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

Feedback is my only payment, other than the joy of writing. Please let me know what you think. Mega would love to hear how you liked her artwork. You can reach her at Megarouge@aol.com.

Notes: Features Jimpain, Blairpain, angst, smarm, action, plot, and a touch of Rafe and Henri thrown in for good measure. The overall idea for this story was based on an infamous Florida kidnapping case during the late 1960s. I heard a brief mention of the case on television and remembered it. Of course, my muse decided this could definitely be the start of a new Sentinel story!

As always, thanks to my devoted beta, Danae, for all her hard work on behalf of my writing. You're the greatest! Any remaining errors belong only to me. To the wonderful Wolfshy, the best "host" my stories could have. Thanks for everything you do. And to MR, for her friendship, her advice, and her beautiful artwork...what can I say? Thank you!

Deadline

by JET

(Illustrations by MegaRed)

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

"Hey, Jim!" Blair Sandburg called out as Jim Ellison got out of his truck in front of Hargrove Hall on the Rainier campus. Catching up to the tall detective, Blair grinned up at his friend. "What brings you to my turf, man?"

The bright July sun highlighted the subtle shades of burnished copper in Blair's long curls, as a sudden gust of wind tossed the thick mane about his face. A perfect summer day in Cascade. As Blair tucked the wayward locks behind his ear, Jim Ellison looked down at his younger partner and shook his head, fighting off a smile in an effort to appear stern. "Your turf, Dr. Sandburg? I'm beginning to think I spend almost as much time here as you do these days. When I agreed to do some guest lectures for your senior level anthropology class about life as a Sentinel, I didn't realize it was going to turn into a full time occupation." He reached out and gently swatted the back of Sandburg's head, smiling at last at the anticipated yelp of protest.

Blair cut his eyes up at the Sentinel. "Watch it, man. The kids all think sentinels respect and honor their guides. Which is an interesting concept, by the way. You're going to blow the image, big guy. Besides, I'm a full fledged professor now. Don't you think I deserve a little respect?"

The two friends turned toward Hargrove Hall. "I respect you, Chief, but face it, you'll always be my little guppy, kid." Jim reached out and wrapped an arm around his friend's shoulders, grinning down at the indignant look on Blair's face. The warmth of the summer sun and the indigo sky combined with an unusually light caseload had all worked their magic. Jim Ellison was in an exceptionally good mood.

"Guppy? C'mon, man!" Losing his fight to keep the irritated facade intact, Blair broke into a huge smile and shook his head in exasperation. "You're hopeless, man, purely hopeless."

"Yeah, and you wouldn't have it any other way, would you, Sandburg?" Abruptly, Jim broke off his teasing banter and extended his hearing. Through the familiar sounds of the campus, the Sentinel heard someone coming toward them from behind. The foot falls grew faster and closer.

Jim turned toward the approaching footsteps, instinctively pushing Blair back and placing himself between the unknown intruder and his Guide. From the corner of his eye, he saw a hand raised, then a noxious cloud enveloped his face.

The effect was instantaneous. His eyes were on fire, burning with sharp, stabbing jabs of pain. Jim sank to his knees, his clenched fists rubbing viciously at his eyes, despite the small, logical voice inside which told him it was the wrong thing to do. He couldn't help it; the painful fire in his eyes drove all reason away.

Worse than the pain were Blair's desperate screams from beside him. "Jim! Jimmmm! Help me! Somebody help...!" There was the sounds of a fierce struggle, of fabric ripping, and of cruel fists pounding into soft, yielding flesh. Blair's voice was cut off suddenly with a loud gasp, and his fearful cries stopped.

"Sandburg! Keep your hands off him! No!" Jim scrambled to his feet, stumbled forward a few steps, then collapsed back on the hard cement sidewalk. "Blair! Leave him alone! No!" He tried to force open his irritated eyelids, to see what was happening to his Guide, but failed. His eyes were swollen shut, effectively blinding him. Jim struggled to turn back the pain dials the way Blair had taught him, but he was unable to concentrate enough to achieve any result.

The slamming of a car trunk sent a wave of terror through the Sentinel. Wild with the powerful inborn drive to protect his Guide at any cost, Jim managed to get to his feet again. He lunged desperately toward the direction of the car. His groping hands clutched only empty air. He tried to extend his hearing, to find Blair by sound, but the pain in his eyes drove out all other sensory input. Reading out blindly, Jim cried, "Get away from him! Blair! Can you hear me? Sandburg!"

The car engine started, and the vehicle sped off, peeling away from the curb with a loud screech of rubber. Realizing his failure, Jim fell to his knees. Huddled on the sidewalk, his hands covering his face, the Sentinel screamed in rage and denial. "No! Blair! No!"

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

Jim wasn't sure how much time had passed before help arrived. Probably no more than a few minutes, although for all Jim knew, it could have been hours. Time had ceased to have meaning for James Ellison the moment the car sped away, leaving him crumpled and helpless on the sidewalk.

Blair was gone, and Jim Ellison, his cherished Blessed Protector, had failed to prevent his brutal kidnapping. He had failed in a Sentinel's most vital mission; he had failed to protect his Guide.

Pain engulfed him, becoming his only reality. Pain in his eyes, and the desperate, disabling pain which clutched at his heart. He hadn't known it was possible to feel such agony and continue to breathe, continue to exist. There was nothing beyond the pain.

When the strange hands began touching him, he lashed out, striking at whatever came within his reach. He was vaguely aware of the feel of his fists contacting flesh. He continued to fight against the intruding hands. He thought he heard the sounds of screams, and a detached portion of his brain realized they were coming from his own throat. At last, the hands withdrew, leaving him alone once more with his overwhelming pain. Once more, the pain enveloped him. He dealt with it as only a Sentinel can.

He zoned.

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

Captain Simon Banks' car screeched to a halt beside the ambulance, already taking in the confusing scene as he bolted from his car. A small cluster of paramedics and police officers were gathered on the sidewalk, along with the usual crowd of curious spectators. Elbowing his way through the sea of people, the captain barked, "Clear these people back! Come on, move!" Like the waters in the path of Moses, the crowd parted, and Simon could see the lone figure at the center of the assembled throng.

Stunned at the sight, Simon was momentarily struck motionless. Jim Ellison was huddled on the sidewalk, his arms clasped around his knees, his face buried in the folds of his sleeves. Other than the slight movement of his back and chest as he breathed, he was utterly still and silent. If the Sentinel was aware of anything beyond the periphery of the dark, silent world to which he had fled, he gave no indication of it.

From the call he'd received on his cell phone, Simon had known the situation would be bad. He'd had no idea that he would find Jim in this condition. His heart constricted at the image before him. Jim Ellison, normally so vital, so controlled. Now, totally helpless, lost within the sanctuary of his own mind.

The EMT in charge approached. "I'm glad you're here, Captain Banks. He wouldn't let any of us near him at first. He was fighting like a wild man. Kept screaming for his partner, over and over." The young black man shook his head sadly. "He was all alone by the time we arrived. Then, he just stopped, went into this trance thing. We were able to get a look at him then. But I didn't want to transport him before you arrived. I know about all that Sentinel stuff, and we figured we'd just wait until you got here. His vitals are normal, and he doesn't appear to be in any immediate danger. Someone needs to get a look at those eyes soon, though."

Without taking his eyes from the still figure of Jim Ellison, Simon nodded his thanks to the EMT. "You took the right action. Thanks." He stared at the Sentinel for another long minute. Forcing himself to move, Simon knelt beside the detective. "Jim," he called quietly. "Can you hear me?"

No response. Jim sat, still and motionless, absolutely unaware of Simon's presence.

Simon tried again. "Jim? It's Simon. You need to listen to me. I know something's happened to Blair." Thinking back, trying to remember how Sandburg had brought Ellison back from the depths of his zones, Simon laid a gentle hand on the detective's back. "Jim, you need to come back now. It's Sandburg. Witnesses said they saw him taken away, right after you were maced. Jim, you've gotta snap out of this. I need you to help find Sandburg."

At last, a slight shudder wracked the broad shoulders. Simon was encouraged by the reaction and pressed on. "C'mon, Jim. Look at me. Come on back. Blair needs you. I don't know if I can do this without your help. Blair's counting on you. He needs you to help him. Damn it, Jim, do you hear me? You've gotta let the paramedics help you so you can help Blair."

Slowly, Ellison's head lifted from the shelter of his arms. Simon's breath caught in his throat at the sight of his horribly burned and swollen eyes. Although they remained almost completely shut, Simon could see a glimpse of the nearly blind, pale blue eyes from under the raw, red lids. "Oh, God, Jim..."

Taking a deep, shaking breath, Ellison whispered, "Get the paramedics over here now, Simon. Tell them to do something fast. He's got Blair..."

Motioning to the EMTs at last, Simon moved out of the way while they attended to Jim. He breathed a grateful sigh. Jim was far from all right, but he was aware and talking. It was definitely a beginning.

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

The sounds and smells of the hospital emergency room. How often had they assaulted his senses? Too many times to count, and more often than not with his partner lying on the cold steel of the examining table. Jim lay still as the prying hands examined him, while they cleansed his tortured eyes, then bandaged them with soft, white gauze. His pain dials were turned down to zero. Fleetingly, he imagined Blair's lecture about pain being a warning sign, a signal to mark his limits, to warn him when it was time to back down. He dismissed the thought. His own pain didn't matter now; all that mattered was getting out of this hospital, getting back on the streets. All that mattered to Jim Ellison was finding Blair Sandburg.

An insistent sound intruded. The Sentinel was vaguely aware of the words, floating somewhere in the distance. "Jim! Are you listening to the doctor?" Simon's sharp voice cut deeper into his thoughts, and Jim forced himself back to reality.

"What? The doctor...?" Jim struggled to sit up, and felt Simon's supportive hands assisting him. The room felt as if it were tilting around him, although he couldn't see it. Jim methodically forced down the feeling of vertigo. There was no time for such nonsense.

When he was sure he had Jim's attention, Simon continued patiently. "This is Doctor Lewis, Jim. He's trying to explain about caring for your eyes."

A strange voice came from Jim's right side, and he tilted his head in that direction as he listened. "Detective Ellison, you had a severe reaction to the mace used on you, which centered itself in your eyes. I've heard about your abilities, and apparently your eyes are extraordinarily sensitive."

"You got that right." Jim was sure only he heard Simon's muttered comment. A tiny smile flickered on his lips, then vanished.

"We have cleansed your eyes, applied an antibiotic ointment, and the protective bandages. It's important that you reapply the cream twice a day, then rewrap your eyes. You shouldn't be exposed to any bright lights, at least for three days. Come back to see me then, or sooner, if there are any complications. Do you have any questions?"

"My vision won't be affected permanently?"

The doctor shook his head. "There doesn't appear to be any lasting damage. Of course, none of us have ever treated a patient as...unique...as you are, but I think that as long as you follow instructions as to their care over the next several days, your eyes should be fine."

Jim slid down carefully from the exam table. "Thank you, Doctor. Simon, could you give me a hand here? I need to get to the station."

As they walked slowly down the corridor toward the exit, Simon glanced in concern at Jim. "Are you sure going down to the station is such a good idea? Maybe you should go back to the loft, get some rest?"

The vehement denial was immediate. "No! There's no time, don't you see that? Whoever did this to me was after Sandburg. The mace was just to ensure that I couldn't interfere. I gotta find him, Simon. If you won't take me, then I'll get a cab and get there on my own."

Banks knew when he'd been defeated. "All right, all right. We'll go to the station. I just spoke with Brown a few minutes ago. There are still some witnesses there giving statements. Maybe something one of them remembers will give us our first lead."

The predators descended upon their prey with the opening of the front doors of the hospital.

"Detective Ellison! Is it true that Blair Sandburg has been kidnapped?"

"What about the injuries to your eyes? Will that affect your Sentinel sight?"

"Is there a possibility you won't regain your vision, Detective Ellison?"

"Captain Banks, what efforts are being made to locate Dr. Sandburg?"

"Has a ransom been demanded? Is there a chance that Dr. Sandburg has already been killed?"

The shouted questions all descended at once, and Jim ducked his head as he covered his ears in a futile attempt to lessen the cacophony of voices. One question, shouted later than the rest, came through all too clearly and stabbed Jim directly in the heart.

"Detective Ellison? With your Sentinel powers, why were you unable to protect your partner?"

Simon wrapped a guiding arm around Jim's shoulders and used his other arm to clear their way through the throng of reporters. Flashbulbs burst in his face, and Simon could see the unblinking eyes of the video cameras as they passed through the crowd. "No comment!" he repeated loudly, over and over, as the shouted questions repeated unceasingly. "No comment!"

Finally, he was able to maneuver Jim into his car and dashed around to get in behind the wheel, quickly locking the doors behind him. He started the engine and threw the vehicle into reverse, tearing out of the parking lot to the safety of the streets.

Once they were away, Simon looked over at Jim. The Sentinel's face was blanched, and a thin sheen of sweat bathed his features. "My God, Simon. How did they find out so quickly?"

Simon made no effort to hide his disgust. "Same as vultures, Jim. They can smell other people's pain a mile away. Don't worry, I'll assign a detail to keep them away from you. The last thing you need right now is to have to deal with that kind of onslaught every time you step outside."

"Thank you, Sir. But..." Jim's voice faded to a near whisper. "They asked some good questions, Simon."

Banks glanced quickly over at his friend. "What do you mean?"

Jim's fists clinched in frustration and his voice shook. "Why couldn't I protect him? With these damn senses of mine, these so-called gifts, why the hell wasn't I able to protect my own partner?"

"Don't start this. The guy sprayed mace in your eyes, damn it! Anyone would be taken out of the game after that. Even you. Regardless of the expectations you have for yourself, Jim, you are only human." Simon's voice became softer. "I know...and Blair knows...that you would do anything to keep that kid safe, Jim. Even sacrifice your own life. What happened today...just happened. There was nothing more you could have done to stop it, not given the way it went down. Right now, you need to focus your energies on the investigation, on finding Blair, not on beating yourself up for something that was not...I repeat, not...your fault."

