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

Quiet Desperation

A Very Long Murder 101 Missing Scene

by Arianna

'The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.' Henry David Thoreau

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

Dedicated to my very good friend, Suzanne, who was never happy with my short story Enough Already, written in response to an SA challenge in which Jim and Blair come to blows. From time to time, she has expressed her disappointment in how I resolved the confrontation too quickly, as well as her fervent wish that I might revisit the scenario one day. Upon request, she very helpfully provided substantial suggestions on how the storyline might have gone and, when she knew I had taken the bait, she sent also along the song 'How Far' by Martina McBride. You'll see the song near the end of the story, as it very much helped facilitate the ending. She was absolutely right that more could be done, so this new story starts in a different place, incorporates some of Enough Already and then shifts direction fairly quickly after Jim slugs Blair… and is about six times longer than the original, lol!

Happy Birthday, Suzanne!

Warnings? For occasional use of strong language. And, for those who are sensitive to the issues and realities of domestic abuse, while the subject is touched upon, I did not intend the physically violent incident between the principals in this story to be an example of domestic abuse - however, some may feel that the issue is handled too lightly.

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

"Dammit, Sandburg! What the hell do you think you're doing?" Ellison snarled, as he hauled his soaking wet partner out of the nearly freezing bay and into the small motorboat.

Cutting a look at the sneering face of Brad Ventriss, who was equally sopping wet and shivering, Blair stiffened his jaw to keep his teeth from chattering. Deciding the question was rhetorical, he shrugged irritably and made his way forward, while Jim cuffed Ventriss and read him his rights. Leaving his partner, the detective, to stand watch over his prisoners, Sandburg turned the boat back to the dock it had recently left, to meet their chopper for the ride back to Cascade. Hunching forward, one arm wrapped around his body, he silently cursed the freshening wind that blew through his sodden clothes, chilling him to the bone.

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

"What else were we supposed to do?" Henry Nadine gabbled as a uniformed patrolman secured his wrists with cuffs. "They're our children. We had to try to save them! You would have done the same thing!"

Simon gave the CEO of Complexium Communications a narrow look and wondered about that. He sincerely hoped that Daryl had a hell of a lot more decency and integrity in his soul - and that he did, too, for that matter - than did the two vipers these sorry excuses for parents called children. Out loud, he simply replied repressively, "Your daughter is implicated in some very serious crimes, Mr. Nadine. You want to help her? Fine. Get her a good lawyer."

"Don't you understand? It's not her fault! She wasn't thinking straight," Nadine argued desperately. "She loves him! She'd do anything for the little bastard!"

"Henry, shut up!" Norman Ventriss snapped furiously. "The game isn't over yet."

The rich, Simon mused cynically as he turned to contemplate the CEO of Questscape, too often seem to think everything is a game. Pulling a cigar from his jacket inside pocket, he observed dryly, "Everybody loses sometime, Mr. Ventriss. But let me assure you, this is no game. Your son and his daughter committed cold-blooded murder - and, oh, in case you hadn't noticed, he and Suzanne were also stealing from the two of you."

Turning his back on the two men, he directed one of the officers, "Charge them with obstruction of justice as well as aiding and abetting the escape of suspects in a murder investigation." Then he gestured to the uniforms to take the two powerful CEOs away. Ambling down to the helicopter pad on a bluff overlooking the bay to watch for the return of his men, his lips twisted as he reflected with no little chagrin that those two men had lawyers that would be posting bail before the ink on the charge sheet was dry, and they'd both be home in time for dinner, which was more than he was likely to manage. Shrugging philosophically, he cupped his hands against a sharp gust of blessedly cool wind as he lit his cigar. Glad to think that the record-breaking heat wave of the past week might finally be ending, he looked out toward the horizon where dark clouds were gathering over the ocean. Lightning flickered in their depths, though the approaching storm was still too far away to hear the thunder. As the breeze grew in strength, blowing in from the water, he glanced at his watch and figured they'd have rain before nightfall.

The 'whup-whup' of the returning chopper drew his gaze toward the sky, but it was a minute before he spotted it flitting toward him. As it drew closer, he squinted, straining to make out whether his detective had captured their suspects and smiled when he spotted Brad Ventriss and Suzanne Nadine in the back. When it landed, he bent to approach under the still whirling helicopter blades and, as he got closer, he realized Ventriss was soaking wet. Frowning as he watched the passengers disembark, he wondered how that had happened. Wordlessly, clearly angry, Ellison unceremoniously hauled Ventriss and his girlfriend from the back of the chopper and marched them toward a patrol car, where he ordered the uniformed cop to take them in and book them for first-degree murder and resisting arrest. Simon scowled in confusion at the bedraggled Sandburg, who climbed out of the helicopter a little more slowly to stand hunched with his arms crossed, shivering miserably.

"What the hell happened to you?" Banks demanded.

"He was playing hero again, what else?" Ellison snapped as he joined them. "Of all the stupid - he jumped into the water after Ventriss, who uh, fell out of the boat they were using for their getaway."

"What?" Banks exclaimed as he turned back to Sandburg. "Are you nuts?"

"Nuts? Yeah, I'm seriously beginning to think so," Blair growled with a venomous look at both of the older men as he stomped past, heading toward Jim's truck.

"What's the matter with him?" Simon mumbled, the scowl melting into a frown of concern. And then he turned to Ellison. "And where were you while he was jumping into the bay?"

"I was already on the boat," Jim replied stiffly, his gaze following Sandburg.

"And how did you get into the boat?" Banks queried archly, beginning to suspect why Sandburg was so huffy.

"I jumped."

"And you accuse him of playing hero?" Simon grated, shaking his head as he pictured how Ventriss had likely managed to 'fall' into the water. Sighing, he gave Jim a shove toward his truck, as he said, "You can fill in the details later - take your partner home before he turns into an ice cube."

Ellison nodded, clearly not happy. "Sorry, Simon, I'll come down to the station as soon as I've dropped Wonder Boy off at the loft."

"Don't worry about it," Banks demurred. "It's late. You can submit your report in the morning. We've got more than enough to hold those two regardless of how many legal beagles they sic on us."

By the time Jim had stalked to the truck, Blair was huddled against the passenger door, his arms again crossed tightly as he fought to stop shivering. Silently, the angry detective got in and switched on the heat before turning out of the parking lot to head home. "Quit sulking," he muttered through clenched teeth. "It was a stupid stunt, and you know it."

The only sign that Sandburg had heard him was a stiffening of the younger man's shoulders and a shifting of his gaze from the front to stare out the side window.

Frustrated, Jim cursed under his breath as he drove too fast, as usual, toward their apartment. Sandburg would be lucky not to get pneumonia. Hell, he'd just gotten over the last bout after his virtual collapse when they'd gotten back from Sierra Verde. His lungs didn't need any more abuse, dammit. And that piece of shit, Ventriss, could have easily dragged Sandburg down with him, and he'd've…

Nausea twisted in Ellison's gut, distracting him so that he took a corner too hard. Sandburg threw out an arm to brace himself on the dash, as he exclaimed, "Would you slow down! You'll get us both killed, you moron."

Moron? Sandburg had just called him a moron? "Watch your mouth, Junior," he snapped, anger once again on full boil. "There's only one idiot in this cab, and it ain't me."

"Is that right?" Blair flashed back, his eyes blazing with barely contained fury.

"Yes, that's right," Jim growled. "You had no business jumping out of that 'chopper. You're not -"

"- a cop," Sandburg cut in scathingly, the words clipped as he shifted away, his gaze again directed out the side window.

"Well, you're not," Ellison grated. "I don't know how many times you have to be reminded of that fact. If you want to play hardball, you can damn well go to the Academy like the rest of us. Otherwise, you have no business -"

"You know, I've had just about enough of your attitude, Ellison," Sandburg interrupted harshly. "Can it."

"What?" Jim roared. "Attitude? Look, you smart-mouthed little jackass, if you don't shape up soon and get your head screwed on straight, I'll do it for you."

"Me? I'm not the one who needs an attitude adjustment," Sandburg argued bitterly, though he kept his face turned away. "God, you have been so far out of line for so long that you can't even see it anymore, if you ever could."

"Out of line?" Ellison echoed, Sandburg's continued antipathy only fueling his ire. "Care to explain that, Einstein?" he added, his voice dripping with sarcasm.

By then they'd reached the loft and Sandburg jumped out of the truck before Jim had even switched off the ignition. Cursing softly, Jim charged after him, catching him just as Blair was entering the building. Grabbing his arm, Ellison hauled the younger man around to face him. "What is wrong with you?" he demanded, hotly.

"Wrong with me?" Blair spat back, as he wrenched his arm free and stomped past the elevator and up the stairs, too angry to wait for the elderly contraption to wheeze its doors open. "You self-centered, egotistical, stupid Neanderthal…" he muttered under his breath, shaking his head.

Not amused by the diatribe pitched deliberately just loud enough for him to hear, Jim surged up the stairs in Blair's wake. When they got to the third floor, Sandburg fished in his pockets for his keys and huffed in annoyance to realize they must have fallen out in the bay.

"Lose something?" Ellison snarled as he shouldered Sandburg away from the door. "Want to take another swim to see if you can find them?"

Blair pushed past as soon as the door was open, but Jim again grabbed his arm, holding onto him as he entered and closed the door. "Not so fast," he grated. "I want to know what the hell is wrong with you."

Sandburg's jaw tightened and he swallowed hard, but then he whirled on Jim, his face flushed with fury. "You want to know? Fine. I'll tell you. I've had it, Ellison," he snapped, jabbing his finger into Jim's sternum with every point he made. "Had it with being pushed around, yelled at, demeaned publicly, like the way you treated me in front of the witness the other day, put down, told to shut up - whatever. You have been a head-case for weeks now."

Jim tried to slap Blair's hand away, but Sandburg was furious and not about to back off - his anger had been pent up for too long and he was good and ready to explode. He got right into Ellison's face, his eyes squinting with disgust as he rasped harshly, "You throw me out of the loft, refuse to speak to me to try to fix things - after more than three years of working together, you blow me off - and you had more concern and consideration for the bitch that murdered me, dammit, than you've been able to dredge up for me. If you'd listened to me in the first place, we might have gotten that creep, Ventriss, before he had his goons work me over. But, oh, no - what could Sandburg know? He's not a cop. Just an annoying hanger-on."

"Enough, already," Jim snarled, his muscles tensing as Sandburg's voice and glare ripped him apart. He couldn't listen to this. Couldn't - the memories of Sandburg lying dead at the fountain, and then of clutching at Barnes on the beach and kissing her in the temple, crashed into him, filling him with inarticulate rage fueled by inexpressible self-loathing.

But Blair was on a roll, and kept coming, yelling at him now. "You wouldn't have him at all if I hadn't ID'd that photo, and you know it. You stupid sonofabitch. You freak out, behave like a caveman on steroids, blow me off like I'm yesterday's bad news and you want to know what's wrong with me? Get a grip, you moron."

"I said, enough!" Ellison bellowed as he physically pushed Sandburg away.

"Oh, I don't think so," Blair raged as he slammed back, shoving Jim against the door. "You wouldn't even listen when I tried to tell you about Ventriss! You and Simon, both, just told me to chill out, sit down and shut up - and Ventriss was out there gloating over murdering some poor schmuck. It cost me my job to go after him, but does anybody care? Evidently not. Why would you give a shit about the fact that I got fired? It's not like what happens to me matters a damn - oh, wait! The rent's important, though, isn't it? I drowned and all you were worried about was the back rent! Well, at least you brought me back so you wouldn't be left hanging for the money. But I guess we got a problem now, don't we? 'Cause now I don't have a job to pay the damned rent. And you know what else?"

"Stop it," Jim choked, the words hitting like blows, too fast, too many. Too true.

"I'm not done yet," Blair snapped back. "You know what else? If Ventriss had drowned after you practically threw him out of the boat, you'd be up for manslaughter! Talk about the paperwork! Undue force, and all that. So I save your sorry ass by making sure the scum didn't drown, and all you can do is insult me in front of the jerk - and Simon. Like I needed that? God, didn't anyone ever tell you how to say 'thank you'. It's not that hard, you know. Repeat after me, 'thank… you -"

But Jim had had enough of being slammed against the door, and more than enough of the venomous words and tone. Without thinking, desperate to stop the tirade, he lashed out with his fist, slamming an uppercut into the side of Blair's jaw with enough power to send the smaller man flying backward. With a loud crack, Sandburg's head smacked hard into the wooden support pillar and then he crashed onto the floor. Stunned, he just laid there for a long moment, blinking uncertainly as if disoriented - as if he couldn't quite figure out what had just happened. He lifted one hand to his jaw, touching it uncertainly, and then rolled up onto one elbow. Jim saw shock in his eyes as they stared at one another. But the shock quickly turned to rage, only to shift with lightening speed into something so flat and cold that Jim was chilled to the bone.

Thunder cracked overhead and rain drove against the windows of the balcony, loud in the heavy silence between them. The sounds of the breaking storm broke through his stricken paralysis and Ellison blinked, his face slackening with sick horror as he realized what he'd just done. Quickly, he lurched forward as Blair sat up, bending to help, but Blair shoved him away and, off balance, he stumbled against the loveseat.

Sandburg got to his feet and, for a heartbeat, glared at him with cold contempt. "Feel better now?" he seethed with complete disgust. And then he whirled away, unbuttoning his sodden shirt as he stomped to the bathroom where he slammed the door and savagely turned on the shower faucet. He was cold, he was wet and he'd never been more furious in his life.

Jim gaped after him for a long moment and then slowly went to the refrigerator to pull out a beer with a trembling hand. Feeling dazed, he drifted into the living room to sink into his chair and wonder what the hell had just happened.

He'd just slugged Sandburg! A guy shorter, a good deal smaller, who was non-violent by nature - and, oh yeah, his best friend in the world - for doing nothing more than yelling a few home truths in his face?

Was he nuts?

He could scarcely believe that he'd so completely lost control and acted so… so violently. Listening to Sandburg's low litany of curses and ongoing furious diatribe about "stubborn damned caveman with enough testosterone to light up the whole friggin' city," he grimaced and chewed on his lip unconsciously. Thunder cracked again, and he winced as he hurriedly dialed down his hearing, guiltily grateful that he wouldn't be able to hear any more of what Sandburg might be muttering. He deserved to hear it. All of it. Blair had every right to be furious. Every right. Recollecting the look in Sandburg's eyes as he lay sprawled on the floor, Jim's chest tightened with profound regret and he had to swallow against the burn of bile in the back of his throat.

Less than five minutes later, Sandburg blew out of the bathroom, his still-damp clothes clutched in his fist, his hair dripping and a towel around his waist. Disappearing into his bedroom, he slammed the door hard enough to rattle the glass.

Squinting against the headache drumming in his skull, Jim sighed miserably as he pinched the bridge of his nose. Blair was right. He had been riding the knife-edge of anger for weeks now, the least little thing setting him off. But he wasn't the only one. Sandburg's own flashpoint had been low and frequently sparked, launching him into furious outbursts like the one in Simon's office. They'd been grating against each other like sandpaper, in a state of constant irritation that, given the latest violence, wasn't getting any better but was only too obviously escalating out of control.

And, he knew why. He just hadn't wanted to face it, talk about it. Kept hoping it would just… get better, he supposed. Blair usually rode with his moods, shrugging them off, challenging him or teasing him out of them, but this time Sandburg had his own anger to deal with and hadn't had the patience to jolly him along.

When Blair came out of his room with a stuffed backpack and his laptop case over his shoulder, striding resolutely toward the door, Jim rose in consternation and rushed across the room to cut him off. "What are you doing? Where are you going?" he demanded, his voice loud and hoarse with sudden dread. It couldn't be what it looked like. Sandburg wouldn't leave without giving him a chance to explain.

Blair cut him a scathing look as he lifted one hand, palm out, to hold Jim at bay. Reaching to grab his jacket from the hook by the door, he snarled, "Just stay away from me, man. I'm so not in the mood for more of your crap."

"Chief," Jim insisted, his tone now carefully even as he lifted both hands in a sign of peace, "we need to talk."

"Not tonight," Blair growled as he hauled on his canvas, weatherproof jacket. "I'm way too angry right now."

"I was out of line," Jim tried again, his voice hoarse with remorse and heavy with self-disgust.

"No shit," Sandburg grunted, the line of his back rigid as he lifted his bags back onto his shoulder and pulled the door open.

"It's just…." Ellison began, and then faltered, overwhelmed by the magnitude of the regrets and fears, the despair that filled him up so that he could scarcely breathe, for so much, so very much that gone wrong, and his deep, aching inexpressible need to be understood. "Just…." Just what? So damned much, he didn't have a clue where to start.

"Whatever. You went too far, man. Way too far over the line," Blair grated, refusing to look back as he crossed the threshold and slammed the door on his way out.

Ellison lunged forward and yanked the door open, yelling, "Sandburg! Wait!" But Blair had already disappeared down the stairwell. Jim heard him pound down the steps and then the sound of another slamming door echoed from below as Sandburg stormed into the cold, rainy night. "Dammit," Jim cursed, wondering whether to follow or to leave him alone. Clearly, Blair was too angry to talk, so it might be a good idea to let him cool off. He'd probably crash in his office. God knew, he did that often enough when he was pushing the limits to mark exams or papers against the clock.

Blowing out a long breath, scraping his hand over his face, Jim closed the door and sagged back against it. His gaze drifted around the silent apartment as he waited for the sound of the Volvo starting up and, when he didn't hear it, he hoped that maybe Blair was going to return to let him explain after all. Shoving away from the door, he glanced down at the floor where Sandburg had fallen, and he frowned. Moving forward, he dropped to one knee and delicately dabbed at a small, dark, damp spot on the wood. When he lifted his hand, he found blood on his fingertips, and his gut clenched as he remembered the sickening sound of Blair's head hitting the wooden pillar. In one smooth motion, Jim whirled around, racing out of the apartment and down the steps.

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

Blair loped through the pouring rain to his car, and reached into his pocket for his keys - only to come up empty, and belatedly remember that his keys were at the bottom of the bay. "Damn it!" he cursed and kicked the front wheel in frustration; so much for the idea that he could spend the night in the Volvo, if he couldn't find a better option. Raking his wet hair back off his face, he stood briefly staring up at the lights in the loft windows. There was no way in hell that he was going back inside, but he wasn't entirely sure where he planned to go. He'd been fired and technically shouldn't be using his office anymore. Still, he hadn't had time to clear it out, so he could probably get the security guard to let him in. If not, he thought resignedly, within hiking distance of Rainier there were some cheap motels where he could crash for the night. Squinting through the downpour and wondering if he could hitch a ride, he looked back at the traffic splashing along the street. Finally, a bit of good luck in a month laden with bad karma: the bus that went straight past the university was coming toward him and was less than a block away. Hitching his bags more firmly on his shoulder, he dashed to the stop on the corner arriving just ahead of the bus. When he skidded to a stop on the wet sidewalk, a wave of dizziness swept over him and he had to grab the edge of the bus shelter for balance. Nausea flared briefly, but he swallowed heavily and drew in deep breaths to clear his head. Fingering his aching jaw and scowling against the relentless throb of a monster headache as he climbed on board, he muttered resentfully, "Getting slugged'll do that to a guy."

By the time Jim hit the street, the bus had pulled away and turned the corner, closely followed by a dark sedan that had been parked along the curb. Ellison stood in the rain, staring numbly at the Volvo, expecting to see Sandburg sitting behind the wheel. But the car was empty. He looked up and down the street and yelled, "Sandburg!"

But there was no sign of his partner, and no response to his call. Rumbling thunder and the persistent patter of rain along with the splish-splash of the cars passing along the street dampened his ability to hear anything else. Worried, he looked up and down the block, but the glare of the streetlights splintering into myriad rainbow spectrums of color in the rain made him feel nauseous and interfered with his ability to see as far as he wanted. How in hell had the kid disappeared so damned fast? And why hadn't he taken his car? It was only then that Jim remembered that Blair had lost his keys when he'd jumped into the freezing water after Ventriss. With a last frustrated look around, cursing the rain, he dashed back into the building to get his coat and his own keys. With or without his wheels, whether Sandburg hoofed it or had caught a quick ride by hitchhiking, he would probably go to the university. Jim certainly hoped so anyway; a knot of anxiety formed in his gut when he realized that, if Blair wasn't in his office, he'd didn't have a clue as to where else to look for his partner.

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

Blair slumped into a seat by a fogged-up window and dumped his pack and computer case on the floor between his feet. Leaning back, he raked his streaming wet hair off his face, closed his eyes, and forced himself to breathe slowly and try to calm down. But he was just so damned angry. His fist curled, and he caught himself wishing he'd slugged Jim in return, before he willfully loosened his fingers and grimaced in disgust. Like that would have made anything any better. Violence wasn't the answer. Ever. Especially not between people who were supposed to be friends. What the hell had Jim been thinking of? Blair snorted and shook his head - like Jim had been thinking at that moment. Yeah, right.

Nausea spiked again as he relived the mind-bending sensations he'd experienced in the space of a handful of heartbeats - the jarring shock of the impact of Jim's fist against his jaw, the sudden sense of disorienting vertigo as he flew backwards, his feet no longer in contact with the floor. There'd been a splattering of bright lights raining through black and he figured he must have been almost knocked unconscious by the force of the blow. He'd banged into something very hard and then dropped like a rock to the floor, leaving him breathless with the jolt of the sudden stop. He'd been stunned at first, and then as what had just happened sank in, he'd felt blistering rage and had come very close to surging up to belt Ellison as hard as he could. But then… it had really sunk in. Jim had just assaulted him. Hadn't simply shoved him away. Had slugged him damned hard, in anger. His hot rage had coalesced into ice cold, nearly murderous fury, and he'd known that he had to put space between them before he did something they'd both regret.

As if more than enough damage hadn't already been done.

The shower had helped buy him enough time to get his fury under some measure of control but, by then, his jaw had really started to throb and a headache had started up with a vengeance. Standing under the hot spray, all he could think of was that Jim had punched him, and how wholly unacceptable that was regardless of the reason. As if there was ever a good reason to lash out physically in anger. He was used to Jim's moods and his temper, used to surly silences or caustic words. He'd learned quickly to allow a wide margin for that kind of irascible behaviour, understanding as he did that Jim's senses sometimes left the man barely able to think straight let alone be pleasant company, and he didn't take any of it personally. But he'd be damned if he stood around to take any kind of real abuse, or brush it off, as if it either hadn't happened or was somehow okay. It wasn't. No fucking way was he going to allow himself to be used as a punching bag just because Jim had a headache from hell and was generally pissed off. Screw that.

So he'd decided he had to get out at least for the night, until he'd calmed down enough to think about what to do next.

And now here he was, on a bus, cold again, wet again, feeling sick at what had happened, with his own headache from hell and probably a bruise blooming on his jaw to match the one fading under his eye. Grimacing unhappily, he sat up and wiped the condensation off the window to get his bearings and figure out how far they'd traveled while he'd reminisced about the evening so far. Man, he so did not want to tromp around in the teeming rain, and the thin lining in his jacket wouldn't be much protection against the blustery wind's chill. Noting that there was still a fair distance to go before his stop at the entrance to the university grounds, he again sagged back against the seat and tenderly cupped a hand over his aching jaw, the tip of his tongue probing the molars delicately. God, it hurt. Too bad he didn't have any ice to put on it, but at least he didn't have any loose teeth. Frowning, his eyes narrowed against the pain pounding in his head, he leaned his shoulder wearily against the window.

What a fucking, miserable day it had been so far. But at least they had caught Ventriss and his witch of a girlfriend. So he supposed the day, or the truly awful week for that matter, hadn't been a dead loss.

As his anger faded, he was left feeling hollow inside. Man, what was going on with Jim? And not just Ellison. Simon had been a bear all week, too. Sighing, he had to admit to himself he hadn't exactly been Suzy Sunshine, either. Though tempted to blame everything on the full moon that had to be hiding somewhere behind the storm clouds, he knew there was a lot more wrong than celestial gravitational impact on everyone's emotions - things had been going from bad to worse for weeks. Thinking back, he wasn't really sure when he first sensed that the foundations of his world were slipping out from under his feet. Clayton Falls, maybe? When Jim sounded off about being treated like a lab rat and that he was always in Jim's face? He remembered being shocked by those statements, well, by the vehemence with which Jim had spoken, how frustrated and tired of it all he'd sounded. Swallowing, Blair sighed. It was hard to help the guy understand the possibilities and full potential of his senses without working with the senses themselves. Shaking his head, he reflected that Jim's frustration revealed all too clearly that, while he might have accepted being a sentinel - probably from the perspective of helping people, being a better guardian and protector - he all too clearly had not bargained for what all that meant in actually figuring out how to make his senses work to their full capacity in reliable and predictable ways. And, hey, it was hard not to be in someone's face when you lived under their roof and worked with them every damned day.

