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

Takes place prior to the events of "The Sentinel by Blair Sandburg."

Wolfshy...as always, thank you so very much for all your devoted efforts on behalf of your 'homeless authors.'

Code of Silence

by JET and MegaRed

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

/TAP TAP TAP tappity tappity TAP tappity TAP tappity tappity tappity tappity TAP./

"Sandburg...,"

/tappity TAP tappity TAP TAP tappity TAP TAP TAP TAP tappity TAP./

"Sandburg!"

/TAP TAP TAP tappity tappity TAP tappity TAP tappity tappity tappity tappity TAP./

"SANDBURG!"

/TAP TAP/ "What? /Tappity tappity TAP TAP tappity./

"What the hell are you doing with that pen?" Jim scowled down at his partner as he came into the kitchen. He finished buttoning his shirt and poured himself a cup of coffee, watching Blair as he sat at the kitchen table, busily tapping away on the tabletop with his pen. The incessant sound had been going on for ten minutes, and Ellison was getting a headache. He glanced over Sandburg's shoulder to try and see the book the young man held open in one hand and smiled as he read the head of the chapter. "Morse code?"

"Uh huh," /TAP TAP tappity/ Blair didn't look at Jim. He was busy trying to follow the alphabet in the book, tapping and re-tapping the letters, trying to memorize them.

Ellison just shook his head. "Chief, why on earth are you trying to learn Morse code? It's one of the most outdated forms of communication on the planet." The cop sat down across from Blair as the young man gave one last tap with the pen. Jim reached out a hand, and his loft mate obediently handed the book over. The sentinel studied the cover, then thumbed through the chapters. It was a book on survival, he noted with amusement.

"Don't laugh at me, man," Blair said, noting the smirk on his friend's face. "It's just a book that a...," he glanced up quickly at the sentinel, "That someone recommended to me," Sandburg finished quickly, hoping his partner hadn't noticed his quick mid-sentence correction.

"Someone, eh?" Ellison asked, grinning. "This someone wouldn't happen to be female, with long red hair and legs up to here," Jim held his hands at throat level, "Would they?" His grin widened as Sandburg blushed. "I knew it," the big man gloated. "Trying to impress her with your survival skills, guppy?"

Blair sighed, and went back to reading and tapping. "If you must know," he replied haughtily, "Her father is really into the whole outdoors thing. He takes her out camping with him all the time." He stopped tapping and stuck the end of the pen into his mouth, nibbling thoughtfully. "She wants me to go camping with her sometime next month," he mumbled around the writing utensil "And I...well...I kinda led her to believe that I... uh... was a survival expert. An Eagle Scout, in fact." Sandburg looked sheepishly up at Jim as the older man snickered.

"Survival expert, are you?" the sentinel laughed, "Well, yeah, I guess you could say that. Lord knows most folks wouldn't have survived all the perils you seem to get yourself into." Jim ducked as a pen was tossed half-heartedly in his direction. He chuckled and retrieved the ball-point from the floor, then scooted his chair closer to Blair. "So how's it going? The Morse code, I mean?"

Sandburg just sighed and snatched the pen away. "I can speak twelve different languages, from different tribes all over the world, and yet I can't learn a simple tap-tap-tap code." The young man reopened the book back to the dog-eared page displaying the alphabet. As he began again, Jim reached over and stilled his hand.

"You know Chief," the big man said, "If you're just talking survival, there's really only one phrase you need to learn." The detective held up the pen for Blair to see, then quickly rapped it on the table.

/Tappity TAP TAP TAP tappity/

Blair watched, listened, and then consulted his book. "V...T...B?" he asked after a minute. He furrowed his brow, then glared as Jim chuckled at him. "What?"

'Sorry buddy," the sentinel replied, sobering. He handed Blair the pen, then plucked a napkin from the holder and laid it in front of him. "Write it down this time," he suggested. Then he rapped out the same phrase with his knuckles. /Tappity TAP TAP TAP tappity/

Blair listened intently and drew out the dots and dashes. Then he consulted his book again. "I...W...N...I?" he asked hopefully. Jim shook his head and continued rapping, repeating the phrase. Sandburg sighed heavily and closed his eyes. The sounds Jim's knuckles were making seemed somehow familiar. "Why am I thinking of scouring pads?" he asked, opening his eyes.

Jim laughed and continued tapping. "Probably because this phrase is a brand name," he replied, "And they used it in their ad campaign a few years ago. Think of dirty pots and pans rattling themselves." He watched the expressions on Blair's face run from confusion, to enlightenment, then grinned as a wide smile curved the young man's lips.

"SOS!" Sandburg crowed triumphantly. "Right? It's SOS. Save our ship." He sat back in the chair and folded his arms, smiling smugly at his partner.

Jim nodded and shook his aching hand, flexing his fingers. "That's right, Chief. The universal distress signal. You can send SOS with sound, by tapping. Or you can use a flashlight and send a series of blinks. it's very versatile, and easy to use. Three short, three long, three short." Ellison stood and headed for the kitchen to place his empty coffee cup in the sink. As he turned he noticed the time and quickly snapped his fingers at Blair, who was studying the book again. "Whoa, we gotta get going, kiddo!"

Blair looked up from his book and saw the clock. With a yelp, he scrambled to his feet and followed Jim to the door. "You're giving me a ride to the U, right?" he asked anxiously. His car was in the shop yet again, and Ellison had promised him a ride to and from Rainier.

"Yeah, which is why we gotta hustle," Jim replied, waving Blair out the door. "Don't forget, we've got a meeting tonight. Simon and I will be by to pick you up at five sharp." With that, the door slammed shut, and sentinel and guide hurried down the stairs to begin their day.

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

Blair glanced up at the clock in his office and smiled. Ten minutes until Jim picked him up. He sat back in his creaky chair and stretched his spine. It hadn't been that bad a day, really. Another altercation with Bill Carlton after his Anth 101 class, but aside from that, peaceful.

Bill, or Boulder, as he preferred to be called, was the starting linebacker for the Rainier Wolfpack. He was required by the university to maintain a certain GPA in order to stay on the team and keep his scholarship. Until Sandburg graded his midterm paper last week, the student had been clinging to the minimum by his fingernails. However, the paper had been pitiful, one of the worst Blair had ever read, and he had been forced to give the boy a failing grade.

Boulder's father, Edward Carlton had been to see Blair on several occasions when his son's grade first began to slip. First he came to plead, then to yell, then to threaten, and then back around to pleading. But Blair's integrity forbade him to give in. He had given his student the grade he deserved, nothing less. He stood firm in the face of the threats, even offering to tutor the enormous man's son. He outright refused to look the other way and pass the boy, as he knew many of his fellow professors were wont to do.

Sandburg had not mentioned anything to Jim about the situation. One word about Carlton's behavior and the sentinel would have gone off the deep end, as usual. Especially if he found out the real reason Blair's car was in the shop again. The mechanic had reported sugar in the gas tank. An old trick, but very effective, and Blair had little doubt as to the identity of the guilty party.