A long silence followed Simon's words. Jim exhaled quietly, as if he'd been holding his breath for a long time. "I know, Simon. My head knows that every word you just said is absolutely true. Problem is, my heart is having a hard time believing it."

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

Blair awoke in terror.

Jim! Oh, God, Jim!

Why didn't the scream sound louder? Why couldn't he move? Why did he feel like he was choking?

Blair forced his eyes to focus, then forced his mind to clear and coaxed his breathing to slow to something approaching normal. The answers became clear.

This is bad. Really bad. Jim, where are you, man? Now would be a good time.

He was tied to a chair in the middle of a small, dingy hotel room. His mouth was stuffed with a rough cloth, and another cloth tied tightly across his mouth on the outside completed the effective gag. Blair moaned in pain, the sound muffled to near nothingness by the cloth. His face hurt. His head pounded, and his left eye was partially swollen shut. A small trickle of blood wound its way down from over his right eye.

What the hell had happened?

Outside the metal door, he could hear footsteps. Desperately, he tried to rock the chair back and forth to attract attention, but the dingy green carpet muffled the sound. Blair screamed again and again through his gag, but only a muted whine emerged. Tears of frustration built up in his eyes, spilling over to run down his cheeks into the dirty cloth covering his mouth.

Then, the door opened.

Blair winced at the sudden brightness which filled the room, then, just as quickly, vanished back into dimness. Wide eyed, he moaned at the sight of the face which leered at him.

Eddie Mashburn. Older brother of the man condemned to die at the hands of the state in less than twenty-four hours. Ronnie Mashburn's brother.

Blair shook his head in denial as Mashburn bent over him. He tried again to cry out, to make some sort of noise which would alert someone, anyone, to his presence in the tiny room, but the small whimper which emerged went no farther than the ears of the man who had brought him here. The man who now held a gun to his temple.

"Shut up! Not that anyone can hear you anyway." When Blair became quiet, Mashburn shoved the gun into the waistband of his jeans and roughly checked the ropes binding Blair and the tightness of his gag. Blair moaned softly in pain as the rough cloth cut into the sides of his mouth, and the coarse ropes chafed at his wrists. A trickle of blood oozed down his face. Satisfied that his prisoner was secure, Mashburn disappeared into the bathroom, slamming the door shut behind him.

Blair waited in terror, and he began to panic. His breathing quickened to short, ragged bursts. His mind raced. The situat ion was definitely not good. Here he was, bound and gagged, totally helpless, in the hands of a cruel and desperate man.

For a moment, he couldn't breathe; the dirty gag stuffed in his mouth threatened to suffocate him, keeping his starved lungs from getting the oxygen they needed. Desperately, Blair fought to control his panic, to calm his breathing. Slowly, his breaths became more normal, and he relaxed a little.

Blair thought back to the moment of the attack, and his eyes filled with tears again at the thought of his partner. He could still hear Jim's cries as he struggled to reach him. Was Jim okay? What had Mashburn sprayed in his face? How had it effected his eyes? Would he ever see Jim again?

Was he going to die?

Mashburn emerged, crossing over to the table between the two beds. Blair's eyes followed his every move. The man stretched out on the bed, then reached for the telephone.

He glanced over at his prisoner and smiled as he took the gun from his jeans and pointed it at Blair. "Make a sound, and I'll kill you. You're probably gonna die anyway, but it doesn't have to be right now. Understand?"

Blair nodded, his eyes wide with fear.

Mashburn nodded his approval, then began to punch in a phone number. "Detective Ellison? I have someone here you might be interested in."

Blair's head jerked up at the sound of Jim's name. "Jimmm!" The sound was only a muffled moan.

Mashburn aimed the gun again, smiling and shaking his head, and Blair fell silent, the tears once again clouding his vision.

Oh, God, Jim. I'm sorry.

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

The phone on Ellison's desk rang, and he grabbed it on the first ring. "Ellison!"

The voice on the other end was harsh, and the words sent a chill through Jim's body. "Detective Ellison? I have someone here you might be interested in."

Quickly, Jim motioned to Taggart to begin the trace, and the bullpen sprang into action. Simon hit the speaker phone button on Jim's phone so everyone could hear the conversation.

"You listen to me, because I'm only going to say this once." Jim's cold voice was low, but the dangerous undercurrent was obvious. "If you hurt him in any way, there won't be enough of you left to bury. That's a promise, and I never break my promises."

Rafe glanced at Henri Brown, a tiny shiver coursing through his body. Jim Ellison was not a man to be underestimated, especially when his partner's safety was concerned. Henri reached over to lay a supportive hand on his partner's shoulder.

The rough voice on the speaker phone chuckled. "Brave words, Detective. Especially coming from a man who has proven himself a coward."

"I don't know what you're talking about, and frankly, I don't care. What I do care about is getting my partner back."

"You don't care... Well, that's what I expected, Detective Ellison. You don't care that in less than one day my brother will be executed because of you."

Jim thought for a moment, then the truth dawned. The whole situation was even more dire than he had imagined. "Your brother? Your brother is Ronnie Mashburn?"

"Got it in one, Ellison. You busted my brother. You knew he didn't shoot that security guard; you knew that was his cowardly partner. The one who testified against him in court. You knew the truth, but you let them convict him of murder and give him the death penalty."

Ellison fought to keep his voice calm. "I testified that your brother was there that night, that I witnessed both Ronnie and his partner, Clifford Riggins, leaving the warehouse right after the guard was shot. It was Riggins who convinced the jury that Ronnie pulled the trigger."

Eddie Mashburn's angry words erupted from the phone. "Shut up! Just shut the hell up! Don't you see, it doesn't matter? Ronnie's gonna die, thanks to you! But I ain't gonna let that happen. No way." He paused a moment before continuing. "You want your little partner back, Ellison? Then you convince our mighty governor to grant my brother a reduced sentence. Life in prison. See, I ain't being unreasonable here. I don't expect to get him out, just keep them from putting him in that death chamber."

"I want to talk to Sandburg. I want to know he's alive."

Mashburn laughed. "Well, Detective, he's right here, but he ain't gonna be able to talk right now. Tell you what. I'll hold the phone up, and we'll just hear what he says. With those...what are they called? Oh, yeah, those great Sentinel abilities of yours, maybe you can understand him after all."

Jim fought down the black rage building inside him. He had to stay calm, had to keep Mashburn on the line long enough for the trace to go through.

"Here he is, Ellison."

"Blair? Are you okay, Chief?" Jim leaned forward, straining to hear, as if by the sheer force of his will, he could reach his partner through the phone line and pull him to safety.

From the speaker phone, there was only a low mumbling sound, a muffled keening which was barely audible to the members of Major Crimes gathered around Jim's desk. But to his Sentinel ears, the words were all too clear.

"Jim, help me! Jim..."

"Blair! Chief!" His face reflecting his desperation, Jim strained to hear more, but Mashburn's laughter was all he could hear.

"Sorry, Detective. Seems I forgot to remove his gag before I put him on the line. Oh, well, I suppose you heard enough. Now, you've got exactly twenty-four hours to convince the governor to grant that sentence reduction or to locate your little friend here. You can consider it a challenge. Can you use those super senses we've heard so much about to save this kid? Or, can you talk the governor into commuting my brother's death sentence? That's two chances to save his life, Ellison. Twenty-four hours, that's your deadline." The harsh voice changed to a chuckle. "Dead-line. That's appropriate, right, Ellison? In twenty-four hours, either two men live, one lives and one dies, or two men die. It's all up to you. Say goodbye, now. It may be your last chance."

"Blair!" Jim screamed into the receiver. "No!"

There was only silence. The connection was broken. Simon's hand slammed down on the corner of Jim's desk in frustration, sending a folder of papers fluttering to the floor. There hadn't been enough time to trace the call.

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

Mashburn hung up the phone, then turned toward Blair. Above the gag, Sandburg's eyes were wide and staring in fear. His captor smiled and reached into a black gym bag beside him on the bed. He removed a small bottle and a piece of gauze. Turning the bottle upside down, he poured a small amount of the clear liquid onto the gauze and walked slowly toward Blair. The sweet smell of chloroform reached the bound man's nostrils, and he began to struggle, shaking his head wildly and softly whimpering.

As Mashburn reached out his hand, Blair tried desperately to avert his face, to avoid inhaling the scent. He tried to cry out, to protest, but the tight gag prevented any sound from escaping. In one quick motion, Mashburn covered his nose with the gauze and pressed it down. With his mouth gagged, he had no choice but to breathe through his nose. For a few moments, Blair continued to struggle, then his wide eyes began to close, and with a soft moan from behind the cruel gag, he lost consciousness.

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

"Jim!" The tall captain hurried over to the detective's desk where Jim sat going over witness statements with Taggart. "The governor's office just called. He's in town today for a conference on the inner city. He's got fifteen minutes free. If we can get down there right now, he'll see us." Simon handed Jim his coat and helped him toward the door. "Let's move!"

The plush hotel penthouse was a mecca of luxury in the midst of Cascade. A butler escorted the two officers to chairs, brought them a selection of beverages, then silently left the room. Simon handed Jim a bottled water, taking one for himself.

In less than a minute, the governor, accompanied by several assistants, entered the room.

"Gentlemen," Governor Stewart greeted them, reaching out to shake Simon's hand. When he got to Jim, the career politician immediately noted the heavy bandages covering his eyes and patted Jim on the shoulder instead. He sat down in the leather covered wing chair across from where Jim and Simon sat on the Chippendale sofa.

"I've been apprised of the situation involving your police advisor and the brother of convicted murderer Ronnie Mashburn. I hope you'll..."

Jim interrupted, "His name's Blair Sandburg, Governor, Dr. Blair Sandburg."

Stewart paused for a moment, confused, then realization dawned. "Oh, yes, Dr. Sandburg. I understand that he is your partner, Detective Ellison."

"Yes, sir, he is. My partner and my best friend. I'm here to ask you to consider..."

The governor's voice was pleasant, as if talking about the weather to good friends. "Now, Detective, I'm well aware of the recent publicity regarding your Sentinel abilities. You've created quite a name for yourself. And I understand Dr. Sandburg's importance in all of that."

Jim shook his head, his voice cold. "No, sir, with all respect, you do not understand Blair's importance to me. Not at all."

"Jim!" Simon's whisper of warning was sharp, but Jim Ellison went right on, ignoring the implied order.

"I understand that you don't want to set a precedent here of caving in to terrorists. But, you can't just allow an innocent man to die without even trying to save his life. Please, Governor. Do something. Issue a statement, anything that will buy us more time." An intensely private man by nature, Jim hesitated, reluctant to reveal his deepest emotions to this uncaring stranger. But, if there was even the slightest possibility that baring his soul could help Blair...

His mind made up, Jim plunged on, his voice filled with emotion. "Governor Stewart, Blair Sandburg means more to me than anything else in my life. More than life itself. Without him, I wouldn't be alive today. I owe him, Governor. I owe him everything, more than I can ever repay. Please..."

Abruptly, the governor rose to his feet. "I wish there was something I could do, Detective. I'm sorry, but if I delay the execution or even put forth the slightest indication that I would consider a sentence reduction, it would be perceived as a sign of weakness. I will not have that." His voice softened. "You have these heightened senses, Detective Ellison. Use them to find your partner. I wish you much success." Turning around, he left the room.

Stunned, Jim stood up slowly. "Simon?"

"He's gone, Jim. We're not going to get any help here." Taking the shocked detective's arm, Simon gently led him from the room.

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

Blair came awake slowly. His head pounded with a steady, relentless rhythm. Blair tried to open his eyes, but the lids felt too heavy to lift. So, he lay still, listening.

The singing of birds combined with the sound of the wind through the trees only served to confuse him. Where was he? Certainly not the shabby hotel room. Summoning all his will, he forced open his heavy lids.

A flash went off and Blair shut his eyes in defense against the sudden light. After a moment, he opened them again and looked up.

Right into the cold eyes of Eddie Mashburn. Panicked, Blair tried to sit up, but Mashburn's booted foot reached down and kicked him in the chest. Blair fell back with a grunt, then lay still, staring up at the smirking face. He glanced around and realized with a stab of fear that he lay inside a wooden box about six feet by three feet.

"Lie still! You'll learn to do as I say, kid, or die, whichever you prefer. Now, I suggest you listen carefully. How well you follow my instructions will determine if you make it out of this alive." Mashburn tossed aside the camera he had been holding.

Blair tried to speak. His throat felt terribly dry, and his tongue swollen. The sides of his mouth were rubbed raw from the long hours of being tightly gagged. "What...? Where am I?"

Mashburn chuckled. "You're in a place nobody will think to look for you, I assure you. Now, I'm only going to tell you this once. I'm leaving you here. You'll be buried about four feet underground. You'll have fresh air pumped in through a tube extending to the surface by the battery beside your right leg. There's a water bottle and some crackers on your left. Make them last; you won't be given more. You have a flashlight with fresh batteries, but they won't last if you leave it on all the time. You even have a small radio to distract you. If it can receive anything down there. There's a blanket to help you stay warm. In fact, here's a pencil in case you decide to do a crossword puzzle." With a laugh, a small pencil clattered on the hard wood beside Blair's leg.

The cold voice continued, "If the governor grants my small request, I'll phone your partner with directions on where to find you. If not... Well, the battery which operates the fan at the surface to supply your oxygen should last about twenty-four hours. That's about 5:00 tomorrow afternoon. Exactly the moment my brother is scheduled to be executed. Unless the governor meets my demands, your air supply should last as long as my brother's life. Then..." He stopped for a moment, then smiled. "Let's put it this way. You won't need a funeral."

