Disclaimer: The Sentinel, Blair Sandburg, Jim Ellison, Simon Banks, and all other characters are property of Paramount and Pet Fly. No copyright infringement is intended, and no money has exchanged hands.

Aftermath

by Arianna

Beta by StarWatcher

Dedicated to Hope with thanks for your
generous donation to Moonridge!

You requested an epilogue to Cypher .

********************

"JI-I-I-M-M!" Blair screamed as Lash drove his friend through the skylight, his raw, horrified shout reverberating off the warehouse walls as the two struggling men fell through the shattering glass, dropping like stones from his sight.

"Oh God, oh God, oh God," Blair chanted in terror as he listened to the crashing sounds of their endless fall through one rotten floor after another. Straining to hear, he waited, waited through the sudden silence, and then sagged in momentary relief when he heard the echoes of renewed battle. Jim was still alive. Hurt, maybe, but alive.

He gasped for breath, his emotions ricocheting from the abject, incredulous astonishment at the sound of Jim's voice just when he was sure death was only moments away, to relief at the sight of his friend standing in the doorway, and then shock when Jim fell through the broken step and crashed to the floor, his weapon spinning away. But Jim had recovered and Blair had been certain that Lash stood no chance as they'd battled across the floor in front of him only to feel the gut-twisting horror of seeing them, hearing them fall. Panting, his gaze darted around the chamber of horrors, and fear again swamped him when he saw that candles had tumbled and flames were licking up the legs of Lash's worktable, and devouring the gauzy drapes around the shrine to Billy Bright.

Far away, he could hear the hollow thumping of running feet, the sounds growing fainter as the fighting men moved farther away from him, deeper into the dilapidated building.

He was alone, chained and helpless, with the fire.

"NOOOO!" he cried in raw fury, refusing to give up, to remain a victim. Desperation lent him strength as he rocked forward awkwardly in the tilted chair, heaving himself up and off, to crash hard on the filthy floor. Sobbing for breath, cursing the chains that bound him hand and foot, he rolled onto his face and tried to lever himself to his feet, but the best he could manage was his knees. Once more his gaze raked the worktable, searching for the keys to his manacles, but there was such a jumble of junk and his eyes were blurring stung by the smoke curling through the air and glazed by the drug seeping into his system that he couldn't make out any details.

And the fire was spreading, hungry and ruthless.

Twisting away from the heat, he could manage no more than a hitching crawl toward the steps, but he dragged and pushed himself forward on his elbows and up the short flight of wooden steps into the darkness of the hallway beyond. Where were the stairs? He couldn't remember; hadn't been quite conscious when Lash had carried him into the revolting space behind him. He could still hear the distant grunts and thuds of the deadly struggle echoing far below as the orange glare of the fire behind him flickered into the hall. There, up ahead, he could dimly make out a deeper darkness against a wall, like a void, and he struggled toward it. Had to be the stairs, had to be.

His hands were numb and his feet felt like blocks of wood. Sweat dripped down his brow and mingled with tears, blurring his sight even further. Doggedly, driven by panic, he hitched himself forward like a caterpillar, but he couldn't seem to go fast enough. Lassitude weighed upon him and he again cursed viciously, remembering the drug that Lash had poured into him, holding his nose and massaging his throat so he'd had no choice but to gag and swallow. "Gotta move!" he ordered himself. "Gotta keep moving!"

He finally reached the stairwell and gasped to see the rickety, rusted metal steps that disappeared into the utter blackness inside the abandoned warehouse. There was no railing one side just fell away into nothing. He could hear the crackle of flames and smoke was billowing from the doorway, rising to the high ceiling somewhere far above. Swallowing to moisten his parched throat, struggling not to cough, not to lose consciousness, he shifted around until his body was hugging the wall and then, feet first, he began to slide awkwardly down the hard steps that slammed into his body. But he welcomed the pain; it helped him stave off the effects of the drug, helped him stay mobile and conscious.

"JIM!" he yelled, scared sick for his friend, though he told himself there was no way Lash could overcome Ellison. No fucking way.

But Jim could have been hurt in the fall.

So could've Lash, he told himself grimly, holding onto to the hope that Jim was okay, telling himself that Lash couldn't overpower Jim, no way, no matter how preternaturally strong the crazy man was.

Down onto a landing and then a careful, cautious turn, still hugging the wall; a push with his hands and he began sliding awkwardly down another flight.

When he heard the shots, he started with fear and lost his grip on the metal tread. Sliding too fast, banging his head and bruising his body, he landed in a twisted heap on the next landing, close to the edge of the abyss. Above him, he could see the dancing glow of the fire; feel its heat leeching into the freezing dampness. Below him, there was only endless black.

And silence. Complete and utter silence.

"No, no," he groaned as he struggled away from the edge with all his will and all his fast-waning strength to get his back to the wall. "Jim, oh, God, please, Jim " he rasped in desperate fear that Lash had won. Dizziness assailed him; his limps felt leaden, too heavy to move another inch. Numbness bound him more ruthlessly than the chains and his chest was so tight he could hardly draw in breath. Tears leaked from his eyes and tracked over the sooty smudges on his face. "Please, please, let him be okay," he whispered hoarsely through lips that felt thick and stiff. "Jim. Please, man. Please be okay."

Aware but unable to move, his body frozen, terror warring with desperate hope, he stared blindly away from the fire and down into the dark void.

********************

Standing on the lip of what had once been a mezzanine, Jim stared down at the monster lying sprawled on the floor below. Ephemeral light spilled through the grimy windows, enough for him see that Lash's eyes were wide and lifeless, but the killer was a consummate actor, so he continued waiting and watching, to be sure. Swallowing hard, he forced down the sour bile that burned the back of his throat. Still panting for breath, his hearing blocked by the pounding of his own heart in his ears, the rush of blood coursing through his body, he wrestled with his senses as he held his pistol ready to shoot again if the murderous bastard so much as twitched the weapon still clutched in his hand.

Jim had sworn to uphold the law and, against all his instincts, he would have taken Lash in alive, given the chance. But he could feel no regret if the vicious murderer was, as it seemed, dead. Cold with atavistic loathing for the evil that Lash had been for the whole of his pathetic life, Jim's gaze swept over the man, and he shuddered at the sight of Blair's clothing.

His erratic senses calmed and he grimaced at the silence and noisome scent of death. It was over.

Holstering his weapon, his gaze again swept the corpse, the stolen clothing, and he shook his head. As if clothes could ever make the man. Lash really had been crazy to think that he could ever ever be anything like the decent, compassionate, brave man who

Jesus Sandburg!

Whirling away from the body, Jim lifted his head toward the ceiling and caught a whiff of smoke.

Remembering the candles, alarm gripped his heart and, oblivious to the deep aches in his body, he raced across the litter-strewn floor toward the stairs. Above, he could see the threatening orange glow dancing against the darkness. Toggling his radio, he reported, his tone tight and urgent, "Simon, lost my earpiece. Can't hear you. Lash is dead. Going for Sandburg now. Look for flames and smoke. Fifth or sixth floor; abandoned warehouse in a cobbled courtyard just off the pond."

********************

Blair couldn't move, could scarcely breathe, so lax were the muscles of his chest. Smoke swirled in the air just above him, the scents of burning wood suffocating and he could feel the heat of the growing blaze on his face. Beneath him, in the belly of the building, there was only silence or at least, he could no longer hear beyond the crackling whoosh of the flames. The fire's glow let him see the upper landing, but below him there was only the dark, empty void. His mouth was parched, maybe from the effects of the drug, maybe fear, he didn't know. So close. For a few seconds back there, he'd thought he might get out of this alive. Now, the odds didn't look good. Sorrow welled and tears blurred his eyes. There was so much of life that he had not yet experienced. So much he'd looked forward to. Swallowing was a struggle, and he wondered how much of that damned drug Lash had gotten into him; enough, more than enough, to render him inert, useless. Too bad it hadn't been enough to knock him the hell out. He wasn't sure he wanted to know how bad it could get before it was over.

But what hurt most, scared him the most, wasn't his own imminent demise. He'd been a lost cause from the moment Lash had broken into the loft and overpowered him. But, God, Jim was down there, in the black silent void. Jim, maybe the only sentinel on earth. Jim the man Blair had come to respect and admire, and certainly to trust in more fundamental ways than he could ever remember trusting anyone. If he'd ever had a brother, he'd want one like Jim and the man was fast becoming the best friend he'd ever known. Becoming? More like, would have become if Blair had a future, which he was pretty sure he no longer did, despite how hard Jim had tried, how hard he'd fought, to save him.

