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

Haywire

by JET

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

Sometimes entire worlds can crumble to ruins within a matter of hours.

Gradually, what began in a single destructive moment turns into days.

Eighteen days, to be precise.

One thousand, four hundred thirty-two hours.

Twenty-five thousand nine hundred twenty minutes.

He was too terrified to begin calculating the seconds.

Like a time bomb slowly ticking down the seconds until detonation, there were times in those eighteen days of hell when he felt as though he would explode. He could even visualize it clearly, his entire being exploding in a giant mushroom cloud of pain and fear, like those terrifying images of the A-bomb you saw in grainy old newsreel footage.

There were just as many times when he was afraid he would not, that he would just go on existing in a state of *nothingness* forever. Empty. Never knowing. Always wondering. Never finding any answers at all to either relieve his broken heart or crush it completely under the weight of the truth.

Only one thousand, four hundred thirty-two hours ago, life made sense. Blair remembered seeing an old-fashioned telephone switchboard once when Naomi went to visit a friend who was also a telephone operator for Ma Bell. All the wires and plugs going from one connection to another amazed him at the time. How did they remember exactly what went where? It would take so little, just a few crossed wires, to throw the entire system into total confusion. That was how Blair felt now. As if all his wires had been crossed, leaving him helpless and disorientated.

His brooding thoughts echoed the steady wintry rain falling on the dreary February day. Standing in the rain, unmindful of the cold or his own sodden clothing, he stood on the balcony of the loft, staring out over the gray city.

"Jim?" Blair Sandburg whispered the name as though expecting an answer. "Where are you?"

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

Eighteen Days Earlier

"Hey, Chief!" Jim called from the kitchen. "Hurry up! These eggs aren't getting any fresher." He carefully cracked open the sixth egg and drained it into the bowl, scored a perfect shot with the shell into the wastebasket, then began to whip it into a yellow frothy mixture. He hummed softly under his breath as he monitored Sandburg's progress getting dressed. Jim smiled as he realized he'd become somewhat of an expert at timing his breakfasts to be ready almost to the second that Blair appeared at the table.

Breakfast was definitely Jim's favorite meal of the day. It wasn't just the temptation of fresh eggs, the aroma of hot pancakes with just a touch of butter, or the sizzling of the bacon frying in the skillet. No, the appeal of breakfast was in what it represented.

Potential.

The beginning of the day, represented by breakfast, held all the promise, all the hope, of a new beginning. No limits. A blank slate awaiting each person's unique imprint.

Jim chuckled quietly. Better not confide such deep thoughts to Sandburg. Might blow his image as a shallow Neanderthal.

Not that Jim believed for a minute that Sandburg actually held such a low opinion of him. At least, not any more. Over three years together had revealed too much for either man hold such a one-dimensional view of the other. Or, perhaps, his musings about breakfast wouldn't surprise Sandburg at all. The kid knew him better than anyone else ever had. Jim had quit asking himself why and how long ago.

Just as the last of the eggs slid from the pan to Jim's plate, Blair sat down at his place, rubbing his hands together in anticipation. "Mmmm... Smells good. My compliments to the chef."

Jim took a mock bow, ran some water over the pan in the sink, then joined Sandburg at the table. "Got a heavy schedule today, Chief?"

Blair shook his head as he finished spreading jam lightly on his toast. "Not really. Thought I'd come join you at the station by lunch. Maybe we can catch a table at that new Mexican place over on 6th. How's the Gregory case coming?"

The rest of the meal was spent in simple chit chat about the upcoming day. By the time Jim picked up his keys from the table by the door, Blair was almost done with the dishes. "See you in a while for Mexican, Chief," Jim called over his shoulder as he stepped out the door.

"You got it, man. Later, Jim," Blair answered, up to his elbows in dishwater.

Jim jogged easily down the steps, still in a good humor from breakfast. Potential, he thought as he slipped behind the wheel of his Ford truck and cranked up the radio. This day definitely has potential.

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

Blair strolled into the bullpen and glanced around for his partner. "Hey, Rafe. Where's Jim?"

Rafe glanced up from his computer screen and shrugged. "Dunno. Haven't seen him today." The handsome detective flashed his quick grin. "What's the matter, Sandburg? Forget to coordinate your schedules again?"

Blair ignored the jibe and headed for Simon's office. Halfway there, he was waylaid by Joel Taggart. "The captain's not in, Blair. He's got a meeting with the brass."

"You seen Jim, man? I told him I'd be here by lunchtime. It sounded like he'd be at his desk all morning."

Taggart glanced at the empty desk as though expecting to see Ellison materialize there. "No, now that you mention it, I don't think Jim's been in this morning. You sure he said he'd be in the office?"

Blair didn't like the hollow feeling in the pit of his stomach. Was this what experienced cops meant about listening to your gut? Without answering Joel, Blair strode to Jim's desk and picked up the phone. Dialing Ellison's cell number, he listened numbly to the unanswered rings. "C'mon, man. Answer the damn phone, would ya?" he chanted under his breath. After ten rings, the impersonal voice of the computerized answering message from the phone company informed him that the cellular customer was not available. Blair clicked off the phone and slowly slipped it back into his jacket pocket.

By now, Blair was aware of several sets of eyes watching him from around the bullpen. He swallowed hard as a multitude of possibilities flew through his mind. No matter which way he looked at it, the basic facts remained unchanged.

Jim wasn't where he'd said he would be.

He didn't answer his phone.

No one had seen him all morning.

Deciding to follow that gut instinct, Blair walked over to where Joel stood watching him. He looked steadily into the captain's kind brown eyes and said calmly, "Joel, I think Jim's in trouble."

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

There comes a point when reality and fantasy become so connected, so entwined, that it becomes impossible to distinguish between them. For Jim Ellison, that benchmark had passed an indeterminate time ago.

During his moments of lucidity, he believed himself to be in a basement. During his more fantastical journeys, Jim found himself playing high school football in the old stadium near his childhood home, moving silently with his unit in the heat of a tropical jungle, or camping in the mountains with Blair. As time drifted by, Jim was in the dark, damp basement less and less often as his mind sought escape from the torment of his captors.

They had made it crystal clear from the beginning exactly what it was they wanted from him.

His Sentinel abilities.

The one who demanded his cooperation most frequently Jim had come to call 'Owl'. When he was alone, his head was covered, and from what little he could tell through the heavy fabric, the basement prison was pitch black. Even his enhanced sight failed to find enough light to allow the slightest vision. However, when Owl visited, a brilliant spotlight was turned on behind his interrogator, effectively blinding Jim once the hood was removed.

He could see nothing of the man asking him the same questions over and over. Except for the glasses. Owl wore perfectly round, wire-framed glasses. When the light was on, the only feature Jim could distinguish were the glowing orbs masking the eyes of the man holding him captive. Owl seemed as good a name for an anonymous demon as any.

The man was tall; Jim deduced that from the height of Owl's voice when he interrogated him. He also had an impression of massive size. His adversary didn't strike him as a small man. A small, perhaps nonexistent, heart, now that was another matter entirely.

During the course of his interrogations, Jim had assembled several pieces of the puzzle. First, these men knew about his senses. How, he hadn't a clue, and frankly, under the circumstances, it scarcely seemed to matter. Second, they wanted his cooperation. They expected Jim to assist them in some way. Again, the details were vague. Third, they were obviously connected to the government. Jim knew this almost instinctively. His torturers were too good, too professional, not to have had government-sponsored training. Somehow, he had fallen into the hands of what he assumed to be a shadow unit of one of the government's intelligence units, or maybe a rogue, breakaway militia, and they knew his secret.

It was his greatest nightmare come true.

Perhaps not quite his greatest.

At least, as far as Jim knew, Sandburg was safe. There had been no mention of his Guide's name and no threats to his life, at least to this point. For that, Jim was secretly grateful. Perhaps he could still manage to get out of this alive. If not, then he apparently was to be granted the small favor of dying knowing that for once, Sandburg hadn't been dragged into this along with him.

When Owl wasn't present, he was utterly alone, his entire head covered by the heavy, foul-smelling black bag designed to eliminate any chance of using his sight. Somewhere nearby, a white noise machine purred unceasingly, rendering his hearing useless. A heavy rubber gag was buckled firmly in place in between sessions with Owl's expert torturers, ensuring that he could not cry out for help. Hearing his cries during the painful sessions apparently gave them some kind of thrill, because the gag was removed prior to the beginning of each round of torture. Jim took advantage of the opportunity to scream as loudly as possible, hoping desperately he might be heard above the loud rock music played upstairs during each endless session.

Bound naked to a straight chair in what he assumed was the center of the musky basement, Jim sat with his head slumped, his chin touching his bare chest, his gag once more securely in place, filling his dry mouth completely. The chair was tied securely to a post, preventing it from being moved at all. The last session had ended some time ago; how long, he had no way of knowing. It had been the electrodes this time. His chest and other, more private, parts of his anatomy bore the tell-tale angry red marks of his torturers instruments. Even though his hands were nearly numb from being bound behind him for so long, he could still feel their minute, continuous tremors. In some distant corner of his mind, Jim wondered if there would be lasting neurological problems. He knew both shoulders were dislocated, and from the pain in his right knee and left elbow, he feared they were fractured.

Baseball bats can wreak havoc on human flesh.

He was so damned thirsty. Strange, that with all the pain he'd endured since he'd awakened in this dark hell-hole, it was the never-ending thirst that dominated his waking moments. Occasionally, rough hands would remove his gag long enough to give him small sips of water, but only enough to keep him alive. He vaguely remember eating something, perhaps soup, but he could not recall when that might have been.

Jim had to grudgingly admire their ingenuity in taking him captive. They had been waiting for him only blocks from the loft as he drove to work on that bright morning, so full of promise. When he stopped at a traffic light, three men had pounced. One broke his driver's window as another entered through the passenger door. The third landed in the truck bed, breaking the window behind Jim's head. Although he fought like a desperate animal caught in a trap, a quick injection from the man behind him soon forced him into unconsciousness. His last thought had been one of gratitude that Sandburg had to be at Rainier that morning. Jim was almost certain they would have killed Blair rather than risk being seen transporting two limp bodies into whatever vehicle they used to whisk him away.

From above the drone of the white noise, he heard footsteps and remained absolutely motionless in hopes of overhearing a conversation. Instead, his heart sank when he heard the damned spotlight being turned on. The white noise ceased abruptly.

Owl had returned.

The hood was snatched off roughly, and Jim shut his eyes against the glaring light. Flashes of hot pain shot through his head as his eyes, so accustomed to total darkness, reacted to the brilliant glare. From behind him, rough hands abruptly jerked the buckle of the gag agonizingly tight, cutting into the sides of his mouth and drawing blood from the endless cuts left during previous sessions. At last, after what seemed an eternity, the pressure lessened. When the gag was yanked from his mouth, Jim moved his jaw muscles painfully.

"Open your eyes, please, Detective. It's time for us to talk once again."

Jim's empty belly tightened at the sound of the familiar voice. "Why should we?" he croaked dryly. "Nothing's gonna change."

"Now, I don't know about that, Detective Ellison."

Slowly, Jim peeled open his heavy lids until he could squint up through the blinding glare to the glowing round circles that marked Owl's eyes.

"That's better," Owl remarked approvingly. "See how much more smoothly things go when you cooperate?"

Jim's swollen lips curved in a grimace. "Nothing's changed as far as I can see."

"Have you been thinking about our offer, Detective? Perhaps you prefer the title of Captain? You were a highly decorated officer at one time. Our offer would allow you the privilege of serving your country once more, and at a time when talents such as yours would be greatly appreciated."

Jim struggled to summon enough saliva to moisten his parched mouth. "If I'd wanted to reenlist, I would have visited my local recruiter." He moved his lips awkwardly, his dry mouth making his voice harsh and unpleasant. "You don't strike me as the leader of the type of organization where volunteering is an option."

Owl chuckled. "I admit, sometimes it takes some... convincing... to recruit volunteers for our cause."

"Who... who are you?" Jim asked hoarsely.

"You don't actually expect me to answer that?" Owl paused for a moment, then added, "Perhaps you do deserve a simple explanation. We operate outside normal government parameters, Captain. Only a handful of people in places of authority even know we exist, and I doubt that any of those would admit to our reality. Yet, we are a necessary, even important, organization, because we do what the official government cannot or will not do."

Owl shifted in his chair, and Jim lost the bright reflection of his glasses momentarily. "Don't you understand how vital talents such as yours could be to us in this age, Captain? I'm talking about sending you on the most vital, highly secretive missions you can imagine. Into Iraq and Iran. Pakistan and Afghanistan. All with the intent of preserving our national security, the freedom and safety of our citizens. We're dedicated to eradicating the terrorists who threaten our freedom, Captain."

Jim's laugh was little more than a dry croak. "All while depriving me of my freedom? Is that how you operate in your little secret club?"

Another figure entered the room, but Jim couldn't make out anything about the face. The unknown figure moved close to Owl, seemingly whispering something in his ear. "Yes, of course," Owl said pleasantly. "Captain Ellison, there's a friend here who wishes to speak with you."

"Hello, Jim."

He recognized the voice immediately.

"Why don't you come out here so I can see you, Brackett?" Jim asked hoarsely. "Or do you prefer hiding in the shadows, too?"

From behind the bright light appeared the face of Lee Brackett, ex-CIA agent. "Nice to see you again, Ellison. Sorry it has to be under these trying circumstances."

"Should have figured you'd be recruited by a group like this, Brackett," Jim said roughly. "Hope they're paying you well."

"They are," Brackett said easily. "Actually, I approached them. I figured your talents might be exactly what they'd be looking for. Sorry to find you're not cooperating, Jim."

"Did you seriously think I would?"

Brackett turned to Owl. "I suggest you retrieve the Guide."

For an instant, Jim thought he had misheard. The shaking in his hands, bound behind his back, became worse, spreading to his upper arms and shoulders.

"You spoke of a Guide once. But he has not yet agreed to assist us. Why should we be concerned about providing a Guide?"

"Not a Guide. The Guide. If the research I read was correct," Brackett smiled tightly at Jim as he spoke, "every Sentinel has a partner, a Guide to watch his back, to prevent him from zoning. The relationship that builds between Sentinel and Guide is extremely close." Brackett's cold eyes stared deeply into Jim's squinted ones. "They are closer than brothers. In many ways, closer than lovers. Either would willingly die for his partner. I know from personal observation that this is true in his case."

"You bastard!" Jim growled, straining futilely at his bonds.

Brackett continued calmly. "If you want to insure Ellison's cooperation, bring in Blair Sandburg. Besides, once he begins working with you, you'll need Sandburg. I used them once and the Guide definitely was worth bringing along."

"You failed, Brackett," Jim said harshly.

"That time, yes." Brackett's gaze was steady. "I haven't forgotten. That's part of my reasoning in helping our friend here. That and a substantial sum of cash already deposited in my overseas account." He laughed and turned back toward Owl. "I can get to Sandburg. It'll cost you, but I'll bring him in."

The voice behind the round orbs sounded pleased. "Excellent, Mr. Brackett. We'll work out the terms later." There was a snapping of fingers, and from behind Jim, heavy hands lowered the black hood back into place. He twisted his head, struggling to avoid the stifling fabric, but in seconds, the bright light faded behind a wall of black.

"You bastard! Brackett!" Jim roared. "Leave him out of this! Hurt him and you're a dead man!" The only reply was fading laughter. "Brackett!" As he opened his mouth to curse Brackett again, rough hands jammed the gag back in place and quickly tightened the strap behind Jim's head. He cried out desperately through the cruel gag, but only a low, keening moan emerged.

Jim continued fighting against his bonds, bucking against the chair and attempting to scream out his anger. There was no reply. The white noise machine was once again turned on.

He was alone.

They were going after Sandburg.

It was difficult to breathe. At least three ribs had been broken during one of his interrogation sessions, and combined with the burning pain where the electrodes had been placed, each breath was sheer agony. Every heart beat sounded like rolling thunder in his ears, overriding even the roar of the white noise.

Brackett was going after Sandburg.

Jim forced himself to be still and concentrated on breathing beneath the stifling black hood and through the gag filling his mouth. The tremors in his upper body lessened slightly, and in time, he was able to take shallow breaths once more. He had to do something. As horrible as the torture sessions had been, as degrading as it was to be gagged while bound naked to this chair, starving and parched from thirst, those things were bearable.

What Jim could not bear was the thought of Blair being anywhere near this place. Just the thought of Owl getting his inhumane hands on the gentle young man was enough to bring a rush of bile into Jim's throat. But if he was to help his Guide, he had to find enough remaining strength to think rationally.

Coldly, he began to evaluate his situation. He could give in to Owl's demands. Agree to help, then wait for the chance for escape. That was tempting, however, Jim wasn't convinced that would keep Blair safe. Not with Lee Brackett around. What was to keep the rogue CIA agent from bringing Blair in anyway, just for insurance?

He rejected that option.

A second possibility was escape, but that didn't seem likely. He hadn't been untied since he'd awakened in the basement an eternity ago. Bathroom privileges were nonexistent, and he'd long grown used to the smell of his own waste. Not that such matters were much problem anymore with the lack of food and water.

Jim tested his bonds again, straining against the cords with every ounce of strength he could summon. Warm blood trickled down from his wrists, coating his hands with their wet stickiness. He felt the cords cutting cruelly into his chest and automatically dialed down the pain. He'd used the pain dials as never before during the days of his captivity. They didn't take away the pain completely, but at least, made it endurable.

His strength ebbed, then evaporated, and Jim slumped in surrender, breathing heavily once again.

Escape was not an option.

A moan of pain and frustration broke from Jim's throat, but his gag effectively stifled it deep in his throat. He drew a ragged breath and focused on finding another way out.

A way out...

The Sentinel's mind worked furiously. They wanted his Sentinel abilities. He couldn't escape. Brackett was going after Blair. If he couldn't escape physically, there was one more option left to him.

He could destroy what they wanted most.

Jim's eyes filled with tears of relief. They had methodically taken away everything they could from him, but somehow, he'd maintained control of the one thing they could not steal - control of his senses. Rendered powerless in all other areas, Jim realized he had a single option left that was his to control and his alone.

He could zone.

Despite his pain, Jim felt the determination growing. If he could zone deeply enough... permanently... beyond the reach of their electrodes and whips, then he could escape. If Sandburg's theory held true, then a long, extremely deep zone would slowly decrease his heart rate and respiration. If he could hold the zone long enough, he would die.

They would have no need for Sandburg.

He would be free, and his partner safe.

Jim immediately focused on the white noise machine and on the throbbing pain ripping across his body from the latest round with the electrodes. If he could zone on two senses - touch and hearing - the zone would be even deeper. He yearned to be able to focus his sight on something - anything - and add sight to the lethal mix, but the darkness inside the hood was too complete.

The darkness...

Slowly, Jim opened his protesting eyes. Forcing himself to push his sight to its limits and beyond, he peered into the darkness. The blackness began to swirl and undulate in an illusion of movement. At the same time, Jim opened up his sense of hearing and allowed the roar of the white noise to flood his body. He reached for the pain dial and firmly turned it completely off. Sensations of fire streamed through his veins, rushing up and down his arms and legs, streaking blazing trails of flame across his chest and around his back. A scream rose in his throat, and for the first time, Jim was glad he was tightly gagged. A scream might alert his captors and the zone would be broken before it was complete. He bit down hard on the heavy plastic gag that filled his mouth to stifle whatever small noise he might make.

The last step was to turn off his conscious thoughts. Jim hesitated only for a moment, feeling a wash of regret for what would never be. Then, he pictured Blair's face, smiling and open, and his eyes, filled with that damned trust that never wavered. The regret dissipated, and Jim let go.

*I'm sorry, Chief,* he thought just before the swirling darkness and the white-hot, writhing pain claimed him.

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

The pounding on the door jerked him awake with a startled cry. Blair sat bolt upright in bed, his eyes wide and staring into the darkness of his small bedroom. For an instant, he thought he'd imagined the knocking at the door, but seconds after awakening, the insistent pounding began again.

"I'm coming. I'm coming," he muttered, slipping out from beneath the comforter. Blair caught a glimpse of the illuminated dial of his alarm clock. Three AM. He glanced on the way past at the pile of sodden clothing lying in a haphazard pile on the floor. He'd finally come in off the balcony, cold and shaking, only to deposit his wet clothes on the floor and slide into the welcome warmth of bed.

Surprisingly, sleep came almost immediately that night. He'd slept little in the previous eighteen days and nights. What little sleep Blair had managed had been haunted by visions of Jim - hurt or dead or dying - and he had not rested well.

Blair padded to the door and looked into the hallway through the peephole.

Simon.

He paused for a moment, his hand clutching the doorknob so tightly, his knuckles turned white. Simon appearing at the loft at this hour could be either good or bad.