He'd shrugged it all off, though, putting it down to Jim's persistent dislike and resistance to the tests, seeing them more as research for the dissertation than accepting that the tests were necessary for his development. And Blair knew he wasn't always the easiest guy to be around. He talked too much, too fast. He wasn't the neatest guy on the planet. Now, he wondered if he'd made a mistake in discounting Ellison's statements that day and his almost desperate need to be away on his own, had failed to understand the significance of what he was hearing and seeing. But he'd thought… thought they were friends and that… that Jim had accepted him for what he was, liked him in spite of his foibles, enjoyed their friendship and valued it as much as he did. It was more than slightly disconcerting to think he was wrong about all that. Very nearly devastating, actually, to finally understand and accept that Jim was, in fact, growing tired and even resentful of him.

Yeah, Clayton Falls. That was definitely when Jim had first indicated how tired he was of it all… well, of him, specifically. And then, consciously or unconsciously, Ellison had begun working more with his other colleagues, even Megan who irritated him no end, or had reverted to his loner ways, doing more and more things on his own. Which was good, really. Hell, it was great. The whole point was to help Jim in permanent ways, right? So he wouldn't always feel he was dependent on anyone else. Man, Jim really hated to be dependent.

But the first time his friend had come out and said he didn't want to do this anymore, work together, was when he was angry about what he'd read in the first draft chapter of the dissertation. His mouth twisting in chagrin, Blair told himself that he'd definitely made a mistake, a big one, in assuming they'd gotten past that issue, and that Jim had come to terms with his concerns. If Ellison had really been more comfortable around him, had trusted him more, maybe they wouldn't have had such major disconnections when Alex had come to town.

Blair shifted in his seat, feeling distinctly queasy with the memories of all that had happened only a few weeks before. What a fucking disaster that whole time had been. Bleakly, Sandburg recalled those terrible moments when Jim had said they were done, that Jim no longer trusted him and that he should work with someone else on his diss. He shuddered, just the devastating memory of hearing that Jim didn't trust him left him feeling cracked and broken inside, like a fine piece of crystal with a fatal flaw, on the verge of shattering. Swallowing, he pushed the too painful memory away and focused back on the more intellectual issue of his dissertation. Like there was anyone else he could have worked with. Well, technically, he supposed, at the time there were two sentinels in the immediate vicinity, but he couldn't bring himself to ever think of Barnes as a true sentinel. She was too twisted, too… evil. She had the senses but had no personal capacity or inclination to use them except for her own selfish ends.

Blair grimaced when he realized he was once again distancing what had happened, thinking about Alex and not about the… the trust issue or the fountain, and all that had happened there and since. Staring sightlessly into the night, he thought about having died. Funny, he would have hoped that people would have been happier to still have him around, instead of treating him like he was in the way, a nuisance, an outsider. But, all week, Jim and Simon especially had been acting like he was more trouble than he was worth, which had only made him mouthier, more desperate to be heard and acknowledged. Maybe… maybe it was hard to see him, hard for them to think about how they'd known he was dead, and now he was alive. Maybe it was all just too weird and uncomfortable. That reaction was certainly understandable but, man, it hurt.

One more hurt layered onto those he'd been carrying since Mexico. What an incredibly painful journey that had been, one that had left him reeling between aching despair and inexpressible fury ever since. He just couldn't get the sight of Jim and Alex on the beach and at the temple out of his mind. For all he'd spouted off at the time about it being a kind of primal affiliation and had pretended to accept it, to not take it personally, it was personal. As personal as anything could be. Jim, his best friend, on his knees, kissing and fondling, lusting after the woman who had murdered him. Primal urges be damned. How could Jim have done that? Blair had never felt so completely and utterly betrayed in all his life… or as inconsequential. And for a guy who'd lived his life knowing that he really didn't matter to anyone, except Naomi, that was saying something. And even she didn't want to be labeled as his 'Mom', didn't contact him for months at a time, or even let him know where she was so he could contact her. Every time she came for a visit, blowing in unexpectedly for a few days once or twice a year, he did his damnedest to make sure she had a great time, so it wouldn't be the last time. Oh, she loved him, as much as she was capable of loving anyone, he knew that. It was just so easy for her to 'detach with love', whatever that meant. Basically, he figured it meant that the people 'detached from' really didn't matter a whole lot in her life. He'd seen her leave so very many people she had claimed to love with all her heart and so, ever since he'd been a kid, he'd believed that, one day, she'd finally and fully detach from him, too. He'd known for a very long time that she had no need of him - like about twenty-three years - and that he really didn't matter, not in any concrete way and scarcely even emotionally, in her life.

But he'd thought he mattered to Jim. And he'd thought he mattered to Simon, that they were friends. He'd also thought he'd been doing good work at the university, that he'd made a place for himself there. But in the space of a couple of days, he'd been summarily fired from his job because he wouldn't let that murderous little monster, Ventriss, get away with cheating, and Simon had threatened to pull his observer pass and bar him from the station, as if he didn't belong there, hadn't earned the right to be part of that group, that place. And Jim, well, Jim had dismissed his concerns about the rape Ventriss was guilty of, demeaned him in front of strangers and Ventriss, and had finally slugged him, very nearly knocking him out, in anger.

Swallowing the lump in his throat as he fought the burn in his eyes, Blair tightly crossed his arms across his chest to hold in anguished pain that had nothing to do with his raging headache or throbbing jaw. He'd spent years of his life doing his best at Rainier, and the past three years doing everything he could to be helpful and supportive of Jim, and the rest of the Major Crime team, too, for that matter. He'd invested all that he was, had risked his life more than once, had even died. He had honestly done his best, only to find out he really didn't matter at all, not to any of them, not anywhere. If Jim and Simon, the best friends he'd ever had, didn't want him around anymore, what did that say about him, about what kind of human being he was? What was wrong with him that he was too annoying to bear, too worthless to bother with, that he was someone who could so easily be discarded and discounted? What fatal flaw did he have that eroded trust and affection like some caustic acid, that made it hard for him to matter to anyone… made it easy to push him away, to not miss him when he was gone - to make others wish he was gone?

Yeah, he reflected sadly, there was a lot wrong, a lot that had been wrong and had been on a downward spiral for weeks, even months. God, if he knew what he was doing to alienate those he cared the most about, he'd fix it, stop doing it, start doing the right things. But he hadn't even really known he was on thin ice until it had cracked and broken beneath him. He was sinking, he knew it; was drowning again and didn't know how to save himself. But he'd better get a clue and damned soon, because it seemed there was no one, not one single, solitary person, he could reach out to with unquestionable belief that they'd hold on, that they wouldn't let him sink out of sight.

Morosely staring into the stormy night, he told himself that it didn't matter that he was essentially on his own. That that's the way it had pretty much always been. Everyone had to make their own way, right? He'd been doing okay since he'd started at Rainier, though it had been lonely a lot of the time. But the last few years had given him the hope that his reality could be different, and he'd had a taste of a life that had been wonderful, even joyous. A life in which he was no longer essentially alone, a life he shared with Jim, particularly, but with others, too, at the PD and Rainier; a life that had led him to believe that he finally mattered in someone else's life equation.

Man, it was depressing to think about all this shit. Wryly, his lips quirked into a bitter half-smile and he wondered if maybe he should just give up hoping that he wouldn't always be, essentially, alone. Funny, he thought, conscious of the irony of life, Jim wants to be a loner and would give anything to just be left alone, and I would give anything not to be a loner but seem to inevitably end up on my own.

Sighing, he rubbed his eyes wearily, tired of such unremittingly negative thoughts. It wasn't his style to be despondent or self-pitying, not in his nature to perceive the world as a hopeless, empty place. Giving himself a shake when he saw that he was nearing his stop, he told himself that he only felt so lost and useless because he was tired and hurting, that his life did have purpose and meaning, the world was filled with possibilities, and that he would find his way. It wasn't healthy to rely on others for his own sense of self-esteem, he knew that intellectually, even if emotionally he was feeling battered in more ways than simply having been punched by his best friend. Jim had said he was sorry, and he'd looked and sounded like he meant it. Everything wasn't just about one Blair Sandburg. Jim had been under a huge amount of strain lately, too. Maybe they just needed some space, some relief from one another. Well, at least, maybe Jim needed some space and relief from him, and if being popped in the jaw was any indication of things to come, getting some space of his own away from Jim held its attractions. If they got a little distance from each other, maybe they could salvage something of their friendship before it was too late. Maybe, maybe things weren't as bad as he felt that night. Maybe when his head stopped pounding, and it stopped raining, his world would once again be a more cheerful place.

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

Fully aware that he was driving too fast along wet, slippery rain-shrouded streets, Jim had wasted no time getting to Rainier; it wasn't confidence in his skill at the wheel that kept his foot pressed to the accelerator but a building sense of urgency in his gut. Pulling up in front of Hargrove Hall, he loped to the entrance, oblivious of the puddles he splashed through and the slanting, stinging rain. Though he was fairly certain that he must have arrived before Sandburg, he wanted to make sure the grad student wasn't already in the building. If Blair had a head injury, and if he'd simply crashed on the couch as soon as he got to his office, he could be in real trouble.

But the office door was locked, the room beyond dark, and he could detect no sign of Blair's presence inside. Nodding to himself, he was just turning away when he was hailed by the security guard ambling casually down the hall.

"If you're looking for Mr. Sandburg, he doesn't work here any longer," the older, paunchy man called out. "Heard the Chancellor let him go for missing too much time," the fellow went on as he drew closer. Taking off his hat and scratching the back of his balding head, his mouth twisted unhappily. "Damned shame. The kid has been around here for a lot of years now and must've been getting close to finishing his degree. Good kid, too. Always liked him." Peering up at Ellison, his bright eyes suggesting more intelligence than his folksy, gossipy manner might have implied, he added casually, "So, you don't look like either a student or a professor. You a friend of his?"

Jim hesitated at the question, bleakly thinking about what the man had said. In the press of events, he'd forgotten that Blair had been fired. His jaw tightened and he nodded. "Yes, I am," he finally replied as he pulled out his badge. "I'm Detective Ellison, Cascade PD."

"Oh, yes, I've heard of you. Mr. Sandburg works with you, doing some research on the police force, right?" the guard acknowledged genially as he replaced his hat at a relaxed angle on the back of his head. His tone sharpened as he went on, "Then you probably know the missed time was just an excuse. Word is, the kid took on that creep, Brad Ventriss. Thinks he owns the school and everyone in it, he does. Nasty little bastard. Mr. Sandburg apparently caught him cheating and took it to the Administration." Sighing, the man concluded with a trace of bitterness, "Guess that Ventriss' money is worth more to this place than a teaching fellow who only does a damned fine job."

"How do you know all this?" Jim asked, honestly curious.

The older man shrugged. "Nothing much that's secret in a small community like this. People see things, hear things. Ventriss isn't popular and Mr. Sandburg is, so a lot of folks aren't very happy about the way things turned out for him. Students, teachers, secretaries and clerks, staff in the cafeteria and the library. You know how it is. People talk. When you see the young fellow, tell him a lot of us are really sorry about the way things worked out for him. He deserved better."

Jim nodded soberly and then made his way back out to his truck to wait a bit longer in case Blair did show up despite being fired - and to wonder, if he didn't, where else Sandburg might have gone. But his emotions were wound too tight to think clearly. Sitting behind the wheel, Ellison sighed with chagrin and bowed his head in shame.

'Deserved better,' the old guy had said.

Dammit, he'd been fired for being ethical - and because he'd taken too much time away to fly down to Peru with him to look for Simon and Daryl, let alone all the other times over the years that he'd arranged to have his classes covered so that he could be available to help in investigations.

Had Sandburg gotten any support or even sympathy from either him or Simon when he told them he'd been fired? No. They'd been too busy and too angry with him, too frustrated with the case and irritated that he'd been telling them for days that they should be doing something about Ventriss. Blair had been absolutely right about that creep. The kid was scum. Rubbing his forehead, Jim tried to remember if either he or Simon had acknowledged that to Sandburg. But he didn't think they had, not in so many words.

Fired. Would he still be able to finish his degree? He hadn't said anything about being expelled, too, not that Jim remembered. But then, he hadn't been listening much lately. Even if the job and the degree program were separate issues, could Blair afford to continue his studies without a job? And what did being fired mean for the future? Sandburg had hoped for a professorship at Rainier, but if that was unlikely if not wholly impossible now, where would he go after he did graduate?

'Deserved better.'

Sure as hell deserved better, Jim thought guiltily. A whole lot better than a so-called friend who'd spent more time pushing him away than giving credence to his instincts, more time yelling at him lately than listening, and who had finished up the miserable week by punching him so hard he might have a skull fracture.

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

When the bus finally reached his stop, Blair got off and hunched his shoulders against the wind and the rain. Dusk had already given way to the night, and the grounds were invisible beyond the dim patches of light cast by the decorative if scarcely functional wrought-iron overhead streetlamps. Muttering under his breath in general disgust, he plodded through his dark, cold and very wet world up the drive past the formal gateway to the university's grounds. He didn't notice the black, late model expensive sedan that had been following the bus since he'd gotten on, slowly turn the corner behind him until it surged ahead and then stopped abruptly. Two men exited quickly and started toward him purposefully, eerily reminding him of the goons Ventriss had sent after him earlier that week. Feeling the first burst of fear, Blair took a few uncertain steps backward and was about to turn to run for it, when one of the men fired a shot into the air and yelled, "Hold it. Or I'll shoot you right now. Drop those bags and get into the car."

Shocked and scared by the threat, Blair froze in place. Lightning streaked the sky, illuminating the stark tableau of threat and fear; thunder cracked and rumbled, and rain slanted down, hard and cold. He hesitated, a beat too long, and the stranger fired again, chipping the cement between his feet. "Okay, okay!" he stammered, as he let the bags slip down his arm to the sidewalk, and then lifted his hands in the air. Hoping to see someone who was witnessing what was going down, he furtively looked around, his gaze raking the shadows as he walked stiffly toward the vehicle. But the rain had driven everyone inside and, as it was Friday, classes were long over for the day so the private roadway was empty of traffic. "What do you want?" he asked anxiously as he approached the car.

"Just get in," the man ordered with a wave of his weapon. As soon as Blair was in the car, the two men followed him inside, one up front and the other beside him, and the driver swung the vehicle around and back out onto the main thoroughfare.

He looked balefully at the revolver pointed at his side and then at the other men in the car. He didn't recognize any of them and had no clue what was going on. The stranger in the front passenger seat pulled out his cell phone and reported, "We have the package." And then he hung up.

Package? Blair thought with indignant irony. I'm a package now, not even a person? How nice. But he grimaced with the understanding that they were simply taking great care that their less than secure wireless communication wasn't picked up or understood by anyone else who might actually call the police or something. I should be so lucky - unfortunately, my karma just hasn't been all that great lately. The cryptic call killed any lingering hope that this was some mistake, that they had the wrong person, or had just taken him at random for some reason. Trying to contain his apprehension, not to say near-panic, he endeavored to appear a good deal calmer than he felt as he asked uncertainly, "Where are we going? What do you want with me?"

"You'll see," the man beside him growled. "Now shut up and enjoy the ride."

Blair quirked his brows but nodded mutely and sank back against the cushy leather upholstery. Shifting his gaze to the side window, he thought sardonically that it didn't take a genius to figure out the probable reason he'd been taken. Man, was this the Universe's way of getting back at him for his little pity-party on the bus about not mattering to anyone? It would seem that he did matter to the CEOs of Questscape and Complexium Communications, but definitely not in a good way. Who else but either Ventriss or Nadine would do this - it wasn't as if he'd been working on any other cases with Jim lately. The only question, really, was whether they hoped to trade him for Brad and Suzanne, or if this was about getting only one of them a 'get out of jail free' card.

Oh, and where they were planning to stash him during the negotiations.

Leaning his head back against the plush leather seat, he winced when a tender spot on the back of his aching skull objected to the contact with the upholstery. Turning his head slightly to ease off the sore spot, he closed his eyes against a sudden wave of vertigo. But it passed quickly and he shrugged it off, wondering when he'd last eaten and if he might be hypoglycemic on top of everything else. Whatever. He had slightly more important things to worry about. Tense, very afraid, he stared out the side window. If Ventriss and/or Nadine thought Simon and Jim could be bought off, either with money or a trade, they were dead wrong. Correction, he thought dismally, they were wrong and he was dead. Then again, he realized with an icy shiver of fear, the whole question of his survival was probably moot given he hadn't been blindfolded and these guys had made no effort to ensure he couldn't identify them or keep him from seeing where he was being taken.

His fingers tapped nervously on his thighs and his lips tightened. Sure looked like his rotten week and fucking miserable day were about to get a whole lot worse.

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

Sickened by his recollection of recent events, Ellison looked despondently out at the rain and wondered impatiently where Sandburg was. Even if he'd been on one of the several buses Jim had passed on the way across town, he should have arrived by then, if this was where he'd been headed. Blowing out a sigh, he was just switching on the ignition when he heard the sound of two gunshots, the sharp popping sounds distinctly different from the rumbling thunder overhead.

Peeling out of the lot, sure the shots had been over near the entrance to the grounds, he pulled out his cell phone and called the PD. "Shots fired at Rainier University, near the gate. Send backup."

In less than two minutes, he was coasting down the long drive along the sea wall, watching the shadows beyond the watery pools of light cast by the overhead street lamps. He spotted the lumpy, irregular dark shape on the sidewalk not far from the entrance and sped up, at first wondering if it was a body, though it looked too small to be anything but a child. As he got closer, he could clearly see that there were two bags lying abandoned on the cement - and his heart clenched when he recognized the familiar backpack and computer case. A lump of ice settled in his gut as he jumped out of the truck, his pistol in his hand, his eyes raking the shadows as he listened hard for any sound that would indicate Blair was somewhere nearby.

But there was only the rumbling thunder and wash of heavy rain.

Anxiety surged. He ran to the corner and looked up and down the thoroughfare in vain. Whoever had taken Sandburg was long gone.

Standing in the cold downpour, water streaming over his face and soaking his clothing, fear curdled in his belly and he again pulled out his cell phone. "Simon," he grated when the call was answered. "Blair's been taken at gunpoint from Rainier by person or persons unknown."

"What?" Banks exclaimed. "Rainier? Are you sure? What was he doing there? Wasn't he fired this week?"

Ignoring the questions about why Sandburg had been there in the first place, Ellison stated emphatically, "Yeah, I'm sure." His gaze narrowing as he looked back at the shadowed hillside covered by innumerable shrubs and trees, he added darkly, his voice rough and hoarse, "If he wasn't taken, he's lying dead somewhere close - I… I can't hear him. I need backup to help me search, and a crime team."

"Jim, slow down. What the hell happened?"

"I heard shots from the parking lot outside Hargrove Hall, and I found Blair's backpack and computer case abandoned on the sidewalk near the entrance," he snapped. "Damn it, I don't have time to explain."

"Okay, right. I'll make the arrangements and meet you there as soon as I can," Banks agreed, though his irritated tone suggested he still had questions he wanted answered, sooner rather than later.

Jim shoved the phone into his pocket and jogged back up along the drive. Stopping near the bags, he crouched and spotted a fresh graze in the cement. He then carefully scanned the grass along the sidewalk, looking for any sign of someone running - or being dragged - away, and wasn't sure if he was relieved or not when he didn't find anything particularly suspicious or even suggestive. The walkway and road were muddy from the runoff off the hill, but the incessant, heavy rain had washed away any trace of individual footprints or tire marks. He sniffed the air, but all he could smell was damp earth and the faintest traces of gun oil and powder mingling with the even subtler but sharper scent of Sandburg's fear-filled sweat.

"Damn it," he cursed again, viciously, as he stood and looked around, feeling helpless and afraid for his partner. Determinedly forcing his emotions aside, he frowned as he thought about who might have done this, and why. "Ventriss," he muttered bitterly as he once again pulled out his phone, but Simon's line was busy. He redialed and snapped when Rafe answered. "It's Ellison. Tell Simon I'm heading over to the Ventriss residence to get some answers."

Before going back to the truck, he again looked at Blair's belongings, hating to leave them to be either soaked by the rain or stolen by a passerby. Just then, one of the university's security patrol cars appeared over the crest of the hill and he waved it down. When the guard got out of the car, Jim flashed his badge and then gestured at the discarded bags as he said, "Detective Ellison, Cascade PD. Those belong to Blair Sandburg. Police are on the way to search the area and document the crime scene. Make sure no one moves the bags until the police take them - they're evidence." Then, before the guard could ask any questions, he jumped into the truck and took off. But he'd not gotten halfway to his destination before his phone buzzed, demanding his attention. Impatiently, he answered, "Ellison."

"Jim, have you taken all leave of your senses?" Banks yelled. "What do you mean you're going to the Ventriss residence?"

"Who else would have snatched Sandburg?" Jim snapped back.

"Who knows at this point! Nadine, maybe? A psychotic student pissed off with his grades?" Simon retorted impatiently. "Get your ass back to Rainier or come in to the office, one or the other. But you will not go off half-cocked to confront Ventriss Senior before we've got more than your gut instinct to go on. You hear me, Detective? That's an order."

Ellison's jaw clenched and he didn't reply.

"Look, Jim," Banks said with a sigh into the silence, his tone more conciliatory and understanding. "I know you're worried about the kid. But you won't do Blair any good by impersonating a rampaging elephant. I've sent uniforms and the crime team to Rainier. Are you going back there or shall I wait for you here?" When Jim continued to remain mute, irritation flashed again in Simon's voice as he challenged, "You really think getting slapped with a harassment suit and barred from being anywhere even close to Ventriss or his property will help us find Sandburg?"

Defeated, Ellison sighed and replied, "I'll be in the office in about ten minutes."

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

Despite danger and jangling fear, heavy exhaustion engendered by his too turbulent emotions, fierce headache and aching jaw pressed Blair toward the refuge of sleep. The warmth of the car after the wet chill outside, the comfort of sinking into padded leather, the sonorous sounds of rain tapping incessantly on the roof in counterpoint to the metronome of the windshield wipers, and the swish-splash of the wheels on the pavement were hypnotic. Though he tried, he couldn't seem to keep his eyes open. Everything faded, became distant, less demanding of his attention.

So tempting to just let go....

But then his instinct for self-preservation kicked in sharply and he jerked back into wakefulness. Looking around groggily, he realized with a sinking feeling that they'd left the brighter lights of the city behind and were now driving sedately through Seaview Estates, the most prestigious and expensive suburb of Cascade. Huge, opulent mansions, when they were visible at all, were set well back from the road, and were separated for privacy by acres of wooded grounds. The Victorian-style streetlamps along the winding road cast little more than an ethereal glow behind the curtains of rain. But he recognized enough of the route to know now where he was being taken and who was engineering this scenario - Nadine's father had an estate in the country.

Blair cast a surreptitious glance at his captors from beneath lowered lashes. They weren't paying any attention to him, evidently thinking he was still half-asleep. His heart hammered in his chest and his palms grew damp with the knowledge that they couldn't be more than a mile from the Ventriss compound he'd first seen earlier that day. No doubt, as soon as they arrived, he'd be bound and locked up in one of the countless outbuildings or in some other windowless place with no hope whatsoever of escaping. Either that or shot outright and buried so deep somewhere in the back forty that not even Jim would ever be able to find him. Swallowing to moisten his fear-parched mouth and throat, he cursed himself for having fallen asleep - how could he have done that? - and knew he was fast running out of time. Man, he sure didn't want to spend the last hours of his life tied up and in the company of people he genuinely despised. If he had any hope at all of surviving this escapade, he had to get away before they reached their destination. Glancing at the gun that was still gripped firmly by the man sitting beside him, he wouldn't give good odds on his chances of a successful escape attempt, but he had to try.

At least he didn't have to worry through a whole lot of escape options - there was only one way out, one hope of eluding them. Glancing quickly at the door beside him, he couldn't see the locking mechanism in the darkness, but he figured it must be unlocked because the opposite one had opened just fine back at Rainier when he'd been shoved into the car. And it wasn't likely that it would be child-proofed - Ventriss didn't have any little kids - so the door shouldn't be locked from the inside either.

