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

Author Note: Contains a brief reference to my first fanfic, Affirmation. It's not necessary to have read it first, however. This is based on an old Starsky & Hutch ep, so if the basic plot seems familiar, it may be!

Thanks, Lory, for the great illustrations!

Originally appeared in the zine Sentry Duty 4, available at: www.agentwithstyle.com

Hollow Soul

by JET

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

Chapter One

Jim Ellison heard his name fall from the lips of the heavyset man standing in the doorway of the small, dingy house on Pharr Street. Living undercover as an out-of-state drug supplier for the last three weeks left him unprepared for such a simple thing as hearing his name. Twenty-one days of living as James Burke. Twenty-one days of eating, sleeping and breathing another man's identity, never once hearing his own name.

Until now.

Slowly, Jim turned around to look at the man who now used his true name, his face blank, revealing nothing. "Who? I don't know any Ellison."

A rough chuckle from the other man sent a chill through Jim's heart. "Like hell you don't." Henderson's lifeless, gray eyes looked at the other three men in the room, silently commanding them. They immediately closed ranks, surrounding Jim and cutting off his only avenue of escape. "A cop, boys. Let me introduce you to James Ellison, one of Cascade PD's finest detectives." He focused his icy gaze once again on Jim. "See, Detective, that runner who was here last night happened to catch a glimpse of you in the back room. He recognized you as the cop who busted his little brother a few years back, and, naturally, he considered it his duty to let me know that we have a traitor in our midst. Loyalty is a trait I greatly value among my employees." Henderson's eyes grew even colder. "Just as deception is a trait I despise and will not tolerate."

A barely perceptible nod from Henderson brought the other men closer to Jim, surrounding him before he had time to react. Two of them grabbed his arms, trying to force them behind his back, while the other moved to grab him around the neck. Erupting into action, Jim jabbed outward with his elbows while attempting to break for the door. He realized he was hopelessly outnumbered, but he figured that the strength born of desperation had to count for something. It was not to be. Suddenly, his world erupted in a blazing flash of pain when he was struck viciously from behind with the butt of a gun. Crumpling to his knees, Jim lost consciousness and slipped into a blissfully pain-free void.

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

"Simon! Any word from Jim?" The office door flew open, straining against its abused hinges, as Blair Sandburg burst inside. Simon Banks glared in aggravation as he looked up at the young man standing anxiously before him.

"Sandburg, in all your many years of anthropological studies, did you ever happen to run across an ancient custom, still practiced by civilized societies, known as 'knocking'? " Banks' dark brown eyes skewered Sandburg, but even the captain's well practiced, intense stare failed to intimidate the younger man. He was too preoccupied with worries about his partner to even consider the trouble he might find himself in with Simon Banks.

"Sorry, Simon. " Blair closed the office door behind him without waiting for an invitation to stay. "It's been five days since Jim checked in. That's not like him; you know that." Running his fingers through the unruly brown curls that had drifted down across his face, Sandburg paced across to the window, quickly glanced out, unconcerned with the view, then resumed his stance before the big desk. Punctuating his words with animated gestures, he insisted, "Something's wrong, Simon. You have to get him out of there. I hate to say 'I told you so,' but I did tell you that sending Jim in undercover in this situation was a big mistake. I mean, these guys are major dealers, man! You remember what happened with Golden. It only took a minute bit on his fingertip to send him on a full-fledged trip that lasted for days. What if that's happened here, Simon? You gotta remember that Jim's not an ordinary cop. What if his senses have reacted to some substance he's had contact with? He could be in serious trouble!" Almost out of breath from his tirade, Blair stopped, sizing up Simon's reaction. He didn't have long to wait.

With a barely disguised grunt of displeasure, Banks stood up behind his desk, and raised himself to his full height, so that he towered over Blair. Not willing to be intimidated with so much at stake, Sandburg straightened up to stand taller as well, tilting his head up to look the tall captain directly in his brown eyes, never retreating an inch. Inwardly, Simon chuckled at the younger man's reaction, but he refused to allow his face to betray his amusement. Where Jim's safety's concerned, you don't back off, do you, Sandburg? Much as I hate to admit it, you may be right this time. You keep standing up for your partner, kid. It's saved his life more than once already.

Banks forced his voice to remain reasonable in the face of Blair's anxiety. "Sandburg, yes, Jim's gone undercover in a very dangerous situation. I'm well aware of that. I'm the one who sent him in there, after all. But just because he's overdue checking in doesn't mean anything's gone wrong. There could be dozens of possible explanations, all adding up to the simple fact that Jim just can't use a phone right now."

Simon studied the worried face before him as Blair carefully weighed his words. "I know you believe that, man, but I'm telling you, something is wrong!" Blair's hands stretched out, palms upward, beseeching Simon. "I can't explain it, but I know. Jim's in trouble." He moved forward, placing his hands on the smooth wood of the captain's desk, and leaned in toward Simon, his pleading blue eyes locked onto brown. "Please, Simon. You gotta do something!"

Banks sank back into his chair and slipped off his glasses to rub his tired eyes. "What would you have me do, Sandburg? We're not even sure exactly where Jim is right now. Last week, yes, but now, hell, he could be anywhere. Plus, if nothing's wrong and we do go in, we'd blow the whole operation."

Blair exploded in disbelief. "Blow the operation? Is that all you care about, Simon? The operation? Maybe you can live with that, but I can't! It's Jim I care about, man, and I'm telling you, he needs help! I'm gonna find him, Simon. I swear to you, I'll find him!" The furious young man whirled around, heading toward the door, his long hair billowing behind him in his haste.

Simon's bellow shook the glass in the door. "Sandburg!" He waited until Blair was once again facing him. The look on the anthropologist's face was one of pure desperation, but Simon shoved down the instinct to take it easy on the kid. He couldn't afford to let Sandburg go off half-cocked after a bunch of drug dealers. If anything happened to Blair, Jim would have his hide.

If Ellison wasn't dead already.

"Like hell you will, Sandburg! Not if you want to keep working with this department, mister. Now, you either get yourself under control, or you're out of here, do you understand me? Losing it like this isn't helping Jim, you know that."

"But we can't just stand by and do nothing, Simon, not when..."

"Did I say I wasn't going to do anything, Sandburg? I'll send someone to check Jim's last known location, the house on Pharr Street. We'll see if the suspects are still there. Maybe even catch a glimpse of Jim." Simon stared directly into Blair's eyes and his tone was commanding, leaving no room for argument. "But we do it by the book, understand?"

The tension between the two men was almost tangible. "For now, Simon, for now." Without waiting for Simon's angry rebuttal, Blair turned and left the office, muttering under his breath, "But if Jim's not there, then I do it my way."

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

Drifting through impenetrable darkness, Jim Ellison was uncertain how long it had been since the last time the man had come to jab the hypodermic needle into his vein. He knew it wouldn't be long before he would be back. It never was.

He had lost track of how much time had passed from the day he had been discovered until now. He remembered waking up for the first time to find himself strapped to the small bed in the dirty bedroom at the rear of the house. Struggling against his bonds, he soon realized there would be no immediate escape. Head pounding, he tried to listen for any indication that Simon and reinforcements might be arriving soon.

Nothing.

That was when Henderson had entered the room, followed silently by one of his cohorts. His cold smile instantly warned Jim of the terrors to come, and he tried again to break through his bonds. Shaking his head at his captive's helpless struggles, Henderson moved to stand over Jim.

"You know I cannot let you live, Detective. You've seen too much, know too much."

Suddenly still, Jim's steady blue eyes challenged the cold gray ones above him. He refused to allow the man the pleasure of watching him beg. "Then get it over with, Henderson. Do it now."

"Not yet. Not yet. You see, I want to punish you for your audacity. To think that you came to us, earned my trust, then betrayed me. No, a quick, easy death is not enough. You will suffer, Detective, then those you care about will continue to suffer long after you are gone." He turned to the second man, taking something from him and holding it to the light.

Those you care about will continue to suffer... Blair. Oh, God, does he know about Sandburg? Please, no. Once again, Jim began to struggle furiously against his bonds.

His anxious thoughts were interrupted when Henderson turned back toward him, holding a syringe in his hands, tapping it lightly with his forefinger. He nodded in satisfaction at the results. "You will suffer, Ellison. Suffer the death of an addict."

Henderson regarded the contents of the tube with an admiring gaze. "This is premium grade heroin. Only the best for you, of course. It will take only a few hits for your body to become addicted, to crave more of the drug. You will be taken far beyond that point, of course. We will supply you with all your body desires...and more. After it becomes obvious that you have become an addict, just another common junkie, you'll overdose. When your body is found, your autopsy will officially declare you a heroin addict. Your reputation will be destroyed; those you love will be haunted by your death and how it occurred for the rest of their lives. A beautiful plan, is it not?"

Smiling at his own ingenuousness, he bent down over the helpless detective. As Henderson ripped open the sleeve of his shirt and searched for a vein, Jim thrashed on the bed as much as possible given the limited range of motion allowed by the leather straps which bound him. But his struggles were in vain.

There was the sharp prick of the needle, followed by the unmistakable path of the cold fluid as his heart pumped it throughout his body. Panic rose hot in his chest. Henderson's plan was cruel enough for a normal man. With his Sentinel senses, it could be only seconds before the drug incapacitated him completely, then there would be no way to predict the reactions his body would have.

With a malicious chuckle, Henderson turned to leave the room. He glanced back only once into Jim's furious eyes. "Relax, Detective Ellison, and enjoy the ride. Many of my clients would pay dearly for what I am providing you for free. Although none of my fine customers would take quite so much at one time, I would hope. However, I promise you that when the end comes, you will welcome it." The door closed, and Jim was alone.

Not for the first time, he cursed his Sentinel senses and struggled to find the dials. Coldly, Jim quickly turned them down. It was all he could do, and he knew it wouldn't be nearly enough. Already, Jim could feel the effects of the heroin as his mind began to wander and his blood ran hot.

Jim shut his eyes and fought to take deep, controlled breaths. I'm so sorry, Chief. Looks like this may be the end, and I didn't even get to tell you goodbye. I know you have your grant proposal before the committee next week. You'll get that grant, buddy, but I wish I could be there to help you celebrate. There's so much of life I'll miss out on, and so much about this Sentinel experience I wanted us to experience together. I'm sorry, Blair. Suddenly, his body began to twitch and spasm, and Jim's thoughts moved out of his control and into a nightmarish mixture of images, both real and imagined.

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

For a week, the torture continued, although Jim was blessedly unaware of the passage of time. It might have been months since he had been strapped to the bed, or perhaps only hours. But now, he sensed that the end was quickly approaching.

The effects of the last dosage of heroin were already wearing off, leaving his mind slightly clearer and his vision a bit more focused. Throughout the long ordeal, his awareness of reality had vacillated. At times, he was aware of his surroundings. At other times, he floated in a never-world, suspended somewhere between reality and his worst nightmares.

The hallucinations had been the worst. Long forgotten events from his childhood came back to haunt him, magnified and twisted far beyond their actual proportions. The helicopter crash in Peru had been replayed again and again, in terrible, tortuous slow motion, with the long dead, skeletal faces of his crew leering at him, taunting him for his inability to save them. Sweat poured from his body as his own mind betrayed him with the deepest of his doubts and insecurities. Yet, as horrible as those images had been, they were not the worst of the demons his own subconscious could dredge up with which to torture him.

His mother taunting him with the knowledge that he was the reason she had gone away.

Steven humiliating him in order to win favor with their father.

William Ellison denying that the child, the 'freak' named James Ellison, could ever be his son and laughing at Jimmy's tears.

But of all the nightmares, the worst had been the visions of Blair.

Blair...