Hearing those frightening words, Blair struggled to sit up once more, but he was roughly kicked down again. Before he could react, a heavy lid was slammed down loudly, and he heard the sound of screws biting into wood. "No!" he screamed, his dry throat protesting. He pushed with all his strength up against the top of the box. It refused to budge. "Let me out of here! You can't do this! Please! Don't leave me here!"

A muffled voice reached him. "Save your air, kid. I'm sitting on the lid. You'll never move it." Another minute passed with the screws tightening, then he heard a scuffling noise. Blair listened intently.

His fear intensified as he heard the sound of dirt hitting the top of the box. "Please! Jim! Help me! Anybody!" He stopped screaming and listened. The rustling of leaves was the only sound he heard through the narrow tube which left the box from just to the right of his face. "Hello? Please... I...can't...stay here... Jim?"

A cold chill wracked his body, and sweat started to stream off his face. His hands trembled as he searched desperately for the flashlight. His fingers felt stiff and shook so violently that he could hardly control them. "Please... Please, oh, please..." It seemed like hours before his shaking fingers touched the cold plastic, and he fumbled for the switch. A strong beam of light penetrated the darkness, and Blair lay back with a deep sigh of relief. After a few moments, he looked around to evaluate his prison.

His shoulders almost touched the sides of the box, and the lid was less than a foot above his face. By bending his neck, he could see that its length extended less than a foot beyond his feet. "Oh, God... I'm in a coffin." Moving his fingers, he located the bottled water and crackers. Struggling to control his shaking hands, he managed to sip a little water to ease his dry throat. His head fell back helplessly onto the small pillow and he carefully drew the thin blanket over him. Then, afraid of burning up the batteries, he clinched his eyes closed and turned off the light. The tears rolled down his cheeks as he whispered over and over, "Please, Jim. Please, buddy, find me. Please..."

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

Jim finished listening to Simon read the last of the witness statements. The captain closed the final file with a discouraged sigh. "I don't see where anything here's gonna help, Jim. We already know who the perp is. We just don't know where he is."

Ellison sat motionless across from the captain's desk. His eyes remained bandaged, and Simon couldn't read his emotions from the look on his face. "Jim? You with me here?"

When the Sentinel didn't reply and didn't move, Simon left his chair to kneel before him. Ellison's face was set, seemingly devoid of life. "Jim!" Simon called sharply. He couldn't afford to have Ellison zone now. Simon reached out to shake Jim's arm and called once more, "Ellison!"

With a quick twist, Jim turned his head in Simon's direction. "I'm here, Simon. I'm okay. Just trying to figure this thing out, that's all."

Slowly, Banks rose and stood looking out the window of his office. "Figure what out, Jim?"

"All of it, sir. Why Sandburg? Why didn't Mashburn just take me? Where the hell does he have Blair? Where do we go from here? All of it... Nothing seems to make much sense to me right now." Jim's voice trailed off into silence.

Simon raised his hands helplessly. "We've got everyone on this, Jim. They're running down Mashburn's history, his friends, jobs, family, everything. We'll turn up something."

Jim looked up at Simon, and his voice was filled with guilt. "Was it because of my Sentinel abilities, Simon? He sounded like it's some kind of game to him. Find Sandburg in time, or..." Jim couldn't finish.

Simon moved closer to his friend. He had to distract Ellison, somehow keep him focused on the job at hand. "How are your senses, Jim? Do you think you'll be able to use them to locate Sandburg?"

Ellison shrugged hopelessly. "I... I don't know, sir. Right now, it's like trying to hang on to a runaway train. I think the mace affected more than just my eyes. It must have screwed up my whole system. I've had to turn down my sense of smell to almost zero, and my hearing keeps spiking up and down. That coffee I tried to drink a little while ago tasted like mud, it was so strong." He tilted his head up toward Simon, as if trying to see through the thick bandages over his eyes. "But, I've gotta try, sir. I just can't sit by doing nothing and let Blair die. Mashburn has stolen the part of me that makes my life bearable, Simon. I can't lose him permanently. I won't."

Simon's heart tightened at the desperation in Jim's voice. It was obvious that his friend was struggling to hold on to his emotions, fighting not to give in to his despair. The tall captain bent to place a comforting hand on Ellison's shoulder. "Jim... You were right. The governor didn't have a clue, but I do know what Blair means to you. We'll find him. Just hang in there, okay?"

Ellison nodded. "We have to, Simon. There's no other option."

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

How much time had passed? Blair stared up into the total blackness surrounding him. Hours? Days? Giving up, he flicked on the flashlight and stared at his watch. Six hours. Six endless hours since Mashburn had sealed him into this box. He refused to even think of the word "tomb."

Remembering his captor's warning about using the batteries, Blair reluctantly turned off the light. He had to fight down his rising panic as the darkness closed in once more. "I am not going to freak out," he whispered. "I am calm. I am in control." Maybe if he said the words often enough, he'd start to believe them. He forced his breathing to level out, made himself take deep, cleansing breaths. In time, the fear subsided to a more controllable ache in his chest.

"I have to do something to stay sane. I gotta keep my mind occupied, or I'm gonna really lose it here." He considered his options. The radio.

With his left hand, he searched the tight confines of the box. Nothing.

He tried on his right side. Stretching his arm as far down as it would reach, he finally touched cold plastic. Getting a grip, he eased the small box toward him.

"Good going, Sandburg," he congratulated himself. "Now, to turn it on."

He searched the box with his sensitive fingertips, feeling dials and switches. "I could turn on the light. But this gives me a challenge, something to think about. No hurry, I guess. I'm not going anywhere, right?"

At last, he tried a switch on the side, and static emerged from the radio. "Good. I got something, anyway. Now, let's try for some music."

Fiddling with the dials, he listened to the whine and crackles as they faded, then grew louder. At last, a human voice emerged.

"KHJK, your station for oldies in the Cascade region!"

"Great! I get one station on this thing, and it's an oldies format. Why not some soothing jazz, or even classical!"

Resigned to his fate, Blair settled back to listen, finally falling into an exhausted sleep to the sounds of The Beatles and "Yesterday."

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

Joel Taggart knocked on the door of Simon's office, then opened it and came in without waiting for a response. "We've got some information about the Mashburns' family."

Simon moved back behind his desk and sat down. "Let's hear it."

Glancing at Jim, Joel sat down in the second chair facing the captain and opened the file he carried in his hand. "First, both men grew up here in Cascade, over on Pine Street, so Eddie knows the area well. According to a couple who were neighbors when the boys were growing up, it was a violent home. The parents never got along, and both of them drank quite heavily and quite often. The mother's name was Sadie; she was seen frequently with heavy bruising on her face and arms. Always claimed to just be 'accident prone' and would never file charges against her old man. Father was Willie Mashburn. Apparently, he had one hell of a temper. These neighbors said you could hear him yelling at his wife and boys from inside the house all the way across the street. Oh, and there was a sister. So far, we haven't been able to determine what happened to her after she was removed from the home by social services. Seems she'd been molested by daddy for years."

"Fine example of American family values," Simon muttered.

"Are either of the parents still living?"

Joel nodded, then realized Jim couldn't see him. "The mother is still in Cascade. She married a cab driver a few years back, but he died last year in an car wreck." He flipped through a few of the pages. "Lives now over on Pleasantdale, number 106."

Jim got to his feet, reaching for his coat. "What are we waiting for?"

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

The small frame house at 106 Pleasantdale had seen better times. Now on the verge of dilapidation, it sat forlornly between two boarded up, abandoned dwellings. Simon glanced at Jim, standing silently beside him. His eyes remained bandaged from the attack which had torn his partner from him, but Jim, even blinded, moved with the grace of a natural athlete. Simon took his arm to lead him up the path.

She answered on the third ring of the tinny doorbell. The worn door creaked open, and watery blue eyes peered out at them through thick glasses. "What do you want?"

"Sadie Mashburn?" Simon inquired.

A cackling laugh emerged from behind the door. "Mashburn? Now that's a name from the past. A name right out of hell. My name's Stuckey now. Who wants to know?"

Simon flipped open his badge and ID. "Captain Simon Banks, Cascade PD. This is Detective Jim Ellison. We need to speak with you, please."

A few minutes later, they were settled on the dusty old couch in Sadie's den. She sat across from them in a worn green recliner. "What do you need to know? My son's gonna die tomorrow. Ain't that enough for you cops?"

Simon could feel Jim's entire body tensing next to him on the couch. He spoke before the anxious detective could say a word. "You have our sympathy, Mrs. Stuckey. It's not easy to lose a child, regardless of the circumstances. Actually, though, we're not here to discuss Ronnie. We need to talk to you about Eddie."

Her face, lined with deep wrinkles, registered her obvious surprise. "My Eddie? What's he done?"

Jim spoke up. "He's kidnapped my partner, Mrs. Stuckey, and is threatening to kill him unless the governor grants reduction in sentence to life for his brother. We've managed to keep it out of the papers until now, so you hadn't heard. We have to..."

He was interrupted by gleeful laughter from the woman across the room. "Why, that Eddie! And we always thought that Ronnie was the only one with any gumption. Guess old Eddie showed us, didn't he? Gonna save his brother's life, he is!"

Jim rose to his feet in fury, his head turned blindly toward the cackling woman. "At what cost, Mrs. Stuckey? My best friend's life?"

Simon caught his arm and tugged him back to sit on the couch. "Mrs. Stuckey, we understand that you just want your son to live. But, Eddie's committed a serious crime here, one that he, too, could die for, if Blair Sandburg isn't found alive. Do you want to lose both your boys?"

The look on the woman's face turned cold. "Get out, the both of you! Get the hell out of my house, now!"

Simon stood, helping guide Jim to the door. "We'll be back with a warrant, you know. We wanted to do this the easy way, but..."

"Damn you both! I don't have to take this, not in my own home. Get out!" Her angry shouts followed them to the street before the door slammed behind her.

Jim collapsed into the passenger seat. Simon slipped behind the wheel. "We'll get a warrant, Jim. We'll turn that house inside out. If there's anything there, we'll find it."

Jim nodded. "Yeah, right. What we needed to know, you won't get from a warrant, and you know it. Names, Simon, possible places to search, his habits... None of that comes from a warrant. We're back to square one." Jim leaned his head back against the headrest.

Glancing over at his friend, Simon noticed that his hands were shaking. Over the past few years, he begun to take the calm, controlled Jim Ellison for granted. He'd forgotten what the Sentinel had been like before Sandburg took his place at his side. Now, without that guiding presence, Jim was hovering on the verge of losing control once more. He reached over and squeezed Jim's arm.

"We'll find him, Jim. Don't give up. We'll find him."

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

Blair woke with a start, a scream lodged in his throat. What a nightmare! Trapped beneath the earth, buried alive...

Then, with a horrible rush of memory, reality poured over him.

It was true.

Oh, God, it was all true.

The scream he had been holding back so long was released, and his hands began claw desperately at the lid of the box.

"Help me! Is anybody there? Get me out of here! Jim!"

The darkness was suffocating. There was no air. He couldn't breathe. "Help me! Somebody! Can anybody hear me?" Splinters from the rough cut wood cut into his flesh. "Please! Help me!"

Blair kept clawing desperately at the rough planks until he felt the warmth of his own blood dripping from torn fingers and could no longer stand the pain. He continued screaming for a long time after his hands were raw and bloody. When his voice became hoarse, he broke into great, gulping sobs as he shivered alone in the dark.

"Jim? Jim will find me. Jim always finds me," he whispered hoarsely. "Jim will come. Jim will come. Jim will come." He chanted the mantra until darkness claimed his mind.

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

When they arrived back at the office, Rafe rushed up to them, handing Simon a mailing envelope. "This was delivered right after you left. It's marked urgent."

The members of Major Crimes gathered in the privacy of Simon's office. Carefully, the captain opened the envelope using gloves to prevent smearing any possible fingerprints. He laid the contents out on his desk. Unable to wait to discover what lay inside, Rafe, Taggart, and Brown read over his shoulder.

Impatiently, Jim interrupted their silent reading. "What is it? Would somebody talk to me?"

The men exchanged pained looks with each other, then Taggart cleared his throat and spoke up. "Jim, it's instructions to a web site on the internet. It's from Mashburn. He's writes to go to this site if we want to get a good look at Blair."

Simon didn't miss the fear which quickly passed across Ellison's features. "Rafe, you're the best on computers. Go bring up this site."

The young detective left the office to head to his own computer, leaving the others to wait, dreading what they might see.

Jim wished again for his sight. Being trapped in this blackness was so damned frustrating. He was tempted to tear off the bandages, but remembering the pain and the distorted vision, he knew that the best thing he could do for his eyes was to let them rest.

Problem was, the whole thing reminded him way too much of losing his sight to the effects of Golden. He'd thought they'd gone through the worst that day down in the precinct garage. Of course, the worst was yet to come, but he had had no way of knowing that then. If he lived to be a hundred, he'd never forget how it felt, holding the frightened Sandburg in his arms while the young man's heartbeat gradually grew slower and slower. All the time, he'd have given anything to be able to see his face, just once, before...before Bla ir died.

Jim forced himself back to reality. Blair hadn't died that day. Just like he hadn't died when the worst really had come at last, early that morning in the damned fountain on the Rainier campus. And he wasn't going to die now. Not as long as there was a single breath left in Jim Ellison's body. As he'd done almost continuously since Blair's disappearance, he tried to send a mental message to his Guide.

Blair? Can you feel me? Do you know that I'm trying to find you? I feel so helpless, Chief. What good are these senses if I can't even use them to find you now? Please, hang in there. Don't give up on me, yet, okay? I'll find you, I promise. Just don't quit on me. Don't you dare quit on me.

Rafe's voice interrupted his thoughts. "It's up, guys. Come on and take a look."

Jim followed the others into the bullpen where a small crowd had gathered around Rafe's computer. As Ellison approached, he could hear their whispers fade away and felt them move off to make room for the detectives to see the screen. Then he heard Simon's sharp intake of breath.