His breath was tight in his chest and his muscles twitched as he tried to remain loose, as if sleeping, while watching for his best chance to get away and, in what seemed only seconds, his opportunity arrived. The vehicle slowed on the slippery street to safely negotiate a tight curve around one of the forested sections. With one fast, flashing motion, he popped open the door and dove out, hitting the ground hard enough to hurt, but rolling quickly and scrambling to his feet even as the car braked sharply and voices yelled at him to stop. Keeping low, he sprinted toward the trees, not daring to look back though he heard car doors opening. Gasping with fear, knowing guns had to be trained on his back, he wasn't thinking, only reacting.

Serpentine! Serpentine!

The words from the old 'Inlaws' movie screamed in his head and he darted sharply to the right just as a shot cracked behind him. The bullet plucked at his sleeve, and he stumbled but recovered quickly and twisted to the left, fighting every instinct that demanded he just run straight ahead to the shelter of the dark shadows that loomed so close. He'd almost made it, just another step, was diving forward when another shot split the night and he yelled at the startling tearing burn along his side as he tumbled past the first line of trees and thick shrubs.

Pain.

His whole world narrowed to pain and nearly blinding fear.

Pushing himself back onto his feet, he pressed a hand against his side and darted further into the forest, biting back curses when he stumbled over roots he couldn't see in the dark or tripped on the uneven ground. Knowing he only had seconds before they would be chasing him through the darkness, he desperately looked for some kind of hiding place as he plunged forward. Spotting a thick growth of broad-leafed shrubbery around a stand of tightly-spaced tree trunks, he cut hard around the greenery and slid in behind, the rough bark of a wide tree at his back. Hunkering down, leaning against the tree for support, he fought to suppress the panting breaths that would give him away, and lowered his head, his hair falling forward, lest the pale skin of his face be visible in the dark.

He could hear them crashing through the undergrowth, cursing with fury, as they came closer and slowed, searching for him, hunting him down like a wild animal. He swallowed against the astringent taste of fear in the back of his throat and held himself perfectly still, desperately trying to be one with the darkness. They stopped just a few feet away, too close, way too close, and it took every shred of discipline he had to keep his head down and not look up to see if they had found him.

"We're never going to track him in the dark," one man griped in disgust, the voice sounding like the guy who had shared the back seat with him.

"Idiot, he can't go anywhere. These stands of forest are all surrounded by electrified and alarmed fences, remember? He can't get to any of the houses to get help, and the only way out is the way he came in," the other man, the guy who'd made the call on the cell phone, replied sounding royally pissed off. "It was stupid to shoot at him. What if someone heard and calls the cops?"

"In this weather? The shots just sound like more thunderclaps," the first man snorted.

"Well, at least you hit him," phone-guy sighed. "Once it's light, we might be able to pick up a trail of blood. You're damned lucky the boss could care less what kind of shape he's in." There was a pause and Blair could hear the low musical tones of a number being engaged on a cell phone. A moment later, the guy spoke again, his voice carefully reassuring, "The, uh, package has been temporarily misplaced," he reported. "But we know more or less where it is, and it's, uh, leaking. Shouldn't be hard to find it at dawn." There was another pause, and the guy replied unhappily, "Sorry, sir, but we have the situation under control… Understood, yes, sir."

"Guess he's not happy," the trigger-happy guy observed dryly.

"You guess right," the phone guy replied tightly, then sighed. "Come on. No point in standing around in the rain. We can keep watch from the car to make sure he doesn't try to sneak past us."

Blair continued to hold himself tightly still until their footsteps faded away into nothing, and then he sagged onto the ground. There was no way out? Oh, God, what was he going to do now? Licking his lips, he wished with all his heart that his own cell phone was in his jacket pocket and not stuffed along with his wallet into the backpack lying uselessly on the sidewalk where he'd been taken. Closing his eyes, he tried to think, knew there was something… something he was missing. But his headache was worse, the pain ripping through his head so sharply that he felt nauseated by it, and the initial numbness of the wound along his side was long gone. The deep burning sensation hurt so bad he had to clamp his teeth together to keep from moaning. Tentatively, he reached beneath his jacket and shirt to see how bad it was, and hissed when his fingers touched a streak of sticky wet tenderness that seemed to be bleeding pretty hard. Fuck. Like he needed this on top of everything else?

Huddling in the dark, his head bowed under the rain and, shivering, he crossed his arms tightly to hold in whatever warmth he had left. The wound in his side was a constant blaze of pain, his throbbing head relentlessly brutal. He took deep, shaking breaths and told himself to let the pain wash over him, to not fight it, to just… just be. It wasn't like he hadn't been hurt before. He knew the drill, knew he'd be okay if he could just get away. The headache was what it was, the gunshot wound wasn't personal - but the ache in his jaw wore on him, dragging him down into the depths of despair.

Unlike the bleeding wound in his side, the fact that Jim had slugged him was personal, very personal. And that hurt was about as bad a pain as he'd ever known. The man he valued most in the world had gotten so pissed off with him that Ellison had nearly punched his lights out. Why? What had he done that was so terrible? Bleakly, he thought if he didn't get out of the mess he was in, he might never know. The appalling possibility that those horrible minutes of rage and pain might be Jim's last memory of him left him trembling helplessly with inarticulate grief. If only he'd given Jim a chance to explain. If only he hadn't stormed off in righteous rage, none of this would be happening. The one damned time when he hadn't wanted to talk was maybe the last chance he'd had to make things right between them again, to fix what had gone so wrong.

His stomach flipped as a new wave of vertigo swept over him, and he choked back the urge to retch, desperate to stay silent. Doubling over, his arm pressed tightly to his wounded side, he gripped the tree trunk for support, but the pain in his head morphed into piercingly bright dancing lights and then deep crimson darkness swirled in to carry him away.

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

Jim didn't bother knocking as he strode into Simon's office, to stand wet and haggard in front of his boss's desk. Banks gave him a narrow look and waved him to a chair, but he was too agitated to sit. "We need to get out there and look for him!" he asserted aggressively.

"Look where, exactly?" Banks countered mildly, striving for patience. "He could be stashed anywhere. So, unless you've suddenly discovered your sixth sense is as good as the rest of them, chasing around aimlessly is a waste of time and energy."

Looking away, Ellison fought to get himself under control. Nodding tightly in reluctant agreement, he bit back on his urge to argue.

"What the hell is going on, Jim?" Simon demanded. "What was Sandburg doing out there in the first place? The last time I saw him, he was soaking wet and shivering from cold. I'd've thought he'd head straight for a hot shower, not turn around and go to Rainier. And why was he on the sidewalk? Why wasn't he driving? And why were you at the university, but not with him?"

Jim looked hunted at the deluge of questions. He cut Banks a quick look and then jerked his gaze away, his breathing quick and shallow. "We had a fight when we got home," he began, his voice hoarse, "and I…."

But the words died in his throat as the full legal import of what he'd done slammed into him. There was no tolerance for domestic violence. The law had been enacted to protect women from abusive partners, but he knew it applied just the same since Blair shared the loft with him; there was no room for discretion. Once the police became aware of an instance of physical abuse, they had no choice but to act. When a cop was charged in such cases, he was put on immediate suspension pending investigation and, if found culpable, could be demoted or even fired. In those harrowing moments, Jim didn't give a damn about his job, but he couldn't afford to be suspended. He needed to be part of the search for Sandburg, not have a restraining order leveled against him to keep him as far away from the kid as the law allowed.

Staring at his boss as the thoughts whirled in his head, he knew he couldn't compromise Simon by admitting the truth. Later, he'd confess everything, but not now.

"Well?" Banks pressed impatiently, beginning to wonder just how bad the fight had been.

Jim's lips tightened with aversion at having to dissemble to Simon, and he had to look away before he replied hollowly, "Blair was angry and he took off. But he'd lost his keys when he jumped into the bay after Ventriss, so he couldn't use the Volvo. When I went after him, I, uh, forgot he'd been fired and headed straight to Rainier, figuring he'd crash in his office. I was in front of Hargrove Hall when I heard the shots, and I found his stuff abandoned on the sidewalk near the entrance to the grounds." Licking his lips, he added tautly, "We have to find him fast, Simon. I, uh, I think he may have a head injury."

The Captain's head tilted questioningly and his eyes narrowed as he studied his detective. "Why do you think that?" he asked, confused. "Did you see something at the scene? You said you heard shots - wouldn't that suggest a wound of some kind, maybe, more than a head injury? Jim, you're not making a lot of sense."

The muscle along his jaw flexed as Ellison shook his head and held out his hands helplessly. "Captain, it's complicated and I can't explain everything right now," he husked. "I will, later, when there's time."

Banks shifted back in his chair, his expression watchful as an unwanted suspicion grew in his eyes. "What aren't you telling me?" he rumbled.

Jim shook his head and shifted his gaze to the rain-streaked windows. "Please, Simon, let it go for now," he rasped, hating himself for playing on their friendship. "I… I have to be part of this. Have to help find him. We'll have plenty of time to deal with the rest later."

The suspicion solidified and Simon went rigidly still as anger sparked in his gut. Sonofabitch! Ellison had done something to the kid, something that had pissed Sandburg off so royally that he'd taken off on foot on the cold, stormy night. Something that might have resulted in a head injury. His expression went flat but his eyes blazed with sudden fury. Silence crackled between them, broken only by the rasp of Banks' deep breaths, drawn in through flaring nostrils, as he struggled to get a grip on his anger. Jim bowed his head and his shoulders slumped as he waited mutely. Unable to look at Ellison, Simon closed his eyes and turned his head away, about to demand answers, but he was forestalled by a sharp rap on the open door.

"Captain, Ventriss's lawyer, Andrew Collins is here to see you," Brown said, his voice tentative as he looked between his boss and his colleague and wondered at the evident tension he sensed between them.

Saved by the bell, Simon thought, realizing he was glad of the interruption that rescued him, at least temporarily, from having to press for information he really didn't want to know. "Send him in," he replied decisively. Henri nodded and waved the visitor inside.

Collins, of Collins, Bradley and White, appeared in the doorway and ambled in with every semblance of congeniality written in his warm smile. Around forty, distinguished in his appearance, he was immaculately attired in a suit that must have set him back two big ones, and he fairly radiated assured, even cocky, confidence. "Captain Banks," he said, his voice a melodic tenor, and he pleasantly acknowledged Jim's presence as well, "Detective Ellison." Turning his attention back to Banks, he added, "I hope I'm not interrupting something. It's good of you to see me so late in the day."

"What can I do for you, Counselor?" Simon replied with formal, if false courtesy but no little hope that this unscheduled visit might give them a lead, something, to help them get Sandburg back.

"I've just finished going over the evidence supporting your charges against Brad Ventriss," Collins replied amiably, with only the slightest air of condescension. "There's not much substance there, is there? Most of it is circumstantial at best."

Shrugging, Simon drawled, "I think we've got enough to take our chances with a jury."

"Oh, come on," Collins chuckled disparagingly. "We both know you don't have enough to convince a jury that Brad is in any way responsible for the crimes you allege he perpetrated."

"Your point?" Banks retorted dryly with a quirk of his brow, distinctly unamused.

Spreading his hands in a wide, open gesture, the lawyer offered, "My point is simply that you are open to charges of false arrest, police brutality and, well, you get the picture." Smiling again, he continued in the tone of one stalwart man to another, "Look, I know you don't have anything personal against young Bradley, that you're just doing your job as best you can. But, after speaking to the kid, I'm convinced that he ran because he was scared, afraid you'd never believe he had nothing to do with any murder. He'd already been rattled earlier in the week when a teacher falsely accused him of cheating, though I'm pleased that, with the Chancellor's help, we were able to deal effectively with that baseless and wholly irresponsible charge."

Jim stiffened but Banks threw him a warning glare that held him silently in place. Impatiently, Simon turned his attention back to Collins. "Counselor," he rumbled restlessly, "so far you've done nothing more than waste my time. What do you want?"

"Norman Ventriss very much regrets his precipitate but, I think, understandable actions earlier today," Drew Collins replied smoothly. "He, uh, well, he'd be grateful, I might even suggest generous, if this unfortunate situation could be resolved with less drama by coming to some amicable resolution. Rather than waste the taxpayers dollars on a costly, useless trial, it would be more, shall we say, astute to cut your losses and drop the charges now."

Simon blinked and smiled coldly. "Careful, Collins. That sounded very much like a bribe - and making such an offer with a detective standing there as a witness isn't very smart," he observed caustically.

"Bribe? No, no. You misunderstand me," Drew insisted, laughing at the very idea. "No, I was simply suggesting that Mr. Ventriss might make a gift to you in gratitude for your open-mindedness in not holding his behaviours this afternoon against him, and for acknowledging that you made a mistake in thinking Brad capable of such a crime. Not a bribe, certainly. No, just a small gift, not really valuable in itself, perhaps, but something you and, er, Detective Ellison might appreciate having."

Simon sobered and Jim took a step toward the lawyer, intent upon slamming him against a wall with the demand that he reveal Sandburg's whereabouts, but Collins affected obliviousness. His cell phone rang just then and he held up a hand, saying as he turned away to answer it, "Sorry, but this call could be important. If you'll just give me a moment?"

"Collins," he identified himself and listened - along with Jim, whose head tilted unconsciously as he focused his hearing on the call.

"Is the deal done?"

"Sorry, no. Trade negotiations are still underway."

"You might want to stall the discussions. The package fell off the transport and is temporarily unavailable for demonstration of its, uh, quality."

"That's unfortunate," the lawyer replied, his tone guarded. "I'm assuming it is recoverable?"

"Yes, certainly. We know where it is. And, uh, it's been damaged, apparently, probably not seriously but it's, er, leaking. Should make it easy to find in the morning."

Simon frowned in concern when Ellison went dead white before lifting his eyes to glare murderously at the lawyer's back. What the hell had he just heard?

"I see," Collins returned slowly, his shoulders stiffening with tension. "I assume the damage is reparable? Otherwise, it will have little intrinsic value in the long run. Could even be a liability."

"Don't be a fool, Drew. Once I've got what I want, this package will get permanently lost. It's a ruse, nothing more. An object lesson, if you will. Nobody messes with me and gets away with it."

"I don't recommend such business tactics -" Drew protested, his voice sounding strained. But the voice on the other end of the line bluntly cut him off.

"I don't pay you for business advice." And the call was abruptly terminated.

Collins took a breath as he slipped the phone into his suit pocket, and gracefully turned to face Banks. "I regret the interruption," he apologized blithely, but then seemed to notice the increased tension in the room. Frowning at the expression on Ellison's face, reading the threat clearly in the detective's icy eyes, he unconsciously took a half step closer to the doorway. "We were discussing Brad's release," he began, shifting his gaze to Simon.

"No, Counselor," Banks growled menacingly as he stood to loom over the desk. Going with gut instinct based on Jim's reaction, he snapped, "We were discussing Sandburg's abduction. Bribing a cop is a mistake, but fairly small potatoes. Kidnapping, however, is a federal offence that carries the death penalty. You tell your client to stop playing stupid, dangerous games. I want Sandburg back, in one piece, or I'll have his ass - and yours, as an accessory. You clear on that?"

The urbane façade cracked briefly at Banks' assertions; Collins hadn't realized they already knew Sandburg had been taken and he wondered how they'd found out so quickly. But in the space of one blink and the next, he opted to act as the wronged, and insulted, innocent. "I have no idea what you're talking about, Banks," he said in umbrage. "You've no grounds whatsoever to make such libelous and ridiculous accusations." Shrugging indifferently, he went on, "I don't even know any Sandburg… unless, you don't mean that so-called teaching fellow at Rainier?" Frowning thoughtfully, he added, "Why, has he gone missing? Well, not surprising, I suppose, given he's just been fired. Probably left town."

"Look, Collins," Simon growled, only to be cut off.

"No, you look, Captain," the lawyer interrupted, all trace of congeniality gone, his manner now cold, his tone slightly threatening, "This Sandburg's apparent disappearance would seem to be your problem, not Mr. Ventriss's. Good luck tracking him down, but I'd think the odds are you won't ever see him in Cascade again." Seeming to recollect himself, hastening to return to his protestations of innocence, he shrugged and then added distastefully, "Whatever. That has nothing to do with me or Mr. Ventriss. If you wish to continue our earlier discussion, you know how to reach me." With that, he turned on his heel and strode out of the office.

"You're just going to let him go?" Jim exclaimed, gaping at Banks in disbelief.

"We don't have any grounds to hold him," Simon sniped angrily. "That is unless you'd care to testify in court about what you evidently heard of that phone conversation, after a suitable demonstration to the jury of your incredible ability to hear so exceedingly well," he added with sarcastic vehemence. But at the stricken look of helpless despair on Ellison's face, already regretting his frustrated outburst, he wiped a hand over his mouth and then asked more calmly, "What did you hear? Was it Ventriss?"

"Yeah, I recognized his voice," Jim muttered as he paced agitatedly. "Blair's managed to evade them and is hiding somewhere, probably outside since they think they'll be able to find him again in the morning." He stopped and turned to face Simon, stark desperation in his eyes, "He's hurt, Simon. He's bleeding. And it sounds like Ventriss plans to kill him regardless of what we do about his son."

"What?" Simon demanded. "You actually heard him say that?"

"Yeah, pretty much," Jim gusted. "Oh, he was talking about packages getting permanently lost, didn't use any names, but his meaning was damned clear."

Simon rubbed the back of his neck as he thought about their options. "Okay," he said finally, "prepare a warrant for a search of all of Ventriss's properties in Cascade. We'll start with the residence and grounds."

"But he doesn't have Sandburg," Jim protested with a frown. "We need to find Blair before he does."

"Did you hear anything during that call that would give us any idea of where to search, detective?" Banks demanded heatedly, equally frustrated by the situation, and just as worried about Blair. When Ellison looked away helplessly, he continued bluntly, "I thought not. The best we can do is make a strong show of the fact that we're not happy to have one of our own used as a pawn - strong enough to make it crystal clear that we won't let it go if anything happens to Sandburg. Maybe we'll rattle him enough to realize this isn't a game - and that his actions could have very grave consequences for his future. If we can do that, maybe he'll at least give up looking for Blair and give us time to find him."

"If there is time," Jim muttered as he stared out into the darkness.

Sighing, Banks sat down, took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. "Jim, there isn't anything more we can do right now. Go, prepare the warrant."

Stiff with tension, Jim moved across the office but before he'd passed through the doorway, Simon added meaningfully, "You're not the only one in this department who cares about that kid, you know. Nobody here would take kindly to anyone hurting him. You understand what I'm saying?"

Ellison jerked to a stop, guiltily hearing the message beneath the words. He didn't turn around, couldn't bring himself to face his boss - his friend. Nodding slowly, he replied somberly, "Yeah. I do."

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

Shivering violently, his clothing soaked by the continuing downpour and cold, damp earth, rain pattering on his face, Blair moaned softly as he struggled back toward consciousness. Blinking in confusion, he wondered where he was and why the world was so dark and wet before the sick pounding of his head and the fiery burn in his side reawakened his memories. Biting back a groan, he struggled up to sit against the tree and raked his dripping curls back from his face. How long had he been unconscious? Minutes? Hours? He didn't know and that scared him, because he knew he only had until dawn to figure out a way to escape.

But, escape where? How? His original, hasty plan had been to work his way through the bush, either to one of the mansions to seek help, or to make his way back into the city. Instead, he'd managed to trap himself in a small stand of woods bounded by an electrified, alarmed fence and the only way out was past the men who were waiting in the sedan for dawn to arrive. Scowling as he rubbed his forehead, he knew he was missing something, some option other than trying to sneak past armed men who probably wouldn't hesitate to shoot him again. But his raging headache made it hard to think, everything seemed foggy, out of focus. Desperate with the urgent need to get away, he went back over everything again, taking one simple point at a time. He was in a forest, but not one large enough to hide in indefinitely, not when they hunted him in the light of day. He couldn't get out because of the fence….

The fence.

Electrified… and alarmed against intruders, potential thieves.

Alarmed meant it had to be monitored by a security company somewhere.

That's it! he thought with a surge of excitement. That's what had been nagging at him, what he'd been missing!

Gripping the tree, he hauled himself to his feet and looked around, trying to get his bearings from his scanty memories of the ride past the area and his panicked race to find a hiding spot. Deciding on his direction, he made his way carefully through the darkness, one hand pressed to his side and the other stretched out to push low branches out of his way. Dizzy and increasingly weak, he often had to lean against the nearest tree taking deep breaths until the worst of the vertigo passed and he could go on. Finally, he came to the edge of the protected woodland and looked up at the top of the seven-foot-high wire mesh barrier. Panting against pain and exhaustion, he stooped and fumbled around to find broken branches until he had a small armload and then he awkwardly stood and moved closer to the fence.

Tossing the first stick against the barrier, he noted a slight spark, a quick snapping sound and a low, electrical hum at the brief moment of contact. Swallowing, shivering in the sharp wind, he noticed that the small branches of trees growing near the fence created similar short buzzes of contact and his heart sank. Quickly, he tossed every stick he had at the fence, hoping to generate a bigger, longer effect, one that might be noticed by whoever was monitoring the security system. Sagging against a tree, he waited through endless minutes, straining to hear a siren that would indicate his interference with the fence had been noted and someone was coming to investigate, but there was nothing but the sound of the wind clacking through the branches and the rain pattering monotonously on leaves.

Bleakly, he accepted that the momentary interruption of the electrical circuit caused by the brief contact of the thrown bits of wood wasn't going to do it, wasn't enough to garner the attention he needed. His lips thinned with determination as he began examining the trees closest to the fence. Climbing trees and out along flimsy branches to dangle over thin air wasn't exactly his idea of a good time, but his fear of death trumped his fear of heights. Unfortunately, it didn't take him long to discover that all weight-bearing branches near the fence had been cut away, no doubt to prevent anyone accomplishing what he'd hoped to be able to do. His gaze lowered to the fence and he gazed at it morosely, and then looked in the direction of the street, wishing he could convince himself there was another option. But he was hurting too badly, was too dizzy to imagine he'd have the energy and either stealth or speed necessary to be able to get past the watchers. Crossing his arms, he bowed his head, shuddering at what he had to make himself do, and wondering how bad it was going to hurt.

The current running through the fence wouldn't be strong enough to kill, he was reasonably certain of that. So it wasn't as if he was going to electrocute himself, or anything. Just… what was it going to feel like? He'd gotten short shocks before, everyone did at some time or other, and they'd stung so sharply that the immediate, instinctive, reaction was to jump back, to break the connection.

He wouldn't be able to jump back. Not if he really wanted to ensure someone noticed and came quickly.

Would it knock him out? Maybe. Maybe, all things considered, that wouldn't be a bad thing.

Sighing, working up his nerve, he told himself he had no choice. It was either the fence or give up and be taken in the morning when the men came hunting for him and, if he was captured again, he was pretty sure the plan, ultimately, was to kill him. What was the worst that could happen? He might suffer some minor burns and wind up in the hospital - well, given the blood caking his clothing, that was a given anyway. And right then, feeling sick and scared, wet and hurt, pain pounding in his head and searing his side, a warm, safe, clean hospital bed held a certain appeal. Taking a breath, he straightened up, resolved to what he had to do.

Stiffly, wincing against the pull from his wound, he peeled off his sodden jacket and shivered when the wet wind cut through his damp shirt. Swallowing against the fear-generated nausea roiling in his gut, taking another deep breath to steady himself, he took a step closer to the fence. Turning his head away, he winced in expectation of the shock of the current as, with trembling hands, he pressed the jacket against the electrified wires.

Only… nothing happened. He didn't feel a thing.

Startled, he lurched back and wondered why. Had the storm blown out the transformer in the last few minutes, killing the power and leaving the fence dead? Even his karma couldn't be that bad. Squinting toward the street, he could make out the dim glow of the streetlamps beyond the trees. So, the power was still on in the neighborhood. Then, why…?

Oh, shit. His shoes had rubber soles. He was insulated. Sighing, balancing with a hand against the rough bark of a tree, he kicked off his sneakers, grimacing with discomfort as the cold, wet ground soaked his socks and chilled his feet. Might as well be standing in a puddle of water, he thought, and wondered if that would make the impact of the electrical charge running through his body worse. Trying not to think about it, knowing he had no choice, he settled the jacket over his hands and again leaned his weight into the fence.

