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

Synopsis: Much to Jim's displeasure, Blair has left Cascade in an attempt to process the events surrounding his dissertation. When Jim is finally fed up with the nonsense in Cascade, he takes off as well, only to discover that a familiar spotted jaguar is hunting a certain gray wolf. And Blair is all alone…

Spoilers: Major spoilers for The Sentinel by Blair Sandburg. There are references to Three Way Mirror that Sue Pokorny and I cowrote, and characters in Beneath the Surface by Sue Pokorny. I don't think you'll need to read these stories to understand the references, though (although, if you want to read the stories, I won't stop you! <g>).

Special Thanks: So many kudos go to wonderful Bonnie for her beta job. This one was a tough one and she came through with flying colors. Thanks, m'dear! This story is dedicated to all those who thought they knew what they wanted out of their lives, but realized partway through that what they wanted and what they should be doing were two different things, and then had the courage to make the change.

Sentinel's Companion

By Anne Roquemore

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

PROLOGUE

May 26, 1999

Cascade, Washington

When Jim Ellison pulled into the parking stall on Prospect Avenue, he expected to find all the lights on in his loft apartment since his roommate had been home all day. He was surprised to find only a faint glow, probably either from Sandburg's bedroom or the hallway light. Reaching out with his hearing, focusing on the sounds emanating from the loft, he heard a rapid heartbeat instead of a calm steady one.

Concerned, he slipped out of his truck - none too graceful since his leg was still healing and he refused to use that damn cane any longer - and hobbled as quickly as he could across the street. The stairs were out of the question, so he opted for the elevator, wondering, while it dawdled to the third floor, what could have Sandburg sounding like he'd had a wrestling match with Andre the Giant.

Ever since the dissertation newscast, all of Blair's normal haunts had suddenly been cut off, former peers at Rainier making it perfectly clear that they didn't associate with a fraud. As for his friends, Blair couldn't bring himself to call any of them, but neither had they made an effort to check up on him. Which only served to infuriate Jim more than normal; he of all people learned the hard way what Blair was willing to sacrifice for his friends. That kind of dedication to a friendship couldn't be saved just for him. And yet, when Blair was in trouble, not one of his friends had the decency to check in on him. Jim had never approved of some of Sandburg's affiliations at the university. This only cemented his position.

Cut off from his academic affiliations, then, Sandburg had been relegated to life at the loft until he could figure out what to do next. He'd appeared at the station only once, and that was when the shock of having a gold badge thrown at him nearly blew him over. Jim hadn't brought up that event in the two days since it happened, nor had Blair said anything to him, but from the uneasiness in the loft, it was apparent both thought about it.

The elevator dinged open and Jim stepped out, listening for any other signs of life in the loft. Only Sandburg's heartbeat, and though quick, nothing else seemed wrong. No scent of blood, no sign of a break-in, though the loft door stood open a crack. Alarmed still, he limped to the door and slowly opened it.

"Sandburg?" he called softly, walking in and shutting the door behind him.

Blair Sandburg sat at the dining table, his slumped form hidden partway in shadow, half in the light from the hallway. His head hung down, chin touching his chest, shoulder length curls hiding his face. One elbow rested on the table and that hand covered his eyes.

"Chief, you okay?"

"I finally got a hold of Eli," Blair whispered. Jim cringed at the flat, lifeless tone of his friend's voice.

"What happened?"

Sentinel hearing picked up Blair's attempt to fight back a sob. Jim closed his eyes in regret, knowing exactly what had occurred and wishing he could bust open the head of one Doctor of Anthropology.

Over ten years ago, Eli Stoddard had taken in a scared yet ebullient sixteen-year-old freshman from Rainier University and introduced him into the world of Anthropology. Through the years the man had moved up in Blair's estimation, from hero to mentor to the father Blair would have liked; although he'd had plenty of father figures in his life, none of them were of Blair's choosing. Eli Stoddard had been his choice. Though Jim had never met the man, he knew enough about him through the rose-colored description from Blair. The next words his roommate spoke, however, didn't surprise him.

"He called me a fraud, Jim. A fraud."

"Ah, Chief," Jim sighed, hurting for his friend.

"I've heard that word more than once since the press conference, man, and it was like…well, I was okay with it because I know I made the right decision. At least, I thought I made the right decision. But to hear it from Eli. From Eli," Blair added in a whisper. "I tried to explain things to him, but I'm…" He paused, took a deep breath and went on. "But I'm so damn confused about everything myself, all that came out was gibberish." He finally looked up at Jim, who nearly staggered under the weight of the anguish in those cursed expressive blue eyes. "Man, how do you tell someone the truth without…without telling him the truth?" He shook his head, slumping even more in the chair. "I couldn't lie to him, but I couldn't tell him either."

Jim had no answer for his friend, which irritated him all the more. Jerking his jacket off and tossing it at the hooks near the door, he swore softly. Why couldn't all of this just be behind them by now? Crossing the kitchen, he yanked open the refrigerator door and pulled out a beer, then slammed the door shut. When he turned around, twisting off the beer cap, he met Blair's reddened eyes. They stared at him in disbelief, but Jim also saw fear there.

"Oh, man, Blair, don't…" He started forward then halted, his hearing picking up a slight difference of his voice in the loft. It echoed more. He looked around and suddenly figured out why.

Blair's things were gone. The knick-knacks on the bookshelves, his things out of the kitchen, even the afghan from the back of the couch.

"What the hell is going on here, Sandburg?" He regretted his tone, but adding shock to anger was never a good mixture for him. He peered into Blair's room. It had been completely cleared out except for the futon and furniture. All the books, wall hangings, clothes - everything was gone. "Where's all your stuff?"

Blair rose from the table, visibly trembling. "I-I have to get out of here, Jim. I can't…can't process everything that's happened. Not here. Not with…" His eyes spoke the word even if his mouth didn't.

Not with Jim around. That's what he was going to say. So, things hadn't been worked out like Jim had thought. The discussion at the hospital hadn't really fixed things. All of the laughs and good times they'd had since that discussion, despite the strain, had all been an act.

"So, that's it, huh?" Jim barked. "Stoddard calls you a fraud and you throw away everything we've worked on."

"What have we worked on, man?" Blair suddenly exploded. The trembling continued, but now it was from anger. "You tell me what we have. A week ago I had everything I wanted - respect at the university and at the station, my diss had been finished. I even thought you and I had finally worked out our differences. We've been doing pretty good this past year, ya know? Then in one fell swoop - one well-meaning gesture - you're calling me a traitor and I'm destroying my life's work. I lost everything, Jim! Everything!" He ran shaking hands through his long curls, clenching the hair into two fists. A breath escaped him in a whoosh. "I thought I could deal with it, with the fallout, with everything, but…gotta get outta here, man, I gotta clear my head. I have to find out what's left for me."

Momentarily taken back by Sandburg's sudden fury, Jim didn't say anything. When Blair moved toward the door, he finally found his voice. "Where…where are you going?"

Blair froze, his hand on the coat still hanging on a hook by the door. He took a deep breath and let it out. "I don't know. Anywhere. Anywhere but here."

Grabbing the coat and pulling it on he turned to Jim, looking suddenly exhausted. Jim had never seen this Sandburg before. Normally he bounced with life and energy, even when the world turned against him. But all of that had drained away. Even the blue eyes that had always seemed to crackle with vigor now peered at him dull and lifeless.

"My stuff is in storage; Mom is paying for it until I figure things out. Jim," Blair continued, his voice shaking and soft, "I need you to promise me something." Jim limped forward, resting a shoulder against the support column in the kitchen. When he didn't say anything, Blair continued. "Don't follow me. I know that without even trying, man, you could find me." A sad smile pulled at his lips. "You are Officer of the Year, after all. But, I need to do this. I have to do this…for me. Things keep going around in my head and I can't find an answer. Not here."

"Will…" Jim's voice cracked and he cleared his throat, irritated with the loss of control. "Will you be back?"

Silence lay like a dense fog between them. "I…I want to. I just…I just don't know when. Or…" Blair looked up, pleading in his eyes. "Please, Jim, give me your word you won't try to find me. Let me do this."

All sorts of arguments came to Jim's head that he could use: the police academy opportunity, their connection as Shaman and Sentinel, the continued exploration of his Sentinel abilities. Hell, didn't he talk to a ghost just recently? Mostly, he wanted to use the argument that Blair had used against him so many times before: that friends were there for one other; that's what friends do.

But he spoke none of them. If he had taken the time to review the emotions churning in him, looking past the anger and feeling of betrayal by this decision, he'd see that, all in all, he wanted Blair to stay because he cared for him…brother to brother, friend to friend, police detective to a partner who had earned his trust time and again.

He didn't want to look that far, though. He couldn't. All he could see was another betrayal.

"Fine," Jim said sharply. "Whatever you want, Sandburg."

The hurt in Blair's eyes materialized for only a heartbeat before a mask moved into place. "Take care, man." He looked as if to say more, but then shook his head and turned away. A moment later he was gone, the door closing behind him.

Jim swore, heaving the bottle against the door, watching as it crashed, splashing its contents everywhere. As beer slid down the smooth surface of the door, Jim turned away and hobbled to the stairs, already shoving away the pain…and the memories.

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

October 25, 1999

Cascade, Washington

"Let me get this straight, Banks." Chief Reed sighed, refusing to look at Simon. Instead, the pudgy man stared intently through the windows of Simon's office, studying the activity in the bullpen. "The mayor requests that you put your best detective on this murder case, and you assign Brown and Rafe?" He finally turned, anger mixed with incredulity creasing the skin around his puffy eyes. "Is that what I'm to understand?"

Peering defiantly at his superior, Simon nodded. "Brown and Rafe are among a group of best detectives, sir. You know that. They are part of a well-running team that has contributed to the decrease of crime in this city."

"Cut the bullshit, Banks!" Reed blurted, his face turning crimson red. He leaned on meaty hands against Simon's desk. "You know who the mayor meant when she requested the best! I want you to remove Brown and Rafe from the case and put Ellison on it."

"Sir, with all due respect," Simon was finding it very difficult to remain civil with this man, but his voice remained steady, "have Brown and Rafe done something to damage the case, so far?"

Reed glared at Simon long and hard before answering, the blood draining from his face. "No."

"Are they making headway on the case?"

Grimacing, Reed straightened, but continued to glare. "Yes."

"Then why would I replace a good team doing a good job?" Simon kept his PR voice in place and settled deeper into his chair waiting for the explosion that would erupt; he could see it in Reed's beady little eyes. Sandburg had been right in his assessment of the new Chief of Police - he did look like a pudgy rat.

Meaty hands fisted at his sides, Reed's face grew red again. "Because I ordered it, Banks! Why are you so set against putting Ellison on this case?!"

Simon sighed. He was going to have to tell Reed the truth; he had known it from the moment the man had entered his office. "Ellison requested time off, sir."

Reed studied Simon closely, gauging the truth of his words. "And did this request occur before or after you assigned him the case?"

Simon paused, recalling that particular conversation. The words "mayor's pet" and "bloodhound" had been used most, dripping with Jim's best sarcasm. "After," he finally admitted. "But, sir, you have to understand --"

"So help me, Banks, if you bring up that anthropologist again, I will personally ram my fist through that door!" Leaning forward again, Reed raged on. "Ever since that punk hippy disappeared five months ago, the detectives in this department have been acting as though they lost a cop. The little fraud wants to run away and not face the mess he got himself into, that's his problem. Not ours. He was not a cop!"

Simon jumped from his chair then, fury unleashed, towering over the smaller, rounder man. "He may not have had the badge, sir, but that kid had the heart. He was better than some of the rookies with full academy training that are hitting our reserves now. And he was a damn good partner to Ellison!"

Reed swore explosively and turned away, his voice rising. Simon could have sworn he heard the windows of his office rattle with Reed's next words. "Why are you guys so damned protective of that punk? He's a fraud! He used Ellison to get ahead, he printed some absurd fantasy that created Ellison grief, and you guys are still protecting him! Tell me why, Banks!"

Why? Because despite what you think about him, Sandburg has more honor than all of us put together. Simon shook his head, slumping back into his chair. "You never gave the kid a chance, Reed," he finally said. "You judged him immediately --"

"And I wasn't wrong, was I?" Crossing thick arms over a broad chest, Reed glared down at Simon once more. "Get on that phone, Banks, and call Ellison. I want him on this case."

Simon sighed. "I can't, sir."

"And why is that?"

"Because Jim isn't available. I don't know where he is or what he's doing."

Reed's mouth dropped open. "For how long?"

Simon shrugged. "He requested a leave of absence until further notice. Dammit, Reed, the man hasn't had a vacation for years. Every time he and Sandburg tried…" Simon's voice trailed off, wondering how he could possibly explain the constant trouble Ellison and Sandburg seemed to find themselves in, even on "vacation". Memories came to mind: of a fishing trip that ended up with a chase after game poachers; of following Jim to a podunk town to get in on a secret fishing trip and Sandburg ending up drugged while Simon and Jim tried to stop a train robbery; of a trip out to a monastery for some relaxation, only to end up protecting a former Mafia snitch. He cleared his throat. "Every time Ellison tried, he ended up having to deal with criminals anyway. He deserves this. The past few months have been difficult on him."

"I don't give a shit, Banks. He can go on vacation after he solves this case for the mayor."

"Then you'll have to hunt him down yourself, Chief," Simon announced, tired of the entire exchange. He leaned forward and pulled a file from one of the many piles sitting on his desk. "Until you do, Brown and Rafe are on this case. The mayor will just have to deal." With that, he closed his mouth and started working, completely ignoring his fuming superior and wondering if there were any job openings listed in the Cascade Times for a former police captain.

Reed remained standing for a moment longer, heavy breathing exploding in furious bursts through his nose. Finally, he took the hint. Grabbing the office door, he jerked it open. "Expect to be on report, Banks, for disobeying a direct order from a superior officer and disrespect of that same officer." Turning, he left the room, slamming the door behind him. This time, the glass windows did rattle.

Watching as the chief stormed out of the bullpen, shoving people aside, Simon waited until Reed was on the elevator before letting out a long sigh. Pushing the file away and dropping his pencil, Simon leaned back in his chair, rubbing at his eyes. Damn, he could have handled that one much better. He could have remained calm. He could have offered a better explanation. He could have -

A light tap on his door broke through his self-recrimination and he watched as Joel Taggert entered, followed closely by Brown and Rafe. Rafe closed the door behind them.

"You okay, Simon?" Joel asked, dark eyes clouded with concern as he sat in one of the chairs set in front of Simon's desk. "We could hear everything out in the bullpen."

"I swear the windows were about to crack," Rafe murmured, settling onto the conference table. Brown sat in the other chair beside Taggert.

"They were," Simon muttered, sitting forward. "The chief wasn't very happy that I wouldn't replace you guys with Ellison."

Rafe's face contorted into a glare. He was about to say something, but Brown punched him in the leg. "Ow! What was that for?"

"Nothing," Brown replied. "And keep it that way." His face spoke a message, though, that Rafe read clearly.

So did Simon. "Okay, give it up. What's going on?"

"Nothing, sir," Brown replied, casually slouching in the chair, giving his best innocent grin. Simon glared at him. "Any news from Jim?"

"No, and I don't expect any. Not until he's ready."

"Did he give any indication how long he'd be gone?" Joel asked. Lips pulled down into a frown, he shook his head. "Things just aren't the same without him and Sandburg," he added in a quiet voice.

All of them nodded their heads and Simon had to hide a tired smile. It had been a tough few months for all of them. Five months had passed and they were still trying to recoup from the media circus around Ellison and Sandburg last Spring. Then there had been Klaus Zeller's assassination attempt that got Simon and Megan Conner shot; Simon's wound still spasmed on a cold day and Conner had gone to a month's worth of therapy appointments to get to the point where she could work at her desk without constantly looking over her shoulder at Simon's office. Not to mention picking up the pieces of the mess when Zeller broke into the bullpen and decided to have a shootout with the Cascade police; they were still finding shards of glass in corners and embedded in desks.

But damage had been done that no amount of clean-up could fix. After recovering enough from their wounds, Simon and Jim confronted Commissioner Pelson. Explaining that the dissertation was not a fraud and the only lie Sandburg had told to save his partner's sanity had been the one to destroy his career in Anthropology, Simon had convinced Pelson to allow Blair into the police academy. Jim had balked at revealing the truth of his abilities to the Commissioner, but Simon's trust in Pelson had won Jim over. That, and reiterating to his stubborn detective what Sandburg had sacrificed. After Pelson approved the request, with conditions, of course, Simon presented the idea to the other detectives in Major Crime. Unanimously they all agreed. Jim had even somehow convinced Blair's mother to support the action, although Simon suspected her guilt over her role in the dissertation mess drove her to that support.

After announcing their intent to Blair, the kid had appeared to react positively about the prospect. Blair's remark about not cutting his hair, and Jim's good-natured heckling, made it seem that the strain of the past several months had finally disappeared. The partners were finally back on track.

Or so Simon thought.

He should have realized the truth quicker. The remark about not cutting his hair wasn't really a "yes". Nor was it a "no". It was only a tension reliever. But Simon hadn't seen that then.

Two days after the offer, Jim came home from the station to find all of Blair's things gone and Sandburg running away. To clear his head. There was more, Simon was certain, but Jim never explained further.

Simon had been certain Jim would request time off to hunt for the kid, but amazingly, he didn't. He'd had plenty of offers of help, but refused them all. Soon the offers stopped. After a month people started to ask Jim if he'd heard anything from Blair. Jim tended to change the subject at that point; or simply walk away. After one of Jim's famous temper flares, everyone in Major Crime realized Sandburg was gone for good. People stopped asking him anything at that point; actually, they tended to not talk to Jim unless absolutely necessary. They got tired of being snapped at.

Though Simon would spend time with Jim, not even he knew how Jim was dealing with Blair's absence. Over time, Simon noticed Jim reverting back to his loner ways, his quiet ways. Megan had mentioned something about the change as well. Not knowing Ellison pre-Sandburg, the change more than surprised her -- it frightened her.

When Reed sent down an order to bring another detective on board and make him Jim's partner, a seething tirade began that Simon never wanted to witness again. Jim refused; the Chief demanded. Jim refused again. During it all, Jim withdrew more and more, even from Simon. He fell into his work, not leaving the station until well after his shift ended and coming in before it began, all the while only speaking to people when absolutely necessary. His detective work never suffered - rumor had it he'd be voted Officer of the Year again - but every relationship he had built had become nearly non-existent. If a partner were to be assigned to him, the new detective would have to wear parkas every day to compensate for the cold front.

Simon sighed. No one, it seemed, realized how intricately one Anthropology-PhD-wanna-be and consultant had fused with their lives, or the life of a particular hard-nosed detective. Whether he admitted it or not, though, Simon had a feeling Jim did understand...at last. And it had begun to quietly destroy him.

Joel's comment about the changes that had taken place was definitely right on base. "No, Joel, it's not the same," Simon finally breathed. "But hopefully Jim's leave of absence will benefit us all. Sandburg left; that was his choice. Crime didn't stop because of it, and neither can we." He turned back to Brown, cocking one eyebrow. "Brown, why don't you and Joel excuse yourselves? I think Rafe and I need to chat a bit."

Brown peered over his shoulder at his partner once more, a sympathetic shrug answering the sudden apprehension on Rafe's face.

"Sure thing, Cap," Brown replied, standing. He turned to Rafe. "I'll head down to see about the autopsy results." He patted Rafe on the shoulder then left, Joel following.

Rafe continued to stare after his partner, hands wringing nervously in his lap. When he finally moved his gaze to meet Simon's, his expression creased with worry.

"Is there something you want to tell me, Rafe?" Simon finally asked, sitting back in his chair. He already knew what was bothering the young man. Rhonda was pretty good about sharing with Simon things she heard around the bullpen that would require Simon's attention.

For a moment Rafe hesitated and Simon could see the wheels turning. Rafe was trying to come up with a way to get out of this.

"Talk to me, Rafe. If I have to make that an order, I will."

Rafe sighed then, long and hard, his shoulders slumping. "I just get tired of it, sir, that's all."

When Rafe didn't continue, Simon urged him on. "Tired of what?"

"Of constantly wilting in the shadow of the great Jim Ellison!" Rafe looked up then, dismay clearly on his face. "Sir, please…I'm sorry, sir…I...damn." He took a deep breath, then let it out slowly. Simon wondered if Sandburg taught him that. "Don't get me wrong, sir. I love the guy. It's just…Sir, when will Chief Reed and the commissioner and the mayor realize that there are other detectives in this department just as good as Jim?"

That confirmed what Rhonda told him. Apparently, Rafe's impatience came to a head just recently and he spoke up about it with Rhonda, just after being assigned the murder investigation Jim Ellison had denied.

Wisely, Simon remained silent and listened.

"I mean," Rafe slid from the conference table and started pacing, "why is it that every time the words 'best detective' are used, the first name that comes to the brass's mind is Jim Ellison? Dammit, H and I are just as good a team as Ellison and Sandburg. True, we don't have that connection they seemed to have, but we work well together and we get the job done! Why is it that we have to be relegated cases that Ellison thinks he's too good for?" He ended his tirade by literally falling into the chair Brown had vacated. Much like his partner had, Rafe slouched and remained silent.

"Anything else?" Simon asked after a moment.

Rafe ran a shaking hand through his hair. "Isn't that enough?" He sighed. "I'm sorry, sir. I guess I sound like a child throwing a tantrum, huh?" His face scrunched and his voice raised in pitch until he was mimicking a whining child, "'Jim's got more than I got!'" The normally soft lilt of his accent deepened noticeably in his fit. "You probably think I'm pretty pathetic, right, sir?"

Simon chuckled. "I've thrown my fair share of tantrums through the years."

Rafe's head came up at that. It took a while, but a faint smile passed across his face.

"Rafe, I think you are one of the best detectives that I have. Jim may be lead detective because of his experience and years on the force, but that doesn't negate the ability of every detective in this department. I'm proud of every one of you."

Hiding a smile, Rafe dropped his gaze to his slacks, picking invisible lint from the pristine creases. "Thank you, sir. That means a lot. I'm sorry for my outburst."

"Apology accepted." Simon put on his best stern expression then. "Now get out there and do your job, detective. And you'd better prove to Reed that this office is overflowing with best detectives!"

"Yes, sir!" Rafe snapped to attention, smiling.

When the door closed behind the detective, Simon let out a long sigh. He'd have to remember to thank Sandburg. If it hadn't been for that kid's constant desire to be reassured and thanked for his services, Simon would not have been able to pull through that one.

Simon chuckled, recalling those warm memories. As a matter of fact, he'd learned a lot from that energetic grad student. Maybe he should have admitted it more. Or at least said it once on his own. Maybe Sandburg would have stayed.

No. Whatever demons Sandburg was fighting, Simon couldn't have made much difference. There was more to it than just that. Still, it probably wouldn't have hurt.

He peered out the closest window, watching the movement in the bullpen, the pride he had mentioned to Rafe suddenly swelling. He did have a good team who knew their stuff. He'd have to find a way to show his appreciation. Nothing too emotional, mind you; maybe pizza.

Gradually his gaze fell upon Jim's empty desk and the empty desk set across the aisle from it. Simon's lips pulled down into a frown. It had taken a year of Sandburg constantly in his way before Jim had finally requisitioned a separate desk for the kid. That single action alone had seemed to change Sandburg. No longer was he a "ride-along"; he'd moved straight into consultant mode, wanting to learn more and more about police work. Quite surprisingly to everyone, Sandburg had taken to every aspect he learned, almost as though he had been born for it. Hell, he'd even followed Jim into more dangerous situations than cops of ten years had seen.

Sighing, Simon rubbed a hand over his face once more. He had to admit it, even to himself: he missed the kid. Moreso, though, he worried about Jim. Simon and Jim had parted after an argument that had Jim's neighbors at their doors to get an eyewitness view, certain there would be bloodshed. Simon regretted what he had said to his friend, but he would have done it all over again. Jim had become a better detective when he had learned to open up to his peers and superiors. Their friendship had even benefited. Whether Jim admitted it or not, everyone who worked with Ellison knew the source of that change had been Sandburg. Simon couldn't stand to see his friend closing down again. More importantly, he couldn't risk losing the even better detective Ellison had become.

Thinking it, however, was far different from saying it. Jim hadn't liked hearing those particular words and had stormed out -- after telling Simon he was taking leave. Simon had left that little tidbit out while talking to Reed. If the Chief of Police knew that Ellison had shown insubordination to his superior officer, it would end up being the final nail in a nearly closed coffin. Reed was just looking for an excuse now.

