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

Helpless

(Missing Scenes and an Epilogue to Cypher)

by Arianna

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

Blair shivered as a frisson of fear rippled through his body, his skin prickling with the sense of being hunted, and his heart thumped with anxiety as he swiftly unlocked the apartment door and slid into the loft. Quickly closing and bolting the door, he took a deep breath. "Just calm down," he told himself sternly, and shuddered, as he tried to shake off the nearly overwhelming sense of apprehension. He must have been mistaken. It had only been a quick, distorted reflection. It could have been anyone.

It didn't have to have been Lash…pretending to be him.

But when the shadow darted across the skylight, Sandburg's gut clenched. Someone was on the roof! Oh, God. Panic flared, a brief frozen moment, and then he hastened to the open balcony window, to close and lock it before drawing down the shade.

Like that will help, he thought disparagingly, as he scuttled back to the centre of the room. Like an ostrich, right? If I can't see him, he can't see me. Get a grip, Sandburg.

The rattling of someone trying the backdoor was loud in the apartment and Blair gasped. He wasn't being paranoid. Wasn't imagining things. Someone was out there trying to get in, and he didn't have to be a genius to figure out who it was. Racing for the phone, he punched in the emergency speed dial for Jim's pager, the one with the numeric code that screamed, Help!

"Ring," Blair breathed, staring at the phone on the wall, every muscle tense, his gut hollow and his body cold with the fear that assailed him. "Ring!"

When the front door was kicked open, busting the frame, he jumped and froze again, like a deer in the headlights, not sure what to do, having nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. Death had been stalking him - and had now come for him. He dragged in panting breaths, his eyes wide with shock, as David Lash ambled in - strutted actually - eerily confident, and the psychopathic murderer smiled in supreme satisfaction.

"Hey, dude," Lash greeted him, as he petted his wig of long, dark and luxurious curls, and then struck a pose, his hands lifting as he sought approbation. "What do you think? Do I make a great you, or what?"

Blair took a step back, his hands up in a defensive gesture. "Don't do this, man," he pleaded, his voice hoarse and raspy as he panted hard for breath. "You're sick, all right? You need help. You don't have to…have to keep killing innocent people."

"You don't understand, man," Lash returned, mimicking Sandburg's voice and cadences, as he prowled closer. "I can be you. I really can. And no one will ever know the difference! Don't you see? It's karma, dude. Meant to be. You can see that, can't you? That it's part of a great cosmic plan?"

Backing up, Blair shook his head. "Stay away from me! You hear me?" he shouted, more afraid than he'd ever been in his life. "Jim…Jim's coming and he'll take you down, man!" When Lash just laughed, a low, amused and derisive chuckle, Sandburg blindly grabbed up anything close at hand on the kitchen counters, and pelted the murderer - canisters of flour and dry oatmeal, mugs and plates from the sink…the frying pan still soaking from breakfast.

Lash fended off the missiles, batting them from the air to crash on the floor, or ducked, the pottery shattering loudly against the wall. "Relax, man," he crooned. "Don't make this so hard. Just go with the flow. Experience the now, the spiritual awakening of nirvana. You'll be free, dude. Free to fly."

Still retreating a step at a time, Sandburg shook his head, gasping for air as he grappled with the chilling fact that he was staring death in the face. One voice in his head argued that this couldn't be happening. He was too young to die. It had to be a nightmare. While another, louder, voice shouted at him to run for his life!

He bolted toward the back door, but Lash was on him in a flash, dragging him down, and they hit the floor hard. Scrambling, engulfed by terror, Blair rolled and punched, kicked, driving his assailant back. Half crawling, Sandburg lunged to get away. Lash was between him and the back, blocking the path to either the back door or the fire escape in his bedroom, so he cut toward the living room. When he was pulled back, Lash gripping his coat, he reached around to haul on the bookcase, bringing it down, and he felt Lash let go with a muttered curse. Diving over the back of the sofa, Sandburg headed to the smashed-in front door but, like a really bad dream, Lash was already there, blocking him again, still coming at him; shoving the coffee table between them was no lasting barrier, books and papers were inadequate missiles. The psycho leapt at him, and they fell back, crashing painfully into the television set on their way to the floor.

"HELP! SOMEONE HELP ME!" Blair yelled desperately, though he knew it was hopeless as he punched and kicked, wrestled and shoved to get free. The neighbours were on vacation. Jim hadn't answered his call. He was on his own and Lash was relentless, unstoppable. Sandburg couldn't believe the overwhelming strength of the man! Out of nowhere, a memory from his psych courses intruded. He'd heard, from a student who'd worked in an asylum, that it could take five to ten men to subdue a maniac - something about the fact they had no fear, no reservations; so single-minded that nothing but brute force could stop them. Oh, God, he thought, sick with terror, I'm gonna die. Jim's gonna find me drowned… like we found Susan! The thought of those dead eyes drove him into a renewed frenzy of fear, and he fought as he'd never fought before as they wrestled around the floor.

"Shhh, hey!" his assailant called soothingly, even as he swarmed all over Sandburg. "Chill out, man! It doesn't have to be this hard, y'know?"

"Fuck you!" Blair spat as he heaved his whole body to throw Lash off him, and then rolled to scramble back over the sofa, to put some space between them, but his ankle was grabbed in a vice-like grip. He twisted, kicking out, dislodging the seat cushions, but Lash dragged him back down to the floor, so that he was pinned against the couch.

David Lash backed off a bit, the wig askew on his head and his hands in the air, a false promise of peace. "You're incredible," he breathed in admiration. "Nobody has ever fought so hard. It's a test, isn't it? To prove I'm good enough to be you? I am, you know. Good enough; smart enough. I'll be a perfect you."

"You're sick, man," Blair grated as he pressed himself against the couch and fought to catch his breath. "Out of your fucking tree! As in nuts! Wacko! You can't be me! You can't be anyone but who you are!"

"Nooo," Lash argued, shaking his head, not wanting to hear it. He fussed with the wig, straightening it before again stroking the false hair, and then his coat, as he insisted, "I am you. But there can't be two of us. You can see that, can't you? You can understand why…why you have to…to…d-die?"

"NO," Sandburg shouted back. Swallowing hard, his eyes darted around the loft, seeking some escape. Hoping for a miracle if only he could stall long enough and keep Lash talking, he protested, "You don't have the right to take my life! I…I don't w-want to die, man. I really don't. You can't do this!"

"Oh, yes, I can," Lash spat back, becoming angry with the continued, stubborn, resistance. "I have to, don't you see?"

Talking wasn't working. Nothing was working. He had to get away. Had to escape! Blair's muscles bunched as his adrenaline peaked and he lunged forward, shoving Lash off-balance as he dove toward the door and freedom. But Lash charged after him and caught up a lamp, bringing it down hard on the back of his head.