The sharp, fast frisson of energy zapping up through his hands and arms and across his chest was so hideous, he immediately jerked back and had to choke off a shout of startled pain. Damn, but that had hurt! Shit! Hoping he'd done enough, that the contact had been noticed, he waited breathlessly, praying for security guards to turn up. But no one came and he wasn't sure how much longer he could keep standing. He was so cold that he was trembling uncontrollably and the dizziness was getting worse.

Anger flared briefly, a rush of fury about how massively unfair it all was. Why should he have to suffer like this? Hurt himself this way? What had he ever done to deserve this nightmare? Get a grip, he told himself disparagingly, bitterly, and then had to fight off nearly hysterical giggles at the double meaning of his thoughts. Slumping with exhaustion, he looked up, seeking the sky but the overarching trees and the clouds held him enclosed in a dark world, and the sharp pellets of rain stung his face. He had to do this, and he had to do it before he collapsed.

Once more, he settled the jacket over his hands, took a deep breath, and leaned his covered palms against the fence.

Gritting his teeth, he fought the atavistic urge to pull away when the electric energy jolted through his body, and he forced himself to maintain contact. The current sizzled up his arms, into his chest, resonated in his head and buzzed down through his belly to his legs before passing through his feet into the ground. Muscles quivered in mini-convulsions, and he felt as if his hair was standing on end. Blood pounded in his ears and he could feel his heart palpitating so hard that the sensations filled his chest and throat. It was horrible. His whole body was vibrating uncontrollably, the breath caught in his lungs and he couldn't… couldn't exhale. His hands and the soles of his feet grew warm and then hot as the fence snapped and hummed, and he was vaguely aware of something smoldering, the stench of burning fabric surrounding him. His gut cramped and darkness whirled, but he couldn't move, couldn't pull back though desperation to be free of the hideous power humming through his body now consumed him. It was too much, he couldn't stand it.

He'd've screamed if he could have expelled breath.

The tremble of spasming muscles increased until he was shaking, as if stricken with palsy. He was jerking helplessly with the energy coursing through him, and the jacket began to slip as his hands shook uncontrollably. Afterward, he was never really sure how he broke free, whether he'd been shaking so badly that the contact was broken, or if he'd overloaded and short-circuited the system. He couldn't remember anything beyond the terrible, helpless fear that his desperate stunt was going to kill him after all, and he couldn't do anything to save himself - and then he was on the ground, sobbing in breaths, tears streaking his face, retching and gagging helplessly.

Dimly, as if from a long way away, he heard the thin strains of a siren wailing and he whimpered in gratitude. Someone was coming. Barely conscious, he began to push himself to his feet, only to yelp weakly at the sharp pain in his hands as his arms gave out and he flopped back onto the soaking ground. Gasping for breath, forcing back the darkness, he floundered up to sit against a tree and then, using its support against his back, he pushed up onto his knees and then to his feet. He could hardly stand, and the soles of his feet burned with pain, but he lurched forward toward the dim streetlamps flickering through the branches blowing in the wind.

It seemed to take forever, the sound of the siren drawing closer and closer as he hobbled painfully through the forest. Finally, he came to the edge of the trees and leaned against one, hidden in its shadow from his erstwhile captors who were now standing outside the dark sedan. They seemed uncertain, nervous, the approaching siren a threat they weren't equipped to deal with. Finally, they piled back into the car and, with a roar of the powerful engine, took off quickly to disappear around the curve just before a vehicle with the logo of a security company and a whirling blue light sped up from the opposite direction, braking to a sudden stop, the siren immediately silenced.

Two uniformed guards got out of the car and warily moved toward the dark forest, weapons in their hands. Sandburg shuddered with gratitude at their appearance, thinking he'd never seen a more beautiful sight in his life. After all the terror, all the agony, he was finally safe.

Blair drew in a shaky breath and shoved away from the tree that had been supporting him. Tears of wretched, exhausted relief trickling down his pallid, grimy face, hunched forward to ease the pain in his side, holding his injured hands up to protect them, wrists crossed and palms toward his chest, he shuffled unsteadily into the light. The guards stiffened at his filthy, bedraggled demeanor and leveled their guns at him, perhaps thinking he was a homeless drunk or crazy person that could be dangerous. One of the rentacops called out sharply, "Stop! Put your hands up where we can see them."

Swaying dizzily, barely able to stand, he froze in place, trembling with new terror that they might actually shoot. Would this frigging nightmare never end? "Please," he rasped brokenly in desperation. "Please… help me."

And then the last of his strength and determined will gave out and he collapsed like a broken marionette, already unconscious before he hit the ground.

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

"Yes, sir," Simon rumbled over the phone, as he rolled his eyes at Jim who was pacing like a panther in front of his desk, "I'm well aware of who Norman Ventriss is, and of his status in the community. Uh huh." In the last half hour, he'd worked his way through the DA's office, the Judge who'd signed the warrant, the Chief, who'd gotten wind of it, the Commissioner who had been alerted by the Chief, and now he was talking to His Honor, the Mayor. "No, sir, I don't make a habit of upsetting the most powerful people in Cascade. I have good reason to suspect that Ventriss is implicated in the abduction early this evening of Blair Sandburg - you remember Blair, don't you?" Nodding, as he listened, he went on, "I was sure that you would, yes. Well, Sandburg was kidnapped at gunpoint from the university's grounds and I've received fairly thinly-veiled information that we might get him back if we drop the murder charge against Brad Ventriss, Norman Ventriss's son."

Jim glared at Banks, thoroughly pissed off by the rigmarole. Sandburg was somewhere out in the storm, hiding from his captors, wounded, and they were stuck playing stupid political games in the effort to get permission to do their damned jobs. Jim gritted his teeth, the muscle flexing along his jaw as he strove to contain the jumble of fear, guilt and raw, naked urgency that was tormenting him.

Simon's lips compressed as he listened, anger sparking in his eyes. "With all due respect, your Honor," he said firmly, the deference in his tone replaced by irritated frustration, "if you don't trust my judgment, then just say so and I'll have my resignation on your desk within the hour."

Jim stopped pacing and gaped at his boss, stunned that Simon would threaten to quit over this. And then he looked away, ashamed to have felt surprised. Simon always had stuck up for his people and probably always would and, so far as Banks was concerned, Sandburg had been one of his people for years now. Ever since Blair had gone along on the journey to find him and Daryl in Peru, and had helped rescue them from illicit drug manufacturers; and then his fondness and affiliation with Blair had only been reinforced when Sandburg had been shot during their efforts to rescue him from Dawson Quinn. The kid had become more than Jim's tagalong, more than the guy who helped Ellison with his senses. Blair had become even more than one of his team. Jim knew Simon considered Blair a good friend, as did the rest of his colleagues in MCU.

"Yes, sir, thank you, sir," Banks said into the phone, barely containing his sarcasm, already standing and reaching for his coat. "I will most definitely keep you posted."

Hanging up, he pulled on his overcoat and strode toward the door, calling over his shoulder, "Let's go, dammit. Too much time has been wasted already."

Earlier, Banks had arranged with Dispatch to have a cohort of patrol cars meet them at the Ventriss residence; they'd need a lot of help to expeditiously search the vast estate that included a barn-sized garage, pool house, guest cottages along the shore, utility sheds, not to mention the massive mansion itself. Besides, going in with a small army was part of the statement Simon wanted to make to Ventriss - that there was absolutely no tolerance for the game the man was playing, and there would be no forgiving or forgetting if anything untoward happened to Sandburg.

Within half an hour, Simon's vehicle was pulling into the long drive, a stream of police cars, lights revolving, following in his wake. When he parked in the circle in front of the house, Ventriss and Collins came outside to stand under the portico, out of the rain.

"What is the meaning of this?" Ventriss called out, clearly furious at the intrusion and embarrassment of having his neighbors see so many cops descend upon his home.

Banks strode up the marble steps and pulled the legal documents out of his inside pocket. "These are warrants to search all of your properties in Cascade," he said with as much intimidation in his voice as he could generate.

"Search? Search for what?" the videogames magnate challenged.

"For Blair Sandburg, or anything that might indicate where he is being held," Simon replied as he waved to his team to fan out around the grounds, all but the half-dozen he gestured ahead of him into the house.

"Are you insane?" Ventriss roared. "I'll have your badge for this!"

Leveling a cold look at the man, Banks retorted, "You can try. But in the meantime, we're going to go through this place and your business properties with the proverbial fine-toothed comb."

Collins stepped forward between his client and the captain. "I can assure you, Captain Banks, we have no idea where Mr. Sandburg is."

"Well, Counselor, you know what you can do with your assurances," Simon drawled as he pushed past the two men to enter the house. The cops inside had already begun to politely ransack the domicile - they knew Banks either personally or by reputation, and if he figured this rich guy had something to do with Sandburg's abduction then he probably did. Given that conviction, they had little interest in being more than superficially courteous, and no interest at all in being neat as they moved from room to room.

Jim had decided that he didn't dare get anywhere near Ventriss, or he might very well wring the bastard's neck so, during the drive over, he and Simon had agreed that he'd oversee the search of the grounds. Not that the boys and girls in blue needed much in the way of guidance from him on how to do their jobs.

Especially as he already knew Sandburg wasn't anywhere on the premises.

Oh, he understood well enough why Simon thought this might be a useful tactic, but he chafed under the uselessness of it all. However much time they spent here, they wouldn't be a second closer to finding Blair. Nearly incandescent with anxious frustration and helplessness, he went through the motions because it was his job. Oblivious to the teeming rain, he stalked toward the huge garage.

Inside, he cast a cursory glance around, his senses open out of professional commitment to do even a useless job well. Slowly, he walked partway through the building, passing one expensive vehicle after another, all of them gleaming in the harsh overhead florescent light. The building seemed little more than a large, manmade cavern, with a supply room full of sundry parts and cleaning products, and a lounge for the chauffeurs at either end. Even without physically looking, he knew those rooms were empty. He was about to leave the garage when he noticed one anomaly.

The black sedan parked at the far end glistened, the light reflecting tiny rainbows in beads of moisture all over the car. Frowning, he jogged the rest of the way and touched the hood - finding it still warm. Slowly, he walked around the vehicle, stooping to examine the interior. As he drew close to the rear passenger compartment on the side behind the driver, his nostrils twitched and he froze. Herbal shampoo and conditioner.

And the sweet, metallic, sickening smell of blood.

Opening his vision wide, he meticulously scanned the floor and seat - and spotted the dark patch on the headrest that very nearly blended completely with the rich burgundy of the leather. Swallowing, he pulled a penlight from his pocket and shone it on the spot, illuminating two fine strands of long, curly, dark brown hair stuck in the dried blood.

Straightening, his face a flat mask veiling his rioting emotions, he flagged down a uniform to maintain surveillance over the vehicle and called for a crime scene team, before racing back to the house and up the steps to join Simon in the front hallway. Ventriss was still bitching about the impropriety of it all, and Collins was trying to calm his client down.

"Captain," Jim reported icily, deliberately loud enough for the other two men to overhear him, "I've called in a crime scene team to go over a sedan in the garage. The vehicle has only recently been parked out of the rain, and I spotted blood on the back seat." Lowering his voice as he leaned closer, the rest of the message only for Simon's ears, he added, "There are strands of Sandburg's hair stuck to the dried blood."

Banks stiffened and turned to glare ferociously at Ventriss. "Mr. Collins, I suggest you have a word with your client about cooperating with our efforts to find Mr. Sandburg," he said with cold fury. "And let me be very clear about this. If we find evidence that Mr. Sandburg was recently in that car, bleeding in it, we will be charging your client with obstruction of justice, kidnapping and suspected murder." Finally shifting his gaze to the lawyer, he added, "And I will press for the maximum justice allowed - as you know, kidnapping and murder carry a death penalty. I want to know where Mr. Sandburg is, and I want to know now."

Ventriss stared at Banks, his veneer cracking as fear bloomed in his eyes. "I don't know anything about this Sandburg," he insisted. "And I have a dozen cars out in that garage. Anyone could have been driving the one in question. I can't be responsible for what one of my staff might have done."

Collins gripped his arm and bent to whisper in his ear before saying to Banks, "If you'll just give us a moment." Then he drew Ventriss into a nearby salon and closed the door.

Turning to Ellison, Simon jerked his head toward the room and Jim tilted his head as he listened.

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

Inside the lushly furnished reception room, Collins said heatedly, "This has gone far enough, Norman. You don't go after a cop -"

"Sandburg isn't a cop," Ventriss cut in as he paced the carpeted floor.

"He might as well be," the lawyer snorted. "Listen to me. The only hope you have of surviving this is to give up the men who were in that car. You have to be seen as fully cooperative, and immediately so, now that there is the slightest possibility of being seen to be of help in tracing Sandburg. Fail to do so and you'll have no credibility whatsoever when those men tell the police who gave them their orders and you subsequently deny any such thing."

"They might never find out who -"

"For God's sake, Norman!" Collins exclaimed. "Don't you get it? If they don't find out the identities of those men, which I assure you they will eventually, they'll hold you responsible. That man's blood is in your car. You have motive, given that Sandburg was involved in Brad's capture this afternoon. You have opportunity, because you spent no time downtown being charged and were home within the hour, and you have means. Do you want to go to prison?"

"No. No, I don't," Ventriss capitulated, grudgingly. "Fine. I'll do as you suggest."

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

"Anything?" Banks murmured.

Jim shook his head. "Nothing specific about where Blair is. But they're going to give up the men who took him."

The door opened and Ventriss reappeared, followed closely by Collins who immediately moved forward and said, "My client has no knowledge of Mr. Sandburg's whereabouts, but his driver returned about half an hour ago and is in the kitchen with two other men who had been out with him, running errands."

Wordlessly, honing in on the scents in the kitchen, Jim pushed past them, Simon right behind him. But Banks paused to call back, "Don't be going anywhere, either of you. We're not finished with you yet."

When Jim burst into the kitchen, he found three men sitting around the table, drinking coffee. When they looked up and read the threat in his eyes, they jumped to their feet, chairs crashing back on the floor, and lunged toward the door to the parking area outside.

Leaving the closest suspect for Banks, Ellison darted forward and grabbed another man, flinging him hard against the wall. They grappled briefly, while Simon tackled his quarry and brought him down. Jim's control was tenuous at best, his fear and fury straining at the leash he held on the emotions, and he slugged his suspect hard enough to stun the man, who dropped to the floor. Simon was already cuffing his prisoner when Jim raced out the door after the third suspect. Drawing his weapon, he shot into the air as he yelled, "Stop! Police!" Frightened, the runaway stumbled to a stop and cowered in the rain, his hands springing up over his head as he quickly surrendered.

Jim grabbed him by the collar and marched him back inside, where he found Simon looming over the other two who were both now cuffed and once again sitting on chairs at the table. Holstering his pistol, Ellison cuffed the third suspect and roughly shoved him down onto a chair.

"Where's Sandburg?" he snarled, his eyes as flat and cold as arctic tundra.

None of them would meet his steely gaze, and none seemed to have anything to say.

Banks growled, "We have blood and hair in the car. A crime scene team is on its way, and I have no doubt we'll find Sandburg's prints inside the vehicle."

But before he could say anything further, Collins entered the room and quickly intervened. "Captain Banks, I know you're anxious about Mr. Sandburg, but these men are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, and they have the right of representation. I'm sorry, but I must ask that you defer questioning until I've had a chance to counsel them."

The men at the table visibly relaxed. Simon eyed Collins and then each of the suspects with frustration.

Jim grated into the silence, "That's fine. We'll take them downtown and you can consult with them to your heart's content. But one of them will have more to lose than the others. One of them will want to gain whatever advantage or consideration he can in a reduction of sentencing, so one of them will tell us what we want to know. The longer they hold out, the less consideration there will be and, if my partner is lying somewhere bleeding to death and the delay costs us the chance to save his life, there will be no consideration, no deals, for any of them."

"I'll tell you where he is," one of the men blurted, the one Jim had stopped outside.

"Shut up," one of the others snarled.

"No, I won't shut up! I didn't shoot him! I've got a wife and a baby on the way - I don't want to go to prison!" the young man blurted. Turning to Jim and Simon, he went on anxiously, "I'm a college student, just a part-time chauffeur, you know, to help pay the bills. I swear, I didn't do anything to that guy. I didn't do anything but drive."

Simon's lips tightened at the naïve protestations of innocence, but he didn't say anything in response. Going to the door, he waved a couple patrolmen inside and gestured at the two uncooperative men at the table as he said, "Take them in and book them for kidnapping and attempted murder." Turning to Collins, he asked with studied insolence, "Did you want to ride with them, Counselor, or find your own transportation?"

"Nothing this man says can be used in court - you haven't even Mirandized him," Collins protested.

As the police officers hustled the two suspects from the house, Banks impatiently pulled out the Miranda warning and read it to the suspect, who was hunched at the table, looking scared out of his wits. When he finished reading, Simon asked, "Do you understand these rights?"

"Yeah, yeah, I understand. What do you want to know?"

"Do you want Mr. Collins, or any other lawyer, present during questioning?" Simon continued, his tone formal, while Jim rolled his eyes impatiently.

The chauffeur slanted a look at the lawyer and then shook his head.

"Counselor, it would seem that you can go now and see to the rights of your clients," Banks drawled, dismissing the lawyer. Collins hesitated, but then left, reluctantly. Once he was gone, Jim and Simon settled onto chairs on either side of the young, frightened man.

"What's your name, son?" Simon asked solicitously.

"Martin Sinclair."

"Okay, Martin, where's Sandburg?" Jim asked again, his tone less threatening, his eyes now haunted with anxiety.

Cringing, Sinclair admitted tremulously, "I'm not really sure where he is right now." When Jim stiffened, his eyes again going hard, the kid hastened on, "I mean, I know where we left him. After he jumped out of the car, he ran into the woods about a mile down the road. Les and Scotty couldn't find him in the dark, and we were waiting for morning - to go in and find him, but watching, you know, to make sure he didn't sneak past us. He couldn't get away without coming out of the forest, 'cause the bush is surrounded by an electrified fence. Anyway, we heard sirens coming and got scared, so we came back here. I don't know if he's still there."

"How badly was he shot?" Jim demanded, his throat tight.

"I don't know," the young man quavered, wishing he could be more useful, wondering if the little he knew would be enough to earn him a break. "Les - the guy who just told me to shut up - shot at him when he was running into the woods, and he yelled, so we figured he'd been hit, that's all. Up until then, nobody had touched him, I swear it. He was fine."

"Who told you to abduct Sandburg and bring him here?" Simon asked then.

"Les. I don't know who told him to do it, but probably Mr. Ventriss."

Banks looked up at Ellison, both of them knowing that 'probably' wasn't going to be good enough. They'd have to work on 'Les' later, after they'd found Blair. "Can you show us where you last saw Sandburg?" Simon asked as he stood away from the table.

"Yeah, sure. Whatever you want," Martin agreed eagerly, pitifully grateful to be able to be of some help with the fervent hope they'd go easy on him.

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

They hustled Sinclair out to Banks' car, and Simon directed a couple of patrol cars to follow them, to aid in the search. Less than five minutes later, Martin was left cuffed in the vehicle, while the other men hurried through the rain into the woods, fanning out to shine their flashlights through the shadows as they searched for Sandburg.

Not ten minutes later, one of the patrolmen called, "Over here! I've found something!"

Jim, Simon and the other uniformed cops crashed through the heavy shrubbery and found the young officer standing close to the wire-mesh fence. He looked up when they arrived, his face white and strained, and then shone his light down toward the ground - at Blair's bloodstained jacket and shoes.

For a moment, neither Ellison nor Banks could make sense of what they were looking at beyond the fact that the garment was sodden with blood and parts of it looked burned. And then, shaking inside, Jim dropped to one knee to spread out the jacket. The scorched areas bore the blurred but unmistakable imprints of hands. Blankly, Jim looked from the jacket to the fence and his gut twisted with stunned, sick awareness of what Sandburg had done.

"My God," Simon husked, his voice ragged.

"You think he tried to climb out?" one of the cops asked.

"Maybe," Jim croaked, but shook his head. "But that wouldn't explain why he kicked off his shoes." Standing with the jacket clutched in his hand, struggling past his churning emotions to reach for investigative objectivity, he studied the fence and the ground on both sides. "He didn't go over it," he muttered, turning back toward the road and playing his flashlight over the faint scuffled signs in the damp leaves and earth. "He headed back to the street. Limping badly."

Wordlessly, Simon picked up the discarded shoes before following Jim and the other cops through the dark forest. When they got to the smooth grass beyond the trees, though, the faint trail disappeared. They stood for a long moment, looking up and down the empty roadway. "Where would he have gone?" Banks asked into the silence.

Shaking his head, Jim murmured anxiously, "I don't know. One of the houses, maybe." Turning to look at Simon, he recalled, "Martin said they heard a siren."

"But if a cop had found him, he'd've called it in," Banks protested. "Or Blair, himself, would have called as soon as he could."

"A siren?" the patrolman interjected. "This neighborhood pays for its own private security company - could have been one of their cars." Looking back at the woods, he said slowly, thinking it through, "That fence - it's alarmed as well as electrified. You don't think… maybe Sandburg was… was trying to, I don't know, set off the alarm to attract attention?"

Enlightenment dawned in the older men's eyes, along with appalled horror at the desperate measures Blair had been driven to endure to get help. Jim nodded numbly, devastated by his imaginings of what his partner must have suffered, while Simon clapped an approving hand on the young cop's shoulder, as he said, "Yes, I think that's exactly what he was trying to do. Good thinking, son. You know the name of this security agency?"

"No, sorry, but it should be easy to find out," the patrolman replied briskly, pleased and blushing slightly at the warm approbation. Waving to the nearest house, he offered, "I'll go ask - I'm sure the owner will know."

"Okay, you do that. And while you're doing that, the rest of you check with the other households in the area, see if anyone heard any shots or saw anything," Banks directed. "Detective Ellison and I are going to head back downtown. Call in to Major Crimes with whatever you find out."

When Ellison didn't move toward the car, Simon took his arm and tugged him along. "C'mon," he rumbled. "There's nothing more we can do here."

During the long drive back downtown, Simon directed not a few concerned looks at the mute detective who was sitting rigidly in the seat beside him, clutching the jacket so hard that his knuckles were white. Sighing, Banks shook his head, and wondered again what had happened earlier that evening. Whatever it was, it was abundantly clear to him that Ellison was both damned sorry and worried sick about his partner. From time to time, he reached out wordlessly to grip Jim's shoulder briefly, to ground him and make sure he wasn't zoning.

Oblivious to everything else around him, Jim stared at the scorched and bloody jacket in his hands, his throat tight and his eyes stinging so bad that he had to blink the burn away. This was his fault. All his fault. If he hadn't lost control so badly, Blair wouldn't have been out on the street in the first place. Wouldn't have been abducted. Shot. Wouldn't've had to… to…. His mind flinched away from picturing Blair at the fence, from imagining what Sandburg must have suffered in those moments. How badly had Blair been hurt because of him? The breath was tight in his chest, and his gut was in knots. Sandburg was right. He was a goddamned caveman who'd rather bury what he felt, deny it, even lash out rather than admit his disgust with himself for what had happened in Mexico. A Neanderthal incapable of articulating what frightened him most, too scared of losing what was too precious - and all his avoidance, all his denial, had only managed to drive Blair away and maybe destroy what was most important in his life. I'm sorry, Chief, he grieved in the silence of his mind. So damned sorry. Please, wherever you are, please be okay.

When they arrived at the station, they booked Sinclair as a material witness to ensure he got a private cell in the holding tank, and then took the elevator upstairs.

Rafe spotted them as they entered the squad room and stood, waving them over as he finished off his phone call. "Yeah, right. Yes, I understand. Someone will be there in a few minutes to take your statement." Hanging up, he said, "I think I've found Blair."

"Think? What does that mean?" Simon grumbled in exasperation, too tired for any more mind games.

"I've got a John Doe," Brian explained hastily with a glance at Brown, who had risen from his desk to join them. "Lonnie Evans, one of the cops out with you, found out Pro-Tec is the agency with the private contract for security in Seaview Estates. I contacted them and learned that they responded to a silent alarm on a fence around a small stand of forest just over an hour ago. The man they found at the scene collapsed before they could find out his name, and he didn't have any ID on him. But he was hurt, so they took him to Mountain View hospital. The description matches Sandburg."

"How badly is he hurt?" Jim rasped.