As if on cue, his office door suddenly slammed open, snapping him rudely back into the present. He surged to his feet in surprise, knocking his chair over. His heart filled with dread as Edward Carlton ducked through the door, then closed it behind him. Blair glanced nervously at the clock. It was after hours, the building would be virtually empty by now. But Jim would be along any minute. Holding on to that thought, the anthropologist tried to smile as he greeted his guest.

"Hey there, Mr. Carlton," he began amiably. "What are you doing here at this hour? Thought you'd be with your son out on the field or in the gym now." The nervous chuckle died in Blair's throat as the hulking man grabbed a fistful of his shirt and yanked him around his desk. He winced at the overpowering smell of alcohol on the enormous man's breath as he was lifted, and quickly realized that he was in serious danger. The feeling intensified to near panic as one of Edward's meaty hands flipped open a butterfly knife and brought the blade up to Blair's throat.

Carlton growled, his face inches away from Blair's. "There's no need for my son to work out anymore, you little prick!" He pressed the knife tighter against the young teaching fellow's Adam's apple for emphasis. "He's been kicked off the team, AND lost his scholarship! And it's all your fault!"

Blair felt the blade, cold against his skin as he tried to grab onto Edward's shoulders. "Mr. Carlton! Ed! Stop it!" To his relief, the blade was lowered slightly. He gripped the massive forearm holding him off the floor. "Now listen to me, man," Blair began softly, keeping his voice calm and soothing. "You're just having a really bad day, OK? And I can tell you've been drinking. Tell you what, you just put me down and walk out of here, and we'll just pretend it never happened. All right?" He held his breath, praying, stealing another glance at the clock. Jim was late.

"I-I don't know what to do..." Carlton stammered, eyes losing focus as he seemed to stare right through Blair. "I'm so confused.... I'm so angry."

"It's okay to be angry, man," Blair said, hoping to placate the drunken man. "But hurting me isn't going to help your son. In fact, I'm probably the only person right now who CAN help him." He paused, letting his words sink in. "C'mon man," he continued desperately, stalling for time. "Just walk out of here, and Monday morning I'll start Bill's tutoring sessions as if this day didn't even take place. I won't call security. I won't tell the coach. Nobody will ever know. And as soon as Billy gets his grades up a little, everything will be back to normal." Despite his fear, Blair smiled. "What do you say?"

Edward Carlton's face bore a mixture of hate, hope, despair and the dull gaze of a drunk. He looked up at the ceiling, as if hoping to find the answers to his dilemma written across the soundproofing tiles. When he looked back down at Blair, there was a hint of a smile on his lips.

"You really mean that, Mr. Sandburg?" he asked hopefully, lowering the knife further.

Blair nodded eagerly, relieved. Maybe he'd get out of this after all. Just then, the faint sound of a car horn echoed down the empty corridor.

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

Ellison pulled up in front of Hargrove Hall and beeped the horn. He was late in picking Sandburg up, and was surprised and more than a little irritated not to see the young man waiting at the curb for him. He waited for a moment, and then beeped again. He expected to see his roommate come bolting out the doors, hair and papers flying. But there was no sign of him.

"Did you tell him to meet you here?" Simon asked from the passenger seat, twirling an unlit cigar between his thumb and forefinger.

"Yes, I did," Jim replied irritably. He leaned on the horn for a full five seconds, impatience building. When there was still no sign of his friend, he shut off the engine and hopped out of the truck. "He's probably caught up with his new redhead," the big man grumbled, ignoring Simon's smirk, "I'll go get him." Curious, but not concerned, Jim closed the truck's door, crossed the walkway and trotted up the steps to the door.

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

"That's my friend, Ed," Blair said gently as the horn honked again. "My friend the COP. He's here to pick me up and if I don't go out there, he'll come in to see why." He paused to let his words register on the alcohol-affected brain of his attacker. "My offer still stands, you can go out the back door and nobody will be the wiser."

Just then, the door to the office was pushed open. Sandburg looked up in dismay into the startled face of the custodian, Jenkins.

"Holy...!" The old man exclaimed as he saw Blair's peril. "Mr. Sandburg!"

Edward Carlton lashed out, catching the man across the chin with one massive fist. Jenkins didn't make a sound as he collapsed into an unconscious heap of arms and legs just inside the door.

"No!" Blair cried, trying to free himself from the steel hand holding him aloft.

The huge man was panicking. He looked around the small office, then at Blair. The horn blew again, longer and more insistent, and something seemed to snap. Carlton held the knife up, stared at it for a moment, then flipped it shut and tucked it into his pocket.

Blair sighed in relief. "Good choice, man," he began, as Ed set him on the floor and turned him around. "Now let's just... MMMPH!!!" Sandburg gave a muffled yelp as a huge hand clamped over his mouth. He reached up to pull at the thick fingers, trying again to cry out as Carlton's arm snaked around his waist and lifted him off the floor.

Edward quickly ducked out the door, glancing up and down the hall for any signs of life as the man in his grasp struggled, pulling at the hand pressed over his mouth. Carlton tightened his hold, hefting the compact body higher to prevent the kicking feet from hitting the floor. Then he moved quickly down the corridor, headed for the stairs at the end of the hall.

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

Jim paused just inside the front door of Hargrove Hall, listening. He thought he'd heard Blair's voice for a moment. He reached down the hall and around the corner with his hearing and picked up shuffling footfalls, accompanied by the sounds of struggling. Silently, he stuck his head back outside and motioned for Simon to join him.

The tall African American man rolled his eyes and climbed out of the truck. The look on his face was questioning as he jogged up the steps. "What's...," he began.

"Shh!" Jim hissed shortly. He held up a hand, indicating that he was listening. Gesturing for his captain to follow, he started forward again, moving quickly down the hall toward his partner's office. At the corner he drew his gun and nodded for Simon to do the same. The two men counted to three, and spun around the corner to aim toward Sandburg's office.

They were just in time to see the stairwell door at the far end of the hall slam shut. Ellison hurried forward, keeping one eye on the door as he approached the office. He paused again at the edge of the doorjamb, then quickly turned into the room, gun at the ready. There was a body.

A brief flash of panic was quickly squelched as he realized that it wasn't his guide. Holstering his gun, Jim knelt beside the body, easily finding a strong pulse. He took in the man's coveralls, and recognized him as Jenkins, the maintenance man. They'd met on several occasions before, during the many trips Ellison made to the campus to pick up his partner. As the older man began to stir slightly, the sentinel sighed with relief and sat back on his heels.

Except for him and Jenkins, the office was empty of humanity. But there were clear signs of a struggle; Blair's chair was knocked over, and he could smell alcohol. With growing worry, he began a sensory scan of the office for any sign of his wayward anthropologist. In the back of his mind he heard Simon moving down the hall, and a moment later the sound of the stairwell door opening.