Blair crashed to the floor, stunned. Lash hit him again…

Barely conscious, Sandburg moaned as he rolled onto his side and looked up at his murderer. He could hear Lash breathing heavily; and, as the darkness swept in, he blearily saw the psychopath drop the broken lamp and straighten to stand over him. Lash's voice was the last thing he heard before the world faded away…

"You see, dude? You understand now? You don't really exist anymore. It's karma, man."

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

At the high-pitched, incessant 'pinging' of the pager, Ellison stopped dressing and reached casually into the locker to see who was trying to reach him. But the sight of his home number and the '911' emergency code made him freeze in sudden alarm. Shoving his shirttails into his jeans, shrugging on his coat and grabbing his gym bag, he raced out the gym.

Once in the truck, he switched on the revolving light on the dash and peeled out of the lot. A sick tendril of fear curled in his gut as he wondered why the kid needed urgent help - and he prayed to God he was wrong in assuming that Lash had made a move against them. His breath tight in his chest, he wondered when the call for help had come; wondered how long Sandburg had been waiting. He pulled out his cell and, using the 'officer needs assistance' code, called for backup to meet him, ASAP. He was close, but he hoped a patrol car was closer.

Screeching to a halt in front of the building, Jim's heart sank to see that no other help had yet arrived. He bounded inside and up the stairs, rigid with tension that became nearly uncontainable when he saw the battered in door.

Weapon drawn and extended, he kicked the unlatched door open and strode inside, appalled by the evidence of a hard fought battle. "BLAIR?" he called, knowing it was useless. There was no heartbeat, no one alive left in the apartment. Lowering his gun, he stood, looking past the kitchen toward the small hallway…the bathroom. The tub. Swallowing, he shuddered and shook his head. He could smell Sandburg; smell his fear permeating the room. And he could smell that bastard, Lash.

But he couldn't smell death.

Taking a breath, he forced himself to check, to be certain…and sagged against the frame of the bathroom doorway, weak with relief to find the tub empty. But the relief didn't last. That psycho had his partner! Whirling away, his heart pounding, he loped to the phone and punched in Simon's number. As soon as the call was picked up, he grated tightly, "Lash has got Sandburg."

"What?"

"The loft's been trashed and I…I can smell Lash. He was here, Simon. He took the kid."

"Ah, Jesus, Jim."

"Look, I'm going to call Carolyn, see if she's got anything else, something we can go on. I'll meet you there."

Without waiting for a response, he terminated the call and punched in the next number.

"Carolyn, it's Jim. Lash has taken Sandburg from the loft. I need something, anything, to give me a lead here."

"Oh, Jim, I'm so sorry. But…there isn't anything - "

"There has to be! I've got to find the kid before…he's my responsibility. He was taken from our home, dammit!"

"Jim, it's not your fault."

Pacing to try to relieve some of his tension - and fear - trying to think, he couldn't accept her assurance. "I let that creep slip through my fingers too many times, Carolyn," he replied, feeling sick. But that wasn't important now. Nothing was important except finding Blair before that psycho… "Ah, what about the water? Did you come up with anything about the water?"

"We found some contamination; could be waste."

"What? You mean from a sewer?" He frowned, wondering what the information meant, how it might be useful.

"Maybe, I can't say for sure yet."

"What about Susan Fraser's clothes, anything?" he asked, reaching for straws. There had to be something, some clue, some way to find Sandburg before…

"Nothing."

"Okay, I'm gonna head over to her house, see if there's anything we missed. I'll call you later." Hanging up abruptly, he ran out of the apartment and back down to his truck.

God. What if they couldn't find Sandburg? Jesus, was the kid even still alive? No, Blair had to be alive. Swallowing as he careened through the night, Jim forced himself to slow his breathing. He couldn't afford to lose it, to get lost in fear. Couldn't let the anger that bubbled, the fury that Lash had dared to take Blair, get in the way. Couldn't let anything cloud his thinking, his reasoning. There wasn't time. No time.

Inside Susan's house, he scanned the entry and living room, but there was nothing out of place. He jogged up the stairs to the bathroom. There had to be something they missed. Had to be. Because, if there wasn't, he didn't have a fucking clue where to look or what to do and Sandburg would die.

In the bathroom, he didn't see anything he hadn't seen before and he gritted his jaw. Nothing wasn't good enough. Opening up his sight, he scanned again and something…something caught his attention. Something white where there should only have been darkness. In the drain.

A piece of fluff. Some sort of down.

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

Sandburg woke briefly, shivering and feeling dazed, nearly blinded by the pain of the headache searing through his skull. And then he realized it was dark, and he was lying on cold, wet pavement; but why was there a rag tied tightly around his head, pinching his face and gagging him? Blinking, trying to remember, he began to shift, to sit up, and was startled to discover his hands and feet were bound. Alarmed, he curled to see better and was appalled to find his wrists and ankles were clasped in leather and metal cuffs, and the cuffs were linked by a heavy metal chain. Groaning as the memories crashed in, he rolled over on his back and swallowed hard, desperately trying not to panic.

He was alone in some dark, deserted cul de sac, surrounded by looming, empty warehouses. Where was Lash? Why had he been brought here? Blair had thought he'd be drowned in the tub in the loft. None of this made any sense. Relieved to still be alive, daring to hope that maybe, just maybe, there would yet be some miraculous rescue, he sagged back on the concrete. But nausea cramped in his gut and pain sliced through his head. His muscles ached from his fruitless battle with the maniac.

It's hopeless, he thought with a soft sobbing breath. He was bound, gagged and helpless. Nobody knew where he was. Even Jim would never find him here. There were no clues, nothing to go on.

He was a dead man who just hadn't stopped breathing yet.

Tears burned in his eyes as despair washed over him.

Oh, God, he keened silently in his mind, feeling so very lost and afraid. I don't want to die.

Mercifully, darkness drifted over him again, granting him momentary relief from the pain and the fear that assailed him as he lay semiconscious on the wet ground.

Vaguely, he was aware of footsteps echoing, coming closer and fear spiked again, reviving him relentlessly in his poignant desire to live. To not be snuffed out, drowned, murdered. He stiffened as Lash came into view, and swallowed hard, fighting the bile in the back of his throat. He couldn't be sick. Not when he was gagged. He'd choke to death. The incongruity of that minor fear nearly made him laugh hysterically. God, Lash was going to kill him and there was nothing he could do about it. He was just another victim. He cringed at that. Hated thinking of himself as a victim, loathed it. And then he despaired at the thought of Jim finding him like Susan; eyes staring, lifeless, naked, a yellow scarf around his neck.

