Disclaimer: The Characters of The Sentinel belong to Pet Fly, The SciFi channel and others. No copyright infringement is intended.

Thanks to Lory, as always, for her invaluable support and to MaryLynne for taking the time to read my stories so carefully and provide wonderful feedback. Any remaining errors are purely my own.

False Assumption

by JET

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

Tuesday

Some heroes endure as though chiseled from the rarest marble. Others disintegrate like clay, crumbling in your hands, leaving you wondering if they were merely an illusion all along.

Blair Sandburg stared at the journal gripped in his tightly clenched fingers. He'd read his journal entries again and again and compared them to the brochure photographs incessantly, yet the implications had not changed. Blair slowly lowered the journal he'd kept during his last visit to Peru with Jim. His eyes locked on a collection of artifacts on a shelf across his small office as he considered his options. His descriptions and the photographs matched perfectly.

There could be no mistake, yet, it was simply unbelievable that such treasures could actually have found their way to Cascade. Unless he gave in to the impossible scenario that had been playing out in his head ever since he'd made the connection. Was it possible? As much as it pained Blair to believe that a man he'd admired so much could have done such a thing, it seemed the only logical possibility.

Damn.

Another hero shot to hell.

When the phone rang, he jumped at the unexpected interruption. "Blair Sandburg," he answered, distracted.

"Hey, Chief. I'll be wrapping things up here in an hour or so. Thought I'd pick up some carry-out on the way home. Any requests?"

Still staring at the shelf of artifacts, Blair didn't answer for a few moments.

"Sandburg? You still there?"

Shaken back to reality by Jim's familiar voice, Blair took a deep breath, tucked the phone between his shoulder and chin, and scrubbed both hands through his long hair, raking it away from his face. "No, man. Whatever. Listen, I'll be a little late tonight. I have a stop to make on the way home."

"Anything wrong, Sandburg? You sound upset about something. You okay?"

Blair forced a short laugh. "I'm fine, Jim. Nothing for you to worry about. I'll be home in a while. See you then."

"Okay, Chief. See you at home."

Blair hung up the phone, then leaned back in his desk chair. He removed his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. Damn. This was something he so did not want to do. Gathering up his backpack and slipping into his soft, worn leather jacket, Blair flipped off the lights and closed his office door behind him. Suddenly, he felt so damned old.

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

The exhibition was crowded, as was to be expected on an opening day. Blair jogged up the steps to the Rainier University Exhibition Center. He hesitated briefly as he read the banner posted above the door. The Hidden Tribe: Lives of the Chopec. Shaking his head in disbelief, Blair stepped inside.

He scanned the main hall and quickly found the object of his search.

Dr. Russell Miles stood in the midst of a cluster of admiring students and colleagues. Blair recognized nearly every one, and he couldn't help but wonder how many of them would still be clamoring for the professor's attention if they knew what he had discovered. Perhaps, he would soon find out.

The man didn't appear to have changed much from the time he'd served as his research assistant two years before. If there had ever been a single living figure in anthropology Blair admired more than any other he'd worked with, Russell Miles had been that man. A painstaking researcher, excellent writer, and captivating teacher, Dr. Miles was everything Blair hoped to be in his career. The semester spent as his assistant had taught him so much, and as he approached the man he'd once considered his friend and mentor, Blair felt his spirits plunge even lower.

How dare he question such an admired and respected man? Yet, a single glance at a grouping of Chopec pottery bowls confirmed his decision. There was no question that he was right.

Waiting until Dr. Miles broke away from the group to walk toward the refreshment table, Blair caught up with him. He could not return the welcoming smile the professor gave him as he approached.

"Dr. Miles? We have to talk."

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

By the time nine o'clock came and went, Jim's patience was wearing thin. Sandburg's phone in his office went unanswered, its answering machine turned on. His numerous messages, each more forceful than the last, went unanswered. Blair's cell phone was producing no better results.

Their dinner sat warming in the oven. With each hour that passed, Jim felt his frustration growing. Sandburg knew better than this, to be so late and not bother to call. He knew his sentinel worried, how his Blessed Protector's vivid imagination could conjure up all sorts of unimaginable fates and dangers to threaten his guide.

Stalking across the loft's hardwood floor, Jim snatched his keys from the table by the door. Muttering to himself, he slammed the door behind him, brushing roughly past old Mr. Maxwell, one of their neighbors, in the hallway. "If you think you can get away with this, Sandburg, you're dead wrong."

As Jim disappeared down the stairs, his footsteps drumming a quick staccato, Mr. Maxwell stared after him in mute surprise, his sack of groceries clutched safely in his arms.

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

The door to Blair's office flew open, violently crashing back against the wall.

"Sandburg!" Jim's eyes darted around the small office, searching for his partner. After finding Blair's car parked undisturbed out in front of Hargrove Hall, the detective had become even more convinced that, once again, trouble had found his partner.

Why else hadn't Sandburg called?

Blair's head shot up at the noisy interruption. "J...Jim? What the...?"

Relief flooded his soul even as anger simultaneously tightened Jim's gut. Blair was safe. Unharmed. Apparently there had been no emergency, no good reason for Sandburg to be so late, and still, he had let Jim worry.

His voice cold, Jim interrupted. "That's what I'd like to know. Where the hell have you been, Sandburg?"

Blair glanced up at the clock on the wall behind his desk. "It's only... Aw, damn it!" Wheeling around in his chair, he turned wide, beseeching eyes up at his friend. "I'm sorry, man! I didn't realize how late it was. I kinda got wrapped up in something, and..."

Jim's voice rose in frustration. "And you couldn't be bothered to answer the phone? I've left four messages, Chief. Four!"

"I'm sorry, Jim!" Blair stared wide-eyed at his angry partner. "I should have called, but honestly, I didn't even think..."

Slamming his hand down on the old desk and ignoring Blair's startled jump, Jim shouted, "That's exactly the problem, Sandburg! You don't think! You just get wrapped up in your own world, and you let everything and everybody else go to hell! Including me!"

It was Sandburg's turn to raise his voice. "Hey, man! That's not fair! Yeah, I forgot about the time and yes, I should have called, but it's not exactly a capital offense, you know! Chill, Jim!"

Jim's voice lowered and the fury in his eyes burned down to a low smoldering flame. "Sandburg...," He stopped, struggling for control. "Twice before, I've tried calling you...twice before, I've listened to the damn phone ringing and ringing and ringing. You never answered." He paced over to the shelves across from Blair's desk and picked up a tall statue carved of stone. Chopec. Jim studied the familiar markings for a moment before speaking again, his back still turned to Sandburg. "The first time, I nearly lost you to Lash. The second, I did lose you to Alex."

"But you got me back," Sandburg reminded him gently, in stark contrast to his tone of moments before. "I'm sorry, man. Really. My cell phone's battery was dead, and I left the charger at home. I had cut off the ringer on the office phone and turned on the machine. I needed some quiet to work." Blair left his desk and stood behind Jim, resting a hand on his shoulder. "I am sorry, Jim. I was inconsiderate to make you worry like that."

After a moment, Ellison nodded. He turned around and set the stone statue on the edge of Blair's desk. "Sorry I came down on you, Chief. Sometimes your Blessed Protector takes his responsibilities too much to heart, I guess."

Blair teased, "Hey, man, don't say that! You know me. I need all the protecting I can get."

Jim grinned sheepishly as he lowered his head in a small bow. "One Blessed Protector Supreme, at your service."

Blair glanced back at his desk. "Give me about another half hour here, then I'll head home. I'm almost done."

"Want me to stick around, Chief?"

Smiling at Jim's offer, Blair punched him lightly on the bicep. "Nah, Jim. I'm fine. Really. Stop by the video store and pick out a movie. Your choice. Anything you want, man."

Jim's eyes twinkled. "My choice? Anything?"

Blair groaned. "Oh, man! I'm in for it now, aren't I? What's it gonna be? John Wayne? Steve McQueen?"

Moving toward the door, Jim grinned back at his friend. "Wouldn't want to spoil the surprise, Chief. You'll find out soon enough."

"That's what I'm afraid of, big guy."

"Hurry home, Chief," Jim called back over his shoulder, "or I may have to eat your half of the pizza, too." He closed the door quickly before Blair could respond.

His sentinel hearing didn't miss the rejoinder, however. "Do it and I'll come up with the most aggravating test I can think of, man. You just wait!"

Jim was still chuckling as he drove away from Rainier toward the loft.

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

Wednesday

Two hours later, he was still waiting. Jim glanced at his watch. After midnight. Damn it!

He had phoned Blair's office again, but there had been no answer. He had figured Sandburg was on his way, but now, nearly a half hour later, he still had not arrived.

Jim wasn't sure whether to be furious at Sandburg or worried half out of his mind.

He settled for a hefty dose of both.

His sentinel hearing extended as he listened for the unique sound of Sandburg's car, Jim heard footsteps coming up the stairs from below. A firm knock at his door quickly followed.

Not Sandburg.

Simon.

Oh, God...

The anger component of Jim's emotional equation vanished, leaving only the worry, and that immediately transformed into heart-numbing fear.

What the hell is Simon doing here at midnight?

Engulfed in a heavy feeling of dread, Jim opened the door.

The look on his captain's face sent his heart plunging. "What's happened, Simon?" he asked quietly.

Taking a step inside, Banks closed the door. "It's Sandburg."

Of course. Who else could it have been to bring Simon to the loft door at this time of night. Anything else would have warranted only a phone call.

"Where is he?" Jim asked tensely, his blue eyes scouring the captain's face for answers.

Moving into the kitchen and pouring a drink of water, Simon explained. "A night shift custodian found him in his office about an hour ago. He..." Simon stopped.

In that moment of hesitation, the concern in Jim's eyes turned to blatant fear. "Blair...?" he whispered as his knees threatened to betray him. He sagged back against the corner of the kitchen counter. "Is he...?"

"He's alive, Jim," Simon hastened to assure him. "Blair's alive." Simon said the words slowly and definitively. "But he's in critical condition."

"Why? What happened...?" Jim's tongue felt mired in mud, his thoughts slow and confused. He'd just left Sandburg, safe in his office, only hours before. This can't be happening. It's all some cruel nightmare, and I'll wake up soon, and Blair will be right here in the loft with me. Where he belongs. Oh, God, please let me wake up!

Simon's gentle voice took on a hard edge of anger. "He was attacked, Jim. Beaten over the head with one of those artifacts he keeps around everywhere. From the preliminary reports, whoever hit him didn't stop at one blow. There were at least three serious blows to the head. When the custodian found him, he was unconscious, and he'd lost a lot of blood."

Jim suddenly bolted into action. Grabbing his jacket, he snatched his keys. "Let's go!"

Simon latched on to Jim's arm, restraining him. "You're not driving anywhere, not like this. I'll drive you to the hospital, Jim, but first..." Taking a deep breath, Simon finished, "There's something more."

Jim's anxious blue eyes locked on Simon. Surely this evening couldn't get any worse.

"Jim, the custodian had been by Blair's office earlier in the evening. He...he heard voices from inside. Shouting, angry voices. He recognized one as Sandburg's and the other..."

"As mine," Jim said flatly. "Yeah. I was there, and we did argue. So what?"

Banks shook his head. "You know the answer to that, Detective. Blair was attacked viciously and violently and left for dead. There are bound to be questions."

Concern solidified into ice deep in the depths of Jim's eyes. "Of course, sir. Let's go. I need to get to Sandburg."

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

They were met at the hospital by Joel, Henri, and Rafe. The other members of Major Crimes had received word of what had happened through Simon.

"Any word?" Jim's eyes remained focused on the set of double doors marked Intensive Care.

The kindly ex-bomb squad captain shook his head, his brown eyes warm with compassion. "Not yet, Jim. The nurse told us that he's in intensive care, and the doctor will be out to tell us something soon."

Jim acknowledged the information with a nod. "Thanks, Joel." He moved to the chair closest to the shut doors and sat down, his head cocked to one side, his eyes closed.

Motioning to the others, Simon led his small team of detectives to the far side of the room. "Jim needs to be alone right now. Let's give him some space." The tone of the captain's voice allowed no room for discussion.

Jim was grateful to his friend. He'd confided once when Blair had been in the hospital that if he concentrated, he could listen to the doctors taking care of his young partner. Leave it to Simon to remember.

The sentinel tried to filter through the cacophony of voices and noises that were layered throughout the intensive care unit. So many heartbeats...so many voices. He shook his head in frustration. It was so damned difficult to concentrate, to weed out all the unimportant voices and heartbeats and reach the only one that mattered. He extended his hearing even more, knowing he edged dangerously close to his maximum range.

It was no use. He was unable to zero in on Blair, but the sentinel continued to try as the hours slipped by. Eventually, Rafe, Joel and Henri drifted home to get a few hours sleep before work the next morning, each one making Simon promise to call as soon as they knew anything.

Finally, a few hours before dawn, the swinging doors flew open, and Jim's hands shot to his ears in pain.

"Are you here for Dr. Sandburg?" The doctor's voice was brusque and efficient.

Recovered from the sensory deluge enough to move, Jim stood up. "I'm Jim Ellison, Blair's roommate and partner. How is he?"

"I'm Dr. Martin. Right now, Dr. Sandburg is stable. He suffered repeated blows to the back of the head." The doctor shook his head. "Whoever did this to him obviously never expected him to survive this long."

The pounding of his heart nearly drowned out the doctor's words. "Will he...?" Jim couldn't bring himself to finish the sentence. He watched Dr. Martin's face and didn't like the look of uncertainty he saw there.

"There was some swelling of the brain. We relieved the pressure by drilling a small hole through the cranium. That's about all we can do at the moment, I'm afraid. The next forty-eight hours will be critical. If he regains consciousness and there's no brain damage, then..." Dr. Martin shrugged. "We'll just have to wait and see." He glanced at his watch. "I have another patient. Dr. Sandburg has been taken to room 273. You may wait with him." The doctor left through the double doors behind them.

Jim immediately turned to leave, but Simon caught his arm. "Jim, no. I'm sorry."

Confused, Jim turned to his captain. "What do you mean, no?"

"Not this time, Jim." Simon took a deep breath. "You're going down to the station."

Jim's eyes widened. "You're arresting me?"

"Not me. Captain Wilcox is heading the investigation. The Chief felt I was too close to both you and Sandburg to be in charge of this one. Wilcox called me about an hour ago, but I convinced him to let us wait here until we knew about Blair. I promised him I'd bring you directly to the station."

Jim shook his head. "I'm not going anywhere until I see Sandburg." He stared hard into Simon's eyes. "Let me see him, then I'll go with you. You have my word."

Jim didn't wait for Simon's answer. He was already sprinting down the hall toward room 273.

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

Standing in the dimly lighted room over the motionless body of his best friend, Jim wished that his senses weren't so acute. If he had normal senses, he would not have to hear the labored sound of the air passing uncertainly through the tired lungs...wouldn't feel the heat rising from the feverish body...wouldn't smell the artificial, chemical odor of the drugs masking the familiar, comforting scent that he'd imprinted so long ago as that of his best friend and guide.

IV tubes ran to Sandburg's veins, and a conglomeration of other monitors were hooked up and beeping. Jim's hand hovered hesitantly above Blair's swollen and bruised face. "Chief?" he whispered. Somewhere in the farthest corners of his awareness, he knew Simon waited near the door. He didn't have long.

With a tenderness many who knew him only as a tough, no nonsense cop would find unimaginable, the sentinel stroked the pale skin, carefully avoiding the oxygen lines running to Blair's nose. "I'm so sorry, Blair. I should have been there. I should have stayed with you - kept you safe." He rested his hand lightly on the soft curls, forcing himself to ignore the bandage covering the shaven area where the doctors had drilled into his friend's skull. Jim's fingers tangled of their own accord in the thick mass, and he gently massaged Blair's scalp. He leaned down low to whisper in the curl-covered ear, "I don't know who did this to you, buddy, but I swear to you I'll find out. I'll find out, and they'll pay."

A voice interrupted. "Jim, we have to go." Simon laid a hand on his shoulder. "I'm sorry. The sooner we get this ridiculous mess straightened out, the sooner you can get back here."

Jim allowed himself one last moment as he reached down to wrap his hand around the smaller one of his partner. Squeezing gently, Jim whispered, "I'll be back, Chief. You hang in there, okay? I need you to wake up for me, kid." He smiled in spite of the fear. "When I get back here, I expect you to be awake and jabbering away, you hear me? Chief?" The smile faded, and Jim bent down quickly and pressed his lips to Blair's forehead in a tender kiss. "I'll be back. I promise. You wait for me."

