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.

The Girl Next Door…Epilogue

by Arianna

This epilogue is dedicated to DawnC, ListMom, on the fifth anniversary of the SentinelAngst list.

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

Blair drove past the patrol officers cuffing Artie Parkman, and pulled up next to Ellison's truck. Having spotted him, Jim and Banks moved around the tailgate to meet him.

"Simon, Jim! What's up?" Blair laughed ebulliently, vastly relieved to be alive and safe, as he peered up over his sunglasses at the two older men.

Not particularly amused by the cavalier greeting, Banks demanded, "So where's your girlfriend?"

"Oh, hey, you guys are gonna love this," Sandburg grinned, unfazed by Simon's gruff tone, as he got out of the Volvo and waved them around toward the trunk. "You see, my Mom," he explained as he unlocked it, "she always taught me to put things back where I found them."

With that, he opened the lid and a disgruntled Iris sneered at them as she languidly sat up - and, down by her knees, was the knapsack holding half a million dollars worth of smack.

Surprised into a chuckle, Simon waved over the uniformed policemen who had just finished reading Artie Parkman his rights, while a third officer pushed the drug dealer into the back of a patrol car. Jim couldn't help snorting softly and grinning a little at his partner; Blair just seemed so damned pleased with himself.

"The heroin's in the bag," Banks told the approaching officers. Briskly, the two cops took charge of the scene, one moving to help Iris out of the trunk and arrest her, as the other stepped toward Blair.

"And you would be?" he asked, reaching behind his back for his cuffs.

"Blair Sandburg," the young man offered quickly, holding out his hand in a reflexively friendly gesture. "And that's my car. You see, Iris and her boyfriend…"

"Save it for downtown, okay, punk," the cop interrupted without rancour as he took the hand Sandburg had held out toward him and smoothly flipped it around Blair's back to swiftly lock the kid's wrists together.

"Hey! Wait! What're you doin', man? I'm a victim here!" Blair exclaimed, agape with shock. "Jim, Simon, tell him!"

The two older men looked at him thoughtfully and then at one another.

"A lesson to be learned, maybe?" Banks suggested with a slow smile.

"Build a little character? Maybe learn to be more careful about who he associates with in the future?" Ellison grinned and laughed. "Sure, why not?"

And then they both turned their gazes back to Sandburg and shrugged, chuckling as they walked away.

"You've got to be kidding me!" Blair yelled after them, as the cop read him his rights. "Hey, come back, guys!" he shouted when they just kept walking, his voice rising anxiously. "This isn't funny!"

"Do you understand these rights?" the cop demanded stoically, intruding on his attention.

"What? Yeah, yeah," Sandburg muttered, with a quick glance at the patrol officer before looking after Ellison and Banks. "JIM!" he called out, feeling the first pangs of fear. "Dammit, JIM! Don't do this!"

"Enough of that, kid," the cop told him, pulling him toward a black and white. "Just settle down." The police officer laid a hand on the top of his head to keep him from banging into the car's frame as he was shoved into the back of the vehicle. When the door slammed shut, locking him inside, Sandburg gulped as he swiveled to look out the back window. Jim and Simon were leaning against Ellison's truck, watching…and laughing.

Somehow, Blair didn't see the humour in the situation. Anger bubbled up around the sour disbelief in his gut, but those emotions were nothing compared to the sudden cold, sharp stab of betrayal he felt in his heart. Swallowing hard, Sandburg gritted his jaw as he stared grimly ahead through the wire mesh that separated him from the front seat of the patrol car. He took a deep breath, and then another, trying to calm himself down. Still in shock, he couldn't really believe that he had actually been arrested. But his face fell and he hung his head. They were laughing at him! After all that had happened, they thought this was funny?

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

He was marched into the precinct behind Parkman, Iris and her brother, Rob Johnson, who had been retrieved from the storeroom in the train station. "Hey, Lover," she called out, one brow cocked mockingly, "Real nice friends ya got. I told you, you can't trust cops."

"Yes, yes, you did," Blair grunted, "but then, you were also ready to shoot me." Turning away from her, his expression was flat as he struggled to quell the fear that had emerged as a late contender, but had easily won the wrestling match for dominance in his belly during the ride to the police station. He told himself, over and over, that Jim and Simon were just pulling his chain. They'd show up any second and end this farce. No way would they just leave him here to be pushed into a holding tank with Artie and Iris' brother, who both were staring at him as if this were all his fault. God, at least Chance wasn't with them; that dude was seriously nuts.

Not to mention, extremely dangerous.

Of course, Artie wasn't exactly a laugh a minute, either.

He felt physically ill and his breath was tight in his chest. Where the hell were they? This joke had gone on 'way long enough, he thought anxiously, as he was prodded down a long, grimy hall and into a large open space with counters, desks and a camera set up on a tripod in front of a tall upright board that marked the height of anyone who stood in front of it. A middle-aged, balding sergeant took the booking information from the cops, and Blair heard them giving his name along with the others as he was formally charged with trafficking an illegal substance, attempting to flee the country, and resisting arrest.

"Look. You don't understand," he started to babble desperately. "I was taken hostage by these people! They forced me to drive them around in my car! They threatened to kill me! I tried to get away, but they kept finding me. I helped the police capture her. I work with Detective Jim Ellison in the Major Crimes Unit, in Cascade, for Pete's sake! I didn't do anything wrong!"