When David Lash roughly grabbed him by the shoulders and hoisted him into a fireman's lift, his gut again cramped, and the fierce pain in his head nearly made him pass out. He was dimly aware of Lash talking at him, going on and on about how wonderful it was all going to be, how perfect, to be him.

Horrified, Blair stopped listening, and scarcely noticed being carried into a building and up several flights of dank, dark stairs, so overwhelmed was he with imagining the crime scene when he was found - the photographers, the uniforms standing around, the coroner pronouncing him dead. The indignity of it all, the sheer inhumanity of it, took his breath away and he pressed his eyes closed, wanting, needing, some other image. But he could only think of Jim, and he wanted to weep with futile sorrow. This attack was directed as much at his partner as it was at him. Lash was laughing at the police, flaunting his brilliance. Hell, the psycho seemed to think he could just slip into his life, as if nobody would even notice the body in the tub. Shit. Jim would go ballistic. For Lash to invade Ellison's home and murder his roommate was nearly inconceivable. It gave new meaning to the idea of ‘throwing down the gauntlet'. And Jim would feel so responsible, so guilty. Ellison would have to live with that. Damn it! This could not be happening! Anger stirred then, tentatively, curling in his gut and taking on the fear that held him almost paralyzed.

But then, as they clumped up step after innumerable step in the pitch-black warehouse, Lash stumbled and banged into a brick wall. Sandburg's head smacked sharply against the impossibly hard surface - pain surged, blinding, white-hot agony…and then darkness again overtook him.

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

"It's down," Carolyn confirmed as she examined the fluff under the powerful microscope.

"What? A feather?" Simon demanded with a frown.

"Down?" Jim reflected. Carolyn had told them earlier that all the victims had been drowned somewhere other than their tubs where they'd been found. And she'd found some kind of waste in the sample. That had to be it - the one lead, the only lead they had. "Carolyn give me the water, in the beaker." When she looked at him askance, he pushed, having no time to explain, his voice tight. "Just get it."

She sighed, but got up to retrieve the sample from the lab's refrigerator.

"Where are you going with this, Jim?" Simon wondered, but Carolyn was back and it was easier to just find out than waste time with explanations.

"Break the seal," he directed, waving at the small beaker of precious water. Precious if it held the clue he needed to find his partner.

"I can't Jim," she protested, sounding aghast at the very idea. "Oxygen will contaminate the sample. It'll be useless as evidence."

Evidence? Who the fuck cared about evidence! "Sandburg's life is at stake!" he argued, his voice rising in frustration and tinged with the fear he was trying so very hard to keep suppressed.

"What could you possibly do with this water?" she asked disparagingly, shaking her head, refusing.

It was too much. What good was her lousy evidence if it couldn't help them save the kid's life? Irritated, anxious, feeling the unrelenting pressure of time, he snapped, "Would you just break the seal?" When it looked like she was still going to refuse, he turned to his boss, desperation in his eyes and voice. This was their only hope - Blair's only hope. Couldn't they see that? "Now come on, Simon, please," he begged, not caring that 'begging' was something he didn't do.

Simon's gaze locked with his, and he could see the doubt…but then resolution, maybe desperation, flickered in the taller man's eyes. Stiffening, Banks nodded as he ordered, "Break the seal. I'll be responsible."

Carolyn looked disgusted, but she finally did it and Jim reached to take the beaker from her, lifting it to his nose. Sniffing. Concentrating as hard as he'd ever concentrated before. This had to work…had to…

"You were right about waste," he murmured, unconsciously thinking aloud. He took another sniff. "It smells like bird waste."

"Bird waste?" Carolyn echoed, sounding unconvinced.

"Duck waste…duck…" he muttered, thinking hard. "Down! You got a down feather right?" he continued, looking up at her, reaching for the conclusion that now seemed so obvious to him. "He's drowning his victims in a duck pond!"

"I don't know," Simon protested softly, shaking his head uncertainly. "That's a reach, Jim."

"Simon's right," Carolyn asserted, impatiently. "We can't assume anything just because you smell it."

"Well, unless you've got any other suggestions," he snapped, heatedly, "this is all we've got."

Sighing, shaking her head, she nevertheless led them to the computer on the desk, and began the search.

"Duck ponds? Duck ponds?" she chanted softly as she hit the keys. As the first image flashed up, she said, "Here, Hillsborough Park."

"No, no that's no good," Simon murmured, his expression focused and intense with concentration. "It's all gated. There's no public access."

"Grandview Zoo?" she offered, as the next pond location came up.

"Twenty-four hour security," Jim muttered, shaking his head. "It's got to be isolated where he can kill unobserved."

"And here's the last one," she sighed. "Alfred's Pond, down by the waterfront."

"Right in the middle of old warehouses and abandoned buildings," Jim observed, leaning over her shoulder, as he studied the map on the screen. "He's got to be there somewhere."

"Well, wait a minute," Carolyn protested, her tone carefully reasonable. Rational. "Shouldn't we be checking nearby towns as well?"

"No, there's no time!" It had to be the place. Had to be. If it wasn't then…then Blair was dead, and there wasn't a damned thing he could do to save him. God, he hated feeling this helpless. Looking up at his superior, a desperate appeal resonating in his voice, he urged, "Simon, we gotta take a shot right now!"

To his relief, Simon nodded as he picked up the phone on the desk and punched in a number. Jim swallowed and tried to quell the emotions raging in his chest as he blinked and listened to the captain put the operation in motion.

"Thanks, Carolyn," he breathed as he and Simon turned to leave the lab. And then they were loping down the corridor…racing to save Sandburg's life.

Hoping to hell that they were on the right track - and it wasn't already too late.

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

Someone was slapping his face…and it was very annoying. Blair blinked and then surged back against the chair, his eyes wide with horror to find Lash literally in his face. What the hell was the lunatic talking about? So calmly, his voice low, as if he was seeking approval or some damned thing. Trying to reassure him? Was he kidding? Oh, God, it was a never-ending nightmare, and he just wanted to wake up!

Cringing back in the chair, Sandburg stared at his captor, trying to make sense of the words, sobbing in breath as he battled back the terror that threatened to reduce him to a mindless, sniveling, helpless shell. Desperately, he concentrated, forcing some of the fear away. Lash was talking about his friends. Like this psycho had any friends? And, what? Jesus, he was acting out a parody of Blair's own behaviours. A sick mimicry that was so incredibly bizarre and…so very scary.

Lash stepped back and Blair got his first, distracted impression of where he was imprisoned. Blinking, disoriented, Blair looked around, trying to figure out where he was, to force himself to think. There must've been a hundred candles or more burning in the cavernous room. Of course. The warehouse was abandoned. There wouldn't be any power. Sandburg squinted as he tried to make sense of what he was seeing…objects like some kind of display. Realization curdled in his stomach, sick, appalled - the mementos of murder.