"Sir? What is it? Tell me!" Jim's voice trembled with anxiety.

Simon swallowed hard against the bile rising in his throat. "It's...Sandburg, Jim."

Jim felt his knees buckle, and Taggart grabbed his elbow to support him. "Is he...?" Suddenly, he couldn't even voice the horrible thought which had just occurred to him. Had Mashburn already killed Blair? Was all this some sick joke? Had that psycho already killed his partner and posted his picture on the internet for them all to see?

Joel and Brown helped him into Rafe's chair. Jim knew his hands were shaking, but he was helpless to stop the tremors. "Simon...?"

Understanding the reason behind his friend's fear, Simon reassured him. "No, Jim, he's alive in this picture. But..." Simon's voice failed him.

Sensing Simon's distress, Brown stepped in. "I'll read you the text. Here it is:

Ellison, As you can see, your young friend is alive and not too badly injured, under the circumstances, that is. That box he's lying in is currently buried in an undisclosed location, but I assure you, he's in a safe, happy place. In it, he has enough air to stay alive until the hour of my brother's execution. If Ronnie dies tomorrow, he will slowly suffocate. If the governor issues a sentence reduction, I'll send directions to his...gravesite...in plenty of time for you to save him. Or you can try to locate him yourself. Remember, you've got until 5:00 PM.

By the way... What's it like, Ellison, knowing the exact hour that someone you love is going to die? Living hell, ain't it? Good luck, Detective.

"That's it," Brown finished softly. "Except for the picture."

Jim's hand was shaking as he reached blindly toward the computer screen, as though he could see the image through his sensitive touch. "The picture?"

His heart in his throat, Simon was almost thankful that Ellison couldn't see the image frozen in time before them. It would tear him apart. Whatever horrible imaginary images he had conjured in his mind were bad enough without this heartbreaking visual confirmation of what his friend was suffering. Placing a reassuring hand on Jim's shoulder, he said quietly, "It shows Blair. He's lying in a box in a hole in the ground. He looks beaten about the face, pretty severely bruised, but alive. He's definitely alive, Jim. Try to hold on to that."

The Sentinel's voice was little more than a whisper. "He's buried him alive. Oh, my God, Blair... He won't survive this. He hates small spaces. Hates being in the dark." Jim's voice broke, then he reached out and grasped Simon's arm. "I've gotta find him. Help me find him, Simon."

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

Less than an hour later, Simon Banks' car was speeding up the highway toward the state penitentiary, lights flashing and siren sounding. Jim focused on dialing down his sense of hearing, to tune out the discordant blare of the siren. His senses were beginning to come back down to a more controllable level. His sight, however, remained nearly nonexistent. He had unbandaged his eyes once, to apply the medicinal cream given to him by the doctor. Standing in the darkened bathroom at the station, he'd squinted into the mirror, straining to see. Only a blurred, shadow of shapes. Next to nothing.

"Jim? You doing okay?" Simon's concerned question brought Jim's thoughts back to the present.

"Yes, sir." Jim paused, then asked the question which had been on his mind since leaving the station. "Do you really think Ronnie Mashburn knew what his brother was planning?"

Simon took a deep breath, then exhaled slowly. "I don't know, Jim. They've both been in trouble with the law since they were kids, together and separately. From their rap sheets, Eddie's always been even more violent than Ronnie, at least until the murder that got Ronnie convicted. I'm surprised Eddie's stayed on the streets this long without his own homicide conviction. Maybe they planned the whole scheme together, maybe not. But there's a possibility, don't you think?"

Jim nodded his agreement. "It's worth checking out, sir. Even if Ronnie wasn't in on the kidnapping, maybe he knows something...anything...that could help us."

Simon turned the car into the long drive which led to the state prison. "We'll find out soon enough, Jim. We're here."

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

The guard led them into a small interrogation room near the wing of the prison which housed death row. "Kinda strange, you guys getting an interview with Ronnie this close to his time, you know. Mostly just family and friends get to see the prisoners when it gets to this point. Except for the lawyers, of course."

"Yeah, well, this is a special case," Simon commented dryly.

"He'll be here in a minute," the guard said, taking his place at the door behind them.

Jim and Simon sat down in the two chairs with a countertop in front. A thick sheet of bullet proof plexiglass separated them from the chair where Ronnie Mashburn would soon sit. Telephone receivers were provided on each side, allowing for conversation between prisoner and guests.

Jim took in the all too familiar sounds and smells of the prison. The few days he had spent undercover in this place came rushing back to him...the danger hidden just beneath the thin veneer of protection, the constant threat of erupting violence, and his own barely restrained fear. Then, Blair had shown up, posing as a teacher, and in many ways, the fears had intensified. His friend didn't belong in a place like this, wouldn't survive long against its violence and cruelty.

His memories were interrupted by the opening of the door on the other side of the protective shield. Three guards entered, surrounding a man dressed in a standard prison issued jumpsuit, his hands and feet shackled. Ronnie Mashburn sat down across from the two officers.

His dark brown eyes studied them coldly, and the corners of his mouth turned up in a sneer. Lank, stringy hair hung down, threatening to cover one of his eyes. He brushed it back carelessly, tucking it behind an ear. Mashburn picked up one of the receivers on his side, and Simon and Jim each did the same on theirs.

"Wondered when you would get around to coming to see me," the condemned man stated calmly. "Let me save us some time. I heard about the kidnapping of that professor, the one who's a cop's partner. The press ain't figured it out yet, but I figure that it was my brother, Eddie, that done it. Am I right?"

Simon snapped, "You tell us, Ronnie! Did you just figure it out, or did you help plan it? Sounds like something the two of you might have cooked up together to me."

"No way, Banks. I found out about that kidnapping just like the rest of the world, on the six o'clock news."

Jim broke in. "Why should we believe that? You're scheduled to die tomorrow. You'd try anything to get that appointment with the executioner called off, wouldn't you? Even something as crazy as this."

The man across from them shook his head and smiled sadly. His cold eyes thawed a degree. "That's where you're wrong. I've been in this place for too long now. One appeal after another. Three times, they've been within a few hours of killing me, then something happens, and it gets postponed. I'm tired of it!" Ronnie Mashburn stared directly into Simon's eyes. "I'm ready to die. If I'd known Eddie was planning something stupid like this, I'd have told him to forget it. To let it go. I'm ready to get out of this hell hole, even if it is in a coffin."

Jim and Simon sat stunned. This was not anything they'd expected.

Sizing up their reactions, Mashburn chuckled. "Took you by surprise, huh? It's true. I'm tired, and I'm ready to get out of this pit, one way or another. No point in that kid losing his life in Eddie's idiotic plan to save me. I don't want to be saved."

The shrewd eyes sized up Jim. "You're awfully upset about this, Ellison. Never seen you get this worked up before. That can only mean one thing. He's your partner, ain't he?" Mashburn grinned. "Guess old Eddie figured that was some kind of poetic justice. Using the partner of the man who got me convicted to try to save my life. Just wish he hadn't gone to all this trouble. Like I said, I'm ready to put an end to all this."

Jim leaned forward. "Then, can you help us? Is there anything you can tell us that would help us find Eddie? Find Sandburg?"

Ronnie Mashburn's eyes grew wary. "What would happen to Eddie? You guys gonna kill him when you find him? He may be stupid, but he's my brother, and he's only doing this to try to save my life. Even if that ain't what I want."

"If he surrenders peacefully, we'll just take him into custody, Ronnie. He'll get a fair trial, I promise you that." Simon tried to ignore the image of Jim Ellison beating the last breath of life out of the man who had dared take his partner from him. "If you help us, we may be able to take him in without any violence."

Mashburn nodded. "You've always been pretty straight with me, Banks. You, too, Ellison, for that matter. But, I honestly don't know what I could tell you. I ain't got a clue where Eddie is or where he's taken Sandburg. He's a loner. Not many friends, and I'm the only family, besides our mother, he's got left. Ain't seen our sister since I don't know when. She's too good for us, I guess. Since I've been locked up, I kinda lost track of Eddie's life, y'know?" He paused, thinking. "I can tell you this. My brother's a cruel man. He'll kill that kid without a second thought. I'm really the less violent one, believe it or not." He chuckled at the irony. "Maybe the state's executing the wrong brother tomorrow. I'll tell you one thing, the world would be a much safer place without Eddie in it."

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

It was after midnight by the time they got back to the station. After finishing up a few pieces of last minute paperwork, Simon came up behind Jim, laying a hand on his shoulder. "Let me drive you home."

"No. I need to be here. I need to be doing something. Anything." Ellison shook his head helplessly. "What can I do, Simon?"

"Right now, you can go home and get some sleep. The others have already gone. We can't solve this thing if we're too dead on our feet to think straight, Jim, you know that." Simon eased the detective to his feet with an insistent hand under his elbow. "C'mon. Let's get you home."

The drive to the loft was quiet. Jim faced straight ahead, and with his eyes bandaged, Simon couldn't tell if he was awake or asleep. At last, a small voice broke the silence. "He's scared, Simon."

Simon glanced at the man next to him. "Yes, I imagine he is. What is it? Are you sensing something?"

"Maybe. I'm not sure. Somehow, I feel that he's terrified, and that he's calling for me. And...I'm not there. Damn it all, why am I not there?" He pounded the car seat in frustration at his own helplessness.

The captain struggled to keep his voice calm. "We will find him, Jim. Just take it easy. Blair knows you're doing everything you can. He trusts you completely. That trust..." Simon shook his head at the thought. "It's stronger than anything I've ever seen. It'll help him hold on until you get there. Blair's got a good head on his shoulders, Jim, and he's strong. You know that. He'll be all right."

Jim took a deep, ragged breath. "What if...? Oh, God, Simon, what if this is it? If this is the time that I don't find him soon enough?" He whispered, "That's always been my greatest fear, you know. Not being able to save Blair. Losing him..."

"Stop it, Mister! Do you hear me?" Simon pulled the car to a stop outside the loft. "Blair is going to be all right. Don't you start doubting that! Do you understand me?"

He waited for Jim's nod of affirmation. When he spoke again, Simon's voice was softer. "Jim. I think I can understand what you're feeling. I remember seeing Daryl hanging out that window, only seconds away from certain death. I can still feel that desperation, that sheer terror..." He stopped, gathering his emotions under control. "Is that close to how you're feeling right now?"

"Yeah." The Sentinel's voice dropped to a near whisper. "I can't stand the thought of losing him. Crazy, stubborn kid... How'd he do this to me?" Jim turned toward his captain, the white bandage over his eyes bright in the glare of the street lamp. "I need him, Simon. Damn it all! I was never supposed to need him! Not like this! I wasn't supposed to love him so damned much!" Jim's voice broke, and his shoulders hunched forward, shaking in the silent, desperate sobs he'd held back for so long.

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

At last, Simon had Jim settled in his bed in the loft after helping him apply the antibiotic cream to his burned eyes. He offered to stay the night, but Jim had insisted that he should go home to rest. He would be fine; after all, his other Sentinel senses could certainly help fill in for his lack of sight. Finally, Simon left, promising to return early the next morning to drive Jim to the station.

Jim Ellison listened for the closing door. In a way, it was a relief. After being constantly in the company of others, he was alone at last. The silence of the loft reverberated around him. No quiet breathing from the room beneath his own. No reassuring heartbeat. No Blair.

Turning to his side, Jim waited for sleep to come.

Nothing.

Maybe some warm milk would help.

He felt around for his grey robe, and finding it, pulled it around him. Carefully, he moved to the stairs and felt for the first step. Slowly, cautiously, he made his way downstairs.

In the kitchen, he poured a mug full of milk, then managed to heat it in the microwave until it was warm. Standing blind and alone in the kitchen, mug in hand, Jim Ellison suddenly felt lost in his own home. Lost in his own mind and soul. So lost, he was afraid he might never find his way back again. He fought back the wave of loneliness that threatened to engulf him. Then, he made his way to Blair's small room.

The scent of his Guide surrounded him, and for a moment, he had to choke back a sudden sob. He felt his way to Blair's little bed, touching the smooth coverlet, and letting the texture of the fabric work its way through his sensitive fingertips. Setting his milk down on the bedside table, he sank down onto the softness of Blair's mattress.

The bone deep tiredness overwhelmed him, and Jim eased onto his side and under the covers. He curled into a small, tight ball with one of Blair's pillows held tightly against his chest, the scents and the memories filling his senses and his mind.

He spoke aloud, hoping that through some miracle, his Guide could hear him. "Chief, I'm here. Please, Blair, please don't give up. We're both trapped in the darkness right now, but I promise you that I'll come for you. Wait for me. Please. Don't leave me here alone. Wait for me..."

First, came the tears.

At last, when the tears were spent, came the healing balm of sleep.

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

Simon arrived at the loft shortly after 6:00 in the morning, letting himself in with the key Jim had given him years before. The loft was wrapped in silence and darkness. Switching on a lamp, Simon quietly climbed the steps to Jim's room.

Empty.

Confused, he checked the bathroom, only to find it unoccupied.

Then, he heard the soft sound of breathing from the small room tucked beneath Jim's. The room that had belonged to Blair Sandburg for the past several years. He tiptoed to the door and peeked inside.

Jim slept in Blair's bed, curled on his side under the coverlet. Dried tear tracks stained his face, and an arm clutched one of Blair's pillows up to him. Simon shook his head at the heart wrenching sight. What would Ellison do if Mashburn killed Sandburg? He might survive physically, but there was no doubt that the heart of Jim Ellison would be dead along with his friend. More than the lives of Sandburg and Ronnie Mashburn were at stake here, of that there was no doubt.

Driving away such negative thoughts, Simon called out to Jim, awakening him to the new day and the renewed search for his Guide.