Jim had found him against all the odds, and was risking his life to save Blair's.

Those shots Jim might be .

No, please, no. Not Jim. Jim couldn't Jim had to survive. Had to.

Tears spilled over his lashes. Staring down into the darkness, Blair whispered imprecations through numb lips to the sentient Universe, pleas to spare Jim, to watch over him and keep him safe. No longer aware of the passing of time, resigned to the fire that burned so close, he prayed and would continue praying so long as he could draw breath.

********************

"Sandburg!" Jim shouted when he reached the foot of the metal risers and started upward, his long legs taking two treads at a time. Dammit, the kid was helpless up there, chained in that chair. Dear God, he was trapped in the fire! "NO!" he yelled in furious denial. This couldn't be happening. He couldn't have gotten so close and failed. The kid couldn't have fought so hard back at the loft, and with his words and anger just minutes before, only to die like this. No, dammit, NO!

His sight wide open to catch the faint light, he lunged upward through the darkness. He'd just whipped around the next landing when he caught the hoarse, desperate, nearly incoherent whispers, and wheezing, labored breathing high above him.

Sandburg.

Praying for his life. Begging for his safety. Why? Had the kid given up hope of being saved? Did he believe his own life was forfeit after all?

"Hold on, Chief!" he shouted with raw vehemence. "Hold on!"

On and on he raced, straining to listen for signs of life but no longer able to hear the tortured whispers under the roar of the now raging fire. Sweat poured down his face; sirens erupted nearby, wailing in the night, coming closer, and the shrill shriek stabbed through his head. Cursing, he stumbled but, determined to get to Sandburg, he kept going, crawling up the steps until he was able to again stand and lunge upward. He heard the groan and crack of twisting, burning timbers, the generations of damp being sucked out of them by the inferno. Higher he went, and higher, into air now pungent with smoke that stung his eyes and burned his throat.

And still he climbed, racing against time, fueled by a desperate hope that defied all logic. His mind told him Blair had to be dead, but his heart wouldn't couldn't accept it. The kid deserved better than this. Hell, if he hadn't been helping Jim, Sandburg would never have attracted Lash's attention. Wouldn't be in such danger now.

Jim's gaze was on the floor above, almost there but he could see and hear that it was hopeless. The room where he'd last seen Blair was consumed by raging flames, the blistering heat pouring into the hall and down the open stairwell. Wanting to scream with inarticulate, futile rage and soul-wrenching grief, he'd just rounded the last bend onto the landing, and nearly stumbled over Blair before he spotted the dark bundle hunched against the wall. Sandburg wasn't in that inferno! Was here! But, dear God, was he still alive?

Dropping to his knees, he reached out to clasp his hands around the kid's face. Blair's eyes were wide and unfocused and for a split second his heart clenched with shattering despair, emotion so overwhelming it shocked him. But then the kid blinked slowly, and his lips were still twitching as he tried, tried so hard, to speak. Fear flared in the wide eyes, and Jim realized that Blair couldn't see him, didn't know if it was him or Lash.

"'S'okay, Chief," he called over the roar of the fire. "I've got you."

Blair twitched and tried to lift his manacled hands; relief flooded those wide eyes and Jim could hear his name breathed on a wisp of air.

"C'mon, we've got to get you away from here," Jim told him and, scooping Blair into his arms, he stood. A fireman's lift would be more efficient for him to manage, but he didn't like the sound of Blair's shallow breathing. Better to keep Sandburg's head up, better for his lungs, at least until they got lower, into clearer air. Bracing his shoulder against the concrete wall, he steadied his balance and began the descent. Down one flight and then another, but his strength was ebbing fast. Blair was growing heavy in his arms, the kid's own sturdy weight increased by the chains that bound him.

Panting, Jim paused on the second floor and eased Blair down to the landing. "How're you doing?" he asked as he tilted Sandburg's head up to rest against the arm he had wrapped around Blair's shoulders, and brushed a thick strand of hair off his smoke-smudged face.

"'Kay," Blair breathed through lips that seemed frozen, his voice so faint that only a sentinel stood a chance of hearing him. "Y-you?"

Jim's throat thickened and he shook his head at the concern he could see shining at him through those eyes. The kid was barely conscious, panting for breath but then he remembered what Carolyn had said, that the victims were conscious despite the drug Lash gave them. They couldn't move, couldn't defend themselves, but were aware. Inside his numb body, unable to move, scarcely able to speak, Blair's mind was still tracking. Lying helpless up there on the landing, he couldn't have known if he'd be burned alive or if Jim would come for him couldn't even know whether Lash was still a threat.

But he hadn't been praying for himself. And now, his first concern was whether Jim was okay. Jim could hear his effort to breathe, the sluggish drag in his heartbeat. How had Sandburg even managed to get himself out of that demon's lair? God, the determination, the sheer act of will that had to have required to stave off the effects of the drug, was staggering.

And somehow Jim knew that Blair's efforts had been as much to try to get to him, to help if he could, as they'd been to get himself out of danger. God, this kid was really something else.

"Bit battered and bruised, but I'm okay," Jim told him, and blamed the smoke in the air for the huskiness of his voice. "But I need to lift you over my shoulder, to get you out of here faster. Can you manage that?"

Blair blinked slowly as his lips struggled to form words. "Y-yeah," he finally managed to sigh.

Jim cupped his face, leaned in close, and held Blair's wide, trusting gaze. "You're gonna be okay, Chief. We'll be outta here in a few more minutes." He patted Blair's cheek to reassure him, and then pulled him upward. Bending, Jim took his weight on his shoulder, hoisted him up and, holding tight to Sandburg's legs, he continued his careful descent.

Below him, he heard the outer door slam open and flashlight beams cut the darkness.

"JIM!" Simon bellowed. "JIM!"

"Up here," he called back. "I've got Sandburg. We're okay. Lash's body is off to the right."

Simon pounded up to meet him, but Jim grunted, "I've got him," and carried on down the steps, Simon now close behind to steady him if need be.

"The whole place is going to come down on our heads," Simon muttered and then yelled to those below to clear the building.

Jim gritted his teeth, not having the breath to answer. Just a few more steps. Just a few more and they'd be in the clear.

The stench of the fire was strong in his nostrils, and the smoke was thickening even at ground level. Above him, he could hear floorboards crack and there was a thunderous crash as the floors between them and the fire began to give way. He knew they only had seconds more. But his body, badly battered in the battle with Lash, was giving out. His legs felt like jelly and Jim knew he couldn't run and carry Sandburg. He'd need Simon's help for the last twenty feet of their escape through the warehouse door.

When he stepped down off the last riser, he paused only long enough to lower Sandburg off his shoulder. Between them, both of them coughing and covering their mouths and noses with an arm, he and Simon lifted Blair with strong grips under his arms and they hustled him through raining embers, out into the night.

They'd barely cleared the threshold when the rolling, crash and clatter of the collapsing building thundered behind them, and they dove to get clear. Jim twisted as he went down and, groaning against the further abuse to his own bones and muscles, cushioned Sandburg's limp body as they hit the ground. In less than a heartbeat, he was scrambling to his knees, as was Simon, to hastily drag the kid onto safer ground.

The night pulsed with garish light from the whirling globes on the patrol vehicles and the stark glare of their headlights. Sirens wailed as fire trucks pulled up, and men shouted over the throaty roar of the fire. The confusion was too much, all just too much. Jim was having real trouble keeping it together now that the crisis was over and his body was crashing off the adrenaline-charged high that had driven him from the moment he'd realized Blair was in trouble. He'd been nearly oblivious to the pain of the multi-story fall and the battle with Lash, savagely pushing his own needs away as he'd raced back up the stairs to Blair and then carried him down to safety.

But the hours of anxiety were finally taking their toll in fragmenting his ability to continue concentrating and thinking clearly all the hyper-stimulation of the chaos around him ground like glass against his eyes and ears, heightening the headache that had been growing all evening. He felt more than a little punch-drunk, his battered and abused body sending signals of distress from aching muscles, lungs that couldn't seem to get enough air, and nerve-endings that crackled in his back and limbs, making him twitchy, uneasy, unable to relax.