Dead or dying in thousands of different ways, at a multitude of different hands. Lash or Alex or Brackett, it really didn't matter. The horrifying images were the same.

Blair...

Screaming for Jim to help him, begging and pleading for his Sentinel, while Jim watched in helpless horror from a distance. In his delirium, Blair was slowly, painfully dying, while his Sentinel was running, desperately striving to reach him, but never moving any closer.

His screams echoed for hours, for days, through the small, dingy house as Jim cried out in agonized frustration. The men guarding him merely cursed the noise and turned up the volume on the television as they watched their never-ending parade of talk shows. After long days of tortured cries, Jim's strained voice faded away to painful guttural moans as he continued to call for his partner.

As the effects of the heroin wore off, he could hear them in the next room. Jim tried desperately to focus his hearing, to listen to what the muffled voices were saying.

//Let go of all your other senses, Jim, and follow your hearing. Focus on what you need to hear, and you will hear it. I know you can do this.//

//Blair?//

Jim stilled on the bed, striving to control the violent muscle spasms, which had tortured his body for days. He listened. Had it been Blair's voice he'd heard, not distorted by agony and pain this time, but gentle and calm, guiding him, leading him, encouraging him? It seemed so real, but then, it had all seemed so real. He could almost feel the warmth of Blair's breath brush his ear as the Guide softly whispered to his Sentinel.

//Jim, listen to my voice.//

Sudden hope flooded his soul, and Jim's eyes eagerly searched his small prison. Just as quickly, the hope turned to despair. No. It was a cruel lie, concocted by his own mind and his own desperate heart. Blair wasn't there. He was alone. He'd always been alone. He would always be alone.

He would die alone.

The tears streamed down his dirty cheeks, running into his unkempt beard. Alone. Empty. Always alone.

No! It hadn't always been that way. There had been a time, and he was certain Jim hadn't imagined it, when he had found the one who filled the empty, hollow void inside, a time when he had not been alone. A lifetime ago, there had been a time when he had been alive, content, and fulfilled. A time when there had been Blair.

//Where are you, Chief? I need you.// Once again, the strong tremors shook his entire body, and Jim tried to curl even tighter into himself for warmth.

//Focus, Jim! Listen for what you want to hear. You can do this!//

The familiar, beloved voice reached out to him again, and he weakly wiped away the tears, scarcely noticing the pain in his wrists, rubbed raw from the straps once used to bind him. The restraints were no longer necessary. It was obvious to his captors that he lacked the strength and the will to escape. The heroin had performed admirably.

From the room beyond, the voices reached Jim, at first with no recognizable sentences, only incomprehensible syllables and nonsensical phrases. Gradually, however, snatches of conversation began to emerge which Jim could understand as he fought to hold onto the modicum of control he had established over his sense of hearing.

"...enough needle tracks now. Everyone will believe he's an addict..."

"...reputation destroyed. ...won't even rate a police honor guard at his funeral. A disgrace..."

"When...finish him off?"

"Tonight. One more dose of smack should... No problem to dump his body in..."

Through the drugged haze clouding his mind, the cold, calculating words cut through with complete clarity. He remembered Henderson's words right before the initial injection. They intended not only to kill him, but they would have him die an addict, his reputation forever destroyed. His heart lurched in regret and fear as he once again thought of his partner. His death would be devastating enough for Sandburg, but for the kind-hearted young man to realize how he had suffered was unacceptable. A slave to heroin, lying in his own waste, dirty and helpless...

No! He couldn't allow Blair to have that knowledge as his final memory of him. He would not, could not, do that to Sandburg. He had to survive, if only to spare his friend that lifelong torment. Jim was past the point of caring about his own life, but he would survive. For the one who meant more to him than life itself.

He would fight to live for Sandburg.

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

Hours later, as darkness fell over Cascade, the latch clicked, and the door opened with a telltale squeak. Holding a full syringe in one hand and a gun in the other, the taller of the two men who remained behind to guard, and eventually kill, the police detective stepped into the room. Wincing at the stench permeating the small quarters, he looked at the bed where Jim had lain captive for the last six days.

It was empty.

Almost before the thought could register, he was felled by a swift, powerful chop to the back of his neck and lowered soundlessly to the floor. Jim staggered painfully to his feet, bracing himself against the wall. His vision was distorted; double images and blurred colors made it difficult to distinguish reality. The pounding beat in his temples echoed the furious rhythm of his heart. He struggled to control his traitorous body and keep his senses dialed down. He must not allow them to overwhelm him, not now, when he was so close to escape. So close to finding his way back home. After a few deep breaths, he stepped cautiously into the hallway. There was no time to waste.

Immediately, Jim doubled over in pain as a tremendous spasm clutched his stomach. Exerting every iota of control developed during years of military discipline, Jim refused to allow a single sound to escape his lips. To make any noise at this point would be to seal his own death warrant. As the worst of the agony subsided, he played out his hearing, searching for the location of his second tormentor.

The Sentinel listened. The sound of snoring echoed down the hall. It rose above the tinny tones of a music video from the old television set in the second bedroom. The remaining guard was asleep. Sending up a silent prayer of gratitude for small favors, Jim stumbled silently down the hallway and out the front door of the small, dilapidated brick house on Pharr Road.

By the time the officer disguised as a pizza deliveryman arrived to ring the doorbell, Jim was already several blocks away. The darkness closed around him, shielding him in its sheltering void.

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

Chapter Two

"He wasn't there, was he?" Blair stopped Jim's old blue Ford at a red light and tucked the cell phone between his chin and shoulder as he reached to turn down the radio. "Yeah, Simon, right. Sorry doesn't find Jim, though, does it? Yeah, you let me know if you hear anything. But don't expect me to just sit around waiting for the phone to ring!" Slamming the cell phone on the seat beside him, Blair stared straight ahead through the cascading drops of rain trickling down the dirty, smeared windshield.

Yeah, like there's anything you can really do, Sandburg. You're as helpless here as the cops. C'mon, Jim, where are you, man? I could use a little help here.

The angry blast of a horn from the car behind rudely yanked Blair from his ruminations, and the Ford moved forward slowly. He resumed his mission, driving aimlessly, straining to peer through the rain at both sides of the streets and up the dark alleyways, desperately, foolishly, hoping to catch a glimpse of the familiar broad shoulders and graceful movements of James Ellison. The cold rain tapped out a complicated rhythm on the truck's roof. His mind's eye conjured terrifying visions of Jim, injured and bleeding, the light slowly vacating his warm blue eyes as he died.

Stop it! He's not dead! I'd feel it if he was. Somehow I'd feel it; a part of me would have died with him, and I'd know it. I don't feel that kind of emptiness inside, so he's still alive. He has to be.

Determined, Blair drove on alone through the dark, rainy twilight.

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

Six blocks away, the twisted figure stumbled down the wet, deserted street. Even the light, misting rain was an agony as it pounded against his overly sensitive skin. Every street light, every traffic signal was encircled by a pulsing halo of garish color. His every movement was as jerky and uncoordinated as those of an actor in an old silent film. No sound reached his ears now. He heard only a loud, persistent roaring that permeated his skull. He vaguely recalled needing to find someone, but he could no longer remember who it was or why it had once seemed so urgent.

All he wanted was to rest, to sleep. Forever.

Clutching his abdomen, he veered off into a deserted alley. Trembling from cold and the throes of his pain, he collapsed onto a pile of dirty rubbish at the alley's end. He lay shivering, his eyes wide open and staring up into the rain that fell relentlessly on his tired, aching body. As the rain drenched him, Jim was unaware of anything but the convulsions that wracked his body, and the hollow emptiness that rang in his soul.

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

Five hours later, Blair wearily closed the door to 852 Prospect's number 307 behind him, shutting out the world. It was well after midnight, and there had been no trace of his partner. He had driven the streets of Cascade unceasingly until his vision grew blurry and the muscles of his hands spasmed from gripping the steering wheel. Exhausted and disheartened, he drove home at last.

Dropping his coat on the floor in flagrant violation of house rules and longing for one of Jim's familiar lectures, Blair glanced at the kitchen, debating the need to prepare something to eat and whether he possessed the energy necessary for the task. With a defeated shrug, he bypassed the kitchen and collapsed on the couch.

Staring up at the high loft ceiling, Blair tried to focus his tired mind on the task of locating Jim. Simon was doing all he could, especially after ignoring Blair's repeated pleas for assistance. Guilt could be a powerful motivator. Blair felt a twinge of that emotion himself at the thought. Simon couldn't help it; he was a by-the-book cop and didn't understand the deep connection between Sentinel and Guide. But there was no point dwelling on the past. It was the here and now that counted, and right now, Simon was doing everything physically possible to locate Jim.

Everything physically possible.

The thought kept playing around in Blair's mind, refusing to be ignored. He turned to his side and stared at the cold fireplace, debated lighting it, then abandoned the thought. No mere fire could warm the coldness inside or ease the painful aching in his heart.

He missed Jim. He had already missed him for the three weeks he'd been undercover before Jim had quit checking in. At least then, he had Jim's homecoming to look forward to. But now, realizing that his friend might never come home, that this lonely existence might be all of life he had left to look forward to, Blair missed Jim with a burning intensity he hadn't imagined was possible. There had to be more, something he hadn't tried, something he could do besides driving around aimlessly in the dark, hoping for a lucky break.

Face it, Sandburg. Luck's never been a lady to you. Then again, maybe she has. After all, it was sheer luck that led you to Jim in the first place, right? If not for that luck, you wouldn't have Jim to be this worried about, to miss this much. Jim and his house rules, his neatness hang-ups, his invisible jaguar...

Invisible jaguar? Suddenly, Blair sat bolt upright on the couch, trembling with excitement. Sandburg, you have the audacity to call yourself a shaman! The spirit guides!

He rushed around the loft, gathering candles, incense and the small fetishes of the lion and wolf he'd purchased in Arizona on his vision quest. At last, he went to the kitchen for a drink of water and slipped out to the balcony to calm his frenzied thoughts. He stood in the light drizzle, staring out at the lights of the city before him. So often, he'd stood here with Jim. He keenly felt the absence of his friend beside him. He remembered his thirtieth birthday. They'd stood on the balcony that night, and Jim had given him the Guide's ancient pendant. They had reaffirmed their commitment to each other...as Sentinel and Guide...as friends and partners...as brothers.

Blair closed his eyes, remembering as he absently touched the pendant resting against his chest beneath his shirt. He let his mind travel back to that night, breathing in the sweet spring air, feeling the soft breeze on his face. For an instant, he could almost feel Jim behind him, wrapping his strong arms around his shoulders and pulling him close. All the security and sense of being home he had felt that evening returned, and for a moment, Blair smiled.

Then, a trash can lid clattered loudly from the street below, and his eyes flew open, the sense of peace rushing away in an instant. He was alone. The reality hit him with an almost physical force. Jim was missing, and he was alone. It was up to him to find Jim, and he was wasting time daydreaming in the rain. With a frustrated sigh, Blair went back into the loft.

He settled on the floor in front of the couch, the flickering glow of the candles dancing across his solemn face. The smell of sage tickled his nostrils, and Blair prayed that the sharp scent really would cleanse the air of negative energy. He closed his eyes and slipped easily into a practiced meditative trance.

The oppressive jungle heat surrounded him, filling each pore with its hot moisture. Blair looked around, amazed to find himself in such green lushness after the cold rain of Cascade. The surprise didn't linger for long. A path lay ahead of him, winding off through the dense vegetation as though lying in wait for him to follow. Squaring his shoulders in imitation of the courage he hoped would materialize, Blair started down the path.