Straightening, Jim released Blair's hand with a gentle squeeze. He strode toward the door. "Let's get this over with, Simon."

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

The pink glow of dawn had scarcely faded by the time Jim entered the interrogation room. He settled himself in the chair across the interrogation room from Captain Gregory Wilcox and began to size up his adversary. It didn't take Jim long to come to the conclusion that Wilcox was exactly the same obnoxious hard-ass he remembered from their previous confrontations. He hadn't seen the man face-to-face in over two years, but some people never change. Jim could hear voices from beyond the one-way glass but had no interest in determining who it might be. Let them watch. He had nothing to hide.

"Ellison," Wilcox greeted him coolly without a trace of a smile. "It's been a while."

Jim nodded, then he waited for the older man to make the next move. He had no interest in pleasantries with this man. They hadn't seen eye-to-eye two years ago, and Jim saw no reason to think their relationship would be any more cordial now.

"I want you to know that I have no preconceived ideas about this case. All I have so far is the statement from the Rainier custodian. That and a statement that one of your neighbors, a..." Captain Wilcox consulted his notes. "A Mr. Maxwell who saw you leave your place of residence earlier in the evening. He said you muttered something about..." The sharp gray eyes flicked down to the notebook again. " 'If you think you can get away with this, Sandburg, you're dead wrong.' " Wilcox regarded Jim evenly across the table. "Exactly what did you mean by that? Not exactly the kind of thing one says about a...friend. If that's all Sandburg is to you."

"Nice to know you have no preconceived ideas," Jim commented caustically.

Wilcox smiled tightly. "Two years ago you and Sandburg blew my chances at making Deputy Chief with your allegations of misconduct. I managed to avoid major problems with Internal Affairs, but we both know my career is stalled at its present level. I don't have a snowball's chance in hell of rising above captain, and I was damned lucky not to be busted down a rank."

The captain spread his hands in a placating gesture, but his bitter smile never touched his eyes. "That doesn't mean, however, that I'm incapable of being objective in this case. We couldn't allow your own captain - and your friend, I might add - to conduct the investigation. My name was next on the rotation. So, it looks like you're stuck with me." Wilcox leaned across the table, a hungry gleam in his cool gray, almost colorless, eyes. "You want to explain that statement Mr. Maxwell overheard?"

Jim shrugged. "I was upset. Sandburg was late for dinner and hadn't called."

Chuckling, Wilcox leaned back in his chair. "Are you always so concerned about your ... partner's ... personal life, Ellison? He's a big boy, after all. Of course, I've always had my doubts about the two of you. I'm not the only one. You and Sandburg are close - too close. A hell of a lot closer than most partners. All those little touches...the way you protect him - I was in the garage that day, remember? So maybe you had something else in mind for last evening? Something more...romantic...and you were afraid your little boy toy decided to spend his time with someone else?"

Jim erupted over the table, his hand darting out like a striking snake to grab Gregory Wilcox's collar and hold it tightly. "You listen to me you son of a bitch, because I'm only saying this once. You're more than welcome to go after me with both barrels. That's your job, and it comes along with mine. But you leave Blair out of this. He's the victim. Go after him, and you'll have far worse problems than a stalled career. Am I making myself clear?"

The door to the interrogation room flew open, and Simon stormed in. "Jim! What the hell do you think you're doing?"

Jim's hard blue eyes never wavered from Wilcox's. "Making a promise, sir. Just making a promise." He released his captive's collar, and Wilcox sank back into his chair, breathing heavily.

Simon looked from one man to the other. "Should I take over this interview, gentlemen?"

Wilcox shook his head. "No. That won't be necessary. Detective Ellison and I...understand...each other now, I think."

With a long, warning look at Jim, Simon left the room.

Wilcox cleared his throat. "What did you do after leaving your apartment building?"

Jim described the events succinctly. "I found Sandburg in his office. We argued briefly, then we both apologized. He said he had about another half hour's work to do, then he'd be home. I left, stopping by to pick up a movie on the way home. Blair never showed up. Never called me. Simon...Captain Banks...came to my door about midnight and told me that Blair was hospitalized. That's all."

For the next hour, Wilcox tried his best to take apart Jim's story, but Jim never wavered from his version of events. At last, the captain tossed some papers across the table with a cruel little smile. "You're free to go. For now. This is a restraining order. You're to have no contact with Blair Sandburg until this order is lifted."

Jim stared at the papers as if they were on fire. "What? A restraining order?" He shot a glance at Simon through the one-way glass. Wilcox couldn't do this. Could he?

Wilcox stood up, a satisfied smile on his face. "It's for your partner's protection, Detective. Right now, you are our prime suspect in the attempted murder of Blair Sandburg. Until further notice, you are not to speak to him, go anywhere near him, or have any other contact. I'm awaiting the lab results on what we believe to be the murder weapon, a stone statue found lying near the body, covered in blood. I don't have any doubts what we'll find." Walking to the door, he turned back briefly before leaving the room and smiled coldly. "Enjoy your freedom, Ellison. While you still can."

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

Jim paced the floor of Simon's office. "I don't believe this! My partner's lying unconscious in the hospital, the person who tried to kill him is out there somewhere, and I'm the prime suspect!"

Simon sighed heavily. "I'm afraid that's not the end of it, Jim. I need your gun and shield."

The pacing stopped. Jim turned slowly to face his captain. "You think I may be guilty."

"No!" Simon emphatically denied the accusation. "It's S.O.P., Jim, and you know it. You're under investigation in a crime. That means temporary suspension with pay."

It was another heavy weight added to the ton of stone already bearing down on Jim's heart. He struggled to maintain control, lowering his head and shutting his eyes. "I could never do it, Simon. I know I've done a lot to hurt Blair, but I could never hurt him like that," he said softly. Jim raised pain-filled eyes to the face of his friend. "Is that what they're saying out there? That I tried to kill my partner? That the infamous Ellison temper got out of control once too often?"

"Some of them," Simon admitted slowly. "But those who know you, Jim, they will never believe you could turn on Blair. No matter what's gone down in the past, you'd never hurt him. Not like this."

Jim slammed his fist against the wall, then rested his head on it. "Then who did, Simon? Who the hell would want to try to kill Blair?"

Simon walked over to him. "That's what we're going to find out. For now, I need your badge and gun."

Jim didn't lift his head. "Who's going to discover the truth? Wilcox? Hell, he's ready to lynch me right now."

"Just because I'm not officially assigned to the case doesn't mean I can't nose around on my own."

Nodding, Jim took a deep breath. "I want in."

Denial was swift. "No way. You're suspended, remember?"

Jim lifted his head and stared at Simon. "This is personal, sir. I want in. I need to be in on this. For Sandburg and for myself."

Simon held his gaze. "If I do that, I could lose my own badge."

"I know. I wouldn't ask if there was another way!" Jim paced over to the window overlooking the bullpen and stared out. "I have a hunch this is tied in to Blair's work at Rainier. He was upset about something last night and stayed holed up in his office. If it was a cop thing, he'd have been with me."

Jim turned around and looked at Banks, openly pleading with his superior officer. "I know more about his life there than you do. Simon, please...you need me to help out here. I know the people he works with...the places he goes. I can save valuable time. Time we don't have to waste. Let me help, sir."

For nearly a minute, there was no answer from the tall black man. At last, Simon said quietly, "Put your gun and shield on my desk. I'll meet you at the loft in an hour." He held up a warning finger. "You will do nothing on this investigation without me. I'm putting my career on the line, Jim, and I want to know your every move. If you take a single step without my being in on it, I swear to you that you will never get that gold shield back again. Do you understand me, Detective?"

Jim nodded. "Implicitly, sir."

"Good." Simon sat down heavily at his desk and picked up his cigar. "Now get out of here. I'll meet you in an hour. And, Jim...?"

Ellison paused at the door. "Sir?"

"Stay away from Sandburg. I mean it. I'll keep you posted on the kid, but you are not to go anywhere near Blair. Do you hear me?"

A painful emotion gripped Jim's heart. "Very good, sir. I hear you."

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

True to his word, Simon arrived at the loft almost exactly an hour later. When Jim opened the door, Simon was taken aback by the raw fear on the detective's face.

"I tried calling the hospital to check on him. They said they couldn't discuss his condition with me. Simon, what do you know? What's going on?" Jim's words tumbled out almost as fast as Sandburg's, quite a change for the normally taciturn detective.

Simon shut the door and held his hands out in a placating gesture. "Relax, Jim. I ran by on my way over here. Sandburg's still the same. No better, no worse. Wilcox left orders that you were not to be given any information, that's all."

"Damn it!" Jim strode into the kitchen, stood for a moment staring at nothing, then paced back into the living room. "I can't believe this! Who does that bastard think he is?"

"The lead investigator on this case!" Simon retorted sharply. "He's got the authority, Jim, so get over it! If you want to be able to get to see Sandburg, the only way is to find who really did this. Prove your innocence and the restraining order disappears."

"So much for the concept of innocent until proven guilty," Jim remarked bitterly.

"Yeah, well, welcome to reality. You said you think this is all related to something at Rainier. So, where do we start?"

Jim perched on the edge of the couch arm and reflected. "I've been thinking of nothing else for the past hour, sir. Blair went to some kind of exhibit opening last night on campus. I want to go find out what that's all about."

Simon nodded in agreement. "Sounds like a good place to start. Let's go."

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

*The Hidden Tribe: Lives of the Chopec*

Stunned, Jim stared at the banner in disbelief.

"Isn't that the tribe you lived with in Peru?" Simon asked innocently.

"Yes." Jim blinked again, but the words were still there. "The Chopec. Why didn't Sandburg tell me something about this? It's the kind of thing he'd normally be jumping up and down about and pulling me down here to see it the moment the doors opened." Jim turned to his friend in confusion. "This just doesn't make sense, Simon."

"Let's go inside and see what we can find out."

The inside of the Rainier University Exhibition Center was darkened and cool. A woman of about fifty-five greeted them at the desk just inside the door. "May I help you?" she asked pleasantly.

"Where is the exhibit on the Chopec?"

"Oh, yes! Dr. Miles' exhibition." She smiled at Jim broadly. "Already such a huge success! It's right on this floor. Go through those doors labeled "Main Exhibit Hall. There will be a docent inside who can help you with interpretation."

"Thank you," Jim said quickly and headed for the doors.

What greeted them inside amazed him. Behind glass, row upon row of carvings and pottery, weapons and jewelry. Jim walked slowly from case to case, staring at each shelf and its contents.

"Jim?"

He didn't turn around to face his captain. "This is amazing, Simon. It's all Chopec." Jim looked over his shoulder at the exhibits behind them, his brows knitted in concentration. "It's all Chopec," he repeated.

A lively, feminine voice interrupted them. "Welcome! My name is Julie. May I help you with anything?"

Jim looked at the slim young woman smiling at them warmly. "What can you tell me about all this? Where did they come from?"

"Of course! Dr. Russell Miles is one of the world's foremost experts on the primitive tribes of Peru."

Jim felt the hairs on his neck bristle at the word 'primitive', but he pushed down the resentment. "Is Dr. Miles on the Rainier faculty?"

Eagerly, the young redhead shook her head. "Not exactly. He's a visiting fellow from Cambridge. Very highly respected and very much in demand. Rainier was so fortunate to get him and his collection here. He has served two semesters on-campus over the past few years." Julie gestured to the cases. "This is the most extensive collections of Chopec artifacts in existence. Dr. Miles has spent a lifetime collecting South American tribal art. He knows more about the Chopec than anyone else."

Jim heard Simon's choking cough from behind him, and he saw Julie eyeing at the captain in concern. "Are you all right, sir? Would you like a drink of water?"

"No," Simon chuckled, giving Jim a knowing look. "I'm fine. Thank you."

"Well," Julie said with a broad smile, "please feel free to look around as long as you wish. I'll be here to answer any questions you might have."

For thirty minutes, Jim browsed the collection, intently studying each and every artifact. He pulled out a small disposable camera, snapping several quick shots when he was sure the young woman wasn't watching. Placing the camera back in his jacket pocket, he turned to Simon, who had been silently following along. "It's beginning to come together now."

Shaking his head, Simon questioned, "What is? I don't get it, Jim. Sure, it's interesting that these artifacts from the Chopec should have their opening the night of Blair's attack, but what on earth could they or Dr. Miles have to do with it?"

"Let's go outside," Jim suggested, glancing over at eager young woman waiting at her desk for them to request further information.

They emerged into the sunlight, and Jim blinked quickly as he adjusted his vision to the glare. Coming toward them were three uniformed officer and a familiar man in a suit.

"Uh, oh," Simon muttered. "Here comes trouble."

Gregory Wilcox gestured to the uniformed men. "Cuff him. James Joseph Ellison, you are under arrest for the attempted murder of Blair Sandburg. You have the right to remain silent..."

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

The booking procedure had never seemed more dehumanizing, Jim reflected. He had been fingerprinted, photographed, and strip-searched. His clothes and belongings had been taken from him, and now, dressed in the standard issue jail jumpsuit, Jim was alone in his cell. At least I'm not in General Population. I arrested a substantial portion of these people. I don't think I would be the most popular guy on the block. Then again, maybe I would be. He recalled the cat calls as he'd been moved through the main wing of the jail.

Hey, Ellison!...I remember you, pig!...Wait 'til I catch you out in the yard, man!...Watch your back, Ellison! You're ours now!

It didn't take a sentinel to recognize the hatred in those voices.

He had not yet asked for an attorney. What would be the point? How could he possibly explain everything about this strange case to an 'outsider', someone who didn't know about the Chopec or sentinels or...most importantly of all...their guides?

Jim lay down heavily on the hard metal bunk. He'd already adjusted his sense of hearing and smell to the overwhelming sensory input. Now, Jim closed his eyes against the stark ugliness of his cell. He took a deep breath and held it, then released it slowly, trying desperately for the control that Sandburg had labored so long and hard to give him. His senses were under control; that was not the problem. As so often happened in Jim's life, it was his emotions that were threatening to betray him.

The hard metal pressed unforgivingly into his spine. Jim thought of Blair, lying unmoving in his narrow hospital bed. Blair...Are you all right, Chief? Are you awake and wondering what's happened? Where I am? I'm so sorry, Darwin. I think I have hold of a thread that might unravel the mystery of your attack, but until I can talk in private to Simon...

His thoughts tumbled over and over like pebbles in a stream. Dr. Miles...the Chopec artifacts...Incacha's words of wisdom, spoken so long ago...the jaguar and wolf, merging in a vision of light and power and emotion.

Blair...

Always, Jim's thoughts returned to his guide. They were separated by less than a mile, but Jim had never felt quite so far from his friend.

Sleep refused to come. There was far too much sensory input for the sentinel to relax. The sounds of men committing the acts for which prisons are feared...the stench of urine and feces...the stale air, untouched by sunshine or breezes. Jim tossed on his hard bunk, its metal coils irritating his sensitive skin regardless of which way he turned.

He glanced at the illuminated dial of his wristwatch, one of the few personal items he'd been allowed to keep. 2:00 AM. Damn.

Jim flipped to his back and stared up at the soiled mattress above him. Slowly and deliberately, he began to dial back his senses, until little by little, the stench and the noise and the touch of the mattress receded into nothingness. Alone in a dark and lonely world of his own creation, the sentinel slept.

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

Thursday

The arraignment the next morning took the standard amount of time. Jim had imagined, somehow, that it might take longer, but once it had ended, he realized the arrogance of that assumption. His case was no more important than the multitude of others streaming through the system every day. Still stunned by the events of the past twenty-four hours, Jim was aware only of snippets.

People ask for denial of bail, Your Honor...a police detective...outstanding citizen...served his country in the army as captain...a flight risk...special forces...knows how to disappear without a trace...bail set at one million dollars...ask for a restraining order preventing defendant from coming near the victim...granted.

Jim literally jumped when his attorney, Jerome Avery, shook him gently by the arm. Simon had retained Avery, Jim had been told that morning, and the middle-aged black attorney had an excellent record in assault and murder cases. "We're done, Jim," Avery told him. "They're coming to take you back now."

Jim sat silently, only able to acknowledge Avery's statement with the briefest of nods. He felt as though he were trying to navigate through thick, sticky molasses. Everything around him operated in slow motion and somehow, nothing made much sense. He could hear the words, but he didn't seem to be able to process what they meant. By the time he'd gleaned some kernel of sense from a statement, they'd moved on to something else.

A different voice was speaking to him, and another hand was resting on his back. Jim struggled to hear what was being said.