But nobody was paying any attention to him as they shoved him along. After releasing his wrists from the tight and uncomfortable cuffs, his escort began to ink up his fingers and thumbs, pressing one digit after another onto a card that already had his name on it.

"Would you just stop and listen to me!" he pleaded, exasperated but afraid to actively pull away in case they misunderstood and thought he was resisting arrest. These cops didn't know he was innocent. His partner and so-called best friend and roommate knew. Banks knew. But they'd let this happen; let him be cuffed and hauled away like a common criminal. "I'm a victim, not a perpetrator!" he tried again, his throat dry and his words strained. He hated to call himself a 'victim'. It made him feel helpless and weak, out of control…trapped.

But he had been helpless for most of the preceding night and early morning. He'd had a gun shoved into his ribs and been told to drive out of Cascade. He'd been threatened with being shot on some lonely side road right after dawn. Had thought he was going to die outside a desolate rest stop. God. Blair paled as he remembered the revolver being pushed hard against the base of his throat, the trigger pulled. He started to shake and had to fight back the nausea that burned in the back of his throat.

And Iris had been about to kill him, not an hour ago.

How the hell did anybody construe that into anything but having been an unwilling hostage?

"You'll get a chance to give your statement in a few minutes," the cop behind him said in a bored tone, as he moved Sandburg toward the camera in the corner. "For now, do us all a favour and shut up."

Blair blinked and clamped his mouth shut. He was trembling as he was made to stand in front of the white board and the flash went off, capturing a face stunned and pale with shock, and wide eyes dark with fear. Numbly following the barked instructions, he turned first to the right and then to the left, as two more photos were taken. Why hadn't Simon and Jim shown up? Where the hell were they? Surely, they weren't going to just leave him here? They knew he wasn't a part of the drug deal, right? God, they had to know he wouldn't have anything to do with something like that. Jim had stopped Iris from killing him. Ellison had to know he wasn't guilty of anything. Hell, Jim had sent him to stop Iris from getting away. What the hell was going on here? Why were they doing this to him? How could they honestly think this was funny?

Feeling disoriented and shaky, he was marched to a bleak interrogation room and told to sit in a battered chair beside an equally unimpressive table that had seen better days about fifty years before. A cop set a small tape recorder on the table and sat down opposite him. Blair looked around, his gaze coming to rest on the two-way mirror, and he couldn't help wondering bitterly if Jim and Simon were on the other side, yucking it up. Some joke. Ha. Ha.

"Pay attention," the cop growled, evidently having said something Sandburg had missed.

Blair dragged his eyes away from the black window and focused on the officer. The tape recorder was switched on, and the preliminary information of his name, the charge, date and time was read into it. He was offered the right to counsel, but he shook his head, still unable to really believe that Jim and Simon wouldn't show up any minute and sort the mess out. "Okay," the cop said, settling back in his chair, "you wanted to talk, so talk. What's your story?"

Swallowing, Sandburg replied slowly, his tone low and taut as he struggled for calm, so there could be no mistake, no misunderstanding. "My name is Blair Sandburg. I'm a Teaching Fellow in the Department of Anthropology at Rainier University, and I work voluntarily as an unpaid observer in the Major Crimes Unit of the Cascade Police Department, in an unofficial capacity connected to the research for my doctoral dissertation."

"Well, that's original," the cop drawled, quirking his brow. "I bet you've got some hefty student loans - maybe could use a little better cash flow?"

"I can handle my debts," Sandburg replied firmly, catching the insinuation and scared by it. "I'm not into selling drugs, man. You seriously think I'd be stupid enough to try something like that when I work with Major Crimes?"

Shrugging, the officer said, "Go on with your story."

Nervously, Sandburg nodded. "I met Iris by chance yesterday morning, outside the building where I live - she was moving into the place next door," he reported, trying to keep the story brief and succinct. "We made a date for last night, only…only she called and said her car had been towed away. I went to pick her up, but she had an errand to run before we went back to my place. She said she had to meet some guy; his name is Chance, but I didn't know his name then. Anyway, in the parking lot of a convenience store, Chance shot at this other guy, Artie, and grabbed a bag, and then he and Iris piled into my car and she told me to drive. She, uh, shoved a gun into my side, so I figured I should do like she told me. We just drove aimlessly around all night, down one highway and up another, while they argued about what to do with the heroin Chance had stolen from Artie."

"You didn't know this guy, Chance, but you knew Artie Parkman?" the cop cut in sharply.

"No, no! I didn't know any of them, except Iris and I'd just met her. Artie had poked his head into my car earlier while I was waiting for Iris outside the store, mistaking me for Chance, I guess, but I'd never seen him before," Blair protested breathlessly, a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach at the man's obvious belief that he was lying.

"Uh huh," the cop grunted. "Go on."

Blair sucked in a deep breath and tried again to quell the fear that rolled through him, leaving him feeling cold and clammy. He stammered through the rest of his story of the horror of the night before and the early morning hours, describing how Chance had threatened to kill him, and then about Artie picking him up at the side of the road. His throat grew tight as he described Parkman's threat to kill him, and how the older man had actually pulled the trigger on an empty chamber. The cop didn't look convinced when Sandburg described how he'd broken a slab of wood from the mirror in the restroom, and assaulted Parkman with it, giving him time to try to make good his escape.