Brian shook his head. "I called and spoke to the Emergency physician, but he wouldn't give out any information over the phone. So I paged the security guy, Bob Hastings, who had stayed to wait for cops to show up and take over surveillance of the John Doe - they still think it might have been an attempted burglary. Anyway, I just talked to Hastings. He said the man they found looked bad. He was bleeding from a gunshot wound in his side, his hands and feet looked burned and his jaw was swollen and bruised from having been slugged at least once." Rafe hesitated, then said uncertainly, "It's got to be Blair, right? I mean, we hadn't heard he'd been hurt, but who else could it be?"

"Yeah, it's Blair," Banks confirmed as he and Ellison turned quickly back toward the hallway. "We'll let you know what we find out at the hospital."

They were already heading down the stairwell when Brown whirled to his desk to grab a thin leather billfold, and then chased after them. Catching them on the lower landing, he called, "Wait! The folks down in the Evidence Lockup sent Blair's computer and wallet up to the office, figuring he would need them, and they didn't have to keep the stuff providing we signed for it." Handing the wallet to Ellison, he added, "His insurance card is inside and a handwritten note giving you power of attorney if he's ever incapable of handling things himself."

Jim reached out with a trembling hand and took the wallet from Henri, stunned by what he'd just learned and wondering when Sandburg had written the note. Blair had trusted him that much - and how had he repaid that trust?

"Man, I was shocked when I saw his birth certificate, though," Brown rambled on. "I had no idea how young Hairboy really is. I mean, he won't be twenty-five until next May!"

"What?" Simon gaped before turning to Jim to ask with surprised accusation, "Did you know that? God, we put a twenty-year-old untrained kid on the streets with you?"

But Jim shook his head numbly, his eyes dark with confusion and guilt. He'd had no idea how young Sandburg really was.

He'd never asked.

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

Simon frowned with growing concern during the drive to the hospital. Ellison had never been a chatterbox, but the prolonged and abject silence emanating from his passenger was beginning to be disconcerting. Briefly, remembered anger from earlier, when he'd pretty much figured out what had happened between Jim and Blair, resurfaced. If he'd had any lingering, hopeful doubts about being right, they'd been quashed by the bits and pieces of information he'd garnered over the evening. Rafe said Blair had evidently been recently assaulted, punched in the face. Martin had said they hadn't touched the kid before he made his escape and had been shot. Jim had been worried about a head injury, before he could have had any knowledge of Sandburg being hurt by his abductors. Blair had been furious when he left the loft.

Ergo: Ellison had assaulted Sandburg in their home and had done enough damage that blood from the back of the kid's head had been found in the kidnap vehicle.

Grimacing, rubbing his hand over his mouth as he squinted through the rain pounding on the windshield, Simon knew he should charge Jim under the domestic violence law. He sure in hell shouldn't let Ellison close to the kid until he got Blair's side of the story and found out if Sandburg even wanted Jim anywhere near him.

But when he glanced again at Jim, and read the lines of misery etched on the man's face and in the slump of his body, he shook his head. Whatever had happened, Ellison was damned sorry. Torn between duty and friendship, Simon reflected over the last several weeks and realized he should have known things were going sour. If he'd been more alert, he might have been able to intervene before it had gotten so bad that it had come to blows. Chewing on his lip, he felt his own guilt surge for how he'd been treating Blair lately. Hell, the kid had died not so very long ago, and those moments had been some of the most terrible in Simon's life. Getting Blair back was a miracle, an amazing, wondrous miracle. So why had he been so irritable with Sandburg lately? Why hadn't he just been grateful to still have the kid around? Jim wasn't the only one who had a lot to apologize for.

Sighing, he told himself that there was no real choice but to charge Ellison - but maybe not quite yet. If he knew anything about these two men, it was that they had something special, even mystical, going on between them that Banks didn't pretend to understand. If Blair was hurt, Jim needed to be with him.

But there was still the matter of the bruised jaw and head injury resulting from the blow. If he could detect the inconsistencies in the evening's events and timings, so could the rest of his team once they had all the information. Well, so long as he didn't officially know about the fight between his men, then he couldn't very well lay a charge, could he? So, how else might Sandburg have been injured before he'd been kidnapped? A random mugging with no witnesses while on his way to Rainier? Possible, but a little too ingenuous and convenient. But then he remembered that Sandburg had been in an altercation that afternoon, before he and Ellison had gone back to the loft. He cleared his throat and said into the heavy silence, "I guess Brad Ventriss must have slugged Blair when they were fighting in the bay, right?"

Jim frowned and slowly turned to look at Simon with confusion. He swallowed and shook his head, no longer able to avoid admitting what had happened, unable to lie outright to Simon. "No. I -"

"Didn't think about the fact that the kid might have been hurt until after he'd left the loft to go sort out his office at Rainier," Banks interrupted firmly. "That's why you went after him, right? You realized he probably shouldn't be out on his own so soon after what went down this afternoon?"

"Simon, you don't understand -" Ellison rasped, his voice strained with effort as he tried again to admit the truth.

"How worried you are about the kid?" Simon cut in again. "Yeah, I think I do know and I also know how much you need to see him, to be close to him right now," he went on with a sigh. Turning to pin Ellison with a hard look after he pulled into the Emergency parking lot and turned off the engine, he said soberly, "Listen to me, Jim, and think about what I'm saying. Brad Ventriss slugged Sandburg, and that's why his jaw is swollen and bruised, and why he likely has a head injury. That's what had to have happened." Holding Jim's gaze with his own, he pressed, "You understand what I'm saying? Why I'm saying it was Ventriss who had to have assaulted Blair before he was kidnapped?"

He could see realization of what he was offering, at least until Blair woke up, dawn in Jim's eyes, and then he saw the sad guilt for compromising him just before Ellison looked away and nodded, murmuring, "Yeah. I understand." Sighing heavily, Jim husked on a trembling breath of air, "Thanks."

Simon studied his friend for a moment and then pushed open his door. "C'mon. Let's see how he's doing."

As he strode into the hospital with Jim, Simon thought back to what Nadine had insisted earlier - that when someone you love is in trouble, the law takes a backseat. Feeling old and tired, and less assured of his own integrity than he'd been that afternoon, Banks reluctantly acknowledged that the obnoxious man had been absolutely right.

At the desk, he flashed his badge and introduced himself and Ellison. "We think we know the identity of the John Doe brought in a little while ago. Would you ask the doctor to come out to speak with us?"

Short minutes later, a middle-aged man with a thick thatch of graying hair, wearing a white lab coat, appeared. "I'm Stan McNeil. I understand you may know our John Doe?"

"Yes," Simon confirmed before again introducing himself and Jim. "We believe he's Blair Sandburg, Detective Ellison's partner. Blair was kidnapped earlier this evening, but he eluded his abductors in the area where your John Doe was found - the injuries reported by the security guard who found him at the scene are consistent with what we know happened to Sandburg. We'd like to see him."

"Of course," McNeil agreed, waving them ahead of him through the double doors leading back to the treatment rooms.

"How… how badly is he hurt?" Jim asked hollowly.

"Well, he's not in very good shape right now," the doctor replied soberly. Pausing in front of a closed door, his hands shoved in his pockets, he looked up at Jim. "Let's see if he is your partner and, if so, then I can explain the details, okay?"

Jim swallowed and nodded, and then they were moving into the room. Both police officers slowed to a halt as they took in the sight of Sandburg lying so still on the table in the middle of the room. He appeared to be nude under the light, white sheet that covered him from his ankles to his shoulders. An intravenous line snaked from his left arm up to a junction, then broke into two tubes, one attached to a plastic container of blood that was dripping at a fairly swift rate, and the other to a bottle of clear liquid. His hands and feet were lightly wrapped in soft, white gauze. A towel was loosely wrapped around his wet mane of hair. He looked deathly pale, with hollows under his eyes, the discoloration of the bruises on his face stark against his pallor. Ellison frowned as he listened to Blair's heartbeat. There was something off, something not right.

"Ah, Chief," Ellison sighed as he stepped closer and reached out to grip Blair's shoulder. Lifting his gaze to the doctor, he asked again, "How bad?"

McNeil's lips thinned and he shrugged. "None of the individual injuries are all that serious - it's the combination that's problematical. Let's start with the least serious. His palms and the soles of his feet have suffered second-degree burns - somewhat worse than a sunburn but with no charring - caused, I understand, by prolonged contact with a low voltage electrical charge. Painful enough, and there may be some blistering, but they should heal without difficulty. We've put some topical lotion on the appendages to ease the discomfort and wrapped them to protect from infection in case blisters do occur in the next few hours. In addition to the burns, his body is still reacting neurologically to the electrical current; his muscles are contracting spasmodically, and his heart shows some minor tachycardia. I don't think permanent damage is likely, but we'll keep a watch on it. He may also suffer some short-term memory loss from the electrical charge. More serious, however, is the wound in his side. It appears as though he may have been twisting away when he was shot. There's a long gouge along his left side before the bullet entered and then exited - the two wounds are quite close together. Though the penetration was limited and relatively shallow, the intestine was nicked and will have to be repaired. This could be quite serious if the repair cannot be performed fairly soon - the risk of peritonitis, er, abdominal infection is high with such an injury and, if not caught in time, well, the complications can be very serious."

"Then why isn't he in surgery?" Banks demanded with a quick glance at Ellison. Complications be damned. They both knew that peritonitis could be fatal.

"Because he also sustained grave head injuries. X-rays show a haematoma under the scalp at the back of his head is putting pressure on his brain - er, sorry, that means he's bleeding as a result of a severe blow to the back of his head and he's also badly concussed with evident swelling of both the occipital and frontal lobes, as if his head was banged forcefully between very hard blunt objects - given the bruising and edema, I'd say he was punched and then his head cracked against a wall, maybe. The latter impact not only damaged the back of his head but also jolted his brain forward to bounce against the front of his skull," McNeil explained carefully. "Actually, the bullet wound may well have saved his life - the hemorrhaging from that injury slowed the bleeding into his skull and reduced some of the pressure, at least temporarily. We have him on medication to help reduce the swelling of his brain and to expedite the absorption of the blood clot. It would be dangerous to subject him to an anesthetic until the head injuries have responded to treatment - or until we know if the internal bleeding is getting worse and we need to go in to relieve the pressure."

"How long do you have to wait for the medication to work?" Jim asked shakily, sick to know how much damage he'd caused in a moment of thoughtless fury.

Again, McNeil shrugged. "Twenty-fours hours may be enough for the pressure on his brain to subside. In the meantime, we have him on a powerful, wide spectrum antibiotic to fend off abdominal infection. If his temperature spikes, though, we'll know he's in trouble and may have to operate sooner than we'd like. I'd suggest that it would be a good idea to inform his family - if he doesn't regain consciousness, we'll need his next of kin to give permission for the surgery."

"I've got his power of attorney," Ellison said numbly. "His mother… I don't know where his mother is. He doesn't have any other close family."

"I'll note that on his file, so the staff will know to contact you if we need the approval," the doctor replied calmly.

"Contact?" Jim echoed with a frown. "I'll be here. Right here. Until I know he's going to be okay."

"That's fine," McNeil approved. "We'll be moving him up to the Intensive Care Unit in a few minutes - should have him settled in about half an hour. There's a lounge outside where you can wait for the staff to come for you."

Glancing up at the wall clock, Simon noted it was nearly midnight. Placing an arm around Jim's shoulders, he suggested, "Let's go get some coffee while they get Blair upstairs."

"That would be a good idea," McNeil encouraged. Looking back at Blair, he added, "It may be a long night."

Simon was glad Jim allowed himself to be drawn away without protest, but also deeply worried by Ellison's mute listlessness and the depth of his despair. The doctor was right. It was going to be a very long night.

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

The hospital cafeteria was nearly deserted, with only a few staff members and small clusters of folks who, like themselves, were wan and worried, concerned about loved ones, hunched around the small tables in the cavernous room. The air felt chilly and most of the overhead fluorescents were off, creating pools of harsh light surrounded by shadow. The long bank of windows on one side looked out over a dark, rain-swept parking lot and Banks thought the overall feeling of the place was dismal at best. He ordered and paid for two cups of coffee, and then he and Jim carried the mugs to a shadowed table in the corner close to the windows, away from the other patrons.

They sat in silence. Simon twisted his mug in small circles on the Formica tabletop as he waited for the steaming contents to cool, and Jim simply stared at the floor. "You have to get your act together, you know," Banks finally observed with a sigh. "You won't do Sandburg any good if all you can think about is your own guilt about what went down tonight."

For a long moment, Jim didn't respond, and Simon wondered if the man had even heard him, but then Ellison shifted in his chair and lifted his gaze briefly before focusing on the mug of coffee in front of him. "Not just today," he muttered, sounding angry and disgusted, probably with himself, Banks thought.

"C'mon, Jim, talk to me, alright?" the Captain encouraged. "What the hell's been going on with you guys lately?"

Ellison scrubbed his face and shrugged, and then looked out into the darkness. "Nothing good," he sighed. His lips tightened and he shook his head. "I try to keep him safe, you know?" he mused distantly. "I haven't done a great job of that over the years, I guess, but lately… lately… I don't know. It just seems as if death is stalking him. I push him away - to keep him safe, or because… because I'm angry that I can't - and he just keeps getting hurt."

"What are you talking about?" Simon exclaimed softly, a shiver running up his back. He had grown used to weird stuff between these two but this was something new. Death? Stalking? Like some primeval, atavistic physical thing? Now that was something he definitely didn't want to contemplate. "You're not making any sense."

"Aren't I?" Jim challenged with a quick sidelong look. He wearily massaged the back of his neck and then he circled the hot mug with his hands, as if seeking warmth. Staring at the coffee, he murmured, "If that plague up at Clayton Falls had been real, he'd've died. I never told him how glad I was that he didn't. I know I hurt him that morning. You know, when you guys surprised me by showing up? Never talked to him about that, either. Just let it slide."

Simon sipped at his coffee as he studied Jim over the rim of the mug. Setting the cup down, not at all sure what Ellison was getting at, he observed carefully, "But the plague wasn't real. He was never in any danger of dying. We just… just thought he was, for a while."

"Yeah, I know, but you'd think even the threat would have been a wake-up call," Jim retorted bitterly. "A warning that life is fragile. God, you'd think I'd know that by now. Would know you can't put off stuff."

Simon rolled his eyes, his patience sorely tried by the cryptic conversation. "Would you just spit it out, already? What are you talking about here?"

"I'm talking about… about not talking, I guess," Jim sighed. "That's what's been wrong lately. I haven't been talking, and neither has he." Pausing to look back out into the night, he went on, "I'm talking about not being able to keep him safe, no matter how hard I try. And how I just keep screwing up, and he ends up getting hurt or into situations where he could be killed… or… or…."

"Or situations where he does die, like at the fountain," Simon supplied, his voice taut with the hated memories. Pushing away the vision of Blair dead on the grass, he added determinedly, "But you brought him back, Jim. He's alive because of you."

"He was dead because of me," Ellison snapped back. "And he could have been killed at the station the night of the strike, when that assassin had him in a headlock. So easily. He could have been killed so damned easily."

"What does all this have to do with what went down today?" Banks pressed, not seeing any connections.

"I try to keep him out of the line of fire - I've been trying since Clayton Falls, trying really hard - but he just keeps taking stupid chances," Jim rasped. "Damn it, after Mexico, I swore to myself I'd never let him be hurt again. Never hurt him again, like I did with that damned fishing trip when I complained about the tests he puts me through, or when I blasted him the night of the strike over his dissertation, or about not telling me about Alex, or what I did, how I behaved with her after… after what she'd done."

Banks' eyes narrowed as he thought, maybe, he was finally beginning to understand. "It's the dissertation, isn't it? You're angry with him for working on it."

Jim's shoulders tensed and he nodded slowly. "Yeah, I hate the damned thing, to tell you the truth," he said hollowly. Swallowing, he looked up at Simon. "But that's not all of it. Not the main thing. I'm scared, Simon. Scared of losing him. I know it sounds stupid - I should be able to handle these damned senses by now. But, I just keep thinking about how once the paper is done, he'll have no more reason to hang around and he'll move on." His gaze darting sightlessly around the room, he added in a rush, "And there's this death thing. He's come so close way too often. I try to protect him and he does these stupid, dumb ass things that could get him killed, like jumping into that freezing water after Ventriss. Christ, five minutes would have been enough for him to be hypothermic and sink like a stone, let alone the threat of Ventriss dragging him under. I was so mad at the risk he'd taken, I could hardly see straight. I just wanted to shake him for being so careless, so thoughtless about his own safety."

Simon sat back and held up his hands. "Whoa. Slow down a minute. You guys had a fight tonight because you were scared about the risk he took? Is that it?"

"Yeah," Jim grated, his shoulders slumping as he shot a look at Banks and then quickly glanced away, but not before Simon saw the haunted shadows in his eyes. "Yeah. That's right."

Puffing out his cheeks, Simon blew a slow breath and then his lips twisted with frustration. These two men would do a whole lot better if they'd just talk to one another, he thought. "I suppose you reamed him out without telling him why you were mad in the first place," he observed dryly.

Jim bit his lip and nodded. "And then he blew up, called me a Neanderthal. Yelled about finding me on the beach with Alex, and how I'd been ignoring him or yelling at him all week, how it didn't seem to matter to me that he'd lost his job. Pretty much said he figured I couldn't care less what happened to him." Ellison's voice caught on the last words and he swallowed hard. "God, how could someone so smart be so dumb?" he whispered to himself.

Banks felt a pang of guilt at the reminder of Blair's job loss, and muttered, "Yeah, well, we're going to have to do something about him getting fired for being away from Rainier too much these last couple of years." Returning to the subject at hand, he went on, "Jim, it seems to me that you need to be saying these things to Sandburg. He needs to understand why you've been acting like you have. And, I guess I've been guilty of the same things without realizing it, and I'm going to have to apologize to him, too. After seeing him dead like he was, it hit me that it's crazy to let him run around as an observer, that it's too dangerous. So I've gotten tense whenever I've seen him at the station lately - his presence there reminds me of how hazardous our work is, and how much I never want to see him die again. It's a gut reaction, only normal I guess, but it's wrong. Aside from the fact that I know you need his help, he's earned the right to be there as much as anyone has."

Jim pinched the bridge of his nose and shook his head. "I can't say anything about his dissertation. We made a deal that he could write about me. I have to live up to my end of the bargain," he sighed. "As for the rest…." He shrugged and looked away, once again stiff with tension as he muttered, "I don't even know if he'd want me anywhere near him right now, to tell you the truth. I'm not sure I've got the right to be here."

Sandburg's not the only one who's too bright to be this dumb, Simon thought as he studied Jim. Leaning his elbows on the table, he said slowly and deliberately, "I've watched the two of you for years now, and I've seen the two of you fight over the stupidest things. But I've also seen a lot more than that. When push comes to shove, the two of you are always there for one another. I think you both need… I don't know, that contact. You draw strength from one another. Whatever happened tonight between the two of you, I have no doubt that Sandburg both needs and wants you close right now." Glancing at his watch, he stood. "C'mon. He should be in ICU by now. It's time we headed back upstairs."

When Jim just nodded and got to his feet, Simon added bluntly, "And if you think that Sandburg will just up and dump you after his dissertation is finished, walk away and forget about you like you were last week's bad news, you're a fool, Jim. That kid would cut off his right arm for you."

Startled, Ellison looked up, confusion in his eyes. "But… but he'd have no reason to keep hanging around."

"You're his friend, Jim," Banks sighed wearily. "That's reason enough, right there. On top of that, Blair knows you need his backup, his special and unique understanding of how your senses work. So long as you need him, I'm convinced he'll be there for you, dissertation or no dissertation."

Following Banks out into the hall and toward the bank of elevators, Jim frowned as he thought about that, and wished he could be so certain. Wished he could imagine himself as worthy of such devotion.

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

Upstairs, outside the Intensive Care Unit, they buzzed at the entrance of the closed ward. A nurse appeared at the door, and listened as they explained who they were and that they were there to visit Sandburg.

She nodded agreeably and said, "We only allow one visitor at a time, so after his brother leaves, one of you can see him."

"His brother?" Simon echoed, confused.

Jim cocked his head, listened briefly, and then urgently shoved past the nurse. "He doesn't have a brother! Simon, he's in trouble!"

Banks placed his hands on the arms of the nurse who was protesting Ellison's arbitrary behaviour, and physically moved her out of his way, and then he pelted down the hall in Jim's wake.

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

Following the sound of the frantic, struggling heartbeat, Jim skidded to a halt in front of the doorway to Blair's cubicle, scarcely noticing that the Venetian blinds had been closed for privacy as he leaped forward at the man who was holding a pillow over Sandburg's face, suffocating him.

"Leave him alone!" Ellison bellowed as he grabbed the stranger and tossed him against the wall, and then yanked the pillow off Blair's face. The would-be murderer sprang at him and they grappled for supremacy, banging into the bed and shoving it askew, before Jim once again furiously forced the man against the wall. Simon raced in, and with a glance decided Ellison had things under control with the assailant, so he turned his attention to Blair.

"He's not breathing!" he shouted at the nurse who had dashed up the corridor behind him, but had stopped at the doorway, her eyes wide at the fight going on in the room. She jerked at Banks' words and then disappeared, hopefully to go for help, as Simon bent to begin mouth to mouth resuscitation.

Jim punched the stocky, strong man hard in the gut and, when he doubled over gasping, followed through with a powerful uppercut that dropped Blair's assailant unconscious, to the floor. Whirling, he gaped at Simon and Blair, panting as he stood frozen in appalled horror, and then blinked as he focused on trying to hear his partner's heartbeat. Hauling in a deep, relieved breath when he heard the distinct thumping, too fast but there, he gasped, "He's still alive."

Banks nodded between breaths and then blew another long puff of air into Sandburg's mouth. The nurse reappeared, followed by another, and they swiftly moved in to render professional care. One elbowed Simon out of the way to insert a mouthpiece attached to an inflatable bag to pump air into their patient's lungs, while the other quickly checked the monitors recording heartbeats and blood pressure.

"He's holding his own," she said, looking from the machines to Sandburg. A moment later, Blair gasped deeply and coughed harshly before beginning to breathe again on his own, though he didn't regain consciousness.

Banks and Ellison sagged in relief before turning their attention to the man lying at their feet. "You recognize this guy?" Simon asked.

"No," Jim grunted as he bent to cuff the attacker, who was beginning to come around, prior to manhandling the groggy man out of the room.

Banks strode to the nurses' station and used a phone to call in a patrol car to take the creep downtown and book him for attempted murder, as well as request a twenty-four hour guard on Sandburg. He apologized briefly to the staff for the disruption, and then went out to the waiting area where Jim had hauled the perp. The would-be murderer was sitting slumped in a chair, and Jim was looming over him.

"He tell you who he is or who sent him?" Simon asked angrily. Damn. If they'd been even a minute longer, the kid could be dead. Killed while the staff allowed a so-called brother privacy during his visit. Jim's earlier words about death stalking Sandburg echoed in his mind and he shuddered.

"No, he's not talking. But his driver's license says he's Nick Warren," Ellison replied as he turned and tossed the wallet to Simon. "Three guesses as to who sent him," he added gruffly.

Banks nodded and looked away. "I guess he figured if he could get rid of the kidnap victim who could identify his men, and if his men just kept their mouths shut, he'd be home free," he grated furiously. "Like he's still playing some kind of damned game. Take a pawn, save the king."

Jim rubbed his mouth before husking bitterly, "I should have seen this coming. Should have been here."

"Oh, come on," Simon protested, impatient with Ellison's persistent self-flagellation. "You're not the only one who screwed up here. We just didn't expect this."

"I should have," Ellison insisted, rigid with self-recrimination. "I was so busy worrying about him that I lost my focus. I've told him enough times to put his emotions on the shelf, that it's dangerous when you don't, and then I… I…."

"Jim, there's a reason surgeons aren't allowed to operate on family members," Banks replied sagely. "Sure, we can set our emotions aside when the victim is a stranger - that's our job. But when it's somebody close, somebody we love, well, we're only human, not machines. Give yourself a break, already. You're wound up way too tight."

Taking a breath, Jim nodded and forced himself to relax. Looking at the door to the ward, he gripped Simon's shoulder briefly as he said, "I'm going back inside, to sit with him."