"Jim! Can you hear me? Damn it, man, snap out of it!"

Simon. In some dark corner of his mind, Jim recognized the frustrated voice as belonging to his captain. Shaking his head in an attempt to clear away the cobwebs, Jim asked, "Simon?"

He heard the faint sound of a relieved sigh. "Jim?" Simon was speaking loudly, as though volume alone could reach him. "I'm going to have to contact your father. He's the only way I know to raise the kind of bail you just got. Do you understand me?" Simon grabbed Jim's shoulders and shook him vigorously several times.

His father? Bail? The two words seemed so ridiculously incongruent together that Jim nearly laughed. Then, it all flooded back to him.

Blair had been attacked, and he had been arrested for the attempted murder. Suddenly, his senses zoomed back on-line, and the ordinary sounds of the courtroom nearly overwhelmed him. He sank back down into his chair behind the defendant's table as he struggled to turn back the dials. At last, when his runaway senses were at least partially back under control, he looked up and saw the faces of his lawyer, Simon, and the guard assigned to escort him back to his cell watching him in concern.

"Jim, are you all right?" Simon asked quickly. "Do you need a doctor?"

"No," Jim managed. "I'm...all right."

Simon leaned over and whispered something to Jerome Avery, who, in turn, spoke quietly to the guard. A moment later, both men moved away a short distance, giving Jim and Simon a little privacy.

"What the hell's going on with you?" Simon demanded in a hushed tone. "It looked like you were sleepwalking through the arraignment, and just now, you seemed to be zoned. You're gonna have to do better than this, Jim, until we get you out of here. I'm no Sandburg, remember, and I can't even be with you inside."

"I know," Jim replied wearily. "It wasn't a zone. Not really. I turned back my senses last night to sleep; not all the way, just enough to dim the input. I couldn't get them back on-line this morning before court. I knew I was...off...but I couldn't do anything about it. When you shook me, it all opened up, and it was too much."

Jim bent over and rubbed his tired, strained eyes. "I...I'm losing it, Simon," he said at last, looking up at his friend. "Sandburg has this theory that when I'm tired or under stress, my control slips. That's when he usually steps in and doubles up his efforts. But...," His voice trailed away, but Simon finished the sentence for him.

"But Sandburg's not here." He glanced quickly at the waiting guard and Avery. "Listen, we don't have long. I'm going to go see your father and get the bail arranged. At least then you'll be back in familiar surroundings. That should help some, don't you think?"

"Maybe. Yeah. Jail's not exactly the easiest place to control these senses. I had a hell of a time of it in Stark, and then, I knew I wasn't really in prison. Not really. Plus Sandburg showed up, and even though I didn't want him anywhere near the place, I have to admit having him around helped. Thanks for tending to the bail, Simon." At the thought of his father, Jim winced. "I've never lived up to his expectations of the son he wanted me to be. Man, Pops is gonna love this one."

Simon snapped, "It's not your fault! With any luck, we'll have you out of here today."

Jim nodded. "What about Blair? Any change?"

"Not yet. After I get the ball rolling with your father, I'll go by and check on him."

The guard was approaching, and Simon added quickly, "You do whatever you have to, Jim, to hang on until we get you out of here. Meditate. Use whatever little tricks the kid's shown you, but don't you dare zone out in there. It's way too dangerous for you. Understand?"

"Don't worry, sir. I'll be fine. Just get the bail and check on Blair." He stood up and turned around to accept the cuffs, then Jim was led out of the courtroom and to the van waiting to take him back to his cell at the municipal jail.

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

Simon phoned the hospital on his way to the home of William Ellison, but there had been no change in Sandburg's condition. At least, he's no worse. If I can just get Jim out of jail, then I can get down to the business of finding out who the hell's responsible for this mess.

Jim had told him bits and pieces over the years about his years at home with his father, but Simon hadn't been prepared for the size of the house he was now approaching. Massive and impressive, the brick house was an imposing image. Simon pulled his Chrysler halfway around the circular drive, stopping in front of the front entrance. He had called ahead, and the woman named Sally had assured him that Mr. Ellison was at home and would see him at 1:00. Jim had mentioned Sally, told him how she had been the only mother he'd known after Grace Ellison had deserted the family when he and Steven were young.

It was Sally who welcomed Simon at the door. "Captain Banks! Welcome! Jimmy has told me about you. I'm so pleased to meet you at last."

Simon looked around the impressive foyer with its marble floor and crystal chandelier. Hard to imagine Jim Ellison growing up in this immaculate and ornate home. Immaculate, maybe; Jim was certainly a neat-freak. But his tastes were simple. Perhaps both were a reaction to having grown up here, Simon considered. This home, along with the military, would have drilled neatness into him, and perhaps the simplicity of his life was a reaction against this splendor.

He didn't have time to consider the question for long. Standing in a doorway was a tall, thin man with graying hair. While his face reflected few of his son's features, the same strength and determination were there, along with the same blue eyes. Simon walked up, holding out his hand. "Mr. Ellison. Thank you for seeing me. I'm Simon Banks."

Ellison returned Simon's firm grip with one of his own. "Come into the living room, Captain. We can talk in there."

The room was as opulent as Simon could imagine a room being. Oil paintings framed in golden gilt hung on the expansive walls, and every piece of furniture gleamed from frequent polishing. A massive crystal chandelier glistened overhead, and a Steinway piano graced the sunlit bay window. Little objects d'art were scattered about the room, and Simon could imagine that any one of them would cost a month's pay. Perhaps a year's. Carefully, Simon settled on the couch, covered in soft, rose silk. He could definitely sympathize with the bull that found its way into the china shop.

William eased his tall frame into a leather wing chair near the marble fireplace. "You said you had come about Jimmy, but that he hadn't been hurt in the line of duty." He left unasked the obvious question.

"This is difficult, Mr. Ellison," Simon began. "Jim's been arrested for attempted murder."

The eyes that were so like Jim's widened in obvious surprise. "Murder? Jimmy? That's utterly ridiculous! Who on earth do they say he tried to kill?"

"Blair Sandburg," Simon told him, amazed at how impossible it all still seemed, even as he spoke the words.

"They're wrong," William stated flatly.

Simon regarded Jim's father frankly. "What makes you so sure, other than the fact that he's your son?"

"That has nothing to do with it. Regardless of the differences Jim and I have had in the past, he's an honorable man. He and Mr. Sandburg are good friends, correct?"

"Jim cares deeply for Blair, Mr. Ellison. They closer than any two partners - any two friends - I've ever known."

"Then it's impossible that Jim could have harmed him. Besides, I'm fully aware of what Jimmy's training in Special Operations was like." William's cool blue eyes bored into Simon's. "Don't think I'm cruel for phrasing it this way, but if Jim had set out to kill Blair Sandburg, he would have succeeded. Don't you agree?"

A shiver rushed up Simon's spine at the image. It was an angle he had not considered, but Mr. Ellison was right. Jim was a trained killer; it was only his honor and in-born sense of duty that put him in a separate category from some of the criminals he hunted. "You're right, Mr. Ellison. That's a scary thought, but true enough."

"He's been arraigned already? Bail's been set?"

"Yes. One million dollars. Jim didn't want to ask, but..."

"Of course," William interrupted. "Jim's never wanted anything from me, at least, not for a long time. I'm glad to help, however. Just tell me what arrangements I need to make, and the money will be there."

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

Blinking in the unaccustomed brightness of late afternoon, Jim followed Simon to his parked sedan. While he was relieved not to be facing another night in his solitary cell, Jim was bothered by the fact that he had been forced to rely on his father for the bail. Simon had reassured him that William had been more than willing to help out and that he was concerned about him. Regardless of those assurances, it still went against Jim's streak of self-reliance to accept help from a man he'd had scarce contact with since leaving home so many years ago.

They settled into the sedan and Simon pulled away, heading toward the loft. Jim stared out the passenger window at the passing buildings and pedestrians, seeing, but taking no real notice. His mind was still caught up in thoughts of Blair and who might have had cause to hurt his guide and somehow have the blame placed at Jim's feet. Of course, through Blair's work with Major Crimes, he'd helped put away more than a few dangerous criminals. Still, Jim couldn't help but believe that any one of them out for revenge would come gunning for him first, not Sandburg. That seemed to be a dead end.

The sedan stopped in front of 852 Prospect. "Jim?" Simon said. "We're home."

At first, the words didn't register, then Jim blinked rapidly, actually seeing his surroundings for the first time. Home. The loft. It seemed weeks rather than a single day since he'd been home.

"Thanks, Simon," he said. "I appreciate everything you've done to get me released." He opened the door of the car and half-turned to exit.

A firm hand on his arm stopped Jim in place. "You know not to try to contact Sandburg, right?" Simon cautioned.

Taking a slow, deep breath, Jim nodded. "Yes, sir. You'll check on him?"

Before Simon could respond, his phone rang. Flipping open the protective cover, he answered, "Banks." A few moments of silence followed, accompanied by a wide smile breaking across Simon's stern countenance. "Yes, Doctor. I understand. I'll be right there."

Snapping the phone closed, Simon turned to Jim. "I'll do better than that. Dr. Martin says Blair is showing signs of waking up."

Jim's first instinct was to close the passenger door and urge Simon to hurry to the hospital. His elation at the thought of Blair awakening was tempered by the hard realization that he would not be allowed to be at his young friend's side. His disappointment was obvious, and Simon reassured him.

"I promise I'll call and keep you posted. You've got to be exhausted, Jim. Go inside and relax a while. I'll call as soon as I know something. At least, maybe this whole mess will be cleared up as soon as Sandburg can give his statement about what happened Tuesday night."

Jim got out of the sedan, then he leaned back inside before closing the door. "Thanks, Simon. Listen, tell Sandburg..." He stopped, suddenly unsure exactly what reassuring message he could relay to his friend under these circumstances. He flashed for a moment on Blair's face, awakening to find that his sentinel wasn't beside him, and Jim's voice betrayed his deep emotion. "Tell him..."

Simon said gently, "It's okay. I think I know what you want to say. Go on and get some rest. I'll call."

Jim closed the door and watched the dark sedan pull away, then disappear from sight. He tracked it for a time with his hearing, then with a heavy heart, Jim trudged slowly upstairs.

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

That damned buzzing.

He tried to swat at it, as one would attempt to swat a pesky mosquito, but the irritating sound would not disappear.

Annoyed, he pulled himself a little more upward from the peaceful darkness of the abyss. The buzzing continued, but a new sound was overlaid with the old. A beeping - steady...unrelenting...droning unceasinggly.

The beeping and the buzzing joined in an unharmonious duet that set his teeth on edge.

Damn it!

Couldn't someone stop that infernal noise?

As Jim was fond of saying, if you want something done right, do it yourself.

Blair slowly forced his heavy eyelids open and stared through slits at his surroundings.

Oh.

He was in the hospital.

The buzzing was in his head; the beeping was the monitor hooked up to measure his heart rate, temperature, and respiration.

Automatically, Blair glanced around the room for Jim, careful not to move too quickly. He was suddenly aware that he had one hell of a headache.

No Jim.

That was strange.

Over the years since he had found his sentinel, Blair had found himself waking up in a hospital on too many occasions. Each time, however, his first sight had been the worried face of his partner, gazing down at him. The first sounds he'd heard had been Jim's reassuring whispers that he was safe and everything was going to be all right.

This time, Blair had awakened to find himself alone. The only sounds he heard were those made by impersonal machines, he had one hell of a headache, and, he realized suddenly, his vision was blurry. The room looked like he was viewing it through a thick film of petroleum jelly. He could make out shapes, but their outlines were fuzzy and indistinct.

Where was Jim?

The door opened, allowing a brilliant beam of light into the dimly lighted room. Framed by the bright lights of the hallway, all Blair could make out through his uncooperative eyes was the silhouette of a tall man. His heart lifted. "Jim?" he whispered hopefully. "Where were you, man?"

The door closed and the figure moved closer. A hand covered his shoulder and squeezed firmly, but the touch was not Jim's.

"Welcome back, Sandburg."

Simon.

Simon was here, not Jim.

Oh, God.

Blair's heart sank.

He tried to speak, but his throat was so dry, the words stuck and wouldn't budge. Simon must have received the message, though, because a cup of ice water touched his lips, and Blair took several greedy sips.

"Whoa! Not too much at first." The cup was withdrawn, but the soothing liquid had done its job.

"Where's Jim?"

Simon chuckled softly. "Don't you want to know about your condition, Sandburg? Why that big bandage is covering your head? Why you're slightly less hairy than you were before?"

For the first time, Blair gingerly felt the large bandage covering the back of his head. Sure enough, he could tell his head had been partially shaved.

Damn.

At least that explained the headache.

"I'm awake. You're smiling. I figure that means I'm gonna live," Blair concluded. "So, where's Jim?"

Simon's smile faded. "He can't be here right now, son."

Panic rose hot within him. "Is Jim hurt? Simon, tell me he didn't get hurt! Was I with him? Did I let him zone or something? Where were we? How bad is he? Is he awake, or is he still zoned? How long has he been out of it? What are the doctors doing to him? You're not letting them dose him up with drugs or anything, are you? Is it worse than that? Oh, God no! Don't tell me that Jim's..." As the images of his partner fallen and gravely injured, perhaps even dead, popped into Blair's imagination, he found himself suddenly on the edge of a full-fledged panic attack. Breathing hard, he tried to throw off the covers, and with his free hand, reached to jerk the IV out of the other arm. He was stopped by a strong black hand holding his wrist.

"What the hell are you doing?" Simon demanded.

Blair lay back, breathing hard. "Going to find Jim. If you won't tell me what's going on, I'll find out for myself." He stared at Simon, daring the captain to try and tell him that he couldn't go find his partner.

"Sandburg," Simon chuckled, adjusting the covers back over his body, "you are one stubborn kid, y'know that? Jim's not hurt, you are! Now lie still, and I'll try to tell you everything that's happened."

Blair sank back gratefully against the pillow. Jim wasn't hurt. That still didn't explain why he wasn't here, but at least he knew his friend wasn't injured.

"What's the last thing you remember, son?" Simon asked gently, as he sat down in the visitor's chair, pulling it up closer to the bed.

The last thing he remembered?

Good question.

Blair closed his eyes, shutting out Simon's blurry face, and thought. Hard.

"Ow!" he exclaimed. "...hurts."

Simon patted his arm sympathetically. "Dr. Martin said that if you forced yourself to remember, you could have pain. Guess he was right."

Blair opened his eyes. Still blurry. He rubbed at his eyes gently, but it didn't help. "Did he say everything would look all fuzzy, too?"

"Yep. But it should get better with time. Don't force it, but what do you remember?"

Blair's brows knitted in concentration. "The last thing..." He shut his eyes, once more blocking out the bleary world. "Jim and I watched the Jags game. They won by six. Really good game. Jim made spaghetti, and I made the salad. We ate popcorn while we watched the game. Too much salt. Jim always puts on too much salt. After the game, we watched the news, and Jim went to bed. I sat up and scored some tests, then I turned in, too." He opened his eyes, seeking out Simon's blurred face. "That's it."

Even though Blair couldn't see Simon's expression, he heard the sadness in his voice. "The Jags game was Monday night."

"So?" Blair asked, confused. "What day is today?"

"Thursday night, Sandburg. It's after eight on Thursday night. I've been here since five, waiting for you to come around."

It felt like standing on a trap door, only to suddenly have solid ground give way beneath your feet. "Thursday!" Blair's hand flew to his head as another stabbing pain shot through his skull.

"Easy, son," Simon cautioned, resting a reassuring hand on the younger man's arm. "Don't get excited. The doctor said you might experience some temporary memory loss."

"Will it come back?" Blair inquired softly.

The hand on his arm squeezed lightly. "Maybe. They can't be sure."

Blair fell silent, processing the information. "Okay," he said at last. "Tell me about Jim."

The more of the story he heard, the more convinced Blair became that something was wrong with his hearing as well as his sight. He was too stunned to interrupt. By the time Simon finished, the young anthropologist was shaking his head in disbelief.

"No! That's crazy!" Blair tried desperately to see the expression on Simon's face, to try to determine exactly how serious the situation was. All he managed to see was a blurry shape that vaguely resembled Banks. "Didn't you tell them? Jim would never hurt me!"

Simon said kindly, "I know that, son, but not everyone understands the relationship between you and Jim. After all, you've had some rough times in the past, and..."