All he knew for sure was that Lash was no longer a threat, and Blair was physically out of immediate danger. With sheer, determined will, Jim tried to shut out all the sights and sounds in order to focus his attention on Blair. Carefully, he rolled the grad student onto his back and lifted Sandburg's head and shoulders to check him out and help him breathe more easily. Supporting Blair with his arm, bracing the kid against his chest, he cupped Sandburg's face, and frowned at the too cool pallor. His breathing shallow and slow, Blair's eyes were glazed and he seemed barely conscious.

"Hey, Chief," he crooned, "you still with me here?"

Slowly Sandburg's gaze tracked to meet his, but he didn't seem to be connecting, not fully aware. Was it just his body that wasn't responding because of the drug, or was the kid's mind clouded and uncertain? The idea that Blair was fully aware but locked inside, helpless to move or speak, was terrible to contemplate. What frustration must he be feeling? What fear? Jim drew him close, to shield him and lend warmth; most of all to let Blair know he wasn't alone, that he was safe now. Blair lay limp in his arms and seemed so fragile. And so unbearably young.

Jim felt his heart clench with unspeakable sorrow at seeing Sandburg like this, bound by chains, unable to speak, so still and and broken; the antithesis of all that Blair was. In the few short months since they'd met, Jim hadn't known the kid to be anything but motion incarnate, a free spirit that was vibrantly alive, speaking his mind, rocking and bouncing with endless energy to the beat in his head. Hell, less than a half hour before, Blair had been wrangling with Lash, not giving an inch, not even in the face of what he must have thought was his imminent death. The kid just never quit, never stopped, not even in sleep when he moved restlessly and mumbled, his mind overflowing with ideas and knowledge and compassion.

Until now.

Now he lay frozen and pale; his last strength expended in the smoky darkness of that dank stairwell, imploring whatever deities he trusted to keep Jim safe.

Jim's throat constricted and he shook his head with mingled guilt and grief. Since the moment they'd met, Blair had given himself fully to doing all he could to help Jim in any way he could. And what had he gotten in return? Sighing, Jim cupped Blair's head, his thumb gently wiping away the tear-streaked ash on the kid's cheek. He'd led Sandburg to this, had immersed him in a violent, deadly world and then had not only taken his help and devotion for granted, but had failed to protect him. So close; too damned close. He could as easily be holding Blair's lifeless body, and that thought chilled him to his soul.

Simon turned from ensuring all his people had gotten out before the building collapsed and, his gaze taking in the chains that bound Blair, gasped, "Sonuva !" Swinging around, he shouted, "I need bolt cutters over here. NOW!" Dropping to one knee beside Jim, Simon studied the manacles and chains. "That bastard," he breathed in appalled disgust. Looking up at Jim, he asked, "How's he doing? He gonna be okay?"

Though remotely grateful that Simon was taking charge and those damn chains would soon be gone, Jim flicked an irritated glance at his boss. Blair didn't need to hear that there might be some doubt about whether he'd be fine or not. A cautionary warning in his eyes and tone, he replied, "He's conscious, Simon. He can hear you."

Getting the message, Simon grimaced and patted Blair's shoulder. "You just hang in there, Sandburg," he soothed awkwardly. "An ambulance is on the way. We'll get those chains off you and you'll be fine."

Jim could feel the minute trembles in Blair's body, see the effort it took for the kid to struggle against the effects of the drug, could hear it in Sandburg's quickening respirations. His gaze tracked with painful deliberation toward Simon and his lips quivered to form words. "Si-mon," he panted, using all the air he had to make himself heard.

"I'm here, son. Right here."

"J-Jim. F-f-fell. H-hurting."

Jim caught Simon's scowl before he closed his eyes and turned his face away to hide the surge of unexpected emotion that flooded him. Never, not once in his life, had he experienced this this overwhelming care and concern from someone else; let alone someone who had more than enough reason to be only concerned about himself. Blair's steadfast commitment to his wellbeing, even now, took his breath away.

"What does he mean, Jim? What happened in there?" Simon demanded.

Swallowing hard, doing his best to keep his voice low and steady, Jim told him, "Lash dragged me through a skylight. We fell three or four floors, through rotted wood and glass, before we hit more solid flooring. It was Lash wouldn't quit; wouldn't give up. Had to kill him. Took four, maybe five shots, before he stopped trying to aim at me and dropped."

"And then you went back for Sandburg," Banks supplied, thinking of the steep metal steps, all the flights of stairs Jim had climbed to get to the kid before the fire did.

"Yeah," Jim agreed.

"Make sure the doc checks you out, too," Simon directed, worry shadowing his eyes. "You hear me?"

Sighing, not concerned about himself, Jim nodded in acquiescence. It was easier than arguing, and he didn't have the energy to fight any more that night.

A uniformed officer appeared with the bolt cutters, and Simon took them with a grunt of thanks. Jim held the chain away from Blair's body, while Simon snapped the links closest to his wrists and ankles. Tossing the severed length of heavy chain onto the ground next to them, the men then turned their attention to the elaborate manacles.

"Gonna need a locksmith for these," Banks muttered, shaking his head.

"Maybe not," Jim replied, having spotted an implement that might work. "Can you get me that nail over there?"

Simon's gaze searched the filthy, rain-slicked, ash-coated cobblestones and shook his head. "What nail?" he demanded, sounding perplexed and more than a little impatient.

"Five feet to your left," Jim directed him. "Just in front of the cruiser's right front wheel."

Simon gave him a disbelieving look, but strode over to check. Finding the thin, two-inch long, twisted nail, he quirked a brow and brought it back to Jim.

"Could you hold him for a minute?" Jim asked. Once Simon had a grip on Blair, Jim shifted down to Sandburg's feet. He inserted the tip of the nail into the lock and, closing his eyes, he cocked his head. Though it was hard to shut out the cacophony around them, he persisted as he jiggled the nail, and heard the small tumblers connect and click. In less than a minute, he had Blair's ankles free and was working on his wrists. When those manacles also submitted to his efforts, Simon observed, "Good thing you're on our side."

Jim gave his boss a fast, bleak smile, before returning his attention to Blair's wrists, which were abraded and seeping blood mute evidence of how hard Blair had fought to get free. "Ah, Chief," he rasped, and his lips thinned as he took back possession of his partner.

Simon looked up, past Jim's shoulder, and frowned. "Looks like the media has arrived," he muttered, sounding aggrieved. Standing, he briefly clasped Jim's shoulder. "I'll go head them off; keep them away from you guys. And I'll find out what the hell is taking that ambulance so long."

"I hear the siren, sir. They're only a few blocks away."

Simon gave him an assessing look, and then nodded. "I'll catch up with you later, at the hospital."

As Simon moved off, Jim looked down at Blair, and found Sandburg watching him. Cupping Blair's cheek, he murmured, "Try to rest, Chief. Give that stuff time to clear your system. You'll be okay soon."

Jim thought he could see the faintest of smiles curve a corner of Blair's mouth. Though his vision still seemed unfocused, Jim saw trust glowing in the depths of his eyes just before they closed. The kid was still too pale, and he looked cold. Drawing him close, Jim shouted at a passing patrol officer to bring him a blanket. A moment later, he tucked the heavy wool cover around Sandburg. And all the while, Jim thought about the trust he'd seen and wondered, after the disaster of the past evening, how Blair could possibly still look at him that way. Oh, sure, he'd found Blair and had gotten him out in time. But the inescapable fact was that the kid should never have been taken should never have come so close to dying at the hands of that psycho. Bowing his head, he rocked the kid tenderly; somehow, just holding Blair soothed his rattled nerves and he desperately hoped he was also doing Sandburg some good.

The ambulance finally arrived on the scene, and was directed toward them. In less than two minutes, Blair was bundled onto the gurney and loaded into the vehicle. Jim climbed in to perch on the bench beside him, and the doors were slammed shut. Reaching out, Jim took Blair's hand in his own, not sure if he was doing it to lend the kid comfort or to anchor himself. Sandburg's hand was still limp and unresponsive. Jim wondered if Blair could feel his touch, or if only his muscles were temporarily paralyzed, but his nerve receptors still intact and functioning. God, he'd be glad when the effects of the drug had worn off. With a grimace of wry sorrow and a sigh, he figured Blair would be pretty happy about that, too.