Either they'd found Jim and he was safe.

Or they had a really strong lead.

Or they'd found Jim, and it was the worst.

His heart in his throat, Blair opened the door and silently motioned Simon inside.

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

Simon watched the tension build on Sandburg's face as he pulled the door shut behind him. The kid looked terrible. Pale and thinner. Simon swore he'd lost ten pounds at least. Haggard with a haunted shadow in his eyes that Simon hadn't seen since he'd looked into Ellison's eyes on the night Lash kidnapped Sandburg.

Of course, having your best friend disappear off the face of the earth took its toll. He'd been surprised at how well the young anthropologist had held up during the eighteen days Jim had been missing. Sometimes he looked like he was walking an awfully unstable tightrope, but somehow, Sandburg had not given up hope. He'd managed to hold on.

"We've got a lead, kid," Simon said gently. "A good one."

Blair's shoulders straightened immediately and the shadow darkening his blue eyes receded slightly. "Do you know where he is?"

Simon hesitated. "Maybe. We've got a SWAT team on the way there now."

Blair charged for the door, grabbing his keys from the table. "Let's go!"

Simon grabbed his shoulder and spun him around. "Sandburg! Hang on! Let me fill you in... "

Shrugging out of the captain's grip, Blair grabbed the door, flung it open and hit the hall at a full run. "In the car, Simon! Let's move!"

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

As he waited for Simon to crank the engine, Blair gripped the armrest of Simon's car as if holding on to a lifeline. The dark sedan took off from in front of the loft with the siren blaring and careened around the corners, sending him swaying from side to side. "Okay, Simon. What the hell's going on? Do you know if Jim's okay?"

His eyes fastened intently on the road, Simon answered brusquely, "We got a tip today from a gas company meter reader, of all things. Said he'd been to a house this morning in a normally quiet neighborhood out on the south side of town. He had to go around back to check the meter - right beside a boarded up basement window." Simon checked both ways quickly at a red light and blasted across the intersection.

"The guy heard what sounded like cries coming from the basement. There was loud music playing upstairs, but he was sure he heard screams. He tried to look in, but all the windows were boarded up."

Blair felt a shiver of fear, combined with hope. Jim's truck had been found exactly where it had been left outside the loft, its windows shattered and traces of blood on the seat and steering wheel. The Sentinel had not gone easily.

"There's more," Simon stated flatly. "As the meter reader was leaving, he saw a man coming out of the house. We set him up with some books, and he made a positive ID."

"Great," Sandburg commented, still staring out the window.

"That's a matter of opinion," Simon muttered.

Blair cut his eyes over to the captain. "What are you talking about?"

"It was Brackett."

"Brackett?" Blair gasped. "Oh, God, no." The implications whirled around in his mind. "He knows about Jim."

Simon nodded. "If he's mixed up in all this, then you can be sure Jim's Sentinel abilities are involved. And he's not alone. From the looks of Jim's truck, it took at least three men to bring him down."

The rest of the ride passed in silence, each man immersed in his own thoughts. After several miles, Simon cut off the siren so they could approach the house unannounced.

When they pulled to a stop in front of a run-down bungalow on a neglected side street, Simon turned to Sandburg. "You are to wait right where you are. The SWAT team's ready, waiting to move in on my command." He stared intently at the pale young man sitting beside him. "I mean it, Blair. If you so much as stick your head out this window before I give you the all-clear on the radio, I'll pull your observer's pass so fast, it'll make you dizzy. Am I understood?"

Blair nodded quickly. "Yeah. I understand. Just... " He reached out to rest a beseeching hand on Simon's arm. "Call me in fast, okay? If Jim's there?"

Simon's stern features softened. "I promise, son. I'll get you in there just as soon as I can." He picked up his radio. "Okay, boys. We're ready to roll. Now!"

From the far end of the dead-end street, three black vans emerged from the shadows, rolling fast. They screeched to a halt in front of the bungalow, and a team of SWAT officers, dressed in black, poured out of each. Simon left his sedan with a quick glance back at Blair. "Stay put!" he ordered, then shut the door behind him.

A scant minute later, the teams swarmed into the dilapidated old house. Blair craned his neck to see, searching anxiously for any sign of Jim. He cracked the window enough to hear any gunshots, but there was only silence. "C'mon... c'mon... ," he chanted. "Call me, Simon! Please be there, Jim. Please."

As if on cue, his radio crackled to life. "Sandburg," Simon said. "Come on in."

Blair leapt from the car, heading at a full run toward the house. Simon met him at the door, stopping him with two hands firmly planted on his shoulders. "Wait, son," he said softly.

"Is he here? Is he alive?" Blair panted, eyes darting around the tiny hallway.

Simon's brown eyes were moist, and his voice not completely steady. "Yes, Blair, he's here. In the basement. He's alive, but... "

Blair jerked away from Simon, but the captain grasped him again. "Sandburg! Just a minute. You... you need to be prepared... "

His words fell on deaf ears. With a quick twist, Blair jerked free again and bolted toward the door at the end of the hall he instinctively knew headed toward the basement. He heard Simon calling after him and the tall captain's heavy footsteps in pursuit, but Blair just ran faster, nearly tumbling down the stairs in his haste to reach the Sentinel.

"Jim! Jim!" The darkness of the basement made it impossible for him to see for a moment, even with the flashlights carried by the officers already there. Blair tripped over something on the floor and looked down to see a baseball bat, splattered with blood, lying there. His stomach churned. The smell was atrocious. Blair had been exposed to rank odors many times in his work with Jim - decaying bodies, human waste, filthy garbage - but nothing quite as foul as this. A small part of his mind realized it was because the odors were from Jim that he found them particularly distasteful. Pushing down his nausea, he maneuvered around overturned chairs and tables and a huge spotlight to a huddle of black-clad officers.

"Let me through!" With a desperate strength surging through him, Blair pushed aside the men and sank to his knees beside the Sentinel. "Oh, Jim... "

For a long minute, Blair could do nothing but stare at the broken, naked body of his friend. It was a horrifying sight. Jim lay on his back, his eyes closed, his chest barely moving as he took shallow breaths. His face was swollen and bruised. The corners of his mouth were cut and bloody; a discarded gag lay beside his body. Deep, bleeding gashes streaked across Jim's chest, interspersed with angry red burns. Blair cringed as he realized numbly that his back must be in equally terrible condition. Huge bruises, colored purple and yellow, spread over his shoulders, arms, and legs, and Blair remembered with horror the baseball bat he'd fallen over. Dazed, Blair's eyes moved to his friend's genitals, and he bit back a cry. Obviously, whoever had done this hadn't hesitated to use electrical current there as well.

From behind him, Blair dimly heard Simon's commanding voice, ordering everyone else out of the room. He tried to measure his Sentinel's breathing. The shallow breaths were irregular, and far too much time was passing between one breath and the next. Blair looked around blindly for something to cover his friend, to provide him with much needed warmth and some shred of dignity. "Simon... ?" he managed to gasp. "A blanket... ?"

He heard heavy, fast footsteps run up the stairs and moments later, Simon was back, kneeling beside him. "Here, Sandburg," the captain said quietly as he covered Jim carefully. Looking at Blair, Simon asked, "Are you all right?"

Blair nodded dumbly. Where did he begin? How would he even start to help Jim when he needed so much right now? "He's... zoned... I think." The words stuck, barely able to maneuver past the tightness gripping his throat.

"Probably. I don't know. Maybe he's just unconscious." Simon sounded as lost and helpless as Blair felt.

The Guide shook his head, reaching out at last to touch Jim. "I don't think so." Carefully, desperate not to inflict any more pain, Blair rested his palm against the broad, battered chest. His other hand moved to grasp Jim's hand firmly in his. "I'm here, man," he whispered. "I'm right here."

To Simon, he said, "His breathing's too slow... too shallow. It's a zone. I just feel it."

Simon nodded. "Okay. The ambulance is waiting outside. It didn't look like he was in immediate danger, and I wanted to give you a minute... "

Blair interrupted. "No!" Worried blue eyes pinned Simon. "No hospital. They won't know what to do for him, you know that. They'll just pump him full of drugs, and... "

"He needs medical attention, Blair," Simon argued. "Look at those bruises! He may be bleeding internally. We have to let a doctor to examine him."

Blair's eyes flashed angrily. "I have his power of attorney, Simon! I can't let a hospital get him so full of drugs that I can't reach him!"

"Okay, okay," Simon said, patting him on the back in a placating gesture. "Let me think."

Blair continued scanning his friend, both for injuries and signs of awareness. Injuries, he found plenty of; awareness was another story. No matter how hard he squeezed Jim's hand, there was no response at all. "Jim?" he said quietly, struggling to keep his Guide's voice calm and gentle, "Can you hear me? C'mon, buddy, I know it hurts, but I need you to listen to my voice. Okay? Listen to me, Jim, just to me. Leave the pain behind and try to focus on my voice, on my touch."

Nothing.

Blair bit his lip nervously. What had the Sentinel zoned on? The most obvious conclusion was touch, judging from the extent of his physical injuries, but Blair couldn't be certain. He'd always tried to bring Jim back from a zone by bringing in a different sense from the one he'd focused to hard on in the first place. If...

Simon interrupted his train of thought. "Blair? We've gotta do something now. We can't just leave Jim lying here. I have an idea. Hear me out, okay?"

Keeping his eyes on Jim's lax face, Blair nodded. He continued gently stroking his friend's dirty hair.

"What about Dan Black Wolf?"

Blair cut his eyes to Simon in interest.

"He's a doctor, you know, not just our ME. He knows Jim and even if he doesn't know about all the Sentinel stuff, I think he'd understand, if you need to fill him in."

"Dan knows a lot about alternative healing, too," Blair said quietly, as if to himself. "He wouldn't be so fast to pump Jim full of heavy meds." He leaned down closer to Jim, monitoring his friend's breathing. "We could take him to the loft."

"No," Simon stated firmly. "Not the loft."

"What do you mean?" Blair asked, straightening, but keeping his grip on his partner's cold hand. "He needs to be home."

Simon shook his head. "They're still out there, Blair. Brackett and whoever else did this to him. We didn't find anyone left in the house, and from the looks of things, they took off fast. If they're after him for his Sentinel abilities like we think, they'll be back for him."

The knot of fear inside Blair doubled in size. "You think they left him because he zoned?"

Simon shrugged and reached out to adjust the blanket covering his friend and best detective. "I don't know. Maybe. Or they just didn't have time to take him when they fled the house. But if they're this serious about 'recruiting' Jim, and they find out he's still alive, they'll try again."

"Oh, God," Blair whispered. He'd just found Jim, hurt and deeply zoned, and the nightmare wasn't nearly over. Anger surged through his body, and his hand holding Jim's shook with the power of the emotion. Those bastards would never lay hands on Jim again. Ever. Blair had Jim back, and he'd be damned if he'd allow anyone to hurt him now. He looked up at Simon, his eyes determined. "All right. Dan would be good. Where can we go that Jim'll be safe?"

Simon tugged on the blanket again. "It can't be anywhere connected with either of you two. Doesn't Rafe's father have a cabin up in the mountains somewhere? It's pretty isolated, if I remember right."

Blair nodded. "Yeah. Doesn't have electricity or running water, but there's a generator and well on the property. He took Jim and me up there once for some fishing. That would be perfect. Quiet and natural." He turned hopeful eyes on Simon. "Would Dan go with us? At least long enough to check Jim out?"

"I'm sure he would. I'll pull some strings to get him the time off if I have to. I'll take some time myself. You can't be up there alone with Jim like this. Not with those bastards after him."

Deeply grateful for Simon's friendship, Blair nodded quickly, his throat once more too tight for words.

Banks rested an understanding hand on Blair's shoulder. "It's okay, son. We're gonna get Jim to safety and get him the care he needs. Then you'll be free to do whatever the hell it is you do to bring him back to us." Simon rose to his feet. "I'll get the ambulance crew to help get him upstairs and into my car. Then I'll contact Dan."

Once they were alone again, Blair bent low over his battered Sentinel, hoping desperately to provide a bit of warmth without actually touching the angry red slashes or the cruel burns. It wasn't a totally unselfish gesture. Blair needed the closeness, too, needed it more at that moment than he could recall ever needing anything - or anyone - in his entire life. When he'd drawn as close to Jim as he dared, Blair closed his eyes, trying to process the fact that Jim was alive. Beaten and near death, but alive.

It was more than he had dared hope for during the last eighteen long, empty days.

"You gotta help me here, man," Blair breathed into Jim's ear. He could smell Jim's sweat, his blood, so clearly, that for an instant, Blair had a empathetic impression of what it must be like for the Sentinel when he was injured or afraid. "Aw, Jim, you're hurt so bad, man, and I'm not sure what to do to help you this time. I'm so scared you're in deeper than I can reach, but if I don't reach you... " Blair's voice broke, and he choked back a sob. There was no time for his own emotion or his own doubts. Not when Jim needed him so badly. "I promise I'll try my best, but I'm gonna need you to try, too, okay? Please, Jim. I really need you to come back to me, man."

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

The next hour was a whirlwind of activity. Rafe arrived, siren blaring, in his black SUV. The ambulance crew, protesting mightily, helped transfer Jim into the back of Rafe's vehicle. Simon made a fast run to the loft to pack some clothes and basic necessities for both Jim and Blair. He made it back just as Rafe was closing the doors to his truck. From his position at Jim's side, Blair watched as Simon and Rafe talked for a moment, then the young detective climbed behind the wheel of the SUV. Simon loaded two stuffed duffels and sat in the passenger seat.

"Get going," the captain ordered, and Rafe pulled away from the curb. "Dan's got Rafe's map and is already on his way to the cabin. I'll follow you."

"Do you think they were watching us?" Blair asked anxiously, peering out the window as the SUV eased down the street and turned to head out of town.

"I doubt it," Rafe commented. "We got him out pretty fast, considering. I wouldn't think anyone would have hung around watching. The captain'll be watching to be sure we're not followed, too." Rafe's eyes flickered to his rearview mirror. "How's he doing?"

Blair added another blanket to the one already covering his partner. "The same. I can't tell any difference." He took a slow, deep breath, trying to center himself. Jim was out of that damned house and its filth. He was safe now, and soon, they'd be at a place where no one would think to look for them.

Rafe's dark eyes found Blair's in the mirror, held for a moment, then returned to the road. "I don't suppose anyone is going to explain why we're taking Jim to my father's mountain cabin rather than to a hospital?"

Blair said regretfully, "I'm sorry, Rafe. We can't. Just know that we are doing what's in Jim's best interest."

"I already knew that," Rafe said with a quick grin.

The miles rolled by and within a few hours, the SUV was climbing the narrow dirt road leading to the cabin. "We're almost there, Jim," Blair said softly, supporting his friend's shoulders to prevent him from rolling on the rough road. "Just hang on, buddy. Keep breathing for me, all right?"

As they pulled to a stop, Blair spotted a single vehicle out front and recognized it as Dan Black Wolf's Jeep. "He's here," he breathed in relief. Jim's injuries looked so painful, and even though Blair knew the Sentinel was probably beyond pain as long as he remained in his zone, the sight of those burns and gashes hurt Blair deeply. He ached to get Jim the medical help he so desperately needed.

Wolf appeared at the door of the cabin, then hurried to meet the SUV once he recognized the vehicle. Simon's sedan parked beside it. "I've got a fire going," he explained, opening the rear doors. "It's going to be cold tonight." The rain from the previous night had stopped, leaving the mountain air freshly chilled.

Between the four of them, they transported Jim inside the log cabin, keeping him on the stretcher from the ambulance. "Better return that thing as soon as you get back to Cascade," Simon cautioned Rafe. "We don't want those guys asking any more questions than they already are."

"Put him in the master bedroom to the left," Rafe instructed. "More room in there, and the bath's adjoining."

Within minutes, Jim was situated in the king bed, buried beneath a cocoon of brightly colored quilts. Once he was settled, Blair perched on the edge of the bed and ran a gentle hand along Jim's face. "Okay, man. We're here. Not gonna move you for a while now, I promise. Just rest, and we'll let Dan take care of those injuries in a few minutes."

Simon and Wolf exchanged glances, and Simon nodded. "Blair," Dan said quietly. "We don't want to risk infection. I'd better take a look at him now." He left to go into the living area for his medical bag.

"I know," Blair murmured. "You need to rest. But Dan's right. We can't risk getting those burns and cuts infected, Jim."

Wolf returned to the room and rested one large hand on Blair's shoulder. "I may need some help here. Are you up to it, or would you rather Simon assisted?"

"No," Blair replied immediately. "I'll do it." Jim had patched him up often enough. He owed it to his friend to be there for him now.

"It's not going to be pretty, Blair," Wolf cautioned. "Are you sure?"

Firmly, Blair said, "I'm helping you. Just show me what to do."

Simon slipped out of the room, pulling the door closed behind him.

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

Leaning against one of the large, carefully shaped tree trunks that served as columns in the high-ceilinged living area, Simon took a deep breath. Now that they had Jim in a safe place and he was being cared for by the capable Dan Wolf, exhaustion had set in. It was only late morning, but Simon felt as though he'd already put in a double shift. Rafe went to the kitchen and put on a pot of coffee and began rummaging through the groceries he'd picked up on his way with the SUV. "There are some canned goods and cereals in the pantry here. Help yourselves to whatever you need. I'll make a run later in the week with more supplies, and... "

"No," Simon said, rubbing his eyes wearily. "We can't risk someone following you up here. We passed through that little town on the way up. There's a store there. I can go down for whatever we need. I even saw an ATM, so we won't be hurting for funds."

Rafe shook his head. "I feel so damned helpless. I wish I could do more." He stared at the closed door to the room where Jim lay.

"We all do," Simon agreed. "You've given us the most vital thing, though, and that's a safe house. I want you to go on back now and get to work on finding Brackett and the others who did this. Taggart's heading the team until I get back." He moved to the fireplace and began warming his back. "My cell won't work up in these mountains. I'll come down to the store and check in periodically. Whatever happens, don't come back here. We just can't risk it."

Picking up his keys from the dining table, Rafe said, "I'm on my way, Captain. Tell Blair we're all pulling for them both." He paused at the door. "Make Sandburg get some sleep, too. He won't be any use to Jim if he drops from exhaustion."

Simon smiled. "Try convincing him of that. I'll do my best, though. Keep your eyes open on the way back."

"Will do, Captain."

Moments later, Simon heard the sound of the SUV pulling out of the driveway. He poured himself a long-awaited cup of the coffee Rafe had brewed and settled down on the couch facing the large rock fireplace. It would be wise to rest while he could. Simon had a feeling a long road lay ahead of them.

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

As Wolf worked, Blair forced himself to watch every step from cleaning the deep gashes and angry red burns to the careful bandaging after the antibiotic cream was applied. Dan neatly stitched together the worst of the gashes, expressing his hope that the scars would be minimal. Several times, Blair felt his skin go clammy, but he fought down the dizziness. If Jim could endure such agony, he'd be damned if he would run out on him now.

Dan worked mostly in silence, only asking Blair to hand him implements and supplies. As the quiet Cherokee worked, Blair had time to think about the situation at hand and about the circumstances that had brought them to the lonely cabin in the mountains. As he watched Dan's gentle hands minister to his best friend, Blair felt sickened at the torment Jim had endured. How had he been able to bear it? Blair clinched the fist not holding Jim's hand as hot anger boiled inside him at the sight of the ugly wounds. How dare they?

How could anyone take a man like Jim, such a brave, good man, and inflict such pain upon him? What kind of evil did it take? He stared down at Jim's still face, so swollen and bruised that his handsome features were barely recognizable. "Jim... ?" Blair whispered, barely realizing that his thoughts were emerging as words. "I'm so sorry. This shouldn't have happened. Not to you."

Wolf's voice was warm with compassion. "This shouldn't happen to anyone, Blair."

Pleading eyes looked up. "How could they do this? How could anyone hurt another living thing like this?"

Blair watched helplessly as Dan cut the end of the gauze he'd just wrapped around Jim's upper arm where the cords had cut into the skin. The doctor's expert hands moved to examine the right shoulder. "This is dislocated," he observed, then continued checking his patient. "I don't know, Sandburg," Wolf added after a few moments. "Such cruelty never makes sense. Do you think you can help with this shoulder?"

Blair nodded mutely.

"It won't be as bad for him as it would if he were awake," Dan reassured Blair. "Can you tell me why he isn't awake? Simon seemed sure there were no head injuries, and from what I can tell, there aren't."

His eyes locked once again on Jim's face, Blair shook his head. "I... can't really tell you. It doesn't have anything to do with his injuries. At least, it's nothing you can help him with. That's... my job."

"Jim's... special... isn't he?"

Blair's head jerked up as he stared at Wolf. "What do you mean?" he asked carefully. Damn. All he needed were more problems today.