"You do that, and tell him I'm here, too," Banks rumbled as he slapped Jim's back. "I'll look after this bozo until the uniforms get here, and have a watch put on Ventriss, to make sure he doesn't take a notion to bolt when he thinks we're not looking. I'll also put the guys we already have in custody under stricter surveillance, to keep them safe and alive. Mr. Ventriss doesn't seem to care that his current game pieces aren't electronic mirages but real flesh and blood, and he's a little too quick to sacrifice those that he doesn't have a use for anymore."

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

Jim hitched a chair to the right side of the elevated bed, and reached out to clasp Blair's arm. "Just me, Chief," he murmured, his voice hoarse. "Simon's here, too. But they'll only allow one of us to see you at a time." His voice dropped away and he simply sat, studying his partner, his friend, best friend, his gaze drawn irresistibly to the darkening bruise on Sandburg's jaw and cheek. "You know I didn't mean that, right?" he muttered miserably. "Didn't mean to hurt you." Looking away, he closed his eyes and bowed his head. "I just… you scared me when you jumped into the bay. I… ah, God, Chief. I don't know what to do anymore."

Too quickly, his five minutes were up, and he was sent out of the room. Simon was allowed in briefly, but then they were both told that no more visitors would be allowed for at least half an hour, to let Sandburg rest. Out in the waiting room, they both slumped in the uncomfortable, secondhand chairs that must have been donated to the hospital a generation before.

"You should go home," Jim finally sighed. "I'll call you if, well, if there's any change."

Banks wavered for a moment and then stood stiffly. He could allow Ellison the luxury of haunting the hospital, but he had to be back at work in a few hours. He owed the Mayor a call about what they'd found during the search of the Ventriss property - and he had to go over what they had, to see if there was enough to warrant an arrest of Ventriss, Senior. Sighing with the knowledge that it was all circumstantial, he thought about Les, the guy who'd been in charge of the abduction, and wondered if he'd crack - he was the link to Ventriss and all they'd need if they could get him to open up. Simon yawned and then said, "Okay, I'll check with you in the morning if I haven't heard from you first." Pausing, he added with as much reassurance as he could muster, "The kid will be all right. Sandburg's tougher than he looks - but then, I guess nobody knows that better than you."

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

It was just after three in the morning when Jim noticed how warm the skin of Sandburg's arm had become since his last visit only fifteen minutes before. Worried, he brushed the limp but finally dry curls out of the way and laid a palm over Blair's forehead before cupping his stubbled cheek. Not just warm, but hot. Too hot.

Jim went to the doorway and flagged down a nurse, explaining his concerns. She immediately took Blair's temperature and nodded, her expression grave. "You're right," she acknowledged. "It's up to one hundred and two degrees. I'd better alert the doctor."

"Is there anything I can do?" Ellison asked quickly, before she hastened away. "I was a medic in the army. Maybe I could bathe his skin or something, help bring the fever down."

"Good idea," she allowed readily. The staff had found that when relatives or friends were prepared to help give such personal care, it was inevitably good for them and the patients, as if the contact soothed both. And it sure helped alleviate their workload. "The basin and linen are just under the sink, over there, and you'll find a bottle of alcohol in the cabinet above," she gestured, and then left.

Ellison filled the basin with tepid water and added a healthy dash of the clear alcohol, knowing the astringent liquid helped cool the skin as it dried. After setting the filled basin on the bedside table, he drew the sheet covering Sandburg down to his hips. "You're getting a little too warm, Chief," he said quietly, wondering if any part of Blair could hear him. "So, I'm just going to wash you - you know, to cool you off a little. Hope you won't mind."

Gently, he swabbed Blair's face with the damp cloth, taking extra care over the swollen jaw to not press too hard, and then he washed off Sandburg's neck and shoulders, before carefully lifting and supporting each arm in turn as he drew the cool cloth over the flaccid limbs. With broad, smooth strokes, he cooled Blair's chest, and then carefully worked around the bandage on his abdomen. Shifting the sheet, he washed one leg and then the other, before starting all over again at the top. But despite his ministrations, Blair's skin seemed to grow hotter under his touch, and Jim's jaw tightened with anxiety. He retrieved more washcloths and small towels from the cupboard. After soaking them, he wrung them out and laid them over his friend's limbs and chest, before again bathing Blair's flushed face.

The nurse returned after about twenty minutes and again took his temperature. "One hundred and three point two," she murmured, shaking her head. "The antibiotics aren't working," she added as she looked up at Ellison. "I'm sorry, you'll need to go back to the lounge. I have to prepare him for surgery, and then I'll bring out the consent form for you to sign - you're his power of attorney, right? Or was it the other gentleman who was here earlier?"

"It's me," Jim acknowledged, his gaze locked on Blair. "Could I… could I have a minute with him?" he asked.

"All right," she agreed. "I'll just go get the form and you can sign it now."

When she'd left, Ellison moved close to the bed and leaned forward as he caressed and then cupped Blair's cheek. "They're going to take you into surgery, buddy," he said quietly. "To fix that hole in your side." His voice caught, and he took a breath. "This is happening a little faster than they hoped and, well… the infection isn't a great sign. But you're going to be okay. You hear me, Chief?" Jim hesitated a moment, and then bent down to brush his lips against Blair's hot brow. "I'll be here when you get back."

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

Jim watched as they wheeled Sandburg away about fifteen minutes later, and then he slumped into the least uncomfortable armchair in the visitors' lounge. Gnawing on his lip, he thought about calling Simon, but Ellison couldn't see the sense of bothering Banks in the middle of the night, not when there was no real news - not just to keep him company and worry with him. No, better to call in the morning, when there'd be something positive to report. God, Jim thought as he scrubbed his face, he sure in hell hoped the news would be positive.

Sprawling in the chair, head back as he stared at the ceiling, his long legs stretched out, he crossed his arms and distracted himself from worrying by thinking about what, in a perfect world, he'd like to do to Ventriss, father and son. Oh, and mustn't forget Les, the guy who'd shot Sandburg. Once he'd settled their fates to his satisfaction, his mind drifted back over all the others who had hurt or threatened to hurt his partner. He wasn't proud of the tight satisfaction he felt that several of them were dead - but nor did he feel badly about being glad they were no longer taking up space or breathing other people's air. The rest of them were in prison, most of them in the state pen, but Barnes and Brackett were in federal facilities.

Yep, all of them were dead or in prison - all but one. Him. Blair's so-called best friend. Shit.

Shifting restlessly on the chair, curling onto his side, he tried to shove away the useless guilt. Simon was right. It didn't do any good. Didn't make anything better. He'd be more profitably engaged in thinking up ways to make up for the things he'd said and done. Things he regretted. Was really sorry about. "Really sorry, Chief," he muttered as he drifted unintentionally into sleep.

When he woke hours later, he was stiff, his muscles cramped from spending the night awkwardly scrunched in the chair. Grimacing as he became more aware, he stretched and blinked, then frowned at the light streaming through the window. Alarmed, he checked his watch and then stood to punch the buzzer to gain access to the ward. They were supposed to wake him when Blair was brought back. How could he have slept through the sound of the gurney being trundled past?

"He's not back yet from the OR," the nurse told him, one he didn't know, and he realized there must have been a shift change.

"Why not? Is there a problem? He's been down there for hours!" Jim protested, scared and not much caring at that moment if she could tell.

"Though it was a minor repair, it still constituted major surgery, and that takes time, Mr. Ellison," she replied patiently. "And I understand they were going to do another skull series before bringing him back upstairs. Give it another hour or so, and I'm sure he'll be back by then. In the meantime, why don't you go down to the cafeteria to get something to eat, or maybe go home to freshen up?"

The thought of food nauseated him, and he didn't want to leave the hospital, but he was too agitated to just sit or pace the small room. Rubbing his beard-roughened cheek, he decided he probably should clean up and he could be back within the hour. It wasn't like he was doing any good just waiting around.

He grabbed a cab, showered, shaved and was back in the lounge forty-five minutes later, marginally refreshed and only too aware that he'd kept himself busy to keep from thinking.

Blair was wheeled off the elevator twenty minutes later. Sandburg was flushed and, even a few feet away as they paused to open and maneuver through the heavy door, Jim could feel the heat radiating from his body. The kid's eyes were half-open and fever-bright, but he seemed completely unaware of anything around him.

"Just let us get him settled," the same nurse said as she held the steel door open, "and I'll come back to get you."

He nodded wordlessly, his eyes on his partner until the door closed. But he kept listening, trying to take solace from the fact that Sandburg's heart was beating strong and steadily, if still a bit fast. He was waiting at the door when she came back for him.

"How is he?" he asked anxiously. "The fever…."

"Isn't unexpected in these cases," she said when his voice dropped off.

"And the x-rays of his skull?" he pressed, pausing by the entry to Blair's room.

"I don't know," she replied. "His doctor will be in later this morning and she'll have more information for you."

Unsatisfied, but with no other option but to accept the necessity of waiting, Jim turned away from her and moved to Blair's side. "Hey, Chief," he called softly, "you awake?"

Blair's eyes slowly tracked toward the sound of his voice but there was no recognition in his gaze. He blinked heavily and then seemed to fall back to sleep. Jim stroked his friend's hot forehead and then turned to fill the basin with water.

Over the next hour, Sandburg grew restless, mumbling in a faint, slurred whisper that was inaudible to everyone but Jim, whom the staff had allowed to stay without restriction to continue to bathe Blair. As Ellison listened to the distressed, garbled litany, he frowned, trying to make sense of some of it - deeply saddened by what he did understand. His chest tightened helplessly at the pain in the kid's voice.

"Shh," he murmured as he changed cloths heated by Blair's flesh for newly moistened cool linen. "It's okay, Blair. Shhh. You're safe."

But the rambling mutterings continued unabated…

"…don't, no, gonna hurt, really hurt, have to have to get help wish someone, can't don't understand why why'd he hit me why's Jim hate me, don't matter I don't never mattered, alone always always so tired, wish I knew, hurts, God, hurts…"

The fevered restlessness grew until Blair started to thrash weakly, as if struggling against something or someone.

Jim caught his arms and held him, calling soft but sharply, "Settle down, Chief! You'll hurt yourself!"

Immediately at the sound of his voice and firm grip, Sandburg flinched and then stilled, his muscles tense, the expression on his face stark and his confused eyes wide with fear, his breath coming fast in tight, rasping husks.

"No, no, Blair, don't be afraid, God," Jim urged, his voice cracking at the thought that Sandburg was frightened by him, by the sound of his voice and the strength of his hands. Blair had never been afraid of him before, not even at the very beginning when he'd thrown the kid against the wall. What had he done? What the hell had he done in a moment of lost control? Blair hadn't looked afraid the night before, when he left. But he'd left in a hurry, hadn't he? Because he'd been scared that Jim would hit him again? Shit. With a sick, sinking feeling, Jim realized how much he might have lost. How much he'd valued the unconditional trust now that it might be gone. "Shh. It's okay, buddy," he soothed, an edge of desperation in his voice.

"Don't, Bobby," Blair gasped as if he were terrified. "Please, stop. Oh, don't… don't… don't hit me…."

"Bobby?" Ellison echoed, his head tilting in confusion. Who was Bobby? "Bobby's not here, Chief," he murmured reassuringly. "It's okay. He's not going to hurt you."

"Gone?" Sandburg rasped hopefully, his muscles relaxing marginally. And then he was muttering again, disjointed words and phrases, fragmented thoughts, worried, hurting, believing he was alone.

Jim's eyes burned and his throat tightened as he listened and took it all in. He felt utterly useless; his hands were shaking with exhaustion and sorrow. And he wished with all his heart that he could do more than simply bathe Blair's body, do something, anything, to comfort his agitated and very sick young partner.

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

"His fever still hasn't broken, I see," Dr. Halstead, Blair's regular physician, spoke from the doorway.

Turning at the sound of her voice, Jim shook his head. "No," Ellison replied, sounding tired and discouraged. "But on the plus side, I don't think it's gotten any worse."

"Then you're helping him hold his own," she reassured him as she checked the heart and blood pressure monitors, then turned to Sandburg, checking his pupils and then his reflexes.

"How is he, really?" Jim asked uncertainly.

"Better in some ways," the physician replied. "The rhythm of his heart is back to normal. The skull series this morning showed that the swelling from the concussion has decreased significantly and the haematoma seems to be shrinking as hoped. That's probably why he's much more restless today - in an odd way, it means he's more alert."

"And the peritonitis?" Jim pressed.

Shrugging, she sighed and shook her head. "The surgery last night went very well. We flushed out the abdominal cavity, repaired the tear in his colon - but there's no denying that the infection had gained a foothold. That's what the fever is all about. His body is fighting back. We just can't afford to let it get too high, or it'll wear him down." Gazing down at Sandburg, she went on, "I've increased the dosage of his antibiotics with the hope of knocking the bugs out of his system, but it takes a while for the medication to work." Looking back at the tall man, she smiled. "Keep doing what you're doing, Jim. With a little luck and hard work on your part, we may see some improvement later today."

His lips twitched in a hopeful half-smile but his heart wasn't in it. He understood the dangers of peritonitis all too well.

She gripped his arm reassuringly as she gave him a fond look. "Don't you be giving up," she scolded gently, understanding the deep anxiety in his eyes. "He's a scrapper, you know that." Patting his arm, she moved back toward the door. "I'll check back later this afternoon."

"He's a scrapper, all right," he muttered, a real smile of affection tugging at his lips. Reaching for the washcloth and dipping it in the basin, he added, "Okay, Chief. Let's get back to work. Between us, we're going to kick this infection on its ass."

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

The fever broke three hours later; perspiration poured from Blair's body, soaking the sheets. Jim helped the nurse change the linens and then got warmer water to wash the sweat off his partner. While he was working, Blair stirred and blinked. Ellison watched his partner come awake, confusion in his eyes at first as his gaze wandered the room and then awareness sparked, and Jim relaxed for the first time in nearly twenty-four hours.

But he was deeply saddened when Sandburg stiffened defensively, and his lips tightened with the thought that Blair had remembered their fight.

"Jim?" he rasped, uncertainly eying the washcloth Ellison was smoothing over his chest. "What are you doing?"

"Giving you a bed bath," Jim replied, his voice as calm and neutral as he could make it.

"Why?"

Caught by the question, Ellison looked up into his partner's eyes and saw all the other questions that Blair hadn't put into words. Why are you here? Why are you doing this? Because you feel guilty? Or sorry for me?

Looking away, Jim shrugged as he simply said, "Because."

The silence stretched between them and, holding his body rigidly tight beneath Ellison's hands, Sandburg turned his face away. Thinking of all he never said and wished he had, especially as the long hours last night and during the past day had passed, remembering the restless and painful mutterings he'd listened to for hours, Jim took a breath and added hoarsely, "Because you matter to me."

He could feel Sandburg looking at him, though the kid didn't say anything. Swallowing, he went on, slowly, the words coming hard, "As much, more, than anyone else has ever meant to me."

"You mean that?" Blair asked, his voice thin and unsteady.

Jim paused in his constant motion, his hand over Sandburg's heart, and even through the cloth he could feel the solid, steady thumping that grounded him, that made his world safe. His throat tightened so he couldn't speak for a moment, but he nodded and looked down into his partner's earnest, troubled gaze. "Yeah," he rasped and then looked away, returning his attention to bathing Blair's body.

His eyes burned with relief and gratitude when Blair finally relaxed under his hands, as if Sandburg no longer felt the need to defend against him. When he looked up, he found Blair watching him enigmatically, and then the kid blinked heavily and yawned, his eyes closing as he drifted back to sleep.

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

"How's he doing?" Simon asked, flaunting the one visitor rule as he ambled into the room to stand shoulder to shoulder beside Ellison while they both gazed down at the sleeping Sandburg.

"A lot better," Jim replied quietly. "The head injury is healing. The fever finally broke so the infection is under control. He was awake for a bit earlier."

"You're still here, so I guess he didn't throw you out on your ear," Banks observed, his tone deliberately light and teasing. They'd had enough tension in the last day to meet their quota for the next month and, besides, he was relieved the kid hadn't told Jim to take off.

"I think it was a near thing when he was finally alert enough to realize I was here," Ellison sighed. "But, no, he didn't kick me out."

"Told you he'd want you here," Simon said smugly, always happy to have an 'I told you so' moment.

Jim grinned wryly and nodded. "Yeah, you did."

"Well, I've got some good news to report," Banks said then, a satisfied smirk on his face. "We couldn't get Les Norbert to turn over on Ventriss. Guess he didn't want to incriminate himself by admitting he'd shot Sandburg. But the third guy, Scott Salish, couldn't stand the idea that Martin might be the only one to get a deal. Turns out, Salish was the principle link between the abduction team and Ventriss, giving him regular updates by phone. Brown and Rafe brought Ventriss in an hour ago and booked him on kidnapping, conspiracy to commit murder and accessory to attempted murder charges." Rubbing his hands together gleefully, he added, "His Honor the Mayor was so pissed off that his good buddy, Ventriss, is nothing but a two-bit crook that he couldn't wait to distance himself - he called the presiding Judge to make sure Ventriss would be held without bail. Can't have a bad guy like that show up at the Club or on the links, now can we?"

Ellison chuckled as he patted Simon on the back. "Good job, boss," he commended heartily. "Real good job."

Just then, Blair stirred and blinked himself awake. Peering around blearily, he smiled wanly when he spotted Banks. "Hey, Simon," he whispered hoarsely, his voice still thin and scratchy.

"Hey, yourself, Sandburg," Banks replied warmly as he moved closer to grip the younger man's shoulder. "How are you feeling, son?" he asked solicitously, warmth in his tone and gaze.

"Okay, I guess," Blair sighed, though evidently stronger and very much alert. "Feel like I got run over by a truck but, other than that, not bad."

Simon chuckled. "You'll do," he approved. But, then, his good humour faded as he realized that, now that the kid was awake, he had to get Sandburg's statement of all that had happened the day before. "You feel up to giving me the highlights of your adventures last evening?"

Blair swallowed and sobered. "Yeah. I guess. As much as I remember, anyway."

Banks straightened and cast a look over his shoulder at Ellison. "You want to give us a few minutes?"

"Oh, yeah, sure," Jim replied, suddenly ill at ease, understanding that Simon wanted him out of the room to give Blair a chance to talk freely.

"No, he can stay," Sandburg interjected. When both men looked at him, he added. "Really. I don't mind. I'd like him… Jim… to stay."

"Okay, whatever works for you," Simon agreed, waving Ellison to a chair on the other side of the bed, out of Sandburg's direct line of sight. "So, take your time. What happened after I last saw you yesterday afternoon?"

"Well," Blair began slowly, his gaze flickering toward Jim and then away quickly, to focus on Banks, "I was soaking wet, so I had a hot shower and then decided I should clear out my office at Rainier."

"That couldn't have waited another day or so?" Simon pressed. "Jim said you were upset when you left."

Swallowing, looking away from Banks' too intent, and too aware, gaze, Blair shrugged. "It hadn't been a good day," he murmured. "But they don't like people who are no longer employed there to clutter up their offices, so, uh, I figured I should just get it done."

"Uh huh," Simon grunted. "What happened next?"

"Well, I was on foot because I lost my car keys, and I'd just gotten off the bus. This car zoomed up and stopped just ahead of me - just inside the entrance gate to the university - and these two guys got out. One of them had a gun and he fired it a couple of times to convince me he'd use it, and he threatened to shoot me if I didn't get into the car. So I did, get into the car, I mean. The guy in the front seat called someone and said they had 'the package'." His voice was raspier, and he stopped to ask, "Could I have some water?"

"Sure, I'm sorry," Banks replied, reaching for the glass on the table and holding it and the straw while Blair sipped.

"Thanks," Sandburg murmured, frowning as he tried to remember, but some things seemed very hazy. "I think I must have fallen asleep or something, which is pretty weird when you think about it. Anyway, when I woke up, I saw that we were already driving through Seaview Estates. I, uh, I had the feeling that they didn't intend to ever let me go."

"Why did you think that?"

"Because they hadn't blindfolded me. I knew what they looked like and could see where they were taking me," Sandburg sighed, pale with the memory of his fear. "Anyway, I thought if I didn't get away from them before we got to wherever we were going, that I might… might never escape. The first chance I got, I jumped out of the car and ran for the trees. One of them sh-shot me just before I got into the shadows. I kept running and finally spotted a place to hide. I could hear them searching for me, but then they gave up and said they'd wait till dawn. I heard them talking about the fence that surrounded the woods, and that was the first I realized that I was trapped."

Sandburg paused again to lick his lips. "I think I must've passed out for a while. When I woke up, I remembered what they said about the fence, and thought it was probably my only hope of getting help. I tried tossing sticks of wood at it, but nobody came. And I thought of trying to climb a tree to get over it, but none of the branches close to the fence would've held my weight. Anyway, I finally… finally did what I had to do to trigger the alarm. I pressed my jacket up against it and… well, I don't remember anything else. Do you know what happened after that? Did somebody find me?"

"No, Sandburg, at least not in the forest," Banks informed him. "You held onto that fence for at least three minutes, maybe more. Enough time to attract the people watching the security monitors. Then you hobbled out to the street to meet them when they arrived - and only then did you collapse. Frankly, I don't know how you did it. How you stayed conscious and on your feet after what that current must have done to you."

Blair's brows arched. "Guess I'm glad I don't remember that part," he huffed.

Simon nodded, his expression somber. Hating himself, but having to press, he said, "You've got a swollen jaw and a bruise that looks like someone hit you pretty hard. And you had a serious concussion and head injury when you were brought in to the hospital - there's a good-sized lump on the back of your head. When did those injuries occur?"

Blair's gaze flitted around the room, flickering once toward Jim but skittering away. He shook his head slowly, his eyes downcast. "I don't remember."

"That's not true, is it, Blair?" Banks countered gently.

"No, it's not," Sandburg agreed as his gaze lifted to Simon's, steady and unflinching. "But that's all I'm ever going to say in an official report. What happened is personal and has nothing to do with… with anyone else. Nothing to do with what happened last night."

"Okay, son," Simon capitulated, more relieved than he liked to admit. "If you ever do want to talk about it, you know you can talk to me, right?"

Blair nodded but he looked away. That was never going to happen. Simon looked across the bed at Jim, who was sitting with his head and shoulders bowed, and Banks could have sworn he saw a tear on Ellison's cheek, before Jim brushed it away. "Sandburg, Blair," he began, then paused, wondering if this was the right time and deciding the sooner done the better, "I owe you an apology. I was pretty rough on you this week, and I'm sorry about that. I'm sorry about your job, too. I'd like to try to help fix that, if I can."

Taken by surprise, Blair flushed and shrugged diffidently. "Hey, no, that's okay - about the apology, I mean. I wasn't exactly fun to be around, either. Actually, I was pretty disrespectful, and you deserve better than that from me." Clearing his throat, he sighed, "As for the job, well, we'll see. Now that Ventriss is in jail for murder, it makes the possibility that he might have cheated more credible. Maybe the Chancellor will reconsider her decision."

"I hope she will, but if she's reluctant, let me know," Simon insisted. When Blair nodded, he awkwardly patted the younger man's shoulder. "Everything will get sorted out, you'll see." Looking at his watch, he stood. "Blair, you need to know that we have the men who did this, and we've got Norman Ventriss in custody, too. He won't be bothering you again."

Sandburg's gaze flew up to meet his and the kid smiled. "That's great news, Simon!" he exclaimed as exuberantly as his rough voice and lack of vitality would allow, and he visibly relaxed. "I figured it was him that was behind it, but I didn't know for sure. Man, you guys sure work fast."

"Yeah, we do, especially when we're really motivated," Simon agreed with an answering smile. "Now, you should probably get some more sleep. You've still got a lot of healing to do."

Blair nodded and, for a third time, his gaze flickered toward Jim. "Yeah. I guess I do," he agreed soberly, and then yawned before he allowed his eyes to drift closed.

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

When Sandburg woke, the room was shadowed, illuminated only by the small overhead lamp turned to shine against the wall, and the light slanting in from the three-quarter closed blinds on the window to the hall. Jim was standing by the narrow window, staring into the darkness.

"Don't you ever go home?" he asked softly.

Jim shrugged as he turned. "Once a day. Shower. Shave."

"Uh huh," Blair grunted. "Any water?"

Ellison quickly moved to the bedside table, his manner stiff, his actions abrupt as he poured a fresh glass of cool water, slid in the straw. Holding both in one hand, he supported Sandburg's head with the other, while Blair drank.

"S'good, thanks."

Setting the glass down, Jim said quietly, "They're going to move you to a regular room in the morning."