Reaching out to stroke errant curls back from Blair's brow, monitoring the kid's breathing and heartbeat, Jim was grateful to gain distance from the chaos of the crime scene, though he wished they were going faster. He wanted to make certain that Blair really was okay, that he'd be fine as soon as the chloral hydrate wore off. But the ambulance's siren was silent, and they were driving at normal speed; with no life-threatening injury onboard, there was no need for a death-defying race through the city's streets to the hospital. Blair had an oxygen mask over his face, to help compensate for his too-shallow breathing and to offset any effects of the smoke he'd inhaled, but he seemed to be holding his own. It's just a matter of time, Jim told himself, a few hours, and we'll be able to go home.

During the ride, Jim had time to pull himself together. And, as he held Blair's hand, rubbing slow circles over the skin with his thumb, time to consider his extreme emotional reactions to the events of the last few hours. For weeks, he'd known with no doubt that he needed Sandburg's help with his senses, both understanding them and managing them, though he'd also resented that need and, as a result, had resented Blair, even though the kid had done nothing but his best to help. Having no real choice, Jim had first convinced Simon to let Blair ride with him and then, equally grudgingly, he'd allowed Blair to move into the loft after his own place had blown sky-high. He'd told himself and Blair repeatedly that it was only a short-term, interim measure; that was all. Apparently undiscouraged by his attitude, Blair had simply been enthusiastically grateful, both for the observer's pass and for a roof over his head.

God, I'm an ungrateful bastard, Jim thought with no little remorse for his behaviour and attitude.

In the time they'd known one another, Blair had saved him from being run over by a truck, at the risk of his own life; had impulsively followed a bomber onto a busload of people to what? Keep an eye on her? Call in the location of the bus? Help apprehend her? Help find the bomb? All of the above? Because he'd sure in hell done all of the above.

Then, the very next day when he'd come down to the station to obtain permission to ride with Jim and get an observer's pass, Blair had gotten caught in Kincaid's takeover of the station and had very nearly been taken away by the terrorist, no doubt to be tortured and killed for the whacko's amusement. Blair had saved his bacon that time, too. Hell, Blair had played a major role in keeping Kincaid from killing him and getting that chopper to land on the roof of the PD. Grimacing, Jim knew he'd never said a word of thanks afterward. Why? Because he'd feel foolish when he was supposed to be the tough, ex-Ranger cop, to admit his life had been saved by a wet-behind-the-ears grad student? Probably.

Then, Blair had sided with Jim when he'd gone rogue, determined to nail Danny's killer. Had helped him understand why his senses had gone nuts, and helped him to get them back under control; had risked his life when Jim sent him to warn the Assistant DA. And, not long after, Blair had risked his life again to get to Earl's grandmother, to help her and her neighbours organize themselves to stand against the threats of the gang members who would have taken her hostage. Who might well have killed her; hell, might have killed anyone who got in their way, including Sandburg.

And how had he been repaid for his efforts and truly valuable assistance? For the risks he'd taken? For all that, the kid had been rewarded with churlish, grudging cooperation and warnings that he'd soon be back on the street, looking for a place to live.

And, today, he'd been targeted by the serial killer whose MO Blair had nailed before anyone else realized that Lash had been assuming the outward personas of his victims.

Five times in as many weeks, Blair had risked serious injury and put his life on the life to give Jim the support he needed; not just help with the senses but help on the job, too.

Jim's lips thinned and he frowned with profound irritation as well as mingled humiliation and regret for his unconscionable attitude. He'd been bitter about accepting all that Blair offered and gave him; resentful of the need for help. He'd done little to make Blair feel at home in the loft; to the contrary, he'd gone out of his way to make sure the grad student knew he shouldn't get too comfortable and certainly wasn't allowed to entertain his friends there. He'd hauled Blair to grisly crime scenes because he needed the kid's help, and had deliberately sent Blair on potentially very dangerous errands, just because no one else was handy. He'd yelled at him for the damage Larry had done, and made Blair pay for it, even though it wasn't the kid's fault and Jim knew he didn't have a lot of extra cash especially since he'd lost nearly every damned thing he owned in the explosion. He'd reamed Sandburg out for using his initiative to go to Club Doom and get information that Jim knew he probably wouldn't have gotten because people wouldn't confide in a cop. He grumbled and resisted every exercise Blair came up with to test his senses or help him get a handle on them. And God help the kid if he was ever late in getting to the PD or showing up for a stakeout because he'd gotten held up at Rainier, doing work he was actually paid to do; Jim had been only too quick to jump all over him and demand an accounting.

Maybe he hadn't done any of it with conscious intent, but he'd been challenging and testing Sandburg's commitment to him every step of the way. Why? What made him act like such an ungrateful jerk? Was he trying to drive the kid away? Or had he become so abysmally self-centered that he'd given no thought to how his actions would impact on Sandburg? Or had he simply expected the grad student to pull the plug, deciding it was all too difficult and dangerous and no dissertation was worth maybe dying for? As much as Jim wanted to find excuses for his attitude and actions, to rationalize that he'd been angry about the Club Doom thing because the kid was putting himself in a potentially dangerous situation, or that he didn't owe Sandburg a roof over his head the facts were he blithely put Blair in risky situations when it suited him, and he was getting pretty much full time attention and support while Blair was living in the loft.

Jim shook his head and sighed. If their situation had been reversed, he had no doubt he would have walked away weeks ago. But Blair hadn't taken off. Instead, he persisted with the tests and sharing bright ideas that worked about the senses, cajoling Jim into reluctant cooperation with a mixture of humor and tough talk to the effect that it was all for his own good. Blair had, for good reason, been a bit leery about what to expect from affiliation with Jim at the PD after Kincaid had nearly absconded with him but he'd hung in.

No, Blair hadn't quit. He just kept on coming back for more. Apologizing when he made a mistake, like at that funeral. Feeling bad when he understood that he was considered the most likely leak of information to the media. Working his ass off late every night, long after Jim had gone to bed, to keep up with his university work and to research more about hyperactive senses. Pulling his weight when it came to doing chores around the loft. He didn't whine or complain, didn't sulk or take any of the bullshit personally. Pushed back when it was for Jim's own good; more than held his own, usually with easy good humor and energy that seemed boundless.

Jim hadn't realized how much he'd come to count on Blair until he'd gotten the emergency page, and then had arrived home to find the devastation. When he'd realized that Lash had Blair, he'd come as close to panic as he ever had in his life. For all he'd known then, Blair could have already been murdered. But he couldn't believe that; wouldn't. Why? Not for any rational reason, because the odds were he was already too late, and he didn't have a clue about where Blair had been taken. But he hadn't had any choice but to go on, believing there was still hope, that it wasn't too late; it couldn't be all over before it had scarcely begun, the brilliant, irreplaceable Sandburg gone forever. His friend lost to him, before he'd even fully understood what a good friend Blair had already become to him. So he'd forged on in desperation simply because he had to believe Blair was still alive. Had to believe that; could not bear the alternative and simply couldn't imagine Sandburg lifeless, that bright spirit extinguished.

Jim's hand tightened around Blair's. He understood now. Somehow, despite all the walls he'd built, and his expectations of disappointment and abandonment, Blair had breached his defenses. Had become someone that Jim cared about deeply, and needed in his life and not just for the senses. He needed the warmth Blair brought, the optimism and compassion, not only for him, but for the victims, and those who were threatened, like Earl's grandmother. Jim needed the laughter, the fun to leaven the somberness of his life, the sameness of it. He needed the hope that Blair brought, that things would work out, and the innocence that could still believe that the good guys would triumph in the end. He needed the exuberant joy in simply being alive that infused Blair and lent enthusiasm to everything he did. He needed, and wanted, Blair's friendship.

Jim lifted his hand from Blair's cool brow. The lax muscles of Blair's face and hand were as close as he ever wanted to come to seeing the kid lifeless. Biting his lip and looking away, he knew he would have given everything he had to never have seen Sandburg like this, but it was better than the alternative; Blair was still breathing. Jim's throat constricted and his chest ached with the knowledge that it had taken nearly losing him to realize that he loved the kid.

The ambulance pulled into the Emergency drive and, very soon after, still holding the kid's hand, Jim accompanied Blair's gurney into the hospital. Blair's eyes were open again, and there was anxiety in their depths. "It's okay," Jim assured him. "I won't leave you alone. I'll explain to the doctor what's going on and what help you need." The anxiety eased, supplanted by gratitude when Blair looked up at him.

Was it just that the kid's eyes were so expressive? Or had Jim become adept at reading their message? He didn't know. Didn't know if they had some kind of special affiliation because of his senses and Blair's understanding of them. Didn't care. Was just very glad that he had the chance to finally pay attention to what those eyes had to say.