"You didn't take his gun or tie him up?" his interrogator demanded skeptically.

"No, I didn't; I wasn't thinking very clearly, you know? I just wanted to get as far away from him as I could," Blair replied wearily, knowing that he must sound and look scared - and that that probably just made him appear guilty. "Anyway, I ran along a railway line and then out onto the highway," he continued doggedly. "I tried to flag down a semi, but it just barreled right past. Iris, and her brother, Rob, were in the next car and they forced me to get in the back."

"Not your lucky day," the cop drawled as he rolled his eyes.

"Look, if I was making up a story, don't you think it would be better than this?" Sandburg snapped, frustrated, knowing all too well how unlikely it all sounded. Sighing, he reported the rest of his tale, including the fact that he briefly overcame his captors at the train station, and had Iris tie her brother up, but that Artie had captured them immediately after. He finished up with the grateful recollection of Ellison saving him from being shot by Iris behind the train station, and reported that he'd gone after her while Jim captured Parkman.

"So, your story is essentially that you were an innocent guy taken hostage, but you managed to aid the police in the capture of these felons?"

"Yeah, that's about it," Blair agreed, not reassured by the other man's tone of stolid forbearance.

The cop pointed out that Sandburg didn't have any witnesses to lend credence to his fairly unlikely tale, except for his 'partner' Ellison, who had only really arrived at the end of his little adventure; he made their relationship sound salacious, as if maybe Jim was a dirty cop. Nor did Blair have any bruises or rope burns that would support his contention that he'd been forced to cooperate with the others, and then, for good measure, the cop pointed out that it had been Sandburg's car, after all, in which the heroin had been found. Not to mention Iris. His questioner mused that maybe he'd been trying to help her escape undetected.

"I explained that to you!" Blair exclaimed, lifting his hands in frustration. Clamping down on his emotions, he shuddered and then said quietly, "I've told you the truth. That's it. That's what happened. I was a victim, taken hostage, my life was threatened repeatedly and I helped capture Iris at the railroad station. I am not a criminal! Damn it. Do you treat all innocent victims this way?"

The cop shrugged and drawled, "Everybody claims they're innocent, Sandburg."

"Yeah, well, sometimes it's true," Blair grated as he slumped against his chair. "What happens now?"

"You'll be held in custody pending bail, or until we find your version is true," the police officer replied as he stood and waved toward the door. "Your friends, Iris and company, are being interrogated now."

"They're not my friends, man!" Blair protested, and then the cop's words sank in. "What? You're going to lock me up? With them?" Sandburg exclaimed then, his eyes wide with horror. "You got to be kidding me! I'm a witness against them! It's not safe - "

"Nobody is going to hurt you inside a police station," the cop snapped and waved at him impatiently to stand up.

Reluctantly, Blair stood and moved toward the door. It was a nightmare, all of it. A freaking nightmare. How could…how could Jim do this to him? Too much time had passed, and he was beginning to feel abandoned. Maybe he should have called a lawyer? How could Ellison desert him like this? And think it was funny?

Sandburg bowed his head and had to swallow hard, blinking rapidly against the burn in his eyes. He knew his hands were shaking, but he couldn't seem to make them stop; and he could feel that his breath was tight and short in his chest, that he was panting with fear - probably stank of it. The cops clearly didn't believe him. Why would they? The whole story sounded like the worst kind of fiction. What if the others claimed he'd been in on it all; that he was as guilty as they were? He had no rope burns, no bruises, nothing to help prove he'd been forced to act against his will. There were no witnesses, nobody to say anything different, except Jim - but Jim wasn't there. Jim had left him swinging in the wind.

But Jim did know the truth. Eventually…eventually, this nightmare would be over. As soon as Ellison and Banks stopped laughing at him long enough to sort it all out. Blair lifted his head and moved down the hall. It was all so surreal. So impossible. So incredibly humiliating.

And so very, very frightening.

They were heading toward the holding cells when another cop called out and directed that he be taken back upstairs. Sandburg closed his eyes, praying that it meant Jim and Simon were finally putting an end to the madness. The cop pulled him around and pushed him lightly, to direct him back the way they'd just come. And sure enough, there they were, large as life, and still looking vastly amused. Yeah, it was real funny. His eyes flat and cold, anger once again filling him, Blair licked his lips as he walked toward them.

"We'll take him from here," Simon was saying jovially to the desk sergeant.

But the middle-aged balding guy didn't look pleased with the arrangements his Chief had agreed to, to let a suspect be taken out of their jurisdiction. "He's still under arrest and a suspect in this crime," the man was saying. "I expect him to be held in custody, under appropriate surveillance, until all our questions about what went down at the train station are answered."

Simon quirked a brow, suddenly looking less amused. He'd been over it all with the local Chief of Police, and had thought it was completely sorted out. "I can assure you that Sandburg is not involved in the possession or transportation of illegal drugs," he said firmly.

"And you have proof of that?" the cop asked sharply. "The drugs were in his vehicle. He freely admits he was dating the woman involved. The evidence indicates he was a party to the deal."

