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

Author Notes: Thanks to Arianna for reading this one and making such valuable right-on-target suggestions. I haven't been writing a lot recently. When I was in college - twenty-five years ago - I was a music major in classical guitar. As it tends to do, real life stepped in, and I ended up a teacher, not a musician. In the past year or so, I've returned to my first love, putting in many hours of practice. I'm beginning to do some performing, and I hope to do more in the next few months. Needless to say, a full-time job, a husband, and my music leave little time for writing these days. I will continue to write TSFF, though. It's a creative release I thoroughly enjoy, and it's led to friendships I know will last a lifetime. All this to say that even though the stories may not be as numerous as they once were, I hope you'll continue to read and enjoy them.

Feedback is always appreciated... especially if you enjoyed the story.

Mistaken Identity

by JET

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

"You sure you're okay with this, man?" Blue eyes tinged with uncertainty stared up at Jim Ellison.

It was all Jim could do to disguise the grin threatening to explode and blow his carefully constructed demeanor. Sandburg looked positively stunned.

Sometimes it paid to do the totally unexpected and keep the kid off-guard. The rewards were definitely worth the price. Jim poured his second cup of morning coffee and sipped it slowly. Gratefully. Last night's seven hour stakeout had lasted about five hours too long.

Glancing up at his partner and roommate at last, Jim pointed out casually, "It's not a big deal, Chief. Just drive the truck over to Hal's Garage and leave it there for the tire change. It's only a couple of blocks from there to Rainier. You pick it up again after your last afternoon class. I'll meet up with you at the station this evening after Simon and I get back from court."

He took another slow sip of the rich, aromatic brew. One of the best payoffs for being a Sentinel was the enhanced aroma of coffee. If the entire country had enhanced senses, there'd be a Starbucks built in every block. They were practically halfway there already. "You have wheels for the day since your 'classic' is in the shop, my truck gets new tires, and I get to ride to court with Simon and give him a hard time about his cigar smoke irritating my senses." Jim flashed a smile, breaking his studied look of indifference at last. "What could work out better?"

"Nothing," Blair agreed with a casual shrug, sipping his own morning coffee. A blend of hazelnut and vanilla, Jim surmised. Nice. He might have to raid Sandburg's stash sometime while the kid was at Rainier. "Just took me by surprise, I guess. You usually don't let anyone drive your vehicles, man."

"And don't expect it to happen often, Chief," Jim cautioned, pointing a warning finger at his friend, only half in jest. "This is purely a one-time time offer."

Blair set his coffee cup in the sink, turned on the hot water, then quickly washed it out. "Right. I get it, Jim. It's okay for me to drive your truck when you need a favor."

The unmistakably hurt tone in Blair's reply didn't go unnoticed, but Jim refused to rise to the bait cast out by the younger man. He sipped his coffee casually, suppressing a smile at Blair's tried-and-true methods. Sandburg wasn't the only one with expertise in chain-jerking.

"Okay, man," Blair conceded at last, drying his hands on a towel, tossing it on the counter then picking up his backpack from beside the door. He swung it easily over his shoulder. "All right, man, I give up. Sandburg Vehicle Delivery Service is on the job. I'll be done at the U by 4:30. By the time I pick up the truck, I should make it to the station by 5:15 or 5:30."

"Sounds good, Chief," Jim agreed with a wave from the kitchen table. "With any luck, I'll be done by 4:00 and be back at the station. Simon mentioned trying that new Italian place over on Fourteenth." At Blair's approving nod, he added, "See you later then."

It had all seemed so normal, so ordinary, Jim reflected later. If only he had known...

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

Blair was whistling an upbeat tune as he hoisted himself into Jim's old truck. He couldn't quite place the melody, but it was something he remembered from childhood. Maybe something his mom had sung to him? It didn't matter. It was a beautiful morning, and the melody pleased him. To top it all off, he had wheels.

As much as he enjoyed ribbing his friend about his seeming lack of faith in Blair's driving abilities, Sandburg was grateful for the use of Jim's Ford. He had several committee meetings scattered across the campus during the day, his regular office hours to keep, not to mention two undergrad classes to teach and an important meeting with his dissertation committee at the end of the day. With his own car in the shop for one of its many frequent repairs, not having to bum rides to and from campus was a relief. The day ahead was shaping up to be busy enough as it was.

And although Blair wouldn't dare show his partner how much it pleased him, Jim had actually trusted him with his prized Ford. That trust wasn't something Blair took lightly. Jim bordered on being obsessive about his truck. Of course, Jim bordered on obsession about quite a few things, Blair mused.

Grinning at the thought of his friend's peculiarities, Blair slammed the door behind him, stuck the key in the ignition, then adjusted the seat. "Man, you have long legs, Ellison," he muttered, as he pulled the old bench seat into a more comfortable position. He turned the key, and the truck's engine roared to life.

A sudden, cold pressure against the back of his neck diverted Blair's attention from his seat position to whatever the hell was going on in the back seat. "Wh...?"

"Shut up and drive!"

The voice was hard - strongly commanding - and instinctively, Blair turned his head slightly to see. "What the hell...? Hey, man, you have no idea whose vehicle you're..."

"I'm not asking you again to shut the hell up! Don't make a mistake you won't live to regret, kid," growled the voice, smacking his neck roughly with the cold steel of the gun barrel. "I said drive."

Stealing a hopeful glance up at the loft, Blair slowly pulled away from the curb. C'mon, man! Are you listening? Jim? Hey, Jim! I could use some help here!

There was no sign that his mental messages had been heard by the Sentinel. Apparently, Jim had yet to develop mental telepathy as one of his talents. Sighing, Blair carefully merged into traffic. "Where to, man?" he ventured.

"Take Jefferson onto East Bay," the voice commanded. "That's all you need to know. Now drive!" There was another forceful jab of cold steel against his neck, and Blair decided that for the present, his wisest course of action was to obey.

Risking a quick glance in the rearview mirror earned him nothing. The mystery man's face was covered by a nylon stocking that twisted his features grotesquely. For now, Blair thought helplessly, his options were limited to trying to survive. With a quick, silent prayer to whatever Being protected trouble-prone Guides and their Sentinels, Blair followed his captor's instructions and drove slowly down Jefferson Avenue.

Toward what end, he hadn't a clue. He could only hope that Jim's perfect track record of always finding him in time wouldn't end any time soon.

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

Tapping his pen on his desk, Jim glanced up in irritation at the clock on the wall over Simon's office. Where the hell was Sandburg? Not to mention his truck. It was six thirty. Al's Garage would have shut down a half hour ago. "You better have my wheels, Sandburg," Jim muttered, tossing another folder on the stack of completed files. Not only was Blair late, but Jim had been stuck doing all their paperwork. Not his favorite part of the job.

