reflected that if Blair's office had been tossed, the only person who would be able to tell would be Sandburg himself.

The Department of Political Science, which like the Departments of Anthropology and Sociology was also situated in Hargrove Hall, was Simon's next port of call. Knowing where Jack Kelso's office was from a previous visit (made coincidentally the last time Jim had gone missing), Simon lifted a hand to knock.

A voice coming from behind halted him. "Can I help you?" The speaker was a middle-aged man whose appearance screamed 'professor', with his wild white hair and ancient tweed jacket. Absently Simon thought Sandburg would probably look like this in a few years.

"I'm looking for Jack Kelso. Is this still his office?"

The man stepped closer. He looked a little wary. "And you are?"

Simon fished out his badge. "Captain Simon Banks, Cascade PD."

The mad professor, as Simon couldn't help but think of him, fished a pair of half-moon glasses out of his pocket, and squinted hard at the badge. "Captain Banks." He looked back at Simon and stuck out a hand. "I'm Terry Sherlock, Head of Political Science," he said as they shook. "It is Jack's office, but I'm afraid he isn't in."

"Oh?"

Sherlock shook his head. "No, he left a message yesterday that something had come up, and that he would be out of touch for a while."

"Do you know where I might reach him?"

The professor bit his lip for a second thoughtfully. Then apparently making up his mind to confide in Banks, he said, "He didn't leave any contact details. To tell you the truth, Captain, I'm a little worried. It's no secret that Jack was involved in some, shall we say, sensitive activities. Quite frankly, he's never gone off like this before. I'm afraid he may not have left of his own free will."

Simon wondered if all social scientists were conspiracy theorists. The sad fact was, he thought wryly, he was turning into one himself. "I'll look into it, Professor Sherlock. And I'll let you know if I find anything out."

They swapped contact details, and Simon headed down to his car.

Once he was sitting behind the wheel of his car in the parking lot, Simon pulled out a cigar and lit it. As he took a deep breath and exhaled the smoke, he considered where he should go from here.

Banks was certain that the three disappearances - Jim, Blair and now Jack Kelso - were linked. Having no choice but to obey Chief Warren's explicit order that he cease to investigate Jim's case further (and therefore, by extension, Sandburg's and Kelso's also), he had one more thing to do before going into the PD. He would pass the case on to someone who wasn't presently under his command. Someone who, to all intents and purposes, was currently not working for Cascade PD.

Making up his mind, his resolve firm, he started the car, and headed out towards Joel Taggart's house.

***

Jim endured the morning ablutions inflicted on him by the orderlies with such an air of calm acceptance it made them nervous.

"What's with you today? Hey, I'm talking to you, sentinel-man!" The guy accompanied his words with a sharp pinch, but Jim didn't even flinch. His dials were usually all over the place during this ordeal, but today he had achieved control like he hadn't experienced since being around Blair; and he had managed to get the touch dial right down.

Muttering threats and insults, the two orderlies were rougher than usual, trying in vain to force a reaction. And finally, they left without feeding him, as an extra punishment for his lack of response.

But he didn't care. Dead men didn't need food. And soon, very soon, Jim would be dead. He smiled to himself. No one would be able to brutalize or humiliate him ever again.

For it had come to him in the darkest hours of the night: the means of bringing about his own demise. And now he knew exactly what to do.

He might be defenseless and unable to move, but the one thing he did have at his disposal was the incredible control of autonomic responses that went along with being a sentinel. He already used dials to control pain, and to increase or reduce the acuity of his senses. All he had to do, therefore, was visualize one more dial, and turn it down all the way to zero.

A dial for his heartbeat.

Jim took in a deep breath, and slowly let it out, allowing fatigue to wash over him. He was so tired. But soon he would be able to rest for eternity.

Just as soon as Brackett left to get on his flight.

***

The guy oozed sincerity, but Blair wasn't buying. He had seen enough good-cop bad-cop scenarios that he knew exactly how he was being played; and these guys weren't even good at it. Sheesh, and they thought he was the amateur.

When Blair had first been pushed into this room, Greg Kovach, CIA spook and member of the 'task force', had been all obsequious apology. He had placed a hot mug of coffee in Blair's cold hands, and promised that a comfortable room with en-suite facilities awaited him, as well as food. Just as soon as they had a little chat.

Yeah, right.

Now, seated at a desk, face affecting an expression of contrite sympathy for his shivering, unwashed, unshaved, unfed 'guest' Kovach proceeded to blame all of Sandburg's recent woes on Dryden.

"I'm so sorry about the shameful way you have been treated, Mister Sandburg. Blair. May I call you Blair?"

Blair just glared, and taking his silence as tacit permission, Kovach continued. "Agent Dryden had no right to treat you as he did. His orders were to bring you here into protective custody, and I've been made aware he overstepped himself. I would like to stress, Blair, that you are not a prisoner."

"Fine." Blair rose, and put the untouched mug on the desk between them. "I'm leaving then." He turned and strode to the door.

Predictably, the suited guy standing guard failed to move, and Blair ended up staring at his chest from a distance of inches as he was forced to pull up short. Why were these guys so damn tall, he thought irritably?

Behind him, Kovach said, "Let me clarify, Blair. While you are not a prisoner, you are in protective custody. For your own safety, as well as to ensure the success of this operation. Please, come back and sit down."

Sure, thought Blair. 'Protective custody' my ass. Resigned to the fact that there was no way he was getting out of here just yet, Sandburg realized he had no alternative but to play along. Forcing himself to stay calm, he turned around and went to sit back down, carefully keeping resentment out of his expression.

Kovach smiled, reminding Blair of a salesman he once bought a car off. That guy had been a shark as well. "Blair," Kovach said, leaning forward earnestly, "What I am about to say to you is top secret. I must have your word that it won't go any further." When Blair didn't answer, Kovach went on, "I understand you are having difficulty trusting me right now, but this information affects national security at the highest level. What I tell you must not leave this room."

The king of obfuscation mentally stepped forward. "Okay. I give you my word." But only so far as it doesn't hurt Jim, Blair silently finished.

Seemingly satisfied, Kovach took a deep breath and began.

***

Simon had just gotten off the phone when he became aware of a ruckus in the bullpen. Peering out through his blinds, he saw Joel Taggart surrounded by Brown, Rafe, Dills and a flock of other former co-workers.

"Well, well, Mister Taggart, nice of you to drop by," Simon said jovially, joining them. "We were beginning to think you had forgotten where we were."

"Hell, Simon, when you came by to cheer me up this morning, I realized how much I missed Brown's ugly face," Joel replied, playing along with the fictional reason for their earlier contact, and his visit now. Simon couldn't see how they could be eavesdropped on inside the station, but they were not taking any more chances. "And it's still Captain Taggart, least until I get my retirement benefits!"

Taggart and the others bantered back and forth for a while, then Joel turned to Banks. "I'm going to get some lunch, Simon. Care to join me?"

Simon looked at his watch. "One-thirty. I guess I could eat. Lead on, Captain." Joel made his farewells to the others, promising to come to the next poker game at Rafe's, and the two men exited the bullpen.

They would eat. And they would talk about whatever it was that Joel had discovered.

***

As Kovach had promised, a room equipped with its own shower, as well as a hot meal, awaited Blair. But as he toweled off his hair and pondered what he had heard, he found his appetite was non-existent, despite the fact he had not eaten for over twenty-four hours.

Blair felt as though somewhere along the way he had stepped into the Twilight Zone.

Kovach had confirmed what Dryden had intimated yesterday, that the so-called Guardian Task Force had been set up after James Ellison's rescue from the Peruvian rainforest, to monitor his development as a sentinel; until the time came that he would be called back to active duty.

The members of 'Guardian' were drawn from the military, various government agencies including the CIA, FBI, NSA and several others (some of which Blair had never even heard of). The academic background of the members of the group ranged from psychology, psychiatry and various medical specialties; through to sociology, anthropology, law and military strategy.

The rationale for such a broad range of expertise was to conduct a multi-disciplinary study of sentinels, so that a concise body of knowledge could be established.

Blair could understand this approach - in effect he had tried to amalgamate many of those same areas in his own research - so the academic in him could appreciate the methodology.

But the friend and human being in him shuddered with horror at the thought that for all this time, these people had been dispassionately devoting their attention to Jim and his gift; observing so covertly that not even Jim with his sentinel senses and covert ops training had suspected it. There was no telling how ingrained in his friend's life the surveillance had been.

And Blair didn't trust their motives as far as he could throw them.

Those revelations had been the tip of the iceberg. Kovach had next attempted to justify sitting back and watching Jim's torment at Brackett's hands, and it had been all Sandburg could do to keep his white-hot rage contained.

"This Brackett thing is bigger than you can possibly guess, Blair, and it goes right to the very top. We know that someone with power and influence, someone very close to the President, commissioned Brackett to run the sentinel breeding program. But we don't know who that person is.

"What we do know, from intelligence we have gathered, is that this person has far wider-reaching aims than the breeding program. I can't go into detail, but I can tell you we are talking treason. We are talking terrorism and a threat to national security, unlike any this country has ever faced. And it is all centered around this one, very powerful person.

"In the face of that threat, the task force has changed its focus. We are now engaged in using our specialist knowledge about sentinels to work with those who are bringing the traitor down. I'm afraid that Detective Ellison's suffering is a necessary evil, and an integral part of that goal. We believe our man is coming here soon, to inspect Brackett's facility in person. And then this will all be over; and we will bring Ellison in."

'Necessary evil'? It had taken a titanic effort of will for Blair not to smash the bastard's face in. No reason was good enough to justify what they had allowed to happen to Jim.

Considering how he felt, he had been amazed at how calm he had managed to sound. "So why are you telling me this?" he had asked. "Dryden said I was picked up because I wasn't discreet enough, and that I was putting your operation in jeopardy. But you could have locked me away somewhere and thrown away the key, or had me killed, whatever. You didn't have to tell me all of this. What is it you want from me?"

Kovach had pursed his lips and steepled his fingers, as though considering how to answer. Then he had said, "You're here, Blair, for the same reason you have been allowed to continue working with Ellison for all these years. Because we believe you are special, and that your presence is necessary for Detective Ellison to function effectively as a sentinel. In short, we believe you are Ellison's 'guide'."

There it was again, that word 'guide', the term Brackett had used to describe Blair during the nerve-gas case. And with it, a light bulb went on in Blair's head. "Brackett was one of you! He was a part of this task force, studying sentinels, wasn't he? Before he went rogue?"

Blair had obviously hit a nerve. Kovach had smiled coldly, suddenly formal. "Very good, Mister Sandburg. I see your reputation as a quick thinker is deserved."

Blair was not put off by Kovach's change of attitude. "So, what was his specialty? I mean, you're all here because you have knowledge useful to the program, right? What's Brackett's background?"

Kovach's answer had chilled Blair to the bone. "Brackett's doctorate is in Psychology. He was brought into the task force because of his expertise in the treatment of PTSD. His doctoral thesis was on the effects of long-term torture on POWs."

Now, as he pulled back his wet hair into a tight ponytail, in the three-star cell he had been locked in, Kovach's words echoed once again in Blair's head. And he barely made it to the john before throwing up the bile burning in his stomach.

***

Agony. Nothing else existed. If he had a voice left to scream with, he couldn't hear it. Because all he knew was pain. He was pain.

After an eternity, it ended. "Good," came the voice. The hated voice; the feared voice. "That went well. Now, we'll try hearing."

The cacophony began. But at last this final torment was too much for his exhausted mind and body to take, and mercifully he spiraled over the edge into oblivion.

***

Joel Taggart was a man of many surprises.

"I contacted an old buddy of mine I knew in my bomb disposal unit in the marines. Man, we were a tight unit; and him and me, we saved each other's asses more times than I can count. We're still close. He was my best man; I'm his kid's godfather. That kind of thing. We have a special kind of bond, you know?"

"Yep." Banks nodded his understanding, being no stranger to such profound friendships. "I know."

Joel stared off into space a second, then looked back at Simon. "He's in D.C. now, working for the government. He's well connected; helped me out a time or two, when I've gone looking for information about advances in explosive technology. Always came through for me, no matter what."

Joel's tone did not fill Simon with encouragement. "I'm guessing here that this isn't good news."

Joel was shaking his head, looking as unhappy as Simon had ever seen him. "I was only off the phone with him for an hour, when he called me back. 'Joel', he said to me, 'I'm warning you to leave this alone. You have no idea what you're getting into'. I asked him to be more specific, and you know what he said? 'If you keep on with this, you are signing your death warrant, those of your PD buddies, as well as mine. And as well as that, you're messing with issues of national security bigger than you can ever imagine.' And then he hung up on me."

"God." Simon put his head in his hands for a second, then looked back at Joel despairingly. "What the hell are we gonna do?"

"Simon, I don't like this any more than you do," Joel said earnestly. "But I trust my buddy. If he says it's that big, then it's that big. I'm sorry, man. I want Blair and Jim back as much as you do; but I think we're in way over our heads on this one. I think we have to leave it alone."

Grudgingly, Simon had to acknowledge that Joel might be right.

***

There was one thing Blair was sure about. If their roles had been reversed, there was no way Ellison would sit back and do nothing while Blair was in the hands of a sadistic psycho like Brackett. So left with little else to do, Sandburg spent the afternoon wracking his brain to come up with a way to get close to Jim.

Then, as he pondered for the umpteenth time how he could find out exactly where the sentinel was being held, his door opened. The same two suits who had guarded him last night came in and motioned him to get up. "Come with us."

"Where to, man?" Blair was getting really tired of being pushed around.

"No questions. Just do as I say."

Resistance, he realized, was futile. Oh god, he was quoting from Star Trek now. He was definitely losing his mind. Mind you, it wasn't surprising; these two had about as much personality as the Borg.

"Come on! Get going!" He was obviously not moving quick enough to satisfy them, as the two goons grabbed him by the arms and hauled him along.

Man, this was getting old.

***

A deep breath in through the nose, hold it; a long exhale through the mouth. Again. And again. Now, start at the feet. Tense each one, then relax it. And again. Breathe, in, out, and again. Now the calf muscles, tense, hold it, relax…

The breathing exercises and the relaxation meditation Blair had taught him never failed to work. It kept him focused; kept him sane.

Breathe in, hold it, and out.

Blair.

His breath hitched.

I'm sorry, buddy. I tried to keep going, but I know you'd understand.

I can't let Brackett do this to me. To Alex.

To my children.

Breathe in, hold it, and out. And again. Now the thighs...

***

This room reminded Blair of the interrogation rooms at the station. He would have laid money on one of these featureless walls being a one-way observation window.

Borg-number-one was standing behind Blair, flanking the door. Blair drummed his fingers on the table impatiently, then forced himself to stillness. With all the psychologists in this place, he thought, he ought to be careful about his body language. Consciously he made himself relax, adopting a posture that he hoped suggested confidence and a willingness to cooperate. But inside he felt as wound as a spring.

He heard the door open, and two men moved around him, pulling out chairs to sit at the table across from him.

Kovach and Dryden. Okay, thought Blair, here we go again with the good-cop bad-cop gig.