Well, wherever his wayward detective had disappeared to, Simon hoped he was finding answers. When Jim returned - and Simon had to keep reassuring himself it was a when not an if - perhaps things would have settled for him. Simon hoped Jim brought Sandburg back with him. Because whether admitted or not, Jim needed a partner - and no one filled the requirements better than Blair Sandburg.

Returning to the files glaring at him from his desk, Simon sent out a hope that both of his wayward friends were safe.

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

Medford, Oregon

Jim Ellison had spent the better part of the last twenty-four hours driving from northern Washington to southern Oregon, neither sleeping nor eating. I-5 had been a straight shot of mind numbing city after city. Which was good. He didn't want to think. He didn't want to feel. All he wanted to do was get as far away as possible from Cascade, Washington.

When he finally did turn off for some sleep, the sun had set beyond the horizon and what nightlife existed in Medford, Oregon, had come out. By the time he pulled into Oscar's for a beer and some food, the place was already packed. The waitress serving his beer and greasy hamburger mentioned something about the place being full because of some show, but Jim didn't plan on staying that long. Only long enough to have a couple of beers, fill his stomach and find a motel somewhere to sleep for a couple of hours. Then he'd be off again. Maybe he wouldn't stop until he hit Las Vegas. He could hole up in Nevada for a while - soak up some sun, get his fill of women, gambling and liquor. Forget about crime for a while. Forget about being a cop; forget all the Sentinel crap. Forget about Sandburg. Just be human. Plain, old human Jim Ellison.

Too bad he couldn't forget about the Sentinel senses right now. Though dialed down as far as possible, his taste buds were only making the fatty hamburger even more disgusting.

Tossing the remainder of his oozing meal onto the plate, he slouched in his chair, gulping down the last of his first bottle of beer, automatically checking out his surroundings. The main floor of Oscar's Bar & Grill was packed tightly with tables and chairs; practically every chair was filled with a body, most of them chatting excitedly with food in their mouths. The resulting din had forced him to dial down his hearing when he first entered, so the noise level didn't bother him. Sights and smells, however, did. He could already feel a headache coming on, and the smoke hanging heavily above the heads of the crowd caused his eyes to water.

Just dial it down, Jim, Sandburg's voice echoed from the past. Jim closed his eyes and shut out the voice...and the hollow ache that accompanied it.

"Not used to all this ruckus, eh?" his waitress asked with a brilliant smile as she placed another bottle of beer on the table.

Jim lifted the bottle and tilted it towards her in silent thanks. "Is it always like this?"

"Usually on a show night it gets pretty busy." She motioned with her head back towards the bar. For the first time, Jim noticed people standing, compressed together so tight that he could barely see the floor. "Standing room only. Pretty good."

"Who's playing?"

"Local band, very popular. You staying?"

"I don't think so. Know of a hotel nearby?"

"Sure. Just up the street is a Motel 6. Very clean, good price...if you're looking to be alone."

She smiled warmly at him, posing just right to give Jim a pretty good idea of how much he'd enjoy not being lonely with her. He grinned, seriously considering the evening of pleasure that the waitress's eyes were suggesting. He focused on the girl's name badge. Sherry. Nice name. She smelled of smoke and grease with a little of the cologne Red coming through, and she filled her jeans and plaid shirt nicely.

Taking a drink of beer, Jim leaned forward to ask Sherry what time she got off when the noisy room suddenly fell silent. The effect nearly dropped Jim to his knees. Through the haze of smoke, he studied the patrons, shocked to see their mouths moving as though speaking to one another as animatedly as they had been, but no sound came out. Pressing his hands to his ears, Jim sat back and looked up at Sherry. Her full lips were moving as well, brows creased in concern. He shook his head, hoping to clear up whatever stoppered his ears. A blue glow illuminated the entire scene. Jim knew what would be next.

A low growl purred in the silence. Jim recognized that growl, but it wasn't the sound he had been expecting. Usually, his spirit animal appeared in these visions, but this was not his spirit animal. A chill raced up his spine; he knew whose it was. Slowly he shifted his gaze to the far side of the main floor, drawn there by some unknown compulsion. His eyes widened as they tracked a perfectly balanced spotted jaguar moving across the railing that separated the floor from the bar area. The cat licked its furry lips; its golden eyes gleamed menacingly, but not at Jim. Following the cat's gaze, Jim flew out of his chair, hand automatically traveling to his back, grasping air as he searched for the gun and holster usually there. A gray wolf padded across the front of the stage, its muzzle swinging back and forth, blue eyes searching for something. It was completely unaware of the spotted jaguar stalking it.

Jim's body shook and it took him a moment to discover that someone was doing the shaking. The blue glow dissipated and sound suddenly blasted through his head. He doubled over in pain.

"Sir? Sir?" Sherry's frantic voice broke through the sizzling torture in Jim's head. "Hilary, call 911."

"No," Jim managed to whisper, his voice strained even to his hurting ears. "I'm all right."

"Are you sure? We can..."

"No!" Jim bellowed. Still tilting his head against the relentless clamor around him, he dug into his jeans pockets and pulled out some money. After dropping it on the table, he staggered from the bar.

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

He drove. He didn't care where; he didn't care how long. He had to get away from the lights and the sounds and the smells. His skin was on fire.

Leaving the lights of Medford far behind, Jim finally pulled his truck over to the side of the road, leaving on the fog lights by which he'd been driving. Lurching out of the truck, he made it to the side of the road before the nausea hit. He dropped to his knees and vomited up his greasy meal. Several dry heaves later, he sat back on his knees, breathing heavily.

He remained like that for a while, willing control to return, doing the deep breathing exercises that came almost naturally to him now. Soon, the fire on his skin disappeared, his hearing returned to normal, as did smell. When he opened his eyes finally, and could look without pain at the twinkling stars on a backdrop of black, he let out a deep sigh.

It had been a while since his senses went crazy like that. He'd managed surprising control the past several months, since Sandburg packed up and left; but to be honest, he hadn't done anything seriously extreme in that time, either. Normal day-to-day police work, searching a scene, going over weapons and vehicles, that sort of thing. But anything heavier, such as focusing his eyesight further than a hundred feet, or listening in on conversations down a street, had been out of the question. Not that he doubted he could do it. He just had no desire. Sandburg had left and Jim's wish for things to return to normal, to the way they were before the kid had hit the scene, had come true.

And he hated it.

Jim shook his head as the vision of the hunting jaguar tumbled through his brain once more, sending his stomach reeling. Falling forward, resting his weight on his hands, Jim urged the nausea to disappear. Swallowing down the acid bile rising in his throat, he breathed deeply through his nose. As control returned, the vision played once more.

A spotted jaguar. He hadn't seen the animal for almost two years, not since the events surrounding Alex Barnes. That name brought up not only an image of the stunningly beautiful blonde Sentinel who had wreaked havoc in his life, but also that strange compulsion that had led him to her in Mexico. For some reason beyond even Sandburg's explanation, a connection existed between the two Sentinels; a connection so intense that Jim had even pushed Blair aside in order to answer it.

Taking deep breaths, Jim sifted through his memories, hoping to find the weapon that would allow him to fend off the mystic craving overwhelming his will. An image of a jungle and a fire lighting a small camp caught Jim's awareness, the familiar voice of Blair as he spoke to Jim. Truthfully, at that moment, Jim had been caught up in the strange embrace that had dragged him, Sandburg and Conner through the jungle. But something Blair had said that night had caught hold and remained.

"You're just going to have to find something else to concentrate on."

Something else. What? What could he concentrate on that was powerful enough to destroy his desire for Alex?

"What do you fear?" Incacha's voice from the grotto echoed in Jim's mind. Images that had struck him following Incacha's questions surged within him. Images of Blair.

That was it. Those images had destroyed the hold of not only Alex, but of the potion that held Jim in its fiery grasp while in the grotto. It may have been Incacha that spoke to him through that experience, but it had been Blair who grounded him. Blair who had guided him to the control Jim needed.

Blair who would give him the will to fight the desire growing in him now and keep his senses keen.

Sighing heavily, Jim sat back on his knees once more, fighting with the thoughts tumbling through his mind and the emotions clenching at his chest. For five months he had tried to forget the young man who had made an indelible dent in his life. A dent; Jim scoffed at that. More like Blair Sandburg had penetrated every facet possible. No matter how hard Jim had tried to fight it, more than experiences connected them, more than the dissertation, even more than the friendship that had formed over the years. This Sentinel thing had linked them in ways Jim didn't - couldn't - define.

He had come to accept that, though. Had come to accept the permanence of Blair in his life. After the time they spent with Two Eagles and John Whitefeather in New Mexico after capturing Anna Morningstar, Jim had decided that he could handle the mystic side of their partnership if it didn't cause too much hassle and didn't happen too regularly.

Then the events around the dissertation occurred, everything exploding around them. When the press had first started running the story about Blair's dissertation, revealing Jim's ability, Jim had at first been shocked and angry - two emotions in the Ellison psyche that he didn't handle well. Jim had said some things to Blair that he later regretted. He had wanted to apologize to his friend, but the media pushed harder; and the harder the media pushed, Jim found himself wanting nothing more than to just shut off the whole Sentinel thing. Get rid of the senses. End it all and go back to the way things were before Sandburg. He had been willing to destroy their friendship in order to regain some kind of control.

Problem was, a major part of him enjoyed having Sandburg around. He had become fond of listening to Blair's confusing chatterings in the loft at two in the morning; he liked having a partner at the station...hell, Jim had even started tolerating the tests. That part of him wanted to keep what they had. All mysticism aside, Blair had chosen to be the brother Jim had lost in both Steven and Danny Choi; had chosen to remain by Jim because of friendship; had become the partner that Jack Pendergrast would never - could never! - have been.

Jim cringed, closing his eyes against the memory of Sandburg's pained expression when Jim had accused him of betrayal. Despite everything they had experienced together, Jim wanted to destroy it all - to walk away from a friend who had sacrificed a great deal to help a struggling Sentinel.

Watching Blair's spurious confession before the entire city of Cascade had finally put together all of the pieces. At that moment Jim swore he'd do whatever he could to make up for what almost happened. Their conversation at the hospital had been a start, but Jim could tell by Blair's less than enthusiastic response that he needed to do more.

So when Simon had regained his strength after the shooting at the station, Jim had gone to him with a proposal. When Simon had agreed to it, and all the implications that would be involved, Jim went to Naomi with the idea. She hadn't been too thrilled; the thought of her son as a cop definitely didn't sit well with her. But she had agreed, mostly because of her part in the dissertation fiasco. Jim had actually been counting on that.

The irony of it all? Jim, who had wanted to walk away, who had tried to fix things, hadn't been the one to leave. It had been Blair who finally did the walking.

Memory of their last conversation bubbled up from where Jim had shoved it months before. Arriving home to find all of Sandburg's items gone, the bookcases emptied of knick-knacks, the afghan gone from the back of one couch, and Blair sitting at the table staring at the door, waiting for Jim to arrive. He had finally contacted Eli Stoddard. After having the word "fraud" used in newspapers and by his former colleagues, Blair had heard it from the man he revered as a father. That word had begun to wear Blair down, but hearing it from Eli killed him.

Blair admitted he needed space to process everything and Jim had reacted in his normal, Ellison way. He'd gotten angry and hurt. Quite the legacy his father had left him.

No, that wasn't fair. William Ellison may have raised him, but Jim had learned, from a certain anthropologist, that he was the adult he chose to be, not just the outcome of poor parenting. And at the moment when Sandburg needed the support from the only friend who could give it, that friend had shut down on him.

Some friend.

Jim took another deep breath, pushing away the thoughts of self-deprecation, realizing simultaneously that the previous desire for Alex Barnes had completely disappeared. His mind cleared and he recalled the vision with ease. As he reviewed the images over and over again he recognized one very important thing he had overlooked: it hadn't been the connection with Alex Barnes that brought on this vision. The feeling was all wrong. He wasn't being warned about Alex; he was being warned that Blair was in danger because of Alex.

Flashing red and yellow lights caught Jim by surprise and he squinted at the road. A sheriff's vehicle pulled around Jim's truck and came to a stop. Wiping his mouth, Jim stood, cursing himself that he hadn't been paying enough attention. He should have seen beams of those lights long before now.

A burly man exited the vehicle, aiming a flashlight at Jim, who lifted one hand to shade his eyes.

"You doin' okay there, mister?" the deputy asked, not coming closer.

"Yeah, yeah, I'm fine."

"Have a bit too much to drink?"

Jim shook his head, not daring to move from his spot. He knew the rules about roadside stops and didn't want to spook the deputy. "No, sir. I mean, I did stop at some place in Medford, but I only had two beers. Weak stomach, I guess."

"You stop at Oscar's?" The deputy's voice suddenly became wary.

"Yes, sir."

"Why don't you step over to the front of your vehicle, sir, and show me some identification."

Rolling his eyes, Jim obeyed. Standing at the front of his truck, using the soft yellow glow of the fog lights, he pulled out not only his state ID, but also his police ID.

"Cop, eh?" the deputy asked after he had taken the items. "Cascade, Washington? You're a long ways from home, Detective."

"Yeah," Jim replied, a sad smile lifting one cheek. "Decided it was time to take the days I've been putting off all these years. Rat race, you know what I mean?"

The deputy smiled, more at ease, though Jim could see the man's hand still rested on the handle of his gun. "Things are slower here in Jackson County, Detective. Tell me, you the guy who raced out of Oscar's as though his tail were on fire?"

Jim frowned. Sounded like Sherry had called 911 anyway. "That was me. I didn't want to bother anyone, deputy. The waitresses were going to call the police and I didn't want the hassle of the hospital. Like I said, weak stomach."

The deputy nodded. "Why don't you do me a favor and step out here." He motioned towards the side of the police vehicle. The lights still flashed, and Jim had to squint when he neared them. "Think you can walk a straight line?"

Knowing whatever buzz existed after Oscar's lay in a pile on the side of the road, Jim walked a perfectly straight line. He passed every sobriety test the deputy offered.

Finally, the deputy sighed. "Okay. Sherry and Hilary were just concerned that you'd end up hurting yourself or someone else, so they called the police. You look and sound okay. However," one finger snapped up, "I suggest you head whatever direction you're going in and the first hotel you come to, pull over and get some rest." He handed Jim's ID back to him.

"Will do, deputy. Thanks."

The deputy waited for Jim to get into his truck and pull away. For several miles, Jim saw headlights in his rearview mirror. After a while, the deputy must have decided Jim wasn't a threat. The headlights dimmed and then disappeared as the sheriff's department vehicle turned around and headed back towards Medford. A half hour later Jim passed into northern California.

Beat, and not wanting to think about anything for the rest of the night, he did as the deputy ordered. The first motel he came across - okay, the second; the first was a rundown, old thing on the side of the road outside some town that looked like the twentieth century passed by it completely - he pulled over. After checking in, Jim found his room for the night. Not even bothering to scan the room as he usually did, he fell face first onto the bed and gave in to the welcomed oblivion of sleep, haunted by the lonely howl of a gray wolf.

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

5 A.M., October 26, 1999

Las Vegas, Nevada

Tearing from his bed, slamming against the far wall, Blair Sandburg frantically searched the dimly lit room. Heart hammering against his chest, breaths coming in quick rasps, he watched as the blinking light of the hotel sign outside his window banished the shadows with each flicker. When at last he felt confident enough that no one was in his room, Blair began to relax.

Sliding down the wall, ignoring the rough feel against his sweaty back through his t-shirt, Blair immediately folded his legs into a half-lotus. Resting his wrists on his knees, closing his eyes, he forced his body into some semblance of a catatonic state. Allowing the quiet moment to enfold him, Blair began to relax. His heart slowed, his pulse quit racing. With the serenity, images flowed freely to his mind.

He couldn't quite see the lurking danger, but something menacing trailed his every movement. Since returning to Las Vegas, the feeling of being hunted had bothered him; it had only been the last several days that dreams had begun to haunt his sleep. Whatever was after him was close by.

This dream, however, had been slightly different than the others. The familiar sensation of being hunted still permeated the dream, but behind it, in the distance that Blair couldn't quite penetrate, echoed the sound of a large cat's growl. Though the distance distorted the cry, it could not distort the feeling of home and safety that accompanied that sound - a feeling Blair had foolishly sacrificed months ago, a feeling to which he was now desperately trying to return.

Whether it meant that Jim was nearby, or just that the closer Blair got to home the more he thought of his friend, Blair didn't know. Whatever the answer, it had been too long since feeling the connection to his Sentinel and Blair's heart thrilled at the sensation.

He focused his thoughts on the nightmare once more. It had turned murky after the call of the jaguar. What had finally broken the hold and sent him soaring out of bed had been crazed gold eyes leaping at him.

Whatever or whoever was after him meant business though, that much he could tell. Since leaving Cascade, Blair had purposely pushed aside the Shaman stuff that had floated in and out of his life, but that didn't mean he didn't listen when something like this happened. He learned after those nightmares that led Jim and John Whitefeather to Anna Morningstar two years ago that he didn't dare take any chances. Even if these nightmares were just his overactive imagination - which he had no doubt they were not - it was better safe then sorry. Since it was still a while before he could afford to leave Las Vegas for Cascade, he would need some kind of help. The cops were out of the question - they still hadn't forgiven him the last time he was in Las Vegas. Maybe he'd pay a visit to Mal. Blair still had one more chip to cash in. Mal's expertise would be just the ticket.

With that reassuring thought, Blair started back towards physical awareness. Usually he'd remain in meditation longer, immersing himself in its empowering effect. Anymore, though, if he remained in meditation longer than a few minutes, his mind usually brought up the ache of loss he felt so poignantly the longer he remained away from Cascade.

Once he had made the decision to return home, it seemed one thing after another conspired to keep him away. The compulsion to get home, however, had given him the strength to withstand quite a bit these past few weeks. Never in his life had he felt such a need for home. Growing up with Naomi afforded him many places where he stayed, but it had taken leaving Cascade to discover what home really meant. Admittedly, it wasn't just the city that drew him back; he hoped the friendship he had abruptly severed five months ago still existed on some level.

Even if it didn't, Blair knew where he needed to be; he finally knew his place. He had told Naomi that he had found the brass ring, and it hadn't been the validation of his work or the money and prestige that hung before him like a carrot. It had been everything in between - helping Jim discover his potential, being a friend, guide and partner, having a home. The thing was, Blair may have believed that in his head, but it took his heart a bit longer to grasp what that truly meant. Now he understood. Despite the fact that Jim might not accept him back; despite the loneliness that may be awaiting him; despite even the title of fraud that had slipped so easily from Eli Stoddard's lips and that had begun in the corridors of the police station, as well as from his once revered colleagues at Rainier; despite it all, Blair could not argue one irrefutable truth: Cascade was his home. That's where he belonged.

With his Sentinel, whether his Sentinel wanted him or not.

Blinking open his eyes, Blair was surprised to find a gentle golden glow filling his room. A new day dawned over Las Vegas, Nevada, and spilled its greeting into his room. He groaned. Which meant he hadn't had more than two hours of sleep since falling into bed at three. Though he was used to going days without sleep due to the schedule he had kept between Rainier and working with Jim, these nightmares were taking their toll physically and mentally. In four days he'd had a total of ten hours of sleep, but it felt like he'd been awake for weeks. Not good.

Standing, Blair extended his arms and hands far above his head, stretching until his back and neck popped. Crossing the small room, he opened the long, slender windows that overlooked the outskirts of Las Vegas. A cool breeze burst through the windows, carrying with it the smell of bacon and eggs from the greasy spoon next door. Blair fought down the bile rising in his throat from that smell. Food this early in the morning was definitely a no-no.

Leaning against a corner of the window, Blair studied the light brown vistas of the surrounding desert. He had made it as far as Las Vegas before the money he earned in Georgia ran out. Luckily, the relationships he had managed to create when he first landed in Las Vegas five months ago had lasted and his former manager at the Mirage had rehired him. With his pay and tips, he could pay for the rundown motel room and still slip some money into a savings account. It wasn't much, but it would be enough.

He turned from the window and grimaced at his messy room. His uniform he had at least hung up, but the remainder of his clothes still managed to cover the floor of the single room unit that consisted of a double bed, a chest of drawers, a small table with one chair and a microwave on a sturdy box. It was by no means Shangri-La, and didn't even come close to the loft, but for now it would do, cluttered as it was.

Just for a little while longer. After these next two paychecks he'd have enough money saved for a ticket back to Cascade and still have a cache large enough to get him a place to live and exist for at least a couple months. That ought to give Blair enough time to find out what he would be returning to.

Memories of his friend pushed their way into his mind, but Blair pointedly shirked them aside. He didn't want to think about Jim right now. Fear that he had irrevocably damaged their friendship was a little too much for him to handle on an empty stomach and no sleep. But, damn, Blair sure missed him.

Scrubbing his head with one hand, thrilled to feel hair finally returning, he crossed the room to his messy bed. Now that morning was well on its way, he'd be able to get a bit more sleep before his shift started. The hunted feeling didn't bother him so much once the sun was up.

He managed to crawl beneath the knotted covers and settle comfortably on his side. With a sigh, he burrowed into the pillows. Thoughts of the loft and Cascade drifted in his tired mind, interrupted every now and then by the distant sound of a cat growling.

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

4:30pm, October 28, 1999

Cascade, Washington

Simon Banks tossed the last file into his outbox and settled back into his chair, wearily rubbing his eyes with long fingers. Rafe and Brown had exceeded all expectations - except Simon's; he knew they could do it - and solved the murder in record time. Watching Chief Reed commend the two detectives was a memory Simon would cherish for many a day. If Reed's face could have been any redder, he'd look like a fire engine truck; which seemed apropos considering the man had steam coming out of his ears. Guess it was difficult for Reed to admit mistakes. Who knew?

Simon chuckled to himself. He would have given anything to see Reed's face once the doors to Major Crime closed behind him and a cheer rented the air. Detectives and officers alike pounded Brown and Rafe on the back for several minutes. Rafe in particular seemed rather pleased.

Shaking his head, Simon pulled a cigar out of its leather pouch and sniffed the length of it, letting out a contented sigh. Things were going well, even shorthanded as the department was. He wouldn't think about what would happen when a crime wave hit. According to sociologists out of Rainier, apparently Cascade was brewing for a hit. All the misdemeanors were just a prelude to a city getting ready for the darker winter months. Simon usually didn't give credence to such reports, but since Sandburg had started hanging around Major Crime, Simon was actually convinced that all that scientific mumbo-jumbo might be worth something.

He wasn't going to worry about it, though; by the time the forecasted crime wave hit, Jim would be back. Simon was certain of it. And what's more, he'd have Sandburg in tow. If not...

Well, like he said, he wasn't worrying about it.

"Simon?" a muffled female voice called at his door, someone knocking at the same time. Rhonda stuck her head in. "Do you have a moment?"

Waving her in, Simon straightened. "I thought you had called it a day, Rhonda."

"I did, sir." She hesitated then entered the room, closing the door behind her.

Simon felt a wave of gratitude for this strong, quiet woman. When he had first started as captain in Major Crime, he hadn't been too sure about the pretty blonde unit secretary. She seemed more looks than smarts. Blonde hair, blue eyes, slender with a nice figure, Rhonda had turned many an eye, even Simon's. At first.

It took a whole day for him to realize who was the real undercurrent of control in Major Crime. By the end of that first day, Simon knew he could trust Rhonda with just about anything and she'd get the job done. She hadn't let him down once since then.

"Sir?"

Rhonda stood in front of his desk; her winter coat hung open, purse on her shoulder. Her forehead wrinkled in question.

"Sorry, Rhonda, just thinking. Why are you back? Did I forget to sign a form?" Simon grinned up at the woman, noticing the strained smile in return. That got his attention. "What is it?"

Quickly, she sat. Crossing her legs, she leaned forward and dropped her voice to an intense whisper. "While I was checking out, two men came in looking for you. They presented badges that said FBI, but..." She bit her lower lip.

"Go on."

Taking a deep breath, she continued, "In here we've had agents from the FBI, CIA, ...you name it, and we've been visited by them, right?"

Simon nodded.

"These guys don't act like FBI, Simon." Her eyes barely darted towards the windows of Simon's office. Simon shifted in his chair, using the movement to follow Rhonda's gaze.

Two men stood by Rhonda's desk, both dark-haired and of the same height. One man had gray in his hair. Both wore long tan trench coats over dark suits. What was it with agents and trench coats, anyway? They stood rigidly, hands behind their backs. Simon returned his gaze to Rhonda.

"Why do you say they're not FBI?"

"FBI are usually pretty haughty about their cases, somewhat snooty if you will. Almost like they're kids with a secret and are tickled pink that they can't share it."

Simon grinned at her explanation. She hit that on the head.

"These men, though...I told Mike at the front desk that I would guide them up to your office. I tried to start up a conversation with them in the elevator, but all their answers were abrupt. Almost curt." Rhonda bit her lip again. At Simon's gesture to continue, she whispered, "No emotion, no haughtiness, just tight-lipped. Like CIA."