The paperwork was irritating enough, but the gnawing feeling that had invaded his gut about lunch time was worse. He'd had the undeniable feeling that something was wrong, that his partner was in trouble. It had only been the memories of the times Blair had chided him for being overprotective that had kept Jim from checking in on the younger man.

He wasn't overprotective. Not really. Just... cautious. After all, he had every right to be concerned, didn't he? Sandburg had a definite knack for finding himself in some pretty dangerous situations.

Jim stared at the clock again. Another three minutes had passed and still, no sign of Sandburg. His gut twisted once more.

As if reading his mind, Simon's voice intruded on his thoughts. "Relax, Jim. The kid's always running late. You know that. No point working yourself into an ulcer. Especially not when you have work to do, Detective."

Jim smiled tightly as Simon's amused words reached his Sentinel ears from behind the captain's closed office door. His boss and friend knew him too well. Knew them both too well, for that matter. Simon was right. Blair was frequently late. The kid would show up any time now, breathing hard from running from the truck to the elevator and talking a mile a minute about his day while apologizing for being late.

There was nothing to worry about.

Taking a slow, deep breath, Jim flipped open the next file and began to read.

Blair would be here soon.

He'd better be.

Then the phone rang. "Ellison!"

"Jim? Been expecting that wreck you call a truck all afternoon. Did you forget you had an appointment today?"

At Al's words, Jim's heart plummeted. He muttered a fast apology, slammed down the phone, then immediately picked it up again. Quickly, he dialed in the number for Blair's office, but he wasn't surprised when the machine picked up.

When would he learn to listen to his gut?

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

Oh, man... his head hurt.

Why did his head hurt? Shouldn't he remember something so simple? Had it been hurting all day?

Was it day? Night?

What the hell was going on anyway? Where was he? Why did he have a headache?

Whatever was happening, it sure was dark. Must be night. But he didn't seem to remember anything about the day.

What was going on?

Staring into the blackness, Blair slowly realized that what he was seeing - or not seeing - was the back of his own eyelids.

Oh. One mystery solved anyway. It was a beginning.

Okay, maybe opening his eyes would be a good place to start figuring things out.

Or not.

The shooting pain attacked his temples with a pounding vengeance. It started in the back of his head, spreading within seconds to attack his temples and behind his eyes. Like someone beating on a pipe with a hammer. Or a really, really major attack on frozen ice cubes with an ice pick.

Put simply, it hurt like hell.

Blair waited several minutes for the worst of the pain to subside enough to enable him to think logically again.

Whatever was going on, keeping his eyes shut was becoming more and more appealing. Who needed to see anyway? Dark was good. Dark was quiet and peaceful. He could definitely do dark.

Now that he was still and relatively pain-free once again, Blair began to hear things around him. Was that the way Jim's senses worked for him? Close off one sense and focus on another that becomes stronger? Maybe if they tried...

Blair shook himself inwardly. Not the time to be planning more tests for his Sentinel.

Listening...

That was what he should be doing. Focusing on where he was and how he might possibly get out of this mess. If he didn't focus more effectively that this, he couldn't figure out what was going on, and he sure as hell couldn't help himself.

What did he remember anyway? With some effort, accompanied by a substantial increase of the throbbing in his temples, Blair remembered the disembodied voice in Jim's truck. He remembered the gun striking his neck. He remembered driving away from the loft.

And that was about it. The rest was a fuzzy, painful blur. Probably better not to push the issue. So, forget the details. Focus on the present.

Listen.

Blair could hear the low hum of what he supposed was a window air conditioning unit. It was... what?... late July? Yet, the room was fairly comfortable in temperature. That made sense then.

What else?

Voices. Low and buzzing, like some distant, busy insects, annoyingly present, yet fluttering just out of reach.

What were they saying?

Annoyed that he couldn't understand the voices, Blair struggled to focus, to reach out with his hearing as he'd urged Jim to do so often. He'd have to cut Jim some slack next time they worked with his hearing. This focusing bit really wasn't easy.

There... he could make out a few words. Hey, Jim! It really works, man! If only Jim would get here so he could share his small victory.

So what exactly were those words saying?

Ellison... Kaufman is going to blow... furious... wanted Ellison, not some kid... his old man's not gonna pay... gotta face the music... might as well be now... Kaufman's place... sure he's secured?... not going anywhere... hit him pretty hard... be out for a while.

The words faded as Blair heard the slamming of a door. Oh, man. He hadn't heard much, but it was enough. He'd been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Again. They'd been after Jim. Apparently to hold him for ransom, counting on wealthy William Ellison to pay up to save his son's life.

The wave of panic triggered by discovering his circumstances was followed by an equally powerful surge of gratitude. Thank God, Jim hadn't been in the truck. Who knows how the kidnapping - the blow to the head - might have affected his senses?

It was time to do something. The bad guys - whoever they were - apparently had gone to report to the head goon how their plan had gone wrong. What was his name? Had to remember that. Kaufman. Yeah. He'd have to tell Jim that once he was free.

It sounded like they'd left. Now was the time. Blair moved to sit up.

And found himself unable to move an inch.

He twisted against the bonds securing him to the twin bed. Handcuffs, from the feel of the hard circles around his wrists. He jerked his legs, meeting resistance. His ankles were bound together and apparently tied down somehow to the bed. He was helpless to move.

Blair's eyes opened wide, no longer fearing the pain. Again, only darkness greeted him. A heavy, stifling darkness. Shadows upon shadows, leaving only the vague impression of something tight over his eyes.

Oh. He was blindfolded. That was sensible, he supposed. Couldn't have the wrong victim identify the bumbling idiots who'd screwed up so royally. With his mind focused at last on his own predicament, Blair moaned softly, the sound barely audible through the sponge gag stuffed in his mouth and covered tightly with another cloth. He could feel the hard knot beneath his head.

He tried again to make a sound, this time focusing on volume. Only a soft keening emerged.. "Mmmm... mmmm... mmm."

Now that he was aware of it, the gag filled his mouth, puffing out his cheeks which were pressed back by the cloth tied across his face. He moved his head from side to side, trying to dislodge the gag. If he could get it off, he could cry out for help. Somebody would hear him. Somebody had to hear him.

It was no use. The sheets on the bed were too soft, and the gag tied too expertly.

Blair tried crying out again. "Mmmm... mmmm... mmmm!" No one could hear that. He could barely hear that.

Suddenly terrified, he bucked against his bonds and cried out from behind the gag with all his strength. The cuffs cut into his wrists, and he felt the hot, sticky blood that flowed.

Maybe he could use the blood as a lubricant! Excited by the possibility, Blair focused all his strength on pulling his wrists through the handcuffs.