"So are you, of course," Wolf added. He pulled up a chair beside Jim's bed and sat down. "Let's allow him some rest while we talk. I have observed Ellison for many years, even before you showed up in Major Crimes." Dan grinned, making Blair slightly uncomfortable. Exactly what had Wolf figured out about them? "You have shed light into his heart, Blair. He is a stronger Adagatiya because of you."

Still, Blair had no clue what Wolf was trying to say, and he feared revealing too much through his own questions. "What?" he asked. "What was the word you used?"

"Adagatiya. Translated from Cherokee, it means Guardian."

Blair felt his head spinning, and he clutched Jim's hand tighter, hoping to still the sudden sickness that threatened him. "I don't understand," he murmured, at a loss of how to proceed.

If he noticed, Wolf gave no sign. "Of course, if he is Adagatiya, then you are his Adasehedi. The one who Guides."

"Oh, God," Blair whispered, instinctively looking to his Sentinel for help. "Jim... ?"

Wolf laughed quietly as he patted Blair's back. "Don't worry, Blair. I won't reveal any secrets. I might not have guessed myself had I not seen the cougar standing on the road as I drove up the mountain."

"Cougar?" Blair asked quietly, his skin prickling in anticipation of what he already knew Dan would say. "What color was this cougar?"

"Most unusual. He was black," Wolf acknowledged. "The cougar is sacred to my people, Blair. He was one of the animals able to stay awake during the seven long nights of Creation. We believe he is unpredictable and guards many secrets. Seeing a black cougar standing in my path today only confirmed what I believed already."

"What is that?" Blair asked, unwilling to say too much until he knew exactly what Wolf had figured out.

"In my culture, we have medicine men. Those trained to use plants and herbs for healing. My grandfather was such a man. He was well-respected in our tribe for his great healing abilities. I think it was his influence that led me into medicine." Wolf smiled at the memories. "Anyway, Ududu - Grandfather - told me that sometimes, a special man or woman is born to the People. This person sees what ordinary people do not, hears what no others hear. Life may be difficult for such a person, an Adagatiya, unless he finds his spiritual mate to help him. That is his Adasehedi. His Guide."

Wolf paused and glanced from Jim to Blair. "He is most fortunate to have found you, Blair. A tribe with an Adagativa, a Guardian, is blessed. He protects his tribe from dangers others might never have sensed." He cocked his head at Blair and smiled kindly. "Am I close?"

Blair didn't know how to answer. No one had ever figured out Jim's secret before. Brackett knew, but he'd run across Blair's early research, interviewed the special ops team who'd debriefed Jim after Peru, and put two and two together. Oh, man, Jim! I wish you could help me here.

Finally, he said softly, "Really close, Dan. Tell me how you figured it out."

Shrugging slightly, Wolf explained. "I heard talk around the department. How Ellison was breaking open these cases no one else could solve. All after you arrived, of course. I was eating lunch with Carolyn and some others one day not long after the David Lash case. She told us how Jim insisted on smelling a vial of pond water, that he was absolutely desperate to open it up, in spite of the fact it would violate the rules of evidence." Smiling at Blair, he added, "You're important to him, Blair. Vital to his survival. I realized that while Carolyn was talking. She was describing something more than just a man worried about his partner. What she saw was an Adagativa fighting to save his Adasehedi. Fighting to save his own life."

Blair rubbed his thumb lightly across Jim's palm. "We call them Sentinels and Guides," he said absently. A thought occurred to him and he asked, "That's not all, is it?"

"No," Wolf admitted. "But the rest would probably sound crazy to anyone who didn't know you two."

"Like the rest wouldn't," Blair laughed dryly. "Tell me. I need to know."

"You are his protector as much as he is yours," Wolf explained slowly. "Don't worry, Blair. I doubt that many people would have the background to put this all together. I was raised in a traditional Cherokee home where matters of the spirit and healing were accepted and valued. Anyway, I started watching you together. I could see the connection between you, the deep bond. It was more than friendship, more than a close partnership." His voice grew gentle. "I wasn't in the garage the day you ate that pizza laced with Golden, Blair, but I saw the tape from the security camera. I watched it over and over, trying to be sure."

"Sure of what?" Blair whispered, staring at Jim's battered face.

"I saw exactly what Carolyn had described - a Guardian desperate to save his Guide." Wolf's voice broke slightly as he added, "I've never seen a man so frightened, Blair. The look on his face as he held you... " He cleared his throat, then added, "I heard Rafe and Henri talking one day, about the fountain. They said they thought Jim was going to lose it that day, that if you'd died, Jim wouldn't have survived. That only confirmed what I'd already guessed. The two of you share a bond that goes beyond even the deepest friendship or partnership. You are Adagativa and Adasehedi."

Both men fell silent for several minutes. Blair listened to the sound of Jim's shallow breathing, struggling to decide what to do next.

"Will you tell?" Blair asked at last.

"No," Wolf immediately replied. "I already told you, I won't reveal your secret. It would benefit no one and could only cause harm. I'll make it a solemn promise, if that makes you feel better. Only you and I need ever know."

"And Jim," Blair added automatically.

Wolf smiled. "And Jim. If you choose to tell him. Does anyone else know?"

"Only Simon. We had to tell him." A cold chill shot up his spine at the thought. "And Brackett. He worked with the bastards who did this to him." Blair's voice filled with hatred. "I swear I'll kill him myself."

"No, Blair," Wolf said gently. "That is not the way. Look after your Sentinel. Care for him as only you can. Allow others to bring justice to those men who hurt him. You must not harden your heart, regardless of how much you ache for him right now. Don't allow hatred for them to overpower your love for Jim. That would interfere with your ability to be what he needs you to be."

"How do you understand so much?" Blair asked in wonder. Besides Incacha, he'd never met anyone who seemed to understand Sentinels and Guides so deeply, so instinctively. It felt good to hear such words at a time like this, to know that someone understood the depth of his pain. Someone who could bring him back from the brink of the blackness that threatened to claim his heart whenever he thought about the brutality shown to his Sentinel.

"My father was a shaman, as was my grandfather, and some said that I also have their gifts." Wolf shrugged. "Others believed me to be a healer. I chose that path. I believe it is the right path for me."

"You have the insight of a shaman," Blair said frankly, recognizing a kindred spirit in the quiet Cherokee doctor.

"As do you," Wolf said with a grin. "Don't look so surprised that I guessed that secret as well. Adasehedi are often shamans as well." He glanced back at his patient. "None of his injuries are life-threatening. You will bring him back from his sleep. Then, it will be your job as well to help him heal. For now, let's tend to Jim's shoulder."

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

By the time Dan Wolf had completed his ministrations, Blair felt better about trusting the quiet doctor and medical examiner. He watched closely as Wolf tended Jim's wounds, and even the Guide's critical eye found nothing amiss in the way Wolf treated his Sentinel. The man worked slowly and deliberately, taking time to assess each wound before cleaning and dressing it. He ran careful hands over Jim's bruised elbows and knees, probing firmly, yet gently, before pronouncing his decision. "Probably some very deep bruising, perhaps even fractures or tissue damage, but no breaks that I can feel. He'd be better off with x-rays, of course, but I'm fairly certain nothing's broken. The right knee's the worst. He really needs to have it examined and x-rayed."

Wolf pulled something from his packet and handed the small brown bottle to Blair. "This is Squirrel Tail or Saloli Gatoga. You probably know it as yarrow. A decoction made of the leaves and stems acts as an astringent, and is a wonderful wash for all kinds of skin problems. I've already used it on him once today, and I'll take care of applying it while I'm here helping out, but I'll leave this one with you for later, after I head back home. Use it when you change his bandages, along with the antibiotic cream, once this dries."

They were sitting in the bedroom, gathered around their motionless patient. Blair still sat beside Jim on the bed, while Dan and Simon had pulled up chairs. "They probably didn't want to cripple him," Simon offered. "Just 'convince' him to cooperate."

"Why the hell would anyone think beating up a man would earn his cooperation?" Sandburg asked bitterly as he stared at his injured friend.

"They don't want to earn it, Sandburg," Simon said quietly. "Just break him. The theory is that if you take away enough from a man, he won't have enough of himself left to resist."

"They didn't break him," Blair murmured. "In the end, Jim beat them."

Simon looked puzzled. "What do you mean?"

Blair glanced at Dan. "He zoned on purpose, Simon."

Banks' eyes darted to Wolf, then back to Blair, wide in disbelief. "Uh, Sandburg... "

Blair chuckled, the first time he could remember laughing since Jim's disappearance. "Dan knows."

Blair sat back and just watched the shock reflected on Simon's face. Finally, he explained, "I didn't tell him, Simon. He figured it out all on his own, but it's okay. I trust Dan not to tell anyone." His smile faded, "Plus, after all that's happened, I'm not really sure it makes a hell of a lot of difference anyway."

Wolf said quietly, "It matters, Blair. Things will work out. Have faith."

Nodding, Blair reached over and adjusted the quilt covering his partner. "I do. We've pretty much been operating on faith since this whole Sentinel business started. Instinct and faith - that's what Sentinels and Guides are all about."

Simon spoke up. "You said you think Jim zoned on purpose?"

Blair stared down at Jim's immobile face, searching for answers. He took a deep breath, letting his instinctive understanding of Jim and his Sentinel abilities take over. He'd learned that frequently, he could discover more about Jim by using his heart than his head. "Yeah," he said finally. "Maybe it's the instinct thing again; I'm not sure. It's just that this zone feels different. It's so much deeper, and he seems so much more accepting of it. When I reach out to him, I'm not getting anything back. I can't find the thread or the connection or whatever it is that I usually use to reach Jim." Worried, Blair turned to Simon. "I'm not sure what to do here."

"Why don't we get out of here and allow the Adasehedi to work?" Dan suggested, rising from his chair. He and Simon quietly left the room, closing the door behind them.

Alone with his Sentinel for the first time since the morning Jim had disappeared, Blair sat unmoving, trying to summon his courage. It wasn't the trying to bring Jim back that had him so concerned; it was the failing. He took Jim's hand and enclosed it in both of his. "Hey, buddy," he said quietly, automatically falling into the low, reassuring tones of the Guide. "It's time for you to come back now."

Blair wasn't aware of the words that came flowing from his lips. Jim had told him several times that it wasn't what Blair said to bring him out of a zone; it was how he said it. Something about his voice, its resonance, called to him, and he followed it back to reality. Since that confession, Blair had just allowed the words to flow, confiding whatever was in his heart at the time.

Hours later, Dan and Simon slipped quietly back into the room. "Any luck?" Simon asked kindly, moving to stand behind Blair with a supporting hand on his shoulder.

Sandburg tilted his head to look helplessly up at them. "Nothing. His breathing's slower, if anything. I'm not going to reach him through his sense of hearing. I need to try something else."

"What do you think made him... ?" Wolf stopped. "What did you call this, again, Blair?"

"A zone," he answered automatically. "Dr. Burton never coined a term for it, but 'zone' just seemed to fit."

"So what do you think caused this zone?"

Blair looked back at Jim and considered. "I've been thinking about that. Obviously, touch. I mean, think of the agony he must have been in. Then again, he may have dialed that back. Either way, I really don't think I'll reach him through touch this time."

"What about sight?" Simon asked.

Blair shook his head. "No. We found that black hood they kept on him, remember? And the white noise generator, too, so it probably wasn't sound. Unless... " He tried to latch on to the idea that hovered just slightly out of reach. "Unless he did."

Sounding totally confused, Simon asked, " 'Unless he did.' Now what the hell does that mean? I thought you said sight, sound, and touch were out."

"I think that's exactly what he did!" Blair said, suddenly excited by new hope. He turned around on the bed, still maintaining contact with Jim with one hand holding his. "See, they tried to take away his senses - the hood, the gag, the noise generator, the cords binding him. But what if he opened up the dials all the way? Focused on the white noise. Let in all his pain. Stared into total darkness. The way I figure it, he might have zoned on sound, sight, and touch, all at the same time." Turning back to Jim, Blair laid his palm alongside Jim's cheek, being careful not to touch his wounds. "You used everything they'd done to you, right, Jim? Took the lack of stimuli and turned it around to your advantage."

"But why?" Simon spoke up. "Why not hang in there? He knew we were looking for him. Do you think the pain was too much for him?"

"Not with the pain dial concept," Blair disagreed at once. "He should have been able to control the pain. At least keep it bearable. It doesn't matter right now anyway." He turned to Dan. "Can you find me some spices? Salt, pepper, ginger... whatever's available."

"Sure," Wolf replied with a smile. "I'll be right back."

"You're going to use taste?" Simon asked when the Cherokee had departed.

Blair nodded. "It's all I've got left, Simon. And maybe smell. Of course, he could have focused on the odors in the basement." He shivered at the memory. "They were damned sure strong enough. From the looks of how much weight he's lost, they obviously didn't feed him well. So I don't think he could have used taste to contribute to the zone."

"I know you don't think it matters, but why the zone, Sandburg? What was he trying to do?" Simon pressed.

For a long moment, Blair didn't speak. He smoothed the tiny lines that crossed Jim's forehead and smiled tenderly at the sight of that brave, battered face. "To survive. Jim was trying to survive."

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

Over the next hour, Blair worked at trying to reach the Sentinel through his sense of taste. Methodically, he took pinches of each spice Dan Wolf brought to him and placed them on Jim's tongue. He allowed several minutes for each taste sensation to sink into Jim's consciousness, whatever remained of it. When the cycle was completed once, he patiently began again.

Simon and Dan came and went. As evening fell and the forest surrounding the cabin grew dark, they turned on low lighting in the living area, but Blair stopped them in the bedroom. "Candles," he requested. "Find some candles." When Simon looked at him quizzically, he explained, "The aroma. There's a chance he might pick up on the aroma." Wolf slipped quietly from the room again.

When Dan came back, he was carrying an armload of pine boughs. "Maybe the smell of the forest will help," he suggested.

Blair shot him a quick look of gratitude. The ME obviously understood instinctively what Blair was trying to accomplish, and he appreciated it. "Put them down near the bed, Dan. Thanks." Soon, the sweet aroma of evergreens filled the air.

The night slipped by, and when Blair finally drifted into the kitchen for something to drink, he noticed the clock. 2:00 AM. Dan was asleep in one of the guest room; Simon was snoring in the other.

Blair prepared a cup of chamomile tea and found some graham crackers in a cabinet. He really wasn't very hungry, but he knew it was important to keep up his strength. Unwilling to leave Jim alone for long, he carried the tea and crackers back to the master bedroom. Settling down in one of the chairs and placing his snack items on the other, Blair studied Jim's face carefully. Somehow, the set of his mouth seemed slightly different. Or was it only his imagination playing tricks on him late at night?

He took a sip of tea. "Wish you could have some of this, buddy. Nothing like a good cup of tea to help you relax." Realizing what he'd said, Blair chuckled. "Of course, the last thing I want right now is you any more relaxed, so I guess it's a good thing you can't drink any right now." Before taking a sip, he held the cup near the Sentinel's nose. "Smells like home, doesn't it, Jim? All those late nights grading papers and a cup of hot tea to calm the nerves."

Blair leaned back in the chair and took a nibble of a cracker. "Now these bring back memories. See, Naomi sometimes had a hard time making ends meet when I was a kid, but we always had graham crackers. Any time I'd had a rough day at school or wasn't feeling well, Naomi would bring out the grahams. Kind of the ultimate comfort food for me, y'know? Maybe your mom did the same thing for you." He leaned over and held part of a cracker out for Jim to smell. "Bring back any memories, Jim?"

Nothing.

Except... did Jim's nose just twitch? Only a tiny movement, but hadn't he seen it?

Blair shoved aside the chair, not worrying about the spilled tea. "Jim? Oh, man, Jim!" He sat down on the side of the bed. He took a couple of deep breaths and released them slowly, trying to bring the excitement in his voice under control. "I think you may be able to hear me now, Jim, so I want you to try to pick up on the sound of my voice. Try to breathe deeply, okay? Can you smell the pine? Simon's here, and we're waiting for you. I'm waiting for you, man. Seems like I've been waiting a lifetime, you know?"

Slowly, Jim's head began to move back and forth on the pillow. "That's it!" Blair encouraged. "Come on back to me. You're doing so good here, Jim." He leaned closer to his friend. "I..."

Suddenly, Jim's eyes flew open as he erupted, striking out with his fists and sending the quilts flying off his body with forceful kicks. One fist connected immediately with Sandburg's jaw, sending him sprawling backwards with a startled cry of pain. Jim was shouting, but the words were unintelligible. His eyes were now tightly shut as though it was too painful to open them, his face locked in a terrible grimace.

Simon and Dan came running from the other room. "What the hell's going on in here?" Simon shouted.

Blair jumped up from the floor, a trickle of blood running from the corner of his mouth. He heard Simon's question, but there wasn't time to explain. "Stay back!" he ordered. "Don't come too close."

Simon protested, "But he's out of control! We can..."

"No!" Blair moved closer to the panting man now hunched over on the bed, shaking and moaning. "Jim?" he said softly, cautiously moving even closer with each word. "You're safe now. It's Blair. I'm here, and you know I won't let anyone hurt you, right? Listen to my voice, man. You know it's me. I'm here and I'm all right. So are you, Jim. You don't have to fight any more. No one here wants to hurt you."

Blair had finally reached the edge of the bed. Jim was situated in the middle, curled up into a tight ball, although he still sat upright. His head was buried beneath his arms, wrapped tightly around his knees, and Blair could see tremors wracking his entire body. "Ah, Jim," he whispered, carefully easing down onto the mattress. "It's Blair, buddy. I'm here, Jim. I'm here now. Everything's going to be all right. Trust me."

At those words, Jim's head lifted and turned toward his Guide's voice. A guttural voice groaned, "Chief?"

Sandburg felt tears of pain gathering in his eyes, but he impatiently swiped them away with his sleeve. His jaw was already pounding, and he could feel a monster headache coming on, but none of those things mattered. Jim had spoken the beloved nickname reserved only for him. The zone was broken.

Releasing a long, shaking breath even as he sent up a quick prayer of gratitude, Blair murmured, "I'm here, Jim. Right here." He reached out and lightly clasped his Sentinel's hand, being careful not to use too much pressure. "Why don't you lie back down, huh? It's all right. The bed's nice and soft, and the pillow's just the way you like them. You're safe here, and you need to rest."

A barely perceptible nod signaled Jim's agreement. Slowly, Blair held onto the trembling shoulders and helped Jim ease back onto the bed. He cringed at the moan of pain the movement caused and at the obvious discomfort Jim felt lying on his tortured back. "Oh, God, Jim, I'm sorry. I know it hurts. It's all right, now, buddy. We're gonna work on the pain now. I want you to focus on my voice, okay? Don't try to talk yet. Find the pain dial for me. Think about finding that control. Have you got it? I want you to turn down the pain. Just a little at a time until what you're feeling is bearable. Dan will give you something in a few minutes to help, but for now, I want you to do what you can for yourself." As he spoke, Blair watched his Sentinel's face carefully. Gradually, the deep lines of pain eased, and Jim's face smoothed out.

"That's great, Jim," Blair encouraged him quietly, his resonant voice deep and calm. "Now let's work on your senses. Keep your eyes closed for now, okay? Let's start with sound. Does my voice sound loud to you?"

Jim's head nodded slightly.

"Then your hearing's out of whack, isn't it? Find that dial, Jim. I'm gonna keep talking in a quiet voice, not quite a whisper, so you can find a normal range. Keep turning it back until my voice sounds normal. We're gonna turn it all down for a while, Jim, okay? No reason to keep your senses on-line right now. With all you've been through, I think you need to just shut them all off for a while, until you're feeling better. Then, we'll gradually bring them back up again, okay? Now, concentrate on my voice. Bring it down to normal. Dial it back, buddy, a notch at a time." Blair continued his soothing words, easing Jim's traitorous sense of hearing back into a normal range. After a few minutes, a hand reached out to grasp his wrist.

"That's...better," Jim said roughly, his voice still hoarse. His eyes were shut tightly. "Light burns...feels like...fire."

"Okay, man," Blair agreed calmly. "Let's do sight next."

As Sentinel and Guide worked slowly through each of Jim's senses, Blair was aware of Simon and Dan standing near the doorway, silently watching. The young anthropologist concentrated on keeping his voice modulated in a low, soothing tone. His hands roamed over the Sentinel's body, gently touching Jim's face, his arms, and his chest as he spoke, and under that familiar touch, Jim's violent tremors gradually lessened until they disappeared almost completely.

"All right, man," Blair said quietly at last. "Let's see how your sight's behaving now. I want you to slowly open your eyes, Jim. It's nice and dark in here, so there won't be a lot of light to contend with. Nice and easy now, buddy."