"Yeah? I guess that's good," Sandburg murmured back. "How soon before I can go, uh, get out of the hospital?"

"The doc says you should be able to come home in a couple of days, if your wound keeps healing well and they can remove the small drainage tube in your side," Jim replied, hoping Blair's verbal slip didn't mean what he feared it meant. He wasn't ready to ask outright, but Blair had lapsed into silence and that made him nervous. Searching for something to talk about, he asked, "Chief, who's Bobby?"

"Huh? Bobby? Bobby who?" Blair echoed, frowning in confusion.

"I don't know," Ellison replied as he pulled up the chair from the corner and sat down. "During the fever, you kept repeating his name, like it upset you - or scared you."

"Oh… that Bobby," Sandburg sighed, his lips tightening into a grimace. He looked away, as if debating whether to answer, and then said softly, "Bobby was the first guy I trusted who, uh, who hit me."

Jim's gaze dropped and he nodded, not sure if he should ask anything more, talk about what had happened between them, or let Sandburg set the pace. After a moment, Blair said tightly, "It's old news, Jim. Doesn't matter anymore."

Taking the ambiguous comment as an opening, really wanting to know, Ellison suggested diffidently, "Well, if you don't mind talking about him, I'd be interested in knowing what happened."

Blair nodded slowly. Taking a breath, evidently marshalling his energy, his voice wispy but oddly detached, he revealed, "Okay. Well, Naomi and I lived with him for a while, six months, I guess. I, uh, thought he was a pretty neat guy - one of the very few that, um, seemed to really enjoy my company and didn't just put up with me to be with my Mom. He kept saying how happy he was to have us. That we were a family and that family was important. I was thirteen and tired, really tired to tell you the truth, of always moving around, so it all sounded good to me." He paused, his gaze searching the ceiling. "Anyway, I tried to… to let him know how much I really liked living at his place. How much I liked him. But I also tried to give him hints every once in a while that we probably wouldn't be staying long, well, because we never did. But he wouldn't hear of it, just kept saying that this time it was different, that we belonged with him." Shrugging, looking at his bandaged hands like he wished he could get to his fingers, his voice dropped as he went on. "The day came like I knew it would, when Mom decided it was time to move on. She… she was chipper and cheerful about it, busy detaching with love - and he kept saying, no, she was wrong, that we couldn't leave. We were a family. They didn't seem to be hearing each other, you know? And I was starting to get a bad feeling. Usually guys argued loudly, shrugged, begged her to stay or called her a whore but they all pretty quickly used to tell her to get out and good riddance to her and her brat. But Bobby wasn't doing any of that. Just kept on about how we were family, but his face was getting real flushed. Naomi just kept packing and saying how she was looking forward to going wherever it was. And then I knew we were in trouble when he said really quiet, 'You're my family. You belong to me'."

"What happened?" Jim asked into the silence when Blair ground to a halt.

"He grabbed the suitcase and threw it against the wall. And then he belted Mom so hard she hit the same wall. He went after her, kept hitting her. I tried to stop him. I begged him to stop hurting her and pressed in between them, tried to push him away, but he was a pretty big guy." Blair stopped and swallowed. "He punched me right into the next week, man. I didn't know what had hit me. When I woke up, we were locked in the attic. Mom was pretty bruised and she kept crying and crying. Saying she was sorry. Guess I'd been out of it for more than a day."

Jim's fists clenched, his expression rigid. "How'd you get free?" he demanded tightly.

"There was a little window, too small for Mom to get through, and a tree alongside the roof. I crawled out and reached for the strongest branch I could see. Not strong enough, as it turned out. Thing snapped as soon as I put my weight on it. But it was a pretty big tree and I slammed into enough branches on the way to the ground that it slowed me down. Ended up I only broke my arm and stove in a couple of ribs. Mrs. Danbush next door heard me yell when I fell and rushed out to see what was wrong. And she stopped cold at the sight of the bruise on my face - either that or I must've looked pretty pitiful - cause she didn't scold me for climbing the tree. I… I told her that Bobby had hurt my Mom and she was locked in the attic and asked her, begged her actually, to help us. She bustled me inside and called the cops. Bobby went to jail, but I heard he eventually ended up in a mental hospital. He was seriously nuts, man. Seriously nuts."

"God," Ellison sighed as he rubbed his mouth. "How could your mother…" But his voice trailed off, knowing that criticizing Naomi wouldn't do a thing to endear him to her son.

"How could my mother live like she does? Pick a guy like that? Be so seriously out of touch with reality and how her actions impact on other people?" Blair murmured sadly, wearily, and then sighed. Lifting his gaze to Jim's, his throat tight and his voice strained, he said, "You've met her a couple times, Jim. You've seen people like her before. Manic, weird behaviours, babbles whatever comes into her head without thinking about, well, like when she called you a pig in your own home, after she'd rearranged all your furniture because it was better her way. Dives into new enthusiasms full tilt, like that psychic thing last year. You know I don't like labels, man, but this one fits. She's bi-polar, Jim. She swings like a yo-yo between the highs and the lows. You've seen her when she's high, happy, in love with the world and life, bright, charming and fun to be around. When she's down, she goes on retreat, hoping some yogi or wiseman or earth mother will have answers for her. Sometimes, often I guess, they do. She's been able to manage with meditation and natural remedies for most of her life."

Jim gaped at him. "Chief, I -"

"Don't… don't say anything, okay?" Blair asked softly, lifting a hand as if to fend off a blow. "Don't say you're sorry, or … or joke about it being hereditary. She's my Mom and I love her, just as she is. A lot of people love her. She's a good person."

"Why'd you tell me this?" Ellison asked uncertainly. And why now?

Sandburg shrugged. "I guess, I guess so you'd understand… that the way she lives, the choices she makes - she does the best she can, Jim. That's all anyone can ever ask of another person. That they do the best they can."

Jim studied his friend and wondered if Blair was only talking about Naomi, or if he was trying to say something more, asking him to understand something more.

"Go home, Jim," Sandburg sighed into the silence. "I'm fine. Just go home."

Ellison stood reluctantly, feeling awkward and off-balance. "Chief, are you…?"

"Not clinically," Blair replied with a crooked smile that Jim wasn't sure he could read. Wry? Bitter? "All those years in therapy and nobody could find a thing wrong with me. Who'd've guessed?" he added, his tone strained with exhaustion. "But maybe, just a little. Most of the time, though, I try to stay on the crests, man. I try to ride the highs." And then he winced against the pain in his side and closed his eyes. Wearied by the effort of talking so much about stuff he usually never spoke about, he said one more time, his voice thin with effort, "Go home, Jim. Get some sleep."

"Good night, Chief," Jim murmured as he left, his brow furrowed in thought.

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

On the drive home, Jim couldn't stop thinking about everything Blair had told him. Couldn't stop turning it all over and over, thinking about what it all meant. The first guy I trusted, who hit me. Not hard to figure out the connection there. The creep, Bobby, makes the kid feel special, safe, like he had a real home, was part of a family, and then beat the shit out of him and his mother. With no warning. Out of the blue.

Comparing himself to a head-case like that made Jim physically ill, and he had to pull the truck over to get out and retch at the side of the road. Wiping off his mouth, he leaned back against the tailgate and crossed his arms, swallowing convulsively while he fought off tears of rage and guilt and shame… and so much remorse that it welled in his chest and choked him.

He'd been a soldier, was a cop. Violence had been his profession all his life. He didn't lose control, not physically. Not ever. How could he have punched Sandburg? So hard. So fast. How the hell could he have done that?

Rubbing a hand over his mouth, he worked on getting his breathing evened out. Falling apart on the side of the road in the middle of the night wasn't an option. Looking up at the star-flecked sky, he shook his head as he wondered how the hell he'd ever fix this. If he'd even get the chance. Blair had been civil, even open, very open. But he hadn't said a thing about what had happened beyond telling Simon it was personal. Oh, and the 'first guy' line. But that was it.

But neither had he said anything, for that matter. It was like they were dancing around this huge moose in the middle of the room and pretending it wasn't there. Was Sandburg waiting for him to start? Maybe. It was sure up to him to apologize. But he didn't want to talk about it while the kid was hurting, when anyone could walk in on them at any time. He wanted Blair home and… he wanted Blair home. Then they could talk.

Getting back into the truck, he thought back to the fevered mutterings, the messages hidden in the broken phrases, the tones of pain, like a code to the inner Sandburg, the one he never saw. Bobby had been part of those anguished ramblings. The stuff about not mattering to anyone had been repeated over and over until Jim had thought his heart would break. What else? What other clues were there to the sorrows Blair hid away behind his bright smile and boundless enthusiasm?

And then Jim thought about what he hadn't heard. Not once. Not when Sandburg had been scared or hurting, worried or felt lost in the darkness of his worst memories and doubts. Not once had Blair called for Naomi, for his Mom. Ellison sighed and bowed his head. Maybe he never called because he'd learned a long time ago he could never be sure she'd answer. No wonder, deep down, the kid felt alone or that that bastard Bobby had been able to seduce him with the idea of having a home, a real family.

And not once had Blair called for him.

Sonofabitch.

What did Sandburg think now? That he didn't have a home in the loft anymore? Did he even want it anymore? And, shit. He'd just been fired. In a matter of days, the secure life he'd built for himself with years of effort and commitment had gone up in smoke.

Well, fuck that.

Whatever it took, Jim vowed that he'd make things right between them.

Because Blair deserved a whole lot better than the shitty cards he'd been dealt that damned week.

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

Back in the hospital, Blair stared up at the ceiling, floating a little from the pain medication he'd been given just after Jim had left. The pain was there, but distant, surreal. He wasn't sure it had been a good idea to tell Jim about Bobby. Wasn't sure it was good to think about Bobby and Jim in the same thought, for that matter. There were too many parallels, and yet none at all. Jim wasn't certifiably nuts, for one thing.

But he'd trusted them both implicitly - had never once imagined that either of them would ever hurt him, not physically anyway.

And he didn't know what to do about what had happened in the loft. When was it? He was losing track of time. Recently.

Simon obviously knew what had happened. Jim must've told him. No other way he could know. Why would Jim tell Simon something as awful as that? Or, maybe Jim didn't think it was so awful. Was that it? No, that couldn't be right. He'd seemed sorry afterward. But he hadn't said anything since. Was Jim waiting for him to say something? Guess, maybe he should. He was the one who had taken off after refusing to talk about it.

But he just didn't have the energy. Could hardly stay awake.

Wasn't sure he could face the discussion.

Neither could he just accept that Jim had belted him and let it go as if it never happened. Couldn't.

Blair remembered thinking, oh, sometime that terrible night after their fight, that maybe they needed some space.

Maybe it was time for him to find his own place again.

Maybe it was long past time.

But… but, dammit, he didn't want to move out.

And what kind of wuss did that make him?

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

Blair had hardly been settled into his new room the next morning when Jim appeared at the door.

"Oh, man, don't you have a job or something?" Sandburg protested before Ellison could even offer a good morning.

"Or something," Jim replied, narrowing his eyes as he studied the younger man. "Don't take this wrong, Chief, but you look… "

"What? I look what?" Blair challenged grumpily. His hands and feet were itching so bad they were driving him crazy, his side felt like it was on fire and sent sharp shards of pain shooting into his gut and chest every damned time he moved, he felt grubby and probably smelled revolting from the draining infection under his dressing, and he just wanted to be left to wallow in his misery.

"Like you'd like to stop the world and get off for a while," Jim offered gently. "You look like you're hurting, Chief. Is there anything I can do?"

Sandburg sagged against the pillows and slowly shook his head. "Unless you can get me a new body real cheap, then, no, there's nothing, thanks anyway."

Jim gazed at him quizzically for a moment and then suggested, "Back rub?"

Blair squinted at him. "You're kidding, right?" he replied flatly.

"No." Jim moved into the room and rustled in the bedside table to find the lotion that he hoped they'd moved from the room downstairs. "Got it," he said with satisfaction as he held up the tube. "Want me to help you roll on your side?"

"Ah, Jim, I know you mean well, but it hurts to breathe let alone roll around," Sandburg complained, then curled his lip at the sound of the whine in his voice. "Shit, just shoot me," he groused as he lifted a hand to push his lank hair off his face only to remember with very apparent frustration that his fingers were swathed in gauze.

"Maybe later," Jim returned genially, though he had the sense not to laugh. "Here, let me do the work. You press your arm down over your wound."

"You're not going to let this idea go, are you?"

"Nope."

Sighing, Blair nodded with evident resignation and pressed his left arm down over the incision. Jim loosened the sheet, tucked it up close along Sandburg's body and then moved to the other side of the bed. Gripping the sheet firmly, he rolled Blair like a log onto his left side, which was better for his still-draining incision. Wrinkling his nose at the thought of the viscous discharge under the pristine bandage, and more particularly the smell of it, Jim mutely turned down his dial without comment or complaint. Then, holding Sandburg steady, he propped pillows around his partner to secure him comfortably in place. Returning to the far side of the bed, near the window, he straightened and tightly tucked in the sheet to banish even the thought of wrinkles under his friend, untied the cords at the top of Blair's gown, rubbed some lotion in his hands to warm it and then began to massage Sandburg's back.

"Should have done this yesterday," he muttered to himself. "You've got some reddened areas showing up already on your butt."

"Gee, thanks, I really needed to know that," Sandburg mumbled, but he already sounded less frazzled.

For half an hour, Jim soothed and kneaded, loosening knots, stimulating circulation, his hands strong and firm. Every once in a while, Blair would sigh appreciatively, but they didn't speak. When he heard Sandburg snoring softly, he stopped and settled pillows behind Blair for support before pulling the top sheet and blankets back into place over his shoulder. Then he went to the nurses' station to request a lotion or gel that would take the itch out of Blair's hands and feet and, again citing his experience as a medic, asked if he could unwrap the essentially unnecessary bandages to leave the burns open to heal in the air. A call to the doctor had to be made to get the necessary prescription and permission, but within an hour, he had what he wanted.

While Blair slept, Ellison slowly and carefully unwrapped the gauze, one appendage at a time. He was very glad to see that there had been no blistering, though some peeling had begun. The soft skin of palms and soles was far less inflamed, the heat of the burns gone. Relieved that these injuries were healing well, he lightly massaged in the gel that contained local anesthetic properties as well as moisturizing agents that would significantly relieve the itching sensation generated by the healing tissue. When he was finished, he gazed at the yellowing discoloration on Blair's jaw, wishing he knew how to ease the hidden hurts the bruise merely represented - knew how to heal the damage they had both been suffering. With sad tenderness, he lightly brushed the wild curls off Sandburg's brow and sighed with regret.

And then he left to go to work.

When Blair woke some time later, he still felt relaxed by the massage, and then he saw his hands were finally free - better still, they didn't itch. A fond smile graced his lips and he shook his head. "Super Sentinel strikes again," he murmured to himself. "How did he know the itching was driving me wild? Cause he's a sentinel, you twerp - he thinks about this stuff." His throat tightened as he thought of the care, the massage. "Guess he really is sorry," he whispered before drifting back to sleep.

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

"Hairboy up to being visited?" Brown asked when he and Rafe returned from a stakeout late that afternoon.

Jim looked up from his computer and shook his head. "No, sorry. He was feeling kinda rough today. And he's still sleeping most of the time. I'll tell him you'd like to see him, though. I'm sure he'll appreciate it."

"When're you going to be able to take him home?" Taggart wondered, his expression heavy with concern as he looked up from his nearby desk. "Hospitals aren't the best place to get any rest, if you know what I mean."

"Too well, I'm afraid," Jim agreed with a smile. "The drain is supposed to come out tomorrow morning. Depending on how he's feeling, I might be able to get him home in the afternoon. You're right. I think he'd rest better in his own bed."

"Okay, good - well, maybe we could drop by in a couple days," Rafe suggested then.

"Sounds like a plan," Jim nodded, and they wandered back to their own desks. Ellison gazed out the window for a long moment, thinking that even if Blair did want to move out, he couldn't very well go off on his own until he was stronger. By then, maybe things would be okay between them, and the kid wouldn't feel he had to leave. Maybe, depending on how things went when they finally did get around to really talking about what had happened.

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

That evening, Jim showed up with a carryall full of clothing, shoes and Blair's preferred razor, shampoo, conditioner and soap, as well as a jacket folded over his arm. "Here're some clothes," he said, holding up the bag, "and I thought you might feel better having your own stuff, Chief, when you get ready to come home tomorrow." He pulled a small clear plastic toiletry bag out of the larger one, and stowed it in the bedside table. "Oh, and before I forget," he went on, fishing in his pocket, "I got this new set of keys made for you." Those went in the drawer beside the toiletry bag.

"Thanks," Sandburg replied, surprised Jim had thought of the keys given everything else that had been going on. "Uh, but, we don't know yet if I'm getting out tomorrow."

Jim went still for a moment, wondering if he heard reluctance or regret in the kid's voice. But then he turned from stowing the carryall in the cupboard and gave his partner an assessing look. "You're feeling better than you were this morning," he decided with a small smile.

"Well, having my own personal masseur and getting my hands back didn't hurt," Blair agreed with a tentative grin of his own. "Thanks, man. Really helped a lot."

"Good. So, you're not sure about tomorrow? Why? The wound giving you trouble?" Jim asked as he pulled the wooden chair around and draped his leg over it, crossing his arms on the back. "I thought you'd be itching, no pun intended, to get back to your laptop. But I guess I could bring it in here."

"You found my laptop!" Sandburg exclaimed with the most animation he'd shown since he'd wakened the day before.

"Wasn't lost," Ellison replied with a shrug.

"Man, I thought when I had to dump my stuff on the sidewalk that it would like, grow feet and walk away, you know? I can't believe you've got my computer!"

"Got the rest of your stuff, too, but the bags are being held in the Evidence Lockup. But, if you need more than your wallet and the computer, we can probably sign things out," Jim told him, pleased to have such good news. "There weren't any fingerprints but your own on the backpack or computer case, so they aren't really needed for the trial. Photos and my testimony should be enough to establish they were on the sidewalk, near a bullet graze in the cement."

"Your testimony?" Blair echoed, startled. "You found my stuff? When?"

"Right after you were taken. I heard the shots from Hargrove Hall."

"Wait, wait. Slow down a little. You were at Rainier? When they took me? What were you doing there?"

"Looking for you," Jim replied, shifting as if he were suddenly uncomfortable. Swallowing, looking away, he explained, "Right after you, uh, left, I found a patch of blood on the floor where you…where you were lying, and I realized you were hurt. When I found the Volvo still parked downstairs, I didn't know how you'd managed to disappear so fast. Anyway, I hoped you'd head to your office."

Blair stared at him. "You came after me?" he asked, his voice void of tone, his expression giving nothing away.

"Well, at first I was going to let you cool off," Ellison explained, his tone tentative, wishing they hadn't gotten so close to the conversation he didn't want to have yet. "But when I knew you were hurt…."

"I see," Sandburg murmured. "So you were already looking for me before I was missing."

"Yeah, I guess, when you put it like that."

Blair looked away as he thought about that. "Jim, how did Simon know, uh, what happened?" he asked quietly.

Jim grimaced as he rubbed the back of his neck. "I told him we had to find you in a hurry because I thought you might have a head injury. Only, there was no way to know that, at least not at that point of the investigation. And, well, he wondered what you were doing tromping around in the rain at Rainier in the first place, and I admitted we'd had a fight. He put it together." Shrugging, unable to make eye contact, he added, "He's the Captain, after all. Simon is one smart guy."

"Uh huh," Blair grunted and shook his head. "Jim, you could have been suspended! You shouldn't have said anything at all."

"It's all a matter of priorities, I guess," Ellison murmured. "I was going to tell him everything as soon as we'd found you but, well, he cut me off and made it clear that it was too soon to say anything more. He thought you'd want me nearby and, if I'd told him, he'd have had to issue a restraining order pending investigation." Cutting Blair a quick look before his gaze dropped away. "I hope that's been okay with you. I mean, that's why he asked you those questions as soon as you were awake, so you could say if, well, if you didn't want me hanging around."

When Blair didn't answer, Jim hazarded a look and found Sandburg looking at him quizzically. "You know, you're absolutely right," Blair finally said. "Simon is one very smart guy."

"How nice to hear such complimentary things said behind my back," Banks chuckled as he sauntered into the room. "You're looking better, Sandburg."

"Yeah, I'm doing okay," Blair agreed, glad of the interruption. Glancing at Jim and then back to Banks, he added, "Looks like I'll be going back to the loft tomorrow, but it might be a week or two before I'm ready for more than desk-duty."

Banks gave a satisfied nod. "Just don't push yourself too hard," he cautioned. "I think a couple of weeks might still be a bit soon. See what your doctor says and follow her orders."

"Aye, aye, Captain," Blair smirked as he sketched a salute, doing his absolute best to pretend everything was normal. But there was relief in his eyes when he knew that Simon expected him back and that he'd still be working with Jim. Maybe. Depending on how things went.

The tension in Ellison's shoulders eased, but anxious shadows still haunted his eyes. He'd have felt better if Blair had said he was going 'home'.

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

Both men were subdued as they came off the elevator and approached the apartment door at the end of the hall, each of them too conscious of what had happened the last time they'd arrived together at that doorway, too preoccupied by fears of what the future held to engage in idle conversation. Jim, carrying the empty bag he'd taken to the hospital the day before, Blair's prescriptions stuffed in his pocket, opened the door and waved Sandburg in ahead of him.

When it looked like Sandburg was going to head straight to his room, Jim hurriedly suggested, "Ah, Chief, why don't you crash on the couch? You could watch some television, maybe."

His shoulders stiffly bowed and his gait more of a shuffle in deference to his side and his still healing feet, Blair paused and then shifted direction. "Okay," he agreed distantly. "TV would be good."

Jim put on the kettle to make a pot of tea, and pulled a beer from the fridge for himself. Supper wouldn't take much effort. Blair had to stay on soft foods that were easy to digest, like soups, eggs, and jello for another week. While the kettle was coming to a boil, he replaced Sandburg's toiletries in the bathroom, and ducked into his friend's bedroom to grab his pillows and an extra blanket. "You might want these," he said as he placed the linens on the couch and then he headed back to the kitchen to make the tea, very aware that while Blair had turned on the television, Sandburg was watching him out of the corner of his eye.

"Here you go," Ellison said with forced cheerfulness as he set the mug on a coaster. "You hungry?"

"No, I'm fine," Sandburg replied. "Thanks."

"Right. Okay," Jim muttered to himself as he crossed the room and sank into his chair, his eyes on the TV screen but having no idea what was on. Giving up the pretense of normalcy as a dead loss, he sighed and shifted in the chair to face Sandburg. "Chief, we need to talk."

Blair looked at him and nodded soberly. "Yeah, I guess we do."

"Let me start," Ellison jumped in, trying to remember the speech he'd rehearsed, wanting to get everything right. "I'm sorry. Really sorry." But that was as far as he got before Sandburg interrupted him.

"It's not about being sorry, Jim," Blair said quietly but firmly. "It's about why - and about if it will ever happen again. Cause if it ever does, you have to know we'll really be done - you won't see me again for dust."

Nodding slowly, Jim gave up on his speech. He couldn't remember it anyway. "It won't ever happen again. Ever."

"How do I know that?" Sandburg challenged, his voice tight. "How can you be sure of that?"

Jim rubbed a hand across his mouth as his gaze dropped despairingly to the floor. Clasping his hands, he said carefully, "I guess I can understand your concern. Abusers always promise never to do it again."

Blair snorted and shook his head. "Jim, you're not an abuser. I'm not insinuating that you are. I just want to know how you can be so sure it won't happen again. I mean, you were angry, really angry. What happens the next time you get really angry? Am I just supposed to get out of your way and keep my head down? What?"

"I don't know how to convince you of this, Chief," Ellison rasped, his throat so tight he could scarcely speak. "I can only promise you that I won't slug you again. I was so far out of line, so… out of control. I can hardly believe I did it, except I know I did."

"Why were you so angry that day?" Blair pressed. "Maybe if we understand that, we can do something to avoid things getting so out of hand again."

Staring at the far wall, Jim's jaw clenched, the muscle flexing as he fought to swallow the lump in his throat, his fists clenched tight against the emotion that surged through him at the memory of that day. "I was scared," he finally husked. "I was so damned furious with you for risking your life on that piece of shit. I wanted to shake you for taking a chance like that." Turning to gaze at Blair, blinking to clear his eyes, he asked plaintively, "Do you know, do you even realize water that cold could take you down in five minutes? Or that Ventriss could have dragged you down in less time than that? And that I was too far away to help? To keep you from d-d-drowning a-again?"