Kovach got the ball rolling. "I hope you are feeling a little better, Blair. Are the accommodations satisfactory?"

"Fine. Just fine. Look," Blair included both of them in his gaze, "Can we just cut the crap and get to the point? What is it you guys want from me?"

Kovach glanced at Dryden, who was glaring unblinkingly at Blair; then back again. The CIA operative smiled. "Very well," he said. "You want me to be frank, so I will. We want you to infiltrate Brackett's facility, do some recon, and get a message to Ellison."

Whoa. This was the last thing he had imagined.

Taking advantage of Blair being momentarily off-balance, bad-cop leapt into the fray. "Personally, Sandburg, I don't agree with this. There is no way you can carry it off. But unfortunately I've been over-ruled. Luckily, as far as I'm concerned, you're expendable."

Ignoring him, Blair fixed his attention on Kovach. "Let me get this straight - you want me to get in to see Jim? Why? Why me?"

"This goes back to what I mentioned earlier. You are Ellison's guide." Beside him, Dryden snorted, but Kovach carried on, ignoring him. "Many of us in the task force believe that your meeting with Ellison, and later with Alex Barnes, was no accident. There is something unique about you, something we are yet to quantify, which calls to sentinels. The reason your partnership was allowed to continue was so we could observe a sentinel/guide pair, who had been drawn together naturally, in action in the field."

This was beginning to sound totally off the wall. Apparently, Dryden agreed with Blair's assessment, because he was shaking his head in denial as Kovach spoke.

Aware of his colleague's obvious lack of agreement, Kovach smiled. "Not everyone is convinced. Agent Dryden here, in fact is a dissenter. He has yet to be persuaded that there is such a thing as a genetically suitable 'guide', who is every bit as unique as a sentinel. He prefers the theory that a sentinel can be guided by anyone with the correct knowledge."

Actually, Blair was of that mind himself; although Jim had insisted his sensory awareness of Blair was different than it was with everybody else. But he definitely was not going to share that tidbit with these sharks.

"But," he said cautiously, "I still don't see why you want me to get in to see Jim. I mean, I'm an anthropologist! I'm not one of you covert ops guys. I'm not even a cop!"

"On the contrary, Blair," Kovach contradicted, "You are uniquely suited to this mission. Because even if you are unable to get close enough to Ellison to speak with him, we believe you will be able to pass him some kind of message - some sensory information unique to his guide - that he will understand as being solely from you. Something carrying your scent perhaps, or a visual clue, that Brackett and his staff will be unable to perceive."

"But why? Why get a message to him? Why not just get him outta there?"

"Because his continued presence is necessary for a little while longer. All the indications are that the man we want is getting worried about the viability of the breeding program. We believe he will visit soon; then we will apprehend him, and this whole thing will be over. But if Ellison is rescued before then, we will lose him."

Dryden spoke up. "What's the matter, Sandburg? Don't you wanna do it? Your so-called friend has been put through three months of torture. He's in pretty bad shape by now, so I think he deserves a little something to give him hope. What's the matter? You too much of a coward to go help him out?"

Blair was instantly on his feet. "You told me he was all right, dammit!"

Dryden sprang up also. "I believe I qualified that statement," he sneered. "I said he was all right considering what he's been put through."

"You bastard...!" Blair made as if to move towards Dryden, but a firm hand on his arm stopped him. Borg-one had come over and got a grip.

Which was exactly what he needed to do, he realized in a moment of clarity. He was falling right into their hands. And he had a chance here to do exactly what he wanted - to get Jim out of there. He couldn't afford to blow it, not when these guys were currently holding all the aces.

Kovach was talking again; good-cop 'I'm-your-best-friend' jabbering. "Please, Blair. Sit down. I apologize for my colleague's attitude. We'll work this out." Taking a deep breath, Blair complied. After a moment, Borg-one let him go, and Blair rubbed at the place his hand had been.

I am calm, he told himself sternly. I am calm.

Keeping up his internal mantra, he asked with forced patience "You never answered my question. Why a message? What is it you want me to say?"

"Simply this - we want Ellison alerted to the fact that Brackett's boss will be visiting the facility soon. In the event that anything goes wrong, such as if we arrive too late to apprehend him, we want Ellison to use his senses to try and ascertain his identity."

What a cold bastard. These guys were not prepared to help Jim, but they wanted him to help them.

Swallowing his desire to punch Kovach out, Blair forced himself to voice his misgivings. While he desperately wanted to get to Jim, there were vital practicalities to consider. "Brackett knows me," he said. "I mean, with anyone else, I could maybe pass myself off as, I don't know, somebody who has a right to be there. But what if Brackett sees me?"

Kovach shook his head. "He won't. He's leaving the facility later today for a period of several hours, which is why this has to happen tonight. There will be a short window of opportunity once he has gone, when we will be able to temporarily disable his security system, allowing you to slip into the building. You will have one hour to get in, communicate with Ellison, ascertain certain information we need about the layout of the building, and get out again."

"One hour isn't very long, man."

"It's all you'll have, so you will need to make it count. And you must not miss the deadline. You stay there even one second beyond the hour, and the security system will be back on-line. There will be nothing we can do for you."

"What if I'm caught? I mean, you're sending me in there with enough knowledge to blow your entire operation."

"From what I know about you, Blair, I believe you are very resourceful. In that eventuality, I believe you would find a way to protect our secrets. After all, if Brackett learns his plans are about to be destroyed, he will have no reason to keep Ellison alive. Your friend's continued survival should be a good enough motivating factor for you not to betray us."

Son of a bitch.

Predictably, Dryden couldn't resist his pound of flesh. "If you do this and you mess it up, Sandburg, and if there is anything left after Brackett has finished with you, I'll find you myself; and then you'll understand the true meaning of misery."

Yeah, whatever. Blair fixed his gaze on Kovach. "I'll do it," he said.

Kovach looked satisfied. "Good. But remember, you are going in to get a message to Ellison, not rescue him. You could ruin this operation very easily, wasting months of surveillance and intelligence gathering, and all of Jim Ellison's suffering. We will get him out of there soon enough. But that is not your job."

"I understand," Blair stated. But at the same time, a cold satisfaction infused him. Because if these people really thought he was going to leave Jim in Brackett's clutches for one more second, they were even more stupid than they appeared.

Screw their operation.

***

The meditation had relaxed Jim to a degree he had not experienced since before losing his liberty. Now he listened past the white noise to Brackett preparing to leave.

“I want him checked periodically, but other than that, leave him alone. And as for the Barnes woman, keep on doing what you're doing, with the vitamin regime and the folic acid. And for Christ sakes, tidy her up. If and when we are inspected, I want her to look less like a nutcase, even if we can't make her sound like one.”

“Yes, sir.” The doctor's voice. A guy the Nazis would have been proud to call their own.

“I should be back tomorrow morning."

Jim smiled serenely. I won't be here, he thought.

***

There hadn't been much time to prepare. Apparently word had come in that Brackett's planned trip was imminent, and Blair had been forced to hustle so that the window of opportunity, when Brackett's security equipment would develop a 'malfunction', wouldn't be missed.

Now a short while later, hidden in a shady area in the grounds, Blair's two current 'handlers' (AKA two more incarnations of the Borg-Brothers), watched Brackett's facility through binoculars, listening to auditory intelligence and instructions on their earpieces, while Blair crouched between them like a spare part and waited for the order to go in.

This close to his heart's desire - seeing Jim alive - Blair vibrated like a greyhound in a trap. He wiped his clammy hands on his legs and tried to regulate his breathing.

"Copy that," Borg-two muttered into his mouthpiece, breaking the uneasy silence.

"What?" asked Blair, and the guy nodded towards the building. "He's moving out. Won't be long, now."

It certainly seemed long to a wired Blair, whose heart had begun to pound in anticipation of his move. At last, a car door could be heard to slam from the direction they were watching, and shortly afterward the engine started, the tone changing as the car moved off towards their position. Finally, the car accelerated past, and Blair listened as it sped off; the sound of it eventually dying away in the distance.

About five minutes - or an eternity - later, Borg-one muttered, "Copy." A hand fell on Blair's shoulder. "You're in. Good luck."

"Thanks." Taking a deep breath, Blair rose, and keeping to the shadows, headed towards the building.

Towards Jim.

And he silently vowed to get Jim out, or die trying.

***

Jim waited until he heard Brackett's car fade off into the distance. Then he closed his eyes.

Deep breath, hold it, let it out. And again.

Picture a dial.

Strange, he mused with a rush of wistful affection, that the voice in his head was always Blair's.

Ah, there it is. Easy does it, bring the dial down. Ten... nine...

Another deep breath, hold it, let it out.

Eight... seven... six...

Breathe in, breathe out. So tired.

Five... four...

Green behind his eyelids. The sounds of the jungle.

Three... two...

Deep breath, the heady scents of the jungle after rain.

One...

Slow exhale. Then stillness.

A jaguar roared its welcome.

***

Blair made it inside without setting off any audible alarms.

As he made his cautious way along an internal corridor, he noted that there were CCTV cameras placed strategically throughout the building; and realized that he had no alternative but to trust that the task force had managed to block the signal from them as they had claimed they could. There was certainly no way to avoid them.

Now he was in, and all he had to do was find Jim, which might be easier said than done. But he had no idea where to start. He had been shown a plan of the building, complete with Jim's probable location; but he hadn't had much time to take it in, and reality always looked different anyway. His immediate choice of direction was determined suddenly when voices around a corner up ahead prompted him to duck into an open doorway, to conceal himself until whoever it was had passed.

He found himself in a linen closet, and as he stood there, he decided to appropriate one of the white coats as a makeshift disguise. In the hurried briefing he had received, he had learned that there were countless lab technicians and medical personnel in this building. At least if he was seen wearing this, he would look at a glance more like someone who was supposed to be there.

The approaching footsteps drew nearer to his hiding place. "I don't know," Blair heard a male voice saying, as he buttoned up the coat. "He gave me the creeps this morning."

"You know he's gotta be fed, man." A second voice joined the first. "The boss finds out he's had nothing, we're dead. We gotta keep the guy alive."

"Whatever. But I'll be glad when he don't need sentinel-man no more." Blair froze as the voices drew level and moved past. "He wants the dude wasting," the voice was saying, "I'll line up to be the one to do it."

Blair's breath froze in horror. 'Sentinel-man', they had said. The person they were talking about, in such a casually brutal way, could only be Jim.

He listened as their voices faded in the distance. "Okay, man. I know what you're saying. But we better get in there now and do it…"

Alternately cursing what he had heard and thankful for his luck, Blair straightened the collar on the white lab coat he had appropriated, and slipped silently out into the corridor after the two men, surreptitiously following them as they unwittingly led him to Jim.

***

The silent sentinel didn't acknowledge the two orderlies as they entered his cell. Johnson, the least squeamish of the pair, went over and prodded him, attempting to wake the guy. "Hey, Ellison. C'mon, wake up. Time to eat."

Clay, was standing back with the tray. "I told you, man. He's fucking weird today..."

"Shit!" Johnson leaned over and hit the alarm button. An answering siren could be heard down the corridor.

"What the hell?" Clay put down the tray and joined Johnson at Ellison's side.

"He's not fucking breathing, man!" The orderly had placed his finger on the pulse point at Ellison's neck. "No heartbeat." Johnson started chest compressions, then looked pointedly at Clay when he didn't move to do mouth-to-mouth. "C'mon, Clay!"

"No way I'm putting my mouth on that guy! He's dead, man. Let it go."

Johnson did the breaths himself, then growled at Clay as he palpated Ellison's chest once more, "Get with the program, you stupid bastard. This guy dies, and who the hell do you think Brackett will hold responsible?"

Clay paled slightly, but was saved from taking any action repugnant to him when the facility's doctor, Carradine, rushed in.

The doctor and the orderly worked on Ellison without stopping for a full ten minutes, with Clay looking on, before Carradine called a halt. "Forget it. He's gone."

Clay smirked until Carradine glared at him. "You idiots," he snarled. "You were supposed to keep him alive. Don't think for one minute that I'm going to take the rap for this."

"C'mon, man, what the hell makes you think we're responsible?" Johnson retorted. "We just found him like this. Maybe he had a heart attack or something."

"Well, whatever happened, I have to call the boss and tell him. He is not going to be pleased." Carradine turned and headed towards the door. "Come on, I need you to prepare the lab for an autopsy. I have to find some explanation for this!"

As the three of them exited swiftly towards the lab, leaving the cold body of James Ellison chained to the bed behind them, none of them noticed the white-coated figure standing in horrified shock in the corridor nearby.

***

Blair had honestly thought that the pain he had felt at losing Jim the first time had been the worst thing he could ever possibly feel.

He had been so wrong.

Standing out of sight of the activity within Jim's cell, but still within earshot, he had heard the orderlies make their grim discovery, and the attempts at CPR. He had somehow managed to clamp down his fierce desire to burst in there and join in their efforts to revive Jim.

He had felt as though his own heart had stopped when the doctor had called a stop to the resuscitation. He hadn't realized it was possible to feel such pain and still live.

He'd been so close.

Uncaring now about his own safety, and making no effort to conceal his presence in any way, Blair walked into the cell the others had just exited. They had left the door open - there had been no need to lock it now that its occupant was no more.

And Blair felt something inside him shatter into a million pieces at the sight that met his eyes.

Ever mindful of his own heritage, Blair had looked in the past at pictures of concentration camp victims who had been tortured by the Nazis. Now, it was as if he had been transported back in time to one of those horrific places.

If Blair hadn't known for sure that the bald, naked figure in the room was Jim, he would hardly have recognized him. Ellison's skin was sallow, his formerly muscled figure reduced to a skeletal shadow of the man he had once been. His head had been shaved, and metal bands circled his head, throat, waist, wrists and ankles, in turn fastened to chains which, in life, would have held him immobile on the bed.

Moving over to the bed, Blair reached out a hand, and tenderly stroked Jim's cold face. Leaning down, he placed his lips on Jim's forehead just above the metal band, kissing him softly. Then he rose and drank in the sight of his friend for the last time.

"Sleep well, my brother. I'll be with you soon," he whispered. Then he turned and walked out of the door.

He would wait for Brackett to return.

Then he would kill him.

***

The doctor was on the phone with Brackett, who, predictably, was not taking the news well at all that one of his precious sentinels was deceased.

“I'm on my way back now, anyway,” Brackett was saying, the coldness in his tone a sign the doctor recognized as his boss at his most dangerous. “There's been a change of plan. It seems our employer wants to do the inspection today, instead of having me fly out to meet him. God damn it, of all the times for this to happen! Find out what the hell happened. And deal with the other matter!”

Click.

The doctor went out into the lab, where Johnson and Clay were lurking in amongst the other staff. He called them to one side. "He's pissed as hell," he told them. "But at least we have the sperm samples. He wants us to go ahead with using them, so it's all systems go with insemination of the woman. The boss didn't really need Ellison alive anyway, except as a failsafe - those vials have everything we need. I'm gonna get everything ready, and I'll autopsy the guy later to see what happened. Maybe he had a bad heart or something, like you said."

***

“Sandburg has missed the deadline, sir.”