Slowly, the red and swollen lids parted, revealing bloodshot blue eyes. Immediately, the Sentinel's eyes locked on Blair's face, but Sandburg could tell from the tiny lines of tension on Jim's brow that he wasn't completely free of pain yet. Even so, a wave of joy washed over Blair at the sight, bringing the sting of tears to his own eyes. "Hey there," Blair whispered with a unsteady smile, his fingers gently stroking Jim's bare arm. "Welcome back."

A tremulous hand reached out, and Jim's fingers lightly probed the bruise already forming on the side of Blair's mouth. "God, Chief," he said in a broken voice. "I'm so sorry."

"Hey, easy, man." Blair captured Jim's hand in his and lowered it to the bed. "Forget it, okay? You didn't hurt me."

"That sure as hell looks like 'hurt' to me, kid," Jim disagreed weakly, guilt hanging heavy in his voice.

Leaning down so he was only inches from his friend's stricken face, Blair looked deeply into Jim's eyes. "You didn't know it was me. You woke up after being trapped in a living nightmare and lashed out. That's what you were trained for, man. I should have thought of it myself and not been so close to you at first, until you recognized me for sure. I'm fine, Jim. I'm okay." He grinned broadly. "Just glad to have you back, man."

Jim's hand turned to twine their fingers together. "Good to be here." His eyes flitted around the room. "Wherever 'here' is."

Blair chuckled. "This is Rafe's father's cabin in the mountains. Remember it?"

"Yeah, but why are we here?" Jim looked completely puzzled as he searched Blair's face.

Oh, man. He'd hoped he wouldn't have to deal with this quite so soon. Blair took a deep breath. "You remember what happened?" he asked carefully, squeezing Jim's fingers gently and wrapping his other palm around the large, bruised and swollen hand.

The reddened eyes shut once more, clinched against the memories. "Yeah, I remember. Everything." Before Blair could respond, they flew open again. "Simon!"

Banks was at the bedside in an instant. "Jim? It's okay."

"No," he insisted, staring up at them both. "It was Brackett. He's part of this."

Releasing Jim's hand, Blair stroked his palm across Jim's short hair, trying to soothe the agitated man. "Shhh...it's okay. Easy now. It's all over. You're safe, Jim."

"You don't understand, Sandburg." Jim grabbed for Blair's hand again in a desperate gesture. "They... they're not gonna give up. They'll keep looking for me, and... "

"It's all right, Jim," Simon said soothingly, resting one hand lightly on Jim's uninjured shoulder. "Nobody knows where we are but Rafe, and he won't tell a soul. Brackett can't find us. I'm staying right here until you're recovered enough to go home. In the meantime, the whole squad's working this case. We'll find them. I promise."

The urgency in Jim's eyes dimmed slightly, leaving only a veil of concern behind. "You aren't to go anywhere without Simon, understand, Chief?" Jim asked, holding his Guide's gaze firmly. "Promise me that."

Blair had no intentions of going anywhere anyway, so the commitment came easily. "You got it, man. I have no desire to meet up with our friend Lee again any time soon, believe me."

Seemingly convinced, Jim relaxed visibly into the soft pillow, then he caught sight of Dan Wolf waiting patiently at the door. "Dan? How'd you get dragged into this?"

The doctor came over to Jim's side and casually took the hand not claimed by Sandburg, wrapping experienced fingers around the wrist to check his pulse. "Oh, I need some practice on live patients every once in a while, you know." A minute later, he smiled in satisfaction and released Jim's hand.

Simon explained. "Sandburg wasn't keen on the idea of handing you over to a hospital ER in your condition, Jim. We figured Dan would be a good solution."

Ellison nodded. "Thanks. So, Doc, how's the patient?"

Blair could see past the casual question to the very real concern lying beneath.

"Well," Dan replied, "I haven't done a thorough exam since you awakened, of course, but from what I saw earlier, none of your injuries are terribly serious. Definitely painful, but not designed to kill."

"Just to break me," Jim stated flatly. "To convince me to cooperate." He hesitated, then added, "They used...electric shock...frequently." Holding up his hands, he showed them the tremors. "I haven't been able to control the trembling for days now. It was more widespread - my upper arms, shoulders, legs. Do you think there could be lasting effects?" The blue eyes held more than a little fear.

Dan gently took Jim's hands and examined them thoroughly. "I'd need to do more tests to be sure, but if the tremors have already subsided in other areas of your body, then I'd be hopeful they'll fade from your hands in time, too." He guided Jim's hands back to the quilt, then Dan said quietly, "Jim, those bastards put you through hell. Your body needs time to recover. So does your mind. The burns are nasty, but superficial. They'll heal. Your shoulder was dislocated, but I popped it back in. It's gonna be painful for a while. I'm most worried about your knee. It took a heavy beating. You'll need to take it easy on that leg. I'd prefer that you get it looked at to see if there was any structural damage." Dan took a pain pill from the bottle he'd brought to the bedroom earlier and helped Jim take it with several sips of water. "That should take effect soon and help you sleep."

Wolf glanced over at Blair, then back to his patient. "Just take it slow, okay? Let Sandburg do his job. Go easy on yourself for a while, and I think you'll be fine."

Jim looked at them both, obviously curious, but he didn't ask any questions. Blair took the opportunity to jump into the conversation. "It's time for you to rest, buddy."

Simon and Dan moved to the door. "Blair," Dan said before leaving, "I'll be right outside. You just let me know if you need anything. I'll come in later and check on Jim."

Once they were alone, Blair smiled down at his partner. "Okay, man. Bed time."

"You just got me awake, and already you're trying to get rid of me," Jim bantered with a weak smile. "How about something to eat first? It's been awhile..."

Blair grimaced. "Stupid! Of course, you're hungry! Some friend I am..."

"Stop it," Jim commanded firmly. "Don't you dare start criticizing yourself, Sandburg. You've been under a ton of stress, too, buddy. Take Dan's advice. Go easy on yourself, okay?"

Their eyes held for a long minute. All the fears of the past eighteen days, combined with his exhaustion from lack of sleep, crashed down on Blair at once, and his eyes filled with tears. He tried to chase them away with his sleeve, but Jim caught his arm and gently pulled Blair downward until he was resting against him. The younger man started to protest. "Jim, no. You're hurt..."

But it was Jim's turn to lend comfort. "Shhh...it doesn't hurt. Just rest for a minute." Long, sensitive fingers wove into the long curls. "It helps me, too, okay?"

Immediately accepting his partner's need for closeness, Blair nodded his head against Jim's chest. "Okay. Just a minute, though." He felt Jim's arms work their way around his shoulders and squeeze weakly as he settled gratefully into the Sentinel's embrace. "You're...hungry...thirsty..."

For the first time in eighteen days, the image of the giant, frightening mushroom cloud faded, and Blair drifted to sleep.

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

Jim felt his Guide's body grow heavy with sleep, and he tightened his arms around Blair, ignoring the pain in his shoulder the gesture triggered. Only hours before, he had given up all hope of ever seeing his best friend and partner again. Ellison knew he'd already experienced one true miracle in his life that horrible day at the fountain, and lying there, tired and hurting, yet holding Blair in his arms, Jim knew he'd been granted a second. Food and water could wait. The heart beating slowly in sleep against his chest offered greater healing than Dan or any other doctor could ever extend.

Closing his eyes, Jim turned down the pain dial another notch and joined his Guide in sleep.

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

Simon opened the bedroom door carefully, determined not to make any noise that would disturb Jim's rest. It was early morning, but the sun was already out, taking a bit of the chill out of early morning air. Dan Wolf had prepared a delicious breakfast, and Simon hoped Jim would feel like eating something this morning. Not to mention Sandburg. The kid probably hadn't eaten a decent meal since Jim's disappearance.

The heavy curtains blocked most of the light from the master bedroom suite. He allowed his eyes time to adjust to the darkness of the room, then Simon's face crumpled at the sight of the Sentinel and Guide.

Blair was still seated in the chair, but the upper portion of his body was cradled in Jim's arms. His head rested heavily on his Sentinel's chest, and one of Jim's hands lay buried out of sight in the mass of curls. Ellison's eyes were closed, but there was a peaceful look on his face that Simon had seldom seen there before.

He started to slip from the room when a voice stopped him. "Simon?"

Quietly, Banks moved to stand beside the bed, whispering so he wouldn't wake the slumbering Guide. "Jim? I thought you were sleeping."

Moving slowly, Jim eased his left hand from around Blair's shoulders and rubbed his eyes. "I've been awake an hour or so, I guess." A moment later, his arm returned to wrap across his Guide's back. "I didn't want to wake him."

"We have breakfast ready. You feel up to eating?"

Jim nodded. "Yeah, that sounds good. Not too much though. My stomach's not used to food." The Sentinel looked down at the sleeping face resting on his chest. "Is he okay?" he asked quietly.

Simon considered the question for a moment before replying. "He had a tough time, Jim. We all did, but it was hardest on Blair. He held up like a pro, though. Never lost hope that we'd find you, even though he was totally exhausted. I don't think the kid slept at all while you were gone. He'll be all right now that you're back, though."

Ellison's gaze remained on his partner's face while his right hand absently caressed Blair's long curls. "I never thought I'd see him again," he admitted quietly.

After a long pause, Simon spoke. "I know you may not be up to talking about it yet, but I need to know. What did they want?"

Jim's reply was soft, and his eyes never left Blair's sleeping face. "I think they're involved with either a shadow government group or an independent splinter organization whose main thrust is their own version of national security, with an emphasis on hunting down terrorists. Brackett apparently had told them of my abilities, and the leader - 'Owl' - wanted to convince me to cooperation. They'd send me to the Middle East, Pakistan, India - with the purpose of infiltrating terrorist organizations."

"Owl?"

Jim's voice was tightly controlled, a look of near hatred on his face. "I named him that. They used a bright spotlight so I never saw his face. But I saw the reflections on the bastard's glasses - perfectly round, like an owl." He glanced up at Simon as his expression softened. "How'd you get me out? Did you catch any of them?"

Simon hated answering the last question in the negative. Somehow, it felt like he'd let his friend down. "No. They'd taken off by the time we arrived. They had to have known we were coming, but how? That's something I've got Taggart working on now. If we've got a leak in the department, I want it stopped." Simon pushed down the anger that rose at the thought of another cop betraying Jim. He forced his voice to remain steady. Jim had enough on his plate just trying to recover from his ordeal. He didn't need to take on his captain's problems, too. "Apparently, they didn't have enough time to take you with them. We got a tip from a meter reader, of all things. He heard..." It was hard to say the words. "He heard your screams coming from the basement and alerted us."

"They played loud rock music when they worked on me," Jim mused. "He must have been there at just the right time. A lucky break."

"Yeah," Simon said bitterly. "I'm just sorry we didn't find you sooner. Before you zoned on the pain and..."

"I zoned on purpose, Simon," the Sentinel interrupted quietly, his eyes locked on his partner's sleeping face. "I chose to go into the zone."

His voice still low, Simon asked, "You *what*? Had the pain just become too much and you decided to end it or...?" He was completely astounded. Even though Blair had expressed the same theory earlier, Simon hadn't believed it. Hadn't wanted to believe it. If there was anything Jim was not, it was a quitter. The torture must have been unimaginable for him to have given up and chosen death.

"Owl ordered Brackett to bring in Sandburg," Jim said flatly. "Brackett told him all about the relationship between a Sentinel and his Guide, all about us. He knew that if they had Blair, if they threatened or hurt him, I would have no choice but to cooperate."

"So you zoned?"

Jim lowered his head, resting his forehead atop his Guide's hair. "I figured that if I went deep enough, long enough..." He stopped, closing his eyes for a long moment. "If I were dead, they'd have no use for Sandburg. It was the last thing I could do for him, Simon. The only way I had left to protect him."

"Blair said he thought the zone was intentional, but does he know why you did it?" Simon asked quietly.

"No," Jim whispered. "Maybe I'll tell him later. If he asks. It's not really important now anyway." Lifting his head slightly, he looked down at the peaceful face sleeping against him. "They're out there, Simon, and Brackett will come for me again. These people aren't going to give up just because they let me slip away from them once. And this time, they'll take Blair, too. I can't let that happen. I won't allow them to get their hands on Sandburg."

"We're on it, Jim. Taggart's heading up the investigation until I get back, and every officer in Major Crimes, plus quite a few from other units as well, are working this case and this case alone. We'll find Brackett and with any luck, we'll get a lead on this 'Owl', too."

Jim didn't answer. Simon watched his face closely. Ellison's eyes didn't leave Sandburg, and the look on his face was a powerful mixture of resolve and tenderness, with perhaps a trace of dread. "You have to, Simon, and soon. I barely survived. Hell, if you hadn't shown up when you did, I wouldn't have survived. I'd already given up, and I've been trained for combat missions and possible capture by the enemy, and all that goes along with that scenario. Blair wouldn't survive. I won't - I can't - take the chance that Bracket and Owl will hurt him."

"If we don't get them...soon...what will you do?" Simon asked tentatively, almost afraid to hear the answer.

Jim looked at him, his face a mask of sheer determination. "Just find them. Find Brackett and Owl, so I won't have to face that decision."

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

The first three days in the cabin Jim spent mostly in bed or on the couch, resting. Every fiber of his body hurt. Even with his dials turned down, pain was a constant reminder of what he'd been through. His shoulder, popped back into place by Dan's proficient hands, was sore when he moved it and sore when he didn't. The burns inflicted by the electrodes had lost their fiery redness, but they remained painful to the touch. The deep bruises inflicted by the baseball bat had turned a rainbow of dark and gloomy colors and hurt to the bone. Jim made an effort to walk more each day, slowly and using the crutches Dan had provided, to keep down the stiffness in his joints and muscles. Each step on his battered right knee cut like a knife. He feared there might be interior damage, but pushed away the thought. He couldn't afford to seek further treatment. Not yet.

Although Jim's hands still trembled, the tremors in other parts of his body had ceased. Wolf seemed confident the tremors would fade away, but Jim remained concerned. The way his hands shook now, there was no way he'd be considered competent to carry a gun.

Blair had insisted there was no rush to try to 'turn on' his senses again, but secretly, Jim had tried. He began slowly, cautiously turning up the dials on one sense or the other. Each attempt ended in complete failure. As soon as he brought up a single sense past the point of 'normal', blinding, debilitating pain shot through his body, forcing him to dial down to zero once more.

The Sentinel had vanished, leaving only ordinary Jim Ellison in his wake.

That fact scared Jim more than he'd ever though possible.

Just as strongly as he'd ever yearned for a 'normal' life, Jim now longed for his enhanced senses. He needed every advantage he could claim to fight Brackett and Owl, yet they'd managed to render his greatest weapon completely useless.

Not that they'd ever believe it. The danger remained, senses or no senses.

Dan Wolf left for home on the fourth day, after pronouncing Jim well on the way to recovery. He left enough bandages and supplies to see Jim through these injuries and the next ones to come as well, as well as providing a hand-carved cane to support Jim's injured leg, proclaiming him far enough along to abandon the crutches. When Wolf was ready to depart, he assured Jim, "You have any problems, just get Simon or Blair to go to the store and call. I'll be here."

Leaning on the cane, Jim nodded and smiled carefully, trying not to stretch the cuts on the sides of his mouth too much. "Thanks, Dan. I don't know what I would have done without your help." The smile faded as he studied the face of the friend who'd done so much to help him. "Blair told me. That you figured me out." He tried to discern what might lie behind those kind black eyes.

"Yes, I did." Wolf watched Jim for a moment then smiled reassuringly. "Your secret is safe, Jim. I understand the damage that could be done if others knew. What Brackett has done to you now is proof enough of that. I won't say a word." He cocked his head slightly. "Besides, it might not be a bad thing to have a physician who understands your unique needs. True?"

At last, Jim replied, "That could be true, Dan, and believe me, I do appreciate all you've done for me. I just hope I don't have the need to call upon you again any time soon. No offense to your healing abilities, understand."

Wolf laughed and climbed into his car. "I understand, Detective. I wouldn't wish what you've been through on my worst enemy." His broad smile faded to a serious expression. "Listen to your Guide, Sentinel. He has the unique gift of discernment. He is your greatest strength."

"I know that," Jim said softly. "Thanks, Dan. It is good to have someone else who knows. Who understands."

"Take care of yourself, Jim. Let me know if you need anything." His dark eyes looked at the cane and he smiled. "Maybe the cane will help, too. It was my grandfather's. See the wolf head on the handle? He carved that. Said it was a symbol not only of our name but of strength and loyalty. Wolves are pack animals. They have great loyalty to those they consider part of their pack - their family."

Jim studied the handle of the cane and smiled. "That they do, Dan. Thanks for this. I'll see to it that you get it back safely. I just can't promise when."

"Doesn't matter. Perhaps it belongs with you now. Just take care, Jim, and let me know if you need anything." With a smile and a wave, Dan Wolf pulled out onto the dirt road bound for Cascade.

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

After Wolf's departure, Simon headed down the mountain to the small store to phone Taggart and check on the progress of the investigation. For the first time since Jim's disappearance, Sentinel and Guide were alone.

"Let's go for a walk, Chief," Jim suggested, looking out the window at the beautiful spring day.

"You sure?" Blair questioned him, shooting the Sentinel a concerned look. "You haven't been out of the cabin yet."

"Then it's past time," Jim replied shortly, then, realizing how abrupt he'd sounded, he smiled at his Guide. "I'm getting cabin fever, Chief. Besides, I'm feeling better. Dan wouldn't be leaving if I wasn't on the road to recovery, right?"

"I guess so. It is a pretty day out, and the exercise would do you good, I'm sure."

"So what are we waiting for?" Jim grabbed a light sweater and opened the cabin door, gesturing with his free hand for Blair to join him.

It was wonderful to be outdoors again. Somehow, the air seemed crisper, the sky clearer, and the colors crisper than Jim ever remembered experiencing, even with his enhanced senses. Was it something about being so close to death that brought a renewed appreciation for life?

"Hey, Chief?" They were meandering along a well-trodden path through the forest. Jim was in no hurry. In the first place, he was still too sore to move quickly, even with the aid of the cane. More importantly, he wanted to enjoy this walk to the fullest. A man of the outdoors, he hadn't realized how much he missed being in nature until he very nearly lost that privilege all together.

Blair looked up at him quickly. "Yeah? You doing all right? Are you ready to go back?"

Jim laughed. "I'm fine, Chief, and no, I'm not ready to turn back. Not just yet. I'll let you know. No, I was wondering something, and it occurred to me that you might be the best person to ask about it."

Blair's eyes brightened with the innate curiosity that was so much a part of his personality. "Sure, man. What is it?"

Now that the subject was breached, Jim felt suddenly hesitant. Bringing up the painful memory of the fountain and Blair's near-death was never easy. But he'd opened the door now, and he couldn't think of an obfuscation quickly enough to change the subject. "Since we've been out here, I've noticed that everything seems...I don't know...brighter. More beautiful than I remember it, even with my senses on-line. I just wondered if, after the fountain, you experienced the same thing?"

The light in Blair's eyes softened to something infinitely more tender. "Is there something about nearly dying that makes you appreciate living more?"

Jim nodded. "Exactly. It's like I'm seeing the world for the first time."

They kept walking as Blair spoke. "I know what you mean. I felt that way, at least to some extent. Remember though, I didn't have much time after getting out of the hospital to just think about what happened to me or to notice if things were different. I mean, you'd already gone to Mexico after Alex, and I followed you almost as soon as I got out. But yeah, things did seem brighter, more vivid. I guess it makes you look at life in a new way, y'know?"

They walked on in silence for a time. Blair looked up at Jim. "What else is on your mind, Jim?"

How did the kid read him so well? In his entire life, Jim had never known anyone who could see through him so clearly, almost like looking through glass. "Am I that transparent?" he asked.

Blair chuckled. "Pretty much, yeah."

Taking a deep breath, Jim stopped and scanned the area around them. He spotted a fallen oak tree lying across a swiftly flowing stream. Motioning toward it with his head, he suggested, "Let's sit, Chief."

Immediately, Blair's expression turned to concern. "You getting tired, man? We can go back. Or if you'd rather rest first, that's cool, but... "

"Chief," Jim interrupted with a fond smile. "I'm fine. I just want to talk to you a while, okay? Away from the cabin where we won't be interrupted. Okay?"

"You want to talk. Now I'm really worried," Jim heard Blair mutter as he led the younger man toward the natural bench. He grinned, wincing only slightly at the pain the smile caused.

Laying the cane to one side, Jim eased down carefully and gingerly scooted halfway out on the fallen tree, dangling his feet over the clear stream. Blair just stood on the bank and shook his head, a small smile playing at the corners of his lips. Looking over at him in frank curiosity, Jim asked, "What?"