Sitting back in his chair, Simon nodded, mulling over Rhonda's insight, once again very pleased that he had fought for her employment when cutbacks would have sent her out the door. She had an intuition that floored him.

"Did you have any special plans tonight?" he asked, piling the papers strewn across his desk and sliding them into the drawer he kept empty for just such a purpose.

"Not really. Except to feed my cat." She smiled again, this time it touched her eyes and dimpled one cheek.

"Would you mind sticking around for a bit? I may need you."

Rhonda rose and grabbed the pile of papers Simon had put into his outbox earlier. "Sure. There's always something I can do." She walked to the door, paused and turned. "Joel Taggert is still here. Want me to have him ready for you to see him?"

Amazed again at this wonderful young woman's instincts, Simon nodded. "Go ahead and show them in."

"Yes, sir."

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

Las Vegas, Nevada

The opulent mansion stood stark white against the desert sands of Nevada. Several acres of nothingness surrounded the residence and its grounds until the eye was drawn to an expanse of plush grass and palm trees - an oasis in the desert. Elegant, wealthy and powerful; those were the words Blair used to describe the setting, and the man who owned them.

Paying the taxi, Blair turned towards the front entrance. Skinny poplars, not indigenous to Nevada - and how did the owner get them to grow so healthy in the desert? - lined both sides of the path leading to the front door. A door made of mahogany and etched glass. Blair had been to this mansion only twice before; each time he visited he couldn't keep his mouth from falling open. One thing was for certain: the rich in Las Vegas lived the life to the hilt.

Pressing the doorbell, he waited for the booming "Ride of the Valkyries" to play and someone to answer. His blue eyes swept the front lawn, admiring the different types of floral and plant life lining the front of the house and placed in different areas in the plush, well-kept grass. In one corner stood a fountain of gray marble, with a cherub holding a vase that spewed water.

"May I help you?" a formal voice broke into his thoughts.

Blair jerked back to the front door, recognizing the rather large man who stood there. "Hey, Franklin," Blair announced, grinning.

The first time he'd met Franklin the man had him off the ground by the collar. Even now Blair had to suppress a shiver from the look of sheer loathing that had been on Franklin's joweled face that night. Since then, Blair had grown to like the guy.

Blair did a doubletake, noticing something strange about Franklin's appearance, beyond the absence of a neck. "Oh, man, you grew a mustache!"

What appeared to be a sneer -- but Blair had come to learn was actually how the man smiled -- crossed Franklin's thin lips. Blair took that as a compliment. "Mr. Fitzwilliam is expecting you," Franklin announced.

Blair stepped into the entryway and waited for Franklin to close the door. Following the burly man, he quietly surveyed the lavish home. Up the right was a sweeping staircase with a dark wood railing and soft tan carpet that matched the rest of the home. Large canvas paintings, some of which Blair knew to be one of a kind artwork, hung along the walls of the stairwell and in the living room to his left. The dining hall had a chandelier with crystals so perfect rainbows danced from every cut. He'd never want to own a place like this, but, man, it was beautiful to behold.

Franklin led Blair to an office off the main portion of the house. A thick, mahogany door separated it from the other rooms. As Blair stepped in, a tall, skinny man stood from behind his desk, removed the glasses from his oval face and grinned.

"Blair, my boy, it's good to see you!"

Mal Fitzwilliam stepped around the desk and started forward. He towered over Blair, maybe six-six, with slender everything. Piercing black eyes watched him from beneath a high forehead and thick, perfectly trimmed black hair, streaked gray at the temples. No one knew exactly how old Mal was, though Blair had guessed from conversations with the man he'd have to be somewhere in his sixties. In the dark gray, double-breasted suit he wore, Mal looked like a walking skeleton, almost to the point of appearing weak. But Blair knew differently. Behind the frail appearance lurked a body of hardened muscle, trained and sleek. Whoever made the mistake of expecting Mal to be an easy mark made that mistake only once.

Bending at his waist, Mal drew Blair into a strong hug, pounding him on the back. "You don't write, you don't call. What kind of raising did your mother give you?"

Blair grinned, stepping back. "Sorry, Mal. I've been working as many shifts as I can the last week."

Mal shook his head, crossing his arms. "I keep telling you, kid, all you have to do is ask. I could pay for your airline ticket *and* set you up nice and sweet in Cascade. It's the least I can do after saving my life."

Lifting both hands in defense, Blair stepped past Mal. "And I keep telling you, I'm doing this on my own. My life may be in pieces back home, man, but I won't go back to it on somebody else's money."

"You are quite the man, Blair Sandburg." Mal quirked one eyebrow at Blair, his face twisting into a smirk. "Are you certain I can't convince you to stay? Las Vegas has many distractions, and I could use a man like you on my…team."

Team. Interesting way of putting it. Blair turned back to Mal. "Thanks for the offer, Mal, but I prefer to stay on the right side of the law, if you don't mind."

Mal laughed, slapping Blair on the back as he crossed to the desk and sat. He gestured for Blair to sit. "You know, I've had men killed for less than that kind of statement."

"Yeah, and if I didn't like you so much, I'd be careful of what I say."

Blair put on his best winning grin. There had been a time when he did fear Mal Fitzwilliam, especially after finding out from the Las Vegas police department that he had ties to the mob. That had been before Blair saved Mal from a professional hit; before the police had sent Blair packing when he tried to help them solve that murder case four months ago. To the LVPD's irritation, Blair did solve that case and at the same time earned some points with Mal. So, though Blair was still careful around the man, the police's opinion of Mal Fitzwilliam didn't persuade him too much.

"Blair!" Mal suddenly sat forward. "What happened to your hair?"

Blushing, one hand went to the short curls hugging his head. "It's a long story. Trust me, though; it was worse than this. Remind me to tell you about it some time."

Still amazed, Mal sat back in his chair. "Thought you said you'd never cut your hair."

Blair made a face. "I didn't cut it. Like I said, I'll tell you about it some time. Right now, I'd like to call in my last chip."

The mood instantly changed in the room. Blair could feel it. He knew it would. Suddenly businesslike, Mal gestured for Franklin, who had still been standing at the door, to leave. Once the bodyguard had disappeared, Mal sat forward, steepling long fingers in front of his face as he rested his elbows on the desk.

"What's up?"

Leaning forward, resting his elbows on his knees, Blair thought over what he was about to say. He couldn't tell Mal everything; he'd think Blair paranoid and lock him up.

"I think someone is after me, Mal. Please," Blair lifted one hand, shifting his gaze from the floor to his friend, knowing the next question to be asked, "don't ask me how I know. Just trust me on this."

Mal's eyes narrowed dangerously. "You tell me who it is, Blair, and the problem is taken care of."

A tiny smile pulled at Blair's full lips. "Even if I knew who it was, I wouldn't let you harm them, Mal. You know me better than that, man."

"What do you mean, even if you knew? Don't you know?"

"Like I said, don't ask me how I know, I just do, but I haven't seen whoever it is yet."

Tilting his head to one side, Mal smiled fondly. "Feeling a bit paranoid, my friend?"

Blair laughed. "A little." He straightened in the chair, rubbing his tired eyes. The nightmares had gotten worse the past forty-eight hours and Blair hadn't slept wink one in that time; not even during the daylight. "You have your finger on the heart of this city, Mal, you know every cop and every criminal. Owners of casinos come to you for information, as do the police. All I'm asking is that you keep an eye and an ear open for anyone looking for me. I can't get out of town until Saturday morning; that's the earliest bus I could get. Tomorrow night is my last shift." He cleared his throat, digging into his jeans pocket and pulling out a silver dollar. An asterisk in permanent black ink scarred Susan B. Anthony's cheek. He tossed the coin onto Mal's desk. "My last chip, man. Will you do this for me?"

Mal studied the silver dollar closely, his face an unreadable mask. He had given that coin to Blair right before Blair had left Las Vegas a little over three months ago. It had been one of three coins. Mal said he had earned them. All he had to do was turn one in and Mal would honor it. Hopefully this one would get him home before the hunt ended and Blair found out who the hunter was.

Taking the silver dollar into a bony hand, Mal frowned. Then, quite suddenly, he tossed it back at Blair. "You keep it."

Shocked, Blair's mouth fell open. He stared at the silver dollar in his hands then back up at Mal, confused and completely dismayed. He hadn't planned on Mal saying no. Before sound could form words and escape Blair's gaping mouth, Mal stood and rounded the desk, leaning on the front.

"Let me explain something to you, Blair Sandburg," he stated firmly, dark eyes flashing. Blair knew that look - it brooked no argument; it demanded complete attention. Sometimes Mal reminded him of Jim when that look crossed his face. "Those chips were given to you because you earned them by earning my respect. Even though you know what I do, that doesn't stop you from getting in my face. Any other man would be dead in an alleyway." He crossed his legs at the ankle, his expression softening. "But the day you saved my life and the lives of my men, you put me in your debt. I promise you, that never happens. So you keep that chip. What you're asking of me right now is your right to ask freely. It's the least I can do." A shrewd grin split his thin face. "Besides, I'd like to see the look on your Detective Ellison's face when you call in that chip all the way from Cascade."

Eyes wide in amazement, Blair sank back in his chair, mouth still agape. When he finally found his voice, he cleared his throat. "I - I don't know what to say, Mal."

"Say nothing, my friend. If someone is after you, I'll find out who it is and…detain…him until you get on your bus. We need to get you home, right?"

Blair smiled in relief. Home. It was still strange that, after all his traveling, after everything that had happened the last several months, the word home still meant Cascade.

"Right."

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

Cascade, Washington

Agents Bartholomew and Wakowski had droned on for twenty minutes before Simon finally held up a hand. Putting on his best "you're full of it" smile, he interrupted Agent Wakowski as the younger man tried to explain once more why they needed to speak with Jim Ellison.

"So, let me get this straight," Simon started, folding his hands on the desk, keeping his voice amiable, although he could at any moment take each man by the collar and toss them out on their ears. "You need to speak with Detective Ellison because you think you can convince him to become an agent for the FBI?"

Bartholomew lifted one eyebrow at Simon in question, but he remained silent. Wakowski started in again. "His background makes him perfectly eligible --"

"And you felt that showing up at the Cascade Police Station at six in the evening, when most shifts are through, you could catch Detective Ellison, maybe take him to dinner, and schmooze him for a while."

Wakowski peered at his partner, about to say something, but his mouth snapped shut. Obviously, something in the older man's face told the agent to be quiet.

Leaning forward in his chair, Bartholomew asked, "You're not buying this, are you, Captain Banks?"

"No, Agent Bartholomew, I'm not. Quite frankly, I take offense to the fact that you felt you could march in here and drop bullshit around my office without me smelling it." The smile was still in place; the amiability was slipping however.

Bartholomew sighed, running one hand through his gray-peppered hair. He cast a sidelong glance at his partner, who barely shook his head; the expression on Wakowski's face sent clear warnings. Bartholomew paused as though considering his partner's silent counsel. Simon knew it was all an act. He'd performed the good cop/bad cop angle too many times to not recognize it. By seeming to understand Simon's skepticism, Bartholomew sought to create a basis of trust. Thing was, Simon had no desire to trust either one.

"Very well, Captain Banks," Bartholomew finally said. "On the level. We need Detective Ellison to help with a case we're working."

"Oh?" Simon feigned surprise, eyebrows lifted, as he sat back. He'd play along.

"Does the name Alex Barnes mean anything to you?"

The hair at the back of Simon's neck prickled and a cold shiver raced up his spine. His mouth suddenly went dry. Yes, the name Alex Barnes meant something, and it wasn't anything good. Immediately his mind flashed back to that dreadful morning at Rainier University and the body of Sandburg lying face down in the fountain. He could still smell Blair's sodden hair, feel his clammy skin, hear the absence of a heartbeat, even after all this time.

"I see by your face you remember that particular case." Wakowski's slightly nasally voice intruded on Simon's memories.

Simon was actually grateful for the interruption. He only nodded, not trusting his voice. He needed something to drink. Turning to the credenza behind his desk, Simon reached for a mug and the coffeepot usually kept full and brewing, only to remember at the last instant that he had dumped the last pot. Replacing the mug, he swung back to the two agents who were driving up his blood pressure.

"I believe," Bartholomew continued, "that it was Detective Ellison who followed Alex Barnes' trail to Mexico and eventually caught her."

A sinking feeling started in Simon's gut. He didn't like where this was going. When Simon didn't answer, Bartholomew opened up the briefcase he had carried in and pulled out a manila file. He tossed it onto the desk.

"Alex Barnes escaped from Leavenworth's psychiatric ward," Wakowski explained. "We were able to trail her for a while, but came up empty. The trail ended."

As the agent spoke, Simon reviewed the contents of the manila file. Most of it contained reports on her mental state, emotional instability, successes and failures to manage the bursts of uncontrolled rage. Simon's eyes focused on a paper with neat, square handwriting on it. A burst of air escaped his lips as rage began to boil.

"It says here Alex Barnes escaped three months ago," he stated between clenched teeth, all pretense of geniality gone.

"Yes," Bartholomew replied simply. He crossed his legs and leaned sideways in the chair, resting an elbow on an arm. Simon didn't care for his whole blasé demeanor.

"And when were you going to inform my department that she was on the loose?"

"We didn't have to inform you of anything," Wakowski snapped. "This is a federal investigation."

"That woman caused more problems in my city than I care to remember. She managed to steal toxic gas from a well-guarded location and led one of my best detectives on a chase that nearly got him killed. She did succeed in killing his partner!"

"Ah, yes, Blair Sandburg. Is he available as well? Maybe we could - "

"Get out of my office!" Simon roared, standing and pointing to the door. He had no time for these two men. Alex Barnes was on the loose and Jim and Blair were out there. Worse, they were out there separated from one another.

Bartholomew rested a hand on his red-faced partner's arm, motioning for them to leave. "It would seem Captain Banks isn't interested in interagency cooperation. We'll try elsewhere."

Jaw clenched, breathing heavily through his nose, Wakowski jerked his head in a nod and snapped to his feet. Bartholomew followed more casually, taking the file from Simon's grip. As they neared the door, he turned with a congenial smile.

"There is one more bit of information that you might be interested in, Captain Banks." He took that moment to slip the file into his briefcase. When he finally looked up, Simon was ready to grab the man by the neck and throw him out physically. "There was another escape within forty-eight hours of Barnes and we have reason to believe the two escapees have hooked up. Does the name Lee Brackett mean anything to you?"

Silence fell like lead in the room as that name hung heavy in the air. Lee Brackett -- former CIA, now rogue, and with a vendetta against Jim Ellison -- was on the loose. With Alex Barnes.

Another Sentinel.

Simon finally managed to get his legs moving. Without a word to the two men smiling arrogantly at him, he brushed past them, opened the door and bellowed for Joel before seeing him sitting on the edge of Rhonda's desk.

Joel Taggert snapped to attention, dark eyes widening at first then narrowing once he caught the fury on Simon's face. "Simon, what is it?"

"If I say the name Lee Brackett, will that explain it?" Nodding once at the look of horror on Taggert's face, Simon turned to Rhonda. "I need Brown, Rafe and Conner back here, ASAP."

"Already on their way, sir." Rhonda grinned, a twinkle in her eyes. She shrugged nonchalantly at the surprised expression on Simon's face. "I figured better safe than sorry. Cuts down on wasted time."

Simon shook his head, shoulders shaking in a silent chuckle. He'd have to buy that girl diamonds at the rate she was going.

Movement behind him caught Simon's attention and he turned in time to see Bartholomew and Wakowski heading across the bullpen towards the elevators. "And where do you think you two are going?" he demanded in his sternest voice.

The two turned as one. "You asked us to leave," Bartholomew replied simply.

His casual voice and behavior were starting to irritate Simon. Pushing aside his annoyance, swallowing the words he wanted to say, Simon put on his most apologetic expression. He needed them and the information they had, which meant turning on the niceties.

"Forgive my outburst, gentlemen. Please, in the spirit of interagency cooperation, won't you return to my office and let's see what we can do to locate Brackett and Barnes?"

Bartholomew grinned triumphantly. "Then you'll contact Detective Ellison?"

"I'm afraid that's not possible. He's on an extended leave of absence and is out of contact."

For the first time since they arrived, Bartholomew and Wakowski were at a loss for words. The look they exchanged bordered on panic. Simon actually enjoyed that.

"But it shouldn't take too much to find him," Simon continued. "After all, I have the best detectives in the northwest working for me."

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

11pm, October 28, 1999

Las Vegas, Nevada

Walking into The Mirage assaulted every one of Jim's senses. Perfumes mingled with cigar smoke, while the aroma of indistinguishable foods hung in the air; lights of every imaginable color blinked and fluttered throughout the entire casino; the sound of thousands of people chatting or yelling or singing combined into a cacophony Jim couldn't filter out; the humidity of so many people and the heat from outside mingling with the air conditioning of the casino, hung on his skin; he could even taste the spices in the air.

Staggering into the men's restroom before the nausea turned into something worse, Jim stumbled into a stall and leaned over the toilet. Breathing deeply - grateful The Mirage kept pristine restrooms - he pictured the dials he associated with his senses and turned each one down far enough to gain control. The nausea abated and Jim slowly straightened. Taking in a final deep breath, then letting it out slowly, Jim walked out of the stall.

He couldn't keep his senses dialed down, but now that he knew what would hit him once out in the casino area, he could control the sensory input and not overload again. Sandburg would be proud of how Jim dealt with this little episode.

Sandburg. Jim frowned. He had promised Blair not to look for him, but there were times when such promises needed to be kept and when they needed to be broken. It had taken a bit to contact Sneaks back up in Cascade, but once the ball got rolling, locating Sandburg hadn't been too difficult; the trail led him on a merry chase, though. Jim had been about to fly to Georgia before his string of contacts reported that Blair was no longer there. When it seemed the trail had ended, Jim finally had to call in the "big guns".

However much he hated it - he still didn't like the whole mystical turn his life had taken - he had forced himself into the meditative state Two Eagles had taught him and connected with his animal spirit, allowing it to lead him to his friend. By the time Jim felt he was on the right trail, leading him directly to Nevada - hadn't be been on his way to Las Vegas, already? - he received news that Blair was, indeed, in Nevada. Not needing any more urging, he continued in the direction he had been heading in the first place.

The minute he arrived, Jim sought the help of the police department, figuring a little interdepartmental assistance couldn't hurt. They had all been cordial enough and willing to help out the Cascade detective, until Jim had mentioned Blair's name. He was immediately shuffled off to Homicide and a certain Detective Applegate, a short, balding man with a thick midriff, who had nothing but animosity for the "long-haired, punk, know-it-all" that had managed to solve a difficult murder by stepping on some pretty precious toes.

Through the entire tirade, Jim had a hard time hiding his smile. It would seem Sandburg's effect on police officers didn't just extend to those in Cascade, Washington.

When Applegate reported that he ran the "punk" out of Las Vegas three months ago - "And good riddance to bad rubbish!" - Jim realized he wouldn't be getting help from the police. No matter how many times they told him that Sandburg was not in Las Vegas, Jim knew differently. So he started asking around.

Which led him to The Mirage and the fervent desire that he had made good on all his promises to take Sandburg here on vacation. If they had gone, Jim's first contact with the severe sensory overload would have been dealt with under his friend's knowledgeable care. Now, he not only had to use his senses to locate Blair, but he had to fight the sensory spikes sending hot iron flashes into his head.

He splashed some cold water on his face and stared at his reflection in the mirror. A tired man stared back at him. He had barely slept in three days, and the wear showed on him. His short-cropped hair was disheveled, his clothes rumpled, eyes puffy and red. It was surprising the casino security hadn't thrown him out. He sniffed his clothes. Definitely needed to be changed before too long. Once Sandburg was found and safely with him again, Jim could worry about other things. Right now, he needed to get to Blair before Alex did. Together they could fight whatever they came across.

Together.

Yeah, he had to admit it. He was eager to see his friend again. Eager to listen to his voice, eager to hear about the last few months, hopeful that what had been destroyed between them could be rebuilt. More surprising was the knowledge that, subconsciously, he had left Cascade for this very reason. To find his friend. Deep down the loss had driven him into an argument with Simon and leaving Cascade. Despite his promise to Sandburg to not search for him, Jim knew that he had been heading to Las Vegas for more than rest and relaxation. If the vision hadn't occurred, he still would have done whatever he could to find his friend, no matter how cold the trail. When he finally realized all of this, it made using that mystic connection he hated so much a lot easier. It also made him realize he'd been paying more attention than he thought to Sandburg's rantings on the psychological make-up of humanity.

Running wet hands over his hair, satisfied with the outcome, Jim turned and started for the door. He stopped with a hand on the doorknob. Taking a deep breath, he opened the door.

Everything seemed muffled with his dials down and he sighed in relief. He could handle it at this level. When he needed to, he could turn up the dials one by one; but right now, he was okay.

The last person he spoke to said that a person matching Blair's description worked at the Blackjack tables in The Mirage. Except, the guy didn't have long hair. It was curly, though. Confused by that last response, Jim still tried the lead. It was the best one he had since arriving.

Making his way through the casino to the tables, Jim searched through the haze of lights and bodies. After turning up his sense of smell, wading through the blend of perfumes, deodorants and sweaty bodies nearly sent him to his knees until he turned the dial down again. Convinced smell wouldn't work, he carefully turned up his hearing. Filtering out the sounds of the machines and the din of voices he focused mainly on heartbeats, pushing them aside one by one until he located the one he sought. There were a lot of heartbeats to filter out and it took a while, but when at last a single, familiar heartbeat pounded in his ears, he desperately clung to it. The anger, frustration and loneliness of the past five months melted away under the steady, strong beat of that single heart and he couldn't hold back an excited smile.

Piggybacking his eyesight onto his hearing, he scanned the crowd until he found the all too familiar smile that lit the even more familiar face. Expressive blue eyes seemed to glow in the lights of the casino. The comment made about the long hair by the person who sent Jim to The Mirage finally made sense.

Short, tight curls clung to Blair's head, a lighter brown than Jim remembered. If it hadn't been for the heartbeat and the smile that was all Sandburg, Jim would have walked right past the man and not recognized him. The blue eyes seemed even bigger without the long hair that had always framed his face. And if it was at all possible, the kid looked even younger. Simon was going to freak. So would Conner; she loved that hair.

Blair's focus was on a person Jim couldn't see, but his friend's entire manner softened as he spoke to the customer. Dialing up his hearing just enough to hear what Blair was saying, Jim nearly staggered under the relief of hearing that voice again.

"You could always stop, Mrs. Unger," Blair said gently, grinning at the response. "Well, if the house, that's me, gets nineteen or higher, then you'll lose." Blair leaned over the table to hear Mrs. Unger's reply. He chuckled. "That's right. I pull up anything higher than a three and you'll get busted." Jim smiled, recognizing the tone of Blair's voice as he explained the rules of the game to his customer. Ever the patient teacher.

Before Jim could hear the answer to Mrs. Unger's next question, a familiar growl caught his attention, sending chills through his shoulders. A blue haze fell over the casino, a sure sign that what he was about to see was a vision. Following his instincts to the bar, Jim became aware of the spotted jaguar hunched on all fours, its shoulder blades moving up and down, its tail jerking back and forth. Jim followed the keen golden focus of its eyes. The cat was about to pounce on Blair.

Alex was here. In the casino.

Jerking free of the vision, Jim rushed towards Blair's table, tripping over people, pushing others aside. He ignored their enraged outbursts. His entire focus was on the man who stood oblivious to the danger. The closer he drew, the more anxious Jim became. He watched as Blair stopped talking in mid-sentence and looked up, scanning the crowd. A relieved smile played at Jim's lips. Blair felt it.

A cloth bag dropped over Jim's head and he was dragged in the opposite direction he had been heading. He fought and yelled despite the feeling of a gun in his side, but there were too many hands on him, keeping him steady, drawing him farther and further away from the heartbeat that had started to thump a little quicker.

In the darkness of the bag, Jim watched as the jaguar stilled for several heartbeats, then pounced, dragging down the surprised wolf with its claws and teeth. The wolf whined in pain.

Jim let out a roar, struggled even harder, won free of several of those hands. He called out Blair's name before something heavy slammed into the back of his head. Stunned, he fell to his knees. He struggled against the oblivion dragging him down. Another strike to his head ended the struggle.

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

11pm October 28, 1999

Cascade, Washington

Brown, Rafe and Conner arrived almost simultaneously. Taking Conner by the elbow, Simon ordered Brown and Rafe into the operations room with Taggert. As Brown and Rafe obeyed, Simon pulled Conner to the breakroom. Shutting the door behind them, he turned to the confused inspector.