A dark figure emerged from the shadows without warning, and Blair halted immediately, staring into the vivid green unblinking eyes. Startled azure held calm emerald for a long moment in the dimness. With a low growl, the ebony jaguar took several steps toward the man, then roared its anger, splitting the air of the jungle with its cry. It turned abruptly and loped down the path. Without hesitation, Blair followed.

The big cat led him through miles of jungle pathways, twisting and turning until Blair knew he would never find his way back to where he had begun. He wiped the sweat from his face as he jogged on, following the beautiful jaguar. In the distance, he could hear a roaring sound, and as they traveled, the noise grew louder and louder. At last, they stepped into a clearing, and Blair could see the source of the sound he'd been hearing.

They stood before a huge waterfall. Its thunder drowned out the softer sounds of the jungle, and Blair could barely hear the haunting cry of the jaguar as it roared at him. The graceful creature trotted around the falls, following a path around the perimeter of the small pond fed by the cascading water. Blair followed, wondering at the wisdom of the path the jaguar had chosen. The rocks underfoot were slippery with moss and water. They reached the side of the falls, and Blair could hear nothing over the sound of the thundering water. The jaguar stared at the cascades, then without warning, the dark cat pounced through the water and disappeared.

Blair took a hesitant step backward, then jumped through the falls, emerging wet and sputtering on the other side. He glanced around in disbelief. He was back in Cascade, on the streets at night in an unfamiliar part of town. It was still raining, and the dull street lamps cast dubious shadows on the street before him. A soft growl caught his attention, and he whirled around. The jaguar stood before him, waiting. Its green eyes glowed in the semi-darkness, their depths sheltering the secrets of the ages.

"What do you want? I don't understand why we're here." Blair's voice broke the silence of the empty street. Silently, the panther padded away, leaving no choice but to follow.

The creature turned into an alley sandwiched between two unoccupied brick buildings. Blair could barely read the faded painted sign on one, "McGee's Bakery: Est. 1924." Narrow and dark, the passageway didn't appear to have been used for quite some time. Trash littered the muddy, sticky pavement, so covered in dirt that it was difficult to tell it had ever been paved at all. The stench of rotting garbage filled his nostrils, and he wished he had Jim's ability to dial back his sense of smell. Blair glanced up, looking at the fire escapes above, and when he looked back for the panther, the animal had vanished.

"Great," he whispered. "You bring me here, then leave me on my own. What now?"

Tentatively, he ventured further into the dark, reeking alley. His eyes straining in the dim light, he made out a figure at the end of the passageway. Shaking off any lingering fears, Blair ran toward the crumpled body. He stopped, almost afraid to confront the answer lying at his feet. Kneeling down, he looked at the battered, deathly pale face of the man and cried out in disbelief and denial.

"JIM!"

Blair jerked back to full awareness, almost knocking over a candle with his right foot. The horror of his discovery was imprinted on his senses. He could still smell the stench of the alley, and his eyes fought to adjust to the low light of the loft after the dimness of the narrow alleyway. He ran a trembling hand through his hair, half expecting to find it damp from the rain. Above all, his mind was still filled with the sight of Jim, lying beaten and so pale and still, there in the filth.

Pouncing to his feet, Blair grabbed the phone and dialed Simon's number. At the sound of the captain's drowsy voice, he began barking orders. "Simon! I know where Jim is. Meet me in the alley beside the old bakery on 34th Street. Hurry!"

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

Chapter Three

Blair was out of the truck and tearing down the alley almost before the tires stopped moving. The scene before him at the end of the dark, hauntingly familiar alleyway sent a chill of fear up his spine. Simon was already there, kneeling on the ground, and one uniformed officer stood above him. At their feet, a pathetic figure lay curled up on a pile of filth. His face was pasty white where it wasn't purple from bruises; he was dirty, and his eyes were fixed and staring.

"Jim," Blair breathed in horror. Immediately, he dropped to his knees beside his partner.

Simon's voice was a whisper, and his attention never wandered from the crumpled form of Jim Ellison. "We got here a couple of minutes ago. I called for backup. He won't let me touch him. I tried to help, Sandburg, but he started screaming." Simon glanced up at Blair with guilty, tear-laden eyes.

Blair's chin quivered momentarily as his own eyes filled with tears. With a visible effort to establish control, he squared his shoulders and took a deep breath. This is no time to fall apart, Sandburg. You wanted to find Jim, and you did. Now, Jim needs you. It looks like he's been through hell, but he's alive. He's alive, and he needs you.

His control regained, Blair began to whisper to Jim in the soothing tones reserved for him alone. Low, calm and gentle, that voice never failed to reach the Sentinel, to steady him or provide the thread he needed to find his way back from the nothingness that claimed him during a zone out. In the coldness of the dirty alley, Blair prayed his voice could once again reach Jim in whatever darkness held him captive now.

"Jim, it's okay, man. I'm here, Jim. It's over, and you're safe with me. I'm gonna touch you now, is that okay? I'd never hurt you; you know that, right? There now, that's it. Easy, Jim. Just trust me, okay? I won't let anyone else hurt you. Trust me."

Continuing his soothing, musical crooning, Blair slipped his arms around Jim, horrified at the iciness of his skin and the power of the tremors wracking his body. He gathered his friend close, pulling him halfway into his lap and tucking his head beneath his chin. He wrapped as much of his smaller body around the Sentinel as he could, hoping desperately to share his own body heat. Simon added his own coat to the meager warmth.

When Jim was settled, Blair looked over at Simon. "What happened?"

Without a word, Simon stretched out Jim's right arm, and focused the beam of his flashlight on the bruised skin lying beneath the ripped fabric. Blair closed his eyes in painful denial.

Watching silently until that point, the young, uniformed officer gasped in disbelief. "Needle tracks! This guy's a junkie!"

Striking with the swiftness of a rattlesnake, Banks jumped up and grabbed the officer's shirt collar with both hands, shaking him violently. He glanced at the nametag on the man's uniform. "Lambert, right? Well, Officer Lambert, you listen to me! You did not see anything here tonight! Detective Ellison was never in this alley; you were never here. If you don't remember that, I will become your personal nightmare. I will dog you day and night until you beg to leave this department and this city. That's a promise. Do I make myself clear?"

The flashing anger in Simon's eyes and the vow in his voice left no room for doubt. Mutely, the young officer nodded.

"Now get the hell out of here!" Roughly, Banks shoved Lambert away from him, his glare daring the other man to protest.

Lambert backed silently out of the alley into the darkness and disappeared. Simon watched him depart, then turned back to face Sandburg.

Blair's whisper was almost lost in the patter of the raindrops hitting the pavement. "Thanks, Simon."

Banks knelt down beside Jim, taking in the tremors still wracking the powerful body and the lines of pain etched across his face. But beneath the broken outer shell, he also saw hope. Jim was lying on his side, his face pressed against Blair's chest, his partner's damp, curly hair draped partially over his face. His right hand was clenched in Blair's jacket, holding on tightly with a strength born of desperation. Jim's left arm was around Sandburg's neck, buried beneath his hair and gripping his shoulder, clinging to the warm source of comfort as if he would never let go. It was obvious from his face that Jim was a long way from them right now, locked in his own private hell. But even in his agony, he knew Sandburg; he recognized that familiar light even lost in his inner darkness. Yes, Simon decided, there was hope.

"Nobody needs to know about this yet, Blair." The tall captain dropped to one knee beside the partners. "This is not Jim's fault, but not everyone would understand that. Some people like to believe the worst, especially about someone like Jim. They like to see heroes fall. Some people resent him; hell, they resent the two of you, even within our own department."

Resting his cheek against Jim's dirty hair, Blair nodded. "We have to get him somewhere safe. I don't know how he managed to escape, but they'll be out searching for him." With a sudden rush of insight, he glanced back at the maze of needle tracks on Jim's arm. His eyes met Simon's and held, seeking recognition of the truth he had just discovered, the truth that was etched all too clearly across his best friend's abused flesh. "He wasn't meant to live, was he?"

Recognizing the strength and the understanding in those eyes, Simon sighed in resignation. "No, he wasn't. We'll take him to the hospital, then..."

A small moan escaped Jim's swollen lips. "No... No hospital. Chief..."

Immediately, Blair brought his full attention back to Jim. "Shhhh... Easy, buddy. I know... I know... No hospital, okay? Just rest, Jim. Please. I'll take care of everything, I promise. Just rest."

Exasperated, Simon looked at the two of them, huddled together in the rain. "I don't get it, Sandburg. What do you mean, no hospital? Jim needs help, can't you see that?"

"He needs help, all right, but not from a hospital. Simon, you know what drugs do to Jim, and the doctors don't understand about his reactions. What he needs is to get all that crap out of his system, and we can do that at home with no interference from doctors. Nothing they can do for him will get him through this any faster or any easier." Blair stared steadily at Simon, his voice resonating with confidence and certainty. "What he needs is me, Simon. It's the Sentinel that is going to suffer most through the effects of withdrawal, and he needs his Guide. I can't do what I need to do in some hospital with doctors and nurses around. You know that. I can bring him through this; I know I can. We just need to get him back to the loft."

"Wait a minute, just hold on, Sandburg. I don't know about this," Simon answered, waving his hand to stem the flow of Blair's arguments. Suddenly, he felt overwhelmed by the situation. He knew Sandburg had Jim's best interests at heart, but sometimes the kid tended toward the overdramatic. This Sentinel/Guide connection was one thing, but kicking a drug dependency cold turkey with no medical assistance was something entirely different.

Jim's raspy voice broke the silence. His eyes remained tightly shut, the tears leaking out to blend with the drops of rain trickling down his dirty cheeks. "Simon, please. Sandburg's right. Need him...not doctors. Please...no hospital. Just Blair."

Grateful for the implicit trust in those hoarse words, Blair pressed his cheek harder against Jim's hair and leaned down to whisper, "Thanks, buddy. It'll be okay, I promise."

Simon looked defeated. Alone, either man was a formidable opponent. Together, Ellison and Sandburg were too much for him to fight alone. "All right, no hospital. Right now, anyway. But, Sandburg, you admitted that these guys will be looking for him to finish the job, and I think you're right. You can't take him home. If they know who he is, they'll know where he lives." Simon fixed his determined stare on the equally determined blue eyes of Sandburg.

"Then where, Simon?"

Banks tilted his head back, stretching the tired neck muscles slowly. "There's a hotel a few blocks from here. We use it sometimes as a safe house, and the manager's very cooperative. Plus, it has suites with kitchen units. You can stay there for the duration."

Blair nodded his approval. "Bring your car around, Simon. Here are Jim's keys." He dug in his pocket, then tossed the keys over to Banks. "You can pick up the truck later. Take it to the station where it'll be safe until he's recovered. We'll swing by the loft for some supplies on the way." Those issues settled to his satisfaction, Blair bent back over Ellison, resuming his comforting murmuring.

Simon rose to his feet with a slight smile of admiration. Sandburg was a real piece of work. Keeping his cool while his partner lay half dead in a grungy alleyway. Giving him orders without a second thought, as if he did it every day of the week. And you're following them just like a good little captain, aren't you, Banks? Well, where Jim's concerned, Sandburg's the expert, so I guess he has the right. God knows, he's earned that much. Jim trusts him with his life. I guess I'll have to do the same. Leaving the partners huddled together on the wet, dirty pile of trash, Simon jogged to the street to get his car.

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

Sometime after three in the morning, Simon pulled the hotel door shut behind them. Carefully guiding him, one arm wrapped around his waist, the other hand holding Jim's arm, Blair helped Jim into the small room with its two double beds. He barely glanced at the sparse decor, focusing only on the need to get Jim dry and under the heavy comforter as soon as possible. Simon quickly followed with Jim's duffel, packed with the basic necessities they would need over the next few hours.