"Damn!" Kovach had been so sure Ellison's guide would make it. "Any indication of what happened?"

“He may have been captured. We picked up an alarm in the building shortly after he got in, and Brackett has just arrived back.”

Kovach exchanged a look with Dryden. “Should we pull out, sir?" the voice on the radio queried.

Kovach shook his head. "Negative. We have intel that the inspection is imminent. Go to high alert, and stand by for further orders."

“Yes, sir.”

As the agent in the field signed off, Kovach looked at Dryden grimly. "The team is on standby?" he asked, and Dryden nodded. Kovach took a deep breath. "Good. Get them ready," he said. "This is a set back, but not necessarily a terminal one."

"You know I was never convinced about Sandburg," said Dryden as he rose.

"I know. But until we know what happened, it's not over."

Dryden nodded, and left the room.

***

Brackett had arrived back in time to oversee the artificial insemination of Alex Barnes.

"So cold, as cold as snow, I hear the flakes drift on the plains, taste the hare running, the hot breath, blood, blood through the veins of the earth, the prism sings..."

"You should have been a poet, girl," Brackett said bending over Alex, and predictably getting no response as she continued to wax lyrical about the universe.

"There, that's done. Now all we can do is wait," the doctor said, putting down the implements he had been using and moving to wash his hands.

Brackett gently stroked Alex's arm, then gave it a vicious pinch. Her monologue continued unabated, and disappointed but resigned to her lack of awareness of his presence, Brackett stepped away from her. "How long before we know?" he asked.

"She's mid-cycle now, so if she doesn't menstruate at the normal time, three weeks from now should be soon enough for a pregnancy test."

Brackett nodded. "Good." He sniffed. "She stinks. I thought I told you to clean her up. Get to it now."

"I was going to autopsy Ellison. I'll get Johnson and Clay to do it."

Brackett shook his head. "Do it yourself - those two are idiots. One of my sentinels is already gone; I'm not letting them get near the other. Besides, Ellison isn't going anywhere. He'll be just as dead later if you leave the autopsy until you've finished."

"Yes sir."

***

“Target is en-route. ETA sixty minutes.”

"Copy. All units in position."

***

Disappointed about Ellison, but nevertheless full of anticipation about the prospective pregnancy of Alex Barnes, Brackett was lost in thought as he entered his office a little while later. He was just reaching for the light switch, when the muzzle of a gun touched his forehead.

"Close the door," said a voice.

Cursing himself for his totally uncharacteristic lack of vigilance, Brackett complied. "You are making one huge mistake," he said as the door closed with a click.

"I don't think so," said the voice. "Put the light on."

Curious as to who had the gall to beard the lion in his den, Brackett complied. His eyes widened as he recognized his assailant. "Mister Sandburg! This is a surprise."

And it was, on a number of levels. Leaving aside the question as to exactly how Sandburg had found this place, let alone gotten in, Brackett was struck immediately by the fact that the flaky hippy he had last seen glued to Ellison's side looked different somehow. For an untrained civilian holding a gun on someone who was capable of disarming him and breaking his neck in two seconds flat, Sandburg appeared pretty confident. Cool; calm, even.

Lee decided to go along with Sandburg for a while, to find out what this was about, before he disarmed and overpowered him.

"So," began Brackett, indicating the gun (which he noted was his own, complete with silencer, that he usually kept in his desk-drawer). "Are you going to use that thing? Because if you wanted to kill me, the sensible thing would have been to do it when I first came in. Before I saw you."

Sandburg didn't take his eyes off Brackett, and the gun in his hand didn't waver. "I want you to see me. I want you to know exactly who it is who kills you. I want to look in your eyes as you die."

Sandburg's odd calmness was a bit unnerving, even if Lee wasn't really worried about the threat. But Brackett smiled confidently nevertheless; he could teach an amateur like Sandburg a thing or two when it came to coolness in a combat situation. "You're bluffing. You won't kill me, Sandburg. You're not the type."

The gun lowered from Brackett's temple, and Lee tensed imperceptibly, preparing to get the drop on the anthropologist, but Blair's eyes never left Brackett's, and he smiled in an oddly serene way.

Then agony blossomed through Brackett's thigh as Sandburg shot him in the leg at point-blank range.

***

Finished at last with the Barnes woman, the doctor turned as Clay wheeled Ellison's body into the lab, still firmly attached to the hospital bed.

"Jesus, even dead this guy gives me the creeps," Clay said, pantomiming a shudder.

The doctor grinned. "He won't in a minute, when we reduce him to tissue and bone. Wanna watch?"

"May as well."

The doctor took hold of the scalpel, and started the incision at the base of Ellison's neck.

Fresh blood welled up.

"Shit!" yelled the doctor. "He's a bleeder!"

"What does that mean?" Clay asked.

"He's not dead, you imbecile!" The doctor had grabbed some gauze and used it to staunch the wound.

"But he's not breathing. And he has no pulse!"

"I know that. Be quiet!" The doctor felt for the carotid artery, and god! There it was. "I felt a heart beat. Just one." He listened again. After nearly a full minute, the pulse throbbed again. "His pulse is so slow, the beats are nearly a minute apart. No wonder I missed 'em."

"So he's alive?"

"You bet your ass he is. Call for the crash cart and get me some sutures. Then get the boss on the phone."

***

The phone rang shrilly in Brackett's office. Half-lying on the floor, Brackett was holding his thigh and panting through the pain; shocked into immobility.

Sandburg walked over and tore the phone cable out of the wall, silencing the ringing. Then he sat on the desk and looked down at Brackett, the gun in his hand pointing unerringly at the other man. "I was shot in the thigh once," Blair said in a conversational tone. "Hurts like a bitch, doesn't it?"

Brackett didn't know what bugged him more - the pain or the fact he had read Sandburg so totally wrong. "You shot me!"

"Yep. Sorry about that; I had no choice," Blair said reasonably. "I mean, I'd rather just kick the shit outta you, but I'm not stupid - you'd probably just kill me with your bare hands if I was unarmed. At least this way I was sure I could put you down. Besides," he added, "you lost your right to a fair fight when you tortured Jim."

"You're insane," Brackett growled. God, but it hurt.

Blair nodded. "Probably," he admitted.

"There's no way out of here," Brackett said, gritting his teeth in between syllables. "You really think you can get away with this? Give me the gun, and I'll let you live. But if you kill me, you'll be dead before you take one step outside this room."

Sandburg shrugged, looking totally relaxed. "What makes you think I want to get out of this alive?" The look on his face reminded Brackett chillingly of the expression he had once seen worn by a suicide bomber, just before he had blown himself and a room full of people up.

Brackett didn't answer. Instead he glanced around the room, looking for anything he could use as a weapon. To distract Sandburg from what he was doing, he asked, "So, what now? You gonna shoot me again, or just sit and watch me bleed to death?"

Blair smiled beatifically, and raised the gun. Brackett had a brief moment to curse himself as an idiot for goading someone who was obviously nuts, before Sandburg fired.

Into the sudden silence after the shot, Blair said, "I guess that answers your question."

***

Johnson rushed into the lab. "He's here, outside, now! Brackett's boss!"

The doctor had sutured the incision, and although Ellison's heart was beating - albeit abnormally slowly - there was still no obvious respiration despite all the attempts of Carradine and his staff to revive him. It wasn't like anything he had ever seen before.

He turned away from his patient, giving his attention to Johnson. "Okay," he said. "Where's Brackett?"

Clay, who was still hovering around Ellison and watching the intermittent blip on the ECG monitor, shrugged. "He's not answering the phone."

The doctor looked at both of them in turn, adopting command in his boss's absence. "Right you, get the rest of the staff together, and you, go find the boss. He needs to know about this immediately," he nodded towards Ellison. "I'll go and greet our guest."

The three of them went off on their appointed tasks, leaving the unresponsive - but undoubtedly living - sentinel alone in the lab.

***

Vaguely surprised that he was still alive, and uncertain as to whether Sandburg was deliberately trying to prolong his agony or was simply a rotten shot, Brackett tried in vain to staunch the blood flowing from the new hole in his other leg. But the pain and the blood-loss were already making him dizzy and weak, and his hands couldn't muster the necessary amount of pressure. "All right, Sandburg," he said in an agonized voice. "I take it back. You are the type!"

Blair was watching him dispassionately. "Aren't you curious?" he asked. "Don't you want to know why I'm doing this?"

"Go on," said Brackett faintly. "Enlighten me."

Blair's façade slipped a little, as a look of profound sadness crossed his features. "I hate you," he said almost wonderingly. "I've never, in my entire life, hated anyone like I hate you. I hate it that you've made me feel this way, that you've turned me into someone who can do this," he indicated the gun in his hand, and then gestured towards the blood gushing from Lee's legs.

"But none of that really matters," he went on, his puppy-dog eyes boring into Brackett as Lee felt the encroaching weakness overtake him, "The only real reason I'm doing this is because you deserve it." Sandburg swallowed, some vast emotion rising from the depths, reducing his voice to almost a whisper. "Because I've seen what was left of Jim after you finished with him."

As Brackett strained to listen over the thudding of his own heart, Blair finished. "Death on its own is too easy. You deserve far worse than that."

Brackett had to admit, as he felt his awareness slip, that for probably the first time in his professional career, he was actually afraid.

Not to mention astonished. He had never once envisaged that he would die like this - bleeding to death, shot by an insane new-age hippy pacifist. As Brackett's eyes closed, he decided that he really resented it that his life should end in such a humiliating way.

***

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the facility, all hell had broken loose.

No sooner had the VIP visitor entered the building, than it was stormed from all sides by armed agents. The task force's operation had reached its crux, and when it came down to it, the long-anticipated apprehension of the traitorous senator and his entourage was fairly anti-climactic. Brackett's henchmen were quickly rounded up, and as the armed force progressed into the lab, Ellison and his bizarre coma, as evidenced by the heart monitor he was hooked up to, were discovered.

"Where the hell is Brackett?" Kovach mused aloud.

"And Sandburg," added Dryden, as a medic from the task-force team gave Ellison the once-over.

A few moments later, their questions were answered. The force had finished a sweep of the interior of the building, and had discovered a locked door, with two heat-signatures inside. There was no answer to shouted commands.

Kovach hurried to that location, leaving Dryden in command in the lab. As soon as he got there, an order was given, and an explosive charge blew the lock. The door was pushed open.

At the sight that greeted them, Kovach indicated that he would enter alone. He closed the door behind him, shutting out the curious gaze of the other agents.

Sandburg was sitting on the floor, leaning back against the desk, wearing a bloodstained white lab coat; a pistol equipped with a silencer in his reddened hand. Brackett was lying next to him, tight makeshift tourniquets around the tops of both his thighs, which had been tightly bandaged with strips of cloth. A terrifying amount of blood surrounded him.

Blair's eyes were fixed on Brackett, who was either dead or unconscious. For a second Kovach thought Sandburg was dead too, until he saw him blink. Softly, Kovach said, "Blair? What happened here?"

Sandburg seemed to be in a daze. His eyes, although focused on the prone man, were glassy. "I shot him," he said in a quiet voice. "Twice. I was going to kill him, but I decided instead to just hurt him, to show him a little bit of what he made Jim feel. I thought about just letting him bleed to death, but I... I couldn't do it. It was bad enough that I did this. I didn't want him to turn me into a murderer as well."

Trying to make sense of the strange tableau in front of him, Kovach asked, "Did you dress his wounds?"

Blair nodded. "Yeah, as soon as he passed out. He's still alive, but he needs to go to a hospital. I guess he could still die. He bled a lot," he added rather unnecessarily, given the state of the floor. As he spoke, Blair's left hand tensed on the gun he was holding.

Kovach noticed, and took a step closer. "Why don't you give me the gun, Blair?" he asked softly.

Blair shook his head. "I don't think I can do that, man." He glanced up at Kovach, then looked back at Brackett; the sorrow in his expression, his whole body, palpable.

"Blair," Kovach said urgently, intuitively surmising Blair's intent. "Don't do anything rash. Jim needs you. Your sentinel needs his guide."

Blair didn't look at him. Instead, he continued to stare at Brackett's unmoving body. "Jim's dead," he muttered, "And I... I don't want to do this anymore." The gun was now held in a tight grip, Blair's index finger on the trigger as if at any moment he would aim it.

And Kovach didn't believe that he was the one in danger.

Kovach crouched; near, but not touching Sandburg. "Listen to me!" he hissed. "Ellison is alive! He's in some sort of coma, with suppressed respiration and heart rate. But he is not dead."

"Don't lie to me, man! I saw him. He's dead!" The voice wavered a little with the force of Sandburg's emotion, and angry blue eyes finally looked directly at Kovach. The agony in their depths was breathtaking.

Kovach was shaking his head. He maintained eye contact, willing Sandburg not to look away. "No. I swear to you, he's alive, Blair. I'm not lying to you! He's in a weird fugue state, possibly a zone of some kind. It appears to be a sentinel thing - the medic with us can't explain it any other way. There is certainly no medical explanation for his condition, and he hasn't responded to any of our attempts to revive him. I believe the only thing that can reach him is the presence of his guide. You."

"Don't do this to me, man," Blair whispered. "Don't say it if it isn't true."

"I give you my word, it's true."

The bloodstained fingers slackened on the gun, and Kovach leaned forward, putting out a hand towards Sandburg. "Give me the gun, Blair, and I'll take you to him."

Blair opened his hand. The gun dropped with a clunk onto the floor, and Kovach picked it up. "Come on," he said, standing and putting out his other hand to help Blair up. "He needs you."

***

"Clear." The paddles were placed once again on Ellison's chest, as the medic tried to shock him into establishing a normal heartbeat. But before the current could be applied, a hundred and sixty pounds of enraged anthropologist barreled full-tilt into the medic, knocking him bodily away from Jim. "Get away from him!"

Blair was oblivious to the aborted move towards him by several armed agents, halted by a terse order from Dryden. All he could see was Jim, still chained to the bed, as still and as cold as a corpse. But, apparently, alive for all of that, if what Kovach had said could be trusted.

And there was nothing in this world that Blair Sandburg would rather believe.

Unwilling to let even so much of Brackett as his blood come into contact with his friend, Blair went to the sink, where he rapidly scrubbed his hands clean in scalding water; keeping his head turned towards Ellison all the while.

Then he quickly dried his hands on a paper towel, and desperate for some sign that Jim really did still live, leaned over Ellison and framed them around his cold face, unwittingly mirroring a gesture the sentinel himself had made several months earlier, when their positions had been reversed.

When Blair had been dead at the fountain.

One finger drifted to the pulse point on Jim's neck, and immediately Blair felt it - one strong throb of the pulse against his fingers, mirrored by a corresponding blip of the adjoining heart monitor. Proof of a heartbeat. He didn't feel another for almost a minute.

"Jim," he murmured, once he was sure that he hadn't imagined the lethargic pulse. "Come back to me, man. It's safe to come back." The room and everyone in it might as well have ceased to exist as far as Blair was concerned; his whole attention was focused on his friend. "Jim, please, man. Come back now."