"You, man!" Blair laughed softly. "Look at you. Sitting on a log over a stream, looking like you don't have a care in the world. I think this experience has gone a long way toward loosening you up, my friend."

Jim watched a leaf float beneath him. He dreaded breaking the relaxed, contented mood of the afternoon, but it was vital that he discuss things with Blair. He'd hoped that the peaceful setting might take some of the sting out of what he had to say. "Maybe. Maybe it's helped me realize what's really important, you know?" Looking over at Blair, he added, "Trust me, Chief. I've got a 'care'. Come on out here, and I'll try to explain."

"Okay, buddy, but if you don't mind, I'm shedding these." Blair quickly kicked off his shoes and joined his Sentinel on his perch over the stream. Dangling his toes into the rushing water, he shivered. "Brrr! Cold!"

Jim laughed and tousled Blair's hair. "What'd you expect, Chief? It's just April."

Jerking up his feet from the water, Blair sputtered, "I don't know, but the Arctic Ocean wasn't it." He pulled his legs up and performed a balancing coup by sitting in a half-lotus position on the tree trunk. "Okay, Ellison," he quipped. "Speak."

Where to begin? Jim drew a deep breath and released it slowly as he tried to find the right words. "I'm not sure exactly how much you know about my capture."

Blair's smile evaporated into thin air. He seemed intently interested in picking at a piece of moss beside him and avoided Jim's eyes. "I know it was Brackett," he said in a subdued voice. "And some guy you called Owl because of his glasses. They were after you for your Sentinel abilities - wanted you to fight against terrorism, but their way, not yours."

Jim consciously worked at keeping his voice calm. Something about Sandburg's demeanor bothered him. His friend was too quiet, and he hadn't looked at Jim once since they'd begun discussing the subject. "That's right, Chief. Anything else?" It was important to get a read on Blair's emotions, to figure out how he was dealing with Jim's kidnapping emotionally, before he proceeded.

The singing of the stream over the rocks nearly drowned out the whispered reply. "They hurt you." The hand that had been picking at the moss moved to capture Jim's and hold on.

The sorrow in his Guide's voice grabbed at the Sentinel's heart, and he squeezed Blair's hand gently. "Yes, they did, but I'm going to be fine, Chief. Remember that, okay?" After the small, answering nod, he ventured carefully, "What do you think brought on the zone?"

Jim felt the tiny jerk in Blair's hand as he reacted to Jim's question. That small reaction alone told everything. Blair knew.

"I... don't know," he stammered. "I mean, it could have been anything, right, considering the kind of pain you must have been in?"

"Blair," Jim said softly. "No obfuscation, okay? The truth." He bent over slightly to look up through the mass of curls obscuring his Guide's lowered head. "Talk to me, kid."

"You know," Blair whispered. "You did it on purpose. You put yourself into a zone." A shuddering breath followed, then like steam escaping a kettle, the words burst forth. "Not that I blame you, man. I saw what they did to you, and no one should have to endure pain like that. A zone would be the logical way to stop it, right? Only, I wish you hadn't put yourself under so deeply. I was so scared I couldn't bring you out, Jim, and... "

"Stop."

Puzzled blue eyes rose immediately to meet Jim's. "What? I just wanted you to know that I understand, that... "

Jim shook his head. "You're not quite there yet, Chief." He had to wait a moment for the tightness in his throat to subside before continuing. It didn't come as a surprise that talking about events in the basement wasn't easy. "You're halfway right. I did zone on purpose, but it wasn't to escape the pain."

"Then why?" Blair asked, his voice husky with emotions lying just below the surface.

It was Jim's turn to break eye contact. As difficult as it was discussing his own trauma, dealing with the threat to his Guide was worse. Unspeakable. When he did speak, the words were flat, devoid of emotion. "Owl must have sent for Brackett again. I hadn't seen him at all before that last day. Guess he figured he wasn't going to break me the old-fashioned way. Electrodes and baseball bats only go so far." At the sudden violent wince from the man beside him, Jim apologized, "Sorry, Chief. Guess it's not exactly a laughing matter."

"Damn straight," Blair muttered.

Jim smiled at his partner's comment. "Thanks, buddy. Anyway, Brackett shows up. I know I've got trouble because it's the first time they've let me see anyone's face since I arrived. He was brought in to advise Owl, I guess. On how to 'convince' me to cooperate." He fell silent, remembering the anguish and absolute helplessness he'd felt after the threat to Blair.

"What more could they do?" Blair asked bitterly. "My God, I don't see how you could have endured much more."

"Brackett suggested the one threat he knew I couldn't withstand," Jim said softly. "He told Owl to bring you in."

Blair's reaction was instantaneous, but rather than fear, it was hot anger that flared. "Those bastards! Did they really think that would make you do something totally illegal? Oh, man, Brackett just doesn't know what you're about at all, does he?"

"He knows me better than you think, Blair," Jim replied in a quiet voice.

Blair stared at him with wide eyes. "What are you talking about? You would have let them use me to force you to do what they wanted?"

Jim shrugged slightly and peeled off a piece of bark, tossing it into the water below. "I wouldn't have had any choice. No offense, but you're not trained to resist methods of mind control and torture. Not to mention your complete lack of pain dials. You never would have survived." Turning, Jim gazed intently into Blair's eyes for a moment, then his gaze wavered, and he looked back at the flowing water beneath them. "I couldn't allow you to go through that. I would have done anything to prevent it. Anything." The final word was spoken with such passion, it surprised even Jim.

For a long time, the only sound was the rushing of the water and the music of the wind in the leaves above. Jim waited patiently for his Guide to 'process' what he'd just heard. When he was ready, Blair would make the next move. As he waited, Jim watched the stream carrying countless bits and pieces of the mountain away, the first step on an endless journey to the sea and beyond. He wondered how many more parts of himself he could stand to have chipped away. How many could Sandburg? Would there come a point where nothing remained of the men they once were, before they were caught up in the mysterious, dangerous world of Sentinels and Guides? Everything dies, he mused. Some things - and people - just take a little longer.

"You zoned on purpose," Blair murmured. "You wanted it to be deep, so deep that you'd never come out. Your heart would slow down, and your breathing would become shallow, and it wouldn't be that long before... " Blair's voice caught, and he ducked his head, hiding behind the dark veil of curls. "Then they wouldn't need me, would they? That's why it was so hard to pull you out of the zone this time, why I felt such acceptance from you. You wanted to be there. You didn't want to come back this time. Oh, God, Jim..."

There was nothing more to explain. Jim released Blair's hand and slipped his good arm around the slim shoulders in silent comfort. Blair leaned closer to him, and a moment later, Jim felt the weight of his Guide's head coming to rest on his shoulder. "What now?" Blair asked quietly after long minutes had passed in comfortable silence.

"Hopefully, the Feds and Simon will locate Brackett and Owl, whoever the hell he is. For once, I'm glad to have the Feds involved. We need every man we can get to bring these guys in. They're pros."

The head lying against his shoulder nodded. "Okay, that's the best case scenario. We catch the bad guys and everyone lives happily ever after. What about in the meantime? Or if we don't get Brackett and Owl?"

There it was. The million dollar question. There was no point in delay tactics, not with the master of obfuscation. He'd spot Jim's strategy a mile off. "We'll have to go underground, Chief."

Blair asked quickly, "Underground? Exactly what does that mean, Jim?"

"We can't return to Cascade. At least, not for the long haul. I can't even use my senses right now, and even if we manage to get them back on-line, who knows how long it will be before I can trust them again? In the meantime, Brackett will come after me again; there's no way in hell Owl's letting this crazy idea go. He's certifiable, and this is his big mission in life. This time, it won't just be me they'll be after. It'll be you, too. Maybe not next week, maybe not even next month. But sometime when we've let our guard down, when the cop stationed outside our door is taken off the assignment, Brackett and Owl's goons will come for us. Next time, I doubt either of us would make it out alive."

When Blair didn't reply, Jim struggled on. "I'm so damned sorry, Chief. This isn't exactly my idea of an ideal solution either. If they get Owl and Brackett, and I'm reasonably convinced that it's really over, we'll come back. Pick up where we left off." He tilted his head over to rest against Sandburg's, suddenly feeling very tired and too damned old. "If there was any way," he whispered, "to leave you out of this, for you to stay behind in Cascade and have your life, you know I'd cut you loose, but I can't. I can't allow you to fall into Brackett's hands, Blair."

"I know. I know, Jim. But I wouldn't do it. I wouldn't leave you. You do realize that, don't you?" Jim nodded, but didn't reply. Blair was quiet for a long time before he asked, "When would we leave? Where will we go?"

"We can stay here a while longer while I recover. I'd like to get my senses back first, but I don't want to wait here too long. You can be sure Brackett and Owl are scouring the city - hell, the entire state - for me right now. I can't risk dragging Rafe or his family into this." Jim considered the possibilities for a few moments. "Let's give it another week, and we'll see what progress the investigation's made. What do you think about sending Simon on back tomorrow? Truthfully, I'd feel better with him in charge of the Major Crimes end of the investigation. I'm not saying that Joel's incompetent, but he doesn't know the whole story behind Brackett and why they wanted me in the first place."

"I'm not sure he'll want to leave," Blair said frankly, "but he'll realize that he'll do us more good in Cascade than here in the end." Lifting his head from Jim's shoulder, he gazed into his partner's face. "Are you sure Brackett won't find us here?"

"No," Jim admitted. "I'm reasonably sure he won't find out Rafe's family has this cabin and track us here within a week or so, though. It's a gamble, but a fairly safe one, I think."

Blair nodded. "Okay. Do we tell Simon what we're planning?"

"What do you think we should do?" Jim honestly wanted the younger man's opinion. If Blair had a single greatest talent, it was figuring out how to deal with human emotions. The question he'd asked was one Jim had been debating for the last two days, ever since he'd come to the realization that they could not remain in Cascade should the search for Brackett and Owl fail.

"I don't think so," Blair said at last. "It would be kind of slap in the face to Simon, right? Basically, we'd be telling him we don't have faith in his ability to find these bastards. Also, the fewer people who know, the better, don't you think?" Blair looked up at Jim, waiting for his reply.

Gazing down into the calm face of his Guide, Jim read the trust written there, and its intensity amazed him, just as it always did. Somehow, in the last few, short minutes, Blair had come to accept the fact that they might have to flee Cascade, that he would have to give up his positions at Rainier and Cascade P.D., and leave his friends, co-workers, and the only stable home he'd ever known. All because a group of radicals decided that his best friend was fair game for their plans and that Blair would be a tool in gaining Jim's cooperation. Yet, because he trusted Jim, Blair was ready to follow whatever plan the Sentinel deemed necessary.

What the hell had he ever done to earn such trust, such dedication?

There weren't words to express the powerful emotions churning inside. He settled for the most obvious. "I'm proud of you, Chief," Jim said simply, holding Blair's gaze.

"Why?" The question was completely without guile. Blair honestly didn't see anything remarkable in his reaction to everything Jim had told him.

Smiling fondly, Jim removed a small leaf that had fluttered down to land in Sandburg's hair, then smoothed the wayward strand back into place. "Because you're already thinking like a cop. Because you never once questioned my call on this one, although heaven knows, you'd be entitled. Because even though I know the whole idea of Brackett and Owl coming after us must scare you spitless, you didn't blink an eye when I explained everything. Most guys would have run for the hills a long time ago and left me in the dust. You're one hell of a partner, kid." The pride in Jim's eyes glowed brighter than the sun filtering down through the trees.

Their gaze held a long minute. "Thanks, man," Blair said quietly, his wide blue eyes glowing with something that might have been gratitude - or simply love. "I'm with you, Jim. Today, tomorrow, always. You know that, right? That it will take a hell of a lot more than two maniacs after us to scare me away from you?"

Jim's throat tightened unexpectedly at Blair's assurances. He nodded quickly while he fought to speak. "Yeah, I know, Chief. Sometimes I don't quite believe it, but I know." Unable to sustain the depth of emotion any longer, Jim glanced at his watch. "Simon should be getting back soon. You ready to start back? I have a feeling we'll have a lot of convincing to do to get him back in Cascade tomorrow."

Blair scrambled to his feet on the fallen log and balanced his way back to solid ground. Reaching out a hand to Jim, he said with a quiet smile, "Hold on to me, partner. I won't let you fall."

"I count on that, Sandburg. Every day of my life, I count on exactly that." Carefully, Jim stood up on the heavy log, every muscle protesting the movement after their time sitting still on the hard tree. He concentrated on his balance, allowing his better leg to take most of the weight. Then, taking Blair's hand in his, he allowed his friend to Guide him steadily to the creek bank.

Once on solid ground, Jim picked up the cane. Draping one arm across Blair's shoulders, he turned back toward the cabin, and the powerless Sentinel and his Guide disappeared into the forest.

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

If he hadn't hit his shin on the coffee table as he sat down in surprise, Simon would have sworn he was dreaming. "You want me to what?"

Jim and Blair exchanged quick glances. Ellison was sitting in the only soft wing chair, while Blair was perched on the stone hearth in front of the dark fireplace. "I'd like you to go back to Cascade tomorrow," Jim said calmly. "I'm getting along much better, and honestly, I don't think Brackett can find us up here this quickly. We'll be fine for another week or so. Where I need your help most is finding Owl and Brackett so this whole nightmare will be over for good."

"Hold out your hands," Simon ordered. The day before, Ellison's hands had been shaking like dry leaves in an October wind. He didn't have his senses back, and he could barely get up from a chair without obvious pain. Hell, the man still walked with a cane! No way was he leaving a weapon with a man who couldn't even shave himself without help.

Jim complied. Pushing back the sleeves on his dark green sweater, he held his hands out in front of him. While both hands still trembled slightly, they were a hundred percent more steady than the day before. Simon sighed as Jim lowered his arms.

"Simon?" Blair spoke up. "Do you trust Jim?"

"What kind of question is that, Sandburg? He's one of my men. Of course, I trust him." Simon bit back his impatience with the young man. He'd learned one thing about Sandburg. The kid usually had a point to make, and more often than Simon would like to admit, it was a valid one.

"I know you trust him as a cop, but that's not what I'm getting at." Blair leaned forward, his gaze intent as he stared at Simon. "Do you trust his instincts? His judgment? I know you don't like to delve too deeply into the Sentinel arena, but do you trust his protective instincts toward me?"

The questions took Simon off-guard. What the hell was Sandburg getting at? "Of course, I trust him," he snapped. "I've seen Jim pull off things that I never would have believed possible. He's solved cases no one else could." His voice softened as he added, "I was in the department garage. I was at the warehouse when Jim carried you out after he shot Lash. I was at the damned fountain, remember? Do I trust Jim's need to protect you? His instincts or judgment? Damn right, I do."

Blair calmly stated, "Then trust him now. Both of our lives are on the line here, but they're on it together. I know sometimes I try to put in my two cents worth around the station, but not this time. The stakes are way too high, man. I'm just asking you to do what I'm doing, Simon. Trust Jim."

Simon could only sit and stare, first at Blair, then at Jim. His instincts told him to remain, to protect both men while Jim was still way less than one hundred percent. However, the urge to get back to Cascade and find Brackett so that everyone's life could return to normal - whatever the hell that might be - was equally intense. He couldn't tell which was strongest, the drive to stay or the pull to go. Finally, he shook his head and asked Jim, "I suppose you'll want me to leave you a gun. And a car."

A smile cracked the iron-jawed countenance at last. "Both would be good, sir."

Simon rubbed his hand across his hair. "This may be the dumbest decision I've ever made, but okay. I'll head back to Cascade in the morning. Rafe can drive up and give me a ride, and I'll leave my car here for you. On one condition." He pointed a warning finger at Ellison. "You are to check in with me at least every other day. If I don't hear from you, I'll send in a SWAT squad so fast, you'll think you committed a federal crime yourself. Do I make myself clear?"

"Very clear, sir," Jim agreed, absolutely straight-faced. "Call-ins every forty-eight hours. Got that, Chief?"

Blair got up from the hearth with a satisfied smile. "Got it. Now, I saw some ground beef and spaghetti in the kitchen. With those fresh tomatoes Simon brought back today, I think we've got the beginnings of a spaghetti dinner. Anyone want to help the chef?"

What the hell had happened to the good old days when a captain actually had the final word over his own men? If someone with a crystal ball had told Simon back in the days B.E. - before Ellison - that he would listen to and actually follow the advice of a long-haired civilian observer, he would have laughed in their face. Right before booting them out of his office.

With a heavy sigh of longing for the simpler days long past, Simon followed Blair to the kitchen. Before long, the kid had him laughing over the finer points of creating a healthy salad, Jim was adding wry comments from the couch in the living room, and cool jazz was playing on the stereo. As he worked alongside Sandburg, Simon decided that as simple as the good old days had been, they weren't nearly as interesting or rewarding as life today with a certain Sentinel and his unorthodox Guide.

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

The ringing of the phone dragged Lee Brackett from a deep sleep. Through weary eyes, he glanced at the bedside clock radio.

Three A.M.

Picking up the receiver, he muttered, "Yeah."

The familiar voice of his current employer rumbled in his ear. "One of my men came up with something. A cabin up in the mountains owned by a CPD detective. Get over here."

The connection was broken.

Cursing under his breath, Brackett fumbled to replace the receiver, then sighed deeply, eyes shut. He'd sleep another couple of hours. It wouldn't do to let the bastard think he'd bought himself an ex-CIA agent, lock, stock, and barrel. Lee Brackett worked for individuals on a by-the-job basis. His life and his loyalties belonged to no man.

Turning over, he set the clock for five AM. That should be enough time to get the 'boss' all worked up. With a small smile, Brackett pulled up the covers, and in moments, he was once again sleeping soundly.

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

The days after Simon's departure were spent restoring both body and soul. Blair had not realized exactly how exhausted he was until Jim was better and didn't require his presence around the clock. The few days of peace allowed them both the opportunity to sleep late in the mornings, nap in the afternoons, if they felt like it, and generally let their minds and bodies recover.

He forced himself not to think about the future beyond the day at hand.

Five days passed with no breaks in the investigation. The sixth day signaled the deadline for another phone call to Cascade. Blair had gone alone to the store five miles away the last time, but after lunch, Jim suggested they both take the ride down the mountain.

"Our week's almost up, Chief. I need to see how I hold out doing a little more than just walking in the woods and talking to you."

Blair eyed his partner cautiously. Jim's right arm was still very sore from the relocated shoulder injury, but his face was healing nicely. At least he no longer looked like a rejected extra from some B-movie about the mob. His movements were more fluid, more graceful, as they had been before his capture and torture, even though he still relied on the cane. Blair could tell Jim's right knee was still painful, although it didn't seem to bother him quite as badly.

The most important sign of all was that Jim was getting antsy, ready to move on to whatever lay ahead of them. That was Jim, through and through, Blair thought. Organized, a planner, always wanting to make sure he knew exactly where he was going and when he would get there. No used fighting nature, he decided.

"Okay, man, but I'm driving." Blair agreed. "Let's head to civilization." They both laughed at the choice of words. The 'town' was little more than a crossroads with a grocery store, a small café, and a post office.

Less than a half-hour later, Blair parked the sedan in front of the small country store and turned to Jim. "You want to call Simon this time? Probably make him feel better about leaving to know you're up and around."

"Sure. Why don't you run inside and pick us up a few supplies. Just enough for today and tomorrow, though. I figure we'll head out of here by the weekend." Jim eased from the car, as Blair watched him carefully for any signs of pain.

He left the Sentinel dialing Simon's private office line and headed into the store.

When he emerged fifteen minutes later, Jim was still on the phone. Blair placed the groceries in the back seat and went to stand alongside Jim. Less than a minute later, Jim hung up the phone and turned to Blair, his mouth set and jaw set in stone.

"What?" Blair asked anxiously.

"In the car," Jim said shortly. "Let's get out of here."

*Oh, man. This is so not good.* Blair hurried to the driver's side and turned the key in the ignition. "Where to, Jim?" he asked cautiously. The negative energy flowing from his Sentinel warned him that this was definitely a time to tread lightly.

"The cabin. We have to pack and get out of here. Now. They found the leak in the department. A rookie cop who has leanings toward extremist groups. If he knows about the cabin, you can bet those bastards are on their way right now."

That was all. No more explanations, no reassuring smile. Nothing. Just Jim - tight-lipped and steel-jawed - sitting beside him with what appeared to be the weight of the world on his shoulders. Turning his attention to the road and trusting that the answers would come when Jim was ready, Blair drove.

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

They were packed and the car was loaded an hour later. Throughout the process of throwing their meager belongings into the car, Jim hadn't said more than a handful of words to Blair. He knew his partner was worried, knew he owed him an explanation, but his mind was so cluttered with the implications of what Simon had told him earlier, he couldn't even begin to explain it all clearly to Sandburg. He passed Blair as the younger man was carrying the small bag of medications Dan Wolf had left to the car and caught the curious glance Sandburg gave him. Jim forced a small smile, and Blair's eyes lit up with renewed confidence. Soon, Chief. I swear to you, I'll fill you in soon. For now, just hurry, please.