Before she could say anything, he handed her a cell phone and an envelope. "Don't talk, just listen." Conner's mouth closed with a click. "There are two agents here claiming to be from the FBI, but I'm pretty certain they're CIA." He held up a hand when Conner opened her mouth again. "They're chasing Alex Barnes, who escaped from Leavenworth three months ago." He glared at Conner as she moved to speak again. "Not only are they after Barnes, but Lee Brackett. Do you know who he is?" Conner nodded, opened her mouth to say something, but shut it again at Simon's glare. "The agents have reason to believe that Barnes and Brackett have hooked up. If that's true, then Jim needs to know about it. I told the agents I have no way of contacting Jim. I lied. In that envelope is the number to the cell phone I demanded Jim take in case of an emergency. He wasn't very happy about it, but he took it. I don't know if he'll have it on or not, but your job is to find out. Get out of this building, get as far away as you can and keep dialing that number until you get Ellison. Tell him everything I've just told you. Do you understand?" Conner didn't say anything, just looked at Simon expectantly. "Did you hear me?"

"Can I speak now?" she asked, her Australian accent lilting each word.

"Don't get smart with me, Conner," Simon growled.

"Sorry, sir, but I don't understand. Why not tell the agents you know where Jim is?"

"Because I don't trust them, Conner. The CIA have their own little agenda most of the time and I'm not going to give them any information that would put them that much more ahead of me in whatever game they're playing."

Conner glanced at the objects in her hands. "Do you think Barnes is after Jim and Sandy?"

Simon sighed, all impatience escaping in that breath. His shoulders slumped. "I don't know, Megan. Really. But there is a connection between Jim and Alex; you know that. More than just this Sentinel business. It's something deeper. And Brackett knows about Jim's Sentinel abilities. I just don't like the fact that they're together while Jim and Blair are separated and out there without backup."

Nodding in agreement, Conner patted Simon's forearm and smiled, light brown eyes twinkling mischievously. "The thing I like most about you American blokes is your willingness to shaft your government. Count on me, sir. I'll report in as soon as I contact Jim."

"Thank you, Megan," Simon said, smiling. "In the meantime, I'm putting Taggert, Brown and Rafe on shaft patrol, as you so properly put it. We'll give the agents the runaround as long as we can."

Conner saluted then turned. She had her hand on the door when Simon called her name. "When you talk to Jim, tell him…" His voice trailed off. Tell him what? That he was sorry for the angry words last spoken? That Jim was missed? That he hoped Jim could find Sandburg? All of the above?

Before Simon could articulate the words, Megan nodded once, face solemn. "I will, Simon."

With that, she left. Simon squared his shoulders, preparing himself for the best snow job of his career.

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

Midnight, October 29, 1999

Las Vegas, Nevada

Mal Fitzwilliam was not happy. His network was supposed to be the best in the west. Top dollar paid for good men who were supposed to be able to do the job. His information structure alone could tell when the Governor of Nevada had to pee before even the Governor knew he had to pee. And yet, despite all that, some man, some nobody, was able to get within fifty feet of Sandburg before being taken down. No, Mal was not happy.

His men could tell he wasn't happy, also. Good. At least they properly read the weather front accompanying him as he marched down the corridor to the office in back of The Mirage. Those that escorted him to the office kept a respectful distance, just in case the thundercloud hanging over their boss decided to erupt with a good lightning bolt in their direction. The men who greeted him at the door knew instantly their hides were in trouble and bowed their heads shamelessly.

Once the door had closed behind them, Mal cut loose on his men. "Of all the idiotic, reckless, stupid…simpletons, every one of you. How could you let that man get so close to Blair? Didn't the information network on the streets warn us - long before that man even stepped foot in the Mirage - that he was asking questions about Blair?"

"Yes, sir," several men whispered pathetically.

"Didn't our informants give you a description of the man so the minute he entered The Mirage you could take him?"

"But, sir, he disappeared…"

Mal glared at the man who dared to speak up. "I don't want excuses, Bellows. I want whatever happened fixed. Got it? Something like this better not happen again. Because if it does, one of you will have a very sad widow. Am I understood?" It was a controlled roar he let loose, but a roar nonetheless. Every man cowered. They knew better than to mess with Mal Fitzwilliam; but an angry Mal Fitzwilliam, that was a storm best to run from.

"Good." Straightening his tie, Mal immediately switched gears. His men understood him. The problem would be fixed. Whoever, or whatever, had fallen through would be dealt with. Now, it was time to find out a little about the man sitting in the side office. "Tell me about him."

He walked towards the door as Bellows fell in beside him. "We had to drag him out of the casino, sir. Good thing we tipped off security what we were doing, or there could have been problems. Still, we haven't been able to pull any ID out of him. Before we got him duct-taped to a chair, he took out Aniston with a good right hook and Franklin went down with a spin kick. Heard some ribs crack."

"Franklin, eh?" Mal's eyebrows rose appreciatively. "A fighter. Good."

Bellows opened the door and allowed Mal through first. He was greeted with the iciest blue eyes he'd ever seen, glaring at him from a face of stone anger. Whoever the man was, he was powerfully built: rugged features, prominent jaw, well-muscled and, if what Bellows said about Franklin was true, obviously well-trained. He didn't appear that old, maybe late thirties, certainly no older than early forties. Duct tape had been wrapped around the man's head twice to cover his mouth, his arms bound behind him, duct tape passed around his heaving chest and the back of the chair. The man was even duct-taped by the thighs and ankles.

"Gave you a problem, did he?" Mal asked with mild humor. Not waiting for an answer, he stepped up to the furious man and stopped, casually returning the man's glare. "Well now, you seem to be trussed up rather nicely. I presume that'll teach you to go after a friend of Mal Fitzwilliam's."

The eyes narrowed even more.

"Let me explain something to you, young man," Mal began, pacing in front of the man, who followed him with those frigid eyes. "Blair Sandburg saved my life, and I don't take something like that very lightly. When he came to me a few days ago and asked me to keep an eye on his back because he felt his life was in danger, I took special offense to that. In my city, nobody…NOBODY…threatens my friends." He stopped and faced the man once more. "Now, Mr. Sandburg is one of the finest young men I know, and he would never approve of something accidental happening to you. As a matter fact, he made me promise that no one would be hurt. I honor my promises. At least until my patience runs out. And for you, my patience will run out Saturday morning, when Blair disappears." His eyes narrowed, matching the intensity emanating from his captive. "Then, you will see firsthand why nobody crosses me."

No fear met his words. Part of him prickled under that. Usually, threats from Mal Fitzwilliam were taken seriously. The other part of him thrilled. This young man reminded him much of Blair - unyielding, belligerent, not intimidated. This one had a spark of life that touched Mal just as Blair had.

"I want to know his name," Mal said suddenly. "Bring me his wallet."

Bellows glanced at Mal then at the fuming man. Taking a deep breath, he reached towards the man's pockets. The man watched him intently. Just as Bellows' hand reached his back pocket, he jerked in the chair and growled. Bellows fell backwards. The man actually chuckled. Despite himself, Mal began to like this guy. What was with him lately? First Blair Sandburg, a kid who appears out of nowhere, who was as straight as any good cop Mal couldn't buy; and now this guy, a fearless man hunting Blair for what outcome Mal couldn't guess. He must be getting soft in his dotage.

He had to know who this new adversary was. Without hesitation, Mal stepped forward and retrieved the man's wallet. The man simply stared at him, watching every movement. When Mal backed away, he could have sworn the icy eyes had thawed somewhat.

Opening the wallet, Mal nearly lost every bit of control on which he had prided himself. A gold badge glinted in the room's light. A picture ID established this man as Detective James Ellison.

Ellison.

Mal swallowed and looked up. Those eyes met his, questioning, threatening… hoping?

"Oh no," Mal whispered. "Release him! This instant. Do it now!"

Not accustomed to ignoring their boss's orders, his men had Detective Ellison released within seconds. And seconds after that, Ellison was in Mal's face.

"Do you have any idea what you've done?" Ellison roared even as Mal's men grabbed him and dragged him back. Ellison struggled against their hold, his face red with fury. "Blair is out there, unprotected, and she's here!"

"She?"

"Didn't Blair warn you who was after him?"

"He didn't know."

Ellison's face fell. He swore as he looked at the door, his eyes glassing over, head cocked to one side. The blank expression sent chills down Mal's spine. When a choked gasp escaped Ellison's lips, Mal knew something was wrong.

"She has him." Ellison's voice was tight. Mal had never met this man before, but he knew fear when he heard it. Ellison was afraid, but not for himself. For Blair. "Help me." Pleading edged those words and pierced Mal clean through.

Mal nodded, gesturing for his men to release the detective. As a group, Mal and his men rushed out of the office, following Ellison as he exploded out of the corridor leading away from the back offices and into the casino. He slid to a halt as they entered the casino, gazing over the crowd, head tilted to one side as though listening for something.

"This way!" Ellison barked then took off.

Mal held back Bellows. "Contact security and tell them to back off. Take Gibson, Prade and Smothers and grab some security then circle the building. Whoever has Blair will try to get him out of the building. Maybe we can cut them off. Stay in contact with me."

Bellows nodded. Motioning for the three men Mal ordered to follow him, he pulled a radio from his back pocket and immediately started speaking with security as he rushed towards The Mirage entrance. Mal gestured for the rest of his men to follow Ellison. He hoped they were not too late.

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

Jim pushed away the fear threatening to destroy his control. Filtering out the sounds of the casino, ignoring the people milling in his way, he followed Sandburg's heartbeat disappearing towards the back of the building. Peripherally he noticed security guards coming towards him. One of them grabbed the radio at his shoulder, listened, then grabbed his partner. Jim hesitated only a moment, watching as the floor security came to an abrupt halt. Realizing they weren't coming after him, Jim slammed through a side door and raced down a stone corridor leading to the loading docks; the heartbeat in his ears suddenly sped up.

Blair's voice echoed back to him.

< "Alex?" > Blair gasped.

A familiar chuckle, almost like a purr, responded.

< "Hello, Blair. You're looking quite well. I like the haircut." >

Jim slowed, inching his way towards an empty loading bay at the far end of the docking area. Sinking into the shadows as much as possible, he peered around the side of the bay. Lights set atop stone walls illuminated the sloped dock access. At the head of the empty lane, a van waited in the shadow of an alley, the motor running, lights off. Opening his vision to allow the glow of the lights to penetrate the shadows, Jim saw that two burly men held Blair, gripping his arms awkwardly behind his back. Alex Barnes stood in front of them; her body pressed against Blair's, one hand raking through his curls. The full, red lips cocked in a snarl.

Seeing her again tightened a knot in Jim's gut and he feared the same strange feeling that had affected him when Alex first showed up in Cascade two years ago would overcome him again. Taking deep breaths, he concentrated on Blair's shaking voice to ground him.

< "Y-you look good, too, Alex," > Blair replied, trying to smile.

Alex clenched a bunch of curls and roughly jerked Blair's head back. < "Are you surprised? Did you think that a psych ward in a penitentiary would destroy me? Or did you hope?" >

< "Look, Alex…" >

< "Shut up, Blair, and get in the van." > Stepping back, she gestured for the men to put Blair in the van.

Not caring he had no weapon for defense, Jim jumped from the loading dock, yelling Alex's name. Fitzwilliam had been behind him; hopefully the man was true to his word that he considered Blair a friend, and that he'd show up any minute with armed backup. Jim couldn't waste his attention by listening, however; he focused all of his senses on the group at the end of the loading area.

Alex stepped forward, her blue eyes flashing in rage…and surprise, Jim noted. She hadn't heard him.

"Jim!" Blair called out in surprise. He struggled against the grip of the men, but they held him firmly in place. Amazement widened the blue eyes.

"You okay, Sandburg?"

"Okay? Are you kidding? Jim, how the hell did you get here? Not that I'm complaining, man, but…" Despite the circumstances, he suddenly grinned. "I sure am glad to see you, man!"

Still wary, and quite aware that he was unarmed, Jim couldn't help a smile as well. "Me too, Chief."

Blair stilled, a strange expression crossing his face. In a voice soft enough for Sentinel ears, he repeated, "Chief." His voice shook. "Damn, it's good to hear that again."

Jim continued forward but stopped as Alex finally recovered and stepped in front of Blair and the two confused men who held him. A shrewd smile lifted her full lips. "Well, well, well. Hello, Jim. It's been a long time."

"Not long enough, Alex. Thought you were supposed to be locked away for a bit longer."

"Change of plans."

Jim nodded, remaining perfectly still. He could hear Fitzwilliam and his men heading toward the docking bay. Observing Alex's expression, he could tell she couldn't hear them. That meant her Sentinel gifts were still fried. One good thing. "You'll have to change them again, Alex. You're not going anywhere with Sandburg."

Curling a lock of blonde hair around one ear, Alex straightened, lifting her chin in superiority. "You let Blair slip away, Jim. You didn't want him, and I do. What makes you think I'd give him up?"

"Sandburg isn't a piece of property, Alex."

"There you're wrong, Jim. He's my companion now."

A movement behind Alex drew Jim's attention. He tensed at the warning in Blair's eyes as they peered up and over Jim's shoulder. Though Jim hadn't seen or heard anything, Blair's gaze was enough.

"Jim!" Blair finally bellowed, terror in his voice.

By that time Jim was moving, turning as two armed men propelled down the sides of the loading dock. Leaping into action before either man could get a shot off, Jim barreled into the midriff of one man, knocking him down. The man's weapon skittered across the cement. Jim grabbed for the weapon only to have the second man kick him solidly in the gut. The air whooshed out of him and he lay stunned.

"Jim!" Blair screamed, struggling to be free of his captors. He managed to free himself from one man, but the other dragged him back, slamming him against the van. Blair's head connected with the van, dazing him.

Rage flared, propelling Jim to his feet before regaining his equilibrium. His attacker kneed him in the gut again, driving him to his knees.

"No!" Blair's voice held a different quality to it this time. It wasn't anger that Jim had been hurt; there was fear in this cry. Jim squinted open his eyes, struggling for breath, watching as both men held a struggling Blair against the side of the van. Alex pulled out a syringe and as one man held Blair's head still, she slid the needle into Blair's neck. Instantly Blair's eyes rolled up into his head and he slumped to the ground.

"Sandburg!" Jim gasped, trying to stand. His attacker punched his jaw, keeping him down. Helplessly he watched as Blair's limp form was thrown into the van. The door slid shut and screeching tires shot up smoke as the van took off.

Jim tried to catch his breath when the familiar sound of a gun cocking caught his ears. He opened his eyes in time to watch his attacker grin maliciously, aiming down the sight of a gun directly at Jim's head. Before the attacker could finish drawing in a steadying breath he jerked wildly as his chest exploded with bullets. The man fell to the ground, eyes wide open, hand still holding his weapon.

Peering around him as he stood, Jim caught the determined look of Mal Fitzwilliam standing on the ledge of the loading dock, handing a weapon over to one of his men. Tilting his head in thanks, Jim stumbled up the docking bay to the alley, following it to a well-lit, busy street. Looking both ways, he sought with eyes and ears for some evidence of the van and Blair.

Nothing.

He fell to his knees. Clenching his fists, a frustrated roar ripped from his lips. So close. He had been so close. And now Blair was beyond his reach again.

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

1am, October 29, 1999

Las Vegas, Nevada

Security had called the police and soon the loading dock was taped off, extra lighting brought in to assist forensics. Police officers spoke to several who claimed to witness the event. While enduring the questions, Jim's eyes remained on the two men who had been left behind. The one Jim had beaten had remained tight-lipped through the on-site interrogation. The police decided to continue questioning him downtown. Before Jim could work his way free of the officers questioning him, LVPD had the guy in a car. By the time the officers were done, Jim's attacker had been taken from the scene.

But not the dead one. Immediately he crossed over to the body still lying on the ground. Forensics was still taking pictures of the scene. Jim knelt beside a woman bagging items taken from the body. One particular item caught Jim's eye.

"Excuse me, may I see that?" he asked.

The woman eyed him cautiously. Jim flashed his badge and a smile. The woman relaxed noticeably.

"You need gloves," she stated firmly.

When Jim spread his hands innocently, she picked up on the gesture and dug into her pockets. After handing him some gloves, he slipped them on with some effort - they were way too small - and took the baggie that held a small, white box. Pulling it out of the baggy, he studied it for a moment, then noticed that he couldn't hear anything around him. Pulling back his focus, he listened to his surroundings, not surprised to find a space of dead air surrounding the object.

A white noise generator.

Jim swore, quietly shaking his head as puzzle pieces fell into place. Well-armed men, a vehicle, tracking…everything that Alex could not have done alone. And now this; a white noise generator had been used against Jim years ago when an ebola virus had been stolen from Rainier University. Jim thought back to the van, pushing past the sight of Alex and Blair, remembering the shadow in the driver's seat of the van. Someone had been there. The pieces came together, dropping a cold stone of dread in his gut. All of it could only mean one thing. Lee Brackett.

"Damn."

Standing, he flicked the white noise generator off and handed everything back to the forensics tech. "Does someone have a cell phone I could borrow?"

The tech motioned to two plain clothes detectives that had arrived on the scene only moments before. Jim thanked the woman and crossed to the detectives.

The curly red-haired detective saw him first. "You the Washington cop that caused all this?"

Jim didn't like the kid's tone, so he merely glared at him. Then he purposely turned away and spoke to the other detective. "I'm Detective Ellison, Cascade PD. I was wondering if I could use your cell phone to contact my captain."

The other detective eyed Jim up and down, then sniffed. "You the one Applegate told us about? Friend to that liberal hippie?"

Were all of LVPD's detectives assholes? Not wanting to bother with them, nor having the time, Jim turned away and spotted a familiar face. Bee-lining his way past officers and yellow tape, he pushed his way through the crowd and approached Mal Fitzwilliam, who stood in the shadows, watching the entire scene. Obviously, he didn't want to be physically involved in the investigation.

"I need your help."

Fitzwilliam grinned. "The way I see it, you already owe me."

Jim steadied the impatience roiling in his gut. His fingers ached to grab the arrogant son of a bitch and throw him against a nearby wall. "And how do you figure that?"

"I just saved your life."

Taking a determined step towards Fitzwilliam, Jim ignored the movement of the men around them. Fitzwilliam stood several inches taller, but the height difference didn't intimidate Jim.

"Let's review, shall we?" Jim said, his voice low and steady. "If your men hadn't jumped me in the casino, my friend would be with me right now instead of with a woman who has already killed him once. If your men had asked me for my identification instead of dragging me through the casino and duct-taping me to a chair, Blair and I would be enjoying what I had hoped would be a very pleasant reunion. Now, as I see it, you saving my life doesn't even come close to you paying your marker."

Fitzwilliam calmly studied Jim's face, then slowly nodded. "What can I do for you, Detective Ellison?"

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

12:30am, October 29, 1999

Cascade, Washington

Rhonda caught Simon's eye, gesturing him out into the hallway. Casting a cautious glance at the two agents heavily involved in a discussion with Rafe and Taggert, Simon motioned to Brown what he was doing and then slipped out of the conference room.

"What is it, Rhonda?" Simon whispered as they crossed the hall from the door.

"Jim's on the phone," Rhonda replied, a smile slowly crossing her lips.

Relief flooded through Simon and he grabbed Rhonda and kissed her soundly on the forehead. He headed towards his office. Conner had been reporting for the past couple of hours that she had been unable to get through to Jim on the cell phone number Simon had given her. Each report tied knots in Simon's shoulders and gut. Each hour increased the danger.

Closing his door and locking it, he practically dove to his desk and picked up the phone. "Jim?"

"Hey, Simon."

Jim's voice sounded tired and strained, but that didn't stop it from sounding really, really good. "Man, where have you been? We've been trying to get a hold of you."

"I left the cell phone in my truck. Listen, Simon, I need you to do some homework for me."

"Where are you, Jim?" Simon crossed to his chair and picked up a pen. "I'll call the local police and have them pick you up."

"Listen to me, Simon, that won't be necessary. I need you to--"

"Brackett has escaped, Jim." Simon hated to state it like that, but Jim wasn't cooperating; best to cut to the chase. "So has Alex Barnes. We think they hooked up."

"Dammit," Jim whispered. "I had a feeling."

That brought Simon up short. "What? What do you mean you had a feeling?"

Simon listened as Jim quickly explained everything that had happened over the past few days, ending with the white noise generator and Blair's abduction. During the report, Simon had slumped in his chair, his face falling.

"Geez, Jim," Simon whispered into the phone. "Man, I'm sorry."

"It's not your fault, Simon. It's mine."

"C'mon, Jim -- "

"Dammit, Simon, if I had ignored Blair's request to not search for him, if I had followed my gut instinct and went after him right away, this would not be happening. He'd be safe."

"You don't know that. Alex still could have come after him. It sounds like she's hell-bent on having him for herself."

"At least I would have been with him. Instead he was alone, Simon."

Simon paused, weighing whether or not to say the thoughts tumbling through his mind. Daring to take the risk, Simon said softly, "Jim, if you had gone after Blair when he asked you not to, there's no guarantee he would have stayed. There's no guarantee your friendship would have survived."

The silence on the other end of the phone cut through Simon, but he waited it out. In the beginning, after Jim had brought Sandburg in and asked to have him as a ride-along, Simon doubted if his detective really wasn't sick in the head. Over the years though, the differences between the two men were what made them the perfect partnership. The friendship that had emerged still amazed Simon. Though neither said it, the way they acted toward one another, how they spoke of each other, proved that both Jim and Blair appreciated that bond as well.

When Blair left, it wasn't the loss of the partnership that nearly killed Jim. It was the loss of that friendship.

"You're probably right, Simon, but that isn't going to help me find Blair. The homework I wanted you to do was to follow up on Brackett. The white noise generator is what made me think of him. Now that I know for sure, getting Blair back is even more imperative. I know what Barnes will do to him, but there's no telling what Brackett will do."

"Jim, I've got two agents here. They're the ones who told us about Barnes and Brackett. They claim FBI, their credentials say FBI, but we think they're CIA."

"Simon, you have to keep them out of this. If they know even the area where Brackett is, they'll come after him and won't care who gets killed in the process."

"But if they can find Brackett, and we work with them…"

"Please, Simon, I know how these guys work. You can't trust them."

Simon nodded. He knew that already. "What do you want me to do?"

"See if you can get your hands on the transcripts of Alex's therapy sessions. Maybe something in there might point us in the right direction. I'll work from down here. Contact me on the cell phone; I'll be sure to carry it with me this time. There's one thing I can still do."

"What's that?"

A pause. "I don't think you want to know, Simon."

"Oh, one of those things again."

"Trust me, I don't like this anymore than you do, but it helped lead me to Blair in Las Vegas in the first place. I'm hoping it'll help me find him now."

"All right. We'll work from here. And Jim?" Simon leaned forward in his chair, taking hold of one of the figurines on his desk and studying it.

"Yes, sir?"

"Be careful."

Another pause, then a firm, "Yes, sir. You, too," and the phone went dead.

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

Las Vegas, Nevada

Jim stared at the cell phone in his hand, grateful that the angry words he and Simon had exchanged a week ago had done nothing to their friendship. It was good to have Simon working backup. Closing the phone, he handed it back to Fitzwilliam.

"So, we're paid up," Fitzwilliam stated firmly, giving the phone to one of his men.

"Yes, we are. What about you and Blair?"

Fitzwilliam studied the dispersing crowd for a moment, then gazed at Jim, determination in his green eyes. "Tell me what you need."

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

October 29, 1999

Sierra Verde, Mexico

The sound of flies buzzing around his head was the first thing Blair became aware of. The second was the dry, nasty taste in his mouth. After that, he realized he couldn't move his arms or legs. Blinking rapidly, his eyes opened, only to close again at the sharp light that hit them. Rolling his head back, wishing he could use his hands, Blair sat for a moment, trying to rid himself of the headache that had suddenly made an appearance.

"You awake?" a deep voice asked.

Shocked, Blair opened his eyes, moaning when the light hit again. Squinting against the glare, he studied his surroundings. The light filtered through a thin, nylon tent, the screen windows rolled up, the doorway tied shut. Blair himself was trussed up hand and foot to a sturdy pole, his hands behind his back. Rope bit painfully into the skin around his wrists. He still wore his Mirage uniform, though someone had taken his shoes and socks.

"I was really afraid you were dead, Professor Sandburg," the voice said again. Blair focused his blurry vision across the tent, blinking rapidly to clear the film over his eyes.

"Wh-who are you?" he asked.

"Doctor Velbrig. Remember, we met once shortly after my group established this site."

Blair's vision gradually cleared and Dr. Velbrig came into focus. A handsome Black man, Dr. Velbrig was tied up to a pole much like Blair, his tan shirt sweat-ridden and open at the chest. His full lips were cracked and one sore bled. Creases at his eyes and forehead were filled with dirt.