Nothing happened, and working on pure instinct, Blair closed his eyes and touched his own forehead to Jim's. The metal band around the sentinel's head burned like ice on Blair's own brow. "Please," murmured Blair fervently, not really sure who he was appealing to, "Help me bring him back."

A lush greenness behind his closed eyelids was the first sign that something had changed, and then Blair had the sensation of speed, of hurtling through a dream-like landscape of trees and jungle plants. He was seeking, hunting; but his quarry was far ahead.

He pulled up short and sniffed the air, scenting for the great cat, and as the spoor of the beast filled his nostrils, he threw back his head and howled. Then he was moving again. In the distance, the spine-tingling roar of the jaguar he sought filled the air, and exultant, he sped joyfully towards it.

The two beasts kept calling to each other, their cries getting louder. Excitement spurred the wolf on faster, and he loped finally into a clearing, to see the jaguar enter it from the opposite side.

The black jaguar.

Their eyes met, and it was as if lightning passed between them, the shock of recognition was so great. Without pause, and with single-minded purpose, they hurtled towards each other; then leapt with mirror-image synchronicity. For one ecstatic second, they were a single creature, merged in a blinding flash of light.

Blair was abruptly back in the lab, gasping for air; his forehead still pressed against Jim's. Almost simultaneously, Ellison wheezed in a huge breath, his eyes roaming around restlessly as if blind; then he took another breath. "Blair?" he rasped breathlessly. "Blair?"

Blair raised his head, the remnants of the incredible vision they had shared pushed ruthlessly aside so he could concentrate on the here-and-now; his eyes searching Ellison's face. "Jim, it's okay. I'm here. I'm here."

Blair continued to murmur softly, words of safety and breathing and dials, trying to comfort his disorientated partner; and finally Jim seemed to focus on him. "No!" He strained at the metal bands circling his throat and head, his neck muscles bulging with the strain; trying in vain to shake his head. "No, you can't be here. Brackett, he can't get hold of you..."

"Shh, shh. It's all right, Jim. He can't hurt you anymore. He's not coming back. We're getting out of here. You're safe, Jim. It's all over."

After a tense few moments, during which Blair kept up his litany of reassurance, Jim began to calm down, his breathing slowing as he took in Sandburg's anxious face. The wild look in Jim's eyes gradually faded, replaced by an expression of desperate trust which tore at Blair's heart. Finally, Ellison's gaze took in the white coat Blair was still wearing. "Doctor McCoy, I presume?" he croaked.

The lump in Blair's throat almost stopped his breath. His eyes glistened, but a smile creased his lips at this evidence that Jim was still Jim, despite everything he had been through. "I told you, man," he said, his voice thick with emotion. "The correct Gaelic pronunciation of my family name is McKay." His hands didn't leave Ellison's face, stroking gently over his cheeks and across the shaved head.

Jim's eyes never wavered from Blair's. He licked dry lips, and then whispered, "I was right, wasn't I? You're the blessed protector in this partnership, Sandburg."

"Don't you ever forget it, Ellison." Not once letting go of his partner, Blair glanced once towards their enthralled audience of spooks. His gentle tone changed to one of pure, stark command. "Hey, someone get me some blankets, he's cold. And for god's sake, find something to get these chains off of him!"

As they scrabbled to do what he ordered, Blair turned his whole attention back to Jim, unaware of the sly look of satisfaction exchanged by Dryden and Kovach behind his back.

***

For once, the ride in the chopper didn't seem to faze Blair at all, his attention being solely on the comfort of James Ellison.

Ellison had pretty much depended on breathing exercises and control of dials during his captivity, and was therefore more than capable of manipulating them on his own; but it was such a relief to relinquish control to Blair at last, after needing to keep himself together for so long.

The chains that had secured Jim immobile to the bed for what amounted to months had finally been removed; but the welded metal bands had been temporarily left in place for transportation, until the necessary specialist equipment could be provided to cut them loose.

Next Jim had been carefully loaded onto a stretcher, his atrophied muscles protesting the change in their long-held position by the onset of agonizing cramping pains. Blair had kept in contact with Jim the whole time, his voice a hypnotic murmur compelling the sentinel to follow his instructions; to breathe deeply and relax; while he simultaneously helped to massage out some of the muscular tension. Mentally holding on to Blair's voice like a lifeline, Jim had managed to get through the ordeal intact.

Finally they had arrived at what Jim guessed to be an army hospital; the efficiency of his transfer from the landing pad to an examining room hinting at military-grade triage procedures.

The rest of it went by in a blur, as he relaxed and allowed others to take charge without fear for the first time in months. Blair stayed with Jim throughout, talking softly to the sentinel and guiding him in the use of dials, as the terrible metal bands were at long last cut off; and his injuries were treated and dressed. Finally, settled in a room, Jim drifted off to sleep, secure in the knowledge that Blair was looking out for him; his hand firmly clasped in Blair's.

***

Blair watched the steady rise and fall of Jim's chest, thirstily drinking in the sight of his sleeping friend, as he cradled Ellison's warm, limp hand in his own.

Sandburg's eyes traveled over Jim's still frame, taking in the evidence of months of abuse and torture at Brackett's hands.

Forced to months-long immobility, and fed god-knows how infrequently, Jim had lost an alarming amount of weight, and his muscle tone had depleted to the extent that a normal amount of voluntary movement was currently difficult and painful. Only an intensive program of nutrition and physical therapy would put it right; and it was obvious that the road to recovery was not going to be an easy one.

The doctor here had wanted Jim catheterized, as he was obviously incapable of walking; but the look in his friend's eyes at the suggestion had prompted Blair to forcefully rebut the doctor's wishes. Until Jim was strong enough to take care of such personal matters himself, Blair would be there to help him every second of the day. Jim had suffered more than enough indignity.

Having been compelled to maintain the one agonizing position for so long, his friend's back was covered in infected pressure sores, and the skin which had been confined under the metal was raw and shiny. Other superficial wounds - bruises and abrasions on every part of Jim's body - hinted at sustained physical abuse, no doubt inflicted while Jim had been utterly unable to defend himself.

As rage smoldered deep in Sandburg's gut at Jim's condition, he considered, not for the first time, that Brackett had gotten off pretty light.

Ellison now lay on his side in this clean bed, his wounds dressed, and a drip feeding nutrients, fluids, analgesics and antibiotics into his wasted body. His hand twitched in Blair's, stirring a little like a bird in his hold with the force of his dream; and Blair reached out his other hand to gently smooth the lines out of Jim's brow. After a moment, his friend sighed and slipped into a deeper sleep.

Not once looking away from his friend, Blair went on with his vigil.

***

Blair wasn't sure how much time had passed when the door opened and a figure moved to stand next to him. "How's he doing?" came the visitor's whispered voice, and looking up, Blair was surprised to see 'bad-cop' himself, otherwise known as Agent Dryden, watching Jim with what appeared to be a sympathetic expression on his face.

Blair looked back at his sleeping friend, who was still breathing evenly. "See for yourself," he said quietly.

Dryden scratched the side of his nose, the antagonism with which he had formerly treated Sandburg strangely absent from his demeanor. "I'm heading off soon, but I wanted to speak to you before I went. It's about Brackett."

Blair looked at him sharply. "Not here," he said.

Dryden nodded. "Outside, then." Blair carefully laid Jim's hand, which he was still holding, on the bed. Then he preceded Dryden out of the room into the corridor.

Once the door clicked closed behind them, Blair said, "Am I going to be arrested?"

Dryden laughed. "Arrested? Sandburg, this is not your little PD world. You apprehended Brackett during the operation. That's how it is going to go in the official report. Any force you used was reasonable, as far as we are concerned."

Blair blinked in surprise. There had been nothing reasonable about it - he had wanted Brackett to suffer, and had assaulted him with a deadly weapon.

Dryden was still speaking. "Brackett came through surgery okay. He had to have a transfusion, but he's going to be fine, although," he raised an eyebrow, as if the thought amused him, "He'll obviously be off his feet for a while. He's being prepped to be shipped out to secure confinement as we speak."

Blair nodded, not trusting himself to speak.

Dryden smiled ruefully. "I gotta tell you, Sandburg, you surprised the hell out of me. You can't keep a secret worth shit, but you sure as hell have the ability to be ruthless when you want to be. Maybe you should consider coming to work for the government."

Sandburg gave him a direct look. "I don't think so," he said.

Dryden nodded, as though Blair's answer didn't surprise him. "Whatever. Anyway, I hate to say it, but you sure impressed me. Brackett is a wily son of a bitch, and not many people could have taken him down the way you did. But you'd better hope he never escapes again, Sandburg. He's a dangerous man to have as an enemy, and you can bet that he won't forget your little meting out of justice anytime soon."

When Blair didn't answer, Dryden nodded in farewell, then walked off and disappeared out of sight down the corridor.

After taking a moment to stuff his renewed anger at Brackett, as well as Dryden and his cronies, back in its box, Blair quietly let himself back into Jim's room, to find a pair of alert blue eyes measuring him across the space that separated them.

"Chief," came Ellison's hoarse voice, "What the hell did you do to Brackett?"

***

After the most restful few hours sleep Jim could remember having in an eternity, he had woken as soon as his hearing had picked up Blair's voice in the corridor outside.

Lying in blissful medically-induced comfort, feeling rested and relatively free of pain for the first time in god-knows how long, Jim had thought it so good to hear his friend's voice again that he had zoned in on the sound, not considering that he might be breaching Blair's privacy. Then, when he'd heard what Dryden said about Brackett, he had been unable to stop listening.

Now, Blair had paled slightly at Jim's question, and for the first time since they had been reunited, Jim actually took in his friend's appearance. Sandburg looked exhausted and disheveled, but the haunted expression he bore was rapidly being subsumed by Blair's smiling mask in a classic Sandburg obfuscation maneuver.

Exasperated by Blair's imminent sidestepping, Jim nevertheless felt a rush of affection at its comforting familiarity.

Blair didn't disappoint. "Hey, Jim," he said coming over to the bed. "How are you feeling, man?" Blair sat down in the chair by the bed, his eyes smiling at Jim as Ellison's hand was captured in his warm dry grip. "Do you need anything?"

An answer would be nice, thought Jim. But recognizing that patience and stealth was the only way he would find out what Blair had done, he decided to bide his time and go along with Sandburg's need to help for the moment. In any case, some pressing needs of his own were making themselves felt. "How about some water, Chief? And I hate to say it considering you volunteered for this duty, but the bathroom calls."

The next while was spent with Blair ensuring Jim's comfort. Then, at Sandburg's insistence, Blair called the doctor who had treated Jim when he arrived, who promptly came in to see him. While engaged in checking vitals and meds, the doctor filled Jim in on the type of therapy he would need to ensure his recovery from his ordeal, reassuring him that it was possible to fully reclaim the use and strength of his muscles.

The guy, whose nametag said 'McCall', finished up and left the room; not leaving either Jim or Blair any the wiser as to exactly when or where the therapy should take place; only that arrangements would be made, and that Agent Kovach would be in later to discuss it with them. Blair thought that was a little ominous - he really just wanted to take Jim home, and was actually not sure if they were prisoners or not; but he didn't say any of that to Jim, now wanting to alarm him. Instead, he rolled his eyes. "McCall! Man, that's weird. A bit close to McCoy, huh?"

It wasn't, really, but Jim smiled obligingly anyway. That Sandburg was attempting to find anything remotely amusing in this situation was a sign that his friend was doing all right; and for a little while afterwards Jim was able to put his formless worry about Blair and whatever had happened between him and Brackett aside.

Next, food arrived, and Ellison was pleased to see Sandburg eat his fill, as he alternated helping Jim, whose arms and hands were not working right, with feeding himself. The kid looked, thank god, a little less wraith-like after he had finished. And as for Jim; well, he sighed in satisfaction as the hunger which had been his constant companion morphed into a wonderful fullness; although he had only managed a few bites.

Sleepy again once they had finished, and beginning to doze, Jim cranked open his eyes to look at Blair. "Chief? Tell me about Brackett."

Blair smiled reassuringly; although something disturbing lurked at the back of his eyes. "It's okay, Jim. He's gone. He won't hurt you again. You're safe now."

"Sandburg, that's not what I meant. I heard what that guy said before. What did you do to him?"

The smile slipped for a moment, and Blair looked sad? Ashamed? Jim couldn't be sure, because it was such a fleeting expression. Blair avoided looking Jim in the eye, instead looking down at his hands where they lay in his lap. "I'll tell you, but not just now, okay? Please, man, let it go." Blair looked up pleadingly at Jim. "The only thing that matters right now is that you're safe. It's over. We just need to go on from here."

Curious and worried, Jim had no choice but to acquiesce. But he had to ask. "Are you all right, Blair?"

The odd expression was replaced by a more genuine smile; the one Jim loved. "Oh man, I am now. I missed you, Jim."

Jim felt an answering grin stretch his features. "Me too, buddy. Me too."

***

Jim had drifted off again, exhausted after his ordeal, the pain-meds adding to his sleepiness. The doctor had indicated he would be likely to be this way for a while.

Still holding vigil at Ellison's bedside, Blair forced himself to think only about what mattered - that Jim was alive. Because right now, more than anything, Jim needed his help, and he had to focus on his friend's needs.

If any thought crossed his mind about what he had done to Brackett, he ruthlessly suppressed it, pushing it deep down; accepting that at some point he would have to deal with it.

But not now. Not today, when Jim needed him to be present; to be in control.

Because he knew with gut-deep certainty that he had unleashed a part of himself he had never even suspected was there. And the moment he had to face it, to accept what he was capable of; he had a sneaking suspicion he would want to run and keep on running.

For he was not sure he could live with the knowledge of what he had become.

***

Later in the day, during one of Jim's waking intervals, Agent Kovach came to see them. While Blair was anxious to find out exactly how free they were, as well as what was going to happen next, he didn't approve of the timing of Kovach's arrival.

Kovach stuck out a hand to Jim as he introduced himself, which the sentinel shook weakly. Then the agent turned to Blair who was still sitting in the chair by the bed. "Have you told him about us?"

Blair was livid. "Get real, man! He's only just got out of there. He's not ready for this."

A little pissed off that Blair was making decisions about what he could or could not handle, when he was possessed of an intense curiosity that Blair had continually failed to satisfy, Jim demanded, "Not ready for what, Chief?"

Kovach answered Ellison, ignoring Sandburg. "I represent a multi-agency task force. We have been monitoring you and your sentinel abilities ever since your hypersensitivity came to light after Peru."

Sandburg was looking at Kovach with an expression of pure hate; but Ellison just nodded thoughtfully. It made sense that his obviously Agency-linked rescuers would know all about his role in Brackett's sentinel research. "I should be more surprised, but I'm not. So exactly how intense was your surveillance?"

Kovach's tone was all business. "It was low level. We were never in your home, if that's what you're wondering. Your private life was none of our concern. We watched your public achievements, cataloging instances where your senses were used. Until you were kidnapped by Brackett, our remit was simply twofold - to compile an academic body of knowledge relating to sentinels, and to document how you as a sentinel operated in the field. Once you were taken, we took part in the operation which ultimately led to your liberation."