Jim's appearance was shocking. His pale skin was clammy to the touch. Bloodshot eyes struggled to focus, and powerful tremors frequently shook his body in violent spasms. His short hair hadn't been washed in over a week, and it had been at least that long since he'd shaved. Dark, purple circles framed his red, teary eyes, in stark contrast to the unnatural pallor of his skin. His wrists, rubbed raw from his struggles against the leather straps, were an angry red and swollen.

With all his might, Jim longed to fall over onto the soft, inviting mattress and lose himself in the pain that gripped every muscle, sinew, and bone. But Blair seemed to think it important to get him dry and warm, and although Jim knew that it would make little difference, he did as Sandburg wished. He figured it had been between six and eight hours since his last injection of heroin, and his body was only just beginning its demanding cravings for more of the powerful narcotic. The worst was definitely yet to come.

Standing beside the bed, Blair and Simon worked together to strip Jim of his wet jeans and torn shirt. "Easy, buddy," Blair soothed. "We'll have you warm in no time. That's it, just a little more."

Simon watched Sandburg discreetly as he carefully worked at drying his partner. While his hands were gentle, his voice soft and encouraging, Blair's face was set in a mask of grim determination. Banks considered the paradox. The outside world undoubtedly viewed James Ellison as the strongest in their unorthodox partnership, but Blair Sandburg never failed to prove his own inner strength. He could be as tough as his partner, in his own unique way. Right now, Jim was helpless and hurting, and Blair was more than ready to shoulder the responsibility for his care, willing to carry them both, for as long as was necessary. Simon remembered Sandburg's determination to find Jim, his dogged refusal to give up hope that Jim was alive, and that he could locate him and bring him back, strong and whole. Well, you're almost there, Sandburg. I have no clue how you did it, but you found Jim. Now, if you can just get him through the next few days...

Blair coaxed Jim quietly as he maneuvered into dry sweat pants and sweatshirt while Simon turned back the bed. Gently, Blair eased Jim down onto the bed and pulled the covers over his shaking body. He stopped for a moment, stroking the clammy forehead with the back of his fingers. "Hang in there, Jim. You're gonna be all right, I promise." Blair turned to the captain standing silently behind him. "Stay with him for a few minutes, Simon, while I get changed." Without waiting for an answer, he disappeared with his own duffel into the bathroom.

As if sensing his Guide's departure, Jim opened his bleary eyes almost immediately. "Sandburg...?"

Simon reached down and squeezed Jim's shoulder. "He's just getting dry and changing clothes. He'll be right back. Blair's not leaving you, Jim, don't worry."

The raspy voice whispered, "I know... Look after him, Simon, while I can't. Don't let him wear himself down."

"He'll be fine, Jim. Right now, all Blair needs is to take care of you. As long as he can do that, the kid'll be all right. I'll keep an eye on him for you, though, I promise." Simon stopped, unsure if he should ask the question that had been burning in his mind ever since they had found Jim in that alleyway. "Jim? Can you tell me...? How'd you make it after all they put you through? How'd you manage to escape?"

A powerful shiver shook Jim's body, but it couldn't stop the small, unsteady smile that briefly curved his lips. His answer was rough, almost too soft to hear. "Had to, Simon. Promised myself I wouldn't let Blair find me...like that...like they would have left me. Would have torn him up to know I died that way. Couldn't do that to him."

Simon swallowed hard against the tightness in his throat. "I understand, Jim. Don't worry, I'll look after the kid for you. But just until you're back on your feet. Then Sandburg's your responsibility again. Got that?" Even Simon could tell that his attempt at gruffness had fallen flat.

Jim's chuckle sounded genuine, even though Simon knew it must have been painful. "Gotcha, Simon. Thanks." Relieved, the Sentinel's weary blue eyes closed once again.

Minutes later, a damp Blair emerged, dressed in a dry pair of old jeans and a cast-off sweatshirt of Jim's. With the baggy clothes and his damp brown curls in his eyes, he looked much younger than his thirty years. Immediately, he moved to sit beside Jim on the bed, reaching out to brush his hand across the short, dirty hair. Confused blue eyes fluttered open.

"Shhhh... It's okay, Jim. You're safe now. I gotta be honest with you, man, we're gonna have a tough few days ahead of us." Blair placed both hands on the sides of Jim's face and gazed intently into his unfocused eyes. "I promise I'll be with you every step of the way. We're gonna make it through this, buddy. You just keep fighting, Jim, and we'll be okay. We'll make it. I promise you. Just let me be your Blessed Protector for a while, okay?"

Slowly, Jim nodded his head between the warm, gentle hands cradling his face. "Piece of cake, Chief," he murmured.

Blair smiled affectionately at his friend, almost erasing the lines of worry around his eyes. "Yeah, Jim. Piece of cake."

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

Chapter Four

The hours passed. Simon had collapsed in the one comfortable armchair in the suite, his head nodding occasionally as he dozed. Blair sat beside Jim on the edge of the bed, still talking to him quietly in his low, calming voice. Suddenly, Jim moaned loudly and twisted his head violently from side to side, and Simon jerked back to awareness to see Blair smoothing his forehead gently with his fingertips. "Easy, Jim, easy," he whispered, never stopping the gentle stroking. "Shhhh..."

Sandburg got up, stretching his stiff legs, and walked to the bathroom sink. He soaked a washcloth in cool water, then twisted it to wring out the excess. He returned to sit on the edge of the bed beside Jim. Never shifting his focus from bathing his partner's fevered brow, Blair said softly, "Simon, we're gonna need some supplies. Can you get them for us?"

Banks moved to a small chair on the opposite side of the bed. "Whatever you need, Sandburg."

"There's some paper and a pen on the desk over there. Better write this stuff down." After Simon settled at the desk, pen in hand, Blair began calling out items to bring. "We'll need extra blankets, Simon, plenty of them. It won't be long before the chills get a hell of a lot worse. Get them from the loft, not the motel. It'll be good if Jim can smell the scent of home on them. Maybe that really warm down comforter from my bed would work. He'll need a lot of towels. The nausea will be rough. Once that's over, he's gonna need nourishment, so bring some cans of soup. Simple stuff like chicken noodle or cream of potato, and some crackers, too. He's gonna have one hell of a headache, so get some aspirin, plain ones with nothing extra in them, and bring a heating pad for the abdominal cramps."

"Sandburg," Simon interrupted, his brown eyes curious, "how do you know all this stuff? It almost sounds like you've been through something like this before."

Once again, Jim moaned and thrashed in his restless sleep. Blair leaned over the Sentinel and gently massaged his muscular shoulders, his face only inches from Jim's. "It's all right, buddy. It's all right. Shhh..."

Without breaking his concentration on his partner, Blair answered Simon's question. "Yeah, I have been through a heroin withdrawal before." Stealing a quick glance at the captain's incredulous expression, Blair hastened to add, "Not my own, of course. Man, Simon, don't let the hair and clothes fool you. I've never touched drugs, not willingly, at least. What was the expression?" His quick grin warmed the room for an instant. "I get high on life, man, high on life. No, it was a friend of Naomi's when I was about fourteen. Maria had been shooting up for a couple of years when Naomi convinced her she was 'polluting her temple' with the drugs. That's Naomi-speak for messing up her mind and body."

Blair leaned back down close to Jim and whispered something into his ear, then stood up, gently stroking his bearded face for a moment. Moving back to the sink, he refreshed the cloth under the cool water, then returned to his place at Jim's side. Perching again on the edge of the bed, Blair resumed his soothing ministrations. "Anyway, Naomi brought Maria home and looked after her during her withdrawal. She insisted that I help. At the time, I wasn't real thrilled to be pulling nursing duty. Later, I realized she wanted me to see what drugs can do, how they can mess you up. Guess I learned my lesson, 'cause I've never been tempted to experiment."

Blair paused to tuck the covers more snugly around Jim's shoulders. The Sentinel's eyes slowly flickered open, focused on Blair's face, and a touch of a smile brushed his lips. Sandburg leaned down closer to whisper, "I'm here, Jim, right here. Not going anywhere. You can rest now. Remember, just let me protect you for a while, okay?" Wearily, the dazed blue eyes closed again, and a half-smile found Blair's lips.

Simon felt his throat constrict with emotion. Whatever forces had conspired to bring these two together, the result had been the best thing that had ever happened to Ellison. To Sandburg, too, for that matter. He coughed to try to clear the tightness in his throat and went to the kitchenette for a sip of water. When he returned, Simon rested a hand on Blair's shoulder and gently squeezed. "Will the two of you be okay until I get back?"

Wordlessly, Blair nodded, his eyes still focused on Jim. With a final supportive squeeze of Blair's shoulder, Simon left the room, closing the door quietly behind him.

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

By the time Simon completed his errands, it was mid-morning. He'd found everything Blair had requested, even adding a few thoughtful ideas of his own. What the hell, I might as well drop by the station for a few minutes. I'll want to stay to help out Sandburg for a while, once I get back to the hotel. He turned left at the next light and headed in the direction of the police station.

Simon pulled his car into his designated parking place, turned off the motor and slipped from behind the wheel, pocketing his keys as he stood. A brief blur of motion caught the corner of his eye, and he wheeled around, instantly alert. The figure moved from behind one of the supporting concrete pillars, hands raised in silent supplication.

"'S'okay, Banks, it's just me, Sneaks. Don't get all defensive on me."

Simon shook his head in exasperation. Jim's snitch. Why in the world was Sneaks here at the station, hiding, apparently waiting for him to show up? "Sneaks, what are you doing here?" Simon removed his glasses and rubbed his scratchy eyes. Damn, it had been a long night.

The snitch's small eyes darted quickly around the garage. "Had to talk to you alone. Figured we wouldn't be seen here."

"Talk about what, Sneaks? Couldn't this wait until Ellison gets back?"

"No! See, it's..." The anxious eyes resumed their search of their surroundings before he continued. When Sneaks focused once again on Simon, his voice was little more than a whisper. "This is about Ellison. You gotta look out for him, Banks."

Simon's eyes narrowed. "What are you talking about, Sneaks? What do you know?"

"Word on the street is, there's a hit out on Ellison. Quarter of a million to whoever buys Detective Ellison a one-way ticket to the morgue. Someone's awfully mad at Jimbo."

Simon took three quick steps toward Sneaks, and the smaller man quickly took the same backward, bumping up against Simon's car. Getting right in his face, Simon glared down at the informant. "Who, Sneaks? Who hates Jim enough to offer that kind of money for his death? Don't you even try to tell me you don't know, 'cause I know better. Who is it?"

Raising a trembling hand to brush away the sweat beading on his forehead, Sneaks nodded. "Yeah, I know, I know. It's Henderson, Marcus Henderson. Word is, Ellison went undercover and infiltrated his organization. Henderson made him and was in the process of, shall we say, turning him on to his high quality product, when Ellison managed to escape. He knows too much, Banks. From what I hear, Ellison saw and heard enough while he was under to put Henderson away for life. The man wants him dead and is willing to pay the big bucks to do it."

Simon reached into his pocket, withdrawing his wallet.

"No, not this time, Banks," Sneaks insisted, pushing Simon's hand away. "Jim's been pretty good to me. I owe him. This one's on me." With a wistful glance at the almost new Nikes lying on the backseat of Simon's car, the little man turned and hurriedly left the garage.

Simon leaned back against his car for a moment as he digested the new information. A hit on Jim. If Sneaks was right, the scum of the street would be searching for Ellison at this very moment, and Jim was helpless, alone with only Sandburg to protect him. Of course, where Jim's safety was concerned, the kid could be a formidable opponent. Still, he was unarmed and totally unsuspecting that there might be any danger, hidden away in the hotel as they were. Without hesitation, Simon got back into his car and drove from the garage. The Major Crimes unit would just have to carry on without its captain for a while longer.