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

Edward Carlton pressed his back to the wall as he heard the door one landing above him slam open. He shrank back into the corner of the stairwell as loud footsteps started down, then paused. Sandburg was still struggling against him, and he changed his hold on the young man. Keeping his hand over the teacher's mouth, and moved his other to grip the thin wrists, pinning his prisoner's hands back against his chest.

One flight above, Simon Banks strained his ears, listening. "Blair?" he called softly, gun at the ready. "Sandburg, are you here?" he called louder, leaning over the railing.

At the sound of the captain's voice, Blair began fighting in earnest. He bucked against his captor, kicking as he was lifted off the ground and held against the broad chest. Straining at the hand over his mouth, he tried to get enough freedom to bite. But the cruel fingers just tightened further, pushing up under his nose and nearly cutting off his air. He stopped struggling and listened in despair as Simon's footsteps retreated, and the door above opened and closed once more.

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

"Ohhh....Mr. Sandburg?"

Jim turned at the sound of the weak voice, and moved to help as Jenkins slowly sat up, dazed eyes taking in the doubtless spinning room. He saw a brief flutter of unease across the maintenance man's features, replaced a moment later by recognition. "Detective Ellison?"

"Easy," Jim said, helping him sit up. "Can you tell me what happened? Where's Mr. Sandburg?"

Jenkins held a hand to his bruised jawbone, brow furrowing. Then he remembered the sight of the young teacher in the grip of a behemoth with the knife. "Carlton!" he said sharply, "That big bully, Edward Carlton.... Had a knife." He paused to look up at the detective, who was now clenching his jaw, his blue eyes like ice. The old man shrugged. "He must have taken Mr. Sandburg with him."

Jim quickly snatched up the desk phone and punched in a number. As it began to ring, he handed the receiver over to Jenkins, who took it sadly. He nodded feebly at Jim's instruction to call for backup.

"Detective, I'm sorry," the gray-haired man said, almost inaudibly. "I knew Carlton had been making threats against Mr. Sandburg, I should have reported it. I..."

"This isn't your fault, sir," Jim said gently, heart beginning to pound with fear. This situation was quickly heading from bad to worse. If this Carlton character had been after Blair before, there was a good chance he'd come here today for blood. He quickly shook off the unsettling thoughts, knowing he would better be able to help his friend with a calm state of mind. With a final thumbs-up at Jenkins, Jim hurried out of the office, meeting Simon just outside the door.

"Anything?" The captain asked, huffing. "I didn't find anything in the stairwell."

"Simon," Jim began, "I've got the custodian calling for backup. Look like some thug named Carlton has taken Sandburg." Ellison turned and charged down the hall, totally focused, not looking to see if his captain was following. His partner was in danger. The sentinel was on the prowl.

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

Carlton reached the basement and crossed to the boiler room door, still carrying his prisoner. The anthropologist had stopped struggling, either from exhaustion or the realization that it was hopeless. With a glance behind him, Edward kicked the heavy door open and shouldered his way into the steamy room.

Blair had given up fighting and allowed himself to be carried. He knew he couldn't escape, it was foolish to waste his strength trying. He had to wait for his chance. He had to wait for Jim. Steam suddenly clouded his vision, and he blinked rapidly as Carlton moved down the metal steps with him, taking him lower and lower, into the very bowels of Hargrove Hall. The larger man paused beside a worktable, and Sandburg began to struggle again as he felt the grip on him shift slightly.

"Mmmph...NO DON'T...mmph!" Blair managed to yelp as the thug removed his hand for a moment to jam a rag into his mouth. He gagged slightly at the gritty, gasoline-tinged taste. He heard a familiar ripping sound, and a moment later the rag was replaced by a strip of duct tape. His lips were instantly sealed together, and he was only able to make faint grunting noises through the sticky tape. He was carried across the room and tried not to cry out as he was dropped on the floor beside the boiler.

Carlton deposited his captive roughly on the floor, pushing him onto his knees. With a jerk, he yanked Sandburg's hands in front of him and picked up the roll of tape again. He ran the tape around and around the professor's wrists, cutting the strip off with his knife, then followed suit with his ankles, winding the sticking bindings nearly up to Blair's knees. Lastly he wrapped the heavy tape several times around his prisoner's torso, effectively pinning his arms at his sides and rendering him completely helpless. When he was finished, he roughly shoved the younger man forward.

Blair grunted as he landed hard on his side on the wet floor, looking up at his abductor. His insides turned to ice at the complete absence of emotion on the huge man's face. Carlton was over the edge, beyond reason. The young Shaman had seen that look many times, usually on the face of someone holding a gun on him, about to shoot. But Jim always got to him in time. Where was Jim?

"I don't have any choice, you know. I would have just let you go if it hadn't been for the old man. But now I have to finish it. I can't leave any witnesses."

Edward's voice startled Blair out of his train of thought. He watched as Edward crossed to the boiler and examined the controls. He appeared to study the dials for a moment before nodding, and turning to Blair with a sad little smile.

"I've worked in the boiler room at my son's old high school for nearly thirty years," he said conversationally. "I know how these old dinosaurs work. What makes them tick. How to make things run smoothly." With a grunt, he wrenched one of the large, rusted levers around with a screech of metal. There was an ominous, hollow rumble, and the boiler began to vibrate slightly.

"Or not," the bitter father added with a sneer. "I've sealed the output valves, it shouldn't take long for this sucker to overheat," he explained, as he knelt beside Sandburg and checked his bonds. "These old machines are touchy, anyway. It'll just be chalked up as an accident. Besides, even if there are suspicions, the explosion will more than take care of anything that could possibly be used as evidence." Satisfied that the young professor wasn't going anywhere, he stood and checked the readings on the hissing boiler once more.

"Yep," Edward said, smiling. "In about ten minutes, all your worries will be over, professor. Along with those of anyone left in the building." He sighed at the stricken look that flew over his son's soon-to-be ex-instructor's face. "I'm sorry, kid!" he called as he walked away.

Blair tried to call after him, but the gag was secure. He waited until he heard Carlton's footsteps fade up the metal stairs. When the heavy door slammed shut, he began to struggle against his bound arms, wincing as the tape pulled at the hairs on his wrists. Suddenly the boiler's pained sounds increased in pitch and volume, the huge metal frame beginning to shudder as pressure built up inside. Sandburg stared up at it in horror.

Everyone in the building, including himself, would be killed when the boiler blew. And he knew that Jim would be inside by now, looking for him. And possibly Simon as well. Blair was less upset about his own impending demise than the thought of his friends being killed. The possibility of even more members of the faculty or student body working late in the rooms above filled him additional dread. He had to warn Jim!