Blair saw Jim look from him to Simon and then to the irascible desk sergeant. Suddenly, Ellison didn't seem so amused, either. "Sandburg is my partner and roommate. He works with me at Cascade PD. He's not a felon."

But the sergeant just shook his head. "You are responsible to ensure he is held in custody until we say differently. Otherwise, I will not release him."

"Fine, fine," Banks growled. He signed a form and jerked his head toward the door. Jim moved forward to lightly grip Sandburg's arm to visibly 'take him into custody and escort' him out of the town's local police station.

Blair stiffened, but he didn't pull away. His expression stony, he walked stiffly from the building and toward Jim's truck, which was parked out front. Wordlessly, he got in and slammed the door closed. Jim winced and looked at Simon who had followed them outside. Banks rolled his eyes and grimaced, but said nothing as he continued on to his own vehicle.

Jim walked around the pickup and climbed inside. "You okay?" he asked quietly, only too aware of Sandburg's elevated heart rate and shallow breathing.

"Under arrest is what I am. 'Okay' doesn't quite cover it," Sandburg grated angrily as he stared forward out the windshield, refusing to look at Ellison.

"Look, Chief, we didn't mean it to go this far," Jim offered apologetically. "We've been trying for over an hour to get you out of there. But the evidence, well, they've got questions, and by the time we got to the station and you'd been booked - "

Unwilling to admit that they'd stopped for a coffee along the way, his words died in his throat as Blair turned flat, cold, empty eyes on him. "I saw the two of you laughing at me instead of clearing up the confusion in the first place, apparently finding it was all just too amusing to see me cuffed and arrested," Sandburg said starkly. "Now, I'm a suspect and I might very well go to jail," he charged, his voice hollow and tight. "I hope you'll still think it's all so funny then." With that, he turned away; his body rigid with anger, though his heartbeat revealed that fear was once more fighting for dominance.

"You won't go to jail," Ellison protested.

"I hope you're right," Blair ground out. "I really do."

Sighing, Jim shook his head and switched on the ignition. "Just take it easy, Chief. We'll sort this out."

"Yeah? Well, you're not the one conducting this investigation. You're not interviewing the other suspects or determining what will happen next. Your role is simply to keep me in custody and, frankly, I'm no more excited about being locked up in Cascade than in being put in the slammer here. Or did I miss something back there?" Sandburg retorted coldly. "And if they decide to charge me, you'll have to bring me back and watch them put me in a cell with Artie and Rob and, with the way my luck is going, Chance. And won't that be hilarious? Sorry, Jim, but I'm in no mood for empty reassurances from one of the guys who set me up in the first place."

Ellison grimaced as he put the truck into gear to follow Simon out to the highway and back to the city. Sandburg sat like a statue, unmoving and unspeaking, until the silence became oppressive. "Look, Blair - "

But the younger man held up a hand and shook his head tightly, cutting him off. "I truly don't want to talk to you right now, man," he growled. "I don't think there's really a whole lot that we have to say to one another."

Swallowing, unable to blame the kid for his anger, Jim returned his attention to the road. It was going to be a long trip. "You aren't going to go to jail," he said again with firm reassurance. Blair just shrugged and turned his head away to stare sightlessly out the side window.

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

When they arrived in the underground parking garage of the Cascade PD, Simon led the way to the bank of elevators. After he'd punched the button for the sixth floor, Blair swallowed and looked away, but Banks caught his look of relief.

"What? You thought we were going to take you to the lockup?" he exclaimed, shaking his head.

Sandburg's jaw tightened but he lifted his dark gaze to Simon's troubled eyes. "Why not? You laughed when they put the handcuffs on me and dragged me away. For all I know, you think I was involved in the drug running scam."

Banks snorted and, when the elevators opened, led the way to his office. "Make yourself at home, Sandburg," he grunted, as he waved to the chairs around the table. "You're in my custody until further notice. I trust you won't make a break for it?" he added facetiously.

Blair just shook his head as he moved to slump into a chair. He'd been terrified most of the preceding night and, now that he was reasonably safe, the adrenaline was wearing off and exhaustion was catching up with him. Raking his hair back behind his ears, he observed wearily, "Well, at least with your statements, they should give some credence to my story, right?"

When only silence greeted his words, he looked up uncomprehendingly but then, as understanding grew, he gaped. "They didn't take statements from you?" he demanded, appalled. "You didn't tell them I'm one of the good guys and helped you nail Iris and the drugs?"

Simon's gaze fell away and Jim looked uncomfortable. "We told the Police Chief there'd been a mix-up and you were with us," Banks replied finally, grimacing at the memory. When they'd arrived at the Freemont police station, they'd been unpleasantly surprised to find nobody was willing to just hand Sandburg over to them. Then, reluctant to admit that they'd simply laughed like fools when he'd been cuffed in front of them, knowing they'd look and sound like idiots, they'd tap-danced around with the local Chief of Police, giving him all the information they'd acquired since the evening before on Iris, her brother, Chance and Artie Parkman, and the merry chase they'd been led on as they'd tried to rescue Sandburg - but they hadn't given an official statement. They'd thought they'd worn him down into letting Sandburg go without actually revealing that they'd aided and abetted the confusion over the arrest. "Said we'd get a report to them in a day or so. We, uh, didn't know there might be a problem until they'd brought you up front."