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

Carrying his bags of supplies, Simon entered the darkened hotel room, pausing just inside the door to allow his eyes time to adjust to the dimness. A small voice breathed, "Simon?"

After setting his load down on the small table by the curtained window, Banks took a couple of steps to stand beside the bed. "Yeah, Sandburg. How is he?" Now, he could see that Blair had moved from sitting beside Jim on the edge of the bed to lying beside him. The younger man was curled on his side next to his partner, one arm tucked under Ellison's head, while the other rested reassuringly on his chest. Blair looked exhausted with huge, dark circles under his eyes, and his face was pale and drawn.

Compared to Jim, Blair looked wonderful. Ellison's eyes were slightly opened, but Simon wasn't sure how much he was seeing at that moment. He was hunched over toward Blair, his pasty face resting against his partner's shoulder. Jim's hands were clinched into fists which were drawn up to Blair, clutching the soft fabric of his shirt as if he would never let go. Every few seconds, violent tremors wracked his body, and even beneath the bulk of the covers and the sweats Jim wore, Simon could see the spasms of his powerful muscles.

"He's hanging on, Simon. The nausea started a couple of hours ago, but it's down to dry heaves right now. They didn't feed him enough to keep a mouse alive. He's weak, though, and the shakes are still as bad as ever." Blair paused to shift Jim just a little closer to him. "Damn it, Simon, they must have pumped him full of the stuff for days." Blair's quiet voice shook with anger.

Even through the haze of his suffering, his Guide's emotion reached Ellison. The pain-filled blue eyes opened a little wider, searching for Blair's face in the darkness of the curtained hotel room. One shaking hand unwound itself from the fabric of Blair's shirt, making its way hesitantly to Sandburg's face. Resting his fingers there against the day-old growth of beard, Jim whispered brokenly, "Shhhh..."

Blair clinched his eyes against the sudden tears. His heart lurched at Jim's need to soothe him, even in the midst of his agony. He covered the hand against his face with his own. "I'm okay, Jim. Easy. Don't worry about me right now; I'm fine. Just rest. It's all right."

The Sentinel's tired eyes studied Blair's face, and, finding only truth there, closed again gratefully. His Guide was safe. He could rest. He slipped into sleep.

Quietly, Simon pulled a chair up beside the bed so he could see Blair in the dim light from the edges of the curtains. He hated to do this. Didn't the kid have enough to handle right now without adding to his worries? But there was no choice. He had to know.

"Blair? Do you think he can hear us?"

Sandburg look down at the pale face resting against him. In his sleep, Jim's features twitched restlessly, but his breathing was steady and calm. "I think he's out right now. Why, Simon? What's going on?" The worried, light blue eyes looked over at the captain, studying his face intently. His arms tightened protectively around Jim as he instinctively realized that something was wrong, and that it concerned his partner.

Simon took a deep breath for courage. "Sneaks came to see me at the station a few minutes ago. He says the word's out that Henderson wants Jim dead."

Blair stared in disbelief. "What do you mean, wants him dead? We knew he'd be looking for him, didn't we?"

"Not exactly like this, Sandburg. He's put out a hit on Jim. A quarter of a million to the person who kills Ellison."

"But nobody knows where he is, right, Simon? He'll be safe here; they won't be able to find him. Right?" Blair's anxious eyes probed Simon's face for reassurance.

"Blair..." Banks leaned forward in his chair, forcing his voice to remain calm. "I've done all I can to ensure that this place is secret, but you know it's impossible to be one hundred percent sure. People see things, and people talk. I'm ordering an armed guard outside this door..."

"No! You can't. Jim doesn't want anyone to see him like this, doesn't want anyone to know what they did to him. I can..."

"Sandburg, I know you'd do anything to protect Jim, even to the point of sacrificing your own life." His voice softened even further. "But, son, you can't take on all this by yourself. You've got your hands full just taking care of your partner right now, and that's exactly what he needs - you taking care of him. Let me handle the protection end of it, okay? Besides, it's all gonna come out at trial. Jim will have to testify about what Henderson did to him. By then, though, he'll be clean and in control again, so he can handle it. It's just right now, while he's recovering, that we don't need word leaking out about his condition. Let me post the guard. Then I can spend some time at the station heading the investigation and the search for Henderson. If we can find him, take the offer off the table, then this nightmare will be on the way to being over." Simon paused a moment, giving Sandburg time to digest this new development. "Okay? Make sense to you?"

Simon was right; Sandburg knew that. His place was here, beside Jim, as his Sentinel fought to hold on while the drugs slowly left his system. He couldn't do his job as Jim's Guide, as his friend, if he was also having to function as his guard as well. Simon needed to be at the station. That was the best way to bring all this to its rightful conclusion. Henderson must be caught, tried and punished. That was Simon's role.

"You're right, Simon. Order the protection, but they cannot come in here, understand? Jim doesn't need to be around a bunch of strangers right now. His senses can't handle that. Just you and me, that's all." Blair watched Simon carefully, daring him to argue.

To Sandburg's surprise, Simon nodded agreement and stood up. "I'll make the call."

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

Banks hung up the phone with a satisfied smile. "Got a rotation of officers lined up. The first should arrive within thirty minutes. They have orders not to allow anyone in or out, except you and me, and they know not to come into the room. They don't know who is in here or why, although with you in here, they're likely to have their suspicions." He glanced at Blair. "They'll be on their toes, don't worry. You'll be fine."

Sandburg smiled tightly. "I know, Simon. I'll just feel better when Henderson's locked up, and the word hits the streets that the hit is off. Are you going to the station?"

Simon nodded and reached for his coat. Then he hesitated and pulled something from his coat pocket. Holding out his hand, Blair saw the glint of steel from a gun.

"Whoa, Simon, what's that for?" Blair stared at the weapon.

"Sandburg, even with the officer right outside, I want you to keep this with you. I don't expect you to need it, but I'd feel better leaving Jim if I know that you're prepared to defend him properly, if necessary. Wouldn't you prefer to know that it's here?"

For a long minute, the young anthropologist did not respond. He looked at Jim lying helplessly beside him, trusting him to be his Blessed Protector, then he sighed in resignation. "Leave it in the nightstand drawer, Simon."

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

Chapter Five

A few hours later, the hallucinations began. Blair had been dozing, Jim resting close at his side. Suddenly, Ellison awoke with a earsplitting scream, sitting bolt upright in the bed, and sending Blair tumbling sideways to sprawl on the mattress beside him. "No! Get away! No!" Jim was on his knees now, adrenaline pumping through his veins, as he swatted with both hands at whatever he saw surrounding them.

Blair quickly took in the situation. They were alone. Simon had left to go home for a few hours sleep before heading to the station. The guard outside had strict orders not to enter the room.

Sandburg knelt beside Jim's trembling form. "It's okay, man. It's okay." He tried to capture the desperately batting hands, to still their pointless efforts, but Jim was too strong, too determined.

"No! Get away from us! I won't let you hurt him! Get back!" The fear and anguish in Jim's voice was heart wrenching. Whatever images were torturing his mind, they were all too real to him.

Blair scooted around on the bed until he was in front of Ellison, then reached out to grasp his face and force it upward to meet his eyes. "Jim! Listen to me, Jim!" He struggled to control his voice, to modulate it to the gentle, soft tones Jim responded to so well. "It's all right, now. They're gone. I'm okay, Jim. You protected me, buddy, and I'm all right. Look at me, Jim; listen to my voice. We're both all right. Look at me, now, please?"

Slowly, the tortured blue eyes opened, meeting Blair's calm darker ones. Forcing his face to reveal nothing of his inner turmoil, Sandburg nodded approval. "That's it. Look at me, Jim, see me, listen to my voice and follow it back. We're all right. Trust me, okay? We're together, and we're safe. You're gonna be okay, Jim. We'll be okay. I promise you."

He waited while his partner studied him through his weary eyes. Seeing acceptance and relief reflected there at last, Blair gently eased Jim back onto the bed, murmuring steadily. Jim lay still, except for the constant shaking that wracked his body. He stared up at the ceiling, and Blair wasn't sure what he was seeing there.

"Why don't you close your eyes and relax, Jim? Just rest, okay?" When the blue eyes remained widely open, staring blankly, Blair carefully took his hands and placed them over Jim's eyes. Slowly, he felt the feather soft lashes tickle his palm as Jim closed his eyes at last. "That's it, buddy, just rest. Shhh..." He felt the hint of a nod as Jim's breathing began to even out, and the powerful tremors eased slightly. "I'm here, Jim. I'm here..." Blair whispered softly as Jim slept.

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

The workout room at the precinct was busy with the clanging of weights as Brian Rafe entered, dressed in black running shorts, t-shirt, and a white towel draped around his neck. It had been a long day, and a solid work-out was exactly what he needed before heading home. He started out on the treadmill, setting a brisk tempo for his warm-up. As he relaxed into the rhythm, Rafe began to focus on the buzz of voices around him.

"Yeah, that's exactly what I saw. Ellison with needle tracks covering his arm. I tell ya, that guy must've been using for years. Makes perfect sense now, him hooking up with a long-hair like Sandburg. Kid's probably his connection. Among other things," the voice added slyly.

Rafe stopped walking, looking around the room for the source of the comments. As the voice continued, he found the face to match the words. Lambert. Thomas Lambert. On the force a little longer than Rafe, but still holding the rank of Officer. Lambert hadn't moved up the ladder as Rafe had; he'd heard that the guy's temper and arrogance had interfered with his hopes of promotion. Rafe continued to listen.

"And Banks! Can you believe the nerve of that guy? Threatening me? You better believe he's gonna regret that."

Not waiting to hear Lambert's companion's response, Rafe slipped unnoticed out of the weight room.

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

"Enter!" Simon barked. After fighting a splitting headache for the past few hours, he wanted nothing more at this moment than some uninterrupted time in his quiet office to wade through some of the stacks of paperwork piled up on his desk. He nodded at Rafe as he entered the office and sat down across from Simon's desk. "What is it, Detective?" Simon asked, still reading the report in his hand.

"What's going on with Ellison, Captain?"

Bank's eyes rose, meeting Rafe's across the desk. "What have you heard?" he asked carefully, trying to gauge exactly what Rafe knew and how.

Rafe shrugged. "Some talk in the gym. I can handle it, if I know what's going on. Jim's a friend, Captain. I'd like to know. I want to help him. It'll go no further than Henri and me, that I promise."

Reading the genuine concern in the younger man's expression, Simon slowly exhaled, considering his options. Obviously, someone suspected something was up with Jim and was talking. That had to be stopped, and it wouldn't hurt to have Brown and Rafe's assistance. Relieved to be able to share his burden at last, he began, "You know Ellison's been undercover, right?"

Rafe nodded and sat back, listening in disbelief as Simon outlined the events of the past few days.

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

An hour later, Thomas Lambert walked toward his car in the precinct garage. Suddenly, a hand caught him around the throat, and he was slammed up against a concrete pillar. "What the...?" he managed to blurt out before he recognized the faces before him. "Rafe? Henri? What the hell are you guys doing?"

Henri's arms tightened around his throat. Rafe shook his head. "We do the talking right now, Lambert, got that? Sounds like you've been doing too much talking already, anyway. Now get this. What you saw in that alley is best forgotten. Understand? Jim Ellison is no junkie. He's in trouble right now, but through no fault of his own. He doesn't need you spreading rumors around the station. Now, you forget what you saw, keep your mouth shut, and you'll come out of this all right. If you don't, you've got H. and me to answer to. Not to mention Captain Banks. Plus Ellison, when he gets back. Is any of this penetrating that thick skull of yours?"