Looking up at the ceiling, imagining his partner two floors above in his storage room/office, Blair tried to scream through the gag. But it was no use, the tape was sealed so completely over his mouth that the best he could manage was a muffled grunt. Even the sentinel's superior hearing wouldn't be able to detect him over the sounds of the building. It was an old structure and even nearly empty, there would still be the sounds made by the heating system, water rushing through ancient pipes....Pipes!

Rolling onto his back, Blair looked around the small area beside the boiler. Wedged in the corner was a juncture of old pipes, white paint chipping off from age and neglect. He arched his head back, following the pipes up to where they vanished into the ceiling. Heating pipes. With any luck, they led through his office at some point. Of course if he actually had any luck, he reasoned, he wouldn't get into these situations in the first place.

Worming himself along on his back, using his feet to push, Blair made his slow, painful way over to the corner. With great difficulty, he maneuvered himself around and thrust his legs straight out. His feet connected with the pipe, and a hollow clang reverberated through the room, vibrations traveling up the length of pipe, as well as up his legs. Pausing to let the pain of the impact wear off, he scooted himself a little bit closer. Then he picked up his legs and began to kick.

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

Jim and Simon were heading down the stairs to the basement, when the sentinel froze in his tracks. He grunted as his captain ran into his back.

"Ow! Ellison, what are you...?" Simon's irate inquiry stopped short as his colleague held up a hand. "What? What do you hear?" Banks whispered anxiously.

Jim cocked his head, straining to pick up the elusive rhythm again. He'd heard something that sounded like more than just the noises made by a settling building. It was more steady, like a pattern. Moving closer to the wall, he leaned over and pressed his ear against the painted surface. He could hear the faint rush of water, and realized there must be heating pipes behind the wall. He was about to pull away, when the odd pounding began again.

/BANG BANG BANG bangbangbang BANG BANG BANG!/

"Jim?" The nervous hiss grabbed the sentinel's attention, and he turned to find his captain staring at him in concern.

"I'm still here," Ellison reassured, listening again. The pattern repeated itself, exactly.

"What do you hear?" Simon asked.

"Not sure," Jim replied. "It sounds almost like...Morse Code. Wait, it's starting again." He listened, and then recited, "O.... S.... O.... Going again.... O.... S.... O." His eyes widened as he recalled his and Sandburg's conversation that morning.

"Oso?" Simon asked, confused. "What the hell is an Oso?" He jumped as Jim promptly galloped down the stairs, two at a time. "Jim! What is it?"

"It's Blair!" Jim shouted up the stairwell as he continued his headlong descent. "He's got the letters backwards, but it's the distress call I taught him! Come on!"

Simon shook his head and followed his detective, wishing that just for once, he could spend a normal day with his favorite team.

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

Edward Carlton smiled to himself, checking his watch as he hurried up the stairs. Soon, his and his son's problem would be solved, and blamed on a faulty boiler. The little professor and the old man would take their story to their graves with them.

He was so absorbed in his little victory that he didn't hear the two sets of footsteps coming down the stairwell toward him.

Jim paused at the sight of the burly man on the landing below them. Whoever had carried off Sandburg had to be large enough to overpower the young man. Testing a theory, Jim cleared his throat and called out calmly, "Ed Carlton?"

The big stranger's head shot up, a look of guilt mixed with fear on the haggard face. Before Jim or Simon could react, the other man turned and bolted back down the stairs. Jim charged after him, drawing his gun.

"Freeze, police!"

Edward pounded down the stairs, close to panic. He had to get out of the building, but the closest way was up the stairs, past the cop. He knew he was bigger and stronger than the man chasing him. But the cop had a gun. Ed wasn't ready to risk being shot.

He leapt down the rest of the flight and barreled through the basement door, wincing as his elbow slammed into the jamb. He crossed the basement in record time, and shoved the heavy boiler room door open. Closing it behind him, he grabbed a crowbar leaning against the wall and wedged it through the latch, bracing the door against the rusty railing of the metal steps. He sneaked a glance through the tiny, greasy window embedded in the door, and saw the cop sprinting toward him.

Jim jumped down the short flight of stairs and paused for a moment, scanning the dark basement with every sense thrown wide open. The rhythmic banging had slowed, grown fainter, but he was still able to track the sound to the large, heavy door at the far end of the room. As he watched, Carlton's red face popped up behind the small pane, then vanished as the thug saw him.

Blair gasped through his nose, trying to stay calm. He was becoming exhausted, the pain in his legs nearly overwhelming him. Still, he continued kicking, sending Jim his coded message over and over. It was becoming unbearably hot in the small room, due to the shuddering, overheating boiler. Steam was beginning to scream out of the seams in the huge metal structure. An explosion seemed imminent.

He yelped as strong hands gripped him, pulling him away from the pipes. Then he sighed in relief, believing his Blessed Protector had come to save him. But as he arched his head back to thank Jim, his heart skipped a beat. It wasn't Jim.

"Stand up," Edward Carlton hissed, yanking cruelly on Blair's hair, pulling him upward. The young man had no choice but to wobble unsteadily to his feet, trying to balance with bound legs. He was confused as to why the big man would return to the boiler room. Had he been able to hear the pounding distress call as well?

The answer came as a resonating thud echoed from the far end of the room. Blair jumped, and winced as Carlton's knife came up under his chin from behind, a thick arm coiling around his body like an anaconda. There were two more thuds, then a crash and a clang. Silence followed.

Jim recoiled as the door sprang open, wincing at the jolt that shot through his leg. He'd been accused of being as stubborn as a mule once or twice. Luckily he could also kick like one. As he stepped through the door, now with a broken handle, he saw the slightly bent crowbar on the third step. Gun at the ready, the sentinel slowly moved down into the room, senses honed, stalking his prey.

Blair watched helplessly as his partner slowly approached through the clouds of steam that filled the room. A drop of perspiration trickled into his eye, stinging, but he had no free hand to wipe it away. Instead, he blinked rapidly, trying to disperse the salty droplet. Just as his vision cleared, Carlton's voice growled low beside his ear, making him shudder.

"Drop it, pig."

Jim froze, fingers tightening on the gun as he surveyed the situation. He made eye contact with his guide and gave a small nod, silently promising Blair that he would not be hurt. The vow was made not only for his frightened partner, but for himself as well. He glanced at Carlton, and winced as the desperate man inched the blade tighter against his partner's throat. Ellison could hear Blair's heart pounding in fear over the sounds of the boiler.

"I said drop the gun!" Carlton screamed, backing toward the hissing, rumbling boiler. Sandburg teetered in his grip, and he tightened his arm around the young man, holding him slightly off the ground. "I'll kill him! I will! I've got nothing to lose, remember that!" Carlton's voice broke on the last word, and he shook Blair for emphasis.

Ellison studied his adversary, and realized that the other man was indeed willing to kill his partner. Taking a deep breath, he held his gun out to the side and let it hang limply off of his index finger. He saw Blair's eyes widen in despair, and flashed a quick wink at his young friend.