********************

Frustrated to be locked in an unresponsive body, Blair listened to Jim bring the doctor up to speed and then suffered through having a light shone in his eyes and a solid pinch to his shoulder, just so he could blink twice to confirm that he could feel the pain. He'd tried to respond verbally, but a drunk with terminal laryngitis would have been more comprehensible; being unable to talk without gut-twisting effort that still left him inarticulate, or move at all, got old real fast.

On the other hand, he reminded himself wryly, things could be worse.

The doctor decided it was best not to give him a stimulant, but to just let the drug wear off naturally. She estimated he'd be able to move and speak again in another hour, maybe two. Blair rolled his eyes and then looked at Jim. So far, Ellison hadn't mentioned how he'd gotten his own bruises or the small cuts on his face, which wasn't all that surprising but it was beyond frustrating that the doctor didn't ask if he'd been through a war lately or was maybe just real careless when he shaved. When the doctor turned away to leave, he realized Jim was going to remain stubbornly mute about his own possible injuries. Damn it! What was with that guy? Did he like to suffer?

Blair wanted to yell at the doctor before she got away, but all he could manage was a very breathy, "W-w-wait!"

Jim's gaze flashed to his; the nurse cleaning and bandaging the abrasions on his wrists heard him and called to the doctor, who turned back.

"J-J-Ji', t-tell," he managed to get out past his teeth, despite a total lack of cooperation from his frozen lips.

"What's he saying?" the doctor asked with a frown, leaning closer. "Mr. Sandburg, I didn't understand you."

Blair locked his gaze on Jim's. No way could Jim stare him down; he was used to that stormy cold look that said he should mind his own business. But, then, all of a sudden, something shifted in Jim's eyes, like a shaft of remembered pain, and his gaze dropped away as he said to the physician, "He's saying that I should tell you about the, uh, fight I had tonight. But I'm fine."

The physician's frown deepened. "Fight? Is that why you're looking a bit battered? What happened to you?"

His expression reluctant, Jim shot Blair an unreadable look, and reported that he'd fallen several floors during the down and dirty fight with the serial killer. "I'm fine," he concluded. "Just, uh, a little stiff and sore."

"Uh huh," she grunted and waved him toward a nearby examining table and pulled the curtain around it for privacy during her examination.

Satisfied that Jim was being looked after, Blair relaxed and closed his eyes against the annoyingly bright lights. He knew he should sleep off the effects of the drug, but he was afraid to let loose the reins on his mind he was pretty sure that Lash would be factoring heavily in his nightmares for the next little while, and he wasn't ready to go there yet. To be caught in a bad dream about not being able to move as Lash proceeded to murder him, while his body mimicked that immobility, not allowing him to wake up to movement and the sound of his own voice, would be a bit too much for his battered nerves to take.

Instead, he occupied his mind with other, far more pleasant thoughts. Like the miracle of Jim finding him in that warehouse. God, he'd never been so glad to see anyone in his life. How had Jim done it? Managed to track him down? And Jim was okay. He'd beaten Lash. When he'd heard those bullets fire, Blair had been so scared and, well, absolutely devastated to think that, in trying to help him, Jim might have been killed. He hadn't been able to see much later, between the darkness and smoke and how woozy the drug was making him, so he hadn't known it was Jim coming up the steps toward him, pounding up so fast. But when Jim had touched him gently, and spoken with evident concern, Blair had come apart with sheer relief. If he could have, he would have launched himself at Jim and given the man a huge hug; probably would have embarrassed both of them by bursting into tears of relief. Thinking back, Blair thought maybe he had cried, a little. But he could blame it on the smoke if the subject ever came up. Knowing Jim, it probably wouldn't, a fact for which Blair was exceedingly grateful. Not that he thought it wrong for a man to cry. He didn't, not as a general rule. But he was hanging with cops now; big, tough, hard-as-nails cops and he didn't think tears would impress any of them much. They already thought he was a flake. He didn't need them to think he was a wuss, too. Didn't want Jim to think that about him, anyway.

God, he'd hated having to be carried down those endless flights of steps like some damsel in distress, especially when he knew Jim had to be hurting and might even be ignoring some serious injuries of his own. That had been one hell of a crashing fall. And Blair knew from personal and bitter experience how ferocious Lash could be in a fight. Talk about feeling humiliated and utterly helpless.

But, at the same time, he had to admit to himself that he'd never felt so safe. So valued, as when Jim had come back for him and had scooped him up to get him out of danger. Yeah, sure, Jim was a cop and it was his job to save lives, and it wasn't as if that fire was going to slow down and give him a chance to get his mobility back. Jim'd had no choice really, but to drag him out of there, one way or another. But it had felt like more than that. Especially later, when they were waiting for the ambulance, and Jim had held him, made sure he was warm, had gotten rid of those manacles, and had spoken to him so quietly, touched him so gently, and rocked him he'd felt as if Jim really had cared about him then, and in the ambulance, too, when Jim'd held his hand. The reassurance of the constant touch, the grounding, had helped immeasurably when he'd been unable to reach out to ground himself, to prove to himself he really was still alive, and it wasn't all some pitiful illusion of life in the midst of death.

Beyond that, Jim's actions that night the evidence that Blair was more to him than a convenience, a necessary evil of sorts had been immensely reassuring. Up until now, Blair had had the impression that Jim found him annoying and only tolerated having him around because he didn't have much choice. Which had hurt, sort of. Okay, a lot. Because in the few short weeks that he'd known the man, Jim had become important to Blair, and not just because he was a sentinel. He'd started to think of Jim as a friend, even a good friend. Certainly someone Blair trusted as he trusted few others. Not that he didn't trust just that he basically only trusted people to usually do what was in their own best interest. If that coincided with his best interest, too, that was great. If it didn't, well, that was life.

But Jim Jim was different. Time and again, Blair had seen Jim risk everything to do what was right. He was a brave, very principled, ethical man, and Blair respected the hell out of that. And he was a very good man. Fair. And generous, too, though Jim tried to hide that part of his nature. Probably thought people would take advantage of him and, sadly, he was probably right about that. Especially in his job, where he dealt with some seriously self-absorbed people, commonly known as criminals.

Blair didn't ever want to let Jim down. Never wanted the man to regret knowing him. And Blair wanted to do everything in his power to help Jim, in any way he could.

Because it was the right thing to do.

And because he really cared about the guy, as a human being as a friend. A really good friend.

But he hadn't gotten any signals that Jim would ever consider him a friend. Why would he? They were fundamentally very different people. Nor had he picked up on much that suggested Jim appreciated anything he did of course, he screwed up in equal measure to the things he got right, so that was understandable. Jim probably thought he was a loose cannon.

Like tonight. Getting taken down by Lash. Talk about screwing up royally. Not to mention proving himself to be completely ineffectual when it came to defending himself. And, man, they had done a number on Jim's apartment. The place had been trashed by the time Lash had finally overpowered him. It was going to take months to pay Jim back for the repair of all the damages. Well, he'd pay, and gladly. Jim had saved his life tonight, not once, but twice. And had stayed with him when he'd been scared and helpless. And hadn't treated him like he'd been a fool or had somehow failed, even if he had.

The least he could do was make sure Jim was alright, that he hadn't suffered anything more than bruises in that fight. Hearing the doctor order x-rays, Blair was glad she was taking it all seriously, and making damned sure Jim was okay. He could handle the fact that Jim likely wasn't pleased with him about making an issue of it the important thing was that Jim be taken care of if he'd suffered some cracked bones or maybe, God forbid, a concussion. Man, the guy thought he was indestructible or something, but he wasn't. And Jim always seemed embarrassed by the fact that he, too, might need help on occasion; like he didn't deserve the consideration, or something. What was up with that? Always playing the tough guy; and he got away with it with most people because he was tough and pretty indomitable. But he was also only human. Nobody could go it alone all the damned time. Everyone deserved some care and Jim sure deserved a whole lot more than it seemed he was used to getting.

Round and round Blair's mind whirled, flipping back to terrifying moments and shying away from them, refusing to think about them. He heard Jim being brought back from getting the x-rays and opened his eyes, wanting to focus on what was happening.

Wanting to know if Jim was okay.