"You left him there for three friggin' months!" Both Jim and Kovach flinched as Mount Sandburg erupted, rising out of his chair and getting up into Kovach's face. "You watched while Brackett took him apart piece by piece! How the hell can you have the gall to stand there and tell him you helped to 'liberate' him?"

Kovach held up both hands, backing up a step. "Mister Sandburg," he began, but Blair was on a roll.

"I don't give a damn about your so-called operation. You had no right to leave him there like that, knowing what was going on. Look at him, for Chrissakes! Look at what that psycho did to him! There is no justification..."

From somewhere, Jim found his voice, and the anguish in it cut through Sandburg's anger like nothing else could have. "Chief, please." What a world of pain in two simple, quiet words. It stopped Sandburg's tirade as if a switch had been thrown, and Blair moved instantly to Jim's side, their eyes meeting in wordless communication. Blair sat back down, taking Jim's hand in his own, and they entwined their fingers.

Silence held for a few moments, then Kovach said, "I understand your anger, Mister Sandburg, and no doubt yours too, Detective. I regret more than I can say what happened to you. But we had our reasons. And I'm here now to explain them."

Jim listened as Kovach talked about high-level traitors, terrorist threats and national security. Then, he listened more incredulously, when Kovach attempted to justify sending an unarmed civilian into the lair of a sadistic rogue CIA agent.

But throughout it all, more than half his attention was on his partner, who was clinging onto Jim's hand as if he'd never let go.

***

A little while later, Kovach had gone, and now Jim was clearer about the circumstances of both his abduction and his eventual rescue. But he was not at all clear about where they were going from here; Kovach having promised to fill them in on that imminently, once certain ominous sounding 'arrangements' had been made.

Jim was exhausted. But he was far too tense to actually sleep.

The main reason for a significant amount of his stress - his hyper-attentive, inhumanly diligent anthropological nursemaid and blessed-protector - was currently having a mini-breakdown, but trying hard not to let it show; desperate to remain strong and capable for Jim's sake. The adrenaline high that had kept Blair going had apparently dissipated since Agent Kovach's visit, leaving him an exhausted, roiling mass of raw emotions. And his utter nervous fatigue tired Jim out from just watching.

Blair was currently under the misapprehension that Jim was asleep again, and Ellison sensed a typical Sandburg run-off-and-freak-alone maneuver on the horizon.

Not that he doubted Blair had good reason to freak out. Something had happened between Blair and Brackett; something awful that his friend didn't want to talk about. And Jim was beginning to guess what that something might be. For as well as the usual scents he associated with Blair, other less pleasant aromas permeated his friend despite Sandburg's obvious and vigorous efforts to wash them off.

Aromas of cordite and blood.

And as well as that, and the rest of the shit that had gone down, his friend had believed Jim to be dead not once but twice. And Jim remembered, in glorious technicolor, exactly how it felt to have someone you care about die and then come back from the dead. Particularly when all that bizarre mystical crap got thrown into the fray.

"Blair." Jim's ravaged voice had an unmistakable air of command. "Come here."

His hand on the door handle, but his forward momentum halted by Jim's voice, Blair hedged, "Not right now, Jim. I'll just... I won't leave you for long, man. I just need..."

"Please." Jim allowed his voice to waver. He was not above dirty tricks to get Sandburg's attention. "Chief, I need you now."

Blair was instantly back at his side, his eyes searching Jim's face. "What is it? Are you in pain? What do you need?"

Jim whispered something inaudible, and Blair leaned closer, his ear near Jim's mouth. "What, Jim? I can't hear you."

Jim's arm came up, and he wrapped a hand around the back of Sandburg's neck, pulling him close. When nothing further was said, Blair asked, "Jim? Jim, what's going on?"

"Shh." Jim shifted his hand to get a good grip, pleased there was just enough strength in his arms to keep hold.

"Jim, this is... look, just let me go. Please, man." Sandburg sounded close to tears. He shifted uncomfortably, as though he was going to pull away, but Jim gave his neck a squeeze.

"Shh." He said again. "Just relax."

Jim felt a shudder go through Blair, and something wet fell on his neck. "I can't do this right now Jim. You've gotta let me go. I just need some space, just for a few minutes, okay?"

"No. It's not okay." Jim's voice was emphatic. He sensed the bunching of muscles as Blair prepared again to pull away, and he squeezed Sandburg's neck once more. "Together, Chief. We deal with this together. My demons; your demons. Stop treating me like glass, and stop trying to shoulder everything. You hear me?"

He heard Blair swallow, and after a moment, he sensed that Sandburg had ceased to fight him. Finally Blair sniffed, and nodded against Jim's neck. Gently Jim said, "Get up here."

"What if someone comes in, man?" Blair protested faintly. "They'll think..."

"I don't give a damn what anybody thinks. Get up here."

Sandburg sighed, then pulled away, and satisfied his partner wasn't going to run, Ellison let Blair go, giving him space to move so he could toe off his shoes and get up beside Jim on the bed. Jim pushed aside the trailing cables from the drip, then lifted the blanket, hoisting part of it around Sandburg. And as Blair's head lowered heavily onto his shoulder, his arm warm around Jim's waist, Ellison wrapped both aching arms around Blair in turn and held on.

They didn't speak. But words can sometimes be overrated. If silent tears were shed, neither of them acknowledged it.

Eventually, basking in the comfort of each other's proximity, they slept.

***

Jim didn't sleep all that much, the weight of Blair's head on his arm making his already sore muscles ache; but there was no way he was going to dislodge his friend when he was so obviously exhausted in mind and body. So instead he dozed for several hours, feeling somehow as though he was keeping watch over Sandburg. He warned off with a glare the nursing staff who came and went twice to adjust his meds, and kept the pain dial turned down to decrease his discomfort, as he focused on the sound of Blair's steady breathing.

Sandburg slept like a baby - quite literally, thought Jim, with fond exasperation as a pool of drool collected on his shoulder. Being familiar with Sandburg's usual insomniac reaction to stress, Jim surmised that this was probably the best sleep his friend had managed to get for quite a while. He felt a little humbled, not to mention moved, that Blair was able to trust him enough to let his defenses down like this; even if it had been under protest.

Eventually, after several solid hours, Sandburg stirred; then stiffened as he registered where he was. Jim murmured, "Hey, Sleeping Beauty."

"Just don't try to kiss me, man," Blair retorted, pushing himself upright and rubbing his hands over his beard-darkened face. Strands of hair had escaped from his ponytail, and his eyes were still heavy lidded from sleep.

"You feeling better?" asked Jim, grimacing a little as feeling began to come back to his arm.

Blair nodded, but looked a little shame-faced. "I'm fine. Look, I'm sorry I wigged out on you like that. I should be taking care of you, not the other way round."

"Sandburg..." Sometimes Jim wanted to shake him. But he recognized the futility of argument.

Blair yawned and stretched, then stumbled over to the window. It was just getting light, and Jim watched him grimace as he glanced down at his rumpled clothes. "I think I'll get a shower, man. Do you need anything first?"

An urgent need was making itself felt. "Ah, bathroom would be pretty good, Chief."

***

Blair was relieved to note that basic toiletries, including shaving equipment, had been left in the adjoining bathroom. He quickly shaved and showered, then ran his fingers through his wet hair, trying to untangle it before putting it back in a ponytail.

The reflection in the mirror stared back at him. For a moment, Blair studied it. He didn't look too bad this morning, considering; no longer the ragged, wild-eyed creature of the day before.

The day before. God. He sighed, leaning heavily on the sink. So much had happened in the span of just one day.

And the worst of it was, he had learned that Brackett and he were really not that different.

Now, in the clear light of morning, and with the clarity of mind that several hours of restful sleep close to his friend had bequeathed him, he could see the stark truth - that the years of tests he had done on Jim made him just as guilty as Brackett of treating the sentinel like a thing rather than a human being. For it had been Blair's research that Brackett had used as a blueprint with which to torture Ellison.

Sure, Brackett had taken the testing to inhuman extremes. But Blair well remembered times when the tests he had performed had made Jim uncomfortable or resentful. And he was now having a hard time seeing the essential difference.

If guilt was to be his companion this morning, then so be it. At least he could do something about it - he could put aside his regret, and help Jim get through the difficult times to come. And he could vow, here and now, to never again indulge his academic curiosity about his friend's sentinel abilities.

But there was another monster lurking in his closet. Another aspect of his personality, hitherto unsuspected; and he could not see how that could be banished so easily.

For having shot Brackett, he now clearly saw that he felt no remorse; only a deep satisfaction. And when he had decided to bind his wounds rather than allow him to bleed to death, it was not really because he couldn't go through with letting the rogue agent die. It was because he had wanted Brackett to live with the humiliation of what Blair had done to him.

Blue eyes met blue eyes in the mirror, as he sought for some sign, some visible clue, to the darkness lurking within.

He'd often heard it; those stories of murderers who everyone had thought to be nice, quiet, ordinary people until their deeds were found out: I never knew, he always seemed like such a nice man.

The man in the mirror looked a bit like that. Ordinary, if a little unconventional in appearance. Certainly, he didn't look dangerous. He guessed, therefore, that those comments could easily be applied to him, if anyone in Cascade ever found out what he had done.

Taking a deep breath, Blair squared his shoulders. It was time to put it aside. Time to get on with helping Jim.

Determined now, and more focused, if far from at peace, Blair looked for a last time at his reflection. Then he turned off the light and headed out of the door; the image of the haunted man in the mirror burned on his retinas.

***

"Where'd you learn this stuff, Chief?" Jim asked, his voice reflecting his discomfort. It was now mid-morning, and Blair had appropriated some odorless emollient cream from the medical staff. Having smoothed it liberally onto Jim's skin, he was now skillfully digging his strong thumbs into Ellison's cramping calf muscle.

Not looking up from where he was intently working on Jim's leg, Blair said, "There's this really cool alternative therapy center in Cascade. I went to massage classes there, oh, I don't know, maybe a year before I met you. I passed the course; got an advanced certification. But I never had time to actually practice it professionally. I guess I did it more out of interest than anything else. Normally I'd use a bland oil for this, maybe mixed with a little aromatherapy fragrance, but this stuff won't do you any harm."

"Ow," Jim winced, and Blair glanced at him anxiously, pressing on the pain.

"Dial it down a little, Jim. The muscle here is really tense, but it should feel better after this."

"I hope you're right, Maharishi," Ellison grunted, doing as he was told.

Blair grinned, delighted. "Hey, any time you need a guru, I'm your man. As well as this, I know how to do reflexology and Indian Head Massage. And I learned a bit of the Alexander Technique too. That'd be good for you, man."

"Whatever," Jim grunted skeptically. He'd heard of reflexology, but had always considered it to be something that cranks did. He didn't know what the Alexander Technique was; but it sure didn't sound like his scene. And what the hell was Indian Head Massage? He wasn't convinced he wanted to find out. But he had to admit that what Blair was doing now felt good, and his friend definitely seemed to know what he was doing.

That Blair knew about stuff like this didn't surprise him in the least. But what did surprise him, given Sandburg's propensity for embracing the metaphysical, was his friend's apparent and totally uncharacteristic lack of desire to discuss the latest vision they had shared.

When Jim had earlier tried to talk to Blair about whatever the hell it was he did to pull Jim's animal spirit back out of the jungle, Sandburg had shrugged it off and changed the subject. "Look, you were just zoned, man. You followed my voice back, just like you always do. End of story." Jim had been so surprised by Sandburg's reaction he had not tried to raise the issue again.

Blair had looked and apparently felt much better after sleep and a shower, and had filled Jim in on some of what had been going on back in Cascade during the last three months; although in true Sandburgian style, Jim suspected he had left as much out as he put in to the account; downplaying his own reaction to all the shit that had gone down.

Blair's story of the way he had been brought here and treated by the task force agents had raised Jim's protective hackles, however, and Ellison had added it to the long list of grievances he was compiling against these people; including their long-standing invasion of his privacy and laissez-faire attitude to his abduction and torture.

Jim, in turn, had related to Sandburg what he could remember of his kidnapping. It turned out that the whole story given by the uniformed officers at the scene of his supposed death had been fabricated. Vetman Bill, the snitch he had been called to the deserted warehouse to meet, had not shown up; and the story of him rescuing a child was simply untrue. Instead, he had stumbled into a trap, and could remember little of the actual events of his abduction, apart from waking up later tied up in a cabin somewhere, with Brackett hovering over him. After a few days he had been moved, ending up in the facility where he had been kept chained up until his rescue.

Jim had carefully avoided going into much detail about his captivity itself. In fact he had so far been pretty successful in his attempt not to think about it at all; and he wanted to keep it that way for as long as possible. Instead, he took comfort in the knowledge that he was safe, and Blair was with him, pushing into the background, the constant gut-churning fear which still irrationally haunted him at odd moments - at a noise in the corridor, for example, or a footstep in the room when his eyes were closed.

The truth was, it was not only for Blair's sake that he had wanted his friend in the bed with him last night.

"Hey, Jim, you okay, man?" Blair's concerned voice dragged Jim back to the present. The massage seemed to have finished.

"Hmm? Oh, yeah, I'm fine Chief. Just drifting a bit. That was really relaxing."

"Cool!" Blair looked really pleased. "Great. That's great, Jim. Hey, I'll just wash this stuff off my hands. Why don't you get some more rest, okay? I can do this some more later."

Jim was yawning as Sandburg spoke. "Okay, Chief. Just for a few minutes." He closed his eyes.

***

Blair spent some of the time that Jim was sleeping pestering the medical staff. This seemed to be a pretty well-resourced facility, and even included some homeopathic remedies in its inventory; so he was able to get hold of a number of items which would help him make Jim more comfortable. The staff were polite and helpful, but not forthcoming with any information, and Blair assumed that as such they were following orders.

He also, to his relief, managed to appropriate some army-issue clothes for himself. He was sure that Jim, with his sensitive nose, would also appreciate the change in his attire.

It was late afternoon when Kovach finally showed up. Jim had woken a little while before from a deep sleep that had lasted several hours, and Blair had just helped him to eat a light meal.

Both men looked at the agent resentfully as he came in to stand by the bed. He didn't seem to notice the animosity. Instead, he spoke directly to Jim.

"Arrangements have been made for you to spend some time in a rehab facility. It is at a military base on the east coast, and specializes in treating PoWs who have suffered physical and mental trauma. Doctor McCall informs me that you need intensive physiotherapy, and that it would be in your best interests to start it as soon as possible, so to that end, you will be transported there sometime later tomorrow. The government will foot the bill for all your treatment and other expenses."

Jim voiced the question that was uppermost in Blair's mind also. "Is this a voluntary thing? What if I don't want to go?"

Kovach shrugged. "If that is what you decide, then we will make arrangements for you to travel back to Cascade as soon as you are well enough. But I would urge you to do this. Unless you begin therapy soon, your recovery will be slow. And although this place is good in an emergency, it does not boast the specialist facilities you need. The base hospital has some of the leading specialists in the field, and you won't get better care anywhere else."

"What about me?" Blair had a dangerous look in his eye. There was no way these people were whisking Jim away to god-knows-where without him.