Blair erupted. "That doesn't mean he would do this! Sure, we've argued and he even kicked me out, but you know Jim couldn't do this, Simon. I mean, he vowed to kill Uncle Gustavo once if he hurt me, and I know he meant it. Jim could never hurt me like this." His voice dropped to little more than a sad whisper. "Never like this."

"I don't believe it either, but you remember Wilcox. The two of you certainly aren't at the top of his list of favorite people, you know." Simon leaned back in the hard vinyl-covered chair. "Jim wanted to be here, you know that. He felt terrible that he couldn't be with you when you woke up. He said to tell you..." Simon hesitated, then continued. "He wanted you to know how much he wanted to be here, that he's worried about you. That he cares, son. More than you may know."

Blair felt the heavy feeling of dread lighten slightly. "I know, Simon," he whispered with a soft smile. "I may not know much right now, but I do know that." The smile drifted away. "I just wish I could remember what happened to me and help Jim"

Simon stood up. "You can help Jim most right now by resting and getting better. I'm going to go outside and call him." He stood beside the bed for a moment, his hand returning to Blair's shoulder. "The order of protection forbids Jim talking to you right now, son. I think it's better if I talk to him out of your room. He'd be straining those senses of his to hear you." Simon slipped his phone out of his pocket.

Blair nodded, even though he wanted nothing more than grab that cell phone and call his friend. He glanced at the small table beside the bed and smiled bitterly. "Guess they didn't trust me, either. There's no phone in here."

"Sorry, Sandburg," Simon said, moving to the door. "I'll be back in the morning. If you need anything, ask a nurse to call me. They have my number at the desk, in case you've forgotten."

Blair grimaced. "I remember. Everything's clear up to Monday night. I just can't remember anything at all on Tuesday, and that's what would help Jim. Not to mention there's some bastard out there who tried to kill me."

Simon chuckled. "He just didn't know what a hard head you have, Sandburg. Otherwise, he'd have known hitting you on the head would never take you out."

"Funny, Simon," Blair griped, wishing he could see more of the captain than just a blurry blob. "Hey, man, tell Jim it's okay, would you? We've been through worse than this before. We're going to be fine."

"I'll tell him, son. I'll tell him. Get some rest now."

After Simon left, Blair let his eyelids drift closed once more. He was exhausted, but he honestly wasn't sure if the weariness was more mental or physical. He was worried about his sentinel, and the physical void in the small hospital room that Jim normally would have filled matched the emotional void in his heart.

He'd been alone plenty of times in the years before meeting Jim. Naomi had encouraged Blair to be out on his own at a young age, and he entered college while most kids were enjoying their last few years in high school. Of course, he'd been sick at times during those years, and once, he'd even landed in the hospital with a severe case of food poisoning. Naomi would have come if he'd contacted her, but somehow, he'd never felt the need. It was a matter of pride, handling his own problems alone.

How had Jim Ellison managed to change him so much? Not that he couldn't still take care of himself, Blair thought, carefully moving his head to a more comfortable position on the small, lumpy pillow. It was just that it was nice knowing someone cared. Knowing that someone worried about him. That was something he'd grown accustomed to in his many hospital visits,he realized. Waking up in the hospital to see Jim's face. Feeling Jim's large hand stroke his hair, so surprisingly gentle. Jim was a tactile man, and what he might not always be able to express in words, he said with his touch. Lying alone in the hospital room, Blair desperately missed that healing, comforting touch. Just as he missed hearing Jim's soft voice reassuring him that his Blessed Protector was on the scene and taking care of the world so all Blair had to do was just rest and recover.

A nurse came in to check his vitals and give him a shot of pain medicine through the IV. She made light chit-chat, but Blair hardly heard. Soon, he felt the warm, mind-numbing effects of the drugs and felt himself drifting off to sleep.

"I'm trying to remember, Jim," he whispered as his mind began to shut down. "I'm trying..."

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

Jim's head jerked involuntarily to the south. In the distance, the lights of Cascade Medical Center glittered like so many diamonds. Which light was the one in Sandburg's room? Were his lights even on, or was the young man still lying there, trapped within the darkness of his coma?

Simon had called an hour before, around seven, from his cell phone outside the hospital. While Blair had been slightly more restless, moving in his bed, he had not awakened. Simon had promised to call again in an hour.

He was late.

Jim's nerves had been stretched nearly to their limits. After Simon had dropped him off, he'd done nothing but pace the confines of his prison-home. And it did feel like a prison right now. For where would Jim go if he couldn't be in the one place he needed to be? He might as well have still been confined in jail.

The sentinel played out his sense of sight, staring intently at the hospital. It was too far for him to make out many details, even with his enhanced vision. Giving up, the strong pull that had drawn his sight to the building dissipated, Jim returned his gaze to the bay lying in the distance. A light breeze teased at his hair, lifting the short strands playfully in its dancing fingers. The lights of the ships passing in its waters in the darkness was mesmerizing, but Jim knew he was in no danger of zoning. Although his vision was occupied by the dancing lights on the water, his mind was planning ahead.

The ringing of his cell phone snapped Jim's attention back to the present, and he answered before the second ring. "Ellison."

Simon's voice responded. "Jim, he's awake."

The sentinel closed his eyes and lowered his head in sheer relief. "Is he all right?"

"His vision is blurry, but Dr. Martin seems confident that'll get better. He's got a major headache, but I suppose that's to be expected. Otherwise, he's okay."

Opening his eyes and focusing back on the boats' twinkling lights, Jim asked softly, "Does he remember?"

There was a long silence. "No," Simon answered finally. "The last thing he seems to remember is Monday night. Tuesday is a total blank. I'm afraid Sandburg's not going to be much help to us."

Jim pushed aside his momentary disappointment. "As long as he's okay. We'll figure out the rest."

"I'm going home, Jim. The kid's resting well. He just got some pain meds and is pretty out of it. I'll stop by again on my way in to work and give you a call."

"Thank you, sir. I appreciate it, and I'm sure Sandburg does, too."

"One more thing, Jim," Simon said. "Blair said to tell you everything's going to be okay, that you two are going to be fine."

A ghost of a smile touched Jim's set lips. "He's right about that, sir. We'll be all right."

As soon as the connection with Simon had been broken, Jim punched a number into the portable phone. When it was answered, he said flatly, "Fox? Ellison. I'm calling in that favor."

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

Friday

In the hours between midnight and dawn, the city, enveloped in inky blackness, seemed to fall motionless. A lone figure slipped through the night unnoticed, avoiding the sickly yellow glow of the security lights. Finding the side door locked, the man deftly worked the mechanism until it clicked open. He was inside in less than thirty seconds.

The corridors of the hospital were deserted - the patients sleeping, those in charge of their care dozing at their desks or filling out reports, too engrossed in their mundane paperwork to notice the man passing as silently as a shadow. The room he sought was the last one on the hall, next to a storage room and across from a therapy suite. The man was pleased; fewer people would be around to see him.

The man eased into the room, pulling the door closed behind him, never making a sound. There wasn't much light in the room, but that did not present a problem for the sentinel. He merely adjusted his vision accordingly.

He quickly took two steps backward, retreating from the deluge of sensory stimulation. After two days out of his guide's presence, the sudden flood of familiar input almost brought him to his knees. In other circumstances, the sentinel would have dialed back his senses, bringing them more completely under his control.

Not tonight.

He opened his senses fully, moving to the bedside. He eased silently down into the chair already pulled up beside the bed and rested his elbows heavily against the mattress in his weakness. All the signals that his guide was near flooded his soul, and the sentinel embraced them fully.

The scent that he could recognize from a thousand others inundated him, and he drew several deep breaths, welcoming it. Soft breathing lent a warm moisture to the air that saturated him with each exhalation, and he could sense the minute droplets of his guide's breath on his skin. He greedily drank in the sight of the beloved face, ignoring the ugly bruises that marred the familiar features.

As much as he longed to remain, he knew he could not linger. Bending low, he lightly kissed the softly throbbing pulse at his guide's temple and allowed himself to taste the pure essence of his friend. As he felt that comforting rhythm of life, his heart swelled within him, so filled with tenderness that he physically hurt and bit back a cry.

Forcing himself to stand, the sentinel steeled his heart, turned his back on his guide, and slipped again into the night.

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

Simon stopped outside the hospital room door, staring at the brief note in his hand. Damn! How the hell had he been naïve enough to believe that Jim would just sit back and wait for the wheels of justice to determine the truth about the attack on his partner? Still not quite believing the morning's turn of events, he reread the note for at least the sixth time.

Simon,

My only regret about what I'm doing is putting you in the middle of this whole mess. I'm almost certain I know who attacked Sandburg and what triggered it. I'm the only one who can confirm whether or not my suspicions are true. I know I'm violating the conditions of my release by leaving Cascade, but it's a risk that must be taken. This whole mess is snowballing and something has to happen to stop it before it's too late. I hate asking this, but if you'll cover for me until I get back, I think I'll be bringing the answers we need. It shouldn't take more than a few days.

I'm leaving a note for Blair. If I know him, he'll understand why I'm doing this better than anyone. Tell him to hang in there and get well. If they release him before I get back, take him to the loft. I'll find somewhere else to stay until this mess is cleared up.

Thank you, sir.

Jim

Adding Jim Ellison to his Major Crimes team had been the best thing Simon had ever done, but in many ways, it had also been the most frustrating. And stressful. No matter how well Jim had adapted to life as a civilian after over ten years in the military, most of those spent in special forces, the man was still basically a loner. He took Simon's orders, but only because that was the bedrock of his training. However, when Jim perceived a need to disobey, to violate everything the system stood for, he wouldn't hesitate. Especially if it involved saving a friend.

Or a friendship.

Simon was certain that was exactly how Jim was looking at this entire fiasco. The sentinel was just as concerned about being separated from his guide as he was about the possibility of facing years in prison. It wasn't only the rest of Jim's life at stake, so was his entire relationship with Sandburg. A friendship as close as theirs would face a difficult trial if the two men were separated by the bars of prison. Jim would retreat back behind the high walls of his self-imposed prison, becoming once more the taciturn, unfeeling man he'd been before Sandburg came along. He would have no choice, not if he were to survive in prison. Or perhaps, he would choose not to survive, in which case, Simon worried about the effects on Sandburg. What a load of guilt that would be - for Sandburg to lose his best friend in the hell of prison because Jim was falsely convicted of attacking him!

Jim was right; something had to be done - and fast. With a heavy sigh, Simon entered the hospital room to give Jim's message to Sandburg.

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

"When did you find that?" Blair asked, stunned by the news that Jim had disappeared. He hadn't been able to read the note for himself, but as Simon had read it to him, Blair had felt his dismay building.

"This morning. It was on my desk at the station. Jim must have dropped it off on his way out - to wherever it is he's going. The office would have been locked," Simon chuckled softly, "but when has that ever stopped Ellison?"

Blair didn't comment. He was struggling to process what had happened. Actually, it didn't seem so unreasonable, once he thought about it. Wilcox was determined to see Jim take the fall for this, Simon was officially banned from the investigation, and he certainly wasn't in any shape to help his friend. What choice did Jim have really?

His thoughts were interrupted by Simon's voice. "He left another note. For you."

Blair stared through the mists that blurred his vision. "He knew I couldn't read it for myself. He must have expected you to do t hat. Would you?"

Simon opened the envelope and began to read slowly.

Blair,

I hope you know that this wasn't easy for me - to take off and leave you there in the hospital - but there wasn't anything I could do, under these circumstances. I need your help. The day you were attacked, you went to an exhibit on campus connected to a professor you've worked with before, Dr. Russell Miles.

Talk to Simon. Get him to help you find out as much about this Dr. Miles as you can, particularly where he's traveled in recent years. See if you can determine exactly how he came by those artifacts he's collected. I think you were on to something before you were attacked. Something had you upset that day, and after visiting the exhibit myself, I think the answer's tied to those Chopec artifacts. I'm checking things out on my end. I'll be back in a few days, hopefully with some answers. Trust me, buddy. It'll be okay.

You take care of yourself. Do what the doctor tells you and with any luck, I'll see you soon.

Jim

Blair didn't speak for a long time after Simon had finished. Dr. Miles? Why on earth would Jim suspect Dr. Miles of anything in connection with the attack? The professor was a respected scholar, and he'd been good to Blair when he had worked as his research assistant. He did remember that Dr. Miles was back at Rainier, coordinating the opening of his exhibit on the Chopec. Had he gone to that exhibit? Blair strained his memory, hoping to open even the slightest remembrance of attending. His only reward was another stabbing pain in the temples. "If only I could remember," he said irritably.

"Don't push it," Simon cautioned. "How well do you know this Russell Miles?"

Blair shrugged. "I was his assistant for a semester a couple of years ago. He's an expert on South American tribal cultures. We got along okay. I mostly worked with him on interpreting the significance of some artifacts he'd found on digs. It was pretty interesting stuff, but at the time, I was more interested in how they might have been tied to Chopec culture."

"Did you talk much to Miles about the Chopec?"

"I guess," Blair said, thinking back. "Dr. Miles was interested in what I could tell him of Jim's experiences there. Not the sentinel stuff, of course. I'd never discuss that with anyone." It was bad enough that Jim had been forced to reveal his abilities to save Blair from his own sacrifice made at his press conference. Most of the uproar concerning the sentinel had died down as the press and public moved on to new, more current stories, but Blair still tried to protect Jim's privacy as much as possible.

Simon cocked his head. "Did you first mention Jim's experiences to Dr. Miles?"

Blair thought for a moment. "No. Actually, he said he'd read about Jim in Time, and he remembered the article well. He'd heard about the dissertation fiasco and the aftermath and knew that Jim and I were working together. It was Dr. Miles who encouraged me to discuss Jim's experiences there. He really didn't even mention his being a sentinel. He was far more interested in the Chopec. I offered to introduce him to Jim, but he wasn't interested. I couldn't figure out at the time why he didn't take me up on it." Blair felt an uneasy stirring in his gut. "You don't think Dr. Miles has something to do with this?"

"Apparently Jim does, and maybe you did, too, before you lost your memory of what happened on Tuesday." Simon stood up. "Jim asked us to look into Miles' travel records. When did Dr. Martin think you'd be released?"

"Tomorrow," Blair said glumly. "He wants me to stay through the weekend, but other than this headache, I feel all right. I don't guess you could bring my laptop up here?"

"Would it do you any good?" Simon asked gently. "Is your vision any better?"

"No," the younger man admitted. "You're still a big blur."

"I've been called worse," Simon joked as he turned to leave. "Don't worry, Sandburg. I'll do some nosing around on my own today, and once you're home tomorrow, you can help out. I think I'll take a couple of days vacation time and work on this."

Blair's heart warmed in gratitude. "Thanks, Simon," he said earnestly. "I really appreciate this."

"Jim's my friend, too, remember. For now, you rest, and maybe your vision will improve some by tomorrow." Simon smiled at the young man. "We'll get you home and see what we can find out about Dr. Russell Miles."

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

The drone of the engines had already lulled numerous members of the U.S. Army to sleep. The younger men had eyed him curiously as he'd boarded late, the final man to climb aboard the large, bulky plane. He was certain he was an unusual sight. Older, still sporting what could pass for a military haircut, dressed in fatigues, but lacking any sort of military insignia, Jim knew he had been the subject of numerous whispered conversations among the enlisted men aboard. It didn't matter. Soon he'd be at his destination.

Jim leaned back against the hard wall of the transport plane and shut his eyes in an attempt to rest. It wasn't the most glamorous means of travel, but it would serve the purpose. He tried to focus his thoughts on the mission ahead and relegate to the back of his mind the thoughts of leaving Sandburg behind. Guilt would serve no useful purpose.

"Hey, Jimbo," a cheerful voice greeted him. Jim opened his eyes to see the handsome face of Gil Fox.

"Pull up a chair," Jim invited.

Fox slid gracefully to the floor beside Jim. "Great accommodations, huh?"

Jim shrugged. "I've been on worse."

"You know, I never expected you to call in that favor, Jimbo." Fox stretched his long legs out in front of him. He brushed a lock of dark brown hair back from his forehead and regarded Jim curiously. "It's been a long time."

"I didn't need your help until now," Jim explained easily. "I figured you'd remember."

"Hard to forget the guy who saved your ass and your military career," Fox pointed out. "I owed you big time, Jim."

"Now we're even. I appreciate your getting me a seat on this transport."

"I have a few contacts here and there." Fox studied Jim with obvious curiosity. "Must be an important mission for you to call in your marker."

Important was an understatement, Jim thought. "Yeah, it's important."