Please... please... c'mon! He moaned with the effort, almost glad he was gagged. At least no one could hear his cries of pain.

Surely there was enough blood now. His wrists throbbed with pain, and the blood had dampened the mattress beneath his head. Blair jerked again and again against the steel, as hard as he could, but the cuffs were too small.

His kidnappers had planned carefully.

At last, exhausted and hurting, Blair could fight no more. He lay still panting heavily and softly moaning in pain and from the overwhelming fear that suddenly attacked him. He couldn't get free. He was trapped here, alone. His struggle to free himself had left him breathless, and Blair fought desperately to breath.

He couldn't breathe! The gag was suffocating him; the sponge filling his mouth, absorbing his saliva. There was a last helpless flurry of panic as Blair threw his body hard against his bonds, screaming out helplessly behind his gag.

Blair felt a sharp pain in his right ankle quit struggling abruptly.

He had to stop. Had to conserve his strength. If he broke an ankle, he'd never be able to escape.

Fighting for control, Blair forced himself to take slower breaths, concentrating on breathing through his nose, trying to ignore the sponge filling his mouth. He couldn't afford to panic. If he passed out, he could choke to death. Almost as important, he had to maintain some semblance of calm if he wanted to stand any chance at all of escape.

Alone, bleeding and terrified, Blair lay still, straining to hear anything.

Anything at all beyond the pounding of his own heart.

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

"C'mon, Simon! You know better than this!"

Jim whirled away from his boss, both in frustration and to prevent himself from saying something he might later regret. Striding toward the window, Jim made no effort to keep his voice down. If the entire bullpen heard, so be it. Hell, let the city hear! Maybe he'd get someone to listen!

Staring out at nothing, Jim argued, "Sandburg doesn't just disappear! He said he'd bring the truck back from Al's. Al said Sandburg never showed. Never called. Nothing. That's not like him, sir, and you know it. The kid runs late, sure, but eventually, he checks in. It's nearly 8 PM, and I haven't heard a word from him since breakfast."

Pacing back to his captain's desk, Jim met Banks' dark eyes directly and held firm. Somehow, he had to convince Simon of what he knew in his heart was the frightening truth. Something had happened to Sandburg. "I'm asking as your friend, Simon... as a cop... as Blair's partner... put out an APB. Get the uniforms looking for him. Every minute that passes..." Jim couldn't finish the thought.

"You know this?" Banks asked, his dark brown eyes unwavering in their scrutiny of Jim's expression. "You're sure he's in trouble? What is this, some kind of Sentinel/Guide thing?"

Jim shrugged. "Maybe. Stranger things have happened. Or maybe it's just a friendship thing. Damn it, Simon, I gave up trying to analyze whatever the hell it is Sandburg and I have a long time ago. It just... is." He shook his head in frustration, looking at his watch for the hundredth time that hour.

"And you know something has happened to him?"

"Yes, sir." Jim held his breath in anticipation. He almost had Simon convinced; he could feel it. "Trust me on this one."

Simon didn't move for a long moment, then he nodded. "Okay. Good enough for me. I'll authorize the all-points. Take Joel and get out there. Start the investigation. Talk to his friends... his students and co-workers." Simon picked up the phone, waving Jim off with his free hand. "Hell, what am I telling you for? You know the routine."

Jim grinned despite the knot in his gut, able to breathe again. "Thanks, Simon," he called back, already half-way out the door. "I owe you one."

"You owe me more than one, Ellison," Simon muttered, but the words were clear to the Sentinel's ears. Jim merely smiled softly. Simon was right, and he didn't mind admitting that he owed his captain and friend much more than could ever be repaid.

"Joel!" Jim called to the older detective, working at his desk. "Let's roll. I'll fill you in on the way."

Jim caught Joel's quizzical look as the former bomb squad captain moved quickly to join him. He was grateful for the other man's company, particularly on this particular mission. Joel liked Blair, respected him, and Jim was certain he would spare no effort to bring the young man home once more. For the first time, Jim felt a small spark of hope.

They didn't make it to the door. Jim stopped cold in his tracks, eyes widening at the unexpected sight of two familiar figures entering the bullpen, their faces solemn.

"Pop? Steven? What are you doing here?"

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

A cloud of disbelief hung heavy over the small group clustered around the conference table in Simon's office. Jim's eyes were closed, and the Sentinel appeared to have aged a decade in the ten minutes since William Ellison and his son, Steven, had arrived.

Simon watched Jim's impassive face. He knew the man's emotions had to be churning, yet nothing of that inner turmoil was revealed on Jim's face. Ellison was a master of concealment, but Simon knew he paid a price for that calm façade.

Hell, when Jim's senses came on-line, he'd thought the man would lose it completely. Simon had witnessed anger and fear before, in all their myriad of combinations, but never had he seen a man so volatile, so desperate. Sandburg had saved Jim, emotionally, mentally, and physically. He was the only one in the room who understood the truth of Blair's importance in Jim's life, and the burden of that secret was a heavy one.

Simon would never kid himself into believing that he might be able to act as the bulwark between Jim and the darkness that awaited him should his senses erupt again with no Blair there to bring him back to control and sanity. He was Jim's friend, of course, but Blair was... Blair. The Guide. The only Guide.

Anyone else was merely a substitute.

Simon forced his attention back to the question the elder Ellison was asking. "What's going on here, Jimmy? What is this tape all about? You're here. Safe. So what is this man talking about? What's the problem?"

Jim's eyes opened a slit as he gazed at his father across the table. "Play it again."

"We don't need to hear it again, Jimmy," William disagreed. "I just want some answers as to..."

The hooded blue eyes glittered dangerously, and Simon jumped into the exchange. "Jim's a detective, Mr. Ellison," he explained patiently. "It's his job to examine evidence carefully, to be certain he has ascertained all the information possible."

Although Jim's father seemed pacified at that explanation, as Simon reached across to hit the 'play' button on the cassette recorder in the center of the large mahogany conference table, he knew the real reason for Jim's request. The Sentinel wanted to try to find what lay beyond the words, to listen for some hidden sounds that might provide a clue to his Guide's whereabouts.

Simon started the audio tape.

The chillingly cold, mechanical voice filled the room.

"Obviously some sort of technical voice manipulation," Steven commented.

Simon held up his hand to request silence, and Jim's brother fell quiet.

William Ellison. We have your son. Do not call the police. Do not try to contact the FBI. To do so will be to sign his death warrant. You should begin immediately to gather one million dollars in unmarked , circulated bills and in mixed, small denominations, nothing larger than fifties. Go to World Adventure Luggage at the corner of Vine and Sixteenth. There you will purchase a large brown leather suitcase, stock number 64239. Place the money in it and wait. You will be contacted with further instructions in forty-eight hours. Remember, if you contact the police, your son will die. His body will never be found, and I assure you, his death will not be an easy one. Get the money and suitcase, then wait. You have forty-eight hours.