"Put it down!" Carlton shrieked, "And then kick it over here!" Jim knelt, gently laid his weapon on the wet floor, and did as he was told. Meanwhile a low roar had begun to build up inside the raging boiler.

Pocketing the knife, Ed knelt quickly and picked up the gun, cocked it, and aimed it at the detective. He seemed to remember that he no longer had any need for a hostage and violently shoved Blair away, sending the young man slamming face first into the wall.

Jim started toward Blair as his partner slumped to the floor, stunned. But Carlton quickly strode forward and aimed the gun between the sentinel's eyes. Ellison froze, and obediently raised his hands to shoulder level, offering no resistance as the other man circled around him, heading for the door.

"Now then, cop," Edward sneered as he backed up the steps. "I'd say you have another two minutes before the boiler blows. So you have a choice; you can either come after me, or save your little buddy." Carlton pulled the door open and backed out, still covering the cop with his own gun. "Gotta run, gentlemen!" he called, in a final farewell.

The instant the door slammed shut, Jim bolted to his partner's side. He rolled Blair over and quickly examined the tape bindings. With great care, he eased the strip of tape off Sandburg's lips, taking care not to catch the sable strands of hair that framed his partner's face. The young Shaman was only partly conscious, blood trickling from a gash on his forehead where he'd struck the wall. Jim brushed a thumb briefly over the injury, checking for a fracture, then gently slapped at Blair's cheek.

"Chief, can you hear me?" Jim asked urgently. He cradled Blair's face in his hands, trying to coax the young man into wakefulness. His heart soared with relief when the dusty blue eyes fluttered open, and a faint moan rumbled up from his guide's throat.

"Jim...," Blair moaned, letting his head fall forward against his friend's chest. Just then, the boiler let out a hair-curling screech, and the anthropologist straightened with a gasp. "Oh my god, the boiler!" he yelped.

Ellison turned toward the machine in question, listening. There was a muffled bellow, and he barely had time to throw himself over Blair as one of the machines' dials blew off from the pressure. The small instrument shattered against the wall right above their heads, sprinkling the pair with bits of glass.

"Christ!" The detective dusted himself and his roommate off, then pushed himself to his feet and moved carefully toward the menacing machine. He held a hand up to shield his face from the steam squealing from a multitude of newly formed fissures in the metal surface.

"Blair, do you have any clue what I should do, here?" he called over the din. All the dials were in the red danger zone. Maybe if he just turned them all down....

"Jim!"

The sentinel whirled. "Simon!" he shouted, as the big captain came toward them, Jenkins at his elbow. "Carlton got away from me, did you see him?" he asked, moving to kneel beside Blair again. He began to pull at the tape binding his friend's chest and arms.

Banks shook his head. "No, but backup just arrived. They might have.... Holy shit!" The big captain caught sight of the boiler, which was beginning to glow from the heat and pressure building up within.

Ellison addressed Jenkins, fighting to keep his voice calm. "Sir, do you know how to turn this thing off? Carlton's done something to it!" Jim continued to fight with the tough, sticky tape as the maintenance man moved to examine the structure.

"He's closed the output valves!" Blair shouted from the floor, trying to push himself up as Jim at last freed his arms. Then he kept still as the big man started on his wrists, trying not to yelp as his skin and hairs were pulled.

"He said he closed the output valves," Blair continued, "It was about ten minutes ago!" He watched breathlessly as Jenkins fiddled with the dials and switches. When he turned, his face was pale and sweat was beginning to stream down his face.

"I think I can stop it, but you should get out of here!" the older man shouted over the noise. "Get everyone out of the building, now!" With that, he turned and began to bravely wrestle the controls.

Jim looked from Jenkins to Simon, silently asking the captain's instructions. Banks nodded, and motioned for Ellison to follow him. Giving up on the rest of tape confining his guide's wrists and ankles, the sentinel grabbed two handfuls of Blair's shirtfront and pulled him to his feet. Then before the anthropologist could begin to teeter, the detective quickly bent and scooped him up. Jim paused to let the smaller man hook his bound wrists around his neck, and then started for the stairs.

"Hang on tight," Jim whispered as the slim arms squeezed around his neck.

"Sir? Is there anything we can do to help you down here?" Banks asked of Jenkins as he watched Jim carrying Blair toward the steps. He didn't like the idea of fleeing and leaving the brave maintenance man to die alone.

"No! There's nothing you can do! Just get out of here!" Jenkins shouted, continuing to adjust the settings.

"All right then," Simon replied, patting the courageous man on the back. "Good luck, sir." With that, the captain turned and raced after his friends. He reached the top of the steps just in time to hold open the heavy iron door for Jim. Simon stepped back and allowed the detective to pass with his burden, then followed him. He caught one last glance of Jenkins through the tiny, dirty window as the door slammed shut.

They charged through the dark basement, heading for the stairs to the first floor, and freedom. Jim stumbled as he started up the flight, and Simon reached out to steady him.

"Go, go!" Jim barked when Simon tried to assist him. Holding Blair tighter against his chest, the sentinel started up the stairs at a run, hot on his captain's heels. Again, Simon held the door open, then followed as Ellison ducked through. From within the heart of the building, an ominous wail of escaping steam could be heard. Simon and Jim put on a burst of speed as they started up the last flight of stairs.

Blair hadn't protested when Jim scooped him up. He knew it was fruitless, and besides, he wasn't all that sure his legs would carry him up all those stairs, tape or no tape. His muscles ached from his hips to his toes, from kicking his call for help over and over. That, plus the pounding pain in his skull from being thrown against the wall, and Blair was very glad he had a big, strong sentinel on his side. He tightened his arms around Jim's neck and held on as they reached the landing leading onto the first floor.

Simon pushed the stairwell door open, held it for Jim, then followed the larger man as he started a dead run down the hall. The captain was amazed that, even carrying Sandburg, the detective could still outrun him. He was just making a resolution to himself to start hitting the gym, when something on the wall caught his eye. He skidded to a halt and pulled sharply down on the small red lever. A moment later, the fire alarm screeched to life, echoing through the building.

Blair jumped at the loud klaxon, automatically checking that the sound had not hurt his sentinel. But Jim was apparently too focused to be overloaded by the noise. Sandburg curled himself more tightly into his friend's arms, trying to keep himself from jostling and throwing his friend off-balance. He gripped a double handful of the back of Jim's jacket and clung, closing his eyes against the pain in his head and legs. He felt Ellison pause briefly, and heard a thud. He realized a moment later, when bright sunlight streamed down on him, that Jim had kicked the front door open.

Jim only barely noticed the police cruisers gathered in the courtyard. He was concentrating on putting distance between himself and the building, just in case Jenkins wasn't successful in taming the boiler. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Simon ushering a handful of people out of the building. He smiled as he realized who it was that had set off the fire alarm, and mentally praised Simon for his ingenuity as he ducked behind the shelter of one of the cruisers.