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

The other members of the bullpen greeted Jim with subdued optimism when he arrived. Brown and Rafe stopped by his desk for a moment. "We're going to run down a possible sighting of the getaway car, Jim. We'll let you know what we find," Henri said to Ellison. The big detective hesitated, then added softly, "We'll find him, babe. Hairboy's tough, y'know. He'll make it."

Rafe and Brown glanced at each other in concern. The Sentinel looked drawn and tired. Without Sandburg at his side, Jim seemed incomplete somehow. Only half alive. As if the part of him that allowed joy and light and laughter had been ripped away, leaving only the dark shadows of emptiness and sadness behind. Mere reflections of the man he had been with Sandburg at his side.

It was strange how Sandburg's kidnapping had affected each of them. The memory of the young man's energetic presence filled their minds, making his absence more keenly felt by the minute. A heaviness hung over the bullpen, a lingering, dark cloud, weighing them all down, reminding them of the passing hours. Reminding them that time was running out.

"Let's go, partner," Rafe said softly. "We've got work to do."

"Take it easy, Jim," Henri added. "Hang in there."

Jim nodded grimly as they departed, then he called out, "Taggart? You around?"

The former bomb squad expert made his way to Jim's desk. "Jim? You need something?" As the kind hearted detective looked down at the pale features of Jim Ellison, he felt a flash of sympathy. The kid's disappearance had been tough on Ellison. Just how tough was etched all over his tired face. It had been hard on Taggart, too. He really liked Sandburg. The young man had talked him through some hard times back in his bomb squad days, and Joel never forgot a kindness. His own heart was filled with an aching emptiness. If the threats against Blair's life had been this hard for him to deal with, what kind of hell must Jim be suffering?

"What time is it?" Jim's voice was distant, almost too calm.

Joel Taggart hesitated, then looked at his watch. "Almost ten, Jim."

"Seven hours, Joel. Damn it all!" He raised his head, his injured eyes still covered by the gauze to protect them from light. "In seven hours, that bastard's gonna kill my partner unless the governor issues that sentence reduction or I find him first." His voice turned bitter. "After talking with our illustrious governor, you can forget any sentence reduction. And here I sit, as if I'm totally helpless. Joel, I've gotta get out of here. I have to do something!" With a sound that was part cry, part moan, Jim staggered to his feet and started toward the door, then turned around blindly, a lost look on his face as he realized he had nowhere to go.

Following after the frantic detective, Taggart laid a calming hand on Jim's shoulder. "Easy, Jim. Take it easy. I understand where you're coming from, I really do. But, what can you do right now? Everyone's running down leads, talking to witnesses again. What else is there?"

Jim sighed, running a hand through his closely cropped hair. "Who's next on your list to interview?"

"We finally located the sister. She lives out of town about five miles to the south. I was going to head out to talk with her. Want to come?"

Grateful for something concrete to do, Jim nodded. "Thanks. Let's get going. "

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

Katrina Collins lived in a small farmhouse with her husband and two children. By the time Taggart and Jim arrived, her husband was at work and the children at school. She opened the door to let them in after studying their credentials carefully.

After serving them coffee, she sat across from the two detectives. It was obvious that the young woman was nervous. Her eyes kept darting to the door, as if she expected someone to walk through at any moment.

Joel began the interview. "Mrs. Collins, I understand that you were taken from your parents' home and placed into foster care at an early age, is that correct?"

"Yes. I was eight. When I turned ten, I was allowed limited visitations with my parents and brothers, but I didn't see them very often." Her voice contained a trace of bitterness. "They were always too drunk or too busy fighting to find the time to see me."

Taggart smiled sympathetically. "Then, you grew up not knowing your brothers very well."

"Not really. I saw them occasionally when I was a teenager, almost never as an adult. Detective Ellison..." She glanced at Jim, then she paused for a sip of coffee. "I know what my brothers are, and to be honest, I don't want to know them. I've built a good life, you know? My husband is a good man, and my children are turning out well. Why should I want to have anything to do with them? Besides..." She stared at her hands. "After this afternoon, I'll only have one brother."

Jim spoke up. "I am sorry; today must be very difficult for you, but you have to understand why we're here. Eddie has kidnapped my partner" He paused as a small gasp escaped the woman sitting across from him. Then he continued. "He's threatening to kill him, Mrs. Collins, if the governor doesn't grant a sentence reduction to Ronnie. The governor won't do that. So, if we don't locate my partner before your brother's execution this afternoon at 5:00..." Jim fought to keep control of his voice. "My partner will die."

"Can you give us anything, Mrs. Collins?" Joel asked gently. "Anything at all to go on? Where Eddie used to hang out? Places he liked to go? People he might have confided in? Anything?"

Biting her trembling lip, it was obvious that the sister of the two criminals was very upset. "I'm so, so sorry," she whispered. "I just haven't ever known him very well. How could he? I just can't understand..."

"Please, Mrs. Collins?" Jim said softly. "Is there anything you can tell us?"

She took a few moments to gather her thoughts. "Eddie was a tough kid, you know? He never felt like he belonged anywhere, especially at home where all our parents did was pick at him. Nothing he did was ever good enough to please them, so he just stopped trying. All he had was Ronnie. And baseball." A small smile broke through her dark expression. "Eddie was great at baseball. He used to play every afternoon at the fields near our old house. It was the only time he was ever truly happy. I think if he'd stayed in school, he might have even been offered a college scholarship."

Jim's expression was thoughtful. "Baseball... Anything else?"

Suddenly, Joel's cell phone rang, and the captain flipped it open. "Taggart!" He listened, then cut his eyes over to the woman. "Right, we're on our way."

Getting to his feet, Taggart took Jim's arm. "We've got to move, Jim. Mrs. Collins, please keep thinking. If there's anything else, no matter how inconsequential it seems to be, please call me at this number." He handed her his card, then helped Jim get to the car while Mrs. Collins watched from her front porch.

Once in the vehicle, Taggart turned on his lights and siren. "What's going on, Joel?" Jim asked.

In a grim voice, the captain replied, "They've got Eddie Mashburn cornered, Jim, in a liquor store on Fourth Street. He's armed and holding off the officers on the scene."

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

Blair lay shivering in the cold darkness. In some far corner of his awareness, he knew his mind was beginning to play tricks on him. It had begun with little things...thinking he heard the earth caving in the lid of the box to suffocate him...feeling bugs crawling on his arms, legs, and face...imagining Jim's voice calling him from a distance. At first, he struggled for control, fought to remain sane.

"Why?" he whispered. "For what? So I can go mad slowly instead of quickly?" He giggled softly. "I'm not getting out of here. Jim, it's not your fault, man. Not your fault. I know you're trying, but you're just not gonna make it this time, are you?"

He brushed away a tear which trickled down his cheek. "Talk about a heavy guilt trip. Jim, please, don't blame yourself, okay? I know you tried."

"Wish I could write you a letter, tell you good bye. Not to do that guilt thing you do so well." Having taken hold, the thought would not go away.

He fumbled in the dark, finally locating the nub of the pencil. No paper. He thought for a moment, then worked his hand into his pocket, drawing out his wallet. This week's grocery list. It would have to do.

Using only his sense of touch, he began to scratch out his message with trembling fingers. The scrap of paper was small. The words would have to be few. Only a few words to express so many feelings. But, it would have to suffice.

Jim,

Don't feel guilty, please. I know you did your best to find me. Thanks for everything, man. The years we had, they were the best. I wouldn't have missed it for the world. We had one hell of a ride, didn't we? Never forget how much I loved you.

Blair

His final task completed, Blair's arms fell limply to his sides, the scrap of paper tucked beneath his fingers. Suddenly, the silence was overpowering. Reaching down, he flipped on the small radio. He had been rationing the batteries, not wanting to kill his one source of contact with the world beyond his hole in the earth. The tinny sounds of music filled the small box. When he recognized the song, Blair began to laugh in great, gulping hiccups. After a few moments, the laughter turned to desperate sobs of hopelessness and loneliness. The sounds of Santana's "Black Magic Woman" continued as Blair sobbed alone in the darkness.

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

The crime scene was sealed off and surrounded by police by the time Joel and Jim arrived. Leading Jim by the elbow, Joel located Simon Banks and knelt down with him behind a police car.

"Fill us in."

Simon nodded toward the liquor store. "The clerk says that Eddie Mashburn came in about 1:00 asking for a couple of bottles of wine. When it came time to pay, he just laughed and said that his brother was being executed today, and to consider it 'on the state.' Apparently, this didn't go over well with the clerk and he argued. Mashburn whips out his gun and orders the guy to hand over all the money in the register. As he was complying, the clerk pulls out a pistol hidden behind the counter and shoots Eddie once in the shoulder. Mashburn starts shooting up the place, and the clerk escapes through the rear exit and calls us. Mashburn's still inside, shouting threats, and..." Simon hesitated before finishing. "We've got a phone link established, and he's demanding to speak to Jim. Face to face."

Ellison started to his feet but was pulled back down by a commanding Simon Banks. "Where the hell do you think you're going?"

"C'mon, Simon! We've got nothing else, damn it! He's our last hope of finding Blair! I'm going to talk to him!"

Seeing Jim's desperation, hearing the undisguised anguish in his friend's voice, the frustrated captain knew he had no choice. Banks sighed deeply in surrender. "Not alone, you're not. In case you've forgotten, Jim, you can't see right now!" He turned to Rafe, who was kneeling on the far side of Joel Taggart and fixed his powerful gaze on the younger detective. "Rafe, go with him. Keep him covered, understand?"

"Sure, Captain."

"Give me the phone."

Joel handed the phone to Simon. Banks looked back at the liquor store as he spoke. "Mashburn? Can you hear me?"

With the exception of Jim Ellison, all the others could hear was Simon's end of the conversation, but in a minute, he handed Joel the phone and turned to Rafe and Jim. "All right, you're going in, both of you. He's really nervous, so be careful. It wouldn't take much to set him off. Rafe, he wanted you to come in unarmed, but I convinced him that there was no way I was sending my unarmed men into that situation. He agreed, as long as it was only the two of you. He'll be keeping the gun on you, so be careful." He turned back to Joel. "Is the sharpshooter lined up?"

Jim erupted immediately in indignation. "No! Hell, Simon, what do you think you're doing? Mashburn's our only link to Blair, remember? No sharpshooter! We're going to bring him out alive. If you've got anyone lined up to take a shot at him, then call him off. Now!"

In frustration, Simon pounded the side of the squad car providing their cover. "Damn, Jim! You expect me to let you go in there without cover? Rafe can offer you some protection, sure, but you can believe Mashburn will watch him like a hawk. Let me keep a shooter..."

"No way, Simon! Not with Blair's life on the line! Call him off!" The Sentinel's tone left no room for argument.

Tense moments ticked past before Simon picked up his radio. "Lenny? Stand down until further notice. Hear me? Stand down." He looked at Jim and Rafe. "All right, you're clear to go in."

Slowly, the two men approached the liquor store. Rafe could see the bullet holes in the front window and broken glass and spilled liquid covering the floor as they approached. He whispered to Jim, "You okay, there, Jim?"

Ellison's only response was a tight nod.

They stepped inside.

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

Time had ceased to exist for Blair. His mind was had almost completely shut down. It had been hours since he had opened his eyes; some part of him reasoned that if he didn't try to see, then the total darkness surrounding him wouldn't really be there. So he no longer looked. He didn't turn on the flashlight. There was no point. It only confirmed what his mind was trying so desperately to deny.

He floated in and out of reality. The radio had faded out sometime back in the distant past. He vaguely missed the comfort it had provided. He had forgotten about eating any more of the crackers or drinking water. That was part of the non-reality of his captivity. He was past that, now, drifting in a more pleasant world of his own mind's creation. A world where he was safe, where there was light and warmth and the pleasant perfume of flowers.

He was in paradise, strolling on a beach somewhere in the Pacific. The sun was warm on his bare back, and the sand under his feet sparkled with its rays. Waves rolled in, crashing gently against the shore. Jim was beside him. They were laughing, enjoying a private joke shared only between the two of them. Jim's arm lay affectionately across his shoulders, providing a source of safety and a feeling of belonging.

"Jim," he whispered, basking in the light and the warmth of their friendship. "Jim..."

In his dark, cold tomb, Blair Sandburg smiled.

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

Mashburn's shoulder was bleeding profusely, soaking the rags he had found to wrap around it to stem the flow of blood. As they stepped through the door, his rough voice called to them from behind the counter, "Get in here and close that door! Now!"

Jim felt the light touch of Rafe's hand steering him. Concentrating his remaining senses, he could smell the blood and sweat of the injured man. He could hear the accelerated heartbeat and nervous, rapid breathing. For a moment, he thought he picked up a trace of Sandburg's unmistakable scent born on the foul body of his kidnapper. Beside him, Rafe's heart rate picked up a little, but he remained calm.

"Well, well... Jim Ellison, the great Sentinel, in the flesh. We meet at last. Of course, we've met before, briefly, at Rainier, but I don't think you saw much of me, did you? From the looks of you, you're still not seeing much. Those Sentinel senses of yours must be a drawback sometimes; I don't know anyone who experiences such a long lasting effect from a simple macing." He laughed coldly. "Your buddy, Sandburg, certainly got over his dosage quickly enough. Of course, the effects of the chloroform lingered for awhile longer."

A low rumble, nearly a growl, rose from deep within Jim's throat. Rafe whispered to him, "Easy, Jim. Don't play his game."

Mashburn laughed again, tucking the makeshift bandage more tightly over his wound at the same time, never taking his eyes off the two detectives. "That kid must mean a hell of a lot to you, Ellison, even more than I counted on. That's good. That's very good. Means a better chance of saving my brother's life."

"The governor isn't going to grant a reprieve or a sentence reduction, Mashburn," Jim growled. "You knew that going in. We don't deal with terrorists." He made a mammoth effort to keep his voice reasonable. "Just tell us where Sandburg is, and maybe you'll avoid the same fate as Ronnie. Right now, it's kidnapping, but if he dies... Then, it's murder." His voice dropped dangerously low. "I promised you yesterday that if anything happens to Blair, I'll kill you myself. I meant that, Mashburn. He dies...you die."