And Lash was explaining the artifacts, gloating over them. His voice so…normal. As if it was an everyday thing to talk about the people he'd murdered.

Maybe, for Lash, it was.

Adam Walker hadn't fought being killed…too stoned. God, Blair wished he didn't know what was going on. He pulled futilely at the chains but he could hardly move, his hands and feet locked together in the leather and metal cuffs. And he was off-balance…the chair was tilted back. A dentist's chair? Fragments of Dustin Hoffman and torture in a dentist's chair flitted across the surface of his mind. Some movie…but this, this wasn't a movie. This was real. Too real. Lash was still talking, bragging, rendering superior judgments about his 'friends' - his other victims - the ones who were already dead. Billy Bright was too stupid, according to Lash, to clue in. But Blair's thoughts scattered when Lash came toward him and tapped the drumsticks on the arms of the chair and then on his face. Jesus. Was he going to beat him to death? Breath wheezed in his chest, and a whimpering moan lodged in his throat. Tears filled his eyes and he blinked hard, trying to hold on, to not lose it. But he was scared. God, he was so scared.

Lash was talking about Susan, mocking her. Blair shook his head, squinting at the madman. Mocking the poor woman? The one with the staring eyes? Nausea roiled again at the memory. And, God, his head was killing him. Oh, funny, Blair, very funny, he thought with desperate self-deprecation and frantic wry humour. "It's not your head that's going to kill you,

"You know, I think my finest hour was getting up into your partner's face," Lash mused as he sat down, thoughtfully, so self-satisfied.

Jim. Oh, God. Jim. Anger flared again, curling in Blair's belly, rising against the fear.

Lash stood, gloating as he crooned, "But now, it's time for Hairy Blairy, and the beautiful China Doll."

Chris? He was going to go after Chris? No. NO. And the anger coiled like a snake, growing stronger, driving back the fear.

When Lash pulled on the wig and preened in the mirror, something snapped. Rage. Pure rage bubbled up. Staring at his tormentor, Sandburg shook his head as Lash moved to a table and picked up something, and then strutted toward him. Blair squinted, watching intently, wondering what was going to happen next. When the psycho bent to fiddle with the chains around his feet, he yelled through his gag. "What are you doing? What are you doing?"

But his words were garbled, frustrating him, and he grunted in inarticulate fury; he couldn't even use words, the only weapon he had to fight back. To not make this easy. To make Lash pay for what he was doing; to 'lash' out and hurt him, too. He couldn't believe it when the maniac actually pulled the gag from his mouth. "You're a headcase!" he spat out, infuriated when Lash shouted the words back at him. And then he screamed, yelling his heart out for help, hoping someone would hear. Anyone, please. Hear me!

But Lash taunted him, screaming right back, echoing his words.

It was hopeless. There was no one to hear; no one to save him. The desperate screams died in his throat.

"Relax," Lash consoled him. "We're going to see the ducks and then you're going to have … you're going to have a nice, uh, bath."

Blair gaped at him. The guy was unbelievable. Bath? Who was he kidding? But when Lash leaned forward and asked so sincerely, "Are you…are you ready to die?" and rubbed hot hands all over his face and head, Blair pulled away, pressing himself into the chair, wanting so badly to…to be someone else. Someplace else.

But he was here. And Lash was going to kill him. It wasn't right. Wasn't fair. But it was the way it was. Fear was useless here. Couldn't help him. Nothing could help him. He was going to be murdered in cold blood. The rage came back then, a last defiant flood of emotion in the face of certain annihilation.

When Lash started fiddling with bottles and vials, Blair knew the end was near. Time was running out. And when Lash began to mimic him again, mocking him, he lost it. Shaking his head when Lash asked for a progress report, Sandburg sneered, angry words tumbling over themselves as he fought back in the only way left to him. "You suck! You think you can be me? When's my birthday? Huh? What was the name of my first girlfriend? How old was I when I broke my arm falling out of Mrs. Danbush's tree, huh? Come on, you freak, answer me!"

When Lash cringed, Blair felt a surge of power. He could hurt back. He might die, but he'd be damned if he'd go out without some cost, without some penalty to be paid. "You still think you can be me? NO, you can't be me. Only I think what I think. Feel what I feel."

"I can be you. I can be you! Me? I…" Lash shouted back, but got himself all confused about who he was, about who Blair was, and Sandburg shook his head, smiling with a kind of triumph, as he mouthed 'No.'

"Shut. Up. Man," Lash ordered.

"You think you know who I am? I know more about you," Blair taunted, fury driving him when Lash turned away and tried to ignore him. "Poor little Homer," he chanted mockingly, and reveled to see his killer flinch.

"Now," Lash protested, lifting a hand to quell the attack.

"Your pet duck? Why'd you kill him?" he pushed, his voice rising in demand. "Why'd you kill your brother?"

"You…are ruining this," Lash moaned, trying to shrug off the verbal blows.

"Why'd you rub filth all over yourself?" Blair demanded hotly, yelling now.

"SHUT UP!" Lash roared, rounding on him, his face distorted by hate and pain.

"Why'd you make Mommy punish you?" Sandburg persisted, having no pity. "You know," he chanted, his voice rising as he lashed out, scolding, punishing, until he was shouting at Lash without mercy. "If you'd just been a good little boy; if you had just been a good little Davy, good little Davy, Momma wouldn't have had to've scrubbed you in all those hot baths!"

Lash lunged toward him and grabbed his face, pinching his nose to force his mouth open. Blair fought, struggled, but the madman held him in a tight grip and he had to breathe. As soon as he opened his mouth, liquid was pouring in, choking him. He tried not to swallow, but Lash shoved his mouth closed, massaged his throat and still held his nose. He had to swallow to breathe…but if he swallowed he'd die. He could feel the liquid trickling down his throat. Knew it was over…knew…

"POLICE. FREEZE!"

Jim? Jim had found him? Oh, thank you, God! Jim would save him!

As soon as Lash pulled away, Sandburg spit out what was left of the drug, scared to know how much he'd swallowed. But Jim had come. It would be all right now. He craned his head around to see his partner descending a short flight of steps. Oh, God. He was never so glad to see anyone in his life!

But then a step cracked and Ellison tumbled, his gun flying. And Lash dove at him. Blair gasped, fear surging again. But Jim was okay and he was fighting back, driving Lash across the room.

But…but…it all happened so fast. One minute they were fighting, and then Lash grabbed Jim and shoved hard, driving the bigger man back across the room and…and through a glass wall that shattered on impact and they disappeared...

"NOOO!" Blair screamed, his voice mingling with theirs as they fell…and fell…

Jesus! JIM!

Sandburg rocked and flung himself out of the chair, squirming across the floor to the gaping hole. He'd heard them hit, and now there were sounds of more crashing, more endless falling.