Less than fifteen minutes later, Blair was driving Simon's dark sedan down the mountain road toward the highway. He cut his eyes over at Jim. "Okay, man, I didn't ask for directions when we left the cabin, 'cause there's only one way to go, right? But now, give me a clue here, please."

Jim lifted his head from the back of the seat and nodded. "Yeah, I know. Sorry, Sandburg. It's just that what I got from Simon took me by surprise. I needed a little time to... process... it all." He smiled at his friend's wide grin at his choice of words.

"I understand, man. Completely. Just tell me if I should drive to Cascade or... "

"Cascade," Jim said, interrupting him. "We're going to swing by the loft to pick up a few essentials, but we need to get in and out of there fast. I'm not kidding, Chief. Only what you absolutely cannot leave behind."

"Leave behind?" Concerned blue eyes turned to Jim, then back to the road. "For how long?"

For once, Jim didn't have an answer for Blair. "I don't know, Chief. Until I can be sure Brackett won't be coming after us. How long that will take... "

Several miles passed in silence. Finally, Blair asked, "Did Simon know any more about Owl?"

"Yeah," Jim replied quietly. "We know who he is."

"Okay... " Blair said slowly. "And you were going to share this when?"

Jim grinned at his partner. "Sorry, Chief. It's just... " Once again, a cold chill ran through him at the thought of his tormentor. Jim stopped, ran a hand through his hair and stared out the window for a long minute. "Hearing about... Owl... brought a lot of stuff back, you know?"

Blair's voice was gentle. "I understand, man. Back when it happened, just hearing the name 'David Lash' would send me into a cold sweat. Give it time, Jim. Your body's healing, right? You've gotta give your mind time to heal, too."

The affection in Blair's voice drove the chill out of Jim almost immediately, replacing it with the warmth of his understanding and friendship. Jim nodded but kept his eyes focused on the passing landscape.

As though sensing that Jim just couldn't talk yet, Blair continued quietly. "You're not used to being in a position of being helpless, Jim. Your entire life has been spent as a leader - a take-charge guy. Even when you crashed in Peru, when most men would have been helpless, you survived. I mean, you're the classic American hero, man. You just experienced eighteen days of being totally helpless, at the mercy of a bunch of bastards who had your life in their hands and lorded that fact over you twenty-four hours a day. I don't care what kind of training you had in Special Ops, something like that's gotta shake you, man. It's only natural that it's going to take some time for you to come to terms with what happened to you."

"What if I can't?" The words slipped out before Jim could censor them, and the helplessness that lay so heavily in his voice made him cringe inwardly.

Blair didn't say a word. Around the next curve in the road, he pulled into a roadside picnic area, stopped the car and turned off the ignition. Unhooking his seat belt, Blair turned sideways to look at Jim.

"You listen to me, Jim. You can get past this. My God, you're the strongest person I've ever known."

Blair's words rang hollow. "I wasn't strong this time, Chief. I let them take me. I couldn't figure a way out. I... "

"You won." Blair said bluntly. "You beat them, Jim."

"How the hell do you figure that?" Jim could hear the bitterness as he snapped at Sandburg, and he hoped the younger man knew that his anger was directed at himself, not at Blair.

Apparently, Blair understood. "Because you're here with me. You're alive, and you're here, and honestly, that's all that matters to me right now. Okay, maybe you're not gonna sleep so well for the next few weeks or months. Maybe we'll have to go into hiding until they catch Brackett and Owl. Maybe we'll never be able to show ourselves in Cascade again." Intense blue eyes stared into Jim's own, refusing to relinquish their hold over him. "I don't care. We'll deal with it. Whatever happens from this point on, we can handle, man. Together."

Blair went on quietly, "If you hadn't come back... " He shook his head as though to clear away the thought. "I don't think I could have handled that, Jim. The night before we found you, I thought I was going crazy, y'know? One minute, I thought I was going to just explode and the next, I felt so damned empty, like there was nothing going on inside me anymore. No emotions. No pain. No joy or happiness. And what was so scary was that I knew that if you didn't come back, there'd never be those things again."

"Blair... " Jim felt his heart constrict at the pain in the younger man's voice and reached out to touch him, to relieve the anguish he saw etched on Blair's face. His hand brushed Sandburg's shoulder, as if to rest there, then moved without conscious thought to rest alongside Blair's face.

Blair leaned into the touch, his face warm. "No, Jim, it's true. So whatever we have to do to get you past this, we'll do, okay? We'll handle it. We have to. If not for yourself, then for me, okay? 'Cause I just don't know what else to do, y'know?"

To be needed so much. Loved so much. The sheer magnitude of it descended on Jim in an avalanche. Bringing up his sore arm and stubbornly ignoring the pain the gesture caused, Jim cradled Blair's face between both his hands. Leaning forward, he brought his forehead down to touch his Guide's. "Sometimes, if I let myself think about it, I feel like I'm spiraling down, falling so hard and so fast, I'll never stop. Not until I hit bottom."

Blair slowly moved his head from side to side between Jim's palms, increasing the contact between them. "So the next time you have to think about it, call me, okay? I promise I'll catch you. I won't let you fall all the way down, man. That's why I'm here, right?"

The pain rose like a huge bubble, welling up from deep inside, determined to rise until it reached the surface. Jim bit back a sob, but it wasn't soon enough. Sandburg leaned forward, his arms wrapping around Jim's shoulders and held on. Jim welcomed the embrace like a man dying of thirst welcomes the nourishment of a spring rain, his own arms coming around his Guide's back and grabbing hold of his shirt. He tightened his arms, pulling Blair even closer to him across the bench seat of the car. Blair never resisted, just melted into Jim's body as if claiming the space that was rightfully his. Burying his face in the hollow of Blair's neck, Jim whispered, "Don't let me fall, Chief. Just hold on and don't let go."

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

In the safety of home, Simon shared the news about the man Jim had called 'Owl'. "His name's Carl Burr. Age 51. A big guy, 6' 4" with a real tough guy persona, at least in his own eyes. He's a former ATF agent turned radical right wing 'freedom fighter'." He handed Jim the photo.

Jim took it and stared down into the face of his tormentor for the first time. It brought no reaction. But, after all, he'd never seen Owl's - Burr's - face, and in this photo, he wasn't wearing the damned glasses. It was the voice he recalled so clearly. The voice that haunted his dreams, waking and sleeping. He was brought back to reality by Simon's voice as his Captain continued his briefing. Jim passed the photo to Sandburg.

"You know the type, Jim. Believes everything's a massive conspiracy and that nothing the government does can be trusted. Problem is, this guy's got the resources to do something about it. He inherited a fortune from his grandmother and quit ATF four years ago. He founded a small, but highly radical, group called 'Freedom for America Now' or FAN. It was that kind of resources that allowed him to hire Brackett. From what the FBI has told me, FAN is a loosely-organized group, but they're extremely well-armed. Mostly made up of frustrated blue-collar types and those on the fringes of society. Seems he hasn't been able to attract any other members with real military or intelligence experience, so, in reality, Burr's the key to the whole organization. Take him out, and the whole organization topples like a house of cards." Simon leaned back against the soft loveseat and spread his hands. "That's all we know."

Tearing his gaze from the photo of Burr, Blair looked over at Jim, hope brightening his eyes. "So we're on the right track now. Everything's gonna be okay." He handed the picture back to Simon.

Simon cautioned, "The trick is finding Burr. He's a definite recluse. No known address. Not even any more recent photos that we can find. That one's from his ATF days"

Jim muttered, "Before he wore glasses." He felt Blair's concerned gaze and looked up with a tight smile. "It's okay, Chief. Just thinking out loud."

Simon added, "The money's all handled through attorneys who are handled through more attorneys. Plus, Brackett's the real wild card in this whole thing. Who knows where he'll turn up next?"

Jim stood up, his decision made. "That settles it. Chief, you need to finish packing. I want to be out of here within the hour."

Simon's eyes widened. "What are you talking about? I'll put men outside the building, outside your door. You... "

"Sandburg, let me talk to Simon. You go get packed."

Without a word of argument, Blair nodded and headed to his room, pulling the French doors closed behind him. Jim watched him until the doors were shut, then turned his attention to Simon.

"What do you think you're doing?" Simon had the look of a man who knows what's about to happen, but can't quite believe it.

Jim stood up and moved to the balcony doors. Stepping outside, he motioned for Simon to join him. "I'm going to miss this view," he commented as he stared out at the city. His city. His protectorate, Sandburg called it. Well, he was going to have to find a new tribe, and Cascade would have to find itself a new protector.

"Jim!" Simon snapped. "I can order you to tell me what the hell's going on in that mind of yours - and Sandburg's, from the looks of it - or you can volunteer. Now. Which one's it going to be?"

Jim turned his back on the city and leaned against the wall. "We can't stay here. Not with Brackett out there and Owl... Burr. Like I told you before, they want Blair this time, too. He wouldn't survive, Simon."

Banks shook his head. "We'll find them, Jim. You know that."

"No, I don't know. Not for sure. In the meantime, all it would take is one shot... one well-planned and well-executed attack like the one that took me down, and Blair would be theirs. I've got a long recovery ahead, and frankly, I'm just not sure I can protect him right now." Jim shuddered slightly at the thought and looked deep into Simon's eyes. It mattered to him that his captain - his good friend - understand exactly what he was doing and why.

"They'd use Blair against me, Simon, and you know it as well as I do. They'd take him and count on my love for him to bring me knocking at their door, and they'd be right. I'd do it in a heartbeat, and we'd both be good as dead." Jim's voice softened as he looked in through the window at the French doors to Blair's room. "Face it, he's my Achilles heel, both my greatest strength and my greatest weakness, and Brackett knows it. I just can't take the chance. Not with Sandburg's life. I'm barely keeping it together right now. My control is about as sturdy as a toothpick."

Simon's shoulders slumped slightly, as though admitting defeat physically before daring to say the words. "All right," he said finally. "I can't argue with your logic, Jim. Where will you go?"

Jim shook his head. "I can't tell you. No one can know. It would be too risky. You'd be dragged into this right along with us."

He limped slowly over to one of the chairs and eased down into it with a barely disguised grunt of pain. "I've already contacted my lawyer. He's going to arrange to have the loft cleaned and aired out periodically. If we're gone over a year, it'll be rented." Jim looked up at Simon. "Please don't argue with me on this one, sir. I want the rental income to go into a fund for Daryl. I can't afford to have a bank account record here, even with my attorney, and Daryl's meant a lot to Blair and to me. I have no clue how long we may be gone, and we would like Daryl to know that we haven't forgotten him."

There was an extended silence before Simon nodded abruptly. "Okay, but damn it, Jim, I hate hearing all this."

"Not as much as I hate planning it all. Believe me, sir, this is not what either of us wants."

"I know. How will I be able to contact you to keep you updated on the investigation?"

Jim said flatly, "You won't. I'll call you periodically on your cell, but not too often. That's the safest way."

Simon's eyes locked with Jim's. "How long?"

Jim's reply was short and to the point. "You heard me tell Sandburg we'll be out of here within the hour. That's it."

"You'll just disappear?" The note of regret in Simon's voice was unmistakable.

"Guess all that Special Ops training's good for more than my Blessed Protector duties," Jim chuckled dryly. "Yeah, we'll disappear. I've already been by my bank, and we've got enough cash to get us by for a while." Seeing the crestfallen look on his friend's face, he added, "Hey, you guys are the best. As soon as you catch Brackett and Burr, we'll be back. Just keep looking, okay?"

"Damn right we'll keep looking." Simon's eyes cut to the doors to Blair's room. "Jim, I think I'll go say my good-byes to Sandburg and leave you two to finish up here. I... I imagine you'll want some time alone before you leave." He moved slowly toward the door to the loft but he heard Jim's quiet farewell.

"Thanks, Simon. You've been a good friend; better than I deserved a lot of the time."

Banks raised an arm in a quick wave, but he didn't turn around. "Take care of the kid, Jim. And of yourself. Sometimes you tend to forget that a Sentinel is human, too. Don't pack too much, though, because we're gonna get those bastards. I promise you."

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

Simon brushed away the lone tear that had escaped his eyes away before knocking on Sandburg's door. "Come in," Blair invited. Leaving the door open behind him, Banks went inside.

Already, the tiny room seemed deprived of the life and spirit of the young man who dwelled there. It wasn't so much that a lot of objects - artifacts, books, or photos - were missing, Simon thought. Rather that the heart of the place was gone. He realized with a jolt why that was. Blair had already moved on, in spirit, at least.

"Sandburg, I... " Simon started, but he suddenly realized he had no idea what to say.

The younger man turned to him with a sad smile. "It's okay, man. Sometimes, 'detaching with love' just ain't all it's cracked up to be."

That did it. Simon closed his eyes and shook his head, fighting back the sudden onset of a major emotional scene. When had this unorthodox, long-haired, talkative kid of Jim's begun to mean so damned much to him, too? Without knowing how it happened, Simon's arms wrapped around Blair in a quick, tight hug.

He broke it off within seconds, looking at Sandburg to see a crazy, lopsided grin covering the kid's face from ear to ear. Before Sandburg could say a word, Simon summoned up his best captain's voice. "You sure about this, Sandburg?"

The grin faded to a look of gentle tolerance. "Sure about what? Following Jim?" He shrugged slightly. "Since when have I done anything else? I don't see where we have much choice, man. Do you?"

For a wild instant, Simon actually considered telling Sandburg to stay, that he'd assign enough men to ensure their safety, come hell or high water. Apparently, Sandburg read the thought flying through his mind. "C'mon, Simon," he chided. "Do you really think Jim would go to this extreme if he thought there was another option?"

"No," he admitted. "You'll be giving up a hell of a lot, you know. Your position at Rainier, your doctoral work, your friends... "

Blair picked up a framed photo of Naomi and stared at it. "I know," he said softly.

Realization hit Simon like a ton of bricks. "Oh, God, Sandburg. What about your mom?"

Tucking the photo inside his duffel, he explained. "Jim said I could call her before we go. Explain what's going down. I can't tell her anything about where we're headed, though. Just like you, it would put her in danger if she knew. In fact, I'm going to suggest she stay out of the country for a while, just to be safe." Adding a photo of Jim that sat on his bedside table, he shrugged. "Probably won't make that much difference really. I haven't seen Naomi in over a year now. Hopefully, before another year rolls around, this whole mess will be over."

"You're sure you're okay with that?" Simon asked quietly. "Your mom's the only family you have, son."

Blair looked up, a small smile ghosting the corners of his mouth. "That's where you're wrong, man." He glanced toward the living area through the open doors. Simon followed his eyes and saw the figure of Ellison moving gracefully around the room.

Simon noticed the small movement and wondered if Blair might be reluctant for Jim to hear such a powerful statement. "You think he heard?"

"Probably not," Blair commented, turning back to his packing. "Jim makes it a point not to listen to private conversations, unless it's work-related. And his senses still aren't on-line. Not that it would matter. Nothing he doesn't already know."

Realizing his time was running out, Simon stood in the open doorway. "Do you think Jim will be all right? Will he get his senses under control?"

"I don't know." The young man's eyes clouded with concern. "He's been through so much. I'm scared to push him too fast." He looked at Simon and smiled. "Jim's tough, though. Once we get away from Cascade and can slow down a little, I'll start working with him. He'll be okay. We'll be fine."

The certainty sounded too forced for Simon to be comfortable with the assurances. "Promise you'll call if you need anything?"

Blair nodded. "I promise, Simon. And thanks."

Curious, knowing that with Sandburg, words often carried deeper meanings than was apparent on the surface, Simon asked, "For what, son?"

The dark blue eyes found Jim out on the balcony, and Simon followed his gaze. Jim was standing with his back to them, staring out over his city. Silhouetted against the lights of a city in which he was no longer safe, the Sentinel was a lonely figure. "For being his friend," Blair said quietly. "Before I got here. I think if you hadn't been here, Simon, to hold him together until I found him... " He shook his head, his expression infinitely sad. "I don't know if he would have survived."

"I didn't do anything," Simon protested. "Hell, if anything, I was too tough on him. Not very understanding of what he was trying to tell me at all."

Blair never looked away from Jim. "That's what he needed, man. Jim's a chain-of-command kind of guy, you know? At least, up to a point. I think you're ordering him to keep it together was exactly what he had to hear then. Otherwise, he might have given up or not been desperate enough to even give me the time of day in the first place. Sometimes with Jim, a good kick in the ass is exactly what he needs." Sandburg smiled at Simon. "You've been a good friend to him, Simon. Thank you."

Clearing his throat, suddenly needing to loosen the tightness that had clamped it nearly shut, Simon nodded. "Don't make it sound so permanent, Sandburg. I've already promised Jim, now I'm making you the same promise. We're going to get these bastards. You'll be back home soon, son."

"Thanks, Simon," Blair said as he saw Simon to the door. "I'm holding you to that."

As the door clicked closed behind him, Simon had an unexpected, sinking feeling that a very important chapter of his life had just ended.

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

The next step was one Blair had been dreading since Jim had laid out their situation for him up in the mountains.

He had to call Naomi.

At least he knew where she was this time. She'd gone to visit old friends in the south of France, staying at their farmhouse in the countryside. Naomi had called two weeks ago to leave the number.

By sheer luck, his mom actually answered the phone. "Bonjour, sweetie!" her bubbly voice purred over the line. "How wonderful that you've called! We had the most exciting day today. After lunch, Phoebe and I... "

"Mom," Blair interrupted. "I'd love to hear all about your day, but I'm afraid I don't have time right now. There's something I need to tell you."

Immediately, Naomi's tone changed as she switched into her concerned mother mode. "Blair? What's wrong, sweetie? I can tell you're upset; I hear it in your voice. Is it Jim? Oh, no, it is, isn't it? Whatever happened, Blair, it is not your fault. I know how you have this out of proportion sense of guilt when it comes to that man, but... "

"Mom, stop please. It isn't Jim. Well, yeah, it is, in a way, but he's all right now. It was close there for a while... " Blair stopped, the sudden surge of memory and its accompanying emotion too strong to overcome with simple words.

"Sweetie? Are you all right? Please, tell me what's going on! Do you need me to come to Cascade? I can be on a plane within a few hours."

"No, Naomi. Really. We're both all right." Blair took two more deep breaths, then plunged on. "Mom, a few weeks ago, Jim was kidnapped. He... I... I was beginning to think we weren't going to get him back." Blair proceeded to tell his mother the entire story, carefully leaving out the parts about Jim's senses.

"So we're going to have to go away for a while, Mom," he concluded, "until Simon and the feds find Brackett and this Burr character. Jim thinks it's best if... if we don't have any contact with our friends and family. These guys are really, really dangerous, and... "

"Blair," Naomi cut in. "Are you telling me that you and Jim are about to just - I don't know how else to say this - drop out of sight? That I won't know where you are or if you are all right? I just do not understand your life with this... this cop, Blair! How can you possibly leave behind your studies? You've worked so long and hard for this degree, sweetie. Can you just leave all that behind? Why can't Jim go away and let you stay and have your life? Surely these ruffians would realize that you have nothing they want. I just cannot believe they would harm you. No real friend would ask this of you." The disapproval in Naomi's voice was plain. "How much do you owe this man, Blair? Surely he cannot expect you to give up your entire life for him?"

"He doesn't expect it, Mom," Blair snapped, pushing his curls back with an impatient hand. "But I expect it of myself, and he knows it. I'm a part of his life now, whether you understand it or not, and he's a part of mine. A big part." Frustrated, Blair raised his voice as he struggled to make her understand. "Hell, he's the biggest part if you want complete honesty here, Naomi. Jim is my life! I really don't have a choice about this, and even if I did, I'd still go." The anger seeped out of him as quickly as it had built up. "I really didn't want us to argue tonight, Mom. I don't know how long it will be before we can talk again."

There was a long silence before Naomi's quiet voice asked, "Are you sure this is really necessary, Blair? Will you be safe wherever it is Jim's going?"

Blair smiled and looked at his Sentinel, busy tidying up his bedroom high above him. Jim glanced down and mouthed the words, 'Everything okay?' Blair nodded and gave him a thumbs up, and Jim grinned, then returned to his work. "I'll be fine, Mom. Jim's got this thing about looking out for me. He'd do anything to keep me safe. Anything." He smiled softly as he watched his partner carefully folding a sweater to place in his duffel. "Sometimes it can be a royal pain in the ass, but it's nice, you know? To know someone cares that much."

Naomi's voice was gentle. "I'm glad you feel safe with him. I'm sure Jim does care about you, in his own way, but I'm just so worried. Can you understand that?"