There was a click, then Simon shut off the machine. "What time did this arrive?"

Steven spoke up. "Sally found it in the mailbox about six. Dad opened it around seven and called me. I phoned the station and asked for Jim. I got one of the detectives up here, and he said Jim was in Captain Banks' office. Once I knew he was safe, we met here."

"So we really don't know when the forty-eight hour clock began ticking," Simon observed glumly.

"Call your banker. Get the ball rolling." Jim's voice was dull, almost as mechanical as the one on the tape.

William's eyes turned slowly toward his son. "What? You want me to..."

"I want you to gather the money," Jim snapped. "We're going to do everything possible to find Sandburg before the deadline, but just in case, we need to have the money to use as a negotiation tool."

"You don't even know that these men have Mr. Sandburg," the elder Ellison protested, his fingers drumming out a nervous rhythm on the polished surface of the table. "And if they do, I'm just thankful it wasn't you. Regardless, Jimmy, you can't seriously expect me to hand over one million dollars when this Sandburg isn't..."

Jim's face was livid, his blue eyes burning with an intensity seldom seen in a man normally so absolutely composed. Simon reached out to restrain Jim, but the reaction came too late, and Simon cursed inwardly.

The furious Sentinel lunged across the table, reaching for his father's neck, but William instinctively drew back, just out of reach of his son's grasp. William's eyes were wide with surprise and fear. Steven had one hand on his father's shoulder, pulling him back out of his brother's reach.

Jim leaned heavily across the conference table, his face only inches from his father's, his eyes shooting angry sparks as William drew back further in his chair. "Don't you dare say it! If you say one single word about Blair not being 'family' or about your precious money, I swear, Pop, I'll..."

"Jim!" The man had gone too far. Simon wouldn't allow a free-for-all in his office, regardless of the circumstances. "Jim! Sit down and take a deep breath! We're all on edge here, but losing your temper won't accomplish anything."

When Jim remained in place, leaning over the table and glaring at his father, Simon barked, "Detective! Sit down! Now!"

The vignette remained unchanged, poised on the brink of violence, for a long half-minute. As he waited for Jim's next move, Simon speculated if he would have to challenge Jim physically. He wasn't sure who would win that battle. Somehow, given Jim's training and the extreme circumstances of the moment, Simon had to admit to himself that he doubted he would emerge the winner.

Thankfully, Jim spared him the knowledge. He eased slowly back into his chair, but those cold blue eyes still glittered dangerously as he glared at his father.

Never underestimate a Sentinel whose Guide is threatened, Simon thought, watching Jim with a mixture of admiration and awe. Apparently whatever emotional bond connected Ellison and Sandburg was significantly stronger than the bond of blood, even the blood that flowed between father and son.

The tension in the room was palpable. Simon caught Joel's eye and read the silent question there. No one at the station knew much about Jim's relationship with his family. Simon shrugged slightly and turned to William. "Jim is right, sir. You should begin gathering the money. If they do have Sandburg, then it won't take them long to discover the connection between him and Jim. It's a reasonable assumption that they'll simply change their ransom demand from Jim to Blair. We will need that money as a bargaining chip if our investigation doesn't yield results within the forty-eight hour time frame."

"Doesn't the police department provide funds for these kinds of incidents? In fact, we don't even know if these people will extend the same demands now. The message was about Jimmy, after all. Once they've realized their error, perhaps they'll want much less for Mr. Sandburg." William's voice was steady, completely controlled, despite the emotional outburst from Jim only moments before.

"Damn it, Pop!" Jim half-rose from his chair, but Simon was prepared and faster this time.

Clutching Jim's arm firmly, he warned, "Jim, take it easy. Let me handle this." Simon fought to remain professional. The man's attitude was getting to him, too, but despite his own concern for Sandburg, it was his job to stay in control of what could easily turn into an unmanageable situation.

"Mr. Ellison, we don't have the resources to come up with that kind of money. You do. And after all, it was your son they were after in the first place. Your pockets are the ones these guys decided to pick. There's probably a reason for that choice, and we'll do our best to figure out what that reason is. Right now, my best advice is to begin making some calls to get the wheels in motion for that money to be delivered. I'm betting that these people will keep their demands high, even though their victim has changed."

Simon's eyes flicked to Jim then back to William. He probably was venturing into dangerous territory, but there was something else that needed saying. Jim could have his hide later, if he wanted. "You were about to say something earlier about family. Let me assure you that Blair is family to Jim. And to us here in Major Crimes. If you care for your son, you'll do whatever you can to bring Sandburg back to him safely."

Their eyes held for a long moment, then William nodded slowly. "All right. Let me make a few calls."

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

Blair wasn't sure how long he'd been bound to the bed. After his violent, fruitless struggle for freedom, time had ceased to have any frame of reference. His wrists throbbed with pain, as did his ankle. He didn't think it was broken, but a severe strain was likely. There was no light, little sound, no means of communication with his captors.

Blair heard footsteps approaching and turned his head in the direction of the sound. Longing to be able to see, he focused all his attention on his only remaining useful sense - his hearing.

The footsteps drew nearer, and Blair heard moist breathing from above. Was he imagining that he could feel the warmth of that breath on his skin?

"I know you can hear me. Nod if you do." The voice was flat, without inflection.

Slowly, Blair nodded his head even as his mind whirled in anticipation. What were they going to do? Helpless, he lay still and waited, willing himself to stay calm.

"I see you've been working to free your hands. All you've managed to accomplish is to mangle your wrists and get your bed bloody. Don't expect us to treat them for you. You're probably hungry by now. Would you like to eat? Have something to drink?"

After a slight hesitation, Blair nodded, slightly hopeful. Maybe, if he could get the chance to see, have the opportunity to talk, he could find out something, maybe even convince these people to let him go. He'd had enough obfuscation experience, after all.

"These are our terms. The blindfold stays on. Any attempt to dislodge it, and you die. Understood?"

So much for seeing. Blair nodded once. There was still a chance he could talk them into letting him go.

"Good. I will remove your gag only long enough for you to eat and drink. You will not speak. Not one word. If you do, you forfeit the privilege of eating. You will neither speak nor fight me when I put the gag back on. If you do, it will be replaced with one much more uncomfortable and will not be removed again. Do you understand?"

There went his hope of talking them into release. Blair nodded, a heavy feeling of defeat weighing down his heart.

They were true to their word. The cloth tied around his face was removed and someone jerked the wet sponge from his mouth. Blair worked his jaws painfully. He yearned to say something, to try to make his captor see the hopelessness of his plan, but he feared the punishment the man had described. He needed whatever food they offered. He had to keep up his strength to survive.