Fox checked his watch. "We'll be putting down outside Lima in an hour or so. Be back on Tuesday to pick you up on our way back." His voice grew firm. "If you're not there, I can't hold up this plane to wait for you. It took every string I had to pull just to swing the two landings in Peru and your ground transportation."

"I'll be there," Jim said grimly. "If I can't accomplish what I need to do in three days, there's no point in staying longer."

Seventy-five minutes later, a lone figure stepped down the ramp of the military transport plane. He climbed into the waiting Jeep and disappeared down the dirt road leading to the jungle.

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

Saturday

Blair had never been as thankful to see the bright, open spaces of the loft. Even if everything was still fuzzy around the edges. Dr. Martin had tried to convince him to remain hospitalized another day or two, but Blair had refused. He was ready to be home and begin working to find out what he could to help Jim.

Simon helped him settle comfortably on the couch with several pillows at his back, a warm afghan covering his legs, and his laptop perched on his stomach. Things close up were much clearer now, and Blair hoped he would find some answers through e-mails to friends around the world.

"I've got Rafe working on checking Miles' travel records," Simon said, heading to the kitchen. Blair already smelled vegetable soup simmering on the stove. His stomach growled in anticipation. Maybe he really was on the road to recovery if his appetite had returned.

"Good. I'm going to write to some friends at different universities and museums where Dr. Miles has worked in the past few years. Maybe that'll turn up something." Blair switched on his computer and stared at the screen. "I just wish we'd hear from Jim."

Simon returned with a steaming bowl of soup and some crackers. "Jim's okay. He said he'd be back in a few days, and in the meantime, we may not hear from him. Frankly, I wouldn't expect to. He's got to be careful right now." He handed Blair the soup with a towel beneath the bowl.

"Right." Blair slid his computer down farther and took a sip of the nourishing soup. "Thanks, Simon."

The tall captain grinned down at him. "Gotta keep your strength up, Sandburg. I don't want to deal with Ellison if he comes home and finds you're not greatly improved." Turning to go, he added, "I've gotta get to the office. I'll check in on you later, and I'll be back to stay with you tonight." As Blair opened his mouth to protest that he was perfectly capable of staying alone, Simon pointed his finger at him. "No arguments. I'm staying here until your sight's cleared up and you're feeling better. That's an order, and don't give me any backtalk. You're an official member of my team, remember, and as such, you follow orders. Now, do you need anything before I go?"

Sinking farther down into the soft cushions, Blair surrendered. No point beating your head against a stubborn brick wall. "Not that I can think of. I'm fine. I'll finish my soup and get those e-mails written."

"Good luck, son," Simon said as he opened the door. "Keep me posted."

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

"What do you mean, he's gone?" Jerome Avery's voice rose enough to attract the curious glances of the men and women working in the bullpen outside Simon's office . Even though it was the weekend, a skeleton staff was following up leads and filing reports. So much for Saturday being a quiet day to get some work done, Simon thought wryly. He hadn't expected to find Avery waiting for him when he arrived.

Simon ran a hand across his hair and sighed wearily. Jim's attorney had stormed in unannounced, demanding to know where his client was. Simon had told him all he knew. "He'll be back," he tried to reassure Avery.

"Yeah, right." Avery slumped down in one of the chairs facing Simon's desk. "I've heard that one before."

"Not from Jim Ellison," Simon snapped. "If Jim says he's coming back, then he's coming back. The man doesn't lie."

"He's been charged in an assault case," Avery pointed out. "The attempted murder of his best friend. Who knows what he'll do? My guess is a lot of people would run rather than face those charges."

"Jim's not a coward. He's not guilty, and he wants to prove it." Simon asked the question he'd been dreading ever since finding Jim's letters. "Will it be a problem keeping this between us for a few days?"

The attorney didn't answer immediately. "Probably not," he conceded at last. "It's the weekend. I doubt anyone looks for him before Monday or Tuesday. Unless it's Wilcox. I have a feeling this thing's personal with him."

Confidently, Simon said, "Jim should be home by then. I'll take care of Wilcox if he starts nosing around. Maybe we can clear this whole mess up if Jim finds what he was looking for."

"Any idea what that might be?"

"No," Banks admitted. "But Jim's put it together, and he's the best detective in my unit. If anyone can figure out who attacked Sandburg and why, it's Jim."

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

By late afternoon, Jim was deep within the Peruvian rainforest. The heat and high humidity were stifling, and he sipped frequently from the water bottle he carried. With every step, Jim became more and more comfortable with the world in which he now walked. During his eighteen months in Peru after his chopper went down, Jim had become a part of this verdant land, and each time he returned, he felt strangely as if he were coming home.

As he drew deeper into the jungle, Jim knew that somewhere out there, his son waited. It had been over a year since he and Blair had returned from their last trip to Peru. Irami would be farther along in his journey as a sentinel-in-training with the wise shaman, Imaru. Aramika, chosen by Irami as his guide, would also be growing in her role with Imaru's help. Even under these difficult circumstances, Jim found himself looking forward to seeing them again.

"Enquiri!"

Jim whirled to see a familiar figure standing before him. "Acana!"

The Chopec warrior strode forward to greet him, his spear grasped in his hand. "Hunters warned that a white man came near to our camp. I was sent to find out who he might be. I never dreamed it would be you, Enquiri!"

Jim grinned at the friendly young man. "Your English is even better than it was last year. Are you still working with the nuns?"

Acana nodded eagerly. "They teach me well. I am glad you are here. I can practice English on you!"

Jim laughed. "How far to the camp?" His smile faded. "I am here on serious business, Acana. I cannot stay long."

"Not far. Come, follow me. I will take you there."

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

By the time they arrived at the Chopec camp, twilight was casting its dark shadows in the jungle. The Chopec people were delighted that their sentinel from so long ago had returned once more. As they chattered rapidly in Quechua, Jim had to work to understand the excited conversations and questions. He was relieved when the crowd dispersed at last, leaving him alone with Acana and the Chopec's old shaman, Imaru.

"It would be best if we spoke tomorrow," Imaru stated firmly in his native tongue, speaking slowly enough for Jim to follow easily. "You are weary from your long journey." His wise dark eyes studied Jim shrewdly. "Enquiri's soul is weary as well, I believe. Is this true?"

Jim nodded, his throat too constricted for words. How was it that this old shaman could perceive in a few short minutes how it was with Jim's heart? The old man rested his hand on Jim's arm briefly.

"Rest now. There is time tomorrow for talk. Acana will show you to your sleeping place." With a quick nod at Acana, the old man turned away.

As soon as Jim had settled on his mat at the outer perimeter of the Chopec camp, he felt a bone-deep weariness claim him. Imaru was truly a wise man, Jim thought as he stretched his tired muscles. With a quick, heartfelt prayer that Blair was also resting comfortably, the sentinel surrendered to the waiting arms of sleep.

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

By the time Simon arrived back at the loft, it was already dark. He'd run by his place and packed a bag, unsure exactly how long it would be before he felt comfortable leaving Sandburg alone. Taggart and Rafe had volunteered to help out, but Simon had turned them down. He knew Jim was counting on him to take care of his partner, and somehow, Simon didn't feel comfortable turning that task over to anyone else, even his own men.

As he entered the loft, he knew he'd made the right decision. Closing the door softly behind him, Simon looked around for Sandburg. The loft was dark, only a few candles burning here and there. He called out softly. No reply.

He checked the bathroom, but the door was open. Wet towels were scattered about on the floor and the air still humid. Obviously Sandburg had enjoyed a shower not long before.

The French doors to Blair's room were open, and Simon peeked inside. No Sandburg.

Simon walked slowly to the foot of the steps leading to Jim's room, high above the living area. He cocked his head, listening. "Who do you think you are? Ellison?" he muttered when no sounds met his ears. Quietly, Simon climbed the stairs. As he peered around the railing, a sudden wetness filled his eyes.

Burrowed beneath the blankets, with the addition of a brightly-colored quilted coverlet, was Sandburg, nearly dwarfed by the large bed and all the pillows. His laptop rested beside him, its screen dark. His reading glasses lay beside it, and Simon reached over him carefully to place them on the bedside table next to the lamp and the bottle of pain pills. He straightened up and gazed down at the sleeping face.

What was it about Sandburg that inspired such protective instincts? If Simon felt drawn to look after the often trouble prone young man, he could scarcely imagine the depth of Jim's feelings. He shook his head as Blair turned, sighed heavily, and nestled deeper into Jim's pillow. He was still too pale, and against his dark hair, the bandage covering the shaved area glowed in the pale light of the moon.

Knowing that Blair was sleeping peacefully and there was no reason for him to linger, Simon still could not pull away. He glanced around the bedroom, not looking for anything in particular. His eyes were drawn to two objects on the top of Jim's dresser, probably because they seemed somehow out-of-character for the tough cop and former Army captain.

Stepping carefully so as not to disturb the sleeper, Simon crept to the dresser and took the objects in his hands. Two small animals, carved of stone. Neither was more than two inches long. As he studied the animals, he pondered the mystery of why Jim would have placed them in such a central spot on his dresser. In keeping with Jim's penchant for neatness, the dresser top was bare, save for the two stone figures and one framed photograph. Simon smiled softly when he looked at the photo.

It had been taken in Peru, obviously. Jim was dressed in his fatigues, but he was shirtless. A sweat-stained bandana was tied around his forehead, he held a cross-bow in his left hand, and lying against his chest, Simon could see a pendant of some sort. He vaguely remembered seeing it around Jim's neck at the gym when they worked out together. Not one to pry, Simon had never quizzed his friend about its significance. He'd learned long ago that some secrets were best kept between sentinel and guide.

In the photo, Blair stood beside Jim, the sentinel's right hand resting on his guide's shoulder. The younger man was clad in dirty, torn jeans and was also shirtless. On a leather thong around his neck hung another round pendant.

As hot and dirty as both men appeared, Simon couldn't remember when he'd seen them look more...at peace. There was something about the calm, controlled look in Ellison's eyes, the ease with which he touched Blair, that Simon had seldom seen. He stared at the photo, trying to determine what it was about it that moved him so deeply. Was it the fact that here, in this photo, was the essence of everything Sandburg had ever taught him about sentinels? In Jim's eyes Simon saw pure power, total control, and absolute certainty about his place in the universe. In the simple gesture of holding Blair's shoulder, there was confirmation of the place his guide held in his life and in his heart. As for Blair, he was looking up at Jim with a mixture of intense pride and unmistakable love.

"Acana took that with my camera right before we left for home. It was the trip when you were there - you'd already left for Cascade."

Simon was startled at Blair's unexpected explanation. He turned around and shot a disapproving glare at the young man. Blair merely smiled sleepily, apparently unconcerned about being caught asleep in Jim's bed and certainly not intimidated by Simon's patented 'frustrated captain look'.

Blair stretched lazily and turned over on his side, moving slowly as he gingerly touched the white bandage. "The little animals are fetishes, Simon. I brought them back for Jim when I went on my vision quest a couple of years ago. The black one's the panther, and the other is the wolf." He chuckled softly. "Kinda appropriate, I thought."

Simon nodded as he studied the carvings once more. "Fetishes, huh? They're supposed to provide powers or something, right?"

"According to the Zuni, yes." Blair yawned and curled up on his side, tucking the blanket under his chin. "The Zuni associate the panther with personal power and resourcefulness. The panther brings independence and leadership, a great sense of intuition, the power to lead others, loyalty to friends, and a fierce protectiveness." Blair looked up at Simon, a twinkle in his eye. "Remind you of anyone?"

"Oh, yeah," Simon chuckled, brushing the black stone carving with a careful fingertip. "A panther he is. What about the wolf?"

"According to the old Zuni who sold me these fetishes, the wolf is a social animal, very intelligent and curious. It's a cooperative spirit that, when bonded to another, remains committed for life." Blair added in a whisper, "For life..."

Shaking his head, Simon moved toward the stairs. "Amazing. But that's too much mysticism for me, son. As long as it means something to you and Jim, that's all that matters. You get some rest. I'll be downstairs if you need anything."

Simon left Blair alone. He heard the young man snuggle more deeply under the covers, then there was only silence from above.

Standing before the loft's expansive windows in the candlelight, Simon stared out at the city and pondered the characters of panthers and wolves and the bonds between sentinels and their guides.

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

Sunday

After a light breakfast of fruit and nuts, Acana, Jim, and Imaru wandered into the forest. They settled on the ground near a swiftly-flowing stream with water so clear Jim could see the bands of color on the tiny rocks scattered along its bed.

Blair would love this place, Jim thought with a smile. He remembered how comfortable Sandburg had become with the Chopec, how at home his friend had seemed among the tribe that had become Jim's adopted people. If things don't work out, if I can't find a way to prove my own innocence, could we make it back here? To stay? Would that be fair to Sandburg, to ask him to give up his life back in the world and remain here, just so I could be safe? Even as he wondered, Jim already knew the answer. If that's what it took to save his sentinel, Blair would follow him to the ends of the earth and beyond. That total, unquestioning loyalty still astounded Jim, not so much that Sandburg had it within him, but that he would find Jim worthy of such devotion.

"I am sorry that Irami and Aramika are not here," Imaru apologized in Quechua, snapping Jim's attention back to the two men sitting beside him. The wizened old man spoke slowly enough for Jim to understand without Acana's translation. "It was time for them to undergo the next phase of their bonding ritual - spending time alone together in the forest. They left only three moons ago."

Jim felt the disappointment deeply, but he understood. Where he had served as only temporary sentinel to these people, the son he had unknowingly left behind as a result of his love for a beautiful young Chopec woman would become a true tribal sentinel. The rituals Imaru described were vital to his success in that role. "I understand," Jim assured the old man. "Irami must follow his own path."

The old man nodded in approval. "It is good for Enquiri to accept that Irami is the son of the Chopec. He belongs to the people, not to his father of blood." When Jim bowed his head slightly in acceptance of the tribal custom, Imaru continued. "Why does Enquiri return? You are always welcome among us, but it is strange that you should arrive here so soon after your last visit."

"And where is Ankaree?" Acana asked, using Blair's spirit name.

"He could not come with me. He has been hurt in an attack."

The eyes of both men darkened in anger. Acana spoke for them both, "Who would dare injure Enquiri's anamari?"

Jim smiled at the indignant question. "Whoever did it certainly didn't care that Blair is my guide, my anamari. I believe I know who the attacker might be and why he hurt Ankaree. I think it has something to do with the Chopec. It is important for me to find out. Those who search for Ankaree's attacker believe that I am responsible."

As Acana translated into Quechua for Imaru, Jim saw the look of shock on the old shaman's face. "A watchman could never harm his own anamari! It would be as if he cut off his own right arm. Cut out his own heart!"

"Those in the white world do not understand the ways of watchmen and their anamari, Wise One," Jim said softly. Hell, neither do I sometimes. If only I'd get a handle on all this sentinel/guide stuff, maybe Sandburg wouldn't end up in the hospital so often. If I had stayed with him at his office, Miles never would have stood a chance of hurting him.

Imaru asked, "Why do you believe this involves the Chopec? None of our tribe have left the forest."

Jim reached into his backpack, withdrawing a large envelope. "Let me explain." He drew out several pictures, spreading them out in front of the fallen tree where they sat. "Do you recognize these objects?"

Imaru's eyes widened as he snatched up one of the photos, staring at it in amazement. Acana's reaction was just as strong. He grabbed three photos, flipping through them and pointing to the Chopec objects in each, the same objects on display at Rainier University in Cascade. The two men spoke rapidly in Quechua, gesturing to the photos as they spoke. Jim gave up trying to follow the conversation and waited for them to settle down enough to converse with him.

Finally, Acana turned to Jim. "Where did you find these?"

Jim explained, choosing his words carefully. "They are in the place where I live. Cascade. They are on display...put in those glass boxes...for everyone to see."

"This is not right!" Acana shouted. "Many of these are sacred. They must not be seen or touched by outsiders. Even our own people are not allowed to look upon many of these sacred objects."

Jim nodded. "I understand. That is part of the reason I am here. To try to return the Chopec's possessions to the tribe." As Acana translated, he saw Imaru nod in approval. Jim held out a brochure from the exhibit. "Do you know this man?"

Both Chopec stared at the image of Dr. Russell Miles. The fast chattering began again, and all Jim could do was wait. Finally, Imaru spoke.

"This man called himself Miles. He came here to us. He said he was a friend of Enquiri."

He knew my Chopec name? That revelation took Jim by surprise, but as he quickly thought about it, he realized that it shouldn't be so surprising. Sandburg had worked with this guy, an expert on South American tribes, for a full semester. It was entirely possible he'd told Miles about Jim's experiences among the Chopec. Imaru spoke again, and Jim listened carefully.