This time, the doctor hadn't pulled the privacy curtain closed and she was holding x-rays up to the light, examining one after another. Blair could make out Jim's spine, his rib cage, pelvis and shoulders, but couldn't tell if there was any damage. He already knew nothing could be broken or Jim wouldn't have been able to carry him down all those steps. But he was afraid of internal injuries that could take a while to show up.

"Looks like you got off lucky," the doctor said, setting the films aside. "A couple cracked ribs are the worst of the structural damage. I'll wrap your chest and that should ease some of the discomfort. But you also show some soft tissue tearing in your shoulders and back, so you should avoid any heavy lifting for a few weeks, and I'll give you a referral for physical therapy. I'm afraid you're likely to be a lot more stiff and sore for the next few days than you are now." She began wrapping a wide bandage around Jim's chest as she continued, "I'll give you some muscle relaxants that should help."

Uh-oh. Medications. Maybe not a good idea. When Blair saw a nurse begin to fill a syringe, he stammered, "N-no. All-er-gies." When nobody seemed to hear him, he tried to draw in a deeper breath, but his chest still wasn't responding to his mind's commands. Worried, he looked at Jim and saw Ellison watching him. "N-no m-meds," he breathed.

"Uh, doc, thanks, but I've got a lot of allergies," Jim said, turning his attention to the physician. "I don't react well to medications." Blair relaxed, relieved and grateful that Jim wasn't going to ignore his advice because he really wasn't up to his usual cajoling, let alone an argument.

"What allergies?" she asked. "I'm sure we can find something that "

Jim glanced at him again, and then shook his head. "I'd rather not take the chance."

She quirked a brow but didn't push it. "Okay, well, hot baths and ice packs for the next few days will help. If you can tolerate aspirin or Tylenol, don't hesitate to take them when you need some relief. And I'll give you a referral to a good therapeutic massage specialist."

Jim nodded and gave her a winning smile. "I know the drill," he told her. "And my partner," he went on, tipping his head toward Blair, "will make sure I don't over-do things."

She glanced at Blair and whatever she read in his eyes seemed to reassure her. "Okay," she allowed with a smile of her own. "I can see the two of you take your responsibilities to look out for one another seriously. Mr. Sandburg will be fine after a night's sleep."

Blair felt the urge to smile and was delighted to feel his mouth twitch in response. Finally, the damned drug was wearing off! He tried to lift his hand, but was only able to waggle his fingers a bit. Still, it was progress and he saw Jim's smile widen.

"Yeah," he agreed. "Sandburg does a pretty good job of looking after my best interests."

Wow, Blair thought, feeling warmth spread through his chest. Jim actually sounded like he appreciated

Blair felt his smile grow, and suspected he was grinning like an idiot. Or maybe not. His mouth felt like it did after a dentist had frozen it. God, he hoped he wasn't drooling or doing something equally as embarrassing. Still, Jim's acknowledgement felt damned good.

Maybe Jim hadn't been finding him as annoying as Blair had feared.

When the doctor had finished with him, Jim pulled his clothing on and ambled over to stand beside Blair. He stroked one hand over Blair's head, which felt nice, actually. And then he took Blair's hand. "Can you squeeze my fingers, Chief?" he asked.

Blair did his best to tighten his grip.

"That's good, Sandburg," Jim approved with another, somehow softer smile. "That's real good."

Blair expected Jim to let go and draw away, but he didn't. Instead, Jim held on and again stroked his head. "Rest, Chief. I'll be right here until we can go home. Just rest."

When his throat tightened and his eyes began to burn, Blair blinked furiously. God, he couldn't very well blame the smoke if he lost it now. Jim would think he was such a wuss.

But, it just felt so good. To not be alone. To feel the care and the gentleness.

To know Jim was there for him.

Maybe it would be okay to just let go; close his eyes and risk sleeping for a little while. Maybe

Shattered images, horrifying memories flashed through his mind, moments frozen in time of Lash punching and kicking him, leering at him, taunting him, screaming with him, and nearly choking him with that drug.

He jerked back to full awareness. Then, again, maybe drifting off wasn't the best idea. Not just yet. Not while Jim was watching. No point in pushing his luck, here.

When he crashed and burned, it would be much better if he was alone. Yep, definitely, much, much better if Jim didn't find out what a sniveling coward he really was. Face it there was one really good side to the paralyzing effects of this damned drug; it prevented him from shaking like the epicenter of his own personal earthquake zone, and gave him time to get his act together.

********************

Jim chewed on his lip as he watched over Sandburg. Clearly, the drug was beginning to wear off; he could see tiny convulsions under Blair's skin that Blair himself wouldn't even feel, except as perhaps a jump of the muscles or a vague restlessness. Once the kid could move and stand on his own, even if he still needed some support, Jim wanted to get him out of the noisy and noisome hospital environment and back home, where he could rest. The kid had to be exhausted, both emotionally and physically.

But Jim could also read the signs of Blair's inability to sleep. The way he'd begin to drift off and then jerk back to full wakefulness, his eyes filled with terror, even if only for a moment, was a dead giveaway that Sandburg wasn't coping quite as well as he was trying to pretend. While he could appreciate Blair's attempts to suffer through the aftermath on his own hell, at Blair's age, in his place, Jim would probably have considered cutting out his tongue before admitting to any lingering fear Jim wished the kid would trust him enough to let it out. He knew from hard experience that holding it all inside only made it worse, and made recovery time that much longer. He wondered if, maybe, he should set up a counseling session with the departmental shrink; Blair might not be an employee but nobody could deny that this trauma was directly related to the support he provided downtown. He'd have to talk to Blair about that when they were home. Not tonight, though; tonight Blair needed to rest. But tomorrow, yeah, they'd need to talk.

Hauling a stool over beside the gurney, he perched on it and tried not to stare at Sandburg with a hungry look of expectation and even a little impatience that he get back to normal. The silence was unnatural and unnerving and gave him too much time to think. About what might have happened if he hadn't found that piece of down. If Simon hadn't backed him up on ruining that sample of water. If he'd been just a few minutes slower in making the deductions, in finding the warehouse. If Blair hadn't fought so hard both at the loft and in the warehouse, first physically, and then with his mind, buying critical minutes, minutes that had given Jim just enough time. If Blair hadn't managed to get himself out of that cavernous chamber before it became a firestorm. If if too many ifs. Too damned many.

What would he have done if Blair hadn't made it? What the hell would he have done? How would he have lived with the knowledge that he should have prevented it? Should have twigged to Lash's fascination with Blair? Should have caught the bastard so many different times? How could he have managed without Blair's help with his senses? He wasn't ready to do this on his own; he knew that. And what the hell would he have done without this crazy, quirky, brilliant kid in his life? How would he ever feel comfortable in his own home again? The silence would be deafening.

And, most of all, how could he ever deal with the knowledge that Blair had lost everything? His future, his dreams, all that he might yet be, the contributions he'd make? The thought of what might have happened made his stomach churn.

Finally, he wondered how he could have taken everything so much for granted; everything that Blair had done for him in just a few short weeks? How could he have allowed his resentment and his pride to have so messed up his judgment? Was he such an ungrateful bastard? Had he become so isolated in his mind and his life that he didn't recognize friendship when it was held out again and again and again? Didn't appreciate what was being offered and what he risked losing through stubbornness and irritable hostility?

Well, things were going to change. Had to change. If he could, he'd end their working relationship, make it that Blair only helped him off the job, away from danger. But he couldn't do that. He needed Blair's help to do his job and, though that still rankled, he couldn't be such a fool as to fail to acknowledge that. But, after this, would Blair want to continue working with him, be willing to risk the dangers? It had already been a helluva a few weeks and this, this thing with Lash, this this might be the last straw for Sandburg.

Jim closed his eyes and tried to calm himself down. They'd find a way to make this work. For so many reasons, they had to find a way to make this work between them.

He was startled to feel Blair's grip on his arm and he jerked his head up and around to look down at the kid. God, he looked like death warmed over, so pale and shaky. But he was moving, trying to push himself up.

"Hey, hey, slow down, Tiger," he cautioned, but he helped Blair sit on the side of the gurney. "How're you doing?"

His hand trembling, Blair raked hair off his face and took a deep breath. "Good enough to go home," he replied, his voice still husky but clear. "I really want to go home, man."

"Hold on. I'll get the doctor," he said. But before he left, he gripped Blair's shoulder for a moment. "Don't try to stand until I get back, okay?"

"Yeah, sure," Blair agreed, his manner subdued.