The first man left, and another - the one who kidnapped him in the first place - took over. The hands were rougher now, the voice colder... angrier.

He was given some water and a few bites of tepid soup. From a box. Not exactly his idea of nourishment, but Blair ate it gratefully. It was amazing how thankful one could become for small favors.

Once he'd eaten his meager meal, the gag was immediately stuffed back in his mouth and sealed tightly with the heavy cloth between his lips. This time, a large knot had been added over the sponge, forcing it even deeper into his mouth. It was wrapped around his head and tied roughly behind, knotting into his hair and pulling it painfully. Blair grunted in protest.

"Shut up! Kaufman... the boss... he don't want no noise."

Kaufman! Blair's heart leaped in triumph. He had his first clue. He filed away the name, hoping to have the chance to use it eventually.

Blindfold intact, he was unbound and escorted, a gun shoved in his back, to the bathroom where he was allowed to relieve himself in the presence of his guard.

When he was done, he was escorted back to the bed and shoved down. One pair of hands jerked his legs back together and his ankles were quickly bound and secured to the bed. His torn wrists were cuffed once more.

After his captor left, Blair tested the strength of his bonds. Tugging hard against the ropes binding his legs and the cuffs securing his wrists, he found himself as helpless as before. Again, he rubbed his face against the bed, trying to dislodge his gag.. It remained securely in place.

A tear escaped the blindfold and trickled down Blair's cheek. He lay alone in the darkness and listened for anything that might help win his freedom.

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

"Is there anyone you can think of who might hold a grudge against you?" Joel asked as William took a sip of coffee. He studied the man sitting beside his desk. The resemblance between father and son wasn't great, but Joel could definitely see Jim in his father's eyes. God knows, Jim was there in the older man's demeanor. It was obvious that Jim had inherited his ability to remain icy calm in the midst of turmoil from William.

At that moment, the elder Ellison was as calm as his son ever was. "Many people hold grudges against me. I'm a successful businessman. You don't arrive at my position in life without making some people angry."

Cool. Deliberate. Seemingly emotionless. Almost proud of the fact that he had a rather lengthy enemies list. The man could play a green-blooded Vulcan convincingly, Joel thought, suppressing a grin. "I'll need a list," Joel said, not giving away his amusement. "Everyone you can think of. The more recent names first, please. And any contact information you can provide. Place of residence. Phone number. Whatever you have." He pushed the yellow tablet across the desk to Jim's father.

Familiar blue eyes regarded him shrewdly. Apparently, Jim also inherited some investigative skills from his father as well. "Do you also like this young man? This Sandburg?"

"Blair is a unique man. I've never met anyone as intelligent. Or as funny." Joel hesitated, unsure whether or not to get personal with this stranger. But the memory of Jim, at first hurt, then furious, as he lunged across the table at his father overrode his reluctance.

Joel took a long breath, then plunged ahead. "Look, Mr. Ellison. It's not my place to give you advice, but I've known Jim a long time now. Blair means an awful lot to him. Why, I'm not sure any of us understands, but the reason isn't really important, is it? Bottom line - Jim needs Blair. If you care for your son, and I know you do, don't cross him when it comes to Sandburg. There's a lot there we don't understand, and maybe we don't need to understand it. Just accept it. Respect it. Then, maybe, you and Jim can find some common ground."

Was that a flicker of regret - of hope - in the unfathomable blue depths? If so, the spark died before it could flame. "My son and I have never met on common ground, Captain Taggart. I doubt we could ever do so over Blair Sandburg."

Leaning back in his chair, Joel regarded him wisely. "If you help Jim get Blair back, I think you'll be surprised, sir."

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

"Why do you always jump on him like that?"

His brother's question jerked Jim back from whatever side road his thoughts had taken as a detour from hard reality. Jim glanced guiltily at Taggart, sitting with his father as William jotted names on a yellow pad. He was grateful to Joel for taking his father off his hands right now. Already, William had placed several phone calls, and the wheels were in motion to round up the ransom money.

Even after hours, William Ellison's influence got results.

Jim rubbed his eyes wearily. They felt like sandpaper, coarse and tired and dry. He'd run out of the moisturizing drops he usually kept in his desk. For two days, Blair had been bugging him to stop in a drug store for more, but Jim just hadn't found the time. Now he was paying the price. "He just pushes all my buttons, Steven. Always has. When we were kids, he did it on purpose. Now, I don't know. I think it's just second nature. Maybe he doesn't even know he's doing it." Jim didn't know what else to say. He was so damned tired. Just speaking took too much effort. He rubbed his eyes again.

"You look beat," Steven commented with obviously sincere concern. "It's after eleven. Why don't you head on home? I'll wait here until Pop's done with Captain Taggart. There's really nothing more you can do here tonight, is there?"

Wasn't there something he should do? For the life of him, Jim couldn't figure out what. Not at midnight. Steven was right, and Jim knew it. There wasn't much he could do right now. The hard reality was that he was no good to Sandburg this exhausted in the middle of the night. In the morning, the lab guys would be back, and they could begin serious analysis of the audio tape.

The tape. Audio. Sounds.

Damn it!

How on earth had he ever earned the title of detective? Much less that of Sentinel.

Jim shot from his chair, striding toward Simon's office. He slammed the door behind him, and Simon looked up from his computer screen, irritation engraved all over his face.

"Jim? What the hell...?"

Jim grabbed the cassette player and held it up. "I need to hear this again, sir, this time without anyone else in the room."

Simon shook his head tiredly. "You've heard it twice already, Jim. The lab crew will be back in the morning, and they..."

Impatiently, Jim interrupted his boss. "No, sir, I haven't listened to it. Not really. Not as a Sentinel. I tried earlier, but there were too many people around for me to really focus. There still may be something there, on the tape, that could lead us to Blair. I just need to..."

Simon shook his head firmly. "No way. I don't know a hell of a lot about this Sentinel thing, but I do know that Sandburg says concentrating too hard can make you zone. The last thing I need - the very last thing - is a zoned detective."

Swallowing his impatience, Jim did his best to explain. "That's true, Simon, but I won't zone, not if I have help. You can help keep me focused, and I promise, I won't go in too deeply."

"In case you haven't noticed, I'm not Sandburg, Jim," Simon protested. "I don't know how to guide you or focus you or whatever the hell it is Blair does. Damn it, Jim, I don't want to know!"

"I'll show you exactly what to do, sir," Jim promised, not willing to take no for an answer as he motioned Simon to the table. "Please, Simon. I need your help here."

Rolling his eyes in obvious frustration with the determined Sentinel, Simon settled unwillingly into one of the conference chairs. "Now what?"