"Miles told us that you had sent him to stay among us and learn of our people. In this way, he could work to protect Chopec lands from those who would take our trees and our lives. We accepted Miles into our tribe and taught him much about our lives."

"Did you show him these artifacts? These objects?" Jim asked.

Imaru nodded slowly. "I did. I explained their meanings. He did not see all of them. Some are too sacred for outside eyes. Miles stayed among us for many moons. One day, it was the feast of Quichina. Much dancing and feasting. The tribe was late in arising."

"Let me guess," Jim said dryly. "You awoke to find that Miles was gone. Along with the Chopec's possessions."

Acana confirmed Jim's deduction. "He had disappeared. Our men tracked him past the big river, but we found tire tracks on the far bank. Miles was gone." Acana's brown eyes were sad. "Many of those objects were very old, Enquiri. Made by our fathers' fathers' fathers. They cannot be replaced. We shared with Miles, yet he deceived us. Are all white men thieves and killers, Enquiri?"

Jim looked into the sad eyes of the two men he called friends. "No. Most are good, like Ankaree and Simon, the dark man who came last with us. Some, like Miles, are bad. I am sorry he used my name to gain your trust." Jim lowered his head in silent apology.

Imaru's crackling laugh brought Jim's head up once more. "It is all right, Enquiri. Now you are here. The Chopec's sentinel will bring our sacred objects home once more."

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

Monday

By noon, Blair had received replies to nearly all of the e-mails he had sent out over the weekend. Simon had dropped by the loft, bringing lunch and the information he and Rafe had dug up on Dr. Russell Miles.

At the dining table, Blair waited impatiently as Simon filled him in on what he had discovered about Dr. Miles. Simon took a bite of his pastrami sandwich. "We hit the mother lode, Sandburg." Pausing to swallow, he drank a long swallow of Coke. "After leaving Cascade and Rainier at the end of the semester you worked with him, Dr. Russell Miles spent two months in virtual seclusion at his home in Massachusetts." He glanced down at the notes in the file folder he'd brought from the office. "During that time, he spent a lot of time on the internet. Rafe was able to find out - and don't ask me how - that he spent most of the time researching the Peruvian rainforest and the Chopec. According to Rafe, there's not a hell of a lot out there on the Chopec, but what information there was, Miles found."

Simon turned the page. "Now the travel information. Miles flew to - get this - Lima, Peru on April 3 that same year. Stayed nearly three months. When he returned, he shipped a partial container to the port in Charleston, South Carolina. Claimed the container the day after it arrived in port. Then, Dr. Miles dropped out of sight, literally, for the next year and a half. When he resurfaced, it was to announce the Miles Collection of Chopec Culture."

Blair pushed his half-eaten sandwich aside. He had no appetite. The pieces of the puzzle were beginning to fall into place, and he was far too excited to eat. "That fits perfectly with what I learned! I contacted students and associates who'd worked with Dr. Miles around the world. Each and every one verifies that until he came to Rainier and I worked with him, Miles had no specific interest in Chopec culture, and certainly, he had no great collection of Chopec artifacts. Hell, even possessing such a collection is suspicious. In his statements and interviews, he claims that he was bequeathed the entire collection by an elderly uncle who shared his fascination with South American cultures. He said that the old man had acquired the artifacts back in the days when it wasn't illegal, or at least unethical, to possess such tribal artifacts."

Excitement filled Blair's voice. "There's more. Dr. Miles' career was on the decline, according to several colleagues who know him very well. He'd written several important papers back in the early-'90s, but since then, he hasn't produced anything of real substance. In academia, as you know, it's 'publish or perish'. From the sounds of it, Dr. Miles was on the verge of extinction."

Across the table, Simon was watching him carefully. "So what are you saying, Sandburg?"

Blair stood up and reached beneath his denim blue shirt. "See this?" He held out a small, carved pendant suspended on a leather thong. Simon got up and inspected the pendant. On one side, a wolf had been carved into the gray stone. Blair flipped it over, and there, carved precisely and with great detail, stood two men. One was taller, a picture of grace and strength. His hands rested on the shoulders of a smaller man. Both gazed out from the stone pendant, as though looking into the distant future that lay beyond the horizon.

"Doesn't Jim wear one just like it?" Simon ventured, remembering the photo up in Jim's bedroom. "I've seen it on him at the gym. And in the picture on his dresser."

Blair's smile was as soft as his voice. "Yeah, he does. His is ancient, a relic of the Chopec people given to their sentinel. Mine was carved by Incacha, Jim's teacher and the Chopec shaman. His has the panther on the reverse; mine has the wolf." He tucked the pendant back beneath his shirt, comforted by its substantial weight against his chest. "See, Simon, the Chopec don't pass this stuff out lightly. It was a great honor for us to be considered as part of the tribe and given these pendants to wear. There's no way in hell those people would have handed over all those artifacts willingly. To them, they're not chunks of interesting history. They're a vital, sacred part of their everyday lives and beliefs."

"That must have been the conclusion you reached when you went to the exhibit on Tuesday morning," Simon mused.

Blair nodded. "And Jim came to the exact same conclusion when the two of you went there after my attack. He knows the Chopec better than anyone. He'd realize the same thing - that those artifacts were stolen."

"So Miles went to Peru, stole the artifacts, then came back here and set up his own personal traveling road show. Would something like that really revive his career?"

"Oh, man, yes!" Blair confirmed. "Coming up with a collection of rare antiquities from such a mysterious culture as the Chopec would land Dr. Miles right back on top of the heap. It would be quite a professional coup."

Simon's dark eyes were serious as he pinned Blair with his next question. "Would he be willing to kill to protect his secret?"

Blair didn't answer for a long time. Finally, he said slowly, "If it got out that Miles had stolen those artifacts from the Chopec, his reputation would never recover. He'd be finished." Looking up at Simon, he shook his head. "I know what it feels like to lose a hard-won reputation, man, but I did it by choice. And I got it back, thanks to Jim. Yeah, I think a type-A personality like Miles might be willing to kill to keep from losing his life's work."

"We need to go to Wilcox with this," Simon said firmly. "It'll change the whole angle of the investigation."

"His damn investigation's over!" Blair said angrily. "It was over the minute he thought he could connect Jim to the attack. No, Jim's got something he thinks will blow the whole thing wide open. If we go to Wilcox now, he'll know Jim's gone, and all he'll be after is Jim's hide." Blair shook his head. "We should wait on Jim to get back. He asked me to trust him, Simon, and I do. Do you?"

Simon was silent so long, just staring at him, that Blair began to regret the question. At last, the older man nodded. "Yeah, I trust Ellison. As much as I trust any man. By rights, it should be my call to make, but since it's his life on the line, we'll do it your way, Sandburg. We'll wait for Jim."

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

Jim watched as contradictory emotions played across Acana's face. The Chopec, unusually open with his emotions under normal circumstances, was obviously at once confused, excited, and even a bit fearful. Alone beside the same stream where they had discussed Dr. Miles the day before, Acana did not have Imaru to defer to this time.

"I hate to give you so little time to decide," Jim apologized, "but my flight home leaves tomorrow afternoon. We don't have long before I have to head back."

Acana's wide eyes stared at him. "It is important that I do this?"

"Yes," Jim said firmly. "If we're to prove that Dr. Miles stole those treasures from the Chopec, I need your help."

Looking around the dense forest, Acana hesitated. Jim waited patiently, giving the other man time to 'process' what Jim had asked. He smiled at the word he'd automatically chosen to describe Acana's current thought processes. Sandburg had definitely rubbed off on him.

At last, the Chopec warrior turned his attention back to Jim. He smiled nervously. "I trust you, Enquiri. I know that what you ask will help my people, and show the white men that you did not harm Ankaree." As if only just reaching his decision, Acana nodded. "I will help you."

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

Tuesday

As the day dragged on, Blair could see that Simon was becoming more and more tense. The captain had taken a few days off from work, as he'd said he would, to help investigate the attack, but Blair was beginning to regret that decision. He'd shown up at the loft before nine that morning, and he'd been there all day. At first, Blair had welcomed the company, but as Simon's agitation grew, he began to eat at Blair's nerves. The captain doubted Jim was going to return, that much was obvious.

As for Blair, he felt oddly calm. Jim would be back today. He was sure of it.

"Hey, Simon," he said as the tall black man completed his fourth circuit around the loft's living area. "The clock's blinking 12:00 on the VCR. I can't see well enough to set it. Would you mind?" He suppressed a grin as Simon muttered under his breath, but moved to the VCR and began fiddling with the controls. That should occupy him for a while. Simon's lack of skill with all things electronic was legendary.

From his place on the couch, Blair occupied himself by trying to focus on various objects around the room. He decided that he could see relatively clearly objects within about six feet. After that, it was progressively blurry the farther away he looked.

Half an hour later, Simon had called it quits. "The damned clock can wait, Sandburg. What are you planning to do, record a movie?"

Before Blair could answer, the phone rang. He reached for the portable, but Simon's long arm grabbed it first. "If it's Jim, you know he's not allowed to talk to you. He's gonna be in enough trouble as it is, if it gets out that he violated his bail conditions. Plus, I can't knowingly help him break that restraining order. Sorry, Sandburg."

Blair slumped back against the couch cushions and fingered the heavy bandage covering the side of his head. He watched Simon anxiously as the older man answered the ringing phone.

Simon listened for a minute, then smiled at Blair and nodded. "It's Jim," he said softly, covering the mouthpiece. "He's in Cascade."

Blair's sudden smile was so wide, it hurt. He reached automatically for the phone, but Simon shook his head.

"Okay, Jim, I'll work it out. You sure you can't tell me what the hell's going on?" He listened a moment, then added, "All right. I'll tell him. He's doing well. His vision's improved some, I think, and the headache's not as bad. Still can't remember what happened, though." He listened again. "Okay. Check back with me tomorrow, and I'll fill you in." A moment later, he placed the portable back in its cradle.

"Well?" Blair asked immediately. "What's going on?"

"He wants me to arrange a meeting with Stuart Lamar, the judge who's been assigned his case, the D.A. and Wilcox. 'The sooner the better', was the way Jim put it. He'll call me back tomorrow when I know something. I don't have a clue what he has in mind, except he said he'd be arranging for two 'surprise guests' to appear." Simon chuckled and shook his head. "He said to tell you that everything's working out. To hang in there. I don't know what Jim's up to, but he sure seems confident. Leave it to Ellison to be facing assault charges and manage to turn the whole mess around."

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

That night was the longest of Blair's life. He'd given Simon his room, purposefully ignoring the captain's long-suffering sigh and yearning glance toward Jim's large bed as he'd headed toward the tiny room beneath the stairs. As he lay awake, long past midnight, a part of Blair felt guilty for not suggesting that Simon take Jim's room, but it wasn't a vocal enough part to change his mind. It had been a long, hard week, and Blair didn't mind admitting that he missed Jim. He needed his sentinel to step in as he always did. To take care of everything so that Blair didn't have to worry, so that he could rest and think of nothing other than getting well. This time, there had been no Blessed Protector, no Jim to lean on until he was strong enough to stand alone once again.

Blair sighed in frustration and turned over in the big bed. His head still hurt, his vision was still blurry, and he was so damned tired all the time. Sleeping in Jim's room helped fill the emptiness just a little, and Blair wasn't too proud to admit that he was just selfish enough to take what little comfort he could find right now. If he took a long, slow breath, Blair could capture a trace of Jim's scent still on the sheets and pillow. It was certainly true what he'd read about scent being the sense most closely related to memory. Just that slight hint of his sentinel's familiar scent was enough to constrict Blair's heart with a painful, aching need.

Varying scenarios kept playing over and over in his imagination. What if the judge wouldn't listen to whatever evidence Jim had found? What if Wilcox and the D.A. managed to convince him to allow a jury to determine Jim's innocence or guilt? After violating his bail, the judge would certainly order Jim back to jail to await trail. Remembering the lost, nearly broken, man who had emerged from the shadows of Stark Prison, Blair shuddered at the thought of what months of confinement would do to his sentinel.

Unable to sleep and incapable of bearing such morose thoughts any longer, Blair slipped from the warmth of the bed. As he slipped on one of Jim's soft old Cascade P.D. sweatshirts, Blair took another deep breath, pulling in once again the comforting scent of his friend. He padded downstairs and toward the balcony.

The phone rang.

Snatching it up, Blair glanced anxiously at his room, hoping the sound hadn't disturbed Simon. At least one of them should get some rest tonight. Who the hell was calling at this hour anyway?

Quietly, Blair slipped out onto the balcony as he answered the phone. "Hello?" He shivered slightly at the touch of the cool air on his bare legs. Pulling the door closed behind him, he moved to lean back against the balcony rail and stared into the darkness of the loft.

"Chief?"

A broad smile nearly split his face. "Jim! Are you all right? Where are you, man? You're not supposed to call me, I know, but damn! It's good to hear your voice!"

An amused chuckle tickled his ear. "If you'll slow down, buddy, and listen, you can see me, too. Look over the side of the balcony."

Scarcely believing what was happening, Blair turned and gazed down. There, standing directly below him on the sidewalk, his cell phone to his ear, was Jim. Even from his perch on the balcony, Blair could see his partner's wide smile. Jim raised a hand and waved. Blair waved back, his eyes unexpectedly full and luminous in the moonlight.

"You okay, Chief?" Jim asked, staring up at Blair.

His guide could hear the concern and the guilt in that voice, and it tore at his heart. "I'm fine, Jim," Blair replied quickly, hoping to reassure his sentinel. "Really. The headaches are better, and my vision is clearer now. You've just got this funny halo effect around you. Kind of like an aura."

That seemed to help break the slight tension between them. Jim joked, "Like an angel, you mean?"

Blair knew his sentinel could see the silly grin on his face, but he didn't care. "Definitely not an angel, man, but maybe Blessed Protectors have halos, too, y'know?" He listened to Jim's chuckle, so relieved to hear him laugh again. "Hey, Jim? Why'd you come here? I mean, this could get you in even more hot water with the D.A., right?"

"Yeah, it could." Jim paused, and Blair listened closely to every breath he could hear through the phone. "I just had to be sure. That you were really all right. Simon told me that you were improving, but I...couldn't rest...couldn't sleep, until I knew for sure. I figured I'd just stand down here and listen. I didn't count on getting to see you." Jim's quiet laughter tickled his ear. "Hell, Chief, I'm already in scalding water, not just hot. I think being here tonight would pale in comparison to my little escapade this weekend."

In the distance, a siren sounded, and Blair saw Jim's head whip around at the sound. "Go on," Blair ordered gently. "Get out of here."

Jim turned slowly to gaze up again toward the loft and his guide. "Sandburg...?"

"I'm fine," Blair reassured him. "Simon's here, spending the night in my room. Besides, tomorrow it'll all be over. Right?" He wished he'd been able to keep the note of uncertainty out of his voice.

Jim's reply held no such uncertainty. "This ends tomorrow." Again the siren filled the night, and Jim stopped, listening. After a moment, he added, "I don't have time to explain right now. You'll find out everything in the morning."

"Okay, Jim," Blair whispered into the phone, leaning over the edge to get a closer look at his friend. "Will you be okay until then?"

"I'm fine, Chief," Jim said, affection deepening his voice as he spoke. "Everything's going to be all right. I promise you. Right now, you get out of this night air and get some rest. I'll see you tomorrow."

Blair blinked back the wetness that threatened to overflow. He didn't want to break the tenuous connection with his sentinel. "Okay," he said tremulously.

"Night, Blair," Jim whispered his name in a caress, and the connection was broken.

Neither man moved as the night passed in its slow, measured rhythm. The breeze swirled around them in its invisible dance, bringing with it from the sea the promise of wildness and freedom. Clear, white moonlight brushed them gently, changing umber curls into a cascade of smoldering embers and glistening off lighter hair like silvery crystals. Cerulean eyes, the color of the calm, tranquil sea, gazed down into lighter pools of topaz blue, neither prepared to break the fragile thread spun so tenuously between them. Tears welled in the darker eyes, even as the fists of the sentinel tightened in pain.

Knowing Jim would hear and recognizing that he was too weak to break the spell any other way, Blair whispered, "You first."

Jim did not move for a long moment, seemingly suspended in the night. At last, raising his hand in a silent goodbye, he took two steps backward, turned, and disappeared into the shadows.