Jim hurried from the room and down along the corridor, listening for the doctor. When he heard her talking in the waiting room, and the deep, rumbling voice that answered, he smiled.

"Captain, hey, perfect timing," he called as he moved toward them. Turning to the doctor, he said, "Blair's sitting up and hopes he can be discharged." Looking back at Simon, he went on, "We could use a lift home, if it's no trouble, sir."

A smile spread over Simon's face. "No trouble at all. I'm glad he's doing okay." He studied Jim. "And how are you doing? Did you get checked out?"

"Yes, sir, and I'm fine. A few cracked ribs and a referral for some physical training for some strained muscles in my shoulders and back no sweat."

When Simon turned to the doctor, a brow lifting for confirmation, she nodded. "From all I heard, your men got off lucky, Captain Banks. They're both, essentially, fine. I'll see how Mr. Sandburg is doing, but I expect he'll be ready to go in a few minutes," she said, turning away.

Jim held up a hand to signal Simon to wait and followed her back into the treatment room.

A few minutes later, Jim kept a steadying arm around Blair's shoulders as they walked out of the hospital and into the night. Simon pulled his car around to the entrance, and Jim helped Blair into the back.

"Good to see you on your feet, Sandburg," Simon said over his shoulder, a slight smile on his face.

"Good to be able to move again, Simon," Blair replied with a low chuckle. "Really good."

Fifteen minutes later, the drive quiet as the men sank into their own thoughts, Simon dropped them off outside the apartment. "It's late," he observed as they got out. "Sleep in tomorrow; come in when you're ready."

"Thanks, Simon," Jim acknowledged with honest gratitude. Sandburg looked wiped out and about to crash.

"Yeah," Blair seconded with a yawn. "Appreciate that. See ya tomorrow."

Jim, with his arm around Blair's shoulders, looked back and saw Simon watching them as they slowly entered the building, a thoughtful expression on his face. Jim waved as they went inside and, as they headed down the hall to the elevator, he wondered what Simon had been thinking. Probably surprised to see me be so supportive, he thought wryly, knowing what a loner I am. Probably thinking that Blair's been good for me, in more ways than one. And he's right about that." Jim sighed. Simon had looked thoughtful, not happy. And he's likely also wondering if Blair's going to pull the plug after this. And thinking he wouldn't blame the kid if he did.

********************

Upstairs, Jim didn't even notice the wreckage around them; he was too focused on getting Blair settled for the night to care. "Think you can manage a shower, Chief?" he asked as he hung up their jackets. "You'd probably feel better."

"Yeah, sure, but you go ahead first, man," Blair replied, his gaze drifting around the loft. When Jim began to protest, he held up his hands. "You're the one with the strained muscles and we only have so much hot water," he went on with a small smile. "After you're finished, I'll rebind your chest. And then I'll clean up. If I go first," he confessed with a yawn, "I'm not sure I'd still be awake to help you. I'm going to make some tea."

"Yeah, okay; I won't take long," Jim agreed after a searching look that convinced him that Blair really was a lot better, much steadier on his feet.

When Jim came out of the shower ten minutes later, he was appalled to find Blair lifting the broken television back onto its stand. A lot of the mess had already been cleaned up cushions back on the sofa, papers picked up, the bookcase righted against the wall. Damn shower; he could never hear much when the water was running. "God, Sandburg, what are you doing?" he demanded.

Blair looked over his shoulder, and straightened. "Cleaning up a bit," he replied, his tone again subdued. Waving his hand around, "I'm really sorry about the mess and the damage."

"Leave it for tonight," Jim urged as he held out the elastic bandages from his first aid kit. "We'll sort it out tomorrow."

Blair moved to join him, and wrapped the bandages tightly around his chest. "That okay?" he asked uncertainly as he finished.

"Just fine, Chief," Jim assured him. "Go on, get cleaned up."

While Blair showered, Jim propped a chair under the knob of the front door, to make the place at least marginally secure. He'd hear anyone trying to force it open long before they got inside. Not that he was particularly worried, but he suspected Blair would be at least a bit jumpy and would feel better knowing it was safe to go to sleep.

When he came out of the bathroom a few minutes later, still toweling his mane, Blair called, "'Night, Jim," and headed straight for his room.

"Good night, Chief," Jim replied. He turned out the lights and wearily climbed the steps to his own bed.

Silence fell over the loft. With a wince of pain, Jim rolled onto his side and, hoping the Tylenol he'd taken would soon kick in, did his best to get comfortable. Trying to relax, he let the quiet soothe him.

And then he realized it was too quiet. Sandburg had gotten into bed and hadn't moved since. There were no soft snuffling sounds of sleep, no typical, inarticulate mumbles. Listening more closely, he honed in on Sandburg's heartbeat, and didn't like what he heard. Too fast. And now that he was really listening, he could tell the kid was on the edge of hyper-ventilating.

Pushing himself to his feet, he padded downstairs. At the entry to Blair's room, he hesitated for a moment, and then quietly pushed past the curtains. Blair was curled on his side, facing the window, and shaking like a leaf in a tempest. And he was biting down on a pillow in an attempt to muffle the sounds of his rough respirations.

"Ah, Chief," he murmured, his throat thick, as he crossed the floor and sank down on the edge of the bed.

Blair had stiffened at his approach and was now trying to lie perfectly still, but his rioting muscles weren't cooperating. "'m sorry, man," he whispered, his voice hoarse. "I didn't mean to disturb you."

"You didn't," Jim replied as he reached out and gently turned Blair to face him, and then lifted the kid's shoulders to slip an arm around him and draw him close. Blair tried to resist, his body tense, but Jim just held on. When Blair gave up and settled against him, he drew up the blanket to cover his friend's shoulders, and rubbed one hand up and down the kid's back to lend warmth. "It's okay," he soothed. "Just reaction to everything that happened. You're entitled."

"You d-don't think I'm a w-wuss?" Blair asked, his voice small, sounding broken, stuttering a little because his teeth were chattering and his racing, shallow breaths were catching in his throat.

"Wuss? You? Not hardly," Jim told him with a chuckle. "It's just your system reacting to the chloral hydrate and the shock of everything. The shakes are normal, Chief."

"You're n-not sh-shaking," Blair countered, still uncertain.

Jim closed his eyes. "Not on the outside," he admitted. "Inside? That's another story. It was rough, Chief. You thought he was going to kill you. I I was afraid I wouldn't find you in time. It was close, but we made it, Blair. It's over."

He could hear Sandburg taking deeper breaths, trying to slow himself down, calm himself.

"I really am sorry about the mess," Blair said then, sounding anxious. "I'll pay you back for the repairs and for what we have to replace, like the TV. It'll take me a little time, though. I'm sorry, but I just don't have the cash right now."

Jim pressed his lips together, and tightened his grip. "I don't want you worrying about any of that," he finally managed to say. "What happened wasn't your fault, you got that? My insurance will cover all the costs."

"But "

"No 'buts', Chief," Jim cut in firmly. He swallowed to moisten his dry throat and then said, "Look, I know money is short right now. You lost damned near everything you owned in that explosion. I I'd like to help you out, if you'll let me. Like, uh, no rent for the next while, and I'll handle the other expenses, too, like groceries. If you need a loan, for clothes or school supplies, you just say so."

"Jim, man, I that's not right," Blair protested. "I mean, I really appreciate it, but I'm not your responsibility."

Aren't you? Wasn't what happened last night my responsibility? Jim shook his head. "Consider it, I don't know, payment in kind for all the help you're giving me. With my senses. And with my cases, too."

Blair didn't say anything for what felt like a long time. But the quaking eased to trembling, and he slipped his arms around Jim, hugging him. "Thanks," he said very softly. "That means a lot, you know? I I need to think about it, and we need to, to set a timetable, because I want to pull my weight. But, but the help right now, well, I really need it. And I appreciate it. A lot."

"Okay, we'll work it out," Jim agreed, not wanting to argue about it. Time enough in the days ahead to hold firm on his position. He had his own private consultant, and it was only right that he contribute something for everything Blair gave him so freely, both in attention and time. "You think you can sleep now?"