Jim considered, trying to think like Sandburg. A dangerous thing to attempt, he mused with a half-smile. "I'll be using my sense of hearing exclusively," he thought out loud. "So I need you to anchor me to this room with a different sense. Let's try touch. That should be simplest."

He rotated his chair so his back was to Simon. "Put your hand on my shoulder and squeeze lightly. That should be enough sensory input to keep me aware of where I am and prevent a zone-out. I'll also try to focus on the scent of your cigar over on the desk." Glancing back at Simon and grinning wickedly, he added, "That should be strong enough to keep me in the here and now."

"You're bucking for a transfer, mister." Beneath the mock sternness of Simon's reply, Jim could feel the captain's reluctance, but a moment later, a strong hand squeezed his shoulder.

Jim nodded. "Good. Now, don't talk to me because I need to focus on the tape, on what lies beyond the voice. Just keep up that pressure." Closing his eyes, Jim began the tape, setting the machine on automatic loop so that the short message repeated again and again.

William Ellison. We have your son. Do not call the police. Do not try to contact the FBI. To do so will be to sign his death warrant. You should begin immediately to gather one million dollars in unmarked bills and in mixed, small denominations, nothing larger than fifties. Go to World Adventure Luggage at the corner of Vine and Sixteenth. There you will purchase a large brown leather suitcase, stock number 64239. Place the money in it and wait. You will be contacted with further instructions in forty-eight hours. Remember, if you contact the police, your son will die. His body will never be found, and I assure you, his death will not be an easy one. Get the money and suitcase, then wait. You have forty-eight hours. William Ellison. We have your son. Do not call the police. Do not try to contact the FBI. To do so will be to sign his death warrant. You should begin immediately to gather one million dollars in unmarked bills and in mixed, small denominations, nothing larger than fifties. Go to World Adventure Luggage at the corner of Vine and Sixteenth. There you will purchase a large brown leather suitcase, stock number 64239. Place the money in it and wait. You will be contacted with further instructions in forty-eight hours. Remember, if you contact the police, your son will die. His body will never be found, and I assure you, his death will not be an easy one. Get the money and suitcase, then wait. You have forty-eight hours.

His body will never be found, and I assure you, his death will not be an easy one... body will never be found... his death will not be an easy one... body will never be found... his death will not be an easy one. His body will never be found, and I assure you, his death will not be an easy one... body will never be found... his death will not be an easy one... body will never be found... his death will not be an easy one. His body will never be found, and I assure you, his death will not be an easy one... body will never be found... his death... his death ... his death ... his death ... his death ...

Jim caught himself halfway down the slide into the void. His body jerked abruptly as he forced himself to break away from the hypnotic voice on the tape.

"Jim! Jim! Stop it!" Simon's frantic voice overrode the mechanical tones of the kidnapper. Simon slammed his hand down on the machine, ending the voice's torment.

"I'm here," Jim muttered vaguely, shaking his head to clear it and cursing the beginnings of a headache the concentration had triggered. It was already housed in his temples, throbbing there like a sore tooth. He rubbed the sides of his head in an attempt to ease the pain. "I'm all right."

The pressure on his shoulder disappeared as Simon leaned back in his chair, releasing his pent-up breath slowly. "Did you hear anything?"

Turning to face his friend, Jim shook his head, discouragement heavy in his heart. "Nothing. I tried, but there's just nothing there."

"We'll get Derrick to take a listen in the morning. Derrick Rowe's the best there is with audio enhancement and video. If anyone can find something, it's Rowe." Simon's voice was sympathetic. "For now, the best thing you can do is head home and get some rest. You won't do Blair any good if you're dead on your feet in the morning."

Jim stood up and stretched his tired muscles wearily. "Yeah. Maybe you're right."

Simon regarded him carefully. "You need a lift home?"

"Sure." Jim glanced out at the bullpen. Everyone was gone. His father and brother must have slipped out while he was focused on the audio tape. Just as well. He didn't feel up to another confrontation with his father tonight. One headache at a time was enough.

The two men trudged toward the door, both tired and weighed down with worry. Simon grabbed his coat and flipped off the lights, plunging the bullpen into darkness.

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

If he kept busy, maybe he wouldn't notice the silence. If he allowed himself to listen to the silence, Jim knew with absolute certainty, this night would never end. Keeping busy seemed a logical alternative.

At least, that was the plan. First, Jim cleaned the kitchen. Nothing escaped his attention - counters, floors, cabinets, appliances - all were scrubbed with an intensity they'd never received before. By the time he finished, you could eat off the floor.

Next was the bathroom. Soon it sparkled brightly enough to star in its own commercial touting the virtues of various cleaning products.

He started on the living room. From floor to ceiling, and everything in between, Jim vacuumed, dusted, polished, and shined. His last stop was the bookshelf. Each and every book and knick-knack was pulled from the shelf, dusted and carefully restored to its proper placement.

On the last shelf, Jim froze, fighting against the unexpectedly powerful emotions that threatened to bring him to his knees. He picked up the small object in his hand and stared at it through eyes that no longer had the ability to see clearly.

He held a small leather pouch, and the memories flooded back in an uncontrollable tide.

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

"Hey, Jim! I'm home!"

Throwing the bedspread haphazardly on his bed, Jim trotted downstairs, a broad grin creasing his face. "Welcome home, Chief! How was the conference? Did your presentation go well?"

"Bowled 'em over. Arizona's a great place, Jim. We really need to go there sometime. You'd love it." Blair set his duffel down by his bedroom door. He looked up at Jim, eyes wide, his smile as broad as the one Jim still wore. "Miss me?" he teased.

"Barely noticed you were gone," Jim bluffed, knowing the truth was revealed on his face. After a beat, he tugged on a long strand of curls. "It was too quiet around here, Junior. Guess I've gotten used to your constant chatter."

Blair punched him lightly on the bicep. "Then I must have grown accustomed to your ugly mug, Ellison, 'cause I missed you, too." A startled look flashed across his face, and Blair bent down, rapidly digging through his duffel.

"Lost something, Chief?" Jim drawled, smiling in amusement at his busily searching Guide. It was good to have him back. So much for peace and quiet, not to mention his old loner image, Jim thought wryly. Not that it mattered. This friendship was well worth any sacrifices he had made.

"I brought you something," Blair muttered, pulling out a couple of t-shirts and dropping them carelessly on the floor. "I know I put it in here, 'cause... Found it!" He held up a small box triumphantly, then stuffed all the shirts back into the duffel. Standing up, he held it out to Jim. "Didn't wrap it because it's not a special gift for a birthday or anything. Just a no-reason, had-to-have-it-for-Jim thing."