Lambert lunged against Henri's arm, but he was no match for the powerful detective. He spat, "Why does Ellison rate such treatment, anyway? He's nothing special, him and that little hippie kid of his. A lot of us are tired of Banks' attitude toward them, you know."

Rafe sighed. "Guess you're just a slow learner, huh, Lambert? You better leave Ellison's reputation alone, and I wouldn't even begin to start with Sandburg. Ellison finds out about that, and..." He paused, shaking his head at the image. "Well, it's not a pretty picture, believe me. I'm telling you, you're gonna regret pushing this. Your career has been slow enough getting off the ground as it is. Do you really want to piss off Simon Banks and the rest of the Major Crimes unit?"

The warmth of Henri's smile was betrayed by his words. "You wouldn't believe the mistakes we can turn up in your work, if we really put our minds to it. Enough reports of shoddy police work from us, and you'll stay a patrol officer for the rest of your career. If you're lucky. Now, what's it gonna be?"

Lambert glared defiantly at the two men, then slowly dropped his eyes. "Okay, okay. I was just telling what I saw, all right? I'll drop it, okay? Just don't mess with my career, man."

Rafe studied the man's face for a few moments. "As long as you keep your mouth shut. Now get outta here." He gave Lambert a hard shove toward his car. Silently, the two detectives watched as he drove from the garage.

Henri glanced over at the younger detective. "You think he bought it?"

Rafe flashed a brilliant smile. "Yeah. Guys like that, got no guts. Just a lot of mouth. He knows his promotions are iffy, anyway, and he won't do anything to jeopardize whatever slim chance he has left to move up. He'll keep quiet. Hey, let's go celebrate one small victory for the good guys. How about a big, old prime rib and a cold beer?"

"You sold me, babe, you sold me!" Grinning, Henri fell in step beside his friend, and they headed toward Rafe's car.

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

Blair sat beside the bed, bathing Jim's feverish face. The sweats had started not long before, perspiration pouring from his pores like tap water. He'd managed to give Jim a quick shave. The Sentinel had been clawing at the unfamiliar beard, and Blair figured it was easier to shave him than convince Jim to stop scratching.

Rinsing the cold cloth in the bowl of water beside him on the nightstand, Blair gently sponged his partner's face, then moved to wipe down his arms and chest. Jim refused the covers now, and he had insisted on removing the heavy sweatshirt as well. Although Blair worried about him becoming chilled, he had been unwilling to fight Jim about such a small detail. Whatever made his friend comfortable and more relaxed. If experience held, Jim would be freezing and begging for more blankets soon, anyway.

Jim opened his eyes and glared up at Sandburg. "You could help me, you know." The look in his eyes was unfamiliar, challenging and angry; his voice accusatory and hard.

Blair stroked the cool cloth over his chest once again, his other hand resting gently on the soft, short hair. "I am helping you, Jim," he replied softly. "We're working to cool you off right now, remember?"

Jim's voice rose in irritation. "That's not what I mean, and you know it." He raised up, propping shakily on his elbows and held Blair's eyes angrily with his own. "I need some help here, Chief. Real help. And you can give it to me, I know you can. You're a smart kid. You must know the right contacts over at the university. Just get me one hit, just one, to...you know, get me over the worst of this. That way, I can come off gradually, slowly. A couple of hits, then a little less, and a little less. This cold turkey stuff is murder, especially with my senses. You don't know what it's like. It hurts, Blair. It hurts so damn much. Come on, Chief. Please, help me. I just can't do this anymore." Jim's eyes were pleading.

Blair's heart skipped a beat. Jim was asking him to bring him heroin, to inject him with more of the poison which had degraded and almost killed him in the first place. Take it easy, Sandburg. Don't freak out here. Remember, it's not really Jim. He doesn't know what he's saying. Be calm. Reason with him.

Keeping his voice gentle, Blair replied, "I can't do that, buddy. You've come so far; don't give up now, okay? We'll make it through this, if you just hang tough."

Ellison's hard eyes glittered dangerously, and his fists clenched. "You don't understand, Sandburg. We're not doing this. We're not suffering here. I am!" Without warning, Jim erupted, catching Blair hard in the abdomen with his elbow as he pushed away from the bed. Sandburg doubled over, struggling to catch his breath, cradling his stomach. "I gotta get out of here! If you won't help me, I'll do it myself."

Jim staggered toward the door, his legs quivering as they strained to support his full weight. Looking up, still panting for air, Blair saw Jim's hand reach for the doorknob. Blair lunged after him, knocking his partner to the side and placing himself between Jim and the door. "No! I'm not letting you leave, Jim. I won't let you do this!"

Jim's laugh was hollow, and his voice cold; it was the voice of a stranger. "And you plan to stop me? Not even on my worst day, Chief." A quick fist connected with Blair's jaw, sending him reeling back against the metal door.

A concerned voice called through the door. "You need any help in there?"

"No!" Blair rasped. "Stay out! I can handle it!"

Still hunched over, gasping in pain, Blair looked up to meet Jim's eyes. He kept his voice soft and calm. "Is this what you want, man? You wanna hit me again? Well, go ahead and beat me to a pulp, Jim, because that's what it's gonna take for you to walk out that door."

Gathering all his strength, he managed to straighten up. Jim stood before him, breathing hard, and shaking. His eyes looked more glazed over now, as if his own limited strength was slowly waning. Blair took advantage of the weakness and placed his hands on Jim's quivering shoulders. "I won't let you leave, Jim. I can't allow you to throw your life away, and that's exactly what would happen if you went out on the streets right now. So, if you're determined to do this, then you're gonna have to take me out first. Go ahead. Hit me again."

Blair dropped his hands to his sides and looked up at Jim wide-eyed, bracing himself for the blow he was almost sure would follow.

For a long moment, Jim seemed to consider his alternatives. At last, he reached out to touch Blair's jaw with a trembling hand. "Chief, I... I'm so sorry." Then he collapsed into Blair's open arms.

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

Chapter Six

It was early evening before Simon was able to break away from the station long enough to check in on Sandburg and Ellison. He'd considered the idea of calling before abandoning the thought as ill conceived. No telling what the blaring of the telephone might do to Jim's strained senses. After being questioned by the captain, the on-duty officer reassured him that it had been a quiet afternoon, other than the sounds of a scuffle a few hours earlier. Arching his eyebrows at that comment, Simon entered the darkened room quietly.

Both occupants were asleep. Blair was propped up with his back against the headboard, a pillow shoved under his head. Jim was curled against his chest, resting between Blair's haphazardly outstretched legs. Sandburg's arms encircled his partner, and his head dropped down, resting on Jim's. They were both covered by the blankets and bedspread. Simon smiled as he quietly settled in the armchair across the room. No sense waking them. Jim seemed peaceful, and Blair certainly needed the rest.

Then Simon noticed the darkening bruise on Sandburg's jaw. What the hell had happened? Jim must have gotten out of control and smacked Sandburg. The kid would get some great guilt mileage out of that one later, but Simon realized it would eat at Jim, knowing he had hit his partner. Simon closed his eyes with a sad sigh. This whole episode couldn't be over soon enough.

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

"Simon?"

Banks opened his eyes to find Blair awake. "Hey, Sandburg," Simon responded, stretching his arms above his head. He wasn't sure how long he'd slept, but from the stiffness of his muscles, it must have been a while. "Want to fill me in on how you got that jaw buster?"

Blair grinned painfully and rubbed his sore jaw. "Jim got a little anxious for some fresh air. I had to convince him it was in his best interest to stay inside a bit longer. It's okay, really. He didn't know what he was doing."

Simon studied the young man, seeing the hurt that lay just below the surface, scarcely concealed. "You're right. Jim would never hurt you knowingly. Sometimes it may seem he doesn't care, but you mean the world to him, you know."

The curly head nodded slowly. "I know. We've had our rough spots, but I've never doubted that. Listen, I could go for something to eat. Did you bring anything?"

Simon got up and moved to the small kitchen area. "Got some of your vegetable soup from the freezer at the loft. Should be pretty well defrosted by now. You want to try a bowl?"

"Sounds good. I'll see if Jim will be okay here for a little while." He carefully slipped out from beneath Jim, easing his partner back down carefully to the pillows. When he didn't appear to awaken, Blair moved to the bathroom to wash up.

A soft moan brought Blair back to Jim's bedside.

"Sandburg?" Jim's voice was hoarse, and Blair had to strain to understand the words. "You okay?"

"Yeah, buddy, I'm fine." Blair bent down and placed his hand alongside Jim's cheek. "You think you could eat a little something? Simon's here, and I was going to try some soup. Don't think you're up to vegetable yet, but how about some chicken noodle? Homemade, straight from the loft freezer."

At Jim's slight nod, Blair smiled. "Great! I'll be right back, okay? How about some crackers?" He hustled off to the kitchenette, glad to be able to help Jim regain some of his lost strength.

Simon had Blair's soup almost ready. "Why don't you sit down and eat, Sandburg? It won't do Jim any good if you give out on him from lack of sustenance. I'll get Jim's soup ready while you eat." He glanced back at the sleeping figure in the bed. "Although I don't think he's in any great rush. Sleep's probably the best thing for him right now."

Blair nodded agreement, then took a spoonful of soup, closing his eyes in appreciation of the first real food he'd had since...since he couldn't really remember when. "Thanks, Simon. You're right; I was hungry."

Blair ate for a while in silence, keeping one eye on Jim. Simon left the chicken soup in a bowl, ready for the microwave whenever Jim woke up, then went to sit beside Blair at the small table.

"I went by the loft to check on everything. It all looks fine." He hesitated, studying the young man beside him. "Blair, there were some messages on your answering machine. I checked them, just to be sure there wasn't anything important that I could tend to for you. A Dr. Duncan called."

At that, Blair's head shot up, and he looked at Simon expectantly.

"He said you'd missed the grant funding committee meeting this morning and couldn't understand why. Said you were a shoe-in for the funds." Banks looked deeply into the serious blue eyes. "Why didn't you say something, kid? I could have stayed with Jim long enough for you to go to that meeting. I know you need the money. Jim would have understood. It was important."

"That's where you're wrong, Simon. This," he nodded toward Jim. "This is important. Going to that grant committee meeting was never even an option." The young man hesitated, as if trying to decide how much to share with Simon. "See, my priorities shifted a long time ago. When I first met Jim, when we first started dealing with this Sentinel stuff, yeah, my research, getting my degree, was my first priority. I was glad to be able to help Jim, proud to be his friend, but I still focused first and foremost on my research. I'm not sure exactly when that changed, Simon, but it did."

Blair looked over at Jim, a tender smile touching his lips. "I changed, Simon, and so did Jim. He needs me. Not you, Simon, no offense, but it's me he needs. Nobody's ever really needed me before, not like this. Nothing's more important than that, nothing. When he wakes up, it's me he looks for, me he needs beside him. Just like I'd need him, if the situation was reversed. I can't let Jim down, I won't. If I have to scrimp a little harder to get by, well, that's a small price to pay, isn't it?"

Looking at Blair's sincere eyes, at the certainty and faith reflected from their depths, how could he argue? "A small price, Sandburg, a very small price."

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

The night slowly passed. Jim had awakened and eaten a few sips of soup as Sandburg patiently fed him. Simon watched silently as the Guide lovingly ministered to his Sentinel, patiently coaxing him to take small sips of the warm soup. What was it my grandfather used to say? "The entire sum of existence is the magic of being needed by just one person." Sandburg may not have received that grant today, but he's a rich man, a rich man indeed. Jim needs him, and that is definitely a magical thing.

Finally, Jim dozed off, sleeping restlessly curled up closely once again beside Sandburg. Blair had remained awake, watching Jim's face with a faraway look in his eyes.