Once again, Blair was silent for long moments. And then, his voice once more shaky and very soft, he admitted, "I was sc-scared, man. So scared. I didn't I didn't think there was any hope, you know? I tried, Jim. I really tried to fight him off. But he was too strong for me. I couldn't overpower him. And I couldn't get away. And then in that warehouse. Chained like that. Surrounded by his trophies. I screamed my head off, but he screamed, too, to prove to me that no one could hear me. That I that he could do whatever he wanted and there wasn't a damned thing I could do about it. I I didn't want to die, Jim. I really didn't want to die. And, and, later," he continued, the words tumbling out now, like a river in flood, "when the fire started. I knew I had to get out of there. But then my body gave out and I couldn't move. Couldn't move. And I heard the shots "

"And you were scared he might have killed me," Jim supplied, when Blair's voice faded away.

"Yeah," Blair murmured, and sniffed. "I I never wanted you hurt. That was worse than than ."

Than facing your own death, Jim thought, remembering the frantic prayers he'd heard, prayers for him and not for Blair himself, not for someone who would help him, save him. "Ah, Chief," he sighed, feeling as if his heart might break. "Listen to me. And listen good. You did everything right last night. You fought him and fought hard. You bought time, Sandburg. Precious time. You couldn't defeat him because he was a wild man, crazy he nearly overpowered me and I'm a much bigger guy than he was. But you didn't go easily. You shook him up, Chief. He had to chain you to restrain you. There's no indication that he had to do that to anyone else. No marks on their wrists or ankles, like the ones you've got. So you bought more time."

Jim paused, to steady his voice, because the memories of it all still had the power to unnerve him. Taking a breath, resuming his stroking of Blair's back, knowing the kid needed to hear this, he carried on, "I heard you fighting with him, arguing with him, putting him off his game, distracting him. You never gave up, Chief. You thought it was hopeless, but you didn't quit. God, I'm so proud of you. And, and that time you bought? That was the time I needed. If you hadn't stalled him every step of the way, I wouldn't have gotten there in time. You did that, Chief. You made your rescue possible."

Blair drew back a little to look up into his face, squinting to see in the darkness. "You mean that? You you were proud of me?"

"Damned proud," Jim replied as he cupped Blair's face. "You did everything right, Chief. Everything." Combing unruly curls back from Blair's brow, he added for good measure and because it was true, "And how the hell you ever got out of that chair and out of the room, and down that flight of steps, all chained up and with that drug slowing you down I don't know how you did it. But you saved your own life that time. No way could I have gotten back to you before the fire did. Jesus, Sandburg. You're untrained and, hell, I know you hate hearing it, but you really are just a kid. You've had no experience to prepare you for all this and yet, you do a damned fine job. Wuss? You? Give me a break. God, Chief, you're one of the bravest men I've ever known."

Blair flushed and his gaze dropped as if he was embarrassed by the praise. "I'm not brave," he protested, a wisp of sound. "Hell, I'm scared to go to sleep. Scared that I'll dream about him."

"Being brave isn't the absence of fear, Blair," Jim told him. "Being brave is about doing what you need to do, even when you're terrified. Last night wasn't the first time I've seen you do things that most men would hesitate to do wouldn't do out of a healthy regard for their own safety. Like running into the street to pull a perfect stranger under a truck, to save his life. Like taking on Kincaid, and his pilot, even though you were tied up and at their mercy. Like dodging an assassin's bullets to pull a woman to safety. Like helping elderly and helpless people find a way to face down armed gang members and win. Like going to crime scenes and having to deal with pretty awful stuff, because you know I need you there. That all takes courage, Chief. And that you've got in spades."

When Blair drew a shuddering breath and looked away, Jim squeezed his shoulders and drew him back into his embrace. "And, yeah, sure, you'll probably have nightmares. Your head needs to work out what happened; you know that. It's normal. Rotten, but normal. I can't blame you for dreading them, though. I'm not looking forward to mine, either. But he's dead, Blair. He can't hurt you anymore. He won't ever hurt anyone else again, ever."

Blair leaned against him and, gradually, the tremors rippling through his body subsided.

"I wouldn't blame you," Jim ventured then, though he was afraid of what he might hear, "if you decided you'd had enough. That's it all too much. No paper, no degree, is worth dying for, Chief."

Jim expected Blair to pull away then, and was surprised when, instead, Blair's arms came around him and hugged him hard. "You're right. No degree is worth that," Blair murmured.

Jim froze. Pressing his eyes and lips closed, Jim fought the urge to take it back, to have never raised the possibility that Blair might want to quit.

But then, Blair said with utter certainty, "But you are. You need my help, Jim, and that's hard for you, to need someone else. I know that. But you need to know that I'm not going to quit on you." He hesitated and then added, sounding vulnerable, "And, well, I really like helping you, you know? I'm just scared I'm might let you down."

Letting go the breath he was holding, feeling the warmth of affection and relief fill him, Jim smiled. "You won't," he insisted. "You've already proven that, Chief. I know I can count on you. I know I can trust you to do your best, and that's all anyone can ask."

"I will," Blair promised. "I'll probably make mistakes and screw up, sometimes. But I really will do my best for you, man."

Jim thought about all the mistakes he'd made in his life and sighed. "You're a teacher, Chief. You know that nobody can learn new stuff without making mistakes. It happens. And you go on. We're both learning; we'll both screw up sometimes. But but we'll keep learning and we'll keep getting better. So long as we don't give up, we'll be okay."

Blair eased back. "Does this mean you won't fight me so much on tests, and the ideas I have about what might work?"

Jim grimaced at the reminder of his surly, uncooperative behaviours. "I won't promise to like the tests," he muttered. "But, yeah, I'll I'll be more cooperative. I know they're for my own good. Just they're not easy, Chief. Maybe we can pace them, or something. So it doesn't get to be too much all at once."

"You got it," Blair agreed. "But you'll have to help me. I can't read your mind. When you're reaching your limits, you have to tell me you need a break."

"Sounds fair," Jim allowed and was pleased at the smile that bloomed on Blair's face. His gaze dropped away as he realized that, as wrecked as Blair had been a few short minutes before, he was able to set that aside and get all happy about the fact that Jim was prepared to be more cooperative. The kid's resilience was staggering and his loyalty was very humbling.

Blair disengaged himself and shifted back a bit. "Thanks, man," he said, sounding a bit embarrassed but mostly grateful. "For, uh, for everything you said. For helping me calm down. I was really freaking out, but I think I might actually be able to sleep now. How 'bout you? Are you in much pain? You okay? You need anything?"

Jim nodded. "No, I'm good." He stood and looked down at Blair for a moment, and hoped Blair would understand what he meant when he added, "I've got everything I need, Chief."

"Me, too, Jim," Blair replied with a slow smile as he lay down and pulled up the covers. "Me, too."

"'Night, Sandburg," Jim said, turning to move out of the room.

"See you in the morning," Blair replied with a wide yawn.

Jim smiled to himself as he climbed back up to his bed. Everything was going to work out just fine. As bad as things had seemed last night, as scared as he'd been, he knew they were stronger for it. Something had changed; something good. They were no longer accidental strangers thrown together and making the best of it.

They were friends. Very good friends.

********************

Blair punched his pillow and closed his eyes. God, what a night it had been. The worst and the best. Something fundamental had changed between him and Jim; they'd passed a watershed. Drifting into sleep, he was able to let the horror go and bask in the warmth of Jim's words and his understanding.

Jim was proud of him! Said he'd done everything right. Said he was brave. Coming from a man like Jim, that was was pretty fantastic.

And, best of all, Jim had made it clear that he thought of Blair as a friend, and he was also clear that they'd be working together and sharing the loft for quite some time to come. He wasn't here on temporary sufferance anymore. He was home.

Blair shook his head bemusedly. He'd thought he was going to die that night; that his life was over.

Instead, it was just beginning. And wherever their journey eventually took them, they were friends. Good friends. That was so much more than Blair ever expected, and everything that he'd come to want. Man, you just never know where the adventure of life is going to take you. You just never know. And, thanks to the man who saved my life tonight, and who just offered me friendship and a home, my particular adventure is going to continue and it looks like it's going to be the ride of a lifetime!

Joy bubbled up and he smiled widely. "Thanks, Jim," he whispered. "Thanks for everything."

********************

Jim heard the whispered words, the happiness threading through them, and shook his head. That kid was really something else. Something really special.

He listened to Blair's breathing as it slowed and deepened into sleep.

Smiling to himself, he closed his eyes, ready to let sleep claim him, too. His last conscious awareness was of pervasive peace and contentment.

Everything was right in his world.

Finis

Comments, criticism, suggestions? Please e-mail Arianna.

Back to Arianna's page.