A Blair thing. One of the many little quirks that made Sandburg so unique. It never occurred to him not to buy a something that struck him as special, even if Christmas was months away, and Jim's birthday had already come and gone. Even if his already strained finances didn't need the extra burden.

Jim took the little box, then looked up at his friend. "This is nice of you, Chief, but you can save it for Christmas or something, if you want. I know you don't have a lot of spare cash right now."

Blair headed to the couch and plopped down on one end. "Some things can wait, others can't." Patting the cushion beside him, he ordered, "Open it."

"Doesn't weigh much," Jim observed. "He held up the box and sniffed. "Leather. Something else maybe. Corn?" Puzzled, he glanced up at Blair. Another thing about Sandburg - he definitely wasn't predictable.

"Man, you're no fun with gifts! Don't try to analyze it, Detective. It's a present. Open it!" By then, Blair had both feet tucked beneath his crossed legs, but Jim didn't bother pointing out the violation of his no-feet-on-the-couch rule. Funny how a lot of house rules seemed much less important in the last couple of years since Blair had moved in.

"Just exercising my senses," Jim pointed out, but he opened the top of the box as ordered. A small leather pouch rested inside on a bed of white cotton.

Jim ran a sensitive fingertip over the pouch. The leather was white, and soft as a whisper. Whoever tanned it had plainly been an expert. Jim sensed no artificial dyes. The white coloring had been obtained naturally. Attached to the pouch by a tiny leather thong was a little brown feather, exquisitely carved of bone. It hung down from the center of the bag. A leather drawstring gathered the top together. That was all. The bag was beautiful in its simplicity.

"It's beautiful, Chief. Someone obviously spent a lot of time and effort making this." He fingered the ridges and lines of the small feather in appreciation of the craftsmanship used to carve it. "Thank you."

"It's not just a bag, Jim," Blair pointed out. He was using his Guide's voice, and immediately, Jim focused on him attentively. There was also a touch of the teacher in Blair's tone, so Jim knew there was a lesson of some sort in the little pouch.

"It's a medicine bag. I also got one for myself, but this one's most definitely yours. I knew that right away."

"Mine? How did you know it was mine?"

"Well, I didn't know," Blair explained patiently. He reached out and stroked a finger slowly across the supple leather, b rushing Jim's hand lightly for an instant. "But Malachai did."

Jim waited patiently for the story to emerge, little by little. As he listened, his fingers absently fingered the softness of the leather pouch. It pleased his sense of touch.

"Malachai was an old Apache I met in the marketplace near where the conference was held. I enjoyed wandering through the stalls whenever I had a break. It's like I knew I was supposed to find something there, you know? Sort of this energy pulling me back day after day."

"Anyway, the last day I was there - yesterday - I wandered into the tiny stall, tucked way in the back of the last row of merchants. Compared to the rest of the stalls, there wasn't a lot of stuff in there, but it was all quality. All handmade crafts made locally, the old man running the booth told me. Malachai, he said his name was when I introduced myself. Then he told me the strangest thing."

Jim cocked his head, completely engrossed in the tale. "What was strange, Chief?"

"He said he'd been waiting for me. I was browsing through everything. There were some really great things in there - baskets and pottery and kachina dolls. Anyway, he watched me for a while, really carefully. I mean, his eyes never left me. At first, I thought he was watching me for shoplifting or something, then I realized it was something more. That's when I introduced myself. He said his name was Malachai and that he'd been waiting for me. I guess I looked really puzzled, because he laughed - a dry, cackling laugh, like he'd spent a lifetime out in the desert. He took something out from under the counter."

"It was that bag, Jim, and another one in tan leather. He explained all about them. That's a medicine bag. Native American cultures use them frequently. Malachai said that one's special because of the white leather. It's created with a special process that very few tanners can carry out. No dyes or chemicals can be used, so it's very labor intensive, as you can imagine."

"It was made by an old man living way out from town in the desert. He told Malachai that it came to him in a vision that he must make one last white medicine bag. That it must have a bone feather attached and that Malachai would know for whom it was intended. Immediately, the old Apache began the bag, knowing for sure it would be the last white one he ever created and not knowing exactly why he was making it. That's faith, man," Blair added quietly.

Jim reached out and brushed his friend's hand with his own, but he remained silent. Jim could tell how much the experience had meant to his Guide, knew it was important for Blair to explain the mystery of the beautiful white medicine bag in his own way.

"He brought it in to Malachai, along with the tan bag, and explained what had happened. Malachai put the bags away, knowing that eventually, he would understand for whom they were intended. A week after that, Malachai got word that the old man had died. That was nearly two years ago."

Blair sat quietly for a long minute, fingering the bone feather thoughtfully. "Malachai asked if I had a close friend, a brother of the soul, he called it. I wanted to see where this was going, so I just said yes and didn't elaborate. He just smiled and nodded, like he'd known all along."

Blair's eyes grew distant, his thoughts obviously far away from the loft. "Malachai said to me, 'Your soul-brother lives a life of much danger. He is important to his people, but he is even more important to you. Your lives and your hearts are tightly connected, knotted together as the feather is tied to the bag. The leather represents the earth, the natural world. It is stable and grounded in reality. The feather is a symbol of rising free of the earth, of leaving behind the ordinary world. Feathers symbolize the wind and graceful movement. In my world, feathers can be powerful images. Together, leather and feather represent the best of both worlds - earth and air. Stability and boundless freedom. They create a balance. You and your soul-brother create balance together, do you not? One without the other would not be complete.'"

Blair shook his head, remembering. "By that time, I was pretty amazed, man. But Malachai wasn't through."

"'This bag was meant for your soul-brother. It was created with the white leather, the most unique, the most rare of all leathers. I believe that your friend - your soul-brother - is also unique among men. Through you, I feel a great power in him. A power that must have your energy, your freedom of spirit as its balance. The tan bag is yours.'"

Blair reached into the pocket of his shirt and withdrew a second bag. It was a light tan, but otherwise, was identical to Jim's. A carved bone feather was tied to it as well, but this feather was white.

"'Your feather is white because you are unique among those who soar among their dreams, leaving the everyday world behind. A powerful energy resides within you, yet I feel you have not yet begun to understand it.'"

"'A medicine bag is used to store objects - fetishes - in which you feel a special energy - a special connection. The corn provides nourishment to the spirits of your fetishes. When you place an object into the bag, its energies accumulate so they can be expressed in your life. I think you and your soul-brother have need for as much positive energy as you can find.'"

"Got that right," Jim murmured.

Blair smiled. "Yeah. I guess we do. Anyway, Malachai asked me to take both bags. He wouldn't let me pay for them. Said he couldn't put a price on objects of such great spiritual importance, and he'd promised his old friend that he would be sure we received them. He gave me a few kernels of corn to place inside, to feed the spirits of whatever fetishes we collected for our bags. So I thanked him and left the stall."