"Dr. Velbrig?" Blair tried to recall the man. Slowly the memory bubbled up from his still muddled mind. "You came to Rainier a year ago, right?"

"Correct. I wanted to meet with you before I and my team started our excavation."

"Excavation?" Blair shook his head, trying to clear his mind. As though someone had turned on a light switch, he remembered. Dr. Velbrig and his archeology students from Stanford had won the rights to head the investigation into the Temple of the Sentinels found outside of Sierra Verde. He and his teaching assistant had traveled to Cascade to interview Blair. "But what are you doing in Nevada?"

"Nevada?" Dr. Velbrig tilted his head to one side. "My dear young man, you are in Mexico, outside Sierra Verde. You were brought some time ago. I was quite worried about you."

Sierra Verde? How did he get to Sierra Verde? "I'm sorry, Dr. Velbrig, my mind seems a little hazy right now. Who brought me here?"

"I don't know exactly who she is. She appeared a few months back with paperwork from the government stating that my team and I were to clear out. I tried to appeal but I was shut out. My team and I gathered what we could and left."

"A woman?" Blair's memory returned bit by bit. He shifted slightly to get comfortable on the hard ground, only to wince as the ropes gnawed unbearably into his wrists. He hissed through his teeth. A memory flashed before his eyes, of The Mirage docking area…a van…two men and…

Blair gasped. "Alex Barnes."

"Barnes, yes, that's her name. You know her?"

Paying only partial attention to Dr. Velbrig, Blair nodded. Yes, he knew her. She had injected something into his neck. That must be why he had a hard time clearing his head and why it felt like a skunk had died in his mouth. Hopefully she hadn't done any permanent damage. He closed his eyes, trying to remember the events of the past several days. He had been in Las Vegas, had asked Mal to keep his eyes and ears open for someone who might be asking after him. He had started his shift at The Mirage like normal, had been explaining Blackjack to an elderly woman, heard a jaguar growl…

A jaguar. Jim.

Memory flooded freely now. Blair had been dealing Blackjack and Mrs. Unger had had several questions. During Blair's instruction, he had heard a cat growl, had looked up and seen a black jaguar leap onto one of the craps tables. It hadn't acknowledged him, instead had stared at the bar. As suddenly as the vision had appeared, though, it disappeared. Shortly after, he went on break and was grabbed by two men. They had dragged him to the docking area. That's when he saw Alex.

Blair swallowed down the distaste that filmed his mouth, and not just from whatever drug had been used on him. The way Alex had touched him, spoke to him, he felt filthy just thinking about it. And then Jim had appeared. Completely out of nowhere, he had leapt from the docking bay and shouted Alex's name. If a UFO had landed right there and Elvis himself had appeared, Blair could not have been more shocked. He'd had a feeling Jim was near, but twenty-feet away had not been considered. The relief at seeing him had nearly sent Blair to his knees, and even in that dangerous situation the easy banter they had shared erased all Blair's fear at what awaited him in Cascade. Their friendship seemed still intact.

Then Blair had seen the men above the docking bay and realized Jim hadn't heard them. Blair watched as Jim went down, doubled over in pain. That was the last thing he remembered; that, and the deep fear that, after coming so close, Blair may have lost everything again.

He bowed his head, eyes squeezed tightly shut, forcing down the fear that Jim might have been seriously hurt.

"Are you okay, Professor Sandburg?"

"Don't call me that," Blair whispered. He glanced up. "I'm no longer a fellow at Rainier. Please, just call me Blair."

Dr. Velbrig nodded. "Then you may call me Theodore. Formality, I fear, is lost in this wilderness among so many individuals of ill repute."

Blair chuckled, remembering how the doctor's formal speech had made him laugh during their last visit at Rainier. He glanced around the tent once more, blinking the sweat out of his eyes. The air was stuffy and humid in the tent and he already wished someone had opened up his shirt as they had Dr. Velbrig's.

"So how long have you been here, Theodore? I thought you said you and your team pulled out."

"We did. However, I gained permission from Stanford to attempt communication with the Mexican government and perhaps reacquire the site. We had enjoyed a good relationship over the past year; I was hard pressed to find a reason why we would be ousted so readily."

"What did you find out?"

Dr. Velbrig made a face. "Nothing from them. Plenty here. I couldn't accept their excuses. They didn't make any sense. So, I did some investigation and discovered that Ms. Barnes had set up her own site."

"What?" Blair jerked forward in surprise, causing his wrists to rub against the wooden pole. He moaned as pain shot through his arms, sending spots in front of his eyes.

"Blair? Blair, are you all right?"

Dr. Velbrig's voice disappeared in the agony that pounded behind Blair's eyes and sent him into oblivion.

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

1am, October 30, 1999

Las Vegas Airport

The cell phone barely finished its first ring before Simon answered it. "Banks," he barked.

Jim slammed shut the driver's door of his truck. Slinging the pack he had filled earlier over his shoulder, he jogged across the tarmac towards the sleek private jet waiting for him. "Simon, this is Jim. I know where Alex is taking Blair."

"Sierra Verde."

Stumbling to a halt, Jim stared dumbfounded at the phone. Pressing it to his ear again he asked, "H-how did you know, sir?"

"We're detectives, Jim, remember? Besides, it seems our Rafe has been keeping secrets from us. He has a contact at Leavenworth and managed to get us the transcripts of Alex's psych evals. For several months before her escape, she was talking about reconnecting with the eye of God. There's also something in here about a companion. I presume she means Brackett, but I'm not certain."

Jim had started for the jet again. The pilot waited for him at the door. Slipping past the man, Jim dropped his pack into one seat as he sat in another. "I'm on my way to Sierra Verde now, sir. Can you contact the local authorities and tell them what's going on?"

"Will do. How are you getting there?"

"Let's just say a friend of Blair's is helping out and leave it at that, shall we, sir?"

"I don't like the sound of that, Ellison."

"You'd hate the explanation too, sir."

Simon growled. "All right. I'll contact the capitan. Do you want me to get him to send some men with you?"

"No, sir, got that covered. Have him ready, though, just in case. Tell Rafe good job. I'll be in contact." With that, he closed the phone and settled into his seat.

Whatever Blair had done to earn the generosity of Mal Fitzwilliam must have been a doozy. Once Jim had announced to Fitzwilliam he knew where Blair was, the man put things into motion quickly. The private plane was only part of the deal. He hoped Fitzwilliam didn't welch on the other promises.

Closing his eyes, Jim reached out to his animal spirit once more, allowing the connection to flow over him. It was becoming increasingly easy to tap into this mystical side of his senses, but that didn't mean it was becoming more comfortable. He doubted he'd ever get used to this. Give him good detective work any day; he almost envied Brown, Rafe and the others, uncovering the clues through old-fashioned hard work. Once Sandburg was safe and things were back to whatever passed for normal, Jim would be back to reality.

This forced vacation sure didn't turn out the way he thought it would.

The howl of a wolf broke into his thoughts. Eyes still closed, he cringed at the sound. The wolf he still couldn't quite see was in pain.

"Hang on, Chief," Jim whispered, "just hang on."

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

Sierra Verde, Mexico

Water trickled down the sides of Blair's face, wetting his lips. Licking the cool nectar, he slowly climbed from the heavy darkness holding him and opened his eyes. A chill still shook his body.

He looked up into the cool blue eyes of Alex Barnes.

"You had me worried, Blair," Alex said without emotion, patting Blair's sweaty face with the rag she had just used to drip water. "Apparently even unconscious you don't like to be tied up. You rubbed your wrists raw. If you promise not to make me or my men shoot you, we'll keep your arms free. Your feet, however, will remain shackled."

Blair nodded in agreement. He tried to talk, but was unable to speak past the dryness in his throat. Alex tipped a cup to his lips and he drank greedily. Once his thirst abated, Blair looked around. He lay on a sturdy cot in a larger tent than the nylon one; this one was thicker, made of dark green canvas. Something hummed across the span of the tent, and Blair could only guess it was an air conditioner of some kind since the tent was obviously cooler than the other.

He peered up at Alex, drawn once more by her beauty. She hadn't changed much in almost two years. Flawless skin, full ruby lips, high cheekbones…Her blond hair was cut though and now fell in a straight bob above her ears and neck. She dressed in sturdy army camouflage, but her beauty even made that uniform seem elegant. The eyes, however, reflected the deepest change.

Blair remembered the emotions reflected in those deep blue eyes, the innocence at first, when he started to train her abilities, then the flat brutality when she had marched him to that cold fountain and took his life. He even remembered the glassy eyed psychosis as she was carried out of the temple on a stretcher. Somehow, though, the eyes that gazed at him combined all those emotions and more. If Blair didn't know better, he'd swear he looked into the face of madness.

Shaking his head, ridding himself of those thoughts - he was still too muddled to deal with the fear those thoughts brought up - Blair shifted his gaze to stare at the canvas top.

"Where's Dr. Velbrig?" he asked, his voice low and scratchy.

Alex smiled. "Of all the questions that you want to ask, that's the first one?" She stood and crossed the tent, allowing Blair a better view of the posh interior. Blankets draped one side of the tent and pillows cushioned the floor. A wood stove stood in the center, a long cylinder stretching up beyond the point of the tent. A portable air conditioner sat in one corner. "Hungry?"

Slowly, Blair sat up, noting that his feet indeed were still shackled and chained to an iron rod at the base of the cot. Testing the sturdiness of the rod, Blair replied, "I could eat."

"Good. You're going to need your strength. Tomorrow we go into the room."

Shifting into as comfortable a position as possible given the shackles and his wrapped wrists, Blair peered up at Alex as she handed him a bowl of soup. The aroma rising with the steam set his stomach growling. "The room?"

She handed him a spoon then pulled a chair over to sit across from him. "Yes. The room of the Sentinel's Companion."

Blair's hand froze as he spooned up the soup. "What are you talking about?"

Alex smiled triumphantly and leaned forward. "I'm talking about the room that I had been too busy to notice before. The room that describes everything that I should have known before going into the grotto."

Soup forgotten, Blair's eyebrows creased in question. He knew Alex was leading him, and he had to admit he was hooked. "Alex, you told Jim yourself that the illustrations on the walls of the grotto told you everything you needed to know."

"Yes, for the experience. But I missed something, Blair, something vital." She paused, peering at him with those maddened eyes. Blair tried to look away but couldn't. "I missed the Companion symbols."

"What are you talking about, the Companion symbols?"

"In your essays, Blair, you said that every Sentinel needed a companion, someone to watch his back, someone to help the Sentinel."

"To help him protect the tribe, yes," Blair clarified. "But you weren't using your gifts to protect a tribe, Alex."

"Which is why the grotto burned me." Her voice shook, rising and lowering in an awkward cadence. She grinned at him, causing Blair to scoot away until he nearly fell off the other side of the cot. "I had no companion, Blair. If I had, things would have been different. I know that now. Jim was not burned by the grotto because of your connection. You guided him through the grotto; because of you he was able to control the effects of the tonic. Now that I understand your importance, you'll be going into the room in the morning and then you'll help me through the grotto. With your guidance, my Sentinel abilities will return to normal."

Emotions fought for control inside Blair: curiosity, amazement, sadness. He could remind Alex that it hadn't been Blair who walked Jim through the grotto, that Blair had been bound and held hostage by a Mexican gunrunner at the time. He could explain that Jim had called out to another Shaman, now long dead, to help him in his hour of need. It amazed Blair that after all this time, even after discussing his feelings with Jim, he still felt hurt that it had been Incacha whose help Jim had sought. Revealing something like that to Alex would probably put her over the edge she teetered so precariously on; more than that, though, it would be sharing something too personal.

On the other hand, the anthropologist he would always be, despite what the Board of Regents at Rainier thought, wanted to learn more; questions piled on top of one another, demanding to be asked. One look at the madness on Alex's face, however, stopped him.

"I can't do that, Alex. Even if I knew how, I…won't."

Alex's excitement cooled instantly, then melted into red fury. She stood, the motion sending her chair flying, and screamed. "You will help me, Blair Sandburg. You promised years ago you would."

"When was that, Alex?" Blair found himself asking even as he cringed before the tormented woman before him. "Before or after you killed me?"

Alex grabbed the front of Blair's shirt, pulling his face within inches of hers. "You will help me now or I will kill you again!"

Blair swallowed noisily, fear sending his heart pounding. The decision lay before him all too clearly. Alex had lost her Sentinel abilities after going into the grotto the second time; years of recovery had either not restored them or her ability to control them had been lost. Either way, she was convinced that this Companion's room - whatever that was - would enable her to regain them. Blair was the key to that. He could help her become a Sentinel again, or he could die.

But there was no guarantee he wouldn't die anyway.

And then there was Jim.

If Blair did live through this, and did help Alex, how could he possibly face Jim? The whole reason behind the fallout surrounding Alex's appearance two years ago was that Jim, as a Sentinel, felt as though Blair, as his partner, had betrayed him. It had nothing to do with being a cop; it had nothing to do with their friendship. They had nearly lost everything because Blair had betrayed his Sentinel by secretly helping another Sentinel bent on hurting their tribe. Helping Alex now would be doing the exact same thing.

Even if it meant dying once more, he couldn't do that. He couldn't betray Jim again.

"No," Blair whispered, his gaze never wavering from the madness in front of him.

Alex jerked away, glaring at him, her breaths coming in quick, angry rasps. Her beautiful features creased with her fury. With an ear-shattering scream, she pulled a gun from the holster at her hip and aimed it between Blair's eyes. In an instant his life would be over, and Alex would be the one to end it once more. Funny that his last thoughts were not of his mother, but of the friend for whom he was about to sacrifice everything. At the last instant, Blair squeezed his eyes shut.

"Alex, stop!" a strangely familiar voice roared.

Blair opened his eyes to watch someone burst through the entrance of the tent, leaping at Alex and pulling her to the ground. A round shot out and Blair curled up into a ball in reflex. The bullet whizzed overhead, puncturing the canvas wall. Two people wrestled below him, until flesh smacked something hard, followed by a groan. When Blair opened his eyes, he saw Alex lying unconscious on the ground, someone lying on top of her.

Alex's assailant rolled off the unconscious woman and faced Blair. Blood ran cold through Blair's veins; his heart seemed to stop for an instant, his eyes widened.

"Hello, Mr. Sandburg," Lee Brackett greeted, smiling winsomely.

"No," Blair barely breathed, gripping the side of the cot until his knuckles went white.

"Oh yes." Brackett grabbed Alex's gun and swung hard, connecting with Blair's head, driving him into welcome oblivion.

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

Dawn, October 30, 1999

Jungles outside Sierra Verde, Mexico

Several jeeps painted in camouflage pulled up in front of Jim's vehicle. Warily he watched as a tall, broad-shouldered man exited the passenger side of the lead jeep, an automatic rifle slung over one shoulder. Face painted to match the fatigues he wore. If Jim didn't know any better, the man could have passed for a Ranger.

Exiting his own vehicle, Jim hefted his pack out of the back end and slung it over his shoulder. Morning sunlight filtered through the wilderness surrounding them, streaming through the canopy of treetops and dotting the ground. Jungle sounds echoed from the foliage, a humid yet sweet taste hung in the air. Jim's senses seemed to sharpen and he didn't know if it was because of being in the jungle again or because he was so near the Temple of Light. Whatever the reason, they were keener than they had been in months. Surprisingly he found he had missed them. Strange.

"Ellison?" the burly man asked, stepping forward to meet Jim in the space between their vehicles.

Jim nodded, jaw tight, muscles bunched. He scanned the other vehicles, noting quickly the number of men and weapons.

"I'm Michaelson." He stretched out a hand in greeting. "Mr. Fitzwilliam has asked us to assist you in your…hunting… expedition."

Jim shook Michaelson's hand, noticing the menacing glint to the man's eyes. "I appreciate your help."

"No gratitude necessary, Ellison. Fitzwilliam has paid all our expenses and then some." He motioned toward another vehicle and a slighter-built man jumped from the back, jogging up to Michaelson. "This here is Satellite. He's done some recon work."

Satellite pulled a rolled tube of paper from the front of his shirt. Laying it out on Michaelson's jeep, he proceeded to explain the images. Jim didn't need the explanation. At first glance he understood what was going to be expected to get Sandburg away from Alex and Brackett.

"This is a satellite projection of the region from the coordinates you sent us," Satellite said, bony fingers pointing to thin red lines on the photograph. He pointed to several objects a lighter red. "Near as I can figure, there are twenty-five people in this encampment. They're gathered around this area, few recons here, here and here." He pointed to separate areas on the map where two or three red objects appeared. "No one goes further than about a mile. The others guard the camp. From what I can tell, they've got an armory." Satellite looked up at Michaelson. "Could be Menesquez's men. They take guns to baptisms."

Michaelson nodded, lips pursed as he studied the map. He glanced up at Jim. "This what you were expecting?"

Tilting his head slightly, Jim cocked an eyebrow at Michaelson. "From you or from Brackett?"

"Both." The man's face remained perfectly straight, but Jim had had experience with men like Michaelson before - stern expressions with a taste of dry humor.

"Yes, for the target area. We're talking former CIA; Brackett would make certain his assets were well protected. As for you, I'd hoped Fitzwilliam was serious when he said the best. Glad to see my hope wasn't vain."

"Fitzwilliam gets nothing less than the best." Michaelson straightened. "This is your game. How do we proceed?"

"How quiet can your men be, Michaelson?"

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

When Blair's eyes opened once more, his world had an odd green tint to it. Rising from his cot, he noticed the shackles had been removed from his ankles and his wrists were no longer bandaged. Instantly he understood and started searching the tent for his gray wolf spirit guide. He was surprised when the wolf didn't appear.

Crossing the tent, he lifted the flap and stepped outside. At least, he thought he would step outside. Instead, he walked straight into a stone chamber with a warm fire casting an eerie glow across the walls. A woven rug sat on the ground beside the fire; next to it stood a clay chalice. Power emanated from the room, seeping into Blair's body like heat. Surveying the room, he grew excited to note figures etched into the walls.

Before he could investigate, a low growl echoed behind him and he turned towards it, hoping to find his spirit guide. A black jaguar, however, crossed the room, settling comfortably on the woven rug. It peered up at Blair with golden eyes that caught and reflected the fire. That steady gaze radiated an overwhelming feeling of safety and home; Blair felt it to his very soul. If he hadn't known it before, the calm gaze of his Sentinel's jaguar confirmed it: returning to Cascade and whatever life awaited him there had been the right decision.

The jaguar tilted its head, ears flicking. Blair knelt on the warm floor, sitting in lotus position, studying the cat, wishing it would talk or change into the Sentinel Jim that usually communicated in Jim's visions. Anything but lie there and stare at him.

Held by that steady gaze, Blair's eyes lost focus. Gradually a connection filled Blair's body, linking him to a very familiar presence. Anxiety filled him, but at the same time a determination he had never felt before. A determination that was not his own.

Then Blair knew. Jim was coming. Blair smiled as relief flooded through him.

The jaguar stood, moved from the woven rug and sat on its launches. It continued to gaze at him.

"What?" Blair asked the cat as it continued to stare at him. "What do you want me to do?" The cat looked at the rug then back at Blair. "You're as ambiguous as your Sentinel, man, you know that?"

The jaguar's tail flicked anxiously, a low growl emanating from its throat. With a sigh, hoping that he was right, Blair stood and crossed to the rug. When Blair sat on the rug, the jaguar roared victoriously; uniting with that beautiful sound was a wolf's howl.

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

"Wake up!"

A smart slap on his cheek tore Blair free of the vision and he immediately opened his eyes. Then moaned and closed them again. His head pounded relentlessly, his wrists ached, his ankles hurt, and the left side of his face seemed awfully warm and stiff. Awkwardly he turned onto his stomach and buried his face in the rigid cot. Reality sucked.

"I said wake up, Sandburg!"

"Just go away," Blair groaned into the cot.

A clicking sound reached his ears. Blair knew that sound. Fighting the pain, he lifted his face from the cot and looked up at the barrel of a gun held by the steady hand of Lee Brackett.

"I was so hoping you had been a nightmare, man," Blair mumbled.

"I am," Lee replied. He leaned in and grabbed Blair by the collar, lifting him off the cot. "Your worst."

Ignoring the fact that Blair's shackles caused him to trip every now and then, Lee dragged Blair out of the tent and into the sunshine. A chill breeze touched the air and by the golden glow of the sky Blair figured it to be dawn. He didn't know which day it was, though; he had lost track of those. Tripping across the uneven ground, yelping with each sharp rock or tree branch that bit into his bare feet, Blair helplessly followed Brackett across a campsite of six tents and equipment. The scent of brewed coffee and bacon attacked his nose and his stomach grumbled.

He continued to stumble behind Brackett along a worn path and up a slope, ignoring the scenery around him until stone blocks with carvings caught his attention. Disregarding the pain in his feet and the pounding in his head, Blair looked around, recognizing his surroundings. It had been cleaned up a bit by the archeologists from Stanford, but Blair recognized the grounds of the Temple of Light. He should. He had committed it to memory years ago.

A stone jaguar stood at the entrance of an archway with a square symbol etched into the top stone; an engraved eye stared down at them from the square. Brackett pulled Blair through the archway. Before them loomed the temple. Déjà vu swept over him. When Blair had first come to this temple he and Conner had been captives of a local arms dealer hunting Alex and the nerve gas she had stolen from Cascade. Held at gunpoint then, just as he was now. One of these days he'd really like to visit this place without his life being threatened.

Despite the danger surrounding him, though, Blair couldn't help but be awed. Two thousand years ago, this place had been built for the Mayan Sentinels. Men who protected their tribes sought out this sacred temple to refocus, seek spiritual strength, and find answers by clearing their thoughts and sharpening their senses. It was overwhelming to walk the same path of the very beings Blair had dedicated his life to studying.

Not to study any longer, though. That was behind him. Now, he was ready to dedicate his life to protecting the Sentinel who had walked into his life four years ago.

Brackett shook Blair, jerking him from his thoughts. They had reached the base of the steps of the temple. Gathered there were men and women dressed in fatigues identical to what Alex had been wearing, each one holding an automatic weapon. Standing between two especially vicious looking men, Dr. Velbrig looked haggard and worn. Chains held both his wrists and ankles; he peered at Blair from a bruised face.

Alex Barnes stood next to the doctor. She had changed from the fatigues she had worn earlier - a day ago, two days, a week? How long had it been? She now wore a black tank top and slacks. Déjà vu struck again as an image came to his mind of a younger, intent Alex Barnes, dressed similarly, leading Jim through this very forest to these very steps. Blair shook his head, ridding it of the image and queasiness in his stomach. Every time he thought of the hold Alex had had over Jim back then it made him ill. It had hurt to see Jim so out of control. It had hurt to see him needing to protect the woman who had so coldheartedly killed Blair.

It had taken some time, but he and Jim had gradually worked through the emotional upheaval following those events. But deep down, Blair had been unable to resolve the torment of Jim's feelings toward Alex. Hopefully she wouldn't affect Jim like that again. If he ever showed up.

"Beautiful, isn't it?" Alex asked, gesturing up the steps. "I had forgotten the power emanating from the very stones." She turned bright blue eyes on Blair. In those eyes sanity had returned. "Can you feel it?"

Blair nodded. "It's a powerful place."

Alex gazed at him almost fondly and smiled pleasantly, smoothing the hardness from her face. This was the Alex he wanted to remember - the one seeking knowledge about her abilities, the one for whom he had come to care. But as quickly as that Alex had arrived, she disappeared behind the madness.

Sadly, Blair shook his head and focused on the battered doctor next to Alex. "How are you, Theodore?"

"I am well," Dr. Velbrig replied in a weary voice. "I am glad to see you, Blair."

Alex stepped forward. "This is your last chance, Blair," she stated firmly. "Help me or suffer the consequences."

Even as he shrank inside from fear, Blair shook his head. "I won't help you, Alex. Kill me if you have to, but I won't betray Jim again."

"Jim? Is that what this is all about?" She came forward, menacing, glaring down at him from the step she was on. "He doesn't care about you, Blair. He pushed you away."

"You don't know anything about it, Alex," Blair snapped, eyes narrowing. "So I'd leave it alone if I were you."

He expected Alex to erupt in fury as she had before and was surprised when she didn't. Instead, she motioned towards the others. A group of four men stepped forward, lifted their rifles and aimed them at Dr. Velbrig. Blair's mouth went dry.

Brackett chuckled, placing a hand on Blair's shoulder and gesturing with his gun. "You see, the consequences have changed, Mr. Sandburg. If you don't assist us, then our good meddlesome doctor will pay the price." He leaned forward until his lips barely touched Blair's ear. "You wouldn't want that on your noble conscious, now would you?"