"You okay, Sandburg?" Simon asked at last.

Blair smiled a little. "Yeah, I'm okay. A little tired, that's all. Do you know how amazing he is, Simon? I mean, for days these guys shot him full of one of the most powerful street drugs in existence. Can you imagine how that wreaked havoc with his Sentinel senses? It must have been excruciating. They didn't feed him, gave him just enough water to keep him alive. Filled his head with who knows what. But he survived. He escaped, he's back with me, and he's gonna be all right." His voice cracking, Blair stopped suddenly. He leaned down to brush his lips lightly across the short-cropped hair. "He's gonna be all right," he whispered.

I hope Jim realizes how lucky he is, kid. Not many of us ever find such a friendship. Does he ever tell you how he feels? Probably not often, knowing Ellison. Simon tried to speak past the lump suddenly lodged in his throat. "Want to know why he survived, Sandburg? Why he made up his mind that he had to escape?"

Blair looked over at the captain and nodded. "Did he...? He told you?"

"Yeah. While you were washing up right after we got here. Said he couldn't stand the thought of your knowing how he died, what terrible shape he was in, the pain he'd gone through. Jim couldn't let you live with that; he refused to die and put you through that grief. Even though dying would have been the easy way out, the quickest way to escape that agony, he survived for you, Blair. He loves you that much." After a few silent minutes, Simon took his coat from the end of the bed and quietly slipped out the door.

Sleep eluded Blair, but he was content just to rest, holding his partner, and letting the tears flow from his face to soak the pillow beneath his head.

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

The Sentinel wasn't sure when he heard the first noise; he had lost all concept of time days before, strapped to the small bed in the living hell of that dirty room. His eyes struggled open, and he searched his surroundings, cataloging what he could sense. Blair. Lying close beside him, one arm slung over his chest, his head resting on Jim's shoulder. For a moment, Jim was tempted to abandon his sensory search and focus only on that comforting, familiar warmth curled up next to him. No, there it was again. Another noise, this time obviously from outside the room.

The room... Where the hell were they, anyway? He had vague impressions of having been wet and cold, lying on a hard surface in the dark. Alone. Then Blair was there, and Simon, and he remembered moving, maybe in Simon's car. He closed his eyes, feeling his limited strength quickly ebbing.

It didn't matter where they were, just that he figured out what that noise was. Suddenly, he identified the sound.

The doorknob slowly turning.

Another bout of tremors shook his body, and his vision began to blur rapidly. Damn! He felt the dreaded sense of nausea returning, and his vision began to fade into swirling patterns of gray and black. "Blair," he whispered, struggling to control his shaking muscles. "Wake up."

A sleepy whisper answered him. "S'okay, Jim. I'm here. Go back to sleep." Blair shifted closer to his friend, sighed deeply, and snuggled his head further into the makeshift pillow that was Jim's shoulder.

"Sandburg. Someone's coming in..." His tongue felt thick and uncooperative, and more words refused to come. Had Blair understood? Had it been enough? His blurred perception of the objects in the room began to recede into the shadows as the blackness claimed him.

Jim's words had been enough. Blair came instantly awake, rolling over away from Jim and quietly hitting the carpeted floor just as a flashlight blinked on, its dim beacon filling the room with subdued glow. From where Blair lay, he couldn't see the figure approaching the bed, but he could hear the quiet threat all too clearly.

"Think you're so smart, huh, Ellison? No puny guard like that punk can keep me out. Think they'd leave someone in here with you, now wouldn't ya? Guess you're too big a hero, too tough to need a babysitter, huh?"

Locked in the blackness, Jim listened. He strained to open his eyes, to move of his own volition, but the only motion was the uncontrollable shaking which furiously tore at his body. He had no control, no ability to choose his body's actions. Cursing his helplessness, Jim listened desperately for clues as to what was happening around him. He doesn't know Blair's here. Please, Chief, just stay down. Don't do anything stupid, do you hear me? For once in your life, look after yourself first.

As Jim helplessly waited, trapped inside his own body, Blair lay still, barely breathing, as he strained to hear what was happening on the other side of the bed. Oh, God. I cannot believe this. This guy's a hit man, and something's happened to the guard outside. Oh, man, what am I supposed to do now? C'mon, Simon, please. Now would be a really cool time for you to walk through that door, man.

The low, rough voice resumed, and Blair shuddered at the words. "Looks like Mr. Henderson did a pretty good job on you. Don't know how you managed to get away. Don't matter anyhow. Back there on Pharr Road or here in this room, you're dead either way."

Blair heard the gun being raised, somehow felt it being aimed at Jim's head. I cannot believe this is happening. Please, Simon. Please get here. Now! Slowly, he eased open the drawer of the nightstand. He prayed the gunman was concentrating too hard on Jim to notice the motion of the drawer.

"Say goodbye, Ellison."

Through the dark, empty void, Jim felt his chest tighten uncontrollably, and his heart skipped a beat. Once more, he tried to move, but his body refused to obey. Shaking violently and completely helpless, Jim steeled himself for the worst when he heard a voice, desperate and determined.

"Hold it!" Blair jumped to his feet, aiming the gun at the intruder's head. "Stop right there. Don't make me do this. Just drop the gun..."

No, Chief! Damn it, why didn't you just stay out of sight? Jim could feel his heart breaking as the realization that the spectre of death now shadowed them both took hold. Painful images ripped across his mind like flashes of jagged lightening in the total darkness.

His drug-induced nightmares were to become reality after all. Blair was going to die, and he was utterly powerless to stop it. Jim could only pray that he would die first, so that he did not have to endure the sound of Blair's heart slowing, then stopping, as the life drained from his body.

A malicious smile chilled the room as the gunman took in the sight of Blair, dressed in the old rumpled navy sweatshirt and torn blue jeans, his long hair loose around his shoulders. "What have we here? A hippie boy." He chuckled, amused at the image of Blair facing him down with a gun. "Guess they did leave someone with old Ellison after all. Woulda thought they could do better than you, though. Cascade PD must be pretty hard up to put his life in the hands of someone like you, kid. Hey, pretty boy, think you can take me out before I blast him away?" Grinning, he kept the gun pointed at Jim's temple.

Blair felt uncertainty course through his body. I don't know if I can do this! What if he shoots first? The barrel's so close to Jim's head; there's no way he'd survive. Oh, God, I feel sick. At the thought of that bullet slamming into Jim's brain, his blood turned cold and his hand wavered. An expert at reading human moves, the big man grinned and turned his total attention back to Jim, his finger already pulling back on the trigger.

Laughing, the hit man glanced once more at Sandburg. "Hey, hippie, you ever seen what a bullet will do to a human head at close range? Just watch."

The blast rattled the windows of the small suite.

Blair stared in shock, his hand trembling on the smoking gun.

The hit man lay dead in a hot, sticky pool of blood, a bullet neatly piercing his temple.

Turning quickly, Blair sprinted to the bathroom, barely making it to kneel over the toilet before he vomited violently. He heaved for several long minutes, until his stomach was empty, his whole body shaking from shock. At last, when the nausea had passed, he lay slumped against the wall, one of Jim's damp washcloths pressed to his slumped head. He'd killed a man. Blair Sandburg, pacifist, had looked that man in the eyes and pulled the trigger. Ever since he'd known Jim, this was the one thing he had sworn he would not, could not, do.

Tonight, he had done it. A man lay dead in the room just beyond, a bullet in his brain. A bullet from the gun that he had fired.

Blair took a deep, shuddering breath. What's the matter, Sandburg? Would you feel better if Jim was lying in there, dead with a bullet through his head? Would that relieve your guilt? What else could you have done?

He took deep breaths, forcing himself to replay the scenario over and over in his mind, figuring every angle, appraising every possible option.

Slowly, the guilt faded away. There had been no real decision to make, no choices open to him other than the one he had made. Shakily, Blair got to his feet and made his way over to the small bathroom sink. Running the warm water, he leaned over, rinsing off his face. He straightened, catching his reflection in the mirror.

Blair stared into his own blue eyes, searching for any sign that the last few minutes had changed the man he saw there, looking to see whether what he had done had altered his own conception of who and what Blair Sandburg was. Long seconds ticked past before a small smile touched the corners of his lips. He'd made the only possible decision. He had taken the man's life, and that act would follow him forever, but he felt a small, inner pride that he had been able to do what was necessary to save Jim and himself.

Satisfied, Blair nodded at his reflection, then, still shaking just a little, he went back into the bedroom and crawled back into the bed, consciously avoiding glancing at the floor on the far side of the bed. There'd be time enough to see the results of his actions later when he opened the door for the police. Shivering, Blair burrowed under the covers beside Jim. Right now, he needed Jim's warmth and closeness. Dreading what was to come, he reached over to the nightstand and called Simon's home number.

"Simon? Please...get here. We need the EMTs." He cut the connection at the sound of Jim's voice.

"Sandburg?" The Sentinel's scratchy voice tried to call out, the tone of desperation obvious. "Blair?"

Feeling Jim's struggle to sit up, Blair reached out to clasp Jim's hand. "Right here, Jim."

Ellison's eyes fluttered opened and gradually focused, taking in Blair's pale skin and trembling hands. "What happened, Chief? You okay?"

"Yeah, someone...came in, Jim, but it's okay now." Blair closed his eyes and nestled his head against Jim's broad shoulder, grateful when his partner shifted closer. He knew he should explain, but he didn't know if he had the strength, or if Jim was ready to hear it.

Jim sounded puzzled. "I heard it all, Chief. I...I couldn't move, couldn't speak, but I could hear. I heard you stand up, talk to him, then... Thought I heard a shot. Did he...?"

Blair sighed. He should have known that Jim, even in his weakened condition, wouldn't let this drop. "He never got the chance to fire." Blair took a deep breath before continuing. "Henderson put a contract out on your life, buddy, and this guy came to collect. He was ready to kill you, but..."

Jim jerked his head to the side to stare at Blair through his red-rimmed eyes. "My God, Sandburg, tell me! Are you...?"

Forcing his voice to remain calm, Blair reassured his friend. "I'm fine, Jim. Don't worry, I'm okay. Simon left a gun for me, just in case. I..." He took a deep breath, preparing to say the words for the first time. "He had the gun to your head, Jim. He was going to kill you. So, I shot him. He's dead."

They lay in silence. Then, wordlessly, summoning the small reserve of strength, which remained within, Jim pulled Blair to him, holding him tightly until Simon's knock sounded at the door.

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

Chapter Seven

They went home.

After the motel room had been transformed from their safe house into an active crime scene, Blair convinced Simon that they could protect Jim just as well back at the loft. After all, hadn't this guy managed to take out the security, anyway? If he could, another would be able to do the same, just as easily. The guard would live, but what was the point in remaining at the hotel? Convinced that Jim would be more comfortable at home, back in his own bed, with extra security stationed outside, Simon relented.

Two police officers now stood outside the door to the loft, protecting the Sentinel and Guide resting inside. Blair refused to go to his own room, insisting that he would stay near Jim, knowing that his partner would rest better that way, as he would. From experience, Simon knew better than to argue, especially not after the horrors of the evening.

Dawn was beginning to paint the sky with delicate strokes of pink and orange. Simon poured a cup of coffee for himself and one for Sandburg, then carried them up the stairs to Jim's bedroom. The kid was wide-awake already, sitting on the edge of the bed beside Jim as he slept, but it was obvious he hadn't been up long. His long, curly hair was tangled and his eyes were drowsy with sleep. "Hey, Simon," he said softly.

"Coffee?" Banks handed the cup to Blair.

Taking the warm cup, Blair slowly sipped the aromatic blend and nodded gratefully. "Thanks. Any word on the hit man?"