And then another, more distant crash.

But it was so dark in the depths of the hole, and he couldn't see what was happening. His eyes were blurring, and he blinked, needing to know what was going on. Needing to know Jim was all right. He could just barely hear far-off, muted grunts. Then silence. God, what was happening? And then the hollow echo of feet fleeing down steps. More falling.

Shots. Five fast shots.

Blair panted. He could see Jim's gun on the floor, not far from where he was lying. But Jim had another gun, right? He always had a spare. That would be Jim killing Lash, right? Not…not Lash killing…no… not Jim.

Please, God…not Jim.

He tried to move, but his limbs wouldn't cooperate. Tried to call out…but he had no voice. His lips wouldn't move.

Oh, dear God, he was paralyzed. The drug. It was the chloral hydrate. He'd swallowed too much. Jim? Please, Jim, be all right. Please.

Silence. A long empty silence.

And then…footsteps, slow and measured, stumbling a little, coming closer. Climbing the distant stairs. Hollow sounds.

The sounds of rescue?

Or of certain death?

Though he tried, he couldn't keep his eyes open to face his fate. His chest felt so tight it was hard to get enough air.

But he could hear the steps drawing closer…

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

Standing on the edge over the open space, looking down at Lash's body splayed brokenly on the floor below, eyes open, unblinking in death, but staring directly at him with such palpable intensity, Ellison found himself checking for signs of life - and blowing out a long breath to find none. Jim sagged with weary relief, the fear that had driven him since he'd gotten the page in the gym finally gone. It was over. He'd been on time.

Blair was alive.

And the monster was dead.

Ellison never felt satisfaction when he killed. Though he knew he hid it well and nobody guessed, he most often felt profound regret and a sense of failure that he hadn't found a less permanent way of settling violent conflict. But, as he panted for breath and swallowed hard, he felt no regret this time. The man might have been sick, and there might have been any number of reasons why he'd become a stone-cold, efficient and frightening killer, but none of those reasons mattered now. Lash had been too smart to be incarcerated securely and safely; he'd proven that by escaping and killing his own doctor and then by playing his dangerous, arrogant game with the police. David Lash had reveled in his evil, taunting them, mocking them, killing without compunction - it was better that he was dead. Hell, Lash might even agree - God knew, he'd hated himself so much for just about the whole of his pathetic life that he'd been relentlessly driven to become someone, anyone, else - whatever it took - whatever the cost.

It was certainly better that Sandburg was not the one lying dead at his feet.

Turning, his body aching from the abuse of crashing through rotten wooden floors and pitched battle, he made his way through the dark warehouse and back up the endless flights of stairs to his partner. As he climbed, he called in on the mini-transmitter, letting Simon know the situation was now secure and that medical assistance was required.

Long before he reached the upper chamber so eerily lit with candlelight, he could hear his friend's even breathing and heart beating strong and steady; he sighed, letting the reassurance of the signs that Blair lived, and that his condition was stable, wash over and through him. Muscles that had been tight for hours loosened. The sick roiling of nausea in his gut subsided. He hadn't failed. Hadn't lost another who depended upon him. Hadn't betrayed the kid's trust. A lump formed in his throat and he panted a bit for air as an immense feeling of gratitude swamped him. Tears burned in his eyes, and he swiped them away impatiently. It was just reaction to the sharp, sudden cessation of hideous tension and fear. The letdown after adrenaline had been flowing so strongly for so long. He knew that. But he had to grit his jaw to keep his lips from trembling.

He expected to find Sandburg still in the chair, and paused, surprised and oddly touched, to see his partner curled on the edge of the gaping hole as if, even bound as he was, Blair had been desperate to try to help him, to know that he was all right. The kid was limp and seemed unconscious, but he could smell the drug in the room, and on Blair's breath, and he knew from what Carolyn had told him that the poor guy was probably all too aware of what was going on, helpless to move or speak or in any way do anything but think and feel.

Anger surged at what Lash had done; and horror, at what the bastard had nearly succeeded in doing.

But when Ellison thought of what Sandburg must have suffered, the no-doubt wretched certainty that he was going to die, and be found like Susan Fletcher had been found, the anger dissipated into profound regret. And, yet, the kid hadn't folded, hadn't gotten lost in terror. Right up to the end, he'd been fighting, striking out, not allowing Lash to break him. Pride flared then, for his partner's stalwart bravery and courage in the face of certain death.

Anger, regret, pride - emotions he could understand and recognize. But Jim was surprised by the unexpected sense of tender protection he felt fill him as he gazed at Blair, and how very, very, inexpressively glad he was that the kid was all right. That he'd gotten there in time. Tears again blurred his eyes and he blinked them impatiently away. He'd never felt anything like this before, couldn't understand it. Didn't really need to. Descending the short flight of steps carefully, mindful of the broken riser, he was conscious only of his overwhelming need to touch his partner, to hold him close and keep watch over him. To reassure Blair that he was all right, that everything was all right now. That he was safe.

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

Hands gripped him hard, turning him and he flinched inside…who?

"Chief? Blair? You're okay, Sandburg. Everything is okay now."

Jim! Relief trembled and then incandescent joy surged. Ah, thank God, Jim's alive! Jim had won! Jim held him safe.

"Damned chains," he heard Ellison mumble as he was laid gently back on the floor. And then he heard his partner limping away, and the sounds of stuff being shoved around the worktable. "Where the hell are the keys?"

And then Jim was back, pulling him up, supporting his head and shoulders, holding him close…stroking his cheek. "I'm sorry, kid, I can't find the keys," Ellison murmured. "Carolyn says the drug doesn't knock you right out; that you know what's going on." Again light fingers caressed his cheek. "You're so cold," Jim fretted, and then rasped, "He's dead, Blair. He won't hurt you anymore."

He couldn't move, couldn't talk, couldn't even open his eyes…but he could weep with pitiful relief. He felt Jim's thumb tenderly dry away the tear that had slipped from under his lashes.

"Shh, Chief, easy now. It's okay. You're going to be okay," Jim soothed, his voice soft and shaky. "I've got you, Sandburg. You're safe now."

And then he was shifted a little, pulled closer against that hard chest, and he felt Jim's cheek rest on the top of his head as Ellison rocked him gently.

And he could feel that Jim was trembling, too.

Blair let himself sink into the warmth of the embrace, the sure safety of Jim's grip. Time ceased to have meaning. It just was. He was alive and Jim was there. He could hear his partner's heartbeat and wondered if Jim was listening to his. There was nothing to fear anymore.

Then there were other footsteps, running up the stairs. And voices. Shouting. Simon? Yay, the cavalry had come to take them home.

"Jim! Is Sandburg…" Banks choked, as if unable to form the question, afraid of the answer.