"I understand, Mom. Really, I do. But we're going to be all right. Simon's working this case like a bulldog; he's not giving up until Brackett's out of the picture. We'll be able to come home soon. It's just that this is the safest thing for us to do for right now. Jim was hurt pretty badly, and he needs time and rest to recover."

"Promise you'll call when you can?"

Was that a trace of tears in Naomi's voice?

"I promise, Mom." Blair had to work at keeping his own voice steady. "I love you."

"I love you, too, sweetie. Please... be careful."

When Blair hung up the phone, he looked up at Jim's bedroom through the tears swimming in his eyes. The Sentinel was standing on the top step, watching him. "I'm so sorry, Chief," Jim said quietly.

Blair shook his head and swiped away the moisture threatening to break free of his tired eyes. "It's okay, man. It's okay. Let's just get this over with, all right?" He disappeared into his room, pulling the door closed behind him.

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

Jim was walking past the portable phone when it rang a few minutes later. He picked it up on the first ring. The familiar voice that answered his 'hello' brought his heart into his throat.

"Hello, Jim" Naomi said.

He glanced at Blair's closed door. "Hi, Naomi. Blair's in his room; let me call him for you."

"No," she replied immediately. "I really called to speak with you, Jim. Do you have just a minute?"

Jim hesitated, unsure of what to say. It was uncomfortable, to say the least, to learn that Blair's mother wanted to talk with him so soon after her son had broken the news about their immediate plans. "Sure, Naomi. Give me just a second here, okay?" He moved quietly toward the balcony, slipping outside where he could be sure Blair wouldn't overhear. He didn't know what Naomi wanted to say, but Jim had a suspicion it would not be good.

Once outside, Jim asked, "Okay, I'm back." Deciding there was no point dancing around the issue, he added, "I guess Blair filled you in."

The voice coming through the phone was decidedly cool. A blizzard would be warmer. "He certainly did. I just do not understand what kind of a life my son is living with you, Jim. I know for a fact that his life has been endangered on numerous occasions, and I suspect that's only the tip of the iceberg. It's a wonder I still have a son!"

Oddly calm, Jim shut his eyes and leaned back against the exterior brick wall of the loft as he listened to Naomi rant. The woman had a right, after all. Blair was her son, and as off-beat and incomprehensible as he might find Naomi, Jim had no doubt that she loved Blair.

That was the one thing they had in common, and it was that shared bond that gave Jim the patience to listen to Naomi's tirade without dissent.

"I've tried to convince Blair that his talents are completely wasted with this 'position' at the Cascade Police Department, but he won't listen. He's always had such a strong will, you know. I just cannot understand why he wants to risk his life working with a cop!"

"What does Blair tell you about that, Naomi?" Jim leaned his head back against the cold brick, wondering in the back of his mind at how normal it felt - and how odd at the same time. Not to feel every nuance of texture, every grain of each inch of brick. When had it become strange to be normal?

Naomi's voice became softer. "He says he's happy, that he's exactly where he wants to be. With you. That you are his life." Her genuine puzzlement was obvious. "How can that be, Jim? How can my son be happy when his life's in constant danger and with a man who's the antithesis of everything I ever tried to teach him?"

There was no way to fully explain, and Jim deeply regretted that fact. It had never been his desire to hurt Naomi or to come between Blair and his mother. Yet, he found himself in the uncomfortable position of doing both. "Blair is doing important work, Naomi," Jim said gently. "It's certainly not what he expected to be doing, I'll grant you that, but it matters to him. I think he gets a great deal of satisfaction from helping people, and believe me, he's helped a lot of people since he's been working with me in the Major Crimes unit. In that way, Blair is still following the example you set for him, isn't he?"

"Maybe. I suppose," Naomi said quietly, a bit less hostility in her voice. There was a pause, then what sounded like a choked-off sob. "I know that Blair believes you care for him, but how could you? How can anyone genuinely care for another person, yet allow them to endanger their life? How can you dare take Blair away from me now?"

A sudden weariness flooded Jim's soul, and he leaned more heavily against the wall for support. "This isn't about you, Naomi. I wish like hell none of this had happened, but it did. I can't explain it all to you, but please believe that I'm doing the best I can to keep Blair safe." His soft chuckle was edged with bitterness. "God knows, I can understand why you don't believe it, but I love Blair. He's my life, too, Naomi. I don't expect you to understand that, but I swear to you, I'll do whatever it takes to keep him safe."

"Even if that means giving him an alternative?" Naomi asked quickly.

Too quickly.

Immediately, Jim sensed the danger, but he couldn't ignore the question. "What are you getting at?"

"Just give him a choice, that's all. Blair can come away with me instead. You know how much I move around, Jim," Naomi almost purred. "Even Blair has trouble tracking me down. We can travel together, just as we did when he was little, and see the world. He'll have the chance to make new friends, to visit interesting and stimulating places. We'll stay on the move constantly. I can promise you that no one will find us. He'll be safe and can live a gentler, more introspective life. You won't have the responsibility for his safety any more."

"It's a responsibility I welcome," Jim snapped before he could stop himself. "I'm not running out on Blair, Naomi."

"That's not what I asked, Jim," she replied calmly. "Just present my suggestion to him. Give him the choice. Doesn't Blair deserve the chance to choose his own future? At least within the parameters whatever mess you've landed yourself in will allow him? If you truly love him as much you claim, it seems to me that you'd want the best for him."

Jim winced at the insinuation, but however painful it might be, he couldn't deny the truth behind the bitter tone. He'd chastised himself with those same words enough times. "All right." He stared at the building across the street, wondering briefly what it might be like to live an 'average' life. No point debating a moot point. "I'll ask Blair - tell him your idea."

"No," she replied immediately. "Don't tell him I suggested it. Blair would never even consider the idea if he thought I was forcing you into this."

Why stop now? Pushing down the insistent feeling that somehow he was betraying his best friend's faith in him, Jim agreed. "Okay, Naomi. We'll do this your way. If you don't hear from me or from Blair in the next few minutes, you can assume the answer was 'no'.

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

Still carrying the portable phone, Jim rapped lightly on the French doors to Sandburg's room. "Chief?"

"Come on in," Blair invited. "I'm just finishing up here." He stuffed a small box inside the duffel resting on the bed.

Jim moved to sit next to the well-worn backpack lying beside the duffel. He fingered the fabric slowly, remembering the many times he'd seen it on his friend's back, seemingly as much a part of Blair as the treasured curls and expressive blue eyes.

Blair stopped halfway across the small room, watching him. "What's wrong, man?"

Jim smiled sadly, but he didn't raise his eyes from the pack. His entire world was falling apart, yet Blair could tell there was something new bothering him. The kid knew him entirely too well, but he supposed it was too late to change that now. "I've got a proposition for you," he said carefully. "What if you didn't go with me?"

Blair laughed and tossed the shirt he was holding at Jim. "Hey, man, this isn't exactly the time for jokes, you know. We need to get moving, right?"

Jim met his partner's eyes. "I'm not joking."

The laughter faded from Blair's eyes. "Then what the hell are you talking about?" he said defensively.

"There's another alternative. At least, for you there is." Jim fought to keep his voice neutral, not to betray the knot that had formed in his gut when he'd agreed to present Naomi's idea to Blair. That small, knotted pearl of fear was formed around the grain of sand that maybe, just maybe, Blair might agree. "You could find Naomi and hook up with her. Stay on the move, the way she does anyway. I don't think Brackett or anyone would be able to track you down."

"No." The answer was immediate, totally without hesitation.

"Think about it, Chief," Jim pointed out. "You'd be with your mom, and you'd have the chance to see all those places you might have wanted to visit, you know? I mean, you've always loved to travel, to live life on the road, right? This would be a chance to... "

"No," Blair interrupted, his voice coldly calm. "I won't listen to this crap, Jim. I don't know what the hell's gotten into you, but I'm not going anywhere without you. We're partners, remember?"

"The partnership agreement never included this kind of sacrifice, Chief," Jim said brusquely even as his gaze fell again to Blair's old backpack. "My senses are useless right now; I can't protect you the way I need to be able to with a pro like Brackett after us. If we split up, he'd have two trails to follow, and it makes sense that he'd come after me first. That would buy Simon and the feds more time to find these bastards. Hell, the Sentinel thing may be dead anyway. Permanently off-line. Maybe it would be better for you to cut your losses and get the hell away from me before I really do get you killed!" The sudden anger at himself for all the mistakes of the past combined with fear that Blair might actually agree with Naomi's logic, sent Jim's pulse racing even as his voice rose.

"Look at me," Blair said softly, his voice gentle even with its undeniable note of command. When Jim didn't respond, Blair continued, "Look me in the eyes, Jim, and tell me that you don't want me with you. Tell me to my face that you'd rather I go with Naomi... " Blair hesitated, then he added in a voice tight with emotion, "... even though that might mean we'd never see each other again."

Jim's eyes closed in pain as he shook his head mutely. He felt, rather than heard, Blair come to kneel at his feet, then Jim felt the warmth of his Guide's hands resting on his knees. Sandburg persisted in his quest for an answer. "Look at me, Jim. Look me in the eyes and tell me to go away."

"I can't," Jim said roughly, his eyes still clinched shut. "Damn it, Sandburg, it would probably be the best gift I could give you, but God help me, I can't do it."

"And what about this surprises you?" Blair quipped gently, squeezing Jim's knees firmly.

The humor in the response opened Jim's eyes to the welcome sight of Blair, smiling patiently at him. "You knew I couldn't do it, didn't you?" Jim asked. "You pushed me for an answer that you already had." He tried to swallow down the huge lump that had formed in his throat at the sight of his partner's calm and trusting face.

Blair shook his head slowly, still smiling, his eyes warm with wisdom. "You knew the answer, too, man. You just needed to be reminded a little, that's all."

"This is a hell of a lot bigger sacrifice than giving up a year's study in Borneo, kid." Jim covered Blair's hands with his own, pressing them down on his knees. "I can't promise when - or if - we'll ever get back here. You know neither of us can tell anyone where we are or what names we're using. You won't be able to work in anthropology; you can't provide your credentials or references. If Brackett finds us... " He didn't need to finish the sentence; Blair had seen Owl's handiwork and knew the consequences too well. "I wouldn't blame you if you bailed out now, Chief. Probably should have a long time ago."

Blair's smile drifted away as his expression turned serious. "When are you gonna learn, man? I'm not like the others. I already told you, I'm not going anywhere without you, Jim. Believe that."

Jim immediately understood. Memories flashed through his mind unbidden and completely unexpected. His mother's framed picture, lying broken and shattered on his bedroom floor where his father had hurled it in a fit of rage... his father's cold face as he chastised Jim for insisting he could see and hear what others could not... Steven's increasing aloofness as the brothers gradually grew to be strangers... the screams of his men as their chopper crashed into flames in the isolated jungle of Peru, leaving Jim injured and helpless as they died... Carolyn's sad face as she closed the door on the loft and on their marriage... the anger and helplessness Jim had felt when he realized that his partner, Jack, had vanished from his life forever... the rage and grief that consumed him as he knelt beside Danny Choi's lifeless body... the pain of losing Lila just when he'd found her again...

Jim shook his head roughly to stop the painful parade of memories. Even gazing into the earnest blue eyes of his best friend, Guide, teacher, and partner, Jim couldn't quite banish the small, niggling pearl of doubt. He tried to force a smile, but failed miserably.

Blair's expression turned reflective. "You know, I think I was wrong about Borneo."

Jim's heart splintered into a thousand sharp, cutting shards. "What... ? You... were wrong?"

As though reading his very soul, Blair smiled softly. "Not wrong about deciding not to go, man. Wrong about what I said afterward. About it being all about friendship."

"How was that wrong, Chief?" Jim asked, still half-afraid to hear the answer.

"It's not all about friendship." Blair sat back on his haunches, but he made no effort to remove his hands from beneath Jim's. "It's about more than that, really. It's about commitment. About trust. About dedication to something beyond yourself - something bigger and more significant than the just the one."

"Even when the friendship - the trust and the commitment - may cost you your entire life?" Jim knew he sounded more bitter than he should; after all, the kid was pledging his friendship here. If only he didn't feel so tired, so utterly and irrevocably used up. Jim dropped his head lower, staring down at their joined hands.

When Blair didn't respond right away, Jim glanced up at him without raising his head.

Tiny frown lines had appeared between Blair's knitted brows. "What was that quote I read a few weeks ago?" The look of concentration vanished as quickly as it had appeared. "Oh, yeah... It was by Colton... 'The firmest friendships have been formed in mutual adversity, as iron is most strongly united by the fiercest flame.' Blair's quick smile immediately restored Jim's splintered heart. "Look at it this way, Jim. If that's true, then nothing in heaven or earth's gonna tear this friendship apart. We gotta be way tougher than steel by now, right? Face it, we're in this for the long haul, man."

Jim tossed back his head and laughed for the first time since his capture. Blair's own laughter soared with his, a perfect counterpoint to Jim's sudden joy. Releasing Sandburg's hands, he leaned forward, wrapping his long arms around his friend's slim shoulders and drew him forward into a tight embrace. "Sandburg," he chuckled as he pressed his cheek hard against the top of Blair's head. "What the hell am I gonna do with you?"

The muffled reply emerged from the depths of Jim's arms, as he felt Blair's shoulders shake with laughter. "Just hold on, man. Just keep holding on."

Jim glanced at the portable phone that had fallen to the bed and smiled. Sorry, Naomi. Your little boy's a helluva a lot stronger than you give him credit for. I'll take care of him, I promise you that. Just don't ever ask me again to let him go because you'd be wasting your breath.

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

Their bags were packed and waiting by the door. The refrigerator had been emptied and cleaned. Bills were stashed in Jim's bag to be paid later. The trash had been taken to the dumpster, and all exterior doors and windows locked. All the plants had been farmed out to neighbors. There was nothing left to do but leave.

Sometimes what seems to be the simplest thing is the most difficult.

As they had done so often during time of turmoil and peace, Jim and Blair drifted to the balcony. It was well after ten PM, and the city was beginning to settle down for the evening. Spread out before them like stars in the heavens were the lights of the city they both loved.

Blair looked over at Jim, standing at his side as they gazed out at Cascade for the last time. Jim's expression was contemplative, almost pensive. "Penny for your thoughts," he said softly.

Jim turned to him with a small smile. "I was just about to ask you the same thing, Chief. I know this can't be easy for you."

"I've never stayed this long in one place before," the younger man admitted. "Even in college, I moved around from apartment to apartment, dorm room to dorm room." He glanced up at Jim, almost shyly. "It's been nice having some place to call home. Thanks, Jim."

Ellison's only reply was a quick nod of understanding, and an arm that reached out to rest lightly across Blair's shoulders. Blair waited a long moment before adding, "This can't be easy for you either. It's been your home for a lot longer."

Jim was silent so long that Blair figured he'd decided not to answer. Then, quietly, Jim said, "It's been my only real home, too, you know."

Curious, Blair asked, "How's that?"

Jim was still staring out at the city. When he spoke again, it was almost as though he were talking to himself, like he'd forgotten Blair was there, even with his arm still draped loosely around his shoulders. "I was so young when my mother left us that I barely remember what it was like there before. After she was gone... " The words hung unfinished for a long time. "After that, the house wasn't really a home. I dreaded going back there after school every day, so I got involved in as many extra-curricular activities as possible. Summers, I hung out with Bud. Later, I joined the military and moved from place to place, wherever they sent me."

"Then you bought the loft," Blair concluded with a smile.

"Yeah, but even then it wasn't really home, you know." Jim glanced down at Blair briefly before his eyes returned to the skyline of Cascade. "Before I married, it was just a place to spend the night. I went back to my old habit of using work to avoid coming home. Later, Carolyn was the 'decorator' while she was here. Not to mention the fact that we spent so much time arguing, there wasn't much way to feel at home. It got so I started putting in even more time at work, and so did she." A sad smile touched his lips, bringing a stab of sympathetic pain to Blair's heart. "Some her fault; a hell of a lot mine."

"It was always your home, though," Blair pointed out gently.

"Eventually," he admitted turning to look at Blair. Intense blue eyes held Blair's firmly, their unspoken message as clearly visible as the brightest star above.

Swallowing hard against the tightness gripping his throat, Blair held the gaze for a long, quiet moment. "I figured something out a long time ago, man. Home isn't a place. It's a feeling of safety, of belonging. Of being cared for and valued." A warm, brilliant glow rose to replace the lump in his throat and his smile broadened in response. "Wherever we end up, Jim, no matter how far we go, we'll always be home. Right?"

Blair watched the same warmth grow in Jim's eyes. "I would never argue with you on that one, Chief." He tugged gently on a strand of long hair. "Let's get going, kid. We've got a long road ahead of us."

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

They made a quick stop by Rainier on their way out of town. Blair insisted he couldn't leave without taking his Sentinel notes housed in the locked file cabinet in his office. Even though all notes referring specifically to Jim were safely locked away at the loft and already packed in his duffel, the young anthropologist was reluctant to leave behind anything Sentinel-related. "My early research is what got us into this mess in the first place, Jim," he pointed out on the drive over, with Blair behind the wheel for once. "I don't want to take any chances that anything will fall into the wrong hands once they figure out I'm not coming back."

Jim hadn't been able to disagree. Within a half-hour of leaving the loft, he found himself waiting in the truck, keeping a look-out while Sandburg let himself into Hargrove Hall, by-passed the security system, and loaded his notes into a box they'd picked up outside the liquor store just for that purpose. A case of role reversal, to be sure. Sandburg hadn't been blind to the humor in the situation as he got out of the vehicle. Leaning in through the open driver's window, he grinned. "Ellison! Wait in the truck!"

Jim's attempt at a stern glare fell flat, and he could hear Sandburg's chuckles as he jogged toward Hargrove.

As he waited, Jim stared out at the street in front of him, remembering an encounter that had changed his life forever. It had been so long ago, yet it seemed only yesterday. How quickly his militarily neat, structured life had taken an abrupt u-turn, all instigated by his own runaway senses, an energetic graduate student, a red Frisbee, and a garbage truck. He smiled at the irony.

Would he have changed it all, if he had been granted that power? Never to have had his Sentinel senses? To have avoided the harsh conflicts as a boy with his father? Not to feel the sometimes numbing sense of isolation that came with being so different in a world that stressed conformity?

The idea had its appeal.

To have missed the thrilling feeling he got when his senses were 'humming', under his control, and leading him exactly where he needed to be on a case. Not to know the unbelievable splendor of a sunset only the enhanced senses of a Sentinel can reveal. Never to have heard the cry of an eagle soaring overhead in an azure sky high in the Cascades.

Blair appeared at the door of Hargrove, leaning backwards to compensate for the weight of the box he was carrying. Jim leaned over and flashed the truck headlights at him three times in quick succession, and in the glow of the streetlamps, Jim could see his face light up in a broad grin.

Never to have seen Sandburg's smile or heard his laughter or felt his hand warm against his back.

Some costs are too dear to pay, even for the luxury of a normal life.

Leaning across the driver's seat, Jim opened the door for Blair. The younger man jumped in after securing the box in the bed of the pick-up. "I left a note for Seth," he explained, closing the door. "He'll cover my classes tomorrow, and Simon's got the keys to my car to take it to his place." Blair looked over at Jim as he fastened his seat belt. "I guess that's it."

His mind still caught up in his reflections of moments before, Jim only nodded as Blair pulled out onto the deserted street. He headed slowly toward the back gates of Rainier, determined not to attract attention with careless driving. This was one time when an fender-bender could prove disastrous.

If Blair noticed his reflective mood, he gave no sign. "So, big guy," he chattered, almost too cheerily, considering the circumstances. "Which way are we heading?"

Jim motioned for him to pull out onto the highway and head toward the interstate. "First? L.A."

Blair's curiosity was evident. "Los Angeles? Any particular reason?"

Traffic was light at that time of the evening, Jim noted absently as he scanned the road ahead of them, behind in the mirrors, and those to the side. "Yeah. There's a guy there I know who can help us out."

Blair pulled to a stop at a red light, his blue eyes regarding Jim closely. "Help us? How? I didn't think anyone was supposed to know what we're doing."

"Right. This is different, though. We need some help getting started."

"Who is this guy?" Blair checked the traffic both ways as the light turned green, then pulled out into the intersection. A couple of turns later, and they were heading south on the interstate.

Jim explained, keeping an eye on the surrounding traffic the entire time. He was determined to be sure there was no one following them as they left Cascade. "His name's Bernard Armstrong, but nobody calls him that. His nickname's 'Ink'."

Blair glanced over at him. "Ink? Where'd that come from?"

"The guy's a master printer, Chief. He can create documents of all sorts, good enough to fool the closest inspection."

"Hence the name 'Ink', right? Kinda like good old Sneaks?"