Cringing from Brackett's touch, Blair met Dr. Velbrig's frightened gaze. He understood what the man must be feeling; it had taken only a few days after hooking up with Ellison for Blair to come face to face with automatic weapons. It's a stomach-turning experience.

Blair's shoulders slumped as he realized the choice had been taken out of his hands. It was no longer about defending his Sentinel. It was now about saving an innocent life. He half smiled at Dr. Velbrig.

"About now you're thinking your natural curiosity is a curse, huh?"

Dr. Velbrig nodded. "I am sorry, Blair."

Blair shrugged. "No problem, man." He turned to Brackett. "All right, whatever you want me to do, I'll do. Just let him go."

"We will," Alex answered, stepping over rocks and twigs to stand next to Brackett. "As soon as you do your part."

"No way, man, I know how these things go. You get me to do what you want and the hostage still gets shot. You gotta give me more than that."

Brackett smiled, patting Blair on the back. "You've changed, Sandburg. No longer naïve, huh? Thanks to good ole Jim, I'm sure. Tell you what we'll do. We'll let Velbrig go. He can walk out into the wilderness right now. You do exactly as you're told, and he's home free. You don't, and we'll send trackers out to get him." Brackett's smile vanished. "And trust me, they'll find him."

"If you send Theodore out there alone in his condition, he'll die."

"There's always a chance he'll be rescued," Alex explained, resting an elbow on Brackett's shoulder. "Mexican police patrol this area somewhat regularly. I do believe the next patrol is due within the next day or two." Her smile faked pleasantry. "It's the best offer you're getting, my dear Blair. At least the man has a chance."

Some chance. Blair gazed from his captors to their other captive. If it was all they were giving him, then he had to take it. Dr. Velbrig had experience in wilderness survival. He'd have a better chance than facing off with these lunatics.

"Will you at least give him shoes and socks and some water?" Blair asked, defeated.

"It's the very least we can do," Alex replied, shrugging. She looked at Brackett. "Dear, why don't you get our good doctor on his way while I get Blair settled?"

"My pleasure, darling," Brackett replied. He pulled Alex towards him and kissed her deeply. Blair looked away, sickened. "What's the matter, Sandburg? Jealous?" Brackett laughed as he passed Blair, cuffing him on the back of the head.

"Yeah, let's go with that," Blair mumbled, rolling his eyes.

"Bring him," Alex ordered the remaining soldiers as she started up the steps.

Alex's men towed Blair up after her. The pain in his feet and wrists kept time with the pounding in his head. As he climbed the temple steps, he prayed that his vision had been correct and that Jim was really on his way.

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

Blair had never wanted to return to the Temple of the Sentinels. Although he had spent many hours researching to uncover the truth of the temple, the experiences surrounding the actual discovery had cured him of that particular curiosity. And the nightmares. Those had definitely cured him.

Yet here he stood, again, peering into the grotto in almost the same plight as he had two years ago. He was really getting tired of all this déjà vu. He was ready to go home.

"Isn't it beautiful?" Alex asked, eyes wide with awe. In torchlight, the angry lines had softened once more.

Shifting his gaze around the room, Blair had to admit Alex was right. Even in the relatively dim light, the stone walls glowed. The swirls and arches of the engravings illustrated a stunning language carefully etched with a steady hand. Water in two stone, rectangular pools reflected the light of the grotto.

A shudder suddenly passed through Blair's shoulders as he stared at those pools. Two years ago Blair had nearly lost his Sentinel to that chamber. Jim had admitted to feeling the same wrench to return to the pools for the second time that Alex had given in to. Instead, he had refused the urge. Alex had not.

And she had gone mad.

"While incarcerated," Alex explained, moving around the stone area, touching the walls with reverence, "I often thought back to this place. My greatest pleasure." She grimaced. "And my worst pain." She turned to Blair, one hand still resting on a stone wall, her fingertips caressing the engravings. "If I had only known the power you have, Blair, I wouldn't have killed you."

Blair shook his head. "I have no power, Alex."

"Oh, but you do." She crossed the room to stand in front of him again. One hand lifted and caressed his stubbled face. He wanted to cringe, to run away, but the two armed men standing at the entrance of the grotto deterred that reaction. "You had the answers, Blair." Her sultry voice thickened as her fingers caressed his cheeks, brushed across his lips and traced down his neck to rest on his chest. "To every one of my sensory problems, you had the answer. You were patient and honest with me." Her eyes narrowed. "Well, mostly honest. If you had told me about Jim from the beginning, perhaps things would have ended differently."

"Oh?" Blair lifted one eyebrow, his voice dripping with sarcasm. "And how is that? If I had told you about Jim would you have left Cascade without harming it? Or would you have changed your ways and joined Jim in protecting his tribe? Maybe you wouldn't have killed me because I knew your secret? What kind of difference are you talking about, Alex?"

"I'm giving you a chance to be a Sentinel's Companion again, Blair, and you dare speak to me in such a tone?"

Anger overwhelmed fear, propelling Blair forward, one hand lifted in warning. "I am a Sentinel's Companion, Alex," he stated firmly, his voice low, determined. "But if I have to choose between death and guiding a twisted, power-hungry lunatic like you, I'd choose death."

Too swiftly for Blair to react, Alex pulled the gun from the holster at her hip with one hand as the other gripped a handful of his hair. His head tipped at a precarious angle, Blair felt himself pushed against a wall, the cold barrel of her weapon pressed into his neck.

"Alex." Lee Brackett's casual voice penetrated the gloom from somewhere behind them. The doorway maybe. "You know you don't want to kill him."

"He called me a lunatic," Alex hissed, her face in Blair's. "I'm not a lunatic." Blair swallowed loudly, biting his tongue to keep from contradicting the woman so close to killing him. Again.

"I know that, dear." Brackett's voice drew closer, but Blair didn't dare take his eyes from Alex's frenzied gaze. "I'm sure Blair is very sorry for saying something so stupid. Aren't you, Blair?"

Brackett touched the hand Alex had curled in Blair's hair. It took a moment, but that hand relaxed then finally disappeared. The gun, however, remained firmly planted against Blair's neck.

"C'mon, dear, let him go."

Brackett continued speaking calmly as he reached around Alex's shoulders and gently drew her away. He led her from Blair, stopping near one of the pools. Turning Alex towards him, Brackett continued to hold her firmly by the shoulders. She clung to the gun but eventually her furious gaze left Blair and shifted to Brackett. Blair let out a long breath. He'd really have to stop saying things like that out loud.

"Why don't you start your preparations, Alex," Brackett recommended calmly. "I'll take Blair to the room and get him settled." As he spoke, one hand left Alex's shoulder, traveled down the length of her arm and swiftly relieved her of the gun. "Sound like a plan?"

Alex peered at him a moment longer before nodding her head. "That sounds like a very nice plan," she breathed, the anger melting from her features once more. "Thank you, dear."

Brackett smiled fondly, amazing Blair at the honesty of such concern. Maybe the cold-hearted rogue had actually found feeling in that piece of coal he called a heart. Alex leaned forward and kissed Brackett long and hard then turned to the far wall and the pool waiting there. She crouched, picked up an earthenware chalice and walked quietly out of the room.

By the time Alex had left, Blair was breathing normally again, and Brackett had changed from the caring man of a moment before to the Lee Brackett he had come to know so well. Eyes flat with indifference, the fake smile returning to his lips, Brackett shifted slightly to study Blair. When he finally moved, he grabbed Blair by the shoulder of his shirt and dragged him out of the grotto and past the two guards.

"For a genius," Brackett was saying as he towed Blair around a corner and stopped, shoving him against a wall, "you certainly are an idiot. Let me explain something, shall I?" He tucked the gun he had taken from Alex into the back of his khaki slacks then crossed his arms over his chest. "The only reason you are still alive, Sandburg, is because Alex needs your help to get her Sentinel abilities back. Until she's balanced, shall we say, I'm the only thing between you and death, so I suggest that you curb that wayward tongue of yours and do exactly as you're told. I'm really getting tired of saving your ass."

"I didn't ask you to save my ass, Brackett," Blair replied. "I'm doing this to keep Dr. Velbrig alive. I couldn't care less if Alex gets her senses back. Personally, man, I don't think any of you know what you're talking about."

Brackett chuckled at that. Snapping his fingers towards the guards, he waited until one of them handed him a torch then he turned to the wall.

"Even while in Leavenworth, I still had my contacts on the outside," he explained as he searched the emblems on the wall. "When I heard the circumstances surrounding a new member of the psych ward, naturally I became curious. I found my way to her and we became fast friends."

"I'm sure," Blair said, rolling his eyes.

Ignoring him, Brackett continued. "She was a little fried when she first came to Leavenworth, but the things Alex mumbled in her catatonic state held my interest. In particular the word Sentinel. Aha, there it is." He smiled, then turned back to Blair. "So, I had some of my friends on the outside do a little investigating for me. They discovered the archeological dig set up here at the temple and managed to funnel to me copies of Dr. Velbrig's reports. Over the months, as Alex recovered, we pored over his findings. When Dr. Velbrig reported that they had inadvertently come across a hidden room by following a pattern of symbols he couldn't quite translate, we naturally became interested."

Grabbing Blair once more by the collar of his shirt - Blair was getting really tired of being hauled around like a sack of potatoes - Brackett pulled him forward and pointed to an emblem in the wall. "Recognize this?" he asked.

Anthropology instincts in control, Blair studied the symbol. He recognized the shape of the emblem Jim had described to him previously as representing "Sentinel". However, curled within the lines of the Sentinel emblem was another symbol that looked like a string of stars. After studying it a moment, and the markings surrounding it, Blair finally shook his head.

"I recognize this symbol," he murmured, brushing his fingertips over the Sentinel emblem. "But this…a string of stars. I don't…"

Brackett chuckled mirthlessly at him. "Some anthropologist you are, hmmm?" Blair cringed at that remark. "Dr. Velbrig sent rubbings of the markings along with his reports. Alex recognized them immediately - something innate, I suppose. Normally this emblem," he touched the string of stars, "is translated as 'inspiration'. According to Alex, it's a symbol used when representing a holy man, or a -- "

"Shaman," Blair finished for him, his voice a whisper.

"Right. But when scrawled together with the Sentinel symbol, it represents the one who guides the Sentinel. In your undergraduate papers, you called him a partner. I called him a guide. Alex translates this as the Sentinel's Companion. However you translate it, Sandburg, it all means the same thing."

Blair watched in amazement as Brackett shifted the rock beside the strange emblem. Stone brushing against stone echoed through the area as the wall moved and slowly swung open. Dust fell from the threshold onto both men and Blair coughed, covering his mouth with one hand as he swung the other to clear the fine particles in the air.

Still clinging to Blair's collar, Brackett moved forward. The torchlight did little to illuminate the dark room they entered. Blair could make out four walls with more markings but that was about it. Brackett tossed the torch, the flames sputtering as it flew through the air. When it landed, a flash ignited, forcing Blair to close his eyes against the assault. When he managed to open them again, his mouth dropped open in awe.

In the center of the room, the torch had ignited a pit. Flames danced and illuminated the entire room. Blair instantly recognized it. It was from his vision. A woven rug lay on the ground by the fire, an earthenware chalice set beside it.

"Velbrig sent rubbings from these walls," Brackett continued his explanation, walking around the small room. "Apparently, or as Alex interprets it, when a Sentinel comes to the temple he doesn't come alone. He brings his guide. While the Sentinel prepares for his enlightening experience in the pools, his companion prepares to guide him through that experience by meditating in here."

The information Brackett was sharing with him fell quickly into place with the cache of knowledge Blair had gathered through the years until finally he understood. "Just as the companion keeps the Sentinel grounded and guides him to protect the tribe," he muttered, making sense of his thoughts, "he also becomes a grounding source for the Sentinel while seeking focus and inspiration here in the temple."

Grinning, Brackett nodded. "Smart kid. Now you see why Alex got fried. She had no companion to keep her from going in a second time; no companion to keep her grounded."

There was only one thing wrong. "I'm not the one who guided Jim through the pools, Brackett. It came from another source."

Brackett thought about that a moment then shrugged. "Whatever you think, kid, but don't forget, I was there at the CIA installation four years ago. I saw how Jim relied upon you, how he trusted your direction and you two had barely hooked up then. Even in prison, I've kept my eyes on you guys. You've been a hobby of mine, shall we say, and I know that whether you were here physically or not, you were the reason Jim made it out of the temple on his own two feet and Alex didn't. I don't care what other source you say Jim used, you are the one who gave him the control he needed."

Blair stared open-mouthed at Lee Brackett. Ever since learning from Jim that he had called out to Incacha for help in the grotto, Blair had wrestled with jealousy. Since the beginning of their partnership, he had fought with Jim to trust him; at times it was like pulling teeth to get Jim to open up. After the events that led them to New Mexico and Two Eagles' patient guidance, Blair had thought things had changed. For a while afterwards, their partnership had been strained as they tried to gain a balance in both the worlds they had found themselves, but bit by bit Jim seemed to relax in the new definition of their friendship. Until the whole dissertation mess and Jim's reaction to it. All of Blair's insecurities about their partnership came floating to the top again after that.

But here Lee Brackett stood, an enemy and most definitely a crazy one, without even being present during their first experience with the Temple of Light, telling Blair that even he could see the trust Jim had. Blair's world suddenly tipped slightly and he had to sit down. Strange that he managed to sit on the woven rug. He peered up at Brackett.

"I didn't give Jim anything," Blair whispered, fighting the knot in his chest. "His control was always there, man. It was inside of him."

"Maybe. But you were the one who guided him to it."

Those words struck him deeply. Why was it that Brackett said these things to him? Inspiration certainly came from some weird sources.

"You have thirty minutes, Sandburg," Brackett stated firmly as he walked towards the entrance. "I suggest you use them wisely. And don't try to escape. Guards are outside this door and they have orders to shoot you down. Not to kill you, because your services will continue to be needed. But I promise you, my men will cause you lots of pain." He grinned maliciously, a glint in his eyes. "By the way, in case you haven't figured it out yet, this arrangement is permanent. Once Alex's senses are back, she'll still need a guide and guess who's been volunteered."

Brackett's heartless chuckling remained heavy in the air even after the door slowly swung shut. The closing of the door sounded strangely like the clang of steel bars, robbing Blair of his freedom.

Closing his tired eyes, shifting through the thoughts and emotions Brackett's words had called up, Blair drew his knees to his chest, causing the shackles to rub against his raw ankles. Ignoring the fiery pain, he rested his forehead on his knees.

Jim, where are you, man?

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

Theodore Velbrig, Doctor of Anthropology and well-known author of two books about survival in the South American jungles, was lost. It irritated him to admit that, but thankfully he didn't have to admit it out loud. Nor to any of his students. And, heaven forbid, to any of his colleagues! They would have a field day if they knew the great Dr. Velbrig couldn't tell which way was north. Of course, it didn't help that he was tired and hungry and that an hour ago he had taken the last swallow of his only water. He could use that as an excuse. But, bless whatever deity was watching over him right now, he didn't have to worry about that.

He was worried about that delightful boy, Professor Sandburg, however. No, no, not professor any longer. What had he said, no longer a teaching fellow? He'd have to look into that. What could have possibly happened that Rainier would let someone like Blair Sandburg go? Stupid people abounded everywhere, including at such well-respected institutions as Rainier. Perhaps Eli Stoddard could shed some light on the subject? Hadn't his friend mentioned something about Mr. Sandburg? Yes, yes, that would be the ticket. As soon as he found his way out of this jungle - and he'd had a long bath and an even longer meal - he'd contact Eli directly.

Now, however, he needed to move. The shade felt awfully nice, though. Still only early morning, the humidity of the jungle made it frightfully difficult to breathe and though what little breeze there was felt cool against his sweating body, it didn't negate the fact that it was awfully hot.

Pulling off his shredded shirt, he tied it around his head and, with a huff, stood once more. He knew which direction from whence he came - there was not chance one he'd go back in that direction - which left only the choice of continuing forward. If he remembered the map correctly, the direction that vile man Brackett had sent him in was towards a river. If he could get to that river and then follow it upstream, he'd come to Sierra Verde.

He hoped.

Well, it was a plan at any rate. He couldn't just sit here, after all. Mr. Sandburg - Blair - had sacrificed himself to save his life, after all. The least Theodore Velbrig could do was his best to actually live.

Starting off again, his mind caught up with the events of the last several weeks, he didn't realize he was walking into a trap until he stood in a clearing and five men dressed in fatigues surrounded him, pointing automatic weapons at his head. With a yelp, Theodore raised his hands over his head and fell to his knees.

"I thought your superiors promised that I could go free," he whimpered, wondering what Brackett's men were doing way out here. "Please, please don't shoot me." He bowed his head, waiting for the worst.

When nothing happened he looked up, surprised that several others had made their way into the clearing - he hadn't even heard them. One particularly silent man stepped forward. Steel blue eyes glared down at Theodore and he suddenly felt like a very small rabbit being hunted by a very large predator. Dressed similarly as the other men, a khaki bandana tied around his high forehead, face grim and determined, the man stood wordlessly studying Theodore. Fear left as Theodore studied the magnificent man in return. A warrior, if ever he had seen one.

"Dr. Velbrig?" the man finally asked, the severe cut of his features softening noticeably as he crouched in front of Theodore. "Dr. Velbrig, isn't it?"

Taken aback, Theodore lowered his arms. Now that the man was closer, the face did look familiar. Dirt and grime covered the cheeks and forehead, but didn't he look like…

"Detective Ellis?" Theodore whispered as memory came flooding back.

The man smiled. "Ellison," he corrected softly.

"Ah, yes." When Theodore and his assistant had traveled to Rainier shortly before heading to the excavation site they had secured, Blair had not been alone in his office. A tall, powerful looking man dressed in jeans and a corduroy shirt had been sitting in one of the chairs on the other side of Blair's desk. The two of them had been laughing at something when Theodore entered, and he remembered quite poignantly the feeling of camaraderie in the air.

Detective Ellison helped Theodore to his feet. "You look like you've had a bad day."

"Try a bad month. You would not believe what I've been through, Detective -- "

"Jim."

"Jim. If it hadn't been for young Blair, I would more than likely be dead…" His voice faltered at the expression on Jim's face.

"You've seen Blair?" he demanded. The other men closed in the circle. "Is he all right?"

What was that look on Jim's face? Concern, anger…fear? "He was when I left the site a while ago. That bitch of a woman…excuse my French…was leading him into the temple while her cocky boyfriend sent me on my way. Blair saved my life." He explained to the group everything about the last several days and what he could remember about why Ms. Barnes wanted Blair.

At the end of Theodore's explanation, one of the men peered curiously at Jim. "What's all this about a Sentinel?"

An even taller and broader man stepped forward. "We aren't paid to ask questions, Satellite," he barked. Turning to Jim he asked, "Do you understand what's going on?"

Jim nodded, still staring at Theodore. Or was he? Maybe staring through Theodore was closer to the truth.

"What's our next step?"

Breaking free of whatever trance held him, Jim turned to the broad man. "We get there as quickly and as quietly as we can. Call the rest of your group. Tell them to forget about taking out the recons. We need to get to the temple now." He turned to Theodore. "Find a shaded spot, Dr. Velbrig. We'll leave some water and food with you and another shirt. Rest up and keep out of sight. We'll be back for you. With Blair."

The determination in the eyes and the force of the voice brooked no argument, nor did it leave any doubt in Theodore's mind that what Jim said would happen, would happen. Relieved for himself and for Blair, he thankfully took the items and moved towards a shady spot to rest. The others started forward, but Theodore took Jim's arm before the man could go any further.

"You traveled all the way from America to find Blair?"

Jim nodded once then started forward again. Theodore held him back. "Blair's lucky to have a friend like you, Jim," he murmured.

The steely blue eyes softened, the clenched jaw relaxed. "That goes both ways, Dr. Velbrig." He patted Theodore on the arm. "Don't move and be quiet. We'll be back."

Theodore smiled as Jim Ellison turned and disappeared quickly and silently into the brush. "I believe you."

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

Something was wrong. It wasn't like Blair expected a full out vision, but a slight twinkle would have been nice. Instead, he sat in the heat of the quiet chamber listening to his deep breathing and staring at absolutely nothing.

Not that the chance to meditate was unwelcome. A lot had happened in a short period of time, and the silence allowed him to process what he could. But still, wasn't it requisite that a vision appear while seeking spiritual enlightenment?

The sound of the doorway sliding open drew Blair from the peaceful spot he had conjured in his mind - ironically, the loft, on a snowy day, with a fire burning in the fireplace and he and Jim sitting on the couches; Blair quietly sipping tea while Jim described to him the sound of snow fall. It was one of the warmer memories he cherished with his friend. He clung to that image as he opened his eyes and spotted Brackett entering the room, gun hanging casually at his side.

"You ready, Sandburg?" Brackett asked, stopping in the doorway.

"If I say no, will that make a difference?" The gun came up. "Didn't think so."

Brackett led him back to the grotto. Blair still didn't know what choice he would make. He knew Theodore's life was hanging in the balance of his decision, but he wasn't even certain he could help Alex, much less would he. He had used the past half-hour in the quiet chamber to sort out his life, not think about how he was going to help a Sentinel regain her abilities.

Alex sat on the stone edge of the farthest pool, her eyes glazed over and a whimsical smile on her lips. Blair recognized the vacuous expression on her face. He'd seen it enough on students who came to his classes drugged up; and he'd seen it plenty of times on the streets of Cascade working with Jim. Whatever was in the stone chalice she still gripped in one hand, it had dulled her to the outside world. Already she had begun the process of turning her mind inward, preparing for the spiritual enlightenment that Sentinels centuries ago had sought in these very same pools. If Blair were honest with himself - which at this very moment he couldn't help being - he'd have to admit that observing this ritual was rather exciting.

Now, if he could just get rid of the shackles chafing his ankles and the men standing in the doorway with guns, this could actually be a pretty pleasant experience.

"Your guide is here, Alex," Brackett said softly, stepping to the woman and gently removing the chalice from her hand.

She nodded and shifted from her position, lowering herself into the pool until just her face was above the water. Her blue eyes shimmered in the torchlight of the chamber. Her ruby lips parted.

Brackett stood silently watching her, something crossing his face that took Blair by surprise. What was that? Affection? Blair's shoulders shook with a chill as he wondered what twilight zone he had been dropped into.

"All right, Sandburg, do your thing." Brackett raised his weapon and aimed it directly at Blair. "If you screw up or cause her pain in any way, you're dead."

Blair studied the weapon, silently debating whether he had the fortitude to actually die instead of helping a woman who showed no true remorse about killing him. How could he help the very Sentinel who had caused Jim so much anxiety? And what would she do with her re-found abilities? Could Blair live knowing that he had been part of turning out into the world a lunatic Sentinel bent on doing evil?

Also, the question still remained if he could even provide the same grounding that Incacha had achieved for Jim all those years ago. Blair didn't even know the first thing to do; he had tried to decipher what he could from the walls of the Companion's chamber, but he had recognized only a handful of the symbols. Jim had explained briefly what happened with Incacha, but had never gone into details. What kind of assistance could Blair offer? And would it do more damage than good?

If he refused to help Alex, Brackett would kill him. If he did help Alex and hurt her in the process, Brackett would kill him. If he did help Alex and regained her abilities, he'd be forced by gunpoint for the rest of his life to guide her and that would kill him as well - not physically, but some deaths were worse than others.

Well, I'm going to die anyway, so

He had been about to tell Brackett to go to hell when rushing footsteps echoed from the corridor outside the chambers. Both men turned to see two of Brackett's men come charging into the room.

"Sir," one called out. "Our sensors show a group of men moving towards us from the northwest and northeast sectors of the jungle."

"How many?" Brackett demanded.

"Last count is fifteen."

"Fifteen? We have well over thirty men of our own at this site, Gregson. Why should we be concerned about fifteen nuisances?"

A dark-skinned man entered the room, dressed similarly as the others but with a black beret. Blair didn't remember seeing him in the camp earlier, but he presented an air of authority that reminded Blair of Simon.

"Because it's Michaelson's team," the man replied. "And where there are fifteen of them visible, there tend to be twice that, or more, we can't see."

Brackett frowned. "I've never heard of this Michaelson. Is he good, Menesquez?"

The man named Menesquez stepped forward, eyes focused on Brackett. "Let's just say that he and I split the difference in this business and it's not because we choose to."

A moan from behind Blair tore his attention from the discussion. He watched as Alex's eyes widened, her breaths heaving in quick, painful-seeming gasps. Without even thinking about it, he stepped to the pool and sat on the stone edge. Leaning forward slightly, he whispered Alex's name. Immediately the moaning ceased, the breathing eased, the gaze softened. Blair's brows creased in a mixture of concern and surprise. It was the same reaction Jim often had when in a zone-out.