"He's alive, Simon, but I can't get these damned chains off."

"Let's get him downstairs; the ambulance is on its way," Banks murmured, sounding relieved. "I'll have a locksmith meet us at the hospital." There was a pause, and then, "Jesus, look at this place," the captain exclaimed softly, appalled. "It's a damned museum of his victims."

"Yeah, I know," Jim grated as he shifted Blair, trying to lift him, but he groaned.

"Hey? You hurt? Here, let me take him. Where is Lash, anyway? I heard shots…"

"About five floors down. Dead."

Blair felt strong arms draw him away from Jim and lift him, cradling him as if he were a beloved child and he couldn't help it…he whimpered at the care being shown him. The kindness.

"I'm sorry, kid," Simon rasped, sounding hoarse and shaky. "I'm so sorry."

He felt himself being carried down the stairs…so many stairs. He drifted, not needing to concentrate, almost euphoric in the knowledge that he was alive, Jim was alive and Lash, the bastard, was dead.

When they got outside, he shivered in the cold, damp air, but as soon as he was laid upon the security of the gurney, he was covered with a warm blanket. Someone lifted his eyelids and shone a bright light and he groaned; the stab of light lancing through his head had reawakened the monster headache.

"Look, give him a break, okay?" Jim growled from somewhere close. "Can we just get him to the hospital?"

Moving again, the collapsible stretcher's wheels squeaking on the wet pavement; he could hear Jim and Simon talking, voices low and sounding farther and farther away. The gurney was jerked upward and then forward again, and anxiety surged. It was stupid. Juvenile. But…wasn't Jim coming with him? Was he going to the hospital alone? He couldn't move or talk, felt trapped in his own body, helpless, and didn't know how long this would go on. He wanted…wanted Jim close.

A large hand covered his, holding his hand tightly. Jim. It was okay. He could relax. He was safe.

He could hear the siren and wished they'd turn it off. The shrieking noise of it hurt, physically hurt. And then, as if Jim had understood his thoughts, felt his pain, a hand stroked his brow, soothing him, and he heard his friend's voice murmuring to him, reassuring him that everything was all right…and, knowing he was safe, he drifted again, time spiraling away.

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

"Easy, buddy, rest easy. The drug'll wear off soon. You're okay, Blair," he said quietly, over and over, as he stroked his young friend's brow and held the kid's hand firmly, pleased when his partner's breathing deepened and slowed as Sandburg relaxed.

Crouched over the younger man, closely monitoring his life signs, Jim kept up his litany of comfort and reassurance. But he wished the damned, endless ride wasn't taking so long. He knew Blair was fine, or would be fine - if he wasn't permanently traumatized by being brutally taken captive and terrorized by that psycho - but, still, Jim would be a lot more reassured himself when the kid got the treatment he needed and was free of the paralytic effects of the drug.

Frowning, Jim tried to remember what the drug was. What had Carolyn called it? The doctor would need to know. Oh, yeah, he thought with satisfaction as the memory surfaced, and was relieved to also remember she'd said the effects didn't last long.

"Rest, Chief," he murmured, awash with emotion. When had he started to care this much? When had Sandburg's presence in his life ceased to be a necessary annoyance? What magic had the kid evoked to make him feel these things, this tenderness and…and love? God. If Lash had… Ellison's gut clenched and his chest grew tight. He shook his head, unable to even finish the thought. Swallowing, he continued hoarsely, reassuring himself as much as his partner, "It's safe now. You can relax."

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

Moving again, the whoosh of automatic doors opening and the noise of people talking. It was nauseating to have the gurney swing sharply around corners, to not be able to anticipate….grabbed and lifted onto a hard surface. He could hear the doctor issuing orders for blood tests and a blood pressure cuff was wrapped around his arm, tightening and tightening until finally the pressure was released. Needles pricking his skin. Lights being shone in his eyes, hurting, making the headache throb.

"Mr. Sandburg, do you hear me?" a stranger asked, holding his face between their hands.

Uh, yeah, Blair thought, growing angry at his inability to respond. This was ridiculous. He felt like a slab of meat. Inarticulate. Helpless. He wanted…wanted the whole entire night, the whole horrible experience to just be over. He wanted to go home and sleep and wake up to find everything was fine, normal, and he was alive and whole. It was time to take this show on the road. Time to get up and move on.

He tried, really tried, to speak, to move; tried so hard that his breathing grew shallow and fast, and he grunted with the effort, but all he succeeded in doing was opening his eyes, squinting against the harsh lights. He felt salt burn as tears grew and slipped down his cheeks. Oh, great, now he was crying like a baby. Must look like a shmuck. At least he could see the doctor and a nurse…and Jim.

Ellison moved forward and lightly brushed the moisture from his cheeks. "It's okay, buddy. It's just the drug and it'll wear off soon."

Blair blinked up at his friend and his breathing settled.

The nurse pricked him with another needle and he let his eyes close, again drifting as time skittered by. Jim was gripping his wrist. Holding on.

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

When they finally arrived at the hospital, he strode in beside the gurney, refusing to let go of the kid's hand, irritably waving away the staff that tried to tell him to sit down and wait. Flashing his badge, he barked, "This man is the victim of an attempted murder. I'm not leaving him until he's awake and can tell me what happened." It was a lie, well, the reason he gave to ensure they didn't evict him from the treatment room was a lie, but he shrugged, uncaring. Nobody was going to separate him from Sandburg. Nobody.

When the doctor finally appeared, Jim again flashed his badge, his passport to instant credibility and authority, as he said bluntly, "My partner's been drugged with trichloroethanol, uh, chloral hydrate. He's conscious but can't move or speak."

Not happy with the skeptical look the physician gave him, and sorely irritated by the distasteful expression on the doctor's face when the man gazed at the cuffs and chains, he added, his tone brittle and cold, "His name is Blair Sandburg, and he was very nearly murdered tonight by David Lash. I'm sure you've heard about him on the news. A locksmith is on the way to get him out of the restraints."

"Oh, I see," the middle-aged man murmured, now looking at his patient with something akin to sympathy in his eyes. "Trichloroethanol, you say? How do you know?"

"It's what Lash used on all his victims; enough to subdue them, not enough to knock them out so they wouldn't know what was happening as he drowned them. Can you give Sandburg something to counteract the effect? It has to be…unnerving."

"Certainly," the doctor winced at the implications and the suffering of the people the psychopathic killer had murdered. "But, I'm sorry. I'll have to verify the level of toxicity in his blood before I can prescribe the appropriate stimulant."

"Just do what's needed," Jim growled, frustrated with the inevitable rules but understanding them. He moved to stand on the far side of the examining table, out of the way of the doctor and staff, but close enough to reach out and grip his friend's hand. "Get a blanket," he directed sharply, when he felt how chilled Blair's skin was. The kid hated to be cold.