Jim nodded. "You got it. Only this guy's not an informant. He's a pro."

"So where'd you hook up with him? And doesn't his 'occupation' border somewhat on the, shall we say, shady side? Don't tell me Mr. Straight and Narrow Ellison's hanging out with the dark side now." Blair's slightly teasing tone took any sting from his words.

There were some distinct advantages to not being the driver, Jim decided, reaching over to swat the back of Sandburg's head. He received a good-natured 'ow' for his efforts. "Let's just say that what Ink does borders on the unacceptable, but tough times call for tough measures, Chief. As for how I know him, Ink was in my outfit in the military. We served on a mission in Colombia together."

"So you know the guy years ago. I thought you said nobody could know what we're doing or where we are. What makes you think this guy, Ink, won't sell us out?"

The genuine concern in his partner's voice convinced Jim that Blair understood the gravity of their situation. That was good. Sandburg had a tendency to trust far too easily, and in their situation, that trait definitely could prove unhealthy. "Of course, I can't be 100% certain, but I'm confident. First, Ink won't have a clue why we're doing this or who's looking for us. He wouldn't know who to contact. Second, he owes me."

"Owes you? Big time, I hope."

"I saved his life," Jim said flatly. "I think that should be enough."

"How?" Blair pressed. "What happened?"

Jim relaxed a bit now that they were well out of Cascade. He hadn't spotted any suspicious activity around them, the traffic was light, and they hadn't encountered any problems. He was reasonably sure they had made it out of town safely. "Like I said, we were sent to Colombia. I met Ink there. He was a member of Special Ops - one hell of a soldier - and Ink often cooked up papers and forms we needed for infiltration purposes, too. We were on patrol one night in the jungle. Ink and I were taking point. Maybe it was a flash of my senses kicking in prematurely - before Peru - I don't know. I just 'knew' there was a mine on the trail right in front of Ink. His right foot was actually raised, ready to step down. Before I could even think, I tackled him. Pushed him to the ground before he took that next step. At first he was furious - got up sputtering and calling me every name in the book. Then, I tossed a rock on the spot where he was about to step, and it exploded. No way he would have survived if he'd taken that step." Jim shrugged and grinned sheepishly. "After that, I was Ink's best buddy."

As he'd expected, Blair was instantly enthusiastic. "Why do you think it was your senses, not just instinct? I mean, you were a highly trained, experienced soldier. Maybe you just subconsciously figured out somehow that the mine was there. I mean, you could have picked up on a clue - disturbed brush, a footprint, or something. But you said you thought it was your senses, right? What was it that... ?"

Laughing, Jim interrupted his talkative Guide. "Give me a chance here, Sandburg! I never should have mentioned that bit about my senses. It's just that, for an instant, it was as though I could 'feel' the mine there. Its metallic smell; maybe even the difference in the heat signature from the surrounding dirt and air. I don't know, really. Looking back on it now, after all you've taught me, it was like for a split second, my senses were fully on-line and humming. Then, just as fast, they were gone."

"It was long enough to save Ink, though," Blair mused. "I suppose that could happen. A momentary flare-up of your senses prior to their actual, full-time activation in Peru later on. If it was only a quick thing, like you said, control might not have been an issue. They weren't on-line long enough for you to need to maintain control."

"But what triggered them?" Jim asked, frankly curious. "I'd been in dangerous situations before and nothing happened. Why then?"

Blair was quiet for a full minute. "I'm not sure," he admitted at last. "There's still so much of this I don't understand. I don't know that I ever will understand it all."

"I don't think you're supposed to, Chief," Jim said quietly. "This Sentinel/Guide mystery is way too big for anyone to completely get a handle on it. Look at it this way, you've found the ultimate scientific study - one that never ends and is eternally challenging."

The grateful smile Blair flashed him was reward enough for Jim's insight into his friend's emotions. They drove quietly for several miles.

"Anyway," Jim said, breaking the companionable silence. "It will be up to Ink to make everything we need for Ellison and Sandburg to disappear. New driver's licenses, passports, social security cards. The works. Better be thinking of a new name, Chief."

Blair shot a surprised look toward the passenger side of the truck. "A new name? I hadn't thought of that, I guess."

"We can't use our own names," Jim pointed out. "Brackett would be on us in no time. We can get by with using our first names, I think, but definitely new last names. Nothing related to us or our pasts at all. Not favorite teachers or grandparents' names. Nothing Brackett could dig at and find a connection." He studied Blair's profile in the darkness, wishing again that his senses were back so he could monitor his Guide's heart, and through it, what he was feeling. A deep regret tugged at Jim's heart as he watched the sorrowful emotions flicker across Blair's face.

For a time, Blair didn't reply, then he took a deep breath, releasing it slowly. Jim knew he was 'processing' the new information and waited for his friend to come to grips with the fact that he would also be sacrificing his very name. "Okay," Blair said at last. "A new name. I can do that." He grinned at Jim. "Why don't you do mine and I'll do yours?"

"What are you talking about, Chief?"

"Might as well make this fun. You pick a name for me. I'll select one for you. The only rule, beyond those you've already pointed out, is that the names have to 'fit' somehow. Nothing embarrassing or silly. Agreed?" Glancing over at Jim, the new-found excitement in Blair's eyes glowed through the darkness.

How could he refuse those eyes? "Agreed," Jim replied almost instantly. Anything to make this easier for Sandburg. "When's the deadline?"

"When we reach L.A.," Blair said easily. "I assume we're driving straight through?"

"If you're up to it," Jim said cautiously. "I would help, but... "

"Not with that leg." Blair's tone left no room for disagreement. "We need you back 100% ASAP, and putting stress on that leg won't help. Not to mention the fact that you're still on painkillers. All we need right now is one of your famous Ellison fender-benders. I can do it, Jim. Just get me a room when we arrive and let me sleep."

Chuckling, Jim agreed. "You got it, Chief."

Both men fell silent as they drove through the darkness, thinking about the challenges that lay ahead.

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

The early afternoon traffic heading into LA was predictably heavy. Blair glanced over at Jim, dozing in the seat beside him, then rubbed his eyes with one hand. He was tired. Driving through the night and morning with only quick meal and bathroom breaks wasn't easy, but now that they'd arrived at their destination, Blair was relieved. The first leg of their journey of indeterminable length was over. Jim was safe and resting. He'd done all he could do for now.

A few minutes later, he spotted a chain motel and pulled off the freeway. "Hey, Jim," Blair called softly, reaching over to gently shake his friend's arm. "Wake up, buddy. We're here."

Immediately, Ellison was alert, straightening in his seat with only a small grunt of discomfort, although Blair knew any sudden movement must still be painful. "LA?"

"Yeah," Blair confirmed as he pulled into a parking space. "I found a decent motel - a chain like you suggested. Not high-profile at all. You wanna rest here while I check us in, or would you rather stretch a bit?"

"I'll go with you," Jim said, already opening the truck door. "Once we get the room, we need to find a local paper. One of our first jobs is to ditch this truck."

Blair stared in disbelief. "You're getting rid of your truck?"

"Too easy to trace, kid. We'll find an individual with a decent vehicle for sale, once we have our new ID's. In the meantime, we'll take the bus or cabs." Jim seemed totally calm, apparently at ease with the plans he seemed to have made so carefully.

Of course, Blair mused, he's a trained special ops soldier. I've never thought that much about it, but if anyone could just disappear, start a new life without leaving a trace behind, it would be Jim. Taking a deep breath, he plunged back into the water after his brief hesitancy. "Okay, man, this is your show. I'm down with whatever you think is best."

Jim opened the door on the passenger side. "Let's go get a place to rest, then, Chief. After we've had some sleep, I'll contact Ink and get this show on the road."

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

Emerging from the depths of heavy sleep, Blair was vaguely aware of something intruding on his consciousness. At first, he just flopped over onto his belly, hoping to reclaim the peacefulness of sleep. It didn't help. The small sounds continued, and now that he was more awake, Blair identified them as sounds of distress. Had he left the TV on in the loft living room?

Reality kicked in, and Blair sat bolt upright, staring through the darkness at the illuminated dial on the clock/radio resting on the bedside table between the two beds. After nine PM! Shaking his head to clear the cobwebs, he realized that they had slept straight through the day. With the heavy drapes pulled, the only light in the small room was the greenish glow from the clock/radio.

The sounds were louder now, drawing his attention to the second bed. A low keening filled the darkness, and Blair strained his eyes to find the occupant of that bed.

Jim!

He jumped out of bed, then nearly fell in the jumbled sheets and blankets that tangled around his legs. Fighting his way free, Blair covered the short distance between their beds in one long stride and perched on the edge of the mattress. "Jim?" he said softly. "It's okay, Jim." He could see Ellison's face in the pale green glow, and the sight of the raw terror there clinched Blair's heart in a vise.

Jim's eyes were tightly clinched, and his head moved slowly back and forth in denial. Small beads of sweat clung to his brow. Another low moan bubbled up from Jim's throat, but the sound was more animal than human.

Gently, Blair pried Jim's left hand free of his grip on the single thin sheet covering the Sentinel. Wrapping the warm hand between his two cooler ones, Blair massaged it firmly. Jim was trembling from head to toe, and his hands shook with a force that nearly ripped the hand from Blair's. "Listen to me, Jim. It's all over now. You're safe. I need you to wake up for me, man. Think you can do that, huh?"

The voice was scarcely recognizable. "S... and... burg! No!"

"Jim!" Blair spoke more forcibly. He released Jim's trembling hand to reach up and pat his cheeks firmly. Whatever demons were tormenting his friend, he had to drive them away. "I'm right here. I'm okay. I'm here, Jim. I'm with you, man. I promise, it's over now. Wake up, Jim."

The blue eyes flew open wide with a startled cry. "Wha... ?"

"Shhhh... ," Blair murmured, stroking the short strands of sweat-drenched hair back off Jim's forehead. "It's me, Jim. It's Blair. I'm right here with you. It's just us, man, nobody else. It's okay; you're safe now. Shhhh... " He kept up the comforting litany until the fear in Jim's eyes subsided.

Jim reached up with his right hand to wipe his face, and Blair could see that although the tremors through his body had ceased, Jim's hands still shook violently. Gently, Sandburg captured both Jim's hands in his. Pulling them to his chest, he anchored them there, running his thumbs across the knuckles in a tender caress. "Easy, Jim. Relax now, okay? Close your eyes and let me help you through this, all right?"

A slight nod was the only reply. Jim's chest rose and fell far too quickly, and Blair could tell that although his friend was awake now and aware of where he was and who he was with, the aftereffects of the nightmare were still strong. "You were dreaming about the basement," Blair said sympathetically. It wasn't a question; he had no doubt what the nightmare had been about. "You thought they had me."

Another tiny nod.

"Just a dream, man. I'm here. With you. We're safe now. You're gonna be dreaming about this one for a while, but that's all right. Remember after Lash? And Alex? How I'd wake up at night with those terrible dreams? It's human nature. All part of the psyche's healing process as you try to work through what happened to you. Just remember that it's all over, Jim, that you're safe. That I'm gonna be right here beside you every step of the way. Twenty-four/seven. Remember how you took care of me then? Well, it's my turn now, buddy. Just breathe, slow and deep. Everything's all right, I promise."

As he spoke, Blair continued the gentle stroking of Jim's still-trembling hands. He stopped thinking about his words, and just allowed the comforting sounds to flow freely. Instead, he focused on those hands.

Such powerful hands, yet so gentle.

That slight trembling in Ellison's hands broke Blair's heart as nothing else could. That some cruel tormentors could reduce this man, this strong, noble, man, to such trembling both angered and wounded Blair. Enduring the same torture himself would not have hurt so much, he felt certain.

Slowly, as he spoke so quietly, in minute increments, the violent trembling lessened. Jim's fingers gradually curled around Blair's, anchoring the Sentinel even closer to his Guide. Blair's chin quivered slightly as the force of Jim's trust in him swept through his soul. Impulsively, needing to express the powerful love he felt for this man, however inadequately, Blair lowered his head and kissed the once-strong hands, now trembling so helplessly within his own. "It's all right, Jim," Blair whispered, his lips still lightly pressed against Jim's fingers. "We're gonna be all right. I promise you."

Jim drew a single deep, unsteady breath and nodded slightly. He made no move to pull his hands away from Blair's grasp. His breathing evened out, and within minutes, Blair felt Jim's fingers relax, then grow lax against his chest. Resting his cheek against their joined hands, he murmured, "Sleep, Jim. I'll be right here. All you need to do is rest."

Far into the long, quiet night, the Guide stood guard over his Sentinel, keeping the demons at bay.

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

"That's good, Ink," Jim said into the phone tucked between his chin and shoulder and he jotted down notes on the small pad from the motel desk. "We'll be there at 2:00. Thanks."

Blair looked up from the phone book spread open on his bed. "Everything set?"

"Yeah," Jim confirmed. "I've got Ink's address, and we'll meet him this afternoon. In the meantime, we need to go get those photos. You find anything?" At Blair's answering nod, he tossed the writing pad to the other bed.

"I found a place not too far from here that makes passport photos with developing while you wait," Blair pointed out, scratching down the address on the pad. "I'd like to make one stop first."

Jim stood up and gathered up his wallet and coat from the small table by the window. He also picked up his duffel. "I don't like carrying this money around, Chief," Jim said, eyeing the bag. "It'll be good when we can settle somewhere and open an account."

Sandburg joined him at the door. "I guess this is the first step. In the meantime, we'll both keep an eye on that bag."

"My life's savings," Jim agreed, shaking his head. "All packed and ready to travel." Smiling at his friend, he opened the door. "Let's go, kid. You're driving."

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

After breakfast at a café near the motel, Blair stopped the truck in front of a strip mall and cut the engine. "This may take a while, Jim," he said as he turned to face his partner. "Maybe forty-five minutes or so. You want to go browse in the used bookstore at the end of the mall there?"

Jim cocked his head and regarded his friend doubtfully. "Me, browse the used books? Isn't that more your department, Chief?" He surveyed the varied selection of shops in the mall. "Where are you heading anyway? You've been pretty mysterious about your 'errand' this morning."

Blair's eyes cut to the mall, back to Jim, then to the floorboard of the truck. "I... it's nothing that major, Jim. Really." Obviously flustered, the younger man floundered about for words. "I just figured that - before the photos, you know - I mean, we're trying to throw off anyone looking at us, right?"

Jim was completely lost. "Sandburg, spit it out, okay?" Gesturing toward the mall, he tried to make it easier for his Guide. "Try this. Which store are you going into?"

The blue eyes cut nervously back to the mini-mall as Blair pushed his long hair back from his face. "Uh... which store?"

Slowly, Jim repeated, "Which store do you need to go to, Chief? It's not a hard question. You picked this location after looking in the phone book. You must have had a reason."

Blair stammered, "I... I'd rather let it be a surprise, okay? C'mon, man. Just go to the bookstore for a while. I'll come get you when I'm done." His grin seemed forced and uncertain. "Humor me, Jim, okay?"

Giving up, Jim opened the passenger door. It was no use arguing with Blair when he had his mind made up. "Okay, Chief, you win." Gathering his cane, he eased out of the truck. "I'll be in the bookstore." Jim limped toward the last shop on the row. "Maybe I can find something about dealing with eccentric anthropologists."

"Funny, man," Blair grumbled, leaning back against the truck. "Just wait there for me, okay? I'll find you."

"Gotcha, Chief," Jim called back. "Just don't let me catch you doing anything crazy, all right?"

"Who? Me?" Blair responded with a laugh. "C'mon, man. Have a little trust, okay?"

Jim waved Blair off with a casual hand as he stepped into the bookstore.

If the Sentinel's hearing had been on-line, he would have heard his Guide mutter, "It's crazy, all right, but desperate times call for desperate measures, Jim."

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

Almost fifty minutes later, Jim was heading to the door. He'd browsed through the small shop, and although he'd be loath to admit it to Sandburg, he'd actually enjoyed the quiet time among the dusty volumes. A couple of books on South America had caught his eye, as had one about the history of sports. Before he knew it, Sandburg was past due.

As he maneuvered through the door with his cane, he nearly bumped into another man coming into the shop. "Excuse me," Jim apologized. "I'm sorry, I... "

He stopped, staring in bewilderment, then shook his head as if to clear his vision. Jim's mouth opened, but no sound emerged.

Blair looked up at him with wide-eyed apprehension. "It's okay, Jim. C'mon, man, breathe." Glancing around at the few shoppers beginning to stare at them, he grasped Jim's elbow and steered him toward the truck.

Ellison's eyes were glued to his partner. His partner he now barely recognized. Oblivious to any by-standers, Jim stopped dead in his tracks in the middle of the parking lot. Dropping the cane, he gripped Blair's shoulders firmly, turning the younger man to face him.

Jim stared down at Blair, waiting for his answer, and considering the change in appearance of the man standing before him. The formerly long chestnut hair had vanished, replaced by short-cropped curls that covered Blair's head like a thick cap. The transformation was remarkable. Where Blair had always been possessed of a youthful energy and vitality, now he seemed doubly young.

Too damned young, Jim thought with a sinking feeling in his chest. If I thought being his Blessed Protector was a tremendous responsibility before... Just look at him now. Not that anything's really changed. It's just that he looks so damned... young. So terribly vulnerable. Oh, God, Sandburg, what the hell have you done?

"What were you thinking?" Jim exploded, his momentary muteness behind him.

Blair jerked backward, as if struck, a flash of fear darkening his blue eyes, seemingly so much larger now under the dark fringe of curls. "Jim... I..."

"I never wanted this!" Jim shouted, shaking the slim shoulders without even thinking about it. "I knew there'd be changes, sure, sacrifices to make, but not this!"

"Jim!" As though awakening from a bad dream, Blair came back to life. "It's only hair, man!" Reaching up to clasp his friend's biceps, he pressed on, not giving Jim time to reply. "You said we needed to do everything we can to change our lives, right? To cut all ties? You have to admit, we tend to present a picture someone would remember - this tall, military type accompanied by a long-haired... " Blair grinned tightly. "... a long-haired neo-hippie, witch-doctor punk. I figured the quickest thing I could do to alter that image is this."

He reached up and ran his fingers through the short curls. "I mean, it's probably time anyway, right? I'm no kid any more, contrary to what you and Simon like to call me, and honestly, I've considered it more than once. Just seemed time to take the leap, you know? Besides, it'll grow back whenever I'm ready, if that's what I want." Squeezing Jim's arms tightly as his smile faded, Blair added, "This is too important to blow, Jim. It's life-and-death, man, for real. We're dealing with psychos here, and if cutting my hair will help us fly under the radar, then it's a small sacrifice to make."

Jim stared down into the earnest face, the hope in those eyes so vivid. He wants me to say it's okay, that what he did was necessary - was right. He needs approval from me, but right now, I just don't know if I can give him that. But gazing down into those searching eyes, Jim knew that was exactly what he had to do.

"Chief," Jim began slowly. "I'm... I'm still kind of in shock here, so this may not make a lot of sense." His hands, still on Blair's shoulders, loosened their grip, beginning a firm massage of the tense muscles lying beneath the blue t-shirt. "Not long ago, I told you that I was proud of you. What you did here today... "

Jim faltered and raised one hand to cup the back of Blair's head, letting his fingers wind through the unfamiliarly short curls. "It took courage to do what you just did, Sandburg. Courage and commitment. That just reinforces what I told you then." Jim's voice lowered as his tone became slightly rough. "I'm damned proud of you, Blair. Thank you."

The warm glow in those too-big eyes was enough to ease Jim's sense of regret. Blair smiled up at him, a huge, brilliant smile, and Jim shook his head in wonderment. Would there ever come a time when Sandburg would cease to amaze him?

"Thanks, Jim," he said quietly. "I guess I should have told you, but I knew you'd try to talk me out of it, and maybe even physically restrained me to keep me from going in there. It just felt right, but I didn't know if I could make you understand that."

Jim nodded. "It's okay, Chief. It just... took me by surprise, that's all. How about handing me that cane, and let's get to the photographers?" With a final squeeze to the back of his Guide's neck, Jim released the younger man.

Blair bent to retrieve the fallen cane, then handed it out for Jim. "Hey, Jim? You think the ladies will approve of my new look? I mean, it's pretty radically different for me."

Laughing, Jim ruffled the short curls. "Remember, the ladies you'll be meeting never knew the 'old' you, Chief. You're gonna have to impress them with your charisma and charm, not your locks this time."

Blair only looked crestfallen for a moment, then he brightened significantly. "Not a problem, buddy. Who could refuse this face?" He beamed up at Jim, his eyes glowing with a light from within.

Wrapping one arm around Blair's shoulders, Jim steered him toward the truck, chucking as he leaned on his cane. "You keep telling yourself that, Romeo. Just keep telling yourself that."

Part 2