"Oh, great," Sandburg sighed as he sagged back into the chair. Lifting his wrists, holding them together, he added sarcastically, "May as well cuff me for return now. 'Cause, God knows, without your corroboration of my statement, I'm dead."

"I'll get on it," Jim told his boss as he spun away, before Simon could direct him to clear things up with the Freemont PD.

Blair rolled his eyes and then crossed his arms on the table. Before laying his head upon them, he muttered, "Let me know when it's time to lock me up and throw away the key."

Simon's lips thinned but he bit back on his retort. The kid had every right to be angry with them; their momentary whimsy might have been fine in Cascade, but they'd been in another jurisdiction. It was a mess, to be sure, but not one of Sandburg's making. Well, except for his unfortunate taste in women.

Sighing, Simon took his chair behind his desk and tried to focus on the ever-growing mountain of paperwork in his in-basket. Sandburg lowered his head and closed his eyes, trying to quiet, if not able to completely quell, his fear that he really was going to end up in prison.

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

Within less than an hour, Ellison was back in Banks' office, and he looked caught somewhere between fury and actual fear.

"What?" Banks demanded, stiffening at the expression on Jim's face. Blair straightened up, pale and alarmed.

With a regretful glance at Sandburg, Ellison reported tightly, "We've got a problem, sir. Iris Johnson isn't inclined to cooperate at this point. Parkman indicates that all he knew was that Sandburg was with the others. Rob Johnson just says that Iris is fickle when it comes to her boyfriends, but he's not overly fond of the latest one, who tied him up in the railroad station and took off with Iris and the drugs. Chance just whines that Blair, here, is his woman's latest man, and he's pissed about it. So far as my statement is concerned, they're interpreting it as misguided trust in an observer who, no doubt, was trying to augment his income to pay off what they've already determined is a sizeable debt load given his student loans, and that Sandburg only cooperated at the end to make it look like he was innocent."

"Oh, shit," Sandburg whispered in horror. He'd been counting on Jim's statement getting him out of this nightmare, but it looked like his goose was well and truly cooked. Clamping his jaw against the nausea that threatened to overwhelm him, he went dead white as he bowed his head and gazed sightlessly down at the table. He was going to go to prison; life, as he knew it, was over. Stunned, he couldn't take it in, couldn't assimilate the data well enough to even begin processing it.

"But you stopped Iris from shooting him!" Simon snapped, not at all happy with the turn of events.

"Which they interpret as a falling out between thieves," Jim shrugged and sighed as he ran his hand over his head. He couldn't bring himself to look at his partner. "Look, I got them to fax me Sandburg's statement a few minutes ago. I looked it over and there isn't much to go on, even if they were inclined to investigate to find evidence to corroborate his story - which they don't seem to be."

Banks wiped a hand over his face and pinched the bridge of his nose. "What do we have to work with?"

Finally turning to Blair, Jim asked, "Where was this rest stop that Parkman took you to?"

Appearing dazed, Sandburg looked up, shaking his head slowly as he tried to remember. He'd just been so damned scared when it was all happening that he hadn't taken much notice of the details. "Somewhere along Highway 97 North," he muttered shakily. Squinting, knowing he had to do better than that, he forced himself to think, to remember, and added, his voice growing stronger as his intellect re-engaged and momentarily overcame his fear, "About a mile past an overturned school bus - they wouldn't let me stop to help. Anyway, Chance made me pull over and threatened to shoot me. Iris persuaded him that it was a waste of a good bullet and they took off. Artie picked me up right after. I guess it would have been about five miles further on, near some railroad tracks, that he threatened to kill me."

"Okay," Jim encouraged, trying to shut away the sickening images inspired by what he'd just read in Sandburg's statement, of a gun being held to the kid's throat and the trigger being pulled. "And you said you tried to wave down a semi? What did it look like? Any markings?"

"Oh, geez," Blair moaned as he pressed his eyes closed. "Artie…Artie was going to kill me and I was running, just running, to try to get away from him," he murmured, unaware of the stricken looks on his friends' faces. If they'd known the horrors the kid had faced during his ordeal, they might not have been so quick to laugh at him; but he'd seemed fine when it was over - had given no sign of what he'd endured. Sandburg's lips thinned and he frowned as he tried desperately to dredge up a fleeting memory. He was an observer, dammit, used to noting seemingly meaningless details…

"It was a white semi, nothing except black letters stenciled on the trailer, over the cab," he said, as he looked up at Jim, his eyes dull with bleak despair. "Capital letters, BL hyphen numeric four. Not much, is it?"

"I'll find it. The driver will remember you," Jim assured him.

Simon stood as he said, "I'd better go with you, Jim. If they're not taking your word alone on Sandburg's innocence, you'll need a witness to what you discover. Then the two of us will have another chat with the Chief in Freemont."

Blair watched them, his mouth slightly agape, his eyes shadowed and his face waxen.

"We'll sort this out, Sandburg," Simon rumbled, trying to sound reassuring. "You just, uh, watch some television or something. We'll be back as soon as we can."