Eddie Mashburn's heart rate increased dramatically, Jim noticed, but his voice remained cold. "You got that wrong, Ellison. If Ronnie dies, Sandburg dies. It's that simple. If you love that kid the way it looks like you do, you'll do some fast talking to the governor. 'Cause, if he lets my brother's execution take place three hours from now, then the execution of Blair Sandburg will take place right on schedule, too. Within thirty minutes or so, I'd say."

As Mashburn talked, Jim carefully calculated the direction of his voice, the angle of his heart beat, and projected the height of the counter separating them. If he moved quickly enough, maybe he could catch the kidnapper off guard, slam him to the floor and hold him there just long enough for Rafe to disarm him. Once captured, maybe the man would talk and reveal Blair's location. Forcing himself to remain outwardly still and calm, Jim began tensing his muscles, preparing for his attack.

Mashburn went on. "Notice that I've eliminated one possibility from the scenario. Your finding your partner with those senses of yours. See, I figured that wasn't fair to Ronnie, you know? I mean, no one's helping him but me. So, why should your partner get the advantage of your super senses? You're staying right here, Detective, until time runs out. For my brother and your partner."

Jim lunged toward the counter, desperately trying to locate Mashburn by sound and smell and touch. Just as his hands brushed shirt fabric, two shots rang out, in close succession. His hearing extended, the sound was deafening.

Missing his target and carried forward by the momentum of his charge, Jim fell to the floor beside the counter as the heavy, metallic smell of blood saturated the air. "No!" he screamed in denial. "Rafe! Rafe! What's happened?" His hands roamed aimlessly, searching for Mashburn.

Excited voices were drawing nearer. Jim cried out again, "Rafe! What's going on?" He got to his feet and stumbled forward, brushing off Rafe's hands trying to hold him back. Kneeling down, he located Eddie Mashburn, grabbing him by the shoulders, raising him from the floor, and shaking hard.

"Talk to me, damn you! Tell me where he is!" Jim cried wildly. "Where have you taken Sandburg?"

"Jim!" Simon grabbed Jim's arms, forcing him to drop Mashburn. "He's dead! Stop it!"

"No!" In despair, Ellison shook the body violently. "No! He can't be dead! He's gotta tell us where Sandburg is! Where is he, you bastard? Tell me!"

At last, more strong hands joined with Simon, forcing Mashburn's body from Jim's grasp. They pulled Jim to his feet and out of the liquor store. He was led to Simon's car where he slumped into the passenger seat. "Simon, please. Tell me what happened. Where's Rafe?"

Simon's quiet voice answered, "He's right here, Jim."

"Jim?" Rafe whispered. "I'm so sorry."

Jim's face angled up toward the young detective. "Rafe? What happened in there?"

"When you jumped him, he got a direct bead on you, Jim. He was going to pull the trigger. He would have killed you. So, I..." Rafe couldn't continue.

"Oh, God, no..." Realization set in, followed by gut wrenching horror, and Jim lowered his head into his hands in despair.

Simon shot a commanding look at Rafe. "You did the right thing, son. You couldn't allow him to kill Ellison. He left you no choice."

Rafe swiped at the tears threatening to overflow his eyes. "But, now..."

Jim raised his head. Even in the midst of his own grief, he heard the danger signals in the younger detective's voice. Rafe was blaming himself, and the guilt could destroy him. He managed to choke out the words he knew might help assuage that guilt. Words which could provide the comfort only he could bestow. "Simon's right, Rafe. You did what you had to do. We'll find Blair without Mashburn."

Rafe's broken voice whispered, "Thanks, Jim."

Simon cleared his throat. "Rafe, there's Henri. Go with your partner and make your statement. I'll stay with Jim."

After he heard Rafe move away, Jim turned toward Simon.

The captain sighed deeply. "Jim, I'm so sorry. Mashburn was our last hope..."

Shaking his head, Jim replied, "No, sir, not our last hope. We've still got time, and we'll find him. We have find him. I will not allow Blair to die. Not like this. I won't."

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

Henri watched his partner approach, his head down and his shoulders slumped. The word of what had transpired inside had quickly spread among the officers waiting around the perimeter of the crime scene. Low mumblings and furtive glances followed Rafe as he walked slowly toward his partner.

"Captain told me to find you and make my statement." The young detective's voice was flat, devoid of emotion.

Henri took a moment to study his partner's face. Rafe had not raised his eyes from the pavement, and an occasional tremor shook his shoulders beneath his well-tailored jacket.

This wouldn't do, Henri decided. Wouldn't do at all. There was no way he would allow his partner to be consumed with guilt over this shooting. Grasping Rafe's arm, he led him none too gently toward a vacant squad car.

Henri slammed his door and waited for his partner to do the same. "What went down in there, man?"

Rafe shrugged. "You heard, H. Jim lunged for the guy, and the bastard got a bead on him. The trigger was halfway back by the time I fired. He was dead before he hit the ground."

"It was a clean shoot?"

For the first time, a touch of defiance warmed Rafe's voice. "Of course it was; you know that."

Henri's voice was firm. "Yeah, babe, I know that. Question is, do you know it? Know it deep inside, in your gut, where it counts? Was there anything else you coulda done?"

Rafe looked up, meeting his partner's eyes for the first time. "Not and keep Jim alive. No. But..." His voice trailed off.

Henri knew what lay behind his hesitation, but he asked anyway. "But what, man?" he probed.

Rafe lost control. "Damn it, Henri! You know what! The best hope we had of finding Blair just got blasted away in that liquor store. From a bullet from my gun. My gun, H.! What if we don't find him, huh? How is Jim gonna live with that?" His voice grew softer. "How am I gonna live with that?" Two tears slowly trickled down his cheeks.

Henri reached over and clasped his friend's shoulder. "Listen to me. If you hadn't fired, if Jim had gone down, could you have lived with that? To lose them both? Is that what Sandburg would have wanted? For Jim to die?"

Words deserted him, and Rafe could only shake his head.

"Of course not. It was a no win situation, babe. You made the right move. You saved Jim and, to be honest, Jim Ellison's the best chance Sandburg has to survive anyway. You really think Mashburn would ever have told us where to find him? Honestly?"

Silence filled the car. At last, Rafe shook his head. "No. The guy was too filled with hate, too intent on revenge. He never would have revealed Blair's whereabouts. Never." The almost visible cloud of guilt lifted from his shoulders. "Jim isBlair's best chance, isn't he? If he had died, we'd have lost them both, wouldn't we?"

A huge grin lighted Henri's face. "Now, you're catching on, babe. Now, you're catching on. Time's wasting! Let's get back to work and find Hairboy."

Before they left the privacy of the patrol car, Rafe whispered, "Thanks, H."

"No problem, man. What are partners for?"

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

By the time they returned to the station, Jim Ellison was a man possessed. Simon had seen Jim in full Sentinel mode only occasionally. He remembered early in the detective's partnership with Sandburg, when the young man had been captured by Lash. Banks had never seen Ellison so focused, so determined. Yet, there was the feeling that he hovered on the edge of losing control completely, that it was only the thought of finding Blair that kept him sane.

Simon had that same feeling now. Jim was alert and intently focused, yet the captain could not shake the eerie feeling that, if they did not find Blair alive, they would lose Jim completely.

They had been pouring over notes, statements, and photographs all afternoon, searching for the one clue, the one link, that would take them to Sandburg. Every eye turned to the clock on the wall frequently, as they watched the seconds become minutes which turned all too quickly into hours.

It was 4:00 PM.

Jim Ellison was pacing like a caged animal in Simon's office. He hadn't ceased moving since returning to the station, as if through energy alone, he could locate his partner.

"We've missed something, Simon. We must have."

Banks through a doubtful glance at Joel Taggart. They had been over the same ground repeatedly. Again and again. "Right, Jim. But what?"

"The sister's statement. I still think there's something there. Play the tape again."

Taggart hit the Play button and Katrina Collins' voice filled the room. Jim stood totally still, listening intently. "Stop!"

Joel stopped the tape. "What, Jim? What did you hear?"

Jim turned to Taggart. "Where did you say the family lived when Ronnie and Eddie were kids?"

Taggart flipped through the file on his lap. "Pine Street. But, Jim, that was ages ago."

Jim's face was a mask of concentration. "What's that area like now, Simon?"

"Pretty run down, Jim. They razed most of the old buildings there last year to try to keep the gangs and dealers out."

"What about the old ball field?"

Simon thought back. "Yeah, I remember where that was. It's overgrown now, mostly scrub pines and brush. Why?"

Jim could barely contain his excitement. "Remember the internet message? A safe, happy place... Where did his sister say the only place was that he felt he belonged, where he was happy?"

Simon and Joel stared at Jim. "The baseball fields?"

Jim was already sprinting toward the door. "Unless you want me driving like this, I suggest you come on!"

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

Rain had begun to fall by the time 4:30 chimed from the tower bells on the Rainier campus. It was already beginning to get dark, and the skies were heavy and filled with black clouds.

Simon barked into his radio as he drove. "Meet us there with shovels and flashlights, and be sure to have an EMT unit standing by at the site. Banks out."

"How much farther, Simon?" Jim's voice was tight, and Simon could see the small muscles in his jaw twitching at regular intervals.

"About four minutes. Take it easy, Jim. If he's there, we'll get to him in time. You need to focus now, concentrate. Blair needs you calm and ready to help him. Use this time to get yourself together."

Jim nodded. "You're right." He leaned his head back and concentrated on taking deep, relaxing breaths, the way Blair had taught him.

Blair had taught him...

The young man had taught him so much. Control of his senses... How to laugh... How to trust someone else with his life, his deepest fears, with his heart... How to love unconditionally, without reserve... How to live...

Blair...

His partner's image suddenly filled his mind. Blair, laughing, his blue eyes shining with life and joy and love...grounding his Sentinel with a gentle hand on his back...bouncing in excitement over some new test he'd designed...distracting him with one of his long speeches about the ancient customs of some forgotten society...making him laugh with one of his crazy stories about growing up on the road with Naomi...

Blair...

His mind once again called out to his young Guide.

I can't lose you, buddy. Not now, not ever. I lost you once, and I cannot go through that again. I never want to feel that kind of pain again. Please, Sandburg, please hold on for me, just a little longer. I promise I'm on my way. I'll find you, Chief. Wait for me.

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

"We're there." At the sound of Simon's voice, Jim jerked his head up as though awakened from a deep sleep. The brief meditation had worked. His mind felt clear; his senses were sharp. He reached up to unwind the bandages from his eyes.

"What do you think you're doing? The doctor said to leave your eyes covered for at least three days." Seeing the determined look on Jim's face, Simon added, "When you've put the cream in your eyes and rewrapped them, have you been able to see much?"

Jim's voice sounded discouraged. "Not really, only shadows and blurred images."

"Then what would you be gaining by risking your sight now? It'll only distract you. Use your other senses, Jim. Remember everything Sandburg's taught you about isolating your senses, piggybacking them, whatever the hell it is you do, and get out there and find your partner!"

Unexpectedly, a small smile creased Jim's face. "Yes, sir."

The rain had slowed to a steady drizzle. Simon looked around at the vast, overgrown area before them. It was difficult to imagine that this neglected land had once been the site of a noisy baseball field. He turned to Jim. "It's about five acres, Jim. Mostly overgrown with weeds, small bushes, and young trees."

As other vehicles arrived, Simon gave his team orders to keep everyone back at the street and quiet. All radios were to be turned off. Nothing must interfere with Jim's concentration.

The Sentinel listened. First, he tuned out the louder sounds around him...the whispering voices, the sounds of car doors, the patter of the rain on the earth. He delved deeper into the universe of sound. Bugs crawling. The whoosh of bird wings overhead. The chirps of tiny insects in the grass.

Next, he added his sense of smell. Filter out the obvious odors...Simon and his ever present cigars...food cooking in nearby houses...the fresh scent of the rain...the smells of automobiles...

Then, the Sentinel tasted the air, quickly dialing out the unwanted tastes. The sharp, acid twang of pine trees... The sugary sweetness of the candy bar Simon had cajoled him into eating earlier... The soft, fresh flavor of the raindrops which ran down his face...

Everything that was not vital to his search was gone. The Sentinel stood alone in a dark, silent, tasteless, odorless world. Until...

He cocked his head, listening, scenting, tasting the air. He located the sensory trail he was searching to find, and almost reeled from its impact. After so long, the sudden awareness took him by surprise with its intensity.

The scent...the taste...the sound of his Guide...

He was here.

Blindly, Jim plunged forward, impatiently shaking off Simon's guiding hand, stumbling every few steps on a stone or uneven piece of ground. The Sentinel paused, every fiber of his body attuned to the input being received by his senses.

He stumbled forward again.

Simon followed at a safe distance. He didn't want to interfere with whatever miracle was happening here, although he wasn't sure that Jim even remembered his presence anymore. Jim Ellison was no longer a detective, living in the present here in Cascade. He had reverted back thousands of years to the innate behavior of a Sentinel searching for his Guide. He no longer heard Simon's voice. He only listened to the sounds of his inner self urging him forward, demanding that he find his Guide. Driving him to protect him. To reunite with the other half of his own soul.

Then, the Sentinel heard it, as clearly as though the precious sound was coming from the small bedroom in the loft, wafting up through the floor to lull him to sleep. The constant, never failing sound which meant life to both Sentinel and Guide.

Blair's heartbeat.

He began to run, heedless of the sharp briars tearing at his legs through his jeans and the limbs of the small trees which scratched his face. Jim fell to the ground, tears streaming down his cheeks, and began to dig with his bare hands. "Sandburg!" he screamed. "Blair! Can you hear me?"

Frantically, Jim dug faster and faster through the muddy earth, not even feeling the pain as the skin on his raw fingers and knuckles began to tear and bleed.