Blair sat as if stunned, his lips pressed together to keep them from trembling and his eyes got bright, glittering with moisture. "That's… that's why you were so mad?" he asked, his voice unsteady. "Because you were afraid for me?"

Nodding tightly as he scrubbed as his face, Jim sniffed and affirmed, "Yeah." He sniffed again and cleared his throat, and then went on, his voice very low, very tight, "It's been too close, too many times lately. No matter what I do - push you away, keep you close, try to keep you out of potentially dangerous cases, whatever - I can't seem to do the right things, be in the right places. Hell, last week, those goons could have bashed your head in with that baseball bat! I almost lost it then. I was so mad, I could barely speak."

"You hit me because I might have gotten hurt," Blair marveled as he swiped at his eyes. "Jim, man, you are too much. You know that? Too much."

Uncertain, Ellison gave him a narrow look. "Do you mean that in a good way or a bad way?"

"I'm not sure, to tell you the truth," Sandburg sighed as he raked his hair back behind his ears, his expression perplexed. "Good, I think, but even if you were reacting to being afraid I might drown or something, hitting me is, uh, kinda extreme, you know. I need to think about this man - it's all, um, pretty intense."

"Can't get much more intense than dying, Chief," Jim grated sardonically. When Blair lapsed into thought, the silence lengthened until Jim ventured tentatively, "I wasn't the only one bent out of shape that day, Blair. I admit, I went too far, but you… you said some things that… that I don't understand."

Startled back into the conversation, Sandburg looked up and away as he thought about what he'd said, how he'd behaved. "You mean about Alex?" he murmured. Nodding slowly, he admitted, "I've been having a hard time dealing with all the stuff that's been happening lately, I guess. Especially, what happened in Mexico but… other stuff, too."

"But you said at the time that you understood - you seemed to be more comfortable with it all than I was, that's for damned sure," Ellison rejoined with a frown. "Didn't you mean the stuff you said, about it being an imperative or some mystical drive, or something I don't begin to understand?" Jim's gut twisted as he waited for the answer, because if none of that had been true, if there was no explanation for his behaviours with Alex, however mystical, then he had nothing left but self-disgust and guilt - and he didn't know how he'd live with that. It had been hard enough as it was to cope with those despicable memories of actions he couldn't… couldn't accept on his own.

"I meant it and, intellectually, I stand by it. I do think that's what happened," Blair replied slowly. "But, emotionally? That's a whole other thing. She killed me, and you wanted to make out with her! I… I felt so inconsequential, I guess. Like I wasn't there or didn't matter or was invisible or something. Like last week at the office, I just kept getting angrier and angrier, and mouthier, so that people would see me and hear me because… because nobody seemed to notice or care that I was around and had an opinion. I guess it's stupid, but that bothered me a lot - like I didn't belong there anymore. When I got fired, well, it felt like I wasn't wanted anywhere anymore." He lifted his hands and let them drop, and then sighed heavily. "I know I shouldn't need acknowledgement from others to affirm my essential self worth, and that every soul by definition has indisputable merit, but I -"

"Chief," Jim cut in, gaping at him in astonishment, "you are not inconsequential! Where do you get stuff like that? You've got more friends than anyone I've ever known. The other day, down at Rainier, the security guard told me the whole school is up in arms over you losing your job."

"Oh, no, man, I doubt that - I mean, who'd even notice?" Blair demurred. "Do you know how many TAs and TFs there are, how many different departments? Sure, my own students might have noticed there was nobody in front of their class this week, maybe, if the department head didn't get a fill-in, but…."

"According to the guy I talked to, students, teachers, librarians, secretaries, clerks, people who work in the cafeteria - I'm telling you, Sandburg, he says everybody is talking about it, thinks it's unfair and a damned shame, and that you're a damned good teaching fellow," Ellison insisted. "Sounded to me like you could make a case for improper dismissal, either that or run for election."

"No, she had me, man," Blair replied, his voice low. "The terms of the contract are pretty clear about minimum days of attendance to meet job requirements."

"Why didn't you tell me or Simon long ago that you could be facing this kind of threat? You wouldn't have any problems if you hadn't given priority to… to going to Peru and, well, so many times you've gotten someone else to cover classes to help us out."

Blair looked away and shrugged. "It's what friends do for one another," he murmured. "Like Peru. You went without a second thought. Well, like I said then, Simon is my friend, too."

"Yeah, well, you deserve better from your friends, kid," Jim sighed. "A helluva lot better, especially from me, if you've been left feeling inconsequential. 'Cause you're not, Chief. Not to me. Not to a lot of people."

They looked at one another and then away, both of them thinking about how they hadn't had a clue about how the other man had really been feeling or why, and it was disconcerting, given how long they'd been friends and had worked as well as lived together.

"So, we okay, here?" Jim asked hopefully. "You'll, uh, trust me to not lose it like that again?" Blair hesitated, and Jim's gut twisted in dread when Sandburg wouldn't meet his eyes. "What will it take, Chief?" he asked softly, his voice unsteady. "To make things okay again? What will it take?"

"Jim," Sandburg began, and then hesitated, still very certain that Jim was craving his own space - wanting, maybe even needing his home and privacy back - whether he'd admit it or not. But Blair was also very conscious that if he indicated how much he really would prefer to stay, or even asked if Jim wanted him to move out, Ellison would insist there was no need for him to go. Finally, he said as firmly and confidently as he could, "I don't want you to misunderstand this. I accept that you're sorry and that you won't, that we won't get into such a mess again. But… but I really think that maybe we need some space. This last week has been bad, yes, but it hasn't only been this past week. Things have been, uh, deteriorating for months now. I know you're tired of the tests. And I know that you need some relief from having me around all the time. I'm not saying that we aren't still friends, or that we won't still work together, but I really, really think that we should try not being around each other all the time."

"So, what are you saying?" Jim rasped, certain he wasn't going to like the answer, and wondering if Sandburg was simply trying to downplay his unwillingness to keep sharing an apartment after what had happened, regardless of the reasons or his assurances. Well, he couldn't blame the kid. Couldn't blame him at all.

"I'm saying that I think I should live somewhere else," Blair replied quietly, his eyes downcast.

"I see," Ellison murmured, feeling suddenly old and hollow. He nodded. What else could he do but agree? "Not until you're recovered," he qualified. "There's no need to leave immediately, is there? I mean - you're not afraid of me, are you?"

"No, Jim, I'm not afraid of you," Blair said fondly. "I never have been."

"So much for my tough guy image," the older man groused, trying to make light of it all. But it was hard. Because he didn't want Blair to go, didn't want to think about how empty the loft would feel once Sandburg was gone. Sighing, he searched for something else they could talk about. Anything else. Remembering the other shock he'd gotten the day Sandburg had disappeared, he asked, "Chief, why didn't you ever tell me how young you really are?"

"Young?" Blair blinked at the non sequitur. "What do you mean?"

"I mean Brown found your birth certificate in your wallet," Jim replied. "You're not even as old now as I thought you were then, when I first met you. Why didn't you ever tell me?"

"Are you kidding?" Sandburg gaped. "As I recall, I was already a 'neo-hippie witchdoctor punk'. Like, I was going to give you an opening to also call me a 'snot-nosed kid too young to drink legally'? I mean, you had enough trouble taking me seriously as it was. Man, if you'd known I wasn't even twenty-one yet, I wouldn't have seen you for dust, and you know it. Shit. You mean everybody knows now?"

"Everyone in MCU, yeah," Ellison confirmed, a frown puckering his brow. "You willfully misled us all. You knew we'd never let you out on the streets if Simon or I had realized -"

"I did not mislead anyone, I just didn't clear up your misconceptions," Blair interrupted firmly. "You, and the others, too, assumed that to be doing what I was doing at the university, and to have acquired the information and experience I had, that I had to be a certain age. Well, I had - have - the experience and the knowledge. I just acquired it a little faster than some people. I swear to you, man, I gave accurate information on the forms I filled in with Vera, so it's all on record if anyone had looked. But, maybe because of the chaos and confusion following Kincaid's attack on the station, nobody did. Besides, it's not like my age made any difference to what I was there to do. Rookies out of the Academy aren't any older than I was then. I did not lie to you, or to anyone else. That's it, that's all."

"That's all?" Jim echoed, leaning forward aggressively as he accused, "Sandburg, I seem to remember you telling me you were born in 1969, the same year my truck came off the line. Why did you say that if it wasn't true?"

Caught by Ellison's memory of the one time he had lied, Blair grimaced and sank back against the couch. He lifted a hand and let it drop as he said disconsolately, "I don't know, man. It was unnecessary and stupid. I guess… I guess by that time I knew you figured I was older than I really was and I, well, by then I really didn't want you to know the truth. We were getting along okay and you were treating me as an equal, sort of. It was a chance to harmlessly reinforce your misconceptions and it, well, it just… just slipped out. Man, I sure didn't want you to know that your truck is older than I am."

Jim sighed as he shook his head. The lie made him uncomfortable, but he told himself it didn't really matter if Blair had put the truth on his documents at the PD, and he wanted to let it go. But were there other lies? Or so-called 'harmless' obfuscations? "Didn't you also tell me that you'd been at Rainier for ten years? Was that a lie, too?" he probed.

"No, that wasn't a lie," Blair muttered as he raked his hair off his face, evidently uncomfortable with the discussion.

"Oh, come on," Jim sighed, his jaw tightening, thinking Sandburg had to be stretching the truth. "You're not even twenty-five yet. How old were you when you started at Rainier?"

"Uh, fourteen, actually."

"Fourteen?" Jim exclaimed, thunderstruck. "Just how high is your IQ?"

"Well, there are a number of different intelligent quotients, Jim," Sandburg replied evasively. "Not just the one people usually think of from the tests given in elementary school. There's emotional intelligence and verbal intelligence and spatial acuity, and memory capacity, and mathematical…"

"How high?" Ellison cut in.

"Pretty high, on most of the tests," Sandburg admitted diffidently. "But they're just numbers, Jim. Just assessments of potential, not anything really tangible."

"Uh huh. How did you get into Rainier at that age? I mean, how did anyone know…."

"Gee, thanks," Blair grinned. "You mean my intelligence is nothing anybody would ever notice about me?"

"No, no, you know what I mean," Ellison replied impatiently. "There's a story here, I can smell it. Every time you give me a runaround, there's a story."

Turning his face away, Blair bowed his head. "Okay, yeah, there's a story," he admitted reluctantly. "I told you about Bobby the other day. Well, after that, because I had to go into the hospital and the police were involved, social services got involved, too. And because I had been unconscious for at least a day, there were worries about possible brain damage." He looked at Jim as if he expected a smart ass line about that, but Jim was just listening intently. Licking his lips, Blair went on, "So, they, uh, did a battery of tests to ensure my cognitive capacity wasn't impacted. And the results kinda blew everyone away. Rainier was affiliated with the process - the psychology department provided and graded the tests. Anyway, they thought it would be a coup of some sort to have this wunderkind enrolled at their school."

Jim frowned at the trace of bitterness he heard, but didn't interrupt.

"The university was reluctant, though, to have such a young student living on campus, so they wanted my Mom to commit to staying in Cascade until I was sixteen, so I could keep living with her while I went to school. But that… that wasn't anything Naomi could agree to. I mean, she can't be caged, you know? And, and she doesn't do well with the pressure of other people's expectations. So, um, well, I came up with the idea of being an emancipated minor. I was the first such case in Washington State. There had to be a court hearing, and Mom… Mom was great. I mean, she… she got up in front of the judge and explained very sincerely why she was an unfit mother and that I shouldn't be subject to her… her influence and unpredictable behaviours, not when I had so much potential for another kind of life. And the Social Services people along with experts from Rainier testified that I had the emotional intelligence and maturational judgment of a twenty-year-old, so there was no reason I shouldn't be allowed to make my own decisions and live on my own. When it was over, my Mom was so happy, you know? I was okay, and didn't need her any more, and she was really free. Free to… to be whoever she wanted to be. So, so it all worked out. I ended up living in the dorm anyway, and I guess I was a mascot of sorts for those who found me amusing."

Pausing, he stared sightlessly at the wall, his lips twisting unconsciously as if the memories he was replaying in his mind hadn't all been fun and games. Shrugging, he recalled himself and continued with factual detachment. "I finished up my bachelor's in two years and my master's a year later. When I was seventeen, I went out on field trips and projects to get on the ground experience, and I started on my doctorate about six months before I met you." Sandburg took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "And that's it, man. Pretty much the story of my life."

Jim nodded mutely, having been listening to more than the words - he'd heard Blair's heart rate accelerate as the kid had spoken faster and faster, as if doing a data dump and wanting it over and done as quickly as possible. Making it all sound just fine, but his heart told a different story, as did the dark shadows of painful memories in his eyes. "But, was it what you wanted, Chief?" he asked softly.

"I always wanted to be an anthropologist," Blair asserted, though he didn't make eye contact. "The tests, the scholarships made everything possible."

"Then? When you were fourteen? You wanted to be in university then? On your own?"

Sandburg's shoulders sagged and he looked everywhere but at Jim. "I can't lie to you, man. You'd know if I did," he finally murmured as if, if he spoke very softly, it would almost be like it had gone unsaid. "I… I'm not sorry I started early. 'Cause, if I hadn't, I wouldn't have had the training to help you. Might never have met you. But… at the time?" He sighed. "I couldn't have everything I wanted, so I took what would make the most people happy. Especially Mom. She really wanted, needed, to be free, man, especially after all that terrible stuff with Bobby. She really, really needed to not be anybody but Naomi Sandburg, including not being anybody's… not being my… mother."

Ellison closed his eyes briefly, finding it hard to see and hear the pain in Sandburg's face and voice. The long-ago sense of abandonment and loneliness was still starkly apparent, along with the vulnerability of not wanting his mother to be judged harshly, and the poignant desire to make it seem like it was all fine, because it had all worked out for the best. He shook his head at the bravery of that fourteen-year-old boy who'd had the courage to face the world on his own long before he should have had to do so. How much of his life had Blair had to struggle to fit in with an older crowd, always feeling like an outsider, too young to be fully accepted? Apparently, just about all of his life. Suddenly, Jim found it easy to understand why the kid so readily allowed others to believe him older than he was, and even helped that belief along if and when he could. Blowing out a breath, Jim looked steadily at his partner for a long moment before he could finally manage to respond with fierce solemnity, his throat again almost too tight to speak, though the pride he felt in his partner was as clear as his sorrow for the loneliness Blair had to have felt, "You did good, kid. Just like always. You did the best you could." Blair nodded slowly, looking wan and very tired. Wanting to put some life back into his eyes, Ellison ventured with feigned innocence, "So, I guess I'm actually almost old enough to be your father."

Startled, Sandburg nearly choked. "Do not even go there, Ellison," he exclaimed with mock horror as he lifted his head and then grinned impudently at the very idea. "Parent, especially father, implies hierarchical authority, as well as implied obligations of the child to honor and obey, because parenthood carries a kind of cachet, as if it confers wisdom," he lectured with his best professorial voice before he threw up his hands and continued with feigned exasperation. "And that is so not what we've got going here. There are already way too many rules, man. Way, way too many rules. Let's not even get into how a parent might feel the need to express love with a little, uh, gentle," he observed meaningfully as he tenderly fingered his jaw, "corporal punishment in the interests of teaching about danger or in a weird rush of overwhelmingly protective instincts and relief when the danger is passed."

Ellison stiffened, distinctly uncomfortable at the way Sandburg was using his teasing as a kind of analogy that he'd never intended.

But Blair just gave him a wry look of understanding and cocked his brow as he said firmly, "Like I said, we so do not have that kind of thing going on here. Right?"

When his lips curled in a half smile and his eyes twinkled in 'gotcha' good humor, Jim relaxed and started breathing again. If Blair could make jokes about it, then he really was forgiven and there was a hope that everything really would be all right.

Embarrassed, however, that Sandburg had gone straight to the chase and used the love word, even if it was true, Ellison elected to stick with the game he'd started, to lighten the mood and banish any residual tension between them. Grinning with relief, he shrugged with studied nonchalance and drawled, "I don't know. I always thought it might be nice to have a son - you know, a little boy to play ball with, share my pearls of wisdom with, and hope would someday grow tall in my image."

Blair lost it. He burst out laughing, wincing at the same time, holding his side but unable to stop. "You have got to be kidding," he snickered. "Little boy? Grow tall? Give me a break."

"You're okay with the pearls of wisdom, though, huh?" Ellison bantered, so very grateful to hear Sandburg laughing again.

"Oh, yeah, right. In your dreams," Blair chuckled. "Oh, man. I'm sure you'd make somebody a great father. But not me. Definitely not me. There is no hierarchy in this relationship, man. We are equals, and that's it."

"Equals, huh?" Jim mused. "Well, works for me, Chief, if you're willing to settle for being equal. I'm not the genius around here."

Blair smiled, a bright smile of understanding that Jim had just helped him past some tough memories and given him a chance to laugh and just be himself. "Oh, I don't know about that," he observed. "You have your moments."

"So, what's on television, Darwin?" Ellison asked, settling back in his chair and trying not to think too much about all that had been said. Later, he'd think about it, upstairs. But not right now. There was only so much pathos that he could handle at one time. But he watched Sandburg settle on the couch, no longer tense but relaxed, even smiling a little, and he thought about how much he'd miss that… companionship, that easy rapport and comfort when the kid left.

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

The next few days passed peacefully, as if they had an unspoken agreement to not talk about anything heavy, to just be like it had been when they'd first shared the apartment. Sandburg insisted that Jim go in to work, and grilled him when he got home about whatever he'd done that day, and if his senses had been okay. After a week, Blair said he was feeling pretty good, and that maybe it was time he started to look around for another place to crash. He suggested it lightly, but he didn't look at Ellison when he said it.

Jim swallowed back his protests and nodded.

And then bargained for another couple of days.

The last evening that Blair was intending to sleep in the apartment, Jim found it hard to mount the stairs when he got home from work. He wanted so badly to argue that the kid should stay. But he couldn't. If Blair wanted more space, needed it, he had every right to have it. As he slowly climbed up the staircase, he tuned in to the apartment above, listening for the last time to what his home sounded like when it sounded right. And he heard a song playing, one he hadn't heard before.

There's a boat, I could sail away.
There's the sky, I could catch a plane.
There's a train, there's the tracks,
I could leave and I could choose to not come back.
Oh, never come back…

There you are, giving up the fight.
Here I am begging you to try.
Talk to me, let me in,
But you just put your wall back up again.
Oh, when's it gonna end…

A sad, sad song and he wondered why Sandburg was listening to it, when the kid had been pretending to be so upbeat these last few days. Pausing, frowning in concentration, he leaned against the wall in the stairwell to listen to the rest of the lyrics before continuing down the hall. Martina McBride, he thought, recognizing the voice.

How far do I have to go to make you understand?
I wanna make this work so much it hurts, but I just can't
Keep on giving, go on living with the way things are.
So I'm gonna walk away,
And it's up to you to say how far.

There's a chance I could change my mind
But I won't, not till you decide
What you want, what you need.
Do you even care if I stay or leave?
Oh, what's it gonna be…

Jim stiffened and then straightened, his frown deepening. Tilting his head in concentration, he wondered if he'd ever actually said he wanted the kid to stay.

How far do I have to go to make you understand?
I wanna make this work so much it hurts, but I just can't
Keep on giving, go on living with the way things are.
So I'm gonna walk away,
And it's up to you to say how far.

Out of this chair, or just across the room?
Halfway down the block or halfway to the moon?
How far do I have to go to make you understand?
I wanna make this work so much it hurts, but I just can't
Keep on giving, go on living with the way things are.
So I'm gonna walk away…
And it's up to you to say…
Yeah I'm gonna walk away…
And it's up to you to say how far.

When the song ended, Ellison stood thinking for a long time before he finally walked all the way home. Blair was puttering in the kitchen, and looked up when he came in. "Oh, uh - you're early," he observed.

"Yeah, well, there wasn't much going on downtown," Jim responded as he hung up his coat. "Dinner smells good."

"If you like soup, and more soup," Blair replied with a small smile.

Pulling a beer from the fridge, Jim leaned against the counter as he asked, "So, you lined up another place to stay?"

"Uh, yeah, actually," Sandburg replied as he concentrated on stirring the soup. "And, um, turns out, I can go over there tonight. So, I think I might as well. I'll, uh, get the rest of my stuff this weekend, if that's okay."

"Tonight?" Ellison echoed, his heart sinking, trying to understand, wishing he knew for sure what he was supposed to do or say.

"Yeah, you mind?"

"Whatever works for you, Chief," Jim sighed as he sipped from the bottle.

The meal was short and uncomfortable, neither of them quite knowing what to say. They cleaned up together as they always did, and then Blair went to his room for his backpack and computer. When he came out and reached for his jacket, Jim's chest tightened. It was all so much like that night not quite three weeks ago but, at least this time, the kid wasn't leaving mad. He waited mutely, his throat so tight he wasn't even sure he could speak, until Blair paused and said, "Well, I'll see you downtown," and opened the door. "You can, uh, reach me on my cell, I mean, if you ever need to… or just want to get together sometime." When Jim just looked at him wordlessly, uncertainty in his eyes, Blair's throat tightened but he forced a smile as he turned to go, trying hard to not make a big deal of it, trying to keep it all casual.

But he'd only taken one step beyond the threshold, when Jim called out, "Chief. Wait a minute."

Turning back, Sandburg looked at him and waited.

Moving to the doorway, Jim took a breath and said, "Look, if you really want to leave, then that's okay. But… but if you're interested in what I want, well, as far as I'm concerned, this is your home. Will always be your home. Whether you live here or not. And, frankly Chief, I know you seem to think we need some space, but I think that step you just took outside that door is already one step too far."

And then he held his breath and waited.

Blair studied him for a long moment. "You heard the song, didn't you?"

Ellison nodded. "Yeah. I think you meant me to hear it. It was a test, sort of, wasn't it?"

Glancing away in embarrassment, Sandburg admitted sheepishly, "Yeah, it was, I guess. I started playing it when I saw you pull in downstairs." Sighing, he lifted his gaze back to Jim's, his expression painfully earnest and vulnerable as he explained, "I'm sorry, man. I just didn't know how to ask if you wanted me to stay without putting you on the spot, and I really didn't want the issue of staying or going to be about me, not when I know there're times when the tests and my constant presence wear you down. I mean, this is your home, Jim. You have to be able to be comfortable in your own home. But then you didn't seem happy about the fact that I was going to move out, either. I just didn't know how else to find out for sure, with no pressure, what it was that you wanted."

"Okay, I guess I understand that," Ellison agreed with a thoughtful nod, before asking uncertainly, but with hope lighting his eyes, "So, given it was a test, sort of, did I pass?"

"Jim, Jim, I keep telling you, man, these tests aren't about passing or failing," Blair chided gently, though a smile tugged at his lips and danced in his eyes.

"No? Then what are they about, Chief?"

"They're always and only about doing your best," Sandburg replied, the smile sneaking into view. "That's all you can ever do, Jim. All anyone do. Just the best we can."

Jim looked away and shook his head. "You're killing me here, Sandburg," he complained. "You coming back in or not?"

Blair's smile widened and his eyes lit with jubilation as he stepped back across the threshold, and kept moving forward until he was giving Jim a tight hug. "Be afraid. Be very afraid. You could be stuck with me for good, man," he warned, his voice husky, wondering if he'd ever be brave enough to admit that he'd had nowhere lined up and had planned to sleep in his car. He just hadn't been able to give up hoping that somehow, someway, Jim would ask him to stay… would really want him to stay. "When I was a kid, I told myself that if I ever had a real home, I wouldn't ever leave."

"Well, then, I guess you'd better unpack, short stuff," Jim rasped hoarsely. Wrapping his arms around Blair to hold him in a firm, tight embrace, closing his eyes in gratitude, he was amazed that the kid didn't seem to have a clue - didn't seem to know that the apartment was just a place, had been just a place, until Sandburg had brought the warmth and laughter, the fun and compassion and easy companionship that had turned the loft into more than just an address for the two of them. "You belong here, Chief," he murmured, his command of his voice uncertain, wishing he could express himself more profoundly, but settling for the simple truth. "This place wouldn't be a home without you."

Finis

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