Kovach smiled condescendingly. "You can go back to Cascade, or you can accompany Detective Ellison to North Carolina."

Jim spoke up again. "And when it's finished? What then?"

"Then we send you home. End of story."

"So what?" Sandburg said incredulously, "We're free until the next time you want to use Jim to get what you want?"

"I give you my word, Detective," Kovach said, ignoring Blair, "That the government will not require your services again. You have more than done your duty to this country. All we wish for now is that you make a full recovery and return to your life, and we are anxious to facilitate that in any way we can."

Sandburg still wasn't convinced. "What makes you think we believe that? You could just be shipping us off into some bunker somewhere so Jim can become your secret weapon."

"Believe me, if that had ever been our intention, we would have done it long before now."

The words were delivered in Kovach's characteristic dispassionate tone. But the chilling import was there, and Blair saw his own reaction mirrored on Jim's face. These people were powerful, and there was no doubt that the task force held both Sandburg and Ellison's lives in their hands.

There was a pause as options were weighed. Then Jim broke the silence. "Say we decide to trust you, and go along with this. What next? You gonna keep watching me?"

Kovach shook his head. "No. Our operation is over. In fact, I had word from the president this morning that the task force is to be disbanded."

Jim stared. Even injured and debilitated as he was, he still had a formidable icy stare. "Why?"

"It seems that those at the very top share Mister Sandburg's concerns about the ethical validity of our work. The information we have collected on sentinels, as well as all the data Brackett compiled, is to be sent to the Pentagon, where it will be sealed for sixty years. Even then, only the President, and those with the highest security clearance, will have access to it."

Blair and Jim exchanged a skeptical look. It sounded too good to be true. Jim looked back at Kovach. "Say I believe that you're going to let us go back to our lives, and just forget all about me being a sentinel. Everybody in Cascade thinks I'm dead. What the hell am I going to tell people when I make like Lazarus?"

"The official story will be that you, being still a reserve officer in the Rangers, were recalled to duty overseas, and that your mission was top secret. Your death was fabricated to satisfy national security issues. During the course of the mission, you were detained as a hostage and tortured. Eventually your release was obtained. The international climate being what it is just now, the story should be plausible. You'll go back as a hero, Detective."

They didn't have a lot of choice, and both of them knew it. Finally Jim nodded. "Okay, I'll go to the rehab unit. But Blair stays with me, and gets the same consideration." Jim looked to Blair for confirmation as he spoke, and Sandburg nodded his head in agreement.

Together. That's what they had promised. And Blair intended to stay with Jim every step of the way.

***

Later that night, Blair sat beside Jim on the bed, as they flicked channels on the tiny TV, which was high on a bracket in the corner of the room.

Jim had been drifting in and out of a doze, the meds and the aftermath of his ordeal still making him sleepy. Then he started awake at Blair's voice, "Oh man. Jim, wake up. You gotta see this."

The national news was on, and they listened as the anchorman summarized the main reports of the day. “Tributes are still pouring in for the Senator, who was found dead of a heart attack earlier today…”

"Do you think that's him?" Blair asked, as footage of the deceased Senator was shown.

"I don't know, Chief. Could be," Jim said. "I used to listen in to Brackett's calls, but he always used a go-between, so I never heard the guy's voice. He used white noise generators to keep me out, but I learned to hear past them."

The reporter droned on, as Blair raised his eyebrows in amazement. "What, you filtered it out?"

"Yep. You taught me well, Chief."

"Wow. I wonder what else you could do it with. I guess we could..." Suddenly, Blair faltered. "Sorry, man," he said. "Forget I said anything."

"Chief?" Jim glanced at Blair, and it was as if a shutter had come down. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing, Jim. Forget it. Hey!" He changed tack rapidly. "Get a load of this!"

The news story had changed. “An unnamed Army Captain held hostage for three months in the Middle East has returned to the US after his release was negotiated by Pentagon officials. A US Army spokesman declined to name the Captain, who was badly injured during his captivity, until relatives have been informed. And in other news..."

So Kovach had done it. Now the story was out there, Jim felt safer about the whole deal. And at least his name had so far been kept out of the press. Jim decided he would insist it remain out - his privacy had been invaded enough.

Eventually, secure in the comforting presence of his closest friend, Jim fell asleep.

***

Blair must have dozed off himself, because he woke much later, cold, with a crick in his neck, still sitting next to Jim who was fast asleep. The TV was still blaring away, showing some mindless sitcom.

Blair clicked off the TV using the remote, then stood and stretched, and headed to the bathroom, where he sleepily took care of business. Then he came back into Jim's dimly lit room, and headed towards the door. He had been allocated a room of his own just across the hall, although he hadn't spent any time in there yet. Yawning, he reached for the handle.

Jim's voice, full of anguish, stopped him. "Chief?"

Blair couldn't remember Jim ever sounding so vulnerable. He spun around and headed straight back to the bed. "Hey," he said softly. "What's wrong? Do you need something?"

He heard Jim swallow, and then as though the word was being dragged out of him, he gasped "Stay." A hand came out and grasped the front of Blair's shirt. "Please."

"Hey, you want me to stay, I'm here." Blair placed his own hand over Jim's. "I'm here. Are you in pain, Jim?"

"No." Jim swallowed again. "Bad dream," he admitted.

"Oh man." Without another thought, Blair climbed up to lie beside Jim, and put an arm around him. "You're safe," he said. "I'm here. I'm not going anywhere."

Jim was tense at first, but he gradually relaxed. Tired out himself, Blair's own awareness began to drift. He felt Jim trying to put the top blanket over him, and sleepily moved to help. "Thanks, man," he muttered.

Not long after, they were both asleep.

***

The next morning, Jim suddenly remembered something important.

"Chief," he asked his partner, who was looking out of the window, "What happened to Alex?"

Blair turned and looked at him. "Alex? As in Alex Barnes? I don't know. Was she in the building you were kept in?"

"Yeah. I could hear her when I listened past the white noise."

Blair shook his head. "No one said anything about her to me, but I was a bit preoccupied when we were in there. Can you hear her now?"

Jim concentrated, and Blair watched as he spent a short while doing an auditory sweep of the building. Then, when he didn't find her, he reached out further, taking in the whole base, but the other sentinel's incessant babbling was not in evidence anywhere. Reining in his hearing, he looked at Blair. "She isn't here," he said.

"Can you sense her? When she was in Cascade, and then in Sierra Verde, you were aware of her presence without using your other senses."

"It's not like that anymore. That all changed after the pool at the temple."

"Oh. Right." Blair looked away for a moment, then back at Jim. "How do you feel about Alex right now?" he asked carefully.

Jim grimaced. "Chief, I hate what she did to you. You know that, right?"

"Sure. I know."

"Don't take this the wrong way, Blair. I can't help it. I feel sorry for her. Listening to her, to what she was seeing, it scared the hell out of me, and I couldn't help but pity her. Her senses are so out there, she can't even feel her body anymore. She talked all the time, about what she was seeing and feeling. It was like all her senses were mixed up; like she could taste smells, and see sounds."

"Oh man." Blair said. "Synesthesia - substituting one sense for another. It sounds like the ultimate zone - all her senses crossed, and focused off into the ether."

"And no guide to call her back." Jim looked pointedly at Blair.

Sandburg hastily changed the subject. "You ready to eat, Jim? I'm starving."

Jim was watching Blair curiously, but he obviously decided to let his odd evasion go. "Okay, Chief. You could do with some more meat on those bones."

"Look who's talking, man!"

A short while later, Jim was able to question the redoubtable Agent Kovach about Alex's whereabouts, when he called in to see them yet again. In answer, Kovach adopted a look of sympathy that Blair considered to be about as genuine as the fake Mayan urn he had once been in brief possession of. "I'm sorry, Detective. Ms Barnes didn't make it. We believe that her weakened state couldn't take the abuse Brackett put her through, and she was already dead by the time we found her."

Blair had to admit he wasn't all that sorry she was dead, although the circumstances of her demise were pretty grim. But Jim looked, in his typical stoic way that Blair could read like a book, pretty upset, so he laid a hand on his friend's shoulder, and muttered, "Sorry, man."

"So what now?" Jim's hoarse voice broke the sudden quiet.

Kovach cleared his throat. "The arrangements have been made for your trip to rehab. You will be shipped out via medical chopper this evening."

Jim nodded, and Blair patted his arm. "It'll be okay, Jim," he said, and Jim inclined his head in acknowledgement.

"I have something else to tell you," Kovach went on. He looked at Blair. "Captain Simon Banks of Cascade PD officially reported you missing several days ago. I have contacted him and informed him you are alive and well, and that Detective Ellison is also alive. I gather that he is a personal friend of yours, as he insisted on coming out here immediately. He should be arriving in the next couple of hours."

"Oh god. Simon." Blair was annoyed with himself once more. "I should have called him. He's gonna be so pissed with me." He looked at Jim, who had turned his face to the wall. "Hey, Jim, isn't that great that he's coming? He's really missed you, man."

Jim didn't answer, and realizing something was wrong, Blair said to Kovach, "Ah, can you give us some time alone, here? I think this is all a bit much for him right now. Okay?"

Kovach acquiesced, and as the door closed behind him, Blair said worriedly "Hey, Jim. What is it? What's going on?"

"Can't see Simon." The voice was thick with suppressed emotion.

"Why not? He's your friend, man, like I am. He's been really worried about you."

"I don't want him to see me like this!"

Oh god. Poor Jim. "Hey," Blair murmured, "It's okay. It's okay. If you don't want to see him, I'll tell him when he gets here. I understand, man. It's okay."

Jim was silent, then said in a small voice "Sorry, Chief. Stupid."

"No. No, it's not. It's important you take control, and if you're not happy about something, you say it, and we won't do it. So no argument from me, if that's what you want. But Jim," Blair put a hand on his friend's shoulder, "The way you are now, it's not something anyone, least of all Simon, would judge you for. He cares about you, just like I do. When we thought you were dead, it really hit him hard. I've honestly never seen him that upset. I think it would really mean a lot to him to see you with his own eyes; to see that you really are alive."

Jim was silent for a long while. Then he said, "You play dirty, Sandburg."

Blair grinned. "Hey, when you're as short as me, you have to."

***

Since receiving the news earlier that not only was Blair alive and well, but that Jim Ellison was with him, Simon had been unable to rest until he had seen them for himself. He had been given some cock-and-bull story about Ellison having been in the Middle East, which tallied with something he had seen on the news the previous night; but suspected the truth of the matter differed substantially.

The Feds, who seemed to be involved in this situation up to their eyeballs, had graciously provided air transport to the army base his people were currently situated at; and Simon had taken advantage of the offer immediately.

Before leaving, he had gone to see Joel Taggart, to ensure that someone he trusted knew where he had gone. His two friends had already disappeared in mysterious circumstances, as well as Jack Kelso and the PD officer Ciaran Reilly. Simon did not intend to become yet another missing persons statistic.

On arrival, he had been shown straight to the base's medical facility, and had wasted no time in getting to the room Ellison had apparently been assigned.

But now he was here, outside the slightly open door, he found himself momentarily unable to step over the threshold. Instead, he lurked there for a moment, listening to the familiar voices inside.

"If you tell Simon we cuddled all night like a pair of newlyweds, man, they'll never find the body."

A croaky - but familiar - voice answered Blair. "You think that's what newlyweds do, Junior? That explains your lack of success with women."

The utter familiarity of Ellison and Sandburg's good-natured argument, the content firmly placed somewhere in the Sandburg-zone, took Simon's breath away, and he halted, breathing deeply, attempting to get himself together before he entered the room. These were two of his men. He had a responsibility to support them; to be strong.

He missed the murmur of voices inside, forgetting for a moment that Ellison would hear him coming, until a smiling Blair appeared in the doorway. "Hey, Simon," he said gently, taking Banks's arm. "Come on in, man. There's someone here who wants to see you."

Banks allowed himself to be steered into the room.

The emaciated creature in the bed looked awful. A cadaverous parody of the man he once knew.

Until he smiled in welcome; an unmistakable Ellison smile.

"You son of a bitch," Simon found himself saying. "Don't you ever do anything like this again!"

Jim just grinned wider, as Blair bounced happily over to stand by the side of the bed. "Hi Simon," Ellison croaked. "It's nice to see you too."

***

As Kovach had promised, they flew out later that day. Once they arrived at the base in North Carolina, Jim spent a week in the hospital, where he began an intensive program of physiotherapy and counseling.

It was pretty apparent to Blair that Jim suffered quite a bit of anxiety if he was left alone for any length of time; and Blair's presence seemed to reassure him in a way that no stranger's at the hospital could. It took a little persuasion on Blair's part, but it was finally agreed that Blair would stay with Ellison in the twin room that was allocated to him. Blair suspected that Kovach had endorsed this unusual request, so it was really only a token protest that the hospital made.

Following Jim's stay as an in-patient, he and Blair were moved out into quarters of their own - a detached house on the base, picket fence and all; standing to attention amidst a row of identical houses. In deference to Ellison's former rank of captain, their quarters were in a sector occupied by officers.

Blair felt a little uncomfortable at first in the military surroundings. With his long hair he stood out a mile - but no one hassled him, and their neighbors left them alone, so he soon got used to it. The base was huge, and in addition to its own shopping mall and other facilities, it possessed miles of private beach, as well as acres of woodland and swamp. It seemed to be a totally insular, self-sufficient community; almost like a small town. In some ways, Blair thought with amusement, the societal structure of the base didn't seem to be an awful lot different from a commune he and Naomi had once lived on, which had housed a sprawling community of self sufficient vegetarians, living an alternative lifestyle in what amounted to their own village. He wondered wryly what his mom would think of him comparing the two.

Jim's therapy continued, and gradually he built up both his weight and his strength. He made only token protests when Blair insisted on supplementing his conventional treatment with more esoteric approaches; allowing Sandburg to renew his interest in massage and alternative medicine. Blair spent hours searching the Internet, and discovered a health-food shop in the nearby town which sold homeopathic remedies, all of which he inflicted on Ellison with enthusiasm. Certainly none of it did Jim any harm.

In the meantime, Blair battled his own demons, determined to keep from Jim the extent of his own angst over what he had done to Brackett. He managed to avoid telling Jim what had happened time and time again, and eventually Ellison stopped asking. He spent time in meditation, trying desperately to come to terms with his drastically altered self-image; but peace seemed a long way off, and he despaired of ever coming to terms with what he had done.

Both of them kept in regular touch with Simon back in Cascade, which Blair was relieved about. After everything that had happened, he felt justified in feeling a little paranoid. If someone they trusted knew where they were, at least it would be harder for them to just be made to disappear.

They had been on the base for nearly six weeks, when the phone rang one weekend. Blair went to answer it. "Hello, this is Blair Sandburg," he said.

“Sandburg, It's me.”

"Hey Simon! How's it going, man?"

“Same old, same old. How are you? And how's he doing?”

"I'm fine. And Jim, well, the physiotherapy is a bitch, but he's getting there. He's harder on himself than the therapist is, to tell you the truth. And man, the attitude! The guy has a serious problem."

"I heard that!" came Jim's voice from the living room.