Sandburg's gaze dropped away and he nodded, but his posture indicated that he wasn't holding out much hope for their success.

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

It didn't take Ellison and Banks long to find the dilapidated rest stop. The tracks on the ground told their own story, and they found the small plank of wood Sandburg had used to briefly disarm Parkman, easily verifying that it had been torn from the frame of the mirror inside. Jim pulled a camera from his glove compartment and took pictures of the tire tracks, the strip of wood 'in situ' before they moved it, and of the broken frame. Using his sense of smell predominantly, with some vision clues, Jim then followed Sandburg's trail along the tracks and through a field, back to the highway, while Simon waited with the truck. Ellison's gut tightened as he read the evidence of Blair racing full out - running in terror for his life - stumbling, wide prints cutting deeply into the soil, and the scent of fear still hanging over the meadow all the way to the highway. Looking up and down the small, secondary road to get his bearings, he called Simon on his cell, giving directions on where to find him.

"Parkman was wearing a thick wad of toweling as a bandage around his arm when I brought him down," Jim growled after Banks had picked him up, the thin strip of wood safely secured behind his seat. "I'm betting that's because of the injury Sandburg caused when he escaped." Reaching for the radio, he called back to the office and asked Rafe if he'd come up with anything on the 'BL-4' truck.

"Yeah, I think we may be in luck," Rafe replied. "BL-4 Transportation is headquartered in Freemont," he reported, and gave the address in the small, nearby town.

"Good work, thanks," Ellison acknowledged gratefully as he ended the conversation. Banks had already swung the truck around and was driving toward Freemont.

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

It took another two hours to track down the driver, one Wes Littleton, to get his statement, that yes, some crazy kid with long hair had raced out in front of his truck not far out of town as he was finishing his run. No, he hadn't stopped. How could he know what was going on? It could have been some sort of ruse to hijack his load of -. But, impatient, Jim just cut him off, got him to sign the statement, and then he and Simon headed to the local police station with their evidence to back up Sandburg's version of events.

It still took almost another hour to argue their case with the local Police Chief, who wasn't all that happy with big city cops trying to tell him how to do business, or messing up his crimes scenes. Though he finally admitted that, no, no one had been assigned to go out looking for evidence to check the kid's version, whining that he didn't have the luxury of manpower to undertake such an improbable search. Finally, he agreed that Sandburg was likely innocent of wrongdoing and only a hapless victim, but Iris still hadn't cracked and she was really the only one who could clear Blair's good name.

"Let me have a go at her," Ellison growled, sick and tired of the runaround.

Picking at his teeth with a toothpick, the Chief shrugged. "Sure, fill your boots - but no harassment."

Grimly, Ellison stalked along the hallway to the interrogation room, while Simon and the Chief followed him to watch and listen from the observation room next door.

"Ah, the man with the great boxers," Iris drawled when he walked in, after talking briefly in the hallway with the cop who had been questioning her. "Jim, right?"

The interrogating cop crooked a brow, but sat back to give Ellison room to do his thing.

"Yeah, Jim Ellison; I'm a detective with Major Crimes in Cascade," he said as he pulled out a chair and sat down across the table from her.

"Well…you look more like a cop than a road crew supervisor," she allowed with a lazy smile.

"Look, I don't much care what story you tell these guys about what went down last night," he said briskly, getting down to business. "I just want you to come clean about Sandburg. He didn't have a damned thing to do with the drugs and we both know that. So why don't you just admit he was a hostage?"

Shrugging, she pursed her lips. "What's in it for me?" she challenged.

"You get to not have me as an enemy for the rest of your sorry life," Jim replied blandly with a sweet smile, though the look in his eyes was deadly. If the Police Chief wanted to construe that as harassment and make a federal case of it, fine. He'd deal with that later. For now, all he wanted was to clear Sandburg of all charges.

She shifted under his scrutiny, too intelligent to miss the very real threat of being hounded and harassed to the end of her days. The last thing she needed was a cop bent and determined to go out of his way to make her life miserable, whether inside prison or on the streets. Pragmatic to the core, Iris shrugged again and smiled. "We just took Blair along for the ride. Poor puppy - he was going to cook me dinner, that's all. I'd never seen him before yesterday morning and, frankly, I couldn't care less if I never see him again."

Jim looked up at the one-way mirror. "Good enough?" he asked.

The Police Chief didn't know Ellison could see and hear him, but he turned to Simon and finally gave way. "Okay, tell your man we're sorry for all the confusion," he said grudgingly.

Jim nodded at the cop and Iris, stood and stepped to the door. But he paused and snapped his fingers, as if just remembering something. Turning back, he asked, "Where's Sandburg's guitar?"

"In the trunk of my car," she replied with a shrug, her manner bored, dismissive. "It got towed from the parking lot last night around seven."

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

The hours trickled by with no word, one after another until two hours had passed, then three and it was coming up on four. Alternately staring sightlessly at the television and pacing Banks' office restlessly, Sandburg tried very hard not to let his fear or his anger drive him straight into panic. Jim and Simon would work things out.

But what the hell was taking so damned long?