For a long time, Blair stood alone, staring at the spot where his sentinel had vanished, not quite believing he had actually been there. When he finally did return to Jim's bed, he fell asleep immediately, cocooned in the warm covers and certain that when night once more descended, his world would be turned right again.

He did not dream.

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

Wednesday

It was one of those scenes from a detective movie come to life. All the interested parties, one of whom was the supposed murderer, assembled together for the purpose of finding the truth. Except, Blair thought, in the movies, they'd be in the fussy parlor of an old Victorian cottage or in the richly paneled study of some old mansion. He almost smiled at the image.

Almost.

Blair's nerves were too frayed to smile yet. The magic of his encounter with Jim the previous night had not faded, but in the glaring light of day, he was once again more than a little worried about the outcome of this proceeding.

They were gathered in Judge Stuart Lamar's chambers. The judge sat behind his imposing desk, his black robe starched and proclaiming his authority. On one side of the judge's desk were gathered the representatives of the people - Captain Wilcox and the District Attorney in charge of the case, Benjamin Bowman. For once, Simon sat opposing the government's representatives, next to Blair and Jerome Avery, Jim's attorney, on the judge's left. In the center seat was Dr. Russell Miles.

"I really do not understand the necessity of my presence at this meeting," Dr. Miles grumbled. "As you know, I have an important exhibit underway at the university, and I have a lecture at 11:00." He glanced at his watch, obviously annoyed.

Judge Lamar assured him, "This won't take long, Doctor. Captain Banks requested your presence today, so perhaps he will explain why you were summoned here. Then, I'd like to know why Jim Ellison isn't present."

Simon shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "Well, you see..." He glanced at Blair helplessly. Sandburg merely shrugged. "This all has to do with your exhibit, Dr. Miles. As for Jim, I..."

"You don't have to explain anything for me, Simon."

Every head in the room pivoted to see Jim standing in the doorway. Blair's face broke out in a huge smile, and he vaulted to his feet. "Jim!"

"Wait a minute!" protested Gregory Wilcox. "Judge! There's a restraining order against Detective Ellison that prevents him from coming within a hundred yards of the victim, Blair Sandburg. He should not..."

The judge waved him down with a sweep of his hand. "I don't believe there's any danger to Dr. Sandburg with us all here in the room, Captain. If the D.A. has no objections, I don't see why we cannot hear what Detective Ellison has to say."

Benjamin Bowman shook his head. "No objections, Your Honor."

"Fine," Judge Lamar stated. "Detective Ellison, you will remain on the opposite side of these chambers from Dr. Sandburg."

Blair sank down into his chair, but he caught the quick wink from Jim as his partner went to stand on the far side of Judge Lamar's desk. He settled back, as curious as the rest to find out what was going on.

"Detective, perhaps you can explain what I am doing here?" Dr. Miles inquired.

Blair felt a chill at Jim's lazy smile. It was like watching a rattlesnake coil up and prepare to strike, he thought. Apparently not recognizing the danger he was in, Dr. Miles appeared totally at ease.

"I'll be glad to explain, Doctor. If you won't mind answering a few questions."

Miles waved his hand. "Of course. Anything to help find the person who attacked Blair."

Another cool smile from Jim. "Blair was your research assistant, correct?"

"A few years ago, yes. He was an excellent researcher."

"Excuse me!" Captain Wilcox interrupted. "Your Honor, could you or Mr. Bowman please explain why the accused is asking the questions here?"

Judge Lamar smiled tolerantly. "I admit it's not standard procedure, however, this entire case isn't exactly typical either. Let's face it, we have a defendant who is a respected detective and a victim who claims the defendant is innocent of the crime of which he is accused."

"He is innocent!" Blair interjected. "I know Jim didn't attack me!" He caught the look of gratitude Jim flashed his way.

"That's what a trial is for, isn't it?" asked Wilcox. "If we must have this unorthodox meeting, at least shouldn't it be Detective Ellison's attorney asking the questions?"

Jerome Avery spoke up. "To be honest, I'm not sure what this is all about either. I believe that under the circumstances, Detective Ellison is certainly capable of questioning Dr. Miles."

"We are concerned about Detective Ellison's whereabouts the past few days," the District Attorney said. "Mr. Avery, can you clear up the question of whether or not your client left the state?"

"I'll get to that in just a few moments, if Your Honor will allow me to continue," Jim said smoothly.

Judge Lamar sat silently for a few moments before speaking. "As I stated earlier, this is an unorthodox case." He spoke first to Blair. "Dr. Sandburg, I take it that you are still unable to remember the events of the evening you were attacked?"

Blair's mind whirled quickly. All it would take would be a simple lie. To say that he remembered seeing the face of his attacker and it was not Jim. Even if the culprit was never found, at least Jim would be safe. He looked over at the sentinel. Jim shook his head slightly and his lips formed a single word. No.

Sadly, Blair admitted, "No, Your Honor. I can't remember a thing about that day."

The judge continued, "Then you really have no idea whether or not it was James Ellison who entered your office that night and nearly killed you, do you, son?"

Stubbornly, Blair insisted, "I know it wasn't Jim, Your Honor. I may not know who really did attack me, but I'm absolutely certain it was not Jim Ellison."

Judge Lamar sighed. "Detective Ellison, as you are familiar with the proceedings of our judicial system and as this is an informal proceeding, I will allow you to question Dr. Miles. However, I do expect you to clear up the question of your whereabouts and if you violated the terms of your release."

"Yes, Your Honor," Jim agreed. "I promise that the entire matter will be cleared up in a matter of minutes." Turning his attention back to Dr. Miles, Jim asked, "What is your area of expertise, Dr. Miles?"

"I am an authority in the area of South American tribal cultures." He glanced from face to face, with a self-confident smile. "I have published numerous articles in well-respected anthropological journals and my textbooks are used in programs throughout the country."

"During the time that Blair worked with you, did he ever mention my time spent with the Chopec?" Jim asked. To the others, he explained, "The Chopec are a tribe living in the rainforests of Peru. I lived among them for eighteen months after the crash of my military helicopter."

Dr. Miles nodded. "Yes, of course Blair mentioned it. He knew of my interest in that particular tribe."

The cool blue eyes sparked suddenly as Jim took a single step closer to Miles. "So you have had a long-time interest in the Chopec? Tell me, Dr. Miles, how many articles had you written about them prior to working with Dr. Sandburg?"

Miles shifted slightly in his chair. "None. Not at that time."

"I see," Jim said thoughtfully. "Well, then, what kinds of research had you conducted that was specific to the Chopec?"

Again, Miles appeared uncomfortable. "I had conducted no research that was specifically about the Chopec."

"Really?" Jim glanced at Blair for just an instant, but it was long enough for his guide to catch the triumphant glimmer in Jim's eyes. "So how was it that Dr. Sandburg knew you had a particular interest in this one tribe, sir?" When there was no reply, Jim pressed on. "Isn't it true that until you met Blair Sandburg and learned of my experiences, you really had no great interest in the Chopec people? Isn't that what sparked this great interest of yours?"

Dr. Miles hesitated. "I...I suppose you could say that."

"Where did you get the artifacts, Doctor?" Jim's questions were unrelenting, one after another, as he pushed the anthropologist even harder. "You mentioned the exhibit you brought to Rainier. Your own personal collection, I believe. Where did you get those artifacts?"

The professor leaned forward in his chair, staring at Jim. "My uncle left them to me. We shared an interest in anthropology, and they were in his collection."

Jim pulled out a folder and held it up. "Your uncle was Joel R. Miles, correct?"

"Yes," Miles responded, his eyes flickering to the folder in Jim's hand.

"He left a will that was probated in the courts of his home county in Minnesota, correct?" Jim opened the folder and glanced at the documents inside as he waited for the answer.

"I'm sure it was probated. Yes." A fine line of sweat appeared on the professor's upper lip and he wiped it away with his sleeve, his eyes never leaving the folder.

"Would it surprise you to learn that no such collection of artifacts was listed in the probate documents?" Jim paced closer to Dr. Miles, staring down at him with eyes of ice. "I'll ask you again, where did you get those artifacts?"

The tension between the two men was so thick, it was nearly visible. Blair leaned forward in anticipation, his attention moving between his friend and his former professor. Jim's glare never wavered, and for several long moments, it seemed as though Dr. Miles would not respond to the sentinel's question. "I visited Peru and brought them back," Miles stated at last. "I knew it might be considered illegal to bring back ancient cultural artifacts, so I fabricated the story about my uncle." He slumped back in the chair as though exhausted and stared down at the carpet.

"So the Chopec allowed you to remove these treasures?" Jim asked softly.

Miles' gaze darted back up to Jim. "I...I lived among them for some time. They trusted me."

"I repeat, did the Chopec give those artifacts to you?"

"Of course! How else would I have been able to bring them out?" Miles smiled weakly at the judge. "The Chopec are a violent, hostile tribe, Your Honor. I certainly would have been taking my life in my hands to attempt to steal such tribal treasures." He chuckled and shook his head. "I am not a foolish man, Detective."

Jim stood totally still for a long moment, then he smiled calmly. "I see. Your Honor, with your permission, I have a witness who would like to comment on Dr. Miles' story." When the judge nodded his approval, Jim walked to the door and stepped into the hallway.

"You may come in now," he said softly. "It's all right. Just answer the questions I ask."

Acana stepped into the judge's chambers. The Chopec warrior was clothed in his native attire, a loin cloth and beads made from hard-baked clay. His long black hair hung to his shoulders and he bore the traditional, bright paint he'd received before departing on his long journey.

"Acana!" Blair jumped up, grinning at his Chopec friend.

The warrior smiled and held out his hand for Blair to shake. "Ankaree! It is good to see you, my friend! You are well?"

Blair knew he still had a silly grin on his face, but at that moment, he didn't care. "I'm fine, Acana, and I have a feeling that when you're done explaining things to the judge, I'm going to be a lot better."

Dr. Miles' face had blanched at least two shades paler. He stared at the Chopec with wide eyes.

After Acana was seated, Jim smiled at him. "Acana, thank you for coming all this way. Your Honor, he is the reason I had to leave Cascade for a few days. I knew if anyone could shed some light on this situation, it would have to be the Chopec themselves."

"Couldn't someone else have gone to interview these people?" Judge Lamar inquired. "You were taking a huge risk leaving the country, Detective. I could order you back to jail to await trial right now."

"I know, sir. I apologize, but I am the only one who could walk into the Chopec's territory safely and the only one they would trust enough to talk with about what happened." Jim looked across the room at Blair. "I know what I did was against the law, sir, but it was a chance I had to take. The stakes were too high not to."

After a moment, Judge Lamar nodded. "All right, Detective. I'll be lenient for now. I expect, however, for you to show relevance very soon."

"Of course, Your Honor." Jim turned his attention to Acana. "Acana, are you a member of the Chopec of Peru?"

"Yes," the warrior replied, his eyes locked on Jim's face, a slight tone of confusion in his voice. "Enquiri knows this well."

Jim grinned. "Yes, I do know it, Acana, but I'm helping everyone else here understand. Okay?"

Acana nodded. "I understand, Enquiri. Yes."

"Where did you learn to speak English?"

"I learned from the nuns working near the Chopec lands. They have taught me." A frown knitted Acana's brows. "Am I not speaking well, Enquiri?"

Jim assured him, "You're doing just fine, Acana." His gaze scanned the room. "Do you recognize anyone in this room. Besides me?"

"Ankaree! And Simon from Cascade." Acana nodded rapidly. "They are friends of the Chopec." He grinned at Simon, and the tall captain chuckled and lifted his hand in acknowledgement.

"Anyone else?"

The smile faded from Acana's dark face. "Him. Miles."

"That's right," Jim said lightly. "Dr. Miles stated earlier that he visited your people. That he became a friend of the Chopec."

"No!" The fury in Acana's voice was violently intense. "He is no friend of my people!"

"He isn't? Would you explain, please, Acana?" Jim was infinitely patient as he led the warrior with his questions.

"He came to my people. He claimed to be a friend of Enquiri's and of Ankaree's." Acana glanced at Blair and shook his head. "Ankaree and Enquiri would never send such a man to the Chopec. Miles was no friend."

"Why not? What happened, Acana?"

Miles interrupted. "This is ridiculous, Your Honor! This man is a savage! He has no understanding of our judicial system! Why, he isn't even under oath! How can you allow him to..."

Judge Lamar's face was nearly crimson. "Because this is my court, that's how I can allow him to tell what he knows! You will sit quietly, sir, or I will have you detained and charged with contempt here and now!"

Miles settled anxiously into his chair.

Jim smiled reassuringly at Acana. "Tell us what happened."

Acana glared at Miles. "He asked many questions. Because we believed he knew Enquiri, we told him many things. About our lives. About our traditions. About our treasures. Some things, no one may know but the Chopec. But other things, we shared with Miles."

"He was interested in your treasures? Your pottery? Statues? Jewelry?" Jim held out a brochure from the exhibit. "Please look at the pictures here, Acana. Do you recognize anything?"

Acana studied the brochure, his brown eyes widening by the second. When he looked up, it was to stare at Dr. Miles with burning black eyes. "These belong to the Chopec! He took them from us!"

"He lies!" Miles jumped to his feet. "He is lying! Surely you cannot believe this uneducated tribesman over me?"

Jim looked calmly at Acana. "Can you tell me the meaning of the word 'lie'?"

Acana tilted his head. "It means to lie down. On the ground. To rest." He smiled quickly. "Enquiri knows this!"

Jim chuckled. "Yes, I do. Is there another meaning of 'lie'?"

"No. That is all."

"Acana, what happens in your tribe to one who does not speak the truth?"

"I do not understand."

"Is it considered wrong to speak words that are not true?"

Acana nodded. "Ahhh...I understand. It would be a great disgrace. No Chopec would want to bring such dishonor upon his family." He looked thoughtful. "Is this the other word, 'lie', you speak of, Enquiri? I am sorry I did not know."

"It's all right, Acana. You're doing fine." Jim took the brochure and handed it to the judge. "So, Dr. Miles did not have permission to take any of these objects away from the Chopec?"

"No!" The fire was back in Acana's face. "He did not! We had a celebration. No one was awake when Miles left. With our treasures."

Jim turned slowly to face Miles. "And what would be the Chopec's punishment for such a man?"

Acana leaned forward, his angry gaze locked on Miles. "The ultimate penalty for such disrespect of friendship. He would be put to death."

There was an audible gasp from Miles. Jim smiled calmly. "Thank you, Acana." He turned back to Miles. "Blair Sandburg came to see you last Tuesday morning. True?"

The professor licked his dry lips. "Yes."

Jim's voice rose. "He'd figured out how the exhibit was obtained. He recognized many of the objects, and so they certainly couldn't have belonged to an elderly uncle. Blair also knew the Chopec well enough to be certain they'd never give you those treasures."

No reply came from the professor as a trickle of sweat ran down his temple.

Jim reached into the inside pocket of his brown leather coat. He held up a small, leather-bound book. Blair drew in a quick breath.

"Blair, can you tell us if you recognize this book?" Jim asked him, his voice now soft.

"Sure. When you and I went to Peru the last time, I kept that journal."

In the same quiet voice, Jim inquired, "What kind of notes did you take?"

Understanding where his sentinel was leading him, Blair smiled. "I noted my observations about the Chopec's tribal organization, their rituals, and I made sketches of many of their crafts and ceremonial objects." He glanced at Dr. Miles. The professor's face had turned a sickly white.

"Dr. Sandburg," Jim said, stressing Blair's title, "please compare the sketches in your journal and your memories of that trip to the photographs in this brochure and tell us your professional opinion." Jim took two steps toward Blair to hand him the journal and brochure, then he stopped. With a crooked smile, he handed them both to Simon. "Would you give these to Sandburg? Don't want to violate that restraining order."

Simon made no effort to hide his chuckle as he gave Blair the items.

"Take your time," Jim added as he leaned against the wall across the room.

For several minutes, Blair looked carefully at the sketches he'd made and at the photos from Dr. Miles' exhibit. "Many of the objects that I sketched while with the Chopec are the same as those in the exhibit," he concluded, looking up at Jim.

"Are you certain?"

Blair nodded. "Absolutely. I can point out some specific examples, if you want."

Jim shook his head. "I don't think that's necessary right now." A brief smile flashed across his face, then vanished. "Thanks, Chief."

Ellison turned his attention back to Dr. Miles, and immediately, his entire demeanor changed. The warmth that had been in his eyes and voice while he talked to Blair vanished, and the ice-cold mask of the detective was back in place. "When was the last time you'd published before meeting Blair Sandburg, Doctor?" Jim grilled, pinning Miles with his frosty eyes.