Blair winced a little as he was set with great gentleness on the asphalt, leaning back against the smooth side of the car as Jim went to work on his wrists again. He bit his lip as the tape was at last peeled away, taking with it some hair, but no skin. He sighed in relief as he was able to flex and stretch his arms, shaking his hands to restore the blood flow.

Suddenly, there was a noise from Hargrove Hall that sounded incredibly like a gigantic, drawn-out belch. Jim strained up to see over the hood of the cruiser and watched great clouds of steam billowing from the vents around the base of the building. The loud hiss/growl went on for about forty-five seconds, before fading. The steam slowed, until only the faintest wisps still hung close to the dripping vents.

"Wha...what was that?" Blair asked, trying to see past Jim.

"It's OK, the sentinel replied, sighing in relief. "My guess is that Jenkins was able to unseal the valves in time." He rocked back on his knees and returned his attention to his guide. "Otherwise Hargrove would be a pile of rubble by now," he added.

"God...," Blair murmured, closing his eyes. If the boiler had gone...if they hadn't gotten everyone out.... And all over a stupid grade.

"You OK?" Jim asked his silent partner as he moved to attack the tape still trapping Blair's ankles. "Did he hurt you, Chief?" The tape came off, covered with fuzz from the young man's jeans, and Ellison balled it and tossed it aside. Next he framed his partner's face in his hands and gently titled his head back, scanning for signs of injury. None were to be found, except for the slight bruise and gash on Blair's brow. Ellison sighed in relief as he motioned over a medic, wondering briefly when the ambulance had been called.

"Jim?"

The tiny, wavering voice instantly grabbed and held Ellison's attention. He turned back to his friend, and found the anthropologist staring up at him with enormous eyes, shaking. Sandburg's lips quivered and twitched, as if he were trying to speak. The prominent Adam's Apple bobbed, and as the blue eyes slid shut, a single tear slid down the young Shaman's cheek.

"Blair? Hey, no...no, s'ok...," Jim reached out and smiled as Blair leaned gratefully into the offered circle of his arms. He held the young man tightly to him, soothing hands rubbing up and down his back, gently shushing and comforting with soft words of reassurance. Blair didn't actually cry, but the faint tremble in his slight form did not cease for several long minutes.

When his guide seemed calmer, Jim loosened his arms. Sandburg pulled back and leaned wearily against the side of the cruiser, eyes closed, rolling his head back and forth on the car door. Ellison moved to sit beside him, reaching an arm around to hug the smaller man against his side, large hand stroking Blair's arm through his shirt.

"Late."

The sentinel blinked. "What?" he asked, and broke a nervous smile as his roommate began to chuckle softly. "What did you say?" Jim repeated.

Blair took a deep breath, cutting off the chuckle as he opened his eyes to gaze up at Jim. "I said, you were late. For, like, the first time EVER." The teaching fellow giggled again, but quickly cut the sound off when he realized he sounded a bit hysterical. When he was steady again, he said softly, "...You were late to pick me up. If you'd arrived a few minutes sooner..." Suddenly realizing how the sentence was going to end, Sandburg's voice trailed off, and he turned his face away from Jim.

The sentinel's hand froze, cutting off its comforting motion on Blair's arm. Blair could actually feel the tenseness which swept through his partner's body. At last, he looked again at Ellison, and his heart broke at the pain etched there.

Jim Ellison stared straight ahead, seeing nothing. His blue eyes didn't have the totally vacant look of a zone, but instead, were filled with a wrenching mix of guilt, pain, and sorrow. Blair reached up and covered Jim's hand with his own, squeezing it gently in comfort. "I'm sorry, man. I didn't mean... Jim, none of this is your fault, you know that. I was just kidding when I said that about being late. Don't do this to yourself. Please?"

For a moment, Jim looked as though he was going to answer. He turned toward his young friend, blue eyes holding blue. Before he could speak, Simon hurried up to the car.

"Jim! We've got a location on Carlton. He's at the football stadium waving your gun around and screaming that he's gonna kill all the coaches and players left inside. Let's roll!"

The detective looked toward Blair in concern. "Will you be all right here, Chief? One of the officers can wait with you or..."

"What are you talking about -- wait here?" Wincing from the pain and soreness, Blair struggled to his feet, assisted by his partner's strong arms. "This involves me, Jim. I'm going with you." His steady gaze held Jim's, daring him to argue.

Even Jim Ellison knew when to admit defeat. Wrapping an arm around his partner's shoulders, he led the way toward the car where Simon Banks waited. "Let's go, Chief. With any luck, we can end this thing without anyone else getting hurt."

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

By the time they arrived at Rainier Field, the autumn sun was already low in the sky. The parking lot was filled with the cars of team members and observers gathered to watch the afternoon scrimmage. Yet, there was a curious lack of noise emerging from within the concrete walls of the stadium.

A uniformed officer greeted the three men as they approached the main gate. "He's definitely inside, sir. A security guard called campus police and they contacted us. He burst on the field, waving a gun and shouting about his son being kicked off the squad. We've called his son, Bill Carlton, but he's out of town with friends. It's going to take at least two hours for him to get here."

"Who's in there with him now?" Banks barked.

"About half the team, three or four coaches, and a few people here to watch the practice. The rest of the team and onlookers managed to slip out. Come this way. You can look through this portal down onto the field." The officer led the way to Portal C.

Carefully, they moved to the end of the long tunnel. After adjusting their eyes from the darkness of the stadium to the glare of the late afternoon sun, they could see the small crowd huddled together on the field. They were kneeling, their hands behind their heads. Facing them was Edward Carlton.

Simon motioned for the uniformed officer to get back to the entrance gate. Then, he looked to Jim Ellison. "What do you see, Jim?"

"He's got the gun trained on them. He's still raging about his son and the injustice of it all." With a concerned glance at Blair, he added, "And denigrating Sandburg for 'flunking his kid.' Telling them how he's blown up Hargrove Hall, and he'll take them down with him, too. His hand's shaking pretty bad, but as angry and intoxicated as he is, he's still a danger to those people. And to himself."

Eagerly, Blair took a step forward, his eyes focused on the figure on the field. "Maybe if I talk to him, he might..."

A powerful hand gripping his shoulder halted his progress. "No way, Chief. You're not going down there."

"Jim," Blair turned and stared intently at his partner. "This thing's kinda my fault, y'know. I mean, yeah, Boulder earned what he got, but still... Give me a chance, that's all I ask."

Simon stared at the field, purposefully ignoring the discussion between the two partners. This was between Ellison and Sandburg. His cell phone rang, and he quickly picked up the call, turning his back to his two friends.

Jim shook his head, frustrated at the look of determination on his guide's face. He took a deep breath as he considered how best to get his partner to see the futility of his well-intentioned plan. Finally, he determined that honesty, at least with a determined Sandburg, would be the best approach. "Chief," he said softly, but firmly. "There is no way in hell I'm letting you anywhere near Carlton."