He knew they'd never meant it all to go this far, that they'd just been pulling his chain. But what an unbelievably stupid stunt, to let the local cops cuff and arrest him! He clenched his fists as bile rose to burn the back of his throat. What if they couldn't clear him? If they'd pulled him aside right at the beginning, making it clear he'd been a hostage, there'd probably have been no question of that. But the cops up in Freemont had had time to work up their own scenario to fit the facts - a scenario they seemed to really like. What if he ended up going to prison? Oh, God -

Blair forced his thoughts away from that hideous possibility, and tried not to dwell on the humiliation of being booked, printed and photographed, unconsciously rubbing at the ink that still stained his fingertips. When he got too close to panic, he forced himself to deepen and slow his breathing. And when his headache became too much to contend with, he begged some aspirin off Joel and dry-swallowed them, too worried about prison food to be unduly concerned at the moment about putting chemicals into his body.

"You know they meant no harm, Blair," Joel tried to reassure him. "It'll be all right."

"Yeah, right," he muttered, returning to his pacing, feeling like an animal trapped in a cage. Even if he wanted to, he couldn't leave the office. He was under arrest, however comfortable the accommodation; Joel might be trying to act the friend but, the truth was, Taggart was really his jailer.

Finally, the phone rang and Joel's worried features melted into a broad smile as he listened. "Right, I'll tell him," he said and then hung up. His dark eyes glowing, he told Sandburg, "You're a free man, son. Jim asked if I'd give you a lift home. He and Simon will meet us there."

Blair's mouth gaped open as he sucked in air, his knees going weak as he sagged into a chair. "Free? You mean, I'm on bail - or I'm cleared?"

"I mean you're free as a bird, the charges dropped," Joel said quietly as he gripped Sandburg's shoulder. "It's all over, Blair."

"Thank God," Sandburg sighed and then smiled wanly at Joel. "I'd like to go home now, if that's okay with you."

"Sure thing, son," Joel agreed compassionately.

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

It was only when he and Taggart entered the loft that Sandburg remembered the dinner he'd been in the process of preparing what seemed an eon ago. Blowing out a breath, he moved to the stove to check on just how bad the mess was.

"Smells good," Joel observed.

"You want to stay for dinner?" Blair offered. "I think most of it is salvageable. It's a seven course meal; be a shame to waste it."

"You prepared it special for that she-demon, huh?" the older man guessed, then added with a knowing wink, "Supposed to have good results?"

Blair sighed ruefully as he nodded. "According to the folktale, yeah."

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

By the time Jim and Simon arrived an hour later, Sandburg had finished preparing the meal and Joel was relaxing with a beer.

Blair's brows lifted in surprise when he saw Jim carry in the flat instrument case. "You got it back!" he exclaimed, and couldn't help but smile. "Man, I thought I'd seen the last of that guitar."

"Yeah, well, we persuaded the watchman down at the yard to let us have it," Simon rumbled, deciding they didn't need to go into the details of the favours they'd agreed to in return.

Nodding, the smile fading, Sandburg waved them to the table and served up the meal. Too tired to bother with being fancy, he just dumped each course in a bowl or on a plate and let them serve themselves.

"You not eating?" Jim observed, when Blair moved to retrieve the instrument case from the doorway.

"Nah, I'm not hungry," Sandburg grated, not looking at his partner.

"Maybe you'd play us a tune," Taggart suggested hopefully as he dug into the interesting array of foods spread before them.

Shrugging, still considering Joel a friend even if he wasn't sure about the other two men, Blair laid the case on the sofa. "Why not?" he agreed, surprising them all with his proficiency with the instrument and his husky, more than adequate singing voice.

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

As he and Simon were leaving, Joel offered to help with the stakeout again that night, but Jim declined, saying that Sandburg would help him.

"Uh, actually, I'm really wiped out," Blair interjected, his voice tight. "If Joel doesn't mind…"

"No problem, son," Taggart assured him, magnanimously. "You've had a hard time - you just take it easy tonight."

"Thanks, man," Sandburg replied quietly, as he put his guitar back into its case.

Simon gazed from Ellison's troubled look to Sandburg's studious avoidance of his partner's eyes. Certainly, the kid hadn't met his eyes, either, the whole time they'd been there. Shrugging, he turned to leave with Joel, glad to escape whatever vestige of wrath the kid still harboured for their admittedly asinine behaviour early that morning. Hell, they'd be lucky if Sandburg didn't decide to sue them.

After the other two men had left, Jim silently began to clear the dishes from the table while Blair carried the case to his room and then disappeared into the bathroom to take a shower. With deliberate courtesy and consideration, Jim waited until he heard the younger man finish before turning on the hot water to fill the kitchen sink. Clad in sweatpants, Sandburg came out of the bathroom and returned to his bedroom, where he sat on the bed while he towel-dried his hair. Leaving the dishes to soak, Ellison wandered to his roommate's doorway.

"You okay?" he asked tentatively.

"Yeah, fine," Blair replied shortly, keeping the towel over his head to avoid making eye contact.

"Look, I can tell you're still mad, but we fixed everything," Ellison said tightly, in his own defence.

Sandburg stopped rubbing at his hair and let his towel-filled hands drop to his lap. "So that's supposed to make it all right?" he demanded coldly.

Jim's lips tightened as he shrugged and looked away.