"The very first thing I saw as I left was a display of carved Zuni fetishes across the way. I walked over and right there on the top shelf was an ebony lion. A black jaguar. Next to it was a gray stone wolf fetish."

Blair opened the string on his bag and carefully allowed its contents to pour into his palm. There lay the small carved wolf, surrounded by three kernels of corn. "Open yours, my brother."

The tiny black jaguar was perfectly carved. Jim traced its contours with his fingertip, committing each line and indentation to memory. As he held it, a warmth swept through him, and he looked at Blair and nodded. "It's mine," he said simply. "Thank you for bringing it home."

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

As time passed, they had each added to their medicine bags. Jim picked up his pouch and felt the soft white leather. He carried both bags to the couch, sat down and carefully spread the contents out on the cushion beside him.

A particularly beautiful, tiny shell discovered on the beach... a small river rock, worn smooth by years of travel downstream... a few dark blonde hairs, gathered as a small boy from his mother's hairbrush soon after she'd disappeared from their lives... an old liberty dime he'd found on the floorboard of Jack's treasured car... his military dogtags... a small black shark's tooth Blair had spotted at the beach the previous summer... a chip of weathered gray stone taken from the jungle floor in Mexico at the base of the temple of Sentinels.

And of course, the black jaguar fetish. Beside it lay a second Zuni fetish, this one of a gray wolf. Jim had spotted the wolf at an antique shop in Cascade one Saturday while he was out killing time while waiting for Blair to finish up some work at Rainier. He'd never told Sandburg about it, just placed it reverently in his medicine bag, along with a quick prayer that the energy and spirit of the jaguar would join with that of the wolf to keep his Guide safe.

He repeated that prayer, murmuring the words as he clutched both animals tightly in his fist. "Keep him safe. Look after him when I cannot be there. Let him come back to me, whole and safe. Please..."

He did not open Blair's medicine bag. Its contents were private, for Sandburg's eyes alone. But Jim fingered them through the supple tan leather, and he smiled when he found the form of the wolf.

Without warning, he felt dizzy, his head spinning wildly. Jim leaned back hard against the soft couch. His body had rebelled. He just couldn't fight it any longer.

Jim needed to sleep.

It was nearly 2 A.M., and Jim knew if he expected to accomplish anything worthwhile in the investigation the next morning, he had to rest. But that meant facing the silence of the loft, braving the darkness without the knowledge that his friend, his Guide, was sleeping just below.

It wasn't that he was afraid of the dark. Of course not. It was the demons that sometimes haunted that darkness that Jim preferred not to confront alone. Demons with names like Starkville Prison... Galileo... Cyclops Oil... Lash... Alex.

When he'd wake up drenched with sweat, his powerful muscles reduced to trembling piles of Jell-O, Jim would take comfort in the fact that he wasn't alone. That he had not been a complete failure. Blair was safe, sleeping peacefully in his room below. He might even open his hearing, focusing on the reassuring heartbeat marking time so steadily. If the nightmare had been particularly terrifying, Jim had found himself on more than one occasion padding down the steps to stand at the door of Sandburg's room, just reassuring himself that Blair really was all right. That they were both safe and secure.

Tonight, there was no such reassurance.

Blair was gone, taken from him by an unknown attacker, intent on revenge against his father. Why the hell did Blair have to pay, not only for Jim's mistakes, but, apparently, for William Ellison's as well?

Jim walked to the bookcase, intending to place both medicine bags back in their usual positions. He stopped, staring down at the two small leather pouches, remembering the balance they represented, and made up his mind. Until Sandburg was found, he'd keep both medicine bags with him. Maybe their energies would help.

It certainly couldn't hurt.

A few minutes later, he'd brushed his teeth and changed into his boxers for bed. Reverently, he placed both bags on his bedside table, then, with a weary sigh, Jim crawled between the covers. He punched his pillow in frustration, then turned on his side, staring out at nothing. What if Sandburg didn't come back? What if this silence, this emptiness, was all he had left?

No! Jim flipped to his back, angry at himself for the traitorous thought. He would find Sandburg and bring him home. There simply was no other option. If he caught any breaks at all, tomorrow night would find Blair safely in his own room again. Well, Jim conceded, possibly a night in the hospital might be in order, but after that...

But if he didn't sleep, he couldn't expect to find Blair. Shutting his eyes, Jim tried the deep breathing, relaxation exercises he'd learned from his Guide.

A few minutes later, an exhausted, lonely Sentinel drifted off to sleep.

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

He awakened to an annoying ringing. Moaning as he turned in the bed, Jim glanced over at his clock. Five A.M. Who the hell was calling him at...?

The memories flooded back with no regard for the hour.

Jim snatched the phone and barked, "Ellison!"

"Jim... we've got your truck. Meet me at the station garage." Simon clicked off, and Jim was already halfway down the stairs, pulling on his shirt as he ran.

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

"The crime lab boys are already working it over," Simon said, sipping from a steaming cup of coffee. "So far, they haven't turned up anything unusual. I thought you'd probably want to take a look yourself, so I sent them away for breakfast. We've got half an hour at least."

Jim nodded, too distracted for a response. He stared at his truck, so familiar, yet now, a crime scene. That damned truck... He made such a fuss over it, and look at where it had gotten him. Absently, he touched the medicine bags around his neck. That morning as he quickly dressed, he had slipped them both beneath his shirt. It was a comfort somehow to have a tangible reminder of their animals spirits so close to his heart. The spirits of jaguar and wolf had helped them survive so much danger before. Surely the spirit animals wouldn't fail them now.

"Jim?"

His attention refocused, Jim muttered, "Yeah, let me see what I can find." He pulled on the gloves that would protect against contamination of any evidence left behind. Approaching the vehicle slowly, he scanned the exterior for anything that didn't belong, that didn't seem familiar. He dialed up his Sentinel sight, determined not to allow even the most minute piece of evidence to escape him. The intense concentration would undoubtedly cost him a headache later, but what the hell.

Twenty minutes later, Simon's coffee cup was drained. So were Jim's hopes.

"I'm sorry, Jim." Simon's genuine disappointment was evident. "I figured we'd have to find something."

"Yeah. Me, too." He tossed the gloves into the trash and sighed heavily at the sight of the lab team combing the truck. They wouldn't find anything either. Jim was sure of it.

A dead end.

Jim felt Simon's heavy hand on his shoulder, and he appreciated the intent of his encouraging words. "Look, this is just the start of the investigation. It's almost eight. We should get over to your father's house. See if we hear anything there."

Simon was right. There was nothing more