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

This was getting old real fast. It must be the middle of the night. How much time had passed? The locksmith had come and gone, and his hands and feet were free, but lying like dead things despite repeated efforts to move them. Enough, already. He wanted to get off this hard table and away from these bright lights and crawl into a warm, comfortable bed. But first, he had to be able to move. So, Blair tried again, straining with all his might to move the fingers on the hand that Jim was holding - and, with a burst of elation, he realized his fingers had actually twitched. The damned drug was finally wearing off!

Blinking his eyes open, he found Jim gazing down at him, looking…resolute and imposing, like a rock. Except rocks didn't have jaw muscles that twitched with tension, or eyes that expressed such evident affection and concern.

"J'm," he managed to huff out, and Ellison smiled as he reached to stroke Blair's brow.

"Easy, Chief. Won't be long now."

"'m s-sorry, man." God, his tongue felt so thick - he was slurring his words like some Saturday night drunk.

He could see confusion in the older man's eyes, and Jim shook his head. "Sorry? For what?"

"Tried…t' fight. Couldn'…couldn' get away. Loft's a…mess."

"Hey, all that matters is that you're alive, Blair," Ellison replied soberly, his voice oddly gentle and thick, as if near tears.

But Jim doesn't cry, Blair reflected. His Sentinel wasn't the emotional type - More the strong, stoic, silent, type, he thought, with affection. But Ellison's next words really confused him.

"You did good, tonight. Real good."

"I did?" Blair frowned and weakly shook his head. All he could remember was being helpless, completely unable to help himself.

"Trust me, Chief. You did everything right."

Blair felt a surge of warmth at the sincere approbation in Jim's voice and eyes. He meant it. It didn't make any sense, but he really meant it.

"How'd…how'd you fin' me?"

A wry smile quirked on Ellison's lips. "Long story, Sandburg. How about we wait until you're feeling a little better?"

"But -"

"I used some of the tricks you taught me, Chief. And I listened for the sound of your voice. That's how I found you."

"Oh." Blair smiled softly as Jim raked long fingers through his hair, pushing it off his brow. "Okay. Good."

Somehow, knowing that he'd contributed even in such a small way made him feel less…helpless. Still, he'd be dead now, if Jim hadn't come for him. A memory teased at the edges of his mind. There was a term…Chinese? Blessed Protector. Yeah, that was it. And he smiled again as he thought fondly, My Blessed Protector.

"Thanks, man. For saving my life."

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

Jim crooked a small smile in return but kept his lips tight and his jaw clenched as he swallowed the sudden thick lump in his throat at the look on his young friend's face. Blair was gazing at him with such trusting affection and gratitude, his wide eyes glowing and that smile, God…that smile. His heart twisted at how very close he'd come to never seeing that unique incandescent light again. Clearing his throat, he nodded, as he took a deep breath. Once again, he couldn't resist reaching out to tenderly push those wild curls back from Blair's brow. "You just rest a while more, Chief. Simon's gone to the loft to pick up some gear for us, and we'll stay at his place tonight. Time enough to clean everything up tomorrow after work. As soon as you're able to walk, we'll get out of here."

Blair nodded and yawned widely. He tried to lift his arm to cover his mouth, but it flopped, his muscles not yet responding, and his expression was chagrined as he flicked a look down at his arm as he shook his head. "Well, that was pretty pathetic," he snickered, and then began to laugh, a light, rippling sound of merriment and his eyes regained their usual sparkle.

"You getting hysterical on me, Sandburg?" Jim asked uncertainly, not sure what the kid was finding so amusing. He gripped Blair's shoulder more firmly, to lend support.

The laughter trickled off as Blair shook his head and grinned up at his friend. "No, man, chill. I'm just so damned happy, you know? That I can still move at all…that I'm still, like, breathing!"

Nodding, his partner's ebullience surprising him into a broad smile of his own, Jim replied with a warm chuckle, "Ya, I know. Me, too, Chief. Me, too."

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

It was another hour before Blair was able to stand and walk well enough to leave and, even then, he needed Jim's steadying arm around his shoulders as they headed down the corridor toward the waiting room. When Sandburg saw Simon, he beamed with the brilliance of a lighthouse up at the tall man. Very sincerely, he thanked Banks for having carried him out of the warehouse, and for giving them a place to crash for the night. But, that seemed to trigger a memory, because he stopped dead to look up at Jim, sudden concern darkening his eyes.

"You were hurt back there," Blair recalled, his worried gaze searching Jim's. "Did you get checked out?"

"I'm fine, Sandburg, just a few bumps and bruises," he assured his partner. "The rotten flooring broke our falls. No big deal."

"Ri-i-ight," the kid drawled, shaking his head, but he smiled again, accepting the reassurance, and then he leaned in, a kind of sideways hug as his arm tightened briefly around Jim's waist. "You're really something else, man," he said, softly enough that only Ellison could hear him. "You know? As in incredible."

By the time they arrived at Simon's place, Sandburg was just about dead on his feet. Banks led the way to the room Daryl used, while Jim supported Blair along the dimly lit hallway. The kid barely managed to get his clothing off, needing help with recalcitrant buttons and stubborn shoes, before he sagged onto the bed and curled on his side, already asleep. Wordlessly, Ellison tenderly tucked the blankets around his shoulders and then Simon helped Jim make up his own bed on the leather sofa.

Sandburg slept soundly the whole night, no doubt utterly exhausted. Jim, however, had more difficulty settling down on his makeshift bed, finally relaxing only when he tuned into the sound of Blair's soft breathing and steady heartbeat. They both awoke stiff the next morning from their respective battles with Lash, but the aching muscles eased after hot showers and kept getting better as the day went on. Jim was glad to see Blair so chipper at breakfast, cheerfully complimenting Simon on the hearty breakfast and consuming every bite with evident enjoyment. But the buoyant spirits seemed a little too good to be true, so Jim kept a close watch on the younger man, monitoring his vitals, wondering if, or maybe when, reaction to the horror Blair had endured would kick in. Still, his partner's good humour held on the ride to the office and, relaxing his covert vigil a little, Ellison felt really good about how shyly pleased Sandburg seemed by the fuss everyone made of him when they arrived at work.

But, things were a little shakier when Blair gave his statement, as remembered fear clouded his eyes and caught at his breath. But he got through it like a trooper. Simon watched Sandburg closely though and, Jim reflected ruefully, his boss kept tabs on him, too. Banks appeared to notice that he was apparently the more brittle of the two of them, as he listened to how hard Blair had fought, and heard the echoes of terror in his young friend's voice. When it was finally finished, Banks told them that the crime scene guys had finished up at the loft and, as soon as the reports were typed up, they could head home. It had been a long night, Simon mused, still tired himself, and he reminded them that they had the cleanup to do at home.