"Hey! This is private!" Blair shouted back to him, holding the phone away slightly from his ear. "Keep your bionic ears to yourself, man!"

An answering smile could be heard in Jim's voice as he called back good-naturedly, "Fine, Chief, I'll tune out. I'm going to watch the game, anyway." Jim closed the door between the rooms, and Blair turned back to his telephone conversation.

"Seriously, Simon, he's doing great," he said. "Still needs the wheelchair sometimes to help him get around if he's feeling really tired, but he's getting stronger every day."

“How’re you doing?”

"I'm good, Simon. Really good. I'm, uh," he swallowed, "I just wish I could take him home, You know? It'd be really good for him to get back to familiar surroundings."

“Have they said how soon you can leave?”

"Well, it's pretty much up to us. Jim could just as easily continue his P.T. in Cascade, now he's over the worst. Mainly he's just working on his muscle strength; which, to be honest, he could do in any gym. And he's piling on the pounds without too much effort. But it's uh... it's the other therapy he needs to stay on a bit longer for."

Understanding colored Simon's tone. “The counseling, huh?”

Blair nodded. "Yeah. The shrink here on the base was briefed on what happened when we arrived, and she was told about his senses, so it's okay for Jim to talk about the sentinel stuff. But there's so much he can't get into with anyone else, you know? Plus she's a specialist in treating survivors of torture, which Jim needs, so basically it's here or nothing. 'Course Jim, being Jim, doesn't think he needs it. He says he's fine."

“But?”

Blair sighed. "But he's not fine, Simon. He's not. He's changed a lot, man. I mean, who wouldn't? He's quieter, more cautious; scared still, I guess. He doesn't like it if I'm out of his sight for too long; and you know how he used to like his space. And he still has nightmares some nights."

“Jesus.”

"Don't get me wrong, man; I mean, he's a whole lot better than he was at first. He's come a long way since then. It's just, he still has a ways to go, even if he won't admit it."

“And what about you, Blair? You've been through a lot too. Are you talking to someone?”

Simon, thank god, didn't know the half of it. Nonchalantly, Blair said, "Hey, you know me, man! I bounce back. Always have, always will."

“Sandburg, cut the crap.”

The familiar bark, with its bite of command, was hard to resist, even for a rebel like Sandburg. "Okay, okay. Yeah, I admit I'm in therapy too. It's kind of a deal I made with Jim. He'll keep going if I will."

“Is it helping?”

Blair paused. "I guess it's helping me come to terms with a few things," he said, "But it wasn't me who was tortured for three months, Simon. It was Jim. I'm fine. I really am. He's the one who needs help."

Simon tactfully moved away from the subject, although apparently unimpressed by Sandburg's declaration of resilience. It seemed that Blair had got himself another blessed protector. “I hear you. So, I was wondering if Jim had changed his mind about letting people know he's still alive. And I'm not talking the entire world here, just his father and brother. They're his family; they have a right to know.”

"I know, Simon. No argument from me, but it's up to him. I think he wants to be, well, a bit more healed before he springs it on them. He just needs to get some of his confidence back, so that he can deal with their reactions. It's a bit much for him to think about right now."

“Okay. I get what you're saying, and I won't push it.” A pause. "You take care, Blair. Of yourself, as well as him. You know I'm always here.”

Simon had been a rock for Blair ever since this whole nightmare had started. Warmed once again by the Captain's concern, Blair said quietly, "I know, man. Thanks, I really appreciate it. Hey," he said, moving towards the door separating him from Jim, "You wanna talk to him?"

As he spoke, Blair could faintly hear Jim bemoaning his team's apparent bad fortune in the next room. "Oh man! Come, on. You play like a girl..."

Simon's familiar belly laugh brought a grin to Blair's face. “Sure, Sandburg. I've got the game on here too. What's the use of my bet with Jim if I don't get to gloat about that last fumble?”

***

Finally, a long six months after James Ellison's faked death, Jim and Blair came home to Cascade, and the loft on 852 Prospect.

Although thinner than he had been, Jim was well on the way to fully regaining his physical health. Always having been a regular at the gym, he had been working hard to tone up his muscles, with impressive results considering his condition immediately after being rescued.

But his psyche had taken quite a battering, and he knew that there would be rough spots in the months and years ahead as a result. He no longer started constantly at sounds, and his nightmares and flashbacks had become less frequent; but in many ways he would never again be the same man that had left Cascade six months before.

Blair continued to be a solid presence in his world; a steadfast shield between Jim and anything that might hurt him. Now that Ellison had regained a lot of his strength and self-assurance, he was beginning to find Blair's attention a little stifling at times; but recognized that it was something Blair himself took comfort from, and therefore let it be for now. Sandburg, after all, had seen him die one too many times.

So far, the only people in Cascade that knew he was still alive were Simon and Joel Taggart. Once he got settled back in his home, Jim intended to let other people know, starting with his family. Additionally, Banks and Taggart were the only two people who had any inkling of the true story of Jim's whereabouts for the last half-year. Everyone else would be told the story concocted by the task force - that Jim had been recalled to active duty and had spent time as a PoW.

Simon had promised to talk to the Chief and the Mayor about a creating job for Ellison back at the PD (his original post having long since been filled), and was confident that under the circumstances - Jim was a returning hero, after all - they would look favorably on the request.

So having arrived home at long last, Jim and Blair spent their most peaceful night since Jim's abduction, secure in their own familiar beds.

***

The next morning, it was as if they'd never been away.

Almost.

"I'll just be ten minutes, man. Will you be okay?"

"Sandburg, will you just go, already! I'm gonna grab a shower, if you've left any hot water; and there'd better be donuts when I come out." Jim disappeared into the bathroom.

"Okay, chill! I'm goin'!" Sandburg exited the loft, closing the apartment door behind him. For a second he paused, before heading to the elevator.

He still had trouble with the idea of leaving Jim alone, even for the few minutes it would take him to go to the bakery. When he had needed to get out on the base, to buy groceries, for example, or to go to the health-food store in town, he had always managed to coincide it with times Jim was having treatment or therapy.

Now, Jim was alone in the loft for the first time, and appeared to be fine with the idea. It was Blair who was having problems.

"Just chill out," Blair muttered to himself with exasperation, as he descended in the elevator, but his stomach churned with anxiety.

Luckily, there wasn't much of a queue in the bakery, and Blair managed to get served in record time. Moving swiftly out of the shop door, he was so intent on getting back quickly to Jim that he didn't notice the figure blocking his path until they almost collided.

"Whoa!" he said in surprise. "Excuse me."

"Mister Sandburg," said the man. "You've been very difficult to get hold of."

For a second, Blair had a vivid memory of men in suits and white vans, and his heart pounded triple time as he squinted at the speaker. It took a moment before he recognized him. "Uh... Mister Zane?" It was the private investigator William Ellison had sicced on him.

The guy held out an envelope, which Blair took. "Consider yourself served," Zane said. "Have a nice day". He walked off.

Blair just looked down stupidly at the envelope in his hand, donuts momentarily forgotten. Shifting his purchases in his hand, he ripped it open.

A short while later, he let himself back into the loft. Jim appeared to be still in the bathroom, so Blair swiftly concealed the envelope under a stack of papers in his room. By the time Jim exited in a cloud of steam, Sandburg was in the kitchen making coffee.

Jim paused on his way upstairs to get dressed, a quizzical look on his face. "Chief?" he asked, "Everything all right?"

"Yeah, Jim," Blair said nonchalantly. "Hey, I got buttermilk!"

"Nice!" Jim looked like the cat that ate the cream. "I'll be down in two minutes."

"Take your time, man," Blair said in return, smiling at his friend as he ascended the steps. But as he turned back to the coffee maker, the smile morphed into a frown; and he wondered how the hell he was going to deal with this hiccup.

***

Jim insisted that Blair go to Rainier that afternoon, to make sure that his job was still secure. "We didn't go through all that legal mess for nothing, Sandburg. You can't just throw your career away."

Blair therefore had an appointment with the Head of Anthropology just after lunch. And unbeknownst to Jim, he had called Simon and asked him to come over while he was out, being unwilling to leave Jim alone for long.

Simon arrived just in time, and to Blair's relief, pretended it was all his idea. "Hey, Jim. I've got some time off today, and thought I'd come over and shoot the breeze. How you guys doin'?"

Jim had a suspicious look on his face, and Blair had a fair idea his friend wasn't fooled in the slightest. This was confirmed when Jim followed him to the door on his way out. Ellison grinned knowingly at Sandburg. "I'll be here when you get back, you know."

Wham! That had been a direct hit. Blair looked a little embarrassed. "Am I that obvious?"

Jim smiled. "Only to me." Ellison whacked him on the shoulder. "Go on, get outta here. Earn a living."

"Okay. Hey, Simon," Blair called over Jim's shoulder, "See you later."

Blair went, closing the door behind him, and when Jim didn't move, Simon came over. "Everything okay, Jim?"

"Shh, a moment, sir." Jim said, holding up a hand. Banks noticed that he had adopted his familiar listening posture. After a moment, he relaxed with a sigh. "He's gone. C'mon," He steered Simon over towards Blair's room, "I want to show you something."

Jim disappeared for a moment into Sandburg's inner sanctum, and when he came out, he was holding a foolscap envelope. He handed it to Simon.

"What's this?" Banks asked.

Jim gestured towards it. "Open it," he said.

"Jim, I don't know. This is addressed to Sandburg."

"Please, Simon. This is important. Open it."

Reluctantly, feeling like he was breaching Blair's trust, Simon nevertheless did what Jim asked, trusting that Ellison had good reason. He knew, in any case, that his friend wouldn't do anything to hurt the kid. He pulled out a sheaf of papers, and after reading the front page looked up in surprise. "Ellison vs Sandburg?"

"My father," Jim clarified. "He's suing Blair for everything I left him in my will - the loft, the money. All of it."

Simon flicked the pages over. "Fraud, deception... wait, I don't believe this. He's citing Blair in this suit for contributing to the circumstances which resulted in your death, and says he was made your beneficiary because you were under his 'undue influence and mentally incompetent'? That's bullshit! None of this will stand up in court."

Jim grinned wryly. "Especially as I'm not dead." He took the papers from Simon, and put them back in the envelope. "Even if I was, he couldn't prove any of this. He's just trying to hurt Blair. He resented him ever since they first met."

Simon was shaking his head in amazement. "I knew your father had a grudge against him, but I didn't expect him to do anything like this, despite everything else that went on. Did the kid tell you about the funeral? The private investigator?"

Jim shook his head. "No."

"What are you going to do?"

Jim weighed the envelope in his hand. "Blair doesn't know I've seen this. He's so damn protective, he thinks he's going to handle it himself. But he's been through enough. He doesn't need this shit."

Neither do you, thought Simon. But he didn't voice the thought. Instead he said, "So what do you need? I'm guessing I'm not just here to baby-sit while Sandburg's at Rainier."

Jim snorted and rolled his eyes. He knew that was why Blair had asked Simon over. Then he looked at Banks. "I want you to tell me everything that went on while I was gone. I've had the Sandburg abridged version, but you and I both know how much our guppy likes obfuscation. And he managed to obfuscate everything about my dad right out of the window."

"And then?"

Jim's mouth was set in a determined line. "Then I'm going to see my father. It's time he found out that the rumors of my death were greatly exaggerated."

***

A while later, Simon's car drew up outside William Ellison's impressive house.

Simon looked over at Jim. "You sure you're ready to do this?"

Ellison's face was an expressionless mask under his Jags cap. "As ready as I'll ever be."

Banks had called William earlier to give him the news that Jim was still alive, furnishing him with the official explanation of Jim's fabricated death and subsequent incarceration. So neither of them was surprised, as they walked from the car, to find both Jim's father and Stephen waiting for them on the doorstep. Stephen rushed forward. He had tears in his eyes. "Oh god, Jim," he said, as he crushed his brother in an embrace. "Oh god."

Jim returned his brother's hug. "Hey," he murmured, patting him on the back. "It's okay. It's okay."

A hand landed on Jim's arm, and he turned from Stephen's embrace to see that his father had joined them, his own eyes moist. "Jimmy," he said, appearing too choked to say anything else, and Jim pushed himself away from Stephen.

"Dad," he greeted simply. "Shall we go inside?"

"Of course, son," William nodded, and as he put out his arms to usher Jim and Stephen into the house, Jim turned to Simon.

Simon gestured towards the car. "I'll wait here. I think you need to be with your family."

Jim nodded. "Thanks, Simon. I won't be long."

"Take all the time you need," Banks answered. He pulled a cigar out of his pocket as he walked back to the car, and Jim turned and walked in with his father and brother.

***

Once inside, Jim's father ushered them into the lounge, where he guided Jim to a seat on the couch. Stephen sat down beside Jim, still drinking in the sight of his brother. "My god, Jimmy," William said. I never suspected for one minute that was you on the news; the soldier who had been held hostage. They never gave your name. I'm proud of you, son. But that was weeks ago. Why the hell didn't you let us know then that you were still alive?"

Jim swallowed, and beside him, Stephen laid a hand on his arm. "It's complicated," he said. "I haven't been in the best shape."

Stephen was looking at him worriedly. "Jim, are you okay? You're so thin, and they said that... that you'd been," he faltered, unable to say the word.

Jim supplied it for him. "I was tortured. And yeah," he met Stephen's eyes, "I'm getting better, bro. I've had a lot of help."

William butted in. "And, thank god, you're home now, Jimmy. You can stay here, for as long as you want. I can get you the best specialists in the business, to help you get back on your feet. You won't have to worry about a thing."

"Dad," said Jim coldly, and he felt Stephen stiffen beside him at the tone. "I already have a home. At the loft, with Blair."

William spluttered. "Jimmy, you can't possibly go back there. Not until you get that two-faced little jerk out. You have no idea what has been going on while you've been away."

"Dad..." Stephen protested, but Jim waved him silent.

"It's okay, Stephen," he said. "I'll handle this." Fixing his most uncompromising stare on his father, Jim said, "Dad, you have no idea what you're talking about."

"With respect, Jimmy," his father went on, unaware of the depth of the hole he was digging, "I think that I do. Hear me out son. That gold-digger you had living with you quite happily took what you left to him, and went on with his life as though nothing had happened. While we were all mourning your loss, that bastard went straight back to work at Rainier. He went out with his buddies, and with women, Jimmy, a different one each night. He took your money, your home, and went on, showing no sign of grief or remorse."

"And how do you know this?" Jim asked dangerously.

"Jimmy," William said gently, as though imparting wisdom to a child, "I suspected what he was like as soon as I met him; and my opinion didn't change when I found out he'd got his hands on everything you owned. So I had him investigated, to find out for sure what kind of a person he really was. And all my suspicions were confirmed. The man's no good, Jimmy. He used you, every step of the way."

Jim reached into his back pocket, and withdrew the folded brown envelope. He threw it on the floor between them. "So is that what this is about?"

William made no move to pick it up, so Stephen did. He opened the envelope, and when he saw at a glance what the contents were, he looked up at his father incredulously. "Dad?" he exclaimed, "You're suing Blair?"