"But, Jim..." Sandburg stopped when he saw the burning look in Ellison's eyes.

Jim took his partner's shoulders and stared directly into the searching blue eyes. His voice was rough with emotion. "You listen to me, Sandburg. I came too close to losing you today. Too damn close. You can call me overprotective, a mother hen, whatever the hell you want, but..." As his voice faltered, Jim closed his eyes for a moment, then re-focused his gaze on Sandburg. "I won't take any more chances with your life, Blair. Not today. I may not always be able to keep you safe, to protect you, but I'll be damned if Carlton's getting another chance to hurt you today. Understand?"

For a long moment, neither man moved or spoke. "Okay, Jim," Blair answered at last, his voice little more than a whisper. "Okay."

Ellison nodded, his hands still grasping Sandburg, and gratitude warming his eyes. He reached up and gently patted one bruised cheek. Then, he turned his attention back toward Simon.

"What about the hostage negotiators, Sir?"

Simon lowered his cell phone. "They're on the way, but it's going to take at least thirty minutes for them to get here. It's five o'clock, and you know what that traffic's like."

Jim tuned in to the voices on the field once more. "We can't wait that long, Simon," he stated flatly after a few moments. "He's planning to start killing hostages if the dean doesn't agree to reinstate his son in the next fifteen minutes, and the university is refusing to acquiesce to his demands. They don't want to start a precedent."

Simon rubbed his forehead in frustration. "I'm open to suggestions."

"Let me talk to him, sir. I'll try to reason with him, make him see that he's surrounded; there's no way he's getting out of this."

The tall captain considered briefly. "As far as I can see, we've got no choice. Go. Get to it."

As Ellison moved out of the portal shadows, he was stopped by a hand on his arm. Turning back, he looked at his partner. Blair's face was set in a mask of concern, and his blue eyes searched Jim's for reassurance. "Be careful, man. That guy's totally beyond reason, remember?"

The corners of Jim/s mouth twitched in a faint smile. "I remember, kid. I remember." He reached out to tug on one long curl. "I'll be fine, Chief. You go on with Simon." When Sandburg didn't move, he nodded to Banks. His captain draped an arm over the younger man's shoulders, gently prying him from his partner's side.

"C'mon, Sandburg. We can watch from up here." Firmly, he led Blair back toward the portal, nodding back at Ellison. With a final glance at his guide, the sentinel turned and started down the long aisle toward the field where Carlton held his captives.

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

Carlton spotted Jim by the time he was halfway down the center section of bleachers. "Hold it!" He pressed the gun's barrel to the temple of a young team trainer, grasping him around the neck with his other beefy arm while jerking him roughly to his feet. "One more step, and he dies!" The young man's eyes were wide with fear as the cold steel pressed against his skin.

Jim froze in place, monitoring the Carlton's respiration and heartbeat. Drunk out of his mind and on the verge of panic. Definitely not the time to risk antagonizing the man. Holding his hands out in front, palms up, to show that he was not armed, Jim called out. "Carlton! I'm unarmed! I'm just here to talk. Why don't you let the hostages go? We have the stadium surrounded. You don't have a chance!"

Carlton looked around anxiously, and Jim could hear his heart pounding. He pressed on. "You son's on his way, Carlton! You really don't want him to see this, now do you? Think about it. His dad holding his teammates and coaches hostage. How's he gonna feel about that, huh?"

Suddenly, Carlton bolted for the far side of the field. Jim charged down the bleachers, shouting at the small group huddled on the grass to run. Moving as one, they jumped to their feet and bolted for the sidelines. Ellison jumped over the concrete wall, landing on the soft grass of the field. Weaving his way through the fleeing hostages, he tore out after Carlton.

The big man had a large lead, and by the time the sentinel cleared the wall on the opposite side of the field, Carlton was already halfway up the bleachers. He cut to his left, still climbing, then made his way to the end zone bleachers.

"Carlton!"

Jim stopped long enough to pull his back up gun from his ankle holster and take aim at the fleeing man. He trained his sight on Carlton's broad back. A perfect, clean shot.

The image of Sandburg, bound and helpless, lying in that boiler room flashed before Jim's eyes. Once again, he saw the fear in his partner's eyes, wide with terror over his gag, and heard the sound of the hissing furnace, on the verge of blowing them both into oblivion.

The sentinel's finger began easing back on the trigger. It would be so simple, an easy shot.

Then, Carlton turned, and Jim read the fear in the bloodshot eyes, saw the sweat dripping down the big man's face, and heard his ragged breathing. This man was no longer a danger to anyone. He lowered the gun and ran on.

Both men charged up the concrete bleacher steps, with Jim finally gaining ground on Ed Carlton. The fugitive reached the top of the bleachers, then he spotted the steps leading to the electronic scoreboard, high above the stadium. He began to climb.

Jim pulled up at the bottom rung of the steps. "Carlton! You don't have to do this! Climb down! Now!" There was no answer. "Carlton!"

Ellison took a couple of steps backward, staring up at the small railing which surrounded the scoreboard's catwalk. Carlton lunged forward, as if searching for a place to hide on the narrow walkway. He stopped and looked over the railing, swaying slightly on his feet.

"Carlton!" Jim watched as Carlton saw the uniformed police officers hurrying across the football field toward the end zone. "Come on down, Carlton! You see those officers. It's over! Throw down the gun, and let me come up after you. I promise I'll see you out safely."

The big man quickly looked down, then his eyes darted around at the narrow confines of the catwalk. There was no escape. "I can't let my boy see me in prison!" Carlton's distraught voice was on the verge of panic. He took a step toward the flimsy railing.

Jim zeroed his sight in on the desperate eyes of the cornered man. "Don't do it, Carlton! You don't want your son to see you dead either, do you?" He started toward the steps.

A cold, bitter smile crossed the man's flushed face. "You were right the first time, detective. It is over." With a graceful movement surprising in one so large, Carlton leapt over the railing and plunged to the stands far below.

Ellison averted his eyes as the body struck, but he couldn't tune out the sickening sound of flesh colliding with solid concrete. He stood still for a few moments as the normal, everyday sounds of life going on outside the confines of the arena met his ears. Turning his back on the lifeless body of Edward Carlton, the sentinel went to find his guide.

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

Later that evening, after the dishes had been put away, and darkness had fallen, Jim stood at the loft's wide windows. He heard the sounds of his partner's approach, but didn't acknowledge his presence. The flickering glow from several clusters of candles was the only light in the darkened loft.

"The rain sounds good, doesn't it, Jim? Kinda washes everything clean."

The sentinel stared at the sweeping view of the city through the night and the rain.

When there was no reply, Sandburg studied his partner's profile. Jim's lips were set in a hard line, and his eyes gazed out at a vista which only he could appreciate on such a dreary night. Periodically, his jaw muscle tightened, the only visible sign of the sentinel's inner turmoil. Full super cop mode, is that it, Ellison? Clam up, show no emotion, don't let'em see your pain. Well, buddy, it ain't working this time. Once Sandburg had made up his mind, all that remained was deciding how best to draw out his silent partner.