The press report was broadcast just as they'd been preparing to take off. Blair seemed fine through that, too, grinning and teasing. The kid even made some crack about him being Sandburg's 'Blessed Protector' for the rest of their lives. Though Jim laughed it off, inside he felt…well, he wasn't sure what he felt. But the term, ‘Blessed Protector' resonated with the emotions that had engulfed him the night before, and it fit the odd sense he now had that Sandburg was somehow his to care for and safeguard. As Blair quipped on the elevator, however, about getting a tasteful earring, a small silver badge perhaps, to honour him, Ellison shook his head and laughed. The kid was a riot and a half, but Jim still wondered if Sandburg wasn't taking everything that had happened a little too well.

And then he reminded himself that this was the kid who had subdued a mad bomber, faced down Kincaid and bluffed his way into commandeering a chopper. The same kid who had risked his life to save a stranger only moments after they'd met and Jim had stormed away in a huff of temper. As they walked across the underground parking lot to where Ellison had left his truck the night before, Jim cast a sideways look at his friend and seriously began to wonder if the baby-face and bounce of innocent youth covered up a core of steel he'd not, at first, suspected. As he unlocked the truck, he reflected that such strength was usually forged in adversity; and then he realized how little he really knew about the man he was beginning to consider the best friend he'd ever had.

When they got off the elevator to amble to their apartment, they saw the yellow crime scene tape crisscrossed over the broken entryway. Ellison heard the slight catch in Sandburg's breathing and cut his friend a look of concern.

Blair looked at him ruefully. "The loft is really trashed, Jim. I know you said last night that it doesn't matter but, I gotta tell you, man, I'm not looking forward to seeing just how bad the damage is in the light of day."

Shaking his head, Jim grinned reassuringly as he ruffled Sandburg's hair, before pulling down the tape. "It's all either fixable or replaceable. C'mon," he added as he shouldered in the door, "Let's get started."

Jim had been so worried about Blair's reaction to coming home that he hadn't thought about what his own would be to again see the mute evidence of Sandburg's battle for his life. Looking around at the broken pottery and battered furniture, the flurry of books and papers, he was blindsided by his own fury and he froze for a moment, his face a mask of rage. But, when he caught the devastated look on Blair's face as the kid mumbled, "I'm real sorry, Jim. I know it's a mess," he realized that Sandburg thought he was angry with him, and the rage died.

Reaching out to haul Blair into a tight hug, Jim shook his head and swallowed hard. "Don't…" he grated, "don't you apologize, Chief. If that bastard wasn't already dead, I swear I'd tear him apart with my bare hands for what he did to you."

"Ah, man," Blair whispered hoarsely as he clung tightly for a long moment, and Jim could feel a tremor ripple through his friend's body. But then Sandburg took a breath and pulled away, pushed his hair back behind his ears and licked his lips. "Thanks," he said soberly, his eyes wide and dark with sincerity. And then he turned to look at the room. "Well, I guess it's not going to clean itself up," he sighed, and bent to begin picking up books and loose papers.

Jim watched him for a moment and then he got started on clearing the damage in the entrance way and kitchen.

Two hours later, the place was pretty much back together. The audio components were battered but still worked. The television, however, was another story. "I was meaning to get a new one, anyway," Jim muttered ruefully. "Insurance will cover it."

Sandburg turned on some music, choosing one of Ellison's favourite Santana CDs, while Jim pulled two beers out of the fridge. Once they were comfortable in the living room, he had to ask, had to know for sure that the kid wasn't trying to hide his feelings of violation and residual fear under a cheerful macho image. "You sure you're okay?" Jim asked with quiet sincerity. "If you need to talk about it…"

Blair looked up, surprise on his face that softened into a grateful smile. "I'm fine, Jim," he said warmly. "Really. I am." He paused for a moment and looked around, gathering his thoughts. "It…it was the feeling of helplessness that got me most. I was…really terrified and, well, I really didn't want to die. But, when I let the fear go, when I got angry? It felt like I took back my own power, you know? Sounds weird, I guess. But…well, I knew he could kill my body but he couldn't destroy me. My soul belongs to me and he couldn't ever destroy that part of who and what I am. After that, I was more scared that he'd hurt you, and pissed off about not being able to move or talk." He turned his steady gaze back to Jim then, as he added solemnly, "But what helped most, was that you said you found me because…because of what I've helped you learn and because you heard my voice. Like I really had helped in my own rescue. That felt SO good, man; you have no idea how good. And, well," his gaze dropped away, suddenly shy, "it feels so incredibly amazing to know I've got a friend who'll…who'll come after me, when I'm in trouble. Who'll take such risks to save me. That's what I'm taking out of all this, Jim. The sense that death isn't the end and shouldn't be feared and…and the wonder of having a friend like you."

"Oh," Jim mumbled as he took a swig of beer, lost for words, not sure he could speak anyway. Sniffing, clearing his throat, he nodded and looked back at the kid. "You know, Chief," he said tentatively, "now that you've settled in here, I was thinking that maybe we could make it a more permanent arrangement. I know we haven't really discussed it - it just kinda happened - but, uh, if you're comfortable here, well - "

Mercifully, Blair cut into his stumbling invitation. His tone exuberant and his expression joyful, he exclaimed, "You mean it? Oh, man, I like seriously love living here. It's great. And, uh, well, it makes sense, too, what with us working together on your senses and everything. Yeah…yeah, I'd love to keep living here. I mean, if you're sure?"

Jim smiled and nodded. But, playfully, he scowled as he growled, "This doesn't mean you can stop paying attention to the rules."

Lifting his hands in laughing surrender, Sandburg played along, "Peace, man; your house, your rules. But, uh," he added, pretending to look worried, "There won't be a whole lot of new rules will there?"

Feeling a surge of wellbeing, and something he thought might actually be joy, Ellison quirked a wry grin. "Well, so long as you don't make a habit of inviting psychopathic murderers over to trash the place, I think we'll manage with the rules we have."

"I'm down with that, man," Blair chortled as he lifted his beer in a toast. "You got yourself a permanent roommate, Jim." But then, another thought occurred to him. "But, ah, about company. You know," he quirked a suggestive brow, "of the overnight kind?"

"Not in my apartment, Romeo," Jim grunted as he rolled his eyes.

"Ahhh, man!" Sandburg whined. "I just knew there'd be more rules."

When Jim threw a pillow at him, Blair fell over laughing, and Ellison shook his head and grinned. He knew then, with a deep certitude, his life had just gotten a whole lot richer than he'd imagined it could ever be.

Life in the Sandburg Zone wouldn't be boring, that was for damned sure.

Finis

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