Sitting down in a chair near the bed, Banks took a slow sip of coffee and grinned. Damn, it was satisfying to relay good news for a change. "We got a lucky break there, Sandburg. Guy wasn't a hired gun; he was one of Henderson's own goons. Found his car parked a couple of blocks away. We were able to ID it based on our observations of Henderson's operation. Then we traced the registration and found out where the guy lives. Guess who was there?" He waited expectantly for Blair's reaction.

Disbelief filled the tired blue eyes as they turned from Jim to look at Simon. "Henderson?" he breathed.

Simon nodded. "Yep. Old boy finally made a mistake. Guess he didn't figure on his man botching the job. Or I should say, he didn't figure on meeting up with you, Sandburg."

"Then it's over? No more contract, no more hit men gunning for Jim?"

"It's over. I'll keep the guards on duty for a while longer, until the word circulates that Mr. Henderson's not going to be honoring any contracts for a long, long time." Simon watched Blair as the young man smiled in relief, absently reaching for Jim's hand and threading his fingers through the larger ones of his friend. His thumb gently stroked the soft skin between Jim's forefinger and thumb. Blair leaned close and spoke softly in the low, soothing tones of a Guide to his Sentinel.

Simon smiled softly at the murmuring. He couldn't make out most of the words, but the meaning was clear. Blair was reassuring Jim. The kid had experienced the depths of hell over the past few days. Still, Jim remained foremost in his mind, even after all he'd been through. With so much attention focused on Ellison, Simon suddenly wondered if anyone had thought to look out for Sandburg. Jim had certainly been in no condition to do so.

"How are you doing with this, Sandburg? Are *you* okay?"

Turning from Jim, Blair looked at Simon steadily. "Do you mean am I okay with killing the man who was about to murder Jim? Am I okay with killing someone who was ready to take away the most important part of my life? Yeah, Simon, I'm okay with that. Actually, I'm fine with it."

Searching Blair's face, Simon read the truth of his calm statement. Sandburg was all right. Under any other circumstances, taking a life would have ripped at Blair Sandburg's heart and conscience. But this had been different. It had been either Jim's life or the shooter's in those brief seconds of decision in the hotel room. Blair had made the only choice he could have made, and he knew it. Knew it deep in his soul. He had done what any trained, experienced cop would have done; he'd saved his partner's life and his own.

Except Blair wasn't a cop. They'd reminded him of the fact often enough, Simon realized ruefully. But tonight, he would have been proud to have the young man serve in his squad. Tonight, Blair Sandburg had done them all proud.

Simon stood up and walked over to Blair, placing a hand on his shoulder. "You did good tonight, Sandburg. I'm proud of you. I know Jim is, too." The captain turned away, grinning at the startled look on Blair's face, and he headed home. Jim and Blair were back in the loft; they'd be all right. Now, what they needed most was to be together, and what Simon needed most was his sleep. It had been another long night.

Hell, he thought with a twinge of regret, recently, they had all been long nights.

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

A week later

Jim sat on the couch by the fireplace, drenched in the warmth from the crackling, burning logs. He muted the sound on the old movie he'd been watching, some World War II classic in black and white, and listened to the comforting sounds of Blair puttering around in his room. He took a long, careful look around the loft, taking in the familiarity of it all...the warmth of the mellow wood, his posters, Blair's artifacts, photos of their vacations together, their books and CDs resting side by side on the shelves. Two separate, very different lives, now merging in perfect juxtaposition. Signs of the blending of their lives were everywhere around him, reflected in all the everyday things which now didn't seem so ordinary at all. These were the small, priceless pieces of his life for which he was so grateful.

Home. Life was good.

Jim smiled at the muttered fragments coming from the small room behind him. The room which had started out as a junk room, collecting the unneeded bits and pieces of his empty, hollow life. Now the tiny space was a room bursting with energy, with life, all thanks to Blair Sandburg. That most unique, truly extraordinary piece of his life for which he was the most grateful of all.

Just what was the kid looking for in there?

"Hey, Sandburg! Come on in here, Chief, and finish the movie with me. I could go for some popcorn." He waited and listened, knowing Sandburg would not be able to refuse the request.

"Found it!" Jim chuckled at the triumphant exclamation as Sandburg emerged from his room. "Give me a few minutes for the popcorn, Jim."

Contented, Jim settled back against the pillows propped behind him on the couch, his long legs stretched out under an afghan. He'd made great progress in the past week. The shakes and hallucinations were gone, along with the insatiable cravings, but he remained weak and unsteady when he pushed himself too hard. Rest. That was all he needed. That and the security of having his Guide close by, safe and secure.

Henderson sat in jail without bond, awaiting trial after his arraignment. Jim knew it wouldn't be easy getting on the witness stand and testifying about his ordeal. Just as it hadn't been easy for Sandburg to describe the shooting in the hotel room to the investigators and D.A. No charges were pressed. It was a justifiable shooting, to protect his partner and himself. Jim had been surprised at how easily Blair had slipped back into their normal routines, as if the shooting had never occurred. No nightmares, no sleepless nights. Maybe he shouldn't have been surprised, Jim considered, as he listened to the popping of the kernels in the microwave. Blair had only been doing what was natural, being his Blessed Protector, keeping his Sentinel safe. Wasn't that the way Blair claimed it should be? Sentinel and Guide, each watching out for the other, each willing to lay down his life, if necessary, to protect the other half of himself, the other half of his soul.

Jim's gaze fell on the answering matching beside the couch. The red light blinked, indicating an unplayed message. He reached over, hitting Play. His finger slipped, allowing the tape to rewind to the beginning of all the recent messages, both played and unplayed. As he listened, the contented smile abruptly left his face.

"Lift," Blair commanded and sat down at the end of the couch, settling his partner's sock-covered feet in his lap and tucking the coverlet back over Jim's legs. He was dressed in vintage Blair clothing, with torn jeans, a faded flannel shirt and mismatched socks. With his hair hanging loosely around his shoulders, Blair resembled a homeless waif more than a doctoral student and experienced police observer. "Popcorn?" He handed the bowl of hot, buttered and salted white treats over to Jim.

Forcing himself to ignore Blair's innocent, youthful appearance, Jim silently took the bowl and popped a few kernels into his mouth. He didn't turn up the sound on the movie, and he didn't return Blair's happy smile. Sandburg looked at him for a moment in confusion, then shrugged, turning his attention to the silent movie.

A few minutes later, he tried again. "Hey, Jim, maybe you can hear what's going on with no sound, but your sensory-deprived Guide's totally in the dark here. Mind turning up the volume?" He grinned at Jim and leaned over to snag another handful of popcorn.

Charm wasn't going to work this time. "Why didn't you go, Chief?" Jim's voice was level, but Blair could hear the tension-filled undercurrents flowing just below the surface.

Blair cocked his head, puzzled. "Go where, Jim? You've lost me again. What's going on with you, man?"

Slowly, Jim sat up, settling in beside Blair. He tucked one pillow behind the small of his back for support and dragged the coverlet over them both. Then he looked over at his partner. "Your grant committee meeting. It was all you talked about for weeks. You were going to get that grant and be financially solvent for the first time since I've known you. In all the confusion, I'd forgotten it. I just replayed our messages and found the one from Dr. Duncan. So, you want to tell me what happened?"

Blair turned and fastened his gaze on the popping fire. "I decided not to go, Jim. We'd just found you, man, and you were really hurting." He turned abruptly and looked at Jim. "My place was with you, not at that committee meeting."

Closing his eyes, Jim shook his head. "Blair..." He waited, fighting to find his control again, his focus. He felt Sandburg's hand on his arm, leading him back with the whisper of his touch. Jim reached out and grabbed his hand, capturing it between his own and squeezing. "Don't you see? It makes me feel, I don't know, guilty somehow that you lost that money because of me."

Blair smiled and brought his other palm up to cover their entwined hands. "And that should surprise me? You feeling guilty?" He chuckled softly. "Jim, don't you get it yet? What we've got here, it's..." Suddenly, he looked embarrassed, but determined to plow ahead. "It's like any other committed relationship, kinda like a marriage in a lot of ways."

At Jim's skeptical glare, Blair grinned. "Wait, man. Hear me out, okay? We each have to give up things sometimes, for the good of the whole. What if it had been me lying in that bed, drugged out of my mind? Would you have left me there for some meeting you were supposed to attend?"

Slowly, Jim shook his head. "No, of course not. But that grant was important to you, Sandburg."

"Doesn't even begin to compare with you, man. You were more important, are always more important, than any grant, any meeting, any degree...anything else in my life. Got that?" Blair searched Jim's face, looking for understanding of the importance of his place in Blair's life and heart.

His heart soared. "Yeah, Junior, I got it." Jim hesitated, strengthening his resolve, then added quietly, "Same goes for me, too; you know that, don't you?"

Blair nodded, blinking back the sudden wetness in his eyes. "I know, Jim. Listen, I found this a little while ago. I want you to have it." He reached into his shirt pocket, pulling out a small, white box and handed it to Jim.

Glancing at his friend in curiosity, Jim removed the top from the box, then lifted the object out, inspecting it carefully. It was a small, green figure shaped like two ornate birds, entwined together, with their wings outspread. The stone carving felt cool to his sensitive touch, and as perfectly smooth as green ice. "It's beautiful, Chief, but I'm not sure I understand its significance."

Blair's eyes were serious, hoping his friend would realize the meaning behind the gift. "It's the phoenix, Jim, actually two of them, back to back, carved in apple green jade. It belonged to my grandfather, Naomi's dad. He had it for years, kept it with him all the time because he said it reminded him of the Jewish people. The phoenix of mythology arose victorious from the ashes to live and thrive once again."

Jim tried to hand the small carving back to his friend. "Blair, this is an important part of your family. You should keep it where it belongs, not give it to me."

Refusing to accept the phoenix, Blair insisted, "No, I want you to have it. It reminds me, well, it reminds me of you. Of us. You've survived so much, Jim. And no matter what happens, no matter what they throw at us, we make it through. Like the phoenix. As for it being part of my family, I am keeping it where it belongs, in my family." He smiled almost shyly at Jim, unsure of how he would accept the declaration and the gift.

Jim's blue eyes misted, and he reached back out to grasp Blair's hand in his. "Family," he repeated. "Yeah, that's good. Family. This means a lot, Blair. Thank you." He placed the delicate carving back in its box and set it on the coffee table. Then he leaned back into the pillows, once again content with the world, and grinned crookedly at his partner. "We're a pair, aren't we?" He squeezed the smaller hand resting beneath his own.

"Yeah, we are. One tough-as-nails cop who's an absolute softy - we'll keep that a secret from the rest of the world, of course - and one peace-loving grad student who's become more of a cop than he ever dreamed possible." Blair shook his head in wonderment. "Destiny's a mysterious thing, my brother."

Blair smiled at Jim, his eyes soft and warm, then leaned over to rest against him. Jim wrapped an arm around the slim shoulders, pulling him closer. Blair closed his eyes, relaxed at last.

Jim also allowed his body and mind to rest, releasing all his senses to take in the wealth of sensations surrounding him...the warmth and welcome weight of Blair against his side, the puffs of warm, moist breath caressing his neck as sleep slowly claimed his Guide, the cozy popping of the fire as it sparked in the darkness, the buttery smell and salty aftertaste of the popped corn, and, underlying it all, the scent that was the essence of his his friend. All combined to fill the aching hollowness that had echoed in his soul ever since he lay helpless and tortured by the horrors of his own mind.

That hollowness was gone, filled with all the ordinary, precious things which surrounded him. He was home. Blair was home. They were safe. He would heal and be whole once more.

His soul was full.

Finis...

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