He edged closer to the solitary figure, letting his right shoulder brush casually against Jim's. Together, they stared out at the patterns of rain trickling down the panes. For long minutes, not a word was spoken.

Sandburg fought his natural urge to speak out, to cajole Jim into confiding whatever it was that had him so upset. Some deep seated instinct told him that now was not the time to press Jim. Any revelations had to come at the sentinel's own pace.

The rain grew more intense, as the lights from passing cars turned their spotlights on the downpour. A lone figure passed by on the street below, his shoulders hunched over against the wind, holding his hat on his bowed head with one hand, a briefcase clutched in his other. That could be me, Sandburg thought in a moment of perfect clarity. In another lifetime, another reality, that could be me. He glanced up at the tall man standing silently beside him. He could be one of those anonymous millions, trudging to a boring job every day, then trudging back home at night in the rain.

Instead, here he was, standing beside his life's dream. His work was exciting, useful, and rewarding. He had a real home, a place he felt secure, for the first time in his life. Not to mention the fact that the man he shared it all with, the man who had made it all possible, was someone he admired and respected beyond anything he'd ever felt before. A sense of awe warmed his heart as he considered the reality of where he was and who he was with.

"Chief," Jim said softly, breaking into Blair's daydream. "Do you ever have any regrets?"

The contrast of the question with the thoughts it had interrupted was so incongruous, that, for a moment, Sandburg thought he had not heard Jim correctly. "Regrets? About what, man?"

Jim's eyes stayed fastened on the rainy city beyond the loft's soft glow. "About this... The life you're living." His hands clenched into tight fists, released briefly, then clenched again. "Damn it, Sandburg, you almost died today. Again. Don't you ever look back and think about all the things you could be doing with your life? Things that don't involve getting shot at, kidnapped, blown up, or beaten within an inch of your life..." He paused for a beat, then added softly, "Don't you ever wish you had never found your sentinel?"

Blair's first instinct was to get angry, to hotly deny Jim's words, but he forced himself to take his time...to think, before he answered. The man was wrong, and Blair would not let him get by with thinking that his life would have been better had he never found Jim. But, what would happen if he blew up at Ellison right now? Jim would get defensive; of that, he was certain. If there was one emotional reaction the man had down pat, it was defensiveness. Blair was determined not to give him the opportunity to employ the tactic that night.

Using his low, soothing voice, the one Jim teasingly called his "guide's voice," Blair murmured, "You asked me three questions. First, do I have regrets? Hell, man, we all have regrets. I wish sometimes that I could do more. I see some victim of a horrendous crime, and sometimes, I just feel so damned helpless. I regret that I don't always have the time I need to be the best I can be in both my worlds - in my place in the academic world and in my role as your partner. But, do I ever regret being here with you?" Blair took a deep breath. "Do I ever think about what else I could be doing with my life? Funny thing, I was thinking that very thought the moment you asked the question."

Blair could see Jim's shoulders tensing, his eyes closing briefly, as if the sentinel was bracing himself for a physical blow. He thinks I'm going to say that I regret not going to Borneo, being a full professor by now, or some other nonsense. The man really doesn't get it at all. Not even after all this time. Sometimes, the depth of insecurity in a man with such outward strength was astonishing. Your father and mother really did a job on you, didn't they, buddy? Will you ever truly accept that I'm here to stay? That I'm not bailing on you, too?

"Jim," Blair said softly. When his friend still didn't look at him, Sandburg grasped the powerful forearms, firmly maneuvering Ellison so that they were face to face. "You really wanna know what I was thinking when you asked me that question? I was thinking how damned lucky I am to be here with you. Lucky to be working with you, making a difference in the world. Do I ever wish I'd never found you? Do I have any regrets about finding my sentinel? Sure. But only one." Sandburg paused for a few moments, letting his words sink in before he continued. "My only regret is that I didn't find him sooner."

Jim's eyes bored into Sandburg's, seeking the truth behind the words. "But you've gone through so much, Chief, and too often, it's been because of me, or because of my job. Or my stupidity. Like today... If only I had been on time..."

"Stop it, Jim!" The soft, soothing guide's voice disappeared in a heartbeat, replaced by the harsh tones of an angry, frustrated Sandburg. "You can't blame yourself for this one, man! This had absolutely nothing to do with your job. Don't you get it? If you hadn't been in my life, today would have happened anyway, only, I'd probably be dead right now."

Sandburg paused, gazing up into Jim's face, seeing the pain and guilt gradually ease before his eyes. Encouraged, he added, "Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote, 'He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.'" Reaching up, he took Jim's palm and pressed it against his own chest, holding both his hands around Jim's. "You're my why, Jim. With my why in my heart, the how is easy."

A small smile tugged at the corners of Jim's mouth. "You're a pretty smart guy, Darwin."

Releasing their hands, Sandburg turned back toward the window and the rain. He felt Jim's arm loop around his shoulders, drawing him close against his side. Leaning into his friend's solidness and warmth, Blair slipped his arm loosely about Jim's waist, tucking his head into the curve of the strong shoulder. The rain drops beat a steady staccato on the loft's roof and traced sinuous patterns on the windowpanes.

Long moments passed in comfortable silence before Ellison spoke again, as quietly as the rain. "You want to watch the game? Maybe call Simon and Daryl and see if they want to come over?" Jim glanced down at his friend to gauge his interest, then felt Blair's head move slightly against his shoulder.

Warm and content, Sandburg had no inclination to break the spell cast by the night and the rain and the peace. "Not really. I'm kinda wiped out. If you don't mind, I'd rather just stay here for a while and watch the rain."

Lowering his head sideways to rest against the soft curls of his partner, Jim followed a solitary raindrop as it wound its way down the glass, then joined with another to continue its trek, now stronger and faster than it had been alone. He smiled at the obvious analogy and thought to share it with his friend, but he was afraid of sounding too sappy. Sandburg might have a field day with that one. Better to let it ride. "Watch the rain...? You mean just stand here together in the dark and watch it rain? No television, no music, no guests, no work?"

Blair caught the teasing tone and smiled. "Yeah, exactly... After the day we had, it sounds pretty good to me. Just a sentinel, his guide, the night, and the rain..."

Pulling his friend closer against him and pressing a brief, barely felt, kiss to his temple, Ellison nodded. "You and me...the night and the rain... I have to admit, it sounds good to me, too, Chief."

The glow from the burning candles silhouetted the two still figures standing close together before the windows. Outside the loft, the steady rain lasted throughout the quiet night, providing a healing balm for the two tired souls within. There would be other nights for basketball and movies, for laughter and excitement. On this night, the renewal each needed could only be found in the nearness and friendship of the other.

We are each of us angels with only one wing. And we can only fly embracing each other.

Finis...

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