Blair shook his head as he fought to harness his still simmering anger. "Why did you and Simon think I deserved to be punished?" he asked then. "I mean, I was the victim, right? You don't usually stand by and let the victims of a crime be arrested. So, why me? Why did you think it was so funny to see me hauled off in handcuffs?"

Grimacing, Ellison crossed his arms defensively. "I guess 'cause you'd rashly hooked up with a felon, panting after her before you knew anything about her; and, I don't know, we'd been worried and I guess we wanted you to pay for that. It was stupid and uncalled for, but you seemed no worse for wear and well, we just didn't think it through. You gotta know, we never expected it to put you at risk."

Blair's lips thinned as he swallowed against his sudden rush of fury. "I didn't look 'worse for wear'," he echoed and shook his head in amazement. "They threatened to kill me at least three times during the time I was being held by one or the other of them. I was sure I was going to end up dead," he seethed. "And the only reason I didn't look 'worse for wear', as you put it, was that I was so damned grateful to see you, to realize you and Simon had come after me, that I was positively euphoric!"

When Ellison just hung his head, muttering, "I know that, now," Blair stood to move into Jim's space, his eyes flashing with hurt and anger as he glared up at his erstwhile friend. "So you wanted to punish me for making a date with an attractive woman - like I'm supposed to suspect the neighbours of being drug dealers! Dammit, Jim - that makes no sense! Okay, I admit it. I like to date. When did that become a crime? I'm twenty-eight, single and in the prime of my sexual life. Do you and Simon forget what that's like? Did marriage sour the two of you so badly that you resent it when someone else is still having a good time? Well, you know what? It wasn't funny, man. It was humiliating and terrifying and completely out of line. I don't need to be treated like a piece of shit, Ellison. I really don't."

Jim froze at the tone and the words, hearing more than Blair was saying. Startled, suddenly scared, he looked into the turbulent wide eyes and saw, for the first time, how much damage their stupid act that morning had wreaked. Blair wasn't just too tired or angry to go out on stakeout that night. The kid was seriously thinking about calling it quits. Ellison gaped a little, and his head tilted sideways as he blinked. "What are you saying?" he asked quietly, barely daring to breathe.

Turning away, Sandburg sighed. "I'm thinking about finding another place to live, for starters," he replied tightly. "And about terminating our 'deal'. I don't think it's healthy to hang around people who hold me in utter contempt."

"Whoa, just hold on a minute, Chief," Jim exclaimed, lifting his hands to stave off the words - and the actions that might follow them. "That's not true, and you know it. We were worried about you, tracked you all over that part of the state. It was a dumbass joke to let them cuff you but, honest to God, we never meant it to go so far."

"Some joke. I've never been arrested before, Jim," Blair replied bitterly. "Never been booked, printed; interrogated like some criminal. Never faced the possibility of prison - of having my whole life destroyed. It was hard enough to be victimized by Iris and her hangers on…but by my friends? Man, that was just about the worst thing that's ever happened to me, worse, in some ways, than Lash or Kincaid or all the rest - 'cause at least when those guys threatened or hurt me, it wasn't personal."

Ellison felt nausea roil in his gut, and his chest grew tight as he stiffened in the doorway. "It was one mistake, Chief," he rasped hoarsely. "One stupid moment of thoughtlessness. Surely that doesn't outweigh everything else? Sandburg…Blair, you know we wouldn't have ever let anything happen to you." When his partner remained rigidly still, his face turned away, Jim asked plaintively, "What's it going to take to make this right?"

"I don't know, Jim," Blair replied starkly. "I don't know if anything can make this right. It was abuse, pure and simple. Abuse of your power, of our friendship, of me as a person." Turning to sit down on the bed, he said quietly, "I need to get some sleep and then think about it. And you need to go on stakeout. Good night, Jim."

Effectively dismissed, Ellison floundered for a moment and then turned away; sick to his soul about the damage he and Simon had done in one tired moment of thoughtlessness. Hell, they'd been euphoric, too, to have found Sandburg alive and apparently well. Jim, in particular, had known how very close it had been, and was almost weak with relief to have arrived in the nick of time. They'd been kidding around and sure hadn't meant any harm. Hadn't meant to cause such trauma.

Hadn't meant to be abusive.

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

The next morning, when he got back from the stakeout at the strip club with Joel, Jim found Blair already up and dressed, ready to head out for Rainier. Sandburg's manner was still distant and very subdued. Dumping his keys in the basket on the table by the door, Ellison said quietly, "I talked to Simon last night, and he's as sorry as I am about what we did. We hope you'll give us another chance. And, well, we thought the three of us might go fishing this weekend. See if we can mend our fences, if…if you're willing to do that."

Sandburg set his empty mug in the sink, and then gazed at Jim soberly for a long moment. Finally, he nodded. "Okay, Jim. Intellectually, I know you guys didn't mean any harm. I'm just not there emotionally yet. But I'm willing to try to get past this."

When Ellison sagged in relief, Blair picked up his knapsack and slung it over his shoulder. "But I'm not making any promises, man. We'll see how it goes," he said tightly as he brushed past and out the door.

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

The next day, the three men headed into the mountains, to fish by a rushing river and repair their friendship…

…and ended up running into some poachers.

But that's another story.

Finis

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