"Blair! Can you hear me? Sandburg!"

It was nearly five o'clock.

Simon called back to the waiting rescue teams and the EMT crew. "Here! Move it! Get those shovels over here now!" At the urgency evident in his commands, they surged forward into action.

Simon knelt beside Jim on the wet ground. Grasping his arms to halt the desperate clawing, he cried, "Jim! Jim! They're coming with shovels. You'll never get through in time like this. You've gotta back off now. Let them work, okay?"

The Sentinel was breathing heavily, and his bloody hands trembled as he clawed at the ground. "Do you see a breathing tube, Simon? Look around fast, before they get here."

Desperately, Simon searched the ground. There... A small, clear tube emerged from the leaf litter.

"Jim! It's here! " He guided Jim's hand to the tube. Ellison clasped it tenderly, the only physical link he had right now to Sandburg.

"Show it to them, Simon. Be sure they don't obstruct the tube."

Banks helped Jim rise to his feet. "Can you hear him, Jim? Is he...?"

Jim's smile was shaky, but his voice was filled with hope. "I hear his heartbeat, Simon. He's alive. Just get him out. Please."

The digging began. Jim stood at the periphery of the workers, trying to tune out the sound of shovels and flying dirt, to stay focused on the reassuring sound of the heartbeat emerging from beneath the soil.

"Is the airway still clear, Simon?"

"It's fine, Jim."

"How much longer?"

"We're not sure. They're being careful. They don't want to cause any damage to that air passage. It's okay, Jim. We've found him. He's going to be okay."

The minutes ticked by. The rain was coming down harder now, soaking the ground and the workers and those who could only watch and wait.

Jim fought to control his urge to drop back to his knees and begin clawing away at the dirt still burying his Guide. He paced back and forth, hands clenching and unclenching helplessly. An EMT tried to treat his torn fingers, but Jim jerked his hands away with a low, threatening growl. The technician retreated.

"We've found it!" The excited cry brought Jim hovering to the edge of the hole.

"How far down?" he asked anxiously.

A deep voice answered. "About four feet. The hole's filling up with water pretty fast. We're going to have to bring the box up before we open it."

"Blair!" Jim lunged forward, but Simon caught his arms, struggling to restrain the straining body.

"Easy, Jim. Let them do their jobs, okay? We have to get him out safely, then we'll open the lid." His voice dropped and he carefully led the anxious detective away from the newly opened gash in the earth. "Blair's alive, Jim. You just have to hold on a little longer."

Jim's breaths were coming faster now. He seemed on the verge of losing the fragile control he'd maintained since the attack at Rainier. "I know, Simon, I know. It's just so damned hard. I want... I want..." Jim stopped, almost panting from the effort to control his instinctive need to get to Sandburg.

Simon rubbed his back gently, as he'd seen Blair do to steady his friend. "What do you want, Jim?"

The Sentinel wrapped his arms around himself, as if embracing a vision. Powerful muscles trembled with tension. His hands clenched and unclenched, grasping for something which remained still out of his reach. Jim whispered, "I just want to hold him, Simon. I want to hold him, to feel his breathing, to know that he's alive." His breath came out in a half sob. "I want to never let him out of my sight again."

Praying for a swift end to his friend's agony, Simon glanced over at the pit. Relief shot through him, and he turned to encourage the distraught man at his side. The captain slipped an arm over Jim's shoulders and squeezed in support. "They're bringing it up now, Jim. Hold on. You're almost there."

Two men with crowbars began prying off the heavy lid sealing the living tomb. Jim winced at the terrible creaking, straining sounds of the wood as it was forced loose. Every nerve in his body, each fiber of his being was in tune with the faint signs of life within that box. The grating sounds of the wood as it surrendered its precious contents reverberated throughout the Sentinel's frame like the crashing of thunder.

Then, the sounds of the frantic rescue ceased. There was an audible intake of breath as the assembled policemen and medical workers gazed down into the box.

The Sentinel's protective instincts erupted. Unable to restrain himself a moment longer, elbowing unseen bodies out of his way without hesitation, Jim fought his way through the crowd until he was kneeling in the mud beside the makeshift coffin. He heard Simon's voice in the distance, ordering everyone else back to the road. He heard the protests of the EMTs, and his captain's assurance that they would be called when needed.

Jim reached out blindly, his torn, bleeding fingers desperately searching for Blair, and at last, touching the chilled skin of his Guide. "Blair," he breathed, leaning close over the opened coffin.

Simon knelt beside him. "Oh, my God," he whispered.

"How is he? He feels so cold. I smell blood, Simon. How bad...? Tell me..." Jim's anxious hands roamed over the still form of Sandburg, searching for injuries.

"Jim, he's... He's curled up in a ball. Really tight. His eyes are closed. He's trembling violently, but you can feel that, I guess. His face is scratched and bruised, and his clothes are ripped. He must have put up one hell of a fight to get out of there. His hands... His hands are torn to shreds, Jim. That's where you're picking up the smell of blood. There don't seem to be any major injuries. He's pale, so very pale, and his lips are slightly blue." Simon Banks studied the vacant face lying so still in the cold rain. "It's strange, Jim. I can see his eyes moving beneath the lids. I think he's awake, but, I don't know for sure. There's no sign he knows we're here."

Taking a deep breath, Jim whispered, "He's withdrawn into his own mind, Simon. I've seen this reaction before, in covert ops. When reality gets too horrible to bear, the mind just...shuts off. It's a protective reaction, a form of denial. Help get him out, Sir. Please. Give him to me."

Carefully, Simon bent down, slipping his strong arms under Blair, then lifting the young man from the box. The slight frame was totally limp, his arms hanging down like those of an old stuffed doll. His head lolled back, and the blue eyes remained tightly closed. The limp, dirty curls fell lifelessly away from his face. "Sandburg," Simon whispered. "Jim's here. Hang in there, kid, you hear me? Hang in there. Jim's counting on you."

Jim Ellison had crawled from the hellish scar in the earth to sit beneath one of the taller trees. Simon carried the shaking form of his partner over to him, then carefully knelt and placed Blair in the waiting arms of Jim Ellison.

Ellison's entire frame convulsed once in a great tremor of relief as he felt the welcome weight of Blair's body at last. Pulling the young man closer, he tucked Blair's head beneath his chin and wrapped his arms around him, cradling him tightly. "Simon," he whispered. "Can you bring us some blankets? He's so cold."

The rain had slowed to a fine drizzle at last. Jim bent his head down so that his lips brushed Blair's ear as he whispered to him. "Blair? It's me, Chief. I'm here now. It's all over. Easy, now. Just breathe for me, buddy, that's all you have to do right now. Let me take care of everything else. Easy, now, easy. It's all over. Shhhhh..."

With no sense of sight to visually ease his fears, the Sentinel turned to all that he had left...touch, smell, sound, and taste. Jim focused on the beautiful, long absent rhythm of the heartbeat vibrating against his own chest...felt the reassuring warmth of life...buried his face in the soft curls and inhaled the comforting scent of home and safety and friendship...touched Blair's icy skin with his lips and, beneath the coldness, tasted the warm essence of his friend and Guide. All the while, his soft murmuring continued. A collection of meaningless sounds whispered to soothe the soul of the one he cherished above all else.

He barely felt Simon's presence as large, warm blankets were pulled over them and tucked in carefully. As he crooned softly, Jim's sensitive fingers roamed Blair's face. The blue eyes had not yet opened, but Jim could feel the fluttering of eyelashes beneath his fingertips. "It's okay, now. You're safe; I'm here. Nothing's going to hurt you, Blair, I promise. I won't let anyone near you. It's just us now, okay?"

As he whispered, Jim's lips lightly brushed the bruised forehead and cheeks, lingering for a moment on the horribly swollen left eye. "Sandburg...? Blair...? Can you hear me? I need to know you can hear me. Please, open your eyes, Chief. Just for a second, so I can know you're all right. Please, Blair."

He felt the trembling increase from the body pressed so tightly against him. Rubbing his cheek against Blair's damp curls, he thought for a moment. "You don't want to see, is that it, Junior? Are you still afraid you're in that box, that this is all a dream? Blair, is that it? C'mon, kiddo, help me out here..."

He almost missed the small nod of the head buried against his chest. Smiling faintly, Jim touched his lips again to Blair's cheek. "Yeah, I understand. It's okay, Blair. It's all over. Listen, Chief. Listen to me, to my voice, okay?" He bent closer and kissed Blair's temple. "Blair..." he breathed. "This is real, my brother. You know I'd never lie to you, right? You've always trusted me, haven't you? Trust me now, Blair, please. You're alive. I'm holding you, Chief. Can you feel my arms around you?"

He tightened his embrace, pulling Blair impossibly closer. He rubbed his face against the cold cheek and hugged Blair even harder, determined to make contact with that closed off mind in any way he could. Desperate to reach through the dark terror gripping his friend and lead him into the light. "Concentrate on me, Chief. Only on me. Believe that I'm real, that I'm here, holding you. I won't let you go, I promise. Just come back to me, Blair."

The minutes ticked by with no reaction from the still body cradled in Jim's arms. The soft, soothing words flowed on. "Please, Chief... Come back, now, okay?" The Sentinel's words caught in his throat, the emotion bubbling up from his heart threatening to choke him. Stroking the damp, dirty hair, he managed to whisper, "Oh, God, I need you to come back. You're my Guide, right? I need you, Sandburg." Jim's voice cracked with emotion. "I love you..."

Jim buried his face in Sandburg's hair and fell silent. Simon felt the tears running down his own cheeks as he watched Jim's desperate efforts to reach through the layers of protective darkness and touch his Guide's shuttered mind. Then slowly, Blair's head shifted against Jim's chest. His eyelids fluttered briefly, then opened to reveal the bloodshot blue eyes beneath. Looking up and slowly focusing on the bandages covering his Sentinel's eyes, Blair reached with a trembling hand to brush his fingers lightly across the gauze.

"Jim...?" The voice was barely a whisper, hoarse and broken. "Your eyes...?"

"Blair...?" In wonder, the Sentinel reached out to lightly touch the opened eyes. A wide smile covered his face, and he pulled Blair tightly against him in a fierce, protective embrace. "Blair..."

Reality hit the younger man. His eyes darted about wildly before shutting tightly once more, and huge sobs wracked his body. His hands groped for Jim's jacket, and he gripped the fabric tightly. "Jim... Oh, God, Jim... He... So dark and cold... I waited for you to come... Knew you'd come... My Blessed Protector...always... Help me, Jim..."

The soft whispering began again. "Shhhhh... It's okay, now. Let it all out, Chief. That's right. You're safe. I won't let anything hurt you, I promise. Blair..." Ellison stroked Blair's face, his back, his hair, desperate to lend comfort to the hurting man he held so tightly. Slowly, Blair's fingers loosened their hold on Jim's jacket to wrap around his body and cling to the security and warmth he offered so willingly.

Simon knelt beside them and spoke softly to the pair huddled together on the wet ground. "Jim. We have to let the EMTs take a look at him."

"No!" Blair rasped anxiously, his voice gravely from hours of screaming. "Don't let go! Jim...!"

"Shhhhhh... Shhh... Shhh... Blair, I won't let go. I promise. Easy, easy. I won't let you go. Easy, now...shhhh..." Jim began a gentle rocking motion as he murmured softly, calming his Guide once more. He rested his cheek against Blair's face. "It's okay, buddy. I've got you. I'm not going to let go. I promise you."

Jim turned his attention back to his captain. "Simon, let one of them come here and check him like this. If they don't like it...tough. This is all they get right now; it's all he can give."

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

The young EMT pulled back, shaking her head. "He appears to be in good shape physically, as far as I can tell from such a brief exam anyway. But, Detective Ellison, you must get him to a hospital and have a doctor look him over."

Jim kept his face pressed hard against Blair's curly head. "Later. Maybe tomorrow. Whatever he feels like he can handle. Simon, can you help me get him to the loft?"

Doubt clouded the captain's soft brown eyes. "Jim? Are you sure? I think she's right; we should let a doctor look at him."

A violent tremor shook Blair's body. He pulled back a little, and his frightened blue eyes searched Jim's face. Gently, Ellison guided his head back against his chest and whispered, "No, no... Shhhh... It's okay. We're going home. Nobody's getting near you, buddy, not until you're ready. I promised, right?" Slowly, Sandburg's tense muscles relaxed again into Jim's protective embrace.

Jim was here now. He would take care of everything. Blair closed his eyes once more.

"The loft, Simon. Please, just get us home."

In the face of the Sentinel's determination, Simon rolled his eyes skyward and gave in. "At least, let me carry him, Jim. You could stumble..."

Blair's arms tightened around Jim's neck, and the young man burrowed deeper against his partner. "It's okay," Jim whispered. "I'm not letting go, remember? Trust me."

Ellison's voice was a only little louder as he told Simon, "I don't think so, sir. Just make sure I don't run into anything, please."

With help, Jim managed to get to his feet with Sandburg still wrapped tightly against him. Shifting his partner in his arms, Jim said softly, "I've got you, Chief. You just hold on to me, okay? Just hold on." He smiled at the tiny nod of the head tucked against his shoulder. "Let's go home, Blair."

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

As they approached the car, Jim heard the voices calling to him.

"Detective Ellison! Over here! What is Dr. Sandburg's condition?"

"Is it true he was buried alive?"

"Was it your Sentinel senses which led you to him?"

Jim listened for the sounds of Simon's footsteps and turned to him. "Help me get him in the car."

Nodding, Simon helped Jim slide Blair into the back seat of his car. Kneeling down on the wet ground, the Sentinel whispered something in his Guide's ear, gently brushing the damp curls from his face. After a slight nod from the younger man, Jim Ellison stood up and turned to face the reporters.