"Michaelson usually works from Fitzwilliam's payroll," Menesquez's voice intruded on Blair's thoughts.

Blair jerked in surprise. "Mal Fitzwilliam?" he asked.

Menesquez glared at Blair. "You know him?"

Carefully, Blair relaxed into a pose of what he hoped appeared as indifference. "Heard of him. Out of Las Vegas, right?"

It was Brackett's turn to glare at Blair. Several seconds passed while Brackett studied his captive, then he let out a sharp breath, swearing. He turned back to Menesquez.

"Keep those men away from this site, do you understand me? It doesn't matter what you have to do, but not one of them is to get to this temple!"

Menesquez nodded; a savage cast to his dark features set his eyes on fire. "My pleasure." With a sharp gesture towards the men, he exited the room, leaving one man behind.

They waited in silence until the first gunshot started a barrage of discharges. Blair started to rise, but Brackett shifted and glared at him.

"He's out there, isn't he?" he asked.

Blair nodded; there was no use lying at this point. Brackett was smart and had put everything together from Blair's foolish remark about Mal. Whoever this Michaelson was didn't matter; Jim had made it.

"There must be something pretty special between the two of you for him to come all this way. Always thought your relationship was a little odd."

"You would," Blair replied without thinking. He really had to stop that. "Someone like you can't understand the concept of friendship. You put on the pretense that Alex means something to you, but I know what's really driving you. The thought of having your own Sentinel. Just imagine what places you can break into, the things you can steal. That's all you care about, man, what you get out of the relationship."

Lee Brackett never lost his cool, at least not that Blair had ever witnessed. Seeing the man turn red with rage was a new experience; being slammed over the head and knocked to the ground by that fury balled into a fist was an experience Blair didn't want to relive.

Grabbing Blair's hair and yanking back hard - what was it with these people and his hair? Even short hair still provided them with too much leverage - Bracket crouched beside Blair, pressing his lips close to his ear.

"He won't find you, Sandburg," he hissed. "Jim has come all this way and will die for his effort."

Before Blair could respond, Brackett stood and marched towards the doorway. He paused only long enough to say, "If Mr. Sandburg so much as twitches in the wrong direction, shoot him."

With that ominous order hanging in the air, Brackett walked out of the room. Staring at the man in the doorway and the vicious looking weapon now aimed in his direction, Blair painfully rose from the floor and returned to the edge of Alex's pool. Rubbing the tender spot on the side of his head, he listened as the echoing of weapons fire continued outside the temple. He knew Jim was out there, among all those flying bullets, and the desire to be by his side, working with him as they once had, was enough to overcome the fear of what the man at the doorway could do.

Bunching his muscles, he started to rise, thinking quickly how he could take out his guard.

"Blair," a painful gasp called to him from the pool.

Blair shifted once more to watch Alex. Her face creased into painful lines, her lips pursed. She gasped, one hand shooting from the water and gripping Blair's forearm.

"Help me," she gasped again.

The sound of weapon fire continued to echo through the air. Outside the temple, people were dying and Jim stood among them, but Blair could not refuse the painful pleading from the pool.

Making up his mind, he whispered a fervent, "Please forgive me, Jim," and bent to the task at hand. He didn't know what he could do, but the desire to assist the struggling Sentinel overcame any doubts.

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

Bullets ripped through leaves and brush as Brackett's men came at Michaelson's men with their entire artillery. Jim watched from his crouched position near the temple archway as two of Brackett's men went down. His hearing picked up the swearing of a particular angry individual who seemed to be in charge, and who didn't like Michaelson too much. When one of his men greeted him as Menesquez, Jim knew his assumption had been correct. As had Michaelson's. Apparently, there was more to this shootout than just freeing Sandburg. It had turned into a war between two very bitter enemies.

Inching his way through the lush foliage of the jungle, he passed the familiar stone archway and silently made his way to the steps of the temple. He had stretched out his hearing earlier, trying to distinguish from the many sounds surrounding him Blair's heartbeat or voice, but it grew difficult once the firing and shouting began. Now that most of the battle was behind him, he stretched out his hearing again.

< "He won't find you, Sandburg," > a familiar voice intruded on his hearing. < "Jim has come all this way and will die for his effort." >

"I don't think so," Jim whispered grimly.

< "If Mr. Sandburg so much as twitches in the wrong direction, shoot him," > Brackett ordered, his voice closer. That explained one of the additional heartbeats: a guard. The other must be Alex.

Snaking through the foliage he planted himself near the bottom step of the temple, waiting for Brackett. He dialed out the sound of gunfire around him, focusing only on the temple.

< "Blair." > Alex's familiar voice filled with pain caught Jim's attention. < "Help me." > Jim recognized the anguish in that voice. He had experienced it firsthand; had called out to Incacha for guidance while in the chamber pools. If it hadn't been for the Shaman's spirit - and Blair's patient training - Jim would never have survived his ordeal in those pools.

< "Please forgive me, Jim," > Blair whispered.

Jim didn't have to be in that room to know why his friend spoke those words. One of the things that he respected most about Blair Sandburg was his inability to pass up a call for help. At times, it got him into the worst trouble, but it also gave him a network of friends that surprised Jim. Mal Fitzwilliam being the perfect example. Although Blair aided a dangerous enemy right now, she was also a human in torment. Blair would never be able to walk away from that.

"I do, buddy," Jim replied.

His hearing caught footsteps descending the temple steps. Once Lee Brackett came into view, Jim stood, aiming his weapon.

"Hold it right there, Brackett!"

Lee Brackett stopped instantly. With that irritating, know-it-all smile, he raised his hands and slowly turned to face Jim. "Well, well, well. Hello, Jimmy."

Four years in prison had changed Brackett physically: his light brown hair was shorn into a buzz cut, which gave him a jarhead appearance; his face held more cruelty; and the fatigues he wore hid a much skinnier form.

"It's good to see you again," Brackett murmured.

"Toss the weapon, Brackett!"

With that infuriating smirk still on his face, he did so. "Now what?"

"Now we march back into the temple and we retrieve Sandburg."

Brackett chuckled, shifting into a more relaxed stance. "I see. You think it will be that easy, hmmm?"

Jim moved forward, grabbing Brackett by one arm and shoving him back up the steps. "If I were you, I wouldn't piss me off anymore than I already am. I may forget that I'm a police officer and just shoot you right here. Let's go."

The gunfire suddenly stopped and both men paused. Jim stretched out his hearing once more, a faint smile coming to his lips. Michaelson and his men were disarming what was left of Menesquez's squad.

"Looks like you've failed on both fronts, Brackett," he said. The disgusted grunt from his prisoner broadened Jim's smile. Gun pressed between Brackett's shoulder blades, Jim pulled out his radio. "Michaelson, this is Ellison. Over."

Static sounded for a moment, then the man's gruff voice came through. "All go on our end, Ellison. How about you? Over."

"I've got one and am going into the temple after the other. Sandburg is in there with her. Dispatch some of your men to meet me inside. Over."

"Will do. Over."

Replacing the radio, Jim shoved his gun into Brackett's back, urging him forward. At the top of the stairs, Blair's voice caught his attention.

< "Alex?" >

The sound of movement in water, like someone getting out of a tub, answered Blair's entreaty. Jim was running out of time.

"Move," he whispered sternly.

They passed through the entrance of the temple, down the descending steps and through the ancient entryway. Their movement alerted the man at the doorway of the chamber pool room, but before the man could aim his weapon, Jim took him down with one shot. As he pushed Brackett through the doorway, Jim kicked the moaning mercenary's weapon out of the room.

"Jim!"

Jim focused on the far side of the room, unable to keep from smiling. Blair stood by the side of the pool closest to the wall, bending to help a water-logged Alex Barnes, who sat on the stone edge of the pool. Bright blue eyes gleamed in the firelight from a scruffy, exhausted face. The Mirage uniform hung practically in tatters on a too thin frame, bruises colored several spots on exposed skin and both wrists were wrapped in grimy bandages. The kid didn't smell too lovely, either, but the heart was beating and the smile was real.

"Am I glad to see you, man," Blair said, straightening. He shifted slightly, a clinking sound accompanying the movement, his face grimacing. Jim noticed the shackles on his friend's ankles and the bloody rawness of the skin.

"I like your jewelry, Chief," Jim replied, pushing Brackett forward.

Blair looked down at his feet. "Yeah? I think everyone will be wearing them soon. At least, I hope so." He glared at Brackett.

Alex shuddered then, wrapping her slender arms around her shoulders. When Blair bent to assist her, Jim gestured for him to stop.

"Why don't you come over here, Chief? Go around the end of the other pool and come around behind me."

Shifting his concerned gaze from Alex back to Jim, Blair paused a moment in thought. Then, nodding, he slowly made his way along the path he had been directed. Once Sandburg was safely behind him, Jim pushed Brackett over towards Alex. The man immediately sat next to the dazed woman, an arm around her shaking shoulders.

"Alex?" he whispered, almost tenderly.

Surprised, Jim peered over his shoulder at Blair in question. His friend shrugged, expressing his own surprise at the display of affection.

Alex lifted her head, gazing in confusion at her surroundings until she looked at Brackett. She smiled. "Lee?"

"Hey, baby. How are you?"

Her shoulders shook again and she cuddled next to Brackett's warmer body. "Fine. And you?"

Brackett smiled fondly at the woman, causing even more amazement in Jim. "Well, I've been better. What about your senses?"

Alex didn't answer for several seconds. Finally her smile broadened. "Wow," she whispered. Her gaze shifted to Blair. Jim automatically moved a little in front of his friend. "I was right, Blair. Everything is back on line." She paused again. "And my mind…everything is so clear. It's like waking from a bad dream."

"What about the headaches, Alex?" Blair asked.

Jim recognized that tone and just shook his head. Once an anthropologist, always an anthropologist. Movement from behind alerted him to the arrival of Michaelson's men.

"The headaches?" Alex asked, bewildered.

"Before, when you used your senses, you'd get headaches. Anything like that happening now?"

Alex waited again, tilting her head in a movement all too familiar to Jim. "No."

Michaelson's men scurried into the room, raising their weapons and pointing them at Brackett and Alex.

"Throw me the keys to the shackles, Brackett," Jim demanded, slipping his gun into the back of his pants.

One arm still around Alex, Brackett dug into a chest pocket and tossed him the keys. As Jim knelt and gently removed Blair's shackles, Michaelson arrived at the doorway.

"All of Menesquez's men that are alive are bound and sedated," he reported. "I've contacted Capitan Rodriguez. He came across Dr. Velbrig and is on his way."

Tossing the shackles to one side, Jim stood. "Good. Take these two down as well. Keep your weapons trained on them at all times, Michaelson. Brackett tends to be a little slippery."

Michaelson nodded and relayed the order to his men in the room. As they complied, he turned back to Jim and peered intently at Blair.

"This must be the infamous Blair Sandburg."

Jim grinned, resting a hand on his friend's shoulder, feeling the tense muscles relax at the contact.

"Chief, this is David Michaelson, a member of Mal Fitzwilliam's team."

Brows knit in confusion a moment, then the eyes brightened in understanding. "Team, eh? It is definitely a pleasure, man," he said as he took Michaelson's hand and shook it.

Michaelson chuckled. "Likewise." He turned back to Jim. "I'll escort our captives outside. You two coming? This guy looks like he could use a good meal and about a week's worth of sleep."

"And a shower," Jim added, wrinkling his nose. Blair just smiled. "We'll be along in a moment."

Tilting his head in acknowledgement, Michaelson turned away, leaving Jim and Blair alone in the now quiet, and suddenly uncomfortable, room.

After a very long silence, Jim let out a heavy sigh. "This could be easier."

Blair nodded, unable to look at Jim. "There are so many things to say, I don't know where to start."

One corner of Jim's lips lifted in a half smile. "How about we start with getting you down to Michaelson's team medic to get checked out, then fed, and getting you into a change of clothes, because, quite frankly, Chief, you're killing me here."

He barely got the last words out when Blair grabbed him by an arm and pulled him into a tight embrace. Jim wrapped his arms around his friend, blinking back tears. Now was not the time for those, but it was definitely a time for this.

"Damn, I missed you, Jim," Blair whispered. He clung to Jim a little longer then backed up.

"Same here, Chief." He squeezed his friend's shoulder. "Same here." The emotion of the moment became a bit uncomfortable and he looked to change the subject. His eyebrows knitted as he focused on Blair's head. "You are going to tell me why you have no hair, right, Kojak?"

Blair suddenly started laughing as his hand went up to the short locks, his shoulders shaking with mirth. Tears came to his eyes and he wiped them away. "Oh, man, you have no idea how close to the truth you are on that one!"

Jim's eyes widened in amazement. "You don't mean - "

"Let's just say that I will never again do anything to totally piss off a woman who knows how to use electric clippers and a razor."

"This oughta be good, Chief." Jim said, shaking his head tolerantly as he curled one arm around his friend's shoulders and started towards the doorway.

"Jim, man, that's not even the best story!"

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

1pm, October 30, 1999

Cascade, Washington

Simon was going to enjoy this. Smiling his best, he replaced the glasses he had taken off during the phone conversation with Jim and marched out of his office. The news that not only Brackett and Alex had been caught but that Blair was safe - a bit worn out, but alive - dimmed only in the news that Jim and Blair had finally been reunited. And from the sound of his friend's voice, "things", as Jim had put it, seemed to be workable. Once everything was settled in Sierra Verde, they'd be flying back to Las Vegas to retrieve Jim's truck and Blair's personals, then they'd be heading home.

That was a nice-sounding word coming from Jim. Home. It would be good to have him and Sandburg back. Maybe things could get back to what passed for normal.

Passing through the bullpen and into the corridor, heading to Ops, Simon shook his head. No, things were different now, and who knew what Sandburg had come up with. Normal, or at least as normal as Ellison and Sandburg ever could achieve, no longer existed. It would be interesting to see what popped up in its place.

Opening the door to Ops, Simon paused in the doorway, still grinning. Brown and Rafe were irritating Wakowski again, arguing back and forth like two kids haggling over the last puzzle piece. Those two could really put on the distraction act when needed. On the other side of the room, Conner flirted outrageously with Bartholomew, who seemed to be accepting all of her advancements with a faintly amused expression. Taggert and Rhonda were on the phone.

When Simon entered the room, Taggert slammed the phone down and stood up, grinning triumphantly. "I got it." Everyone stopped what they were doing and watched as Taggert pinned a yellow tack into the map. "Jim's truck was last seen in Las Vegas two days ago. According to the police down there, he was asking around about Blair."

Taggert winked in Simon's direction, who just shook his head. The man amazed him. Just by watching Simon's entrance, Taggert had managed to decipher Simon's attitude and wrap up the search all in one fail swoop. The agents would suspect a snow job, but with Taggert's announcement they wouldn't have the proof.

"Finally!" Wakowski huffed, crossing to his partner. "Let's contact the agency down there and get some people on it."

"Actually, gentlemen, that won't be necessary." Simon closed the door behind. "I just heard from Jim. Brackett and Barnes are in custody and are currently being extradited from Mexico -- "

"Mexico?" Brown blurted.

Simon held up one hand. "-- and he and Blair Sandburg are on their way back to Las Vegas to pick up Jim's truck." Cheers sounded in the room as his detectives and Rhonda hugged one another and patted each other on the backs. "Apparently," he continued, motioning for everyone to calm down, "apparently he and Sandburg have had quite the adventure and they promise to tell us everything once they get back."

"When will that be, Captain?" Megan asked.

"Probably not until late Monday. Sandburg has some matters to tie up and then they'll drive straight through. Jim promises to be in by Wednesday and give a total debriefing."

"And Hairboy will be with him?" Brown asked anxiously.

Simon paused, studying the anxious faces of his team. If only Sandburg could see how much he was missed and cared for, despite that damn fraud mess. "I don't know, H. I didn't ask."

"Well," Bartholomew huffed as he stood and grabbed his coat, "it would seem all of our hard work went for naught." He eyed Simon meaningfully. Grabbing his briefcase, he gestured for Wakowski to follow him. "I have to say, Captain, it's been quite the pleasure working with you and your team. In all honesty, I completely agree with you. They are the best team of detectives I've ever seen." He crossed the room and stopped in front of Simon, extending a hand. "You should be proud of such dedication to their job and devotion to their own."

Over the years, Simon had learned to read between the lines. This time, that ability served him well. He knew exactly what Bartholomew was saying. Shaking the man's hand, he nodded. "Thank you, Agent Bartholomew. It was a pleasure. Stop by again some time."

Bartholomew paused in the process of putting on his coat, eyeing Simon suspiciously. He started chuckling. "I don't think so, Captain. One experience with Cascade's finest detectives is enough for me. Agreed, Wak?"

Wakowski rolled his eyes. "Can we please leave, sir?"

Still chuckling, Bartholomew nodded. "Thanks, all!"

The door closed behind the two agents, leaving those in the Ops room in complete silence. Trying not to laugh, Rhonda let out a very non-elegant snort, which touched off Taggert, and hit Brown, then got Rafe started. Within only a few moments, Major Crime's operations room was filled with exhausted and joyous laughter.

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

Outside Sierra Verde, Mexico

The campsite now crawled with not only mercenaries but with the local authorities, as well. Michaelson had conveniently disappeared, along with a few members of his crew, but Jim had expected that. Those that remained probably weren't as well-known in Mexico as their leader was. Capitan Ricardo had taken charge of Brackett and Alex. After statements were given and Alex experienced a very spectacular display of righteous indignation from Dr. Velbrig, the prisoners were loaded into jeeps for the journey back to Sierra Verde.

Once Jim had settled Blair with the medic and supervised the treatment, he excused himself, telling Blair he'd be right back. Already dozing off, Blair merely nodded and waved him away. Jim took two steps before the medic called to him. When he turned around, Jim couldn't help a smile of fond exasperation; Blair was tipped sideways, leaning against the supporting pole of the pavilion, sound asleep.

Shaking his head, Jim crossed camp towards the waiting vehicles of the Mexican police. Brackett and Alex sat in the back seat of one jeep, both hands and feet shackled, and the shackles tethered by a strong chain. Two guards stood at the vehicle.

"May I have a word with the prisoners?" Jim asked the officers.

"Si, Detective," the man on Jim's left replied with a strong accent. "Capitan Rodriguez say to us you might want to. We weel be there."

Jim nodded his thanks and waited for the officers to leave. Once they were well out of normal hearing range, he focused on the two prisoners. Brackett's sardonic smile returned.

"Quite the conundrum, isn't it, Jim?" he asked, squinting from the sunshine as he peered up.

"What's that, Brackett?"

"Well, you're not certain sending us back to prison is a good idea. After all, I know your secret and, though I've kept quiet about it so far, this little event may loosen my lips, so to speak. And then there's Alex." He peered at the silent woman at his side, as did Jim. Blue eyes glared at Jim. "She's got her abilities back again. What will happen now? Can she use them to escape? And how safe will Sandburg be?"

"Safe enough," Jim stated firmly.

"You can't let us go, either, knowing what we know and what we can do. My connections, her abilities - quite the combination, don't you think?" Brackett smiled deviously, like a kid who knew the end of the game and his opponent didn't. "And I bet you're just really tempted to kill us and be done with it, but your moral convictions just won't let you do that. So many options, so many outcomes. What will you do?"

Leaning a hip against the jeep, Jim folded his arms over his chest and let Brackett have his say. When the man finally stopped talking, Jim answered the scheming grin with one of his own.

"Funny you should bring all of that up, Brackett," he replied calmly. "It's true there are some concerns, but they've been worked out. As a matter of fact, that's why I'm here. Let me explain. You mention anything about my abilities, and you take out Alex as well. It wouldn't take too much for me to finger her; I've had practice recovering from that sort of thing, so I'll be okay. Don't know about her. So I think that part is covered. As for Alex using her abilities to get out of prison, that will be taken care of as well." He leaned in conspiratorially. "Don't be expecting to see much of her. And I'll make certain whoever helped you before is weeded out." Straightening he peered at Alex. "Besides, she already knows what it's like to be in prison with untrained Sentinel abilities, don't you, Alex? It's not a fun thing."

Her eyes narrowed to dangerous slits.

Jim chuckled and shifted to leave but stopped. "Oh yes, one more thing. If something should happen and you do find yourselves free, I'm warning you right now. You come near Cascade, Washington, and/or Blair Sandburg in any shape or form, I will flush my moral convictions and very willingly rip each of you limb from limb." He gave his best 'I'm serious, don't mess with me' expression, watched as the mocking grin fell from Brackett's face, then walked away, motioning for the officers to return.

That felt really good.

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

Blair had nodded off while the medic was working on him, but woke up as soon as the man was done. He remembered Jim mentioning he'd be back, but sitting in one place with all of his wounds pounding relentlessly didn't appeal to him too much. Since they'd be following Rodriguez and his men out of the jungle, leaving this place far, far behind - hopefully - he wanted to take one last look at the temple. This time, not as a prisoner, but as an anthropologist.

Telling the medic where he was going, Blair slipped off the table and traversed the short trek up the path to the temple. He stood at the base of the steps for several moments, absorbing the architecture of the edifice, amazed again that the building had survived nearly completely intact through the thousands of years since its original construction.

Carefully he took the steps, cringing with each movement that caused a ripple of pain through his tired body. Jim would probably scold him for going back to the temple unescorted. With his feet wrapped pretty securely, clean socks and boots, and a fresh change of clothes, Blair felt almost human again; walking to the temple hadn't sounded like just a bad idea, at least until he started doing it. More than ever he couldn't wait to get into an air-conditioned hotel and bathe until he turned into a prune. Jungles had their fascination while on an expedition, but Blair drew the line at abductions.

At the entrance he picked up one of the torches set in an iron ring and entered through the doorway. Immediately his eyes went to the same figures etched into the walls he remembered from almost two years ago. He had taken several rubbings and provided them to Rainier's archeology department. They had been pretty upset when Stanford had won the digging rights to the site, but thanks to Blair's forethought, they at least had some of the emblems to study.

It wasn't the markings in the entryway that held Blair's fascination right now, though, nor was it those that surrounded the chamber pools. He continued toward the ­­grotto but turned left before entering. The doorway to the Companion room stood open and a familiar voice echoed back to him from inside the room.

"You see, Capitan Rodriguez, we haven't even begun to unravel the mysteries in this newly discovered room. With that dreadful Ms. Barnes arrested, I'd like to re-petition the issuing authorities and request that my team resume our research."

Blair stepped to the doorway of the Companion Room and peered in. Dr. Velbrig, now dressed in clean shirt and slacks, both of them too small, stood beside a man in uniform Blair didn't recognize. A fire burned in the pit, illuminating the stone walls and igniting a powerful connection that surprised Blair. Without even thinking about it, he walked into the room, basking in the room's warmth.

"Oh, hello, Blair," Theodore greeted with a smile. "Have you met Capitan Rodriguez?"

Blair shook the officer's proffered hand. "Thank you for your assistance, Capitan."

"Your Captain Banks was most insistent, Mr. Sandburg. Apparently he and the former Capitan had some type of agreement. It was my pleasure to honor it."

Blair smiled then turned to the anthropologist. "Trying to get back onto the site, eh, Theodore?"

"Wouldn't you? I had discovered this room months before that vile Ms. Barnes usurped the site from us, but with her interpretation of the scrawlings in here, it will make the next few months very exciting. I think it ample payment for the torture she put me through, don't you think?"

Blair nodded. "Most definitely, man. Most definitely."

Theodore's white grin split his dark face as he turned to the Capitan. "You see? Blair here agrees."

Capitan Rodriguez replaced the cap he'd been holding and started towards the doorway. "Well, I guess that is all we need then, eh, Dr. Velbrig?" He chuckled.

Theodore followed the Mexican officer out, patting Blair on the arm as he went. Their voices disappeared down the corridor, leaving Blair alone.

The silence fell over him, welcomed this time, unknotting tight muscles, relaxing his mind. With care for his wounds, he lowered himself to the woven rug by the fire, crossing his legs. Breathing deeply, he fell easily into a trance, allowing the past few days to peel away from his distressed spirit. What seemed like a moment later, the sound of fluttering wings in the room forced his eyes open. He wasn't surprised to find the room lit by a green tint.

A black falcon hovered on the other side of the fire, peering at him with sharp dark eyes.

"Hello, Incacha." Blair didn't know how he knew the spirit animal was the long-dead Shaman, nor did he worry about it.

The bird called out gloriously then blurred. Standing in its place, the Chopec Shaman gazed calmly at Blair. Incacha was still dressed as he had been the last time Blair saw him: most of his face painted with the same beautiful red shape; black paint fashioned into feathers at his throat; a beaded vest and dark leather coverings. He shimmered with a white aura. If Blair hadn't already had experiences like this with his visions, he probably would have run out of the temple screaming.