"I...I can't remember," Miles stammered.

"Isn't that convenient? It doesn't matter, though. I've looked into that information as well. According to my sources, it's been too long. Too long to keep your position with Rainier or any of the other universities who'd hired you. You needed something new, something important, to save your career." Jim was like a bulldozer now, building his case with evidence, brick by brick.

"Then, along comes Sandburg - this enthusiastic, helpful kid who happens to have a friend who's spent time among one of the most illusive tribes in South America. You pick his brain daily, building a storehouse of knowledge about the Chopec. And about me."

Miles sat mutely, shaking his head. The D.A., judge, and Wilcox were leaning forward in their seats, captured by Jim's speech. Blair's gaze was locked on his sentinel. He'd always admired Jim's police work, his ability to put together seemingly unrelated clues to come up with the truth, and his interrogation skills, but today, his partner had risen to a higher plane altogether. Blair's admiration shone clearly from his sparkling sapphire eyes.

"So you went to South America and found the Chopec, right within the range Blair had laid out for you. You threw out our names, and just as you'd hoped, the Chopec trusted you. A rare thing, I might add. You waited, listened and learned. When the time was right, when the tribe was asleep, you took everything you could carry and slipped away in the night. By the time they awakened, it was too late. Their treasures were gone."

Jim rolled on. "You came back and wrote those articles that put your career back on track. Your exhibit won you acclaim, and no one thought to question where those artifacts came from, did they? But Blair figured it out. He went to see you earlier in the day on Tuesday, to confront you with what he knew."

Jim stared at the professor, his gaze steel to match the tone of his voice. "Let's see if I have this right. You waited until late in the evening. Everyone else in Hargrove had gone home hours before, but you knew Blair was still in his office. Maybe you even saw me go and come earlier, maybe even heard us argue." Jim's gaze flickered to Blair, softened slightly, then returned to his prey.

"He had his back to you, working at his computer. When Sandburg's concentrating, the building could collapse, and he'd never know it. You picked up the artifact - Chopec, by the way - and crept up beehind him." For the first time, Jim's strong voice faltered slightly, but he ploughed on. "The first blow may not have knocked him unconscious. So you hit him again. And again!" Stalking across the room, Jim leaned down into Miles' face, grabbing his collar. "You did mean to kill him, didn't you, you bastard? You only stopped because you thought he was dead!"

"Jim!" Simon bolted from his chair and grabbed the sentinel's arms, dragging him away from the cowering professor.

The sentinel stood staring fiercely down at Miles. Blair's anxious eyes cut between Jim and the judge as he gripped the arms of his chair, remembering the restraining order while fighting his own terrible need to get to his partner. "Easy, man," he said softly. "Calm down, Jim. You're doing great here. Don't blow it now, okay?"

Almost immediately, the powerful shoulders relaxed slightly as Jim drew a deep breath. "It's all right," he muttered, shaking off Simon's grip. "I'm okay."

Jim turned to face Miles again. "You had no idea there'd be a suspect so soon, though, did you?" The words were almost too calm, Blair thought, watching Jim carefully for any sign of another loss of control. Jim continued as if he hadn't really expected a reply. "Captain Wilcox conveniently assumed that since Blair and I had fought in the past, since I'd hurt him emotionally before, that I could get angry enough to injure him physically, too. The fact that a witness overheard our argument that night and another saw me when I was angry at Sandburg just added fuel to the fire. Not to mention the fact that I helped out when I picked up the same statue you later used as your weapon." Jim's gaze was hard as stone as he stared at the silent man before him.

"You thought you covered your tracks when you tried to erase Blair's files on his computer, didn't you? But you missed his journal. I found it on the floor under his desk and took it with me for safekeeping. Before I left Cascade for Peru, I contacted an old friend of Blair's, Jack Kelso, in the Foreign Affairs department at Rainier. An expert on the CIA and quite good with computers." He turned again to the doorway. "Jack, come on in."

"Hey, Blair," Kelso greeted the startled young man as he rolled his wheelchair into the room. "Sorry I didn't get your permission before I used your office and computer," Kelso quipped. "I figured under the circumstances, you wouldn't object. I just found what I was looking for a few hours ago. Come over here and look what I rescued from your computer."

Kelso situated his chair near the judge's computer at the credenza behind his desk as Blair moved to stand beside him. Jack slipped in a disk. "Bring up the only file there," he instructed Blair. Jack turned back to the others.

As Sandburg proceeded to pull up the file, Jack explained. "You did a pretty thorough job erasing this information from Blair's computer, Dr. Miles, but not quite thorough enough. You may be a top-notch anthropologist, but in the computer department, your skills definitely leave something to be desired." Kelso grinned at Dr. Miles, then continued. "I was able to rescue the contents of a letter Blair wrote to Chancellor Edwards that explains everything about the Chopec artifacts and Miles' involvement."

Blair listened to Kelso as he brought up the single file on Judge Lamar's computer. He stared at his own name typed at the beginning and quickly scanned the page. What the hell...?

Jim turned to Sandburg. "Chief? You ready?"

"Yeah, Jim." Blair turned around and faced the judge. "Look, Your Honor. This is the report I was typing right before I was attacked. It was addressed to Chancellor Edwards, among others, including the head of the Anthropology Department. Jim nailed it. I was going to blow the whistle on Dr. Miles. I know from the witness reports that I went to see him earlier in the day. Probably to get him to explain how artifacts I recognized from my own stays with the Chopec ended up in a collection he supposedly inherited."

"If I wrote this," Blair added, gesturing at the screen, "then he must not have had any better explanation for me than he's had for Jim here today." Blair looked at his former professor sadly. "I guess saving his career was more important than my life. He stopped me the only way he could."

Miles slowly shook his head. "I didn't want to hurt you, Blair. I went to your office to try to talk it out, to work out some sort of compromise. When I got there..."

Judge Lamar interrupted. "I must caution you, Dr. Miles, not to say anything more without an attorney present. It..."

Miles waved him off. "No, it's all right. I understand you're trying to help me, Judge, but I need to try to explain my actions to this young man." He looked back at Blair. "When I got there, you wouldn't listen. You were upset that I'd used your friend's name, that I had taken the artifacts without the Chopec's consent. You told me that you were writing a full report for Dr. Edwards. I tried to explain that my entire career was at stake, that I was about to lose my fellowship, not to mention any hopes of future grants."

"I don't remember your being in my office, but it wouldn't matter if I did. You stole those artifacts, Dr. Miles!" Blair said accusingly. "Nothing you say can excuse that." Blair was still reeling from the revelation of the true character of a man he'd admired so much.

Dr. Miles shut his eyes for a moment, as though struggling with his own conscience, then he looked at Blair again. "I know that, Blair! But I was desperate! When you told me that we had nothing left to talk about and went back to writing that letter, I really don't know what came over me. Your back was to me, and all I could see was the incriminating evidence against me appearing on that damned computer screen! I picked up the statue from your desk, and..." Miles' voice choked, and he buried his head in his hands, his shoulders shaking.

Blair stared at his former mentor and friend. How could this have happened? What sort of greed and ambition could turn a respected scientist into a thief and a would-be murderer? Feeling terribly alone and confused, Blair looked across the room at Jim. The sentinel's face was set in stone as he glared at Miles. Then, he caught Blair's gaze, and the hard expression melted into one of warm concern.

District Attorney Bowman stood up. "Under the circumstance, Judge Lamar, I move that all charges against James Ellison be dropped." He turned to Simon. "Please take Dr. Miles into custody. I think you know the charges."

Simon grinned as he approached Miles. "Stand up, sir." He cuffed Miles' wrists behind his back. He looked over to Wilcox. "Gregory, would you handle this one for me? I'd like to stick around for the end of this, if you don't mind."

Glowering at Jim, Wilcox took custody of the prisoner. "You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you..." He escorted the stunned professor from the office.

Jack Kelso turned to Blair. "One more piece of good news. At least, I'm assuming you'll consider it good news, considering your past history with Chancellor Edwards. Jim and I passed along your statement to the president of the university and the Board of Regents. Turns out that Edwards is the one who pushed for the funding for Miles' exhibit to come to Rainier and for the expensive fellowship he was given. The Board of Regents is miffed, to say the least. They're ordering a full investigation. I believe our charming Chancellor is going to be on the hot seat for quite a while to come, if she manages to hold on to her position at all."

Blair laughed out loud in delight. "Oh, man! That's rich! It couldn't have happened to a nicer lady, now could it?"

Kelso grinned broadly. "I thought you'd approve. Now, if you guys are done with my area of expertise, then I'll be leaving. I have a class beginning in a half hour. Glad to see you're getting along so well, Blair. Be seeing you again on campus soon, I hope."

"Count on it, Jack," Sandburg assured him, still beaming from the news about Edwards. Kelso nodded at Judge Lamar, then he rolled out into the hall.

"Now, Detective," the judge began. "You did violate the terms of your bail, however, considering the steps necessary to prove your case, I believe I can overlook your...indiscretion. You'll be able to claim your bail money with no problem."

"About that order of protection?" Jerome Avery urged.

"Lifted, of course," Judge Lamar said with a smile. "Gentlemen, I believe it's time for lunch. I'll just be on my way." He turned to the D.A. and asked, "Benjamin, care to join me?"

As they left, Avery turned to Jim. "I've got another meeting in an hour. Jim, glad everything worked out for you." He shook Ellison's hand and departed.

Blair remained behind the judge's desk, his eyes locked with Jim's. "Simon, would you take Acana to the loft? We'll be along in a few minutes," he said quietly.

Simon's gaze moved from Blair to Jim. Since he finished presenting his evidence, Jim had not spoken, had not moved. His blue eyes were fastened on Sandburg. "Sure," Simon agreed. "Acana, let's go. We'll swing by and pick up some Chinese. Ever had moo goo gai pan?" Simon closed the door behind them.

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

For a long minute, neither sentinel nor guide spoke. Blair looked at his partner, shaking his head and smiling. "You did it," he said at last.

"You did it, Chief," Jim pointed out, gesturing to the computer screen. "Finding your report was the final nail in Miles' coffin." He smiled at last, feeling the weight of all the worry of the past week lift from his shoulders. "C'mere," he said softly.

Blair moved from behind the desk to stand in front of the sentinel. "Are you really okay?" Jim inquired gently.

Blair tilted his head and looked up at Jim, his expression completely calm. The younger man didn't speak, but Jim understood the silent permission he was being granted. His sensitive fingers moved to explore the large bandage still covering Blair's head. He skimmed over the sensitive bruises, feeling their heat and wincing at their ugly purple and sickly yellow tinge. Resting his palm flat over Blair's heart, Jim felt the strong, rhythmic pumping even as he listened to its melody. No sign of distress, no indication of pain.

"Except for my memory, I'm fine, and thanks to you, if I never remember what happened that day, it really won't matter. Even my vision's better today." Blair's eyes never wavered from Jim's. "I missed you, Jim," he added softly.

Jim felt, rather than heard, the pain-filled growl that began deep in his own throat. The ache that had settled in his gut at the moment he heard that Blair had been injured found its way into his throat, tightening so hard and so fast that he could scarcely breathe, much less speak. Reaching out to wrap his strong arms around the younger man, Jim drew Blair to his chest, almost roughly. He hadn't expected to feel this weak with relief, nearly dizzy with released fears. Against Blair's back, Jim felt his own hands tremble slightly and realized suddenly that he'd been running on pure adrenaline. Now that the need for such energy was over, he was very quickly crashing back to earth.

Exactly how long had it been since he'd had a full night's sleep anyway?

Bending slightly, Jim rested his forehead on Blair's shoulder and felt his friend's arms encircle his back to hold him tightly. His guide's hands moved against his back, working gently to release the pent-up stress in the tight muscles there. Blair's cheek pressed hard against his own, and Jim felt a warm wetness trickle down his neck. The salty tang of tears teased at his sense of smell with each breath.

"Jim? Are you okay?"

Blair sounded worried, and Jim knew he needed to reassure his guide, but still, words were impossible. He released Blair's back with one hand, only to weave his fingers into the thick curls and guide Blair's head even deeper into the hollow of his neck. Jim drew a deep, shuddering breath and released it in a long sigh as he fought to bring his traitorous body back under his control.

"I'm here, Jim. I've got you. It's all right," Blair whispered. "Just breathe, okay? Lean on me for a while, and you just breathe." Sandburg's voice fell into the comforting, familiar guide-tones that always spoke to Jim's soul. He forced another deep breath, and this time when he released it, the shudder wasn't so noticeable.

The soothing flow of words never ceased, even as Blair's hand continued its relaxing massage on the tired muscles of Jim's back. "That's the way, man. It's all over now. We're going to be all right."

Jim nodded, unable to yield the overwhelming sensation of holding his guide - warm and alive and safe - just yet. "I know," he managedd to whisper, but the words sounded suspiciously like a groan. "I know," Jim repeated a minute later, his voice more controlled this time. He tightened his embrace even as he raised his head just enough to look down into Blair's face. "Are you ready to go home?"

The younger man nodded, a smile teasing at his lips. "We'd better. No telling what kind of junk food Simon's throwing at Acana. Poor guy won't know what hit his digestive tract. Not to mention the fact that we have an awful lot of packing to do before he can take all those artifacts back to the tribe."

Jim chuckled, almost light-headed with relief as strength flowed back through his body. It was over. Sandburg was going to be fine. The real culprit was behind bars, and for the first time in far too long, he could go home. "Let's go home, Sandburg."

"Hey, don't forget your folder," Blair said, retrieving the file folder Jim had brought to the meeting. "Wouldn't want Dr. Miles' uncle's will falling into the wrong hands."

Jim grinned sheepishly. "Open it, Chief."

Blair flipped open the file and read for a moment, then stared at his friend in confusion. "Jim? This isn't a will or probate records. It's a copy of your discharge papers from the Army."

Shrugging, Jim explained, "I didn't have time to really contact the authorities in Minnesota about his uncle's estate. I knew he didn't get those artifacts from his uncle, and I gambled that he wouldn't ask to see the probate records."

"You lied!' Blair said accusingly, but with a glint of a smile.

"I did not," Jim defended himself. "If you'll remember, Sherlock, I never said this was a copy of those probate records. I just opened the folder as I was talking about them."

Blair's attempt to keep a straight face failed completely, and his frown melted into a wide grin. "You are a piece of work, man!" Pocketing the computer disk that contained his retrieved report, Blair laughed. "Oh, man! Just the thought of the acclaimed professor being taken in by your, shall we say, inventive tactics! And I thought I was the master of obfuscation. Let's go home, partner."

"I learned from the best, Chief." Keeping one arm firmly around Blair's shoulders, Jim guided him into the hallway.

"Hey, Jim?" Blair asked as they were almost to the end of the hallway and the exit doors. "You were gone, man. Safe. I mean, for all you knew, when you got back here, you might end up spending years behind bars. You could have stayed in Peru with the Chopec. With your son. You would have been safe." Blair's voice faltered as he asked, "Why'd you come back, man?"

Jim looked down at his friend as he opened the courthouse door for Sandburg to pass through. Waiting until Blair had joined him outside, Jim stopped, resting both hands on the slim shoulders, oblivious to the stares of people passing by. He looked down into the blue eyes, their familiar brilliance now clouded with a mixture of hope and uncertainty. Purposefully, Jim allowed the protective shield he normally kept firmly in place around his emotions to fall, allowing his partner a glimpse of his very soul.

Jim spoke slowly, choosing his words carefully, convinced that it was essential for Sandburg to understand. "The people here are my tribe, not the Chopec. They took me in when I needed them and accepted my senses when I didn't know what the hell was going on. Some part of me will always be Chopec, but that doesn't mean I want to live with them permanently. In time, my son will become their sentinel. His life is there. That's where he belongs, not me."

Jim took a long breath, gazing intently at his guide, willing Sandburg to sense all the passion and the simple truth that lay beneath his words. "My life is here, Blair. With you. I wasn't going to let anyone take that away from me. Whatever risks I took were well worth taking, considering what I had to lose. Understand?"

The clouds of doubt lifted before Jim's eyes. Gazing upward, his own soul open through his sparkling eyes, Blair said softly, "Yeah, Jim. I understand." The younger man lifted one hand and placed his palm flat against the sentinel's pendant, lying concealed beneath Jim's sweater. He pressed against it gently, as the fingers of his other hand touched his guide's pendant in a simple affirmation of their bond. "Welcome home, my brother."

Finis...

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