One of the men broke through the crowd, rushing up to Jim and sticking a microphone out toward his face. "Detective Ellison! Do you think that Dr. Sandburg's kidnapping was your fault? If you hadn't revealed your Sentinel abilities, would he have been picked as the target? With those abilities, why did it take you so long to find your partner? Do you blame yourself for anything that has happened here?"

The exhausted Sentinel had had enough. Disgust, combined with anger and outrage, left no room for rational thought. He reacted purely on instinct, sensing his prey as a feral, graceful feline might. Jim was a blur of angry motion as he lunged toward his unsuspecting accuser, his hands outstretched. The reporter never had time to react. The powerful contact with the reporter's chest drove the startled man backward several feet. Losing his balance in the slick mud, he sprawled flat on his back in the middle of a large mud puddle. A spray of thick mud mixed with small pebbles flew up as he crashed into the wet earth. Mud and dirty water drenched his expensive suit, and when he slowly sat up, dirty rivulets trailed down his face. Sputtering angrily, he glowered up at Ellison, shaking his fist. "I'll sue you for this, Detective! You'll be hearing from my station, and..."

Simon reached down a helping hand. "Be sure to tell them that you crossed a police barricade line to shove your microphone under the nose of an injured detective who was assisting his traumatized partner. For that matter, I'm sure some of your rival stations will have that very footage on the evening news. Should make for interesting evidence for your lawsuit, don't you think?" Simon grinned at the reporter, one conspirator to another.

Looking furiously from Ellison to Banks, the mud drenched reporter cursed under his breath, then wheeled around to rejoin his photographer behind the yellow police tape, muddy water squishing in his shoes with every step. In a matter of seconds, he was lost in a sea of cameras.

Still grinning, Simon clapped a hand on Jim's shoulder, feeling the tense muscles tremor beneath his hand. "Relax, Jim. Let it go. That bastard's not worth the effort." Gently, he steered Ellison back toward the car. "Your partner needs you. Let's get the two of you out of here before you feel the need to attack another member of the press corps."

Sliding into the rear seat, Jim gathered Blair into his arms, settling them under the warmth of dry blankets. The tenseness and anger melted from his face, replaced by a soft tenderness. "You're right, Simon." He lifted his head toward his captain and friend. "It's time we went home."

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

It had never felt so good to be home. Only Simon and Taggart were allowed into the loft to assist Jim with Blair. Ellison insisted that once home, everything would be all right. "He needs security right now. As soon as we're settled, you both need to go home. Get some rest. We'll be okay now."

Blair had slept the entire trip home. Cradling his partner against his chest, Ellison sat silently. For now, it was enough that Blair was alive. There would be difficult days ahead, of that he was certain. But, they would deal with the aftermath, one step at a time, together. He rubbed his cheek against his partner's hair, soaking in the feeling of the living body in his arms. He had Blair back. The rest would come in time.

As Jim carried him up the stairs, Blair had awakened once, his body tensing immediately, a scream lodged in his throat, but a moment later he had relaxed back into sleep again when he realized that it was Jim who held him.

Now, back in their home, Jim carried his sleeping partner into his small room and carefully laid him on the bed. Sandburg never awakened.

"Watch him for a minute, will you, Simon?" Jim whispered. Simon heard the door to the bathroom close.

A few minutes later, Ellison emerged, dressed in clean jeans and a soft, blue sweater. The bandage was gone from around his eyes.

Simon studied Jim's face. His eyes remained red and swollen, although they looked considerably better than they had the last time Simon had seen them at the hospital. Jim grinned when he saw his captain's intense scrutiny.

"Don't stare, Simon," he said quietly. "It's not polite."

"You can see?"

Jim nodded, moving to sit beside Blair on the small bed. "Some. Mostly shadows and shapes, but a hell of a lot better than last night. It's dark enough inside the loft not to bother my eyes. I think in a few days, they'll be good as new." He reached out to stroke the soft curls lying on the pillow. "I just hope he'll recover as quickly."

Simon realized this was the first time Jim had actually seen Blair, albeit through the residual fog left by the mace. The Sentinel's injured fingers roamed lightly over Sandburg's face and body, checking each cut and bruise carefully, gently feeling for broken bones. The Sentinel was using his sense of touch to gather the information his sight was unable to provide.

"I would have killed him, Simon, if I'd gotten my hands on Mashburn after we found Blair. I would have killed him." His voice shook. "He should never have had to hurt like this. Never. But the physical pain... That's nothing in comparison to what he's been through mentally."

Simon moved closer and studied Blair's battered face. "He's been through hell, Jim. It's gonna take time, you know that. I've already started the paperwork for you to take a leave of absence to look after him. I have a feeling it's gonna be a long time before the kid lets you out of his sight."

Jim's expression grew tender. "That's fine with me, sir. I don't intend to leave him any time soon."

Simon hesitated, then pulled a small slip of paper from his pocket. Simon moved towards the door. "Let me get some supplies and take care of your hands, Jim. Then, I'll heat up some soup. I know you haven't eaten in forever. No arguments." He turned to get the antibiotic cream and gauze for Jim's hands, but paused for a moment without looking back. "By the way. Ronnie Mashburn was executed at 5:02 this afternoon."

In the quiet darkness, Simon saw Jim's small nod of understanding as he reached out to caress Blair's face.

Slowly, Jim unfolded the paper. Scribbled with a dull pencil over the list of groceries for the week were the few short, heartfelt lines. The letters were shaky and uneven, the paper damp and filthy. But none of these could veil the beauty of the words. Drawing in a deep, quivering breath, Jim Ellison closed his eyes and let the tears of relief and gratitude flow freely at last.

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

It was late. Jim dozed in a chair beside Blair's bed, lulled to sleep by the soft breathing of his friend. Simon had left hours before, heading to his own home for some much needed rest.

Suddenly, a piercing cry broke the quiet peacefulness of the loft.

"No! Jim! Help me! Get me out of here! You can't leave me here! Please, don't leave me! Jim!"

Ellison was fully awake in an instant. His Guide was terrified. Jim could smell the cold sweat which drenched his partner's body. Through the haze distorting his vision, he could see Blair lying on his back, his hands stretched out in front of him as he clawed at the invisible lid of the box, struggling to escape. Tears streamed down his face, and his eyes were clinched shut.

Jim moved quickly to sit beside him on the bed. He spoke softly, not wanting to frighten his friend further by startling him from the clutches of his nightmare. "Blair? Wake up, Chief. It's a dream, that's all. Blair, wake up." Carefully, Jim reached through the desperately thrashing arms to lay his hands against Sandburg's face. "It's okay; it's okay. Blair, shhhh..."

The heartbreaking sobs continued, and Ellison's heart broke as Blair whimpered. "Jim? Don't let him take me, Jim. Please...? Jim, I need you."

Releasing his breath in a short cry of pain, Jim tenderly gathered Blair into his arms, wrapping himself around his partner as a protective shield. Desperately, he buried his face in the heavy mass of hair, inhaling the scents which lingered there. The sharp smell of the wood which had fashioned that horrible coffin... The sickly smell of chloroform... The sticky odor of dried blood... The fresh scent of the rain which had soaked them both as they huddled together in the field... But, almost hidden beneath it all, the unique scent that never failed to fill Jim's heart with warm gratitude. The scent which always reminded him of what was truly important in his life, which always brought him back home, no matter how far he had wandered. Beneath all the other frightening and foreign smells, was the reassuring scent that was Blair's alone. Fresh, clean, and bearing with it the memories of home, and the emotional connections of comfort and safety and friendship.

Slowly, Jim began to rock back and forth, instinctively seeking to soothe them both through the movement. "Shhhhh... Blair? Please, buddy, don't... Hush, now. It's a dream; it's not real. Mashburn's dead. He can't hurt you anymore. Nobody's taking you away from me, Blair. You're safe. I'm here. I'm right here. Hush... Easy, now, easy..."

Gradually, the terrified sobs subsided, and Blair's confused eyes fluttered open, then darted about frantically. He cried out, "Jim? Where are you?"

Jim nuzzled the soft curls. "Easy, buddy, easy. I'm right here. I'm not leaving you. You're home, Blair. It's all right now." He rubbed one hand lightly up and down the sweat drenched back while he gently pressed Blair's face against his shoulder with the other.

Against his chest, Ellison felt his friend's heartbeat speed up once more as he murmured, "Can't see... Can't breathe... I gotta get out of here, Jim. Get me out, man. Please?"

For a moment, Jim thought Blair was still in the clutches of his nightmare. Then, it hit him.

Damn.

He should have realized that the small, dark bedroom would trigger terrible memories for Blair.

"Okay, buddy, it's all right. Easy, now." Gently, Jim lifted Blair up into his arms, smiling tenderly as the young man wrapped his arms around his neck and held on. "We'll go upstairs. My room's more open, and more light comes in from outside." He made his way carefully up the stairs, feeling his way through the darkness of his own vision. "It's okay, Chief. Everything's gonna be fine, I promise." He reached the top step with a relieved sigh.

Balancing his trembling cargo with one arm, Jim used the other to quickly turn back the covers on his bed. Then, he gently laid Blair down, pulling the covers up over him to seal in the warmth. Sitting beside him, Jim began to stroke his hair and face, using the gentle touch to soothe his friend. Bending down to study the battered face, Jim winced at how vulnerable his normally strong young friend appeared.

Fragile. You're so fragile right now. But, I swear, I'll protect you, take care of you, until you're strong again, Chief. That's what Blessed Protectors are for. That's what friends are for. You will make it through this. We will make it through. I promise you that.

As if sensing his companion's emotions, Blair's hand slipped out from beneath the covers, and in the soft light filtering through the loft windows, Jim could see his blue eyes filling with tears. Jim caught his hand and held on, caressing the delicate skin with his thumb, feeling the quiet pulse of life thrumming beneath the surface.

The pulse of life. Blair was alive. Jim's heart lurched in his chest when his mind flashed back to the terrifying race to that damned, overgrown baseball field. To the eternally long moments when it was far from certain if that precious pulse continued to beat. When he didn't know if the one who meant everything to him still lived. When, at last, Jim released the breath he didn't know he'd been holding, it came out in a long, shaking sigh.

Blair looked puzzled, and he carefully explored the bandages covering Jim's hands. "What happened?" he whispered. Before Jim could respond, Blair answered his own question. "You tried to dig me out, didn't you?"

No words would come. There were no words adequate enough for the moment. Jim only nodded, his head bowed, eyes closed. A lone tear escaped his eye, falling slowly down his cheek. "I was afraid I'd lost you this time, Chief. Forever." He stopped for a moment and when he continued, the words were less than a whisper. "You know I couldn't stand that. I'm not sure I could go on if I lost you."

Blair reached up, wiping away the single tear with the back of his fingers in an infinitely tender gesture. In a voice still rough from his ordeal, he whispered, "I'm here, Jim. You found me, and I'm alive. It's okay, now."

Jim's voice faltered. "It was just too close this time. Way too close. Damn it! I was almost too late, Chief. What if I'd been just a few minutes later? What if...?"

"But you weren't. You found me, just like I knew you would. Just like you always do. Look at me, Jim." When Jim's face remained turned away, he commanded softly, "Look at me."

Blair waited for a long moment until Ellison's eyes slowly focused on his face. Then, he smiled, studiously ignoring the pain the movement caused to the bruises and cuts. Blair reached out to wrap his other hand around Jim's and entwined his fingers with his friend's, squeezing gently against the bandages.

His voice was scarcely a ripple in the quiet, peaceful dimness. "Remember after Lash, how I was having those awful nightmares? Every time, you came to wake me up, to hold me and let me know that everything would be all right. One night, you told me something that I've never forgotten. You said that as long as I let Lash frighten me, as long as I allowed him to invade my thoughts and my dreams, he would still be in control. He would still have the power over my life. In some sick way, he really would be a part of me."

Blair reached out to cup Jim's face. "The same thing's true here, too, man. As long as we let Mashburn and what he did frighten us, as long as we let what almost happened terrify us, then he wins. He's in control. Don't you see? He didn't just kidnap me, Jim. He terrorized you. He used your feelings for me to control you, to manipulate you. We can't let him win! We've both got to learn to let it go, buddy."

When Jim remained silent, Sandburg chuckled softly. "Now, granted, that may take some time. I may not be sleeping in my own bed for awhile, okay? But we've got to do it. Together, we can let it go, Jim. We can be all right again. Can't we?" The plea was soft, but desperately insistent.

Jim covered Blair's hands, still resting lightly on his face, with his own. "You better believe we can. We'll be fine again, Chief. Both of us. I promise." He turned his head to kiss one wrist, then the other, marveling once again at the miraculous pulse of life beating there. "You know something, Darwin?"

Blair shook his head, smiling through his tears, and leaned his face into Jim's palm.

"You're a pretty smart guy."

"I had a good teacher."

Suddenly exhausted, Jim slipped beneath the covers and stretched out on his bed, pulling Blair with him. "Don't worry about being in your room for a while, okay, Chief? I kinda need to keep you close right now, you know?"

Blair nodded. "Thanks, Jim." He yawned. "I think I could sleep now."

"No more nightmares?"

Even with his distorted vision, the Sentinel could see the half smile in the darkness. "I don't think so. Not tonight, anyway."

Jim smiled and listened for a moment to the relaxed rhythm of his Guide's breathing. His eyelids would no longer remain open, and he gave in to the overwhelming tiredness. "I think I could sleep, too," he murmured. "I'll be right here, if you need me."

A few moments later, a drowsy voice drifted up from deep within the Sentinel's arms. "Just don't let go, Jim, okay?"

Jim Ellison tightened his embrace and whispered, "Never, Chief. Never. I promise."

The terrors of the past few days slowly faded, and the healing safety of sleep claimed them both. Sentinel and Guide rested under the blanket of night covering their city, secure in the nearness of each other and in the strength of their friendship. Once their dreaded enemy, time was now their most important ally. In time, the wounds would heal and the scars would fade. The deadline had been met and conquered.

Finis...

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