"You have traveled far on the journey you began, young Shaman," Incacha's deep voice echoed in the room, and though his mouth moved, Blair had a feeling that the voice didn't actually project from the Shaman's body. Rather, it seemed to be inside of Blair himself.

"A lot has happened, that's for sure," Blair replied. "Tell me, man, why didn't this vision occur before, while I was preparing to help Alex?"

Incacha smiled. "Do you not know the answer yourself, young Shaman?"

Thinking about it for a moment, Blair's mind cleared. The answer lay before him and he nodded in understanding. "Because I wasn't really seeking enlightenment to help Alex, so no enlightenment came. But when Alex called out for my help, I knew what to do."

"You drew upon your experience with your Sentinel and the spotted leopard responded. It is the way of a Sentinel to respond to a Companion."

"Like Jim responded to you in the same situation."

"Indeed." Incacha's head tilted to one side, dark eyebrows knitted in thought. "Your heart still clings to the disappointment of that event. Understand this, young Shaman, if you had accompanied Enquiri, you would have been killed, and your Sentinel unable to save you as he once did. In her ignorance, the spotted leopard would have seen to that."

Blair considered that, then nodded once more. "I see the truth of your words, man. Thanks. I have done some processing on that, though. I now understand that, though I had earned Jim's trust, it takes time and effort to keep it going. Because of my choices where Alex were concerned, I hurt that trust." He sighed. "I sure have learned a lot about myself these past few months."

"Then your separation from your Sentinel was worthwhile."

Blair thought about that a moment. If this discussion had taken place five months ago, his answer would have been different. Back then he had still been hurting over Jim's reactions to the dissertation and to his leaving; his soul was still tormented by the guilt he felt over the stress the dissertation brought into Jim's life. But now, things were clearer.

"It has. I've met a lot of good people these past few months that have helped me find the answers I couldn't find myself. I probably shouldn't have left in the first place, but…I'm ready now to continue my path, if it's still mine to walk."

Inacha smiled. "The path never left you; nor you the path. You are Shaman of the Great City, and Companion to a Sentinel. All that you have learned has prepared you for these two great tasks. Are you ready to embrace them?"

"Yes," Blair answered without thought. "Yes, I am."

He blinked and suddenly the vision disappeared, a normal glow cast by the fire returning to the room.

"Yes, you are what, Chief?" Jim asked from the doorway.

Blair glanced once around the room, absorbing the peace it exuded. With a smile, he rose and crossed to the doorway, to his Sentinel, to his friend.

"I'm ready to go home, Jim."

Jim rested a hand on his shoulder and squeezed once. "Me too, Chief."

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

EPILOGUE

9:30am, November 2, 1999

Cascade, Washington

Sunlight streamed into the darkened room from a window overhead. Blair moaned and turned over, lifting the blankets over his head. Several moments passed as he tried to go back to sleep, but despite his best efforts, his body had started the process of waking up. Irritated, he flipped back the blankets and sat on the edge of his bed, scratching his head as he yawned. The sweet smell of coffee caught his nose then, drawing him from the room, through the French doors and into the kitchen. Barely opening his eyes, he pulled out a mug from the cupboard and poured some coffee into it. Replacing the container, he took a sip and let out a contented sigh.

After a few more sips first one eye then the other opened. Sunlight poured through the windows on the far side of the loft, illuminating particles floating in a vertical dance through the air. He smiled and took another sip of coffee.

Then stopped.

The loft.

Suddenly wide-awake, the events of the last several days flooded his mind. After flying back to Las Vegas and staying the night in one of The Mirage's best suites - all paid for by Mal Fitzwilliam - Blair gathered his things, piled them into Jim's truck, agreed to stay in contact with Mal, said good-bye to the friends he'd made, then he and Jim headed out late Sunday afternoon. They drove nonstop from Las Vegas to Cascade, trading off driving to allow the other some time to sleep, pulling into the parking lot outside the loft late last night. After dragging their tired bodies upstairs and making sleeping arrangements - Blair in his old room using some of Jim's sheets for the futon - they both crashed.

He had been so wiped, Blair hadn't even thought about finally being home. Until now.

Placing the mug on the kitchen counter, he hurried out of the kitchen and crossed the living room to the windows lining the far wall. Holding his breath in anticipation, he opened the glass door and stepped out onto the deck, breathing in the clean, sweet autumn air of Cascade. The bay glistened with sunlight, the city skyline jutted along the horizon beyond the bay, and the sky was a rare blue. Blair leaned against the deck railing and sighed.

Home. He was home. After so long, he had made it.

Jingling keys tore his attention from his reverie and he listened as Jim entered the loft. A moment later, Jim joined him on the deck. He leaned on the railing much like Blair, their shoulders touching. They remained in companionable silence while the breeze rolled across the bay and rustled the leaves of the trees along Prospect Avenue.

"I'd honestly forgotten how beautiful it is," Blair finally muttered. "I can't believe I'm back." It took a second for him to realize what he said. He looked at Jim in alarm. "I mean, I'm not saying that I'm back, as in back at the loft…I mean, I don't presume…"

Jim laid a hand on Blair's shoulder and smiled. "Why don't you get dressed? I've hauled most of your stuff from the storage unit. It'll take another trip, but I think between the two of us we can get you moved back in by this evening."

A knot formed in Blair's throat and he had a hard time swallowing it down. "Jim, man, I…"

"Let's get one thing straight, Chief." Jim held Blair firmly by both shoulders, his gaze locking onto Blair's face with determination. "We may have some things that we need to work out, but no matter what, my home is always yours, got it?"

"Got it," Blair managed to whisper.

"Good." Jim patted Blair on the shoulder once and started into the loft. "Have you had breakfast yet?"

"Nope, just got up."

"Just got up? Well, I tell you what, Sleeping Beauty, you get dressed, we haul up the first load and I'll treat you to breakfast."

Blair's eyebrows lifted in surprise as he followed Jim into the loft. "Wow, I need to disappear more often."

Jim shot him with a glare. "Don't even consider it, Chief."

"C'mon, Jim, free breakfast? It may be worth it."

Jim thumped him good-naturedly on the side of the head. He paused then grunted. "Hmmm, that's strange."

Rubbing the spot, throwing Jim his best irritated look, Blair crossed to his room - his room; that was nice to say again - and donned the clothes he wore yesterday. "What's that?"

"Usually I bop you on the head and your hair goes flying. Still getting used to you with short hair, I guess."

Blair remained silent as he finished dressing. At the beginning of their trip home, Jim had casually tossed leading questions about what Blair's plans were once they reached Cascade. Each time, Blair would sidestep them. He knew what Jim wanted to know, and Blair wasn't ready to tell him. The tone in Jim's voice right now made him leery; it had that same leading edge to it. He exited the room and watched as Jim straightened up the kitchen, rinsing out Blair's mug and replacing it in the cupboard.

The normalcy of the moment made Blair stop a moment in thought.

"Look, Jim, I really am sorry I left, man," Blair said quietly as he leaned against the supporting pillar by the kitchen.

Jim paused. He slowly turned around to face him, but didn't say anything, his expression calm.

"Through everything that happened," Blair continued, "I forgot the main thing that had me sticking around in the first place."

"What was that? The senses or this whole mystic, shaman thing?" A crooked smile lifted one corner of Jim's lips.

"No," Blair replied after studying his friend. "Though those things should have made a difference, I guess. It was this whole friendship thing. Do you remember when you told me to go after the brass ring?"

Jim thought silently then shook his head.

"At the pier, after the reporters caught us in your truck." Blair hated to remind Jim of that.

Recollection dawned on Jim's face, followed quickly by a frown. "Chief, about that, I…"

Blair waved him off. "No, no, man, it's fine, because I did. I did go after the brass ring, it just took me a while to realize what it was." Blair smiled. "I love ya, man."

Jim's answering grin caught Blair off guard. A sentiment like that would normally make his friend squeamish. "I don't make it easy."

Blair chuckled. "No, no, you don't."

"I'll do better."

"Me, too, man."

Something finally clicked inside Blair. He'd been missing it all these months, wandering from state to state, searching for what he thought he had lost. Now he realized he hadn't really lost anything; he'd just lost sight of it.

"I've got a question for you, Chief." Jim changed the subject suddenly, though his expression told Blair he felt every sentiment. "It's been bothering me since we took out Alex and Brackett."

"What's that?" Blair asked as he retrieved his shoes and began to pull them on.

"I told you I was able to control my desire for Alex, but both times I faced Alex there was no mystic animosity like the last time. Why is that?"

Blair finished lacing up one boot and tied it off then started on the other, full in thought. When he was done, he looked up at Jim, resting his forearms on his knees. "Well, the last time you met up with Alex you had never faced off with another Sentinel. Since then, you have…we think." Blair grinned meaningfully. Though Jim and Blair had spent a few days with Two Eagles and John Whitefeather, neither could get the two Native Americans to outwardly admit that John was a Sentinel. "Man, we really need to get back down there and visit them."

Jim nodded, grabbing the jacket he had discarded earlier.

"Also," Blair continued, standing and straightening his jeans, "Alex was doing harm to your tribe the first time you met. Maybe that had something to do with it. She wasn't harming Cascade this time."

Tossing Blair's coat to him, Jim paused, something unreadable on his face. "Yes, she was, Chief. The most important part."

Blair stopped tugging on his jacket, rolling those words in his head. "Thanks, man, It means a lot," he replied, touching Jim's shoulder for emphasis. Once his jacket was zipped up, he followed Jim to the door. "We going to the station tomorrow?"

Jim didn't miss a beat. "Probably be best. Simon's been threatening to lock up everyone. I guess they're pretty anxious to see you."

"It'll be good to see everyone again. Plus, I'd like to talk to Simon."

"Oh?" Jim asked; one eyebrow lifted in question.

Blair smiled mischievously. A thought came to him then.

"Hey, by the way, how did you know where my stuff was stored? I thought I asked you not to do any detecting, man!"

"Correction, Chief, you made me promise not to follow you - which was a helluva thing to do, by the way." He cuffed Blair on the side of the head. "You never said anything about not finding your stuff, though. Speaking of which, call your mom."

Shaking his head in disbelief, Blair followed Jim into the corridor and down the stairs. It was nice to be home again.

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

7:00am, November 3, 1999

Cascade, Washington

Simon flipped on the light to his office, closing the door behind him. Shaking water off his coat, he hung it on the coat tree by his desk, grumbling to himself about rain puddles.

"Man, I hate it when Simon talks to himself," a voice commented from behind him.

Whirling around, one hand going to the pistol at his side, he stopped cold as he noticed the two men sitting at the far end of his conference table.

"I agree with you, Chief," Jim commented, watching Simon with an easy grin. "But if it keeps him from yelling at us…" He shrugged.

"I'm down with that, man," Blair replied, lifting a fist to his partner, who clipped it with his own. Blair suddenly grinned. "Heya, Simon! Miss us?"

Shock kept Simon silent just long enough for him to study his two friends. They sat side-by-side, leaning conspiratorially toward one another. Jim looked tons better than he had the last time Simon saw him. Dressed casually in a gray turtleneck sweater and jeans, he slouched in his seat, an ankle crossed over the opposite knee. The smile relaxed his features and Simon realized it had been quite a few months since he had seen a real Ellison smile.

Sandburg, on the other hand, looked nothing like the anthropologist/consultant who had disappeared five months earlier. Short curls hugged his head, making him look both younger and yet strangely older. He wore a turtleneck similar to Jim's, only with a thick sweater over it, and blue jeans as well, though the clothes hung on his much thinner frame. Several bruises colored his right cheek and one eye; knowing how much trouble Sandburg tended to find, there were probably other wounds Simon couldn't see. The blue eyes that laughed up at Simon, however, held the light that was all Sandburg.

"Well, I'll be…" Simon finally found his voice then chuckled. "If you two aren't the sight for these sore eyes."

He crossed the room and grabbed Blair as he rose, crushing the young man into a bear hug. Jim looked on with fondness.

"Hey, Simon," Blair gasped against the taller man's chest, "it's good to see you too, man, but I gotta breathe here."

"Oh, sorry," Simon replied, releasing Blair. He tousled the short curls. "I thought I'd never see this."

Scrubbing his head with one hand, Blair murmured, "Yeah, well, don't get too used to it. It's growin', man."

Chuckling, Simon reached over and grabbed Jim by the neck, pulling him into a quick, warm embrace. When they separated, Simon was pleased to note the hug had been reciprocated.

"Damn, it's good to see you two again."

"You, too, sir," Jim said with sincerity.

Simon once again tousled Blair's hair, and then motioned for them to take the seats across from his desk. He grinned even harder when he seated himself at his desk and found the two men had taken their normal positions - Blair on the edge of the conference table and Jim leaning against the same edge, their shoulders touching. All seemed right with the world.

"So, tell me everything."

They spent the next hour discussing the events in Las Vegas, barely glossing over Blair's experiences previous to hooking up with Jim again. The kid didn't seem too interested in talking about that and Jim seemed to concur. It amazed Simon to watch the two men as they recounted their story. Five months hadn't done much damage to their partnership, though there seemed to be a slight awkwardness at first. Once they got into the flow of their dialogue, though, it was as if the months had melted away and Simon's number one, though slightly odd, detective team sat before him once more.

"Jim!" a screech sounded from the bullpen, interrupting Simon's thoughts.

Megan Conner fairly flew into Simon's office, past Blair and grabbed the detective into an excited hug. Sandburg watched the entire scene with a mischievous smile, swinging his legs heartily when he caught Simon looking at him, the smile widening into a grin.

"Simon said you'd be back this week," Megan said breathlessly as she released Jim. "It's good to see you!"

"You, too, Conner," Jim chuckled.

"But Simon said you'd bring Sandy. Where…?" Her voice trailed off when she finally spied the stranger grinning up at her with a playful smile.

"G'day, Megan," Blair greeted in his best Australian accent, waving with one hand.

"Sandy, what happened to your hair?" She crossed to him and ran both hands through his short curls. "Please tell me you're going to grow these back out."

"It would seem, Sandburg," Simon declared, "that the loss of your locks will be the topic of conversation for a while."

Blair rolled his eyes, contended to let Megan's fingers stroke his curls. "That's okay, Simon," he sighed, "I can deal."

Megan snapped her hands back, peering guiltily at each of the men. "Sorry, Sandy, just a shock." She smiled and wrapped both arms around Blair's shoulders. "Welcome home."

Patting her on the back, Blair's eyebrows lifted and lowered naughtily. "This is nice," he murmured. "No offense, guys, but women hugs are just better. And they smell good, too."

Megan backed away and batted Blair's shoulder, faking a pout. A smile immediately lit her face once more. "I've missed you, Sandy."

"Thanks, Megan, I've missed being here."

"All right, all right," Simon interrupted, standing. "There's going to be a lot of other detectives wanting to see our two wayward children here, Conner, so why don't you step out and let them finish their report. By that time, the others will be here and we can conference."

"Actually, sir," Blair responded, watching Jim as he spoke, "if you don't mind, um, I'd like to speak to you privately."

One of Jim's eyebrows arched, but that was the only response to Blair's strange request. "It's okay by me, Simon. We're about done with the report anyway." He shifted his gaze from Sandburg and added, "The rest can wait."

Jim passed Blair, grabbing Conner on his way to the door. The two men exchanged curious glances. Before Jim shut the office door, Blair called out, "And Jim?"

"Yeah?"

"Can, um, can we make this private?"

Jim's expression changed quickly, his jaw clenching. Blair read the warning and slid off the table, crossing to the taller man. He laid a hand on Jim's shoulder and attempted a smile. Simon watched the entire exchange with some trepidation, witnessing for the first time the discomfort between the two friends.

"I promise, Jim, this is a good thing, man," Blair said softly. "I, um, I just need to make this private for now. Afterwards I'll tell you everything. Okay?"

The jaw slackened and the tightness in Jim's face relaxed. Taking a deep breath, he slowly let it out and nodded. "Yeah…sorry, Chief, it's just that…the last time you asked that we ended up fighting off Cascade's entire media."

"Oh, yeah, I forgot about that. Sorry, man."

Jim straightened, and backed out of the doorway. "See you in a minute."

The door closed. Blair stood there a moment longer, his back to Simon. When he spoke, it was to the door. "It's easier to trust one another when our lives are in danger, Simon. I know Jim will always be there as backup, and I'll be damned if I'd let anything happen to him. This friendship thing, though…" He sighed as he turned around and faced Simon. "It's gonna take just a little bit longer, I think."

Simon nodded. "A lot has happened."

"And a lot happened before that." Blair crossed to Simon's desk and fell into one of the chairs. "Which is what I wanted to talk to you about, Simon. You need to know that one of the main reasons I left was…" His voice trailed off. One hand raked through his hair in agitation.

"Was it because of the gold badge?"

Blair looked up, his blue eyes narrowing slightly. "Yeah. Not that I didn't appreciate the gesture, man, because…I mean, you had to have done a pretty dance for Pelson to get permission for that, which means a lot to me, Simon, you wouldn't believe --"

"Breathe, Sandburg," Simon interrupted the spilling words with a smile. "I understand."

Exploding out of the chair, Blair began pacing in front of Simon's desk. "I appreciate that, Simon, really, because admittedly, at that time, I just couldn't see myself as a cop. Holding that badge in my hand freaked me like you wouldn't believe, man." He paused and took a breath. "It represented a conclusion, I think. That all of my life's work had really been destroyed and all that was left for me was becoming a cop. I mean, that was cool and all, and if I had to make the decision over again, I'd do the same thing, but…" His shoulders wilted even as his body slumped into the chair he had just vacated. "Am I making any sense here?"

Simon leaned back in this chair, resting his hands in his lap. A smile crept across his dark features. "Believe it or not, Sandburg, you're making perfect sense. You do realize, though, that you may not have been carrying a badge but I already considered you part of the team."

Tears wet Blair's eyes and he ducked his head, wiping at his face. "Thanks, Simon, that means a lot coming from you."

"It's the truth."

Blair nodded. He took a moment then went on. "I wasn't ready then, Simon, but I am now. So many things have happened to me these past several months to help me realize that sometimes what we have in mind for our lives isn't really what we're meant to be. That sometimes our limited vision keeps us from obtaining our fullest potential. And that maybe all the studying a person does to become a Doctor in Anthropology is actually to give that person the knowledge he needs to be something better, something that could make a difference. Instead of teaching others to lose themselves in the past, maybe that person is meant to apply what he's learned about the fall of civilizations to keep his tribe from suffering the same fate." His gaze drifted to the bullpen; Simon's followed.

Brown and Rafe had appeared, both of them hugging Jim at the same time, pounding him on the back. Taggert was just entering the doorway of the bullpen. He let out a whoop and charged the others, grinning like a kid. After the hugs, all four men talked excitedly all at once. Megan sat on the edge of Rhonda's desk, exchanging knowing glances with Rhonda. Police work moved around them as the normal workday began. Jim pointed to Simon's office and Brown, Rafe and Taggert all shifted their gaze at once. Grins split every one of their faces and they waved. Blair chuckled, returning the wave.

"Simon, I don't know if the offer is still good," Blair looked at him, "but if it is, I'd like to go to the academy. Not just because it's the only option I have, because it's not. I'll survive, man; I know that now. It's kinda what I do. But I know I could be a good cop; I know my place is with Jim and this team. It just took a bit to open up my vision."

Simon quietly studied the young man waiting expectantly for an answer. Maturity had definitely settled across Blair Sandburg, though, thankfully, the youthful exuberance still existed. "You are going to tell us about these adventures of yours, right, Sandburg?"

"Yes, sir."

Reaching into his desk, Simon pulled out the small leather case he had tucked away several months ago. It lay upon several sheets of paper, memos from Commissioner Pelson, wondering if he should keep a slot open for Sandburg each time academy training sessions began. Every time he had Rhonda send a negative reply, he wondered if the next time Pelson would withdraw his recommendation altogether. The man never did, though. Simon heard through friends in the Commissioner's office that Pelson took some guff for it.

Simon tossed the leather wallet onto his desk, watching Blair, who thoughtfully took his time to pick it up. Gently he held it in his hands, caressing the soft cover before opening it. Light gleamed from the gold badge inside, reflecting in Sandburg's eyes. When he looked up at Simon, those eyes were wet again.

"Jim doesn't know about this, does he?" Simon asked. Blair shook his head. "Shall we go announce it to everyone then?"

The answering smile was all Simon needed. Sometimes being a captain in Major Crime was actually quite enjoyable.

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

"No more running off, right, Jim?" Joel Taggert was asking, trying to draw Jim's attention away from Simon's office once more.

Jim watched as Blair's gaze turned away from the window and he started speaking to Simon again. Damn, he wished he could hear what was being said. The expression on Sandburg's face was unreadable.

"Yeah…I mean, no, Joel, no more running off," Jim replied as he shifted his gaze to the group of detectives gathered at Rafe's desk. "So, Rafe, you and H solved that murder for the mayor."

Rafe beamed. "And it totally pissed off Chief Reed."

"You should have seen Reed, Jim," Brown continued. "The mayor had him come to Major Crime personally and congratulate us. He was so red, man, I thought for sure fire would be coming out of his eyes."

"Hopefully that'll teach him to trust all of the detectives in this department," Jim replied with an easy smile, casting another glance over his shoulder at Simon's office. "Every one of us knows our job." Blair was looking at something in his hands. Returning his attention to the others, he noted a strange expression on Rafe's face. "What's wrong?"

Rafe exchanged a glance with his partner. "Jim, I, uh, I owe you an apology."

Jim smiled. He'd known for some time that Rafe squirmed whenever Jim either received or fell into a major case, dragging Sandburg along. Most often, the other detectives were relegated to footwork or research during those cases, while Jim got the credit. If the roles had been reversed, Jim would probably feel the same way.

"Don't worry about it, GQ," Jim said, heading off the discomfort seeping into the conversation. He stepped aside as a uniform moved past the group, welcoming Jim back in a quiet voice. Phones rang, people worked at their desks, talked in groups - Jim had missed the action and movement in the bullpen, the flow of information and camaraderie that accompanied every day. "We're a team here. Sometimes one person takes the lead, but that should never and will never undermine the abilities of the other members of the team. Hopefully Reed and the mayor know that now."

The door to Simon's office opened, drawing everyone's attention, not just the close-knit detective group. Phones continued to ring and be answered, but mostly everyone watched as Simon walked out of his office with an arm around Blair's shoulders. Immediately Blair's gaze found Jim. There was a subtle change in his friend and Jim liked the change. Something good was about to happen.

"Damn, Hairboy," Brown erupted, scrubbing Blair's head. "What happened to your hair?"

Everyone in the bullpen laughed, along with Blair, who reached up once more and touched his short curls. "Long story, H. I promise to tell you about it."

"You going to grow it back, Blair?" Taggert asked. When the other detectives looked at him in surprise, he shrugged. "What are you looking at? Can I help it if Sandburg isn't Sandburg without long hair?"

Chuckles passed around the room once more.

"Actually, Joel," Simon replied, "it'll be some time before Sandburg's appearance returns to the neo-hippie look we all know and love. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you Cadet Blair Sandburg. He'll be entering the Police Academy on the next rotation, and I've already arranged with Commissioner Pelson to commend him as Detective in Major Crime when he graduates."

All of the detectives cheered as they crowded around Sandburg, pulling him from Simon's side. Jim's senses noted the other reactions around him, some of them not all that positive. He didn't take his eyes off Blair, however, who endured pounding on his back, and even turned red when Rhonda kissed him on the cheek. Jim rested against the edge of Rafe's desk, unable to keep the grin from splitting his face. Blair had said this was a good thing; that was an understatement. During the trip home and while they were unpacking Blair's things yesterday, whenever Jim had tried to maneuver the discussion around to Blair's plans, the maneuvering had been expertly sidestepped. Jim understood why. How could he not?

Sandburg needed to do this on his own; not because of Jim, not because it was the only option left, but because Blair wanted it. The look on Blair's face confirmed that. Jim couldn't remember the last time he'd seen so much joy on his friend's face.

Surrounded by the others, Simon standing in the back towering over them all with a self-gratified grin, Blair crossed to Jim and stopped. The smile didn't move an inch, but the eyebrows wrinkled in question.

"Jim, what do you think?" he asked. Jim could hear hope edge every word. "Ready to put up with me full time?"

Fondly patting the side of Blair's head, Jim murmured. "Welcome home, partner."

As the detectives began speaking at once, Simon's arms crossed over his chest, overseeing the celebration, grinning like a proud father.

"Happy endings are good," the captain stated with a chuckle.

Amen to that, Simon, Jim thought. Amen to that.

*~The End~*

Questions, comments, suggestions? Please e-mail Anne.

Back to Anne's page.