William and Jim had locked gazes. "So now the no-good coward has come running to you with this," William said quietly, "After the ordeal you have just been through." He shook his head. "If this doesn't prove to you that I'm right about him, son, then nothing will."

"You're right," Jim said. "Nothing will. And for your information, Blair doesn't know that I've seen this, so you can forget the 'coward' crap. Tell me," he went on, "Just how the hell did you think you were going to prove that I was 'mentally incompetent'? Or under Sandburg's 'malevolent influence'?"

"Jimmy, that man has convinced you from the word go that you are something you are not. I looked into his background, and you know what I found? He's spent years of his life learning how to manipulate minds. Hypnosis, psychotherapy, the works. He's dabbled in it all. He used all of that to twist these... these senses of yours into something bigger than they really are, to validate his own crackpot theories. So yes, I believe it is possible to prove you were not in your right mind when you made your will, and that he took advantage of you. My attorney subpoenaed your medical files, and they make interesting reading. The proof is there. And," William smiled, "now the evidence has been compiled, we can use it to get him out of your condominium quicker, so you can take back what's yours. The groundwork has all been done for you, son."

Jim pushed himself up from the couch. Worried, Stephen said, "Jim?" But Jim silenced him irritably.

"Stay out of this, Stephen," he said. He walked over to stand in front of his father. "Do you have any idea," he asked quietly, "Where Blair has been for the last three months?"

Happy to impart more damning evidence, William said, "That's another thing, Jimmy. He disappeared without a trace; no one knows where. Walked out of his job, abandoned his responsibilities, and just left. I've been trying to track him down, to find out what the hell he was up to. But until this morning, when he was spotted near your place on Prospect, there was no trace of him."

Jim smiled mirthlessly. "I'll tell you where he's been," he said, quiet menace infusing his words as he got up into his father's face. "Three months ago, he was taken forcibly from Cascade by government agents, and brought to where I was being held. He risked his life, by walking unarmed into enemy territory to find me. He shot the son of a bitch who had made my life a living hell for three whole months. Then he used his so-called 'malevolent influence' to bring me back from near-death. He stuck with me, helping me through the rescue, and through the therapy I've had since. And now he's come back with me, to our home, where he's helping me put my life back together. That's where he's been, and that's where he is now."

"Jimmy," William protested weakly.

But Jim didn't allow him to continue. "Blair Sandburg is the reason I am still sane, the reason I am still alive. I owe him everything. And understand this; if I die tomorrow, everything I own will still be his. Because I can never repay the debt I owe him. So there is no way in hell I'm going to allow you to continue to persecute him."

"Jimmy, you've got it all wrong! He's a charlatan!"

"Dad, for god's sake, open your eyes! Take a good look at yourself, and stop denying the truth! You've never been happy with what I am; with what I can do with my senses. You've tried, my entire life, to ignore it; to pretend it doesn't exist, and you've tried to force me to do the same. And because you can't stand having a freak for a son, who embarrassed you one too many times in front of your country club cronies, you've tried to make Blair a scapegoat, because he believes what I have is a gift!"

"No, Jimmy..." Ellison senior interjected, but Jim angrily cut him off.

"I haven't finished!" Jim was livid. "And you will damn well listen to what I have to say." He glared at his father, daring him to interrupt again, and after a moment, sure at last that his father was finally hearing him, Jim carried on. "If you, or your private eye, or your attorney, or whoever the hell else you've bought and paid for, ever bad-mouth or harass my partner again, you will say sayonara to me for the rest of your natural life. Because if you force me to choose between you, he will win every time."

William seemed finally stunned into silence, and Jim stood back, exhausted suddenly by the whole thing. He turned, and after retrieving the damning document from Stephen, began to walk away. "Jimmy," William protested weakly. "Wait. Please, son. I did it for you. I did it all for you, Jimmy."

"No." Jim didn't turn around. "You did it for yourself." He walked out of the door.

Behind him, he heard a shocked William appeal to his other son. "Stephen?"

"I warned you, Dad," Stephen said, unsympathetically. "You made your bed; now lie in it."

***

When Blair arrived back from Rainier, he let himself into the loft to find Jim and Simon on the couch watching a baseball game.

He shrugged out of his jacket, and went to hang it up. "Hey, you guys have a good time?"

Jim clicked off the TV, not looking at Blair, and Simon rose. "I think I'll leave you two alone," he said.

Sensing immediately that all was not as it should be, Blair gave Simon a quizzical look as Banks went by on the way to the coat rack. But Simon just said, "See you, Sandburg," and without further ceremony disappeared through the door.

Worried, Blair walked over to where Jim was sat on the couch. The other man was pointedly not looking at him. Blair frowned in confusion. "What's going on, man?"

Jim looked up, his blank expression one Blair recognized as Ellison when he was dangerously angry; and not knowing the reason, Blair's heart began to pound faster.

Jim reached beside him and produced an envelope from where it sat on the cushion. He threw it down on the coffee table. "Recognize this?" he asked without inflection.

Blair did, and went from worried to pissed in two seconds flat. "Jim, where did you get that? It's... it's private! I can't believe you went and got that!"

Jim's face could have been carved from marble. Tonelessly, he said, "Were you ever going to tell me?"

"I was going to deal with it. You didn't have to know!"

It was as if a button had been pushed. Ellison sprang upright, towering over Blair. "What the hell gives you the right," he yelled, "To decide what I should and shouldn't know, huh? This is about my father, Sandburg, suing you over my will! What part of that does not concern me? Why don't you enlighten me, huh?"

Blair took a step back, an aching lump making itself known in his throat. "Jim, I was just trying to protect you, man," he protested weakly, wondering how they had come to be suddenly so at odds with each other.

Ellison continued to vent his spleen. "I don't fucking need protecting! Get off my case, Sandburg. What happened, happened. It's over. I'm getting on with my life, and it's time you did the same." He turned his head away, fixing his gaze across the room, away from Blair.

Blair felt the foundation of his world crumbling. Shocked, he heard himself ask, "What are you saying, Jim? Are you... are you throwing me out?" The words almost choked him.

Jim looked back at him, and although the anger was still there, exasperation was fighting a war with it for dominance. "No," he said, an edge of sarcasm in his tone. "I'm not 'throwing you out'. I'm telling you to deal with it, Sandburg. Deal with the thing that prevents you from trusting me with shit like this. The thing that's been eating you up ever since you went head-to-head with Brackett."

Feeling as though he had been slapped, Blair said in a hurt tone, "I'm trying Jim. I'm sorry I didn't tell you about the lawsuit..."

The anger was back. Jim took a step closer. "This isn't about the fucking lawsuit! It's about what went on back there, with Brackett. You're hiding from it. You won't even talk about it! But I know what happened, Chief, and I know it's eating you up inside. I know you shot him."

The color drained from Sandburg's face. "Who told you?"

"No one told me, Darwin, I smelled it! I smelled the residue of the gun on your hands, and the blood. I may not be Einstein, but I know how to add two and two; it sure wasn't your blood. And as well as conveniently forgetting I'm a sentinel, and can do shit like that, you seem to have forgotten I'm a detective as well. So maybe this will remind you." Jim was right in Blair's personal space now. "I know you skipped counseling, and that you lied to me about going. For a man who's supposedly in touch with his feelings, you're going great at the old repression there, Junior. So why don't you come clean, huh? Tell me what happened."

Blair was shaking. "I can't."

Jim put out both hands and gripped Blair's shoulders, staring him in the eye intently. "Try," he said forcefully. "It's just you and me here, Chief. You think I'm going to judge you, after what he did to me?"

Blair shook his head, unable to answer, as he battled with some unnamed emotion.

Jim wasn't finished. He took his hands away, and pushed Blair backwards, hard. "C'mon," he growled. He pushed Blair again, goading him. And again. Sandburg's heart was beating as though it would burst right out of his chest, as the anger, fear and pain he had kept inside for so long coalesced into something he didn't recognize. Something he could no longer contain.

Abruptly, ferociously, it all exploded out of him. And with a roar, Sandburg shoved Ellison back, hard, removing the other man from his path.

Then he whirled away from Ellison like a tornado, demolishing everything in his path; inanimate objects transformed into fuel for his rage and grief. "What the fuck do you want to know, Jim?" he hurled, punctuating his tirade with the cacophony of breakage. Crash! "You already know I shot him!" Crash! "Do you want to hear how I planned it? How I decided to shoot him in the legs so he'd suffer before he died?" Crash! "Or how I decided that death was too good for him, so I made sure he'd survive knowing what I did to him?" Crash!

Blair was almost screeching, his face a livid mask of fury and pain. "Do you want to know how much I fucking enjoyed it?" A tribal mask was torn off the wall, ornaments and framed photos met their end in a shower of splintered glass. "And how much I wish I'd shot him in the arms as well, to make him suffer even more? Do you want to know..."

Suddenly, Sandburg halted, freeze-frame still in the midst of the chaos he had created, his hands balled into fists, and his breath coming in harsh gasps.

Throughout it all, Jim had stood in the eye of the storm; a calm epicenter physically untouched by Blair's fury. And now that Sandburg's destructive catharsis had wound down, he moved forward, standing close to his friend. After a moment, apparently knowing instinctively the instant that Sandburg would accept it, he put both arms around Blair, pulling him tight to his chest.

At last, the dam burst. "Shh. Shh, Chief. It's okay. It's okay," Jim murmured, his strength a bulwark against which Blair desperately leaned as he went to pieces.

Eventually Blair calmed down. Brokenly, he whispered, "I'm no better than a murderer. No better than... than him."

Jim shook his head, still holding Sandburg within the circle of his arms. Matter-of-factly, he said, "Chief, you didn't kill him. You may have given him a pretty good going over, which was no more than the bastard deserved; but you didn't kill him. You're no murderer."

"But you don't understand, man!" Blair answered emphatically into Jim's shoulder, feeling no inclination to move away from his friend's shelter just yet. "I wanted to. I still want to. I wanted to... to hurt him, and so I did. What does that make me?"

"Hey, join the club. Nothing would give me greater satisfaction than a gun in my hand and Brackett at my mercy. What does that make me? I think the answer is human. Give yourself a break, huh? He's not worth your pain, Blair. Let it go. Just let it go."

But that wasn't all, and now Jim had battered down the floodgates, it was all gushing out. "It's not just that, Jim. I'm so, so sorry man." The tears were back in Blair's voice. "I wrote the fucking book... the book he used..."

Jim's arms tightened. "Chief, what he did to me had so little to do with your book, he might as well have not had it. He'd have hurt me anyway, whether or not, because the truth is he's a sadistic bastard, and he wanted to. None of what happened is your fault."

"But he did tests, and man, I am so sorry for doing that to you. I promise, I will never treat you like that again..."

"Hold on right there, Chief. Take it from me. You and he are nothing alike. All your tests, you did to help me. He just pretended to do tests, to hurt me. End of story. And Sandburg, you know what? That whole time he had me, I used what you taught me. The breathing, the dials, everything. It kept me going, and but for that, but for everything you trained me to do, I would have been dead or insane inside a week. So the next time you get the urge to beat yourself up, remember that. You saved my life, in a lot more ways than one."

Blair stood a moment longer in the comfort of Jim's embrace. Then he patted Jim on the back, signaling his desire to move away, and Ellison opened his arms. Blair was composed now. He looked at Jim, and glanced around at the destruction he had wrought. "Sorry man," he said, a little shame-faced. "I guess I flipped."

Jim smiled. "Guess you did. At least you didn't smash me up."

"Don't tempt me, man." Blair took a deep breath, then looked at Jim, smiling a little sadly. "Hey, I'll try to cut back on the over-protective stuff, okay? I didn't realize how much it pissed you off. And I'm sorry about the lawsuit thing. I should have told you about your dad."

Jim nodded. "Yup. Well, don't worry about that anymore. I went to see him. It's all straightened out."

Blair raised an eyebrow at that, suspecting that Jim's dad wouldn't let go of his animosity easily. As well as that, he mused, Jim's relationship with his dad was an edgy affair at best, and if an encounter had taken place today, with the lawsuit and Jim's return from the dead on the agenda, it went a long way towards explaining why this had all just now come to a head.

***

Later, listening to the familiar, comforting night sounds in the loft, Jim lay awake in his bed and thought back to what had happened during the day.

His father's vitriolic denouncement of Blair had angered him beyond all reason. He guessed he should have learned by now not to let his dad's skewed views of the world and everybody in it get to him; but once again, the child inside Jim had cringed under his disapproval. At least, he thought with some satisfaction, he had made it clear, in no uncertain terms, where he stood. But somehow, knowing his father's tenacity, he didn't think he had heard the last of this matter, despite having told Blair it was all over.

After leaving his father's house he had come home, intending to reassure Blair that all would now be fine; but it hadn't happened like that at all. Instead, his simmering frustrations over Blair's tendency to shut him out, his inability to trust Jim with things that mattered, had come to the fore, and he had found himself laying into his friend.

And Blair - not surprisingly, given what he had been keeping inside all these months - had gone off like a geyser. But at least the younger man had gotten his problems out in the open at last. Jim had learned from the master himself that demons had to be faced, or they would destroy you. It was a shame that the kid didn't always practice what he preached.

He thought sadly about something Blair had said earlier, when they had been sitting close together, quietly talking in the aftermath. "You know what the worst thing is?" Sandburg had confided. "I hate what I've become, man, more than I hate what I did. And I don't know how to deal with that."

Now, hearing Sandburg's steady breathing as he slept in the room below, Jim wished more than anything he could take away his friend's pain. And remembering Blair's sorrowful expression, and the lines around his eyes that he had never noticed before, Ellison grieved for the memory of an exuberant young man in a multi-colored vest, bopping happily to tribal music, who had once impulsively saved his life by pushing him under a truck.

***

Meanwhile, in a secret bunker deep underground, two men dressed in suits looked through a one-way window into a sterile white room.

Inside, a man in a wheelchair placed his hand on the swollen belly of a supine woman, whose lips were moving incessantly.

"Hey, precious," they heard him say. "Did you miss me?"



The End



Comments are welcome, but 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: 2007-08-02 05:02 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] klgrem.livejournal.com
No surprise about Alex.

Great story. Simply fantastic from beginning to end. Thank you for sharing this.

Date: 2007-08-03 11:42 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] fluterbev-fic.livejournal.com
I'm so glad you liked it! I wrote this a long time ago, so it's nice that someone can enjoy it all these years later :-)

the end

Date: 2007-09-03 07:31 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I know you said this was the end of the series - but that little epilog begs for SOME sort of closure, don't you think?

Re: the end

Date: 2007-09-04 12:26 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] fluterbev-fic.livejournal.com
It certainly leaves it open for a sequel, which was originally my intention. I do hope, one day, to come back to this and write some more :-)

Thanks for your comment!

Date: 2011-02-16 11:19 pm (UTC)
loriel_eris: laurel leaf (Default)
From: [personal profile] loriel_eris
I know I've read this before, but oh god, I'd forgotten that this was how it ended! *flails*

This definitely shouts 'sequel'. *g* (And it doesn't hel that I have an unholy love for kidfic, so you can see where my brain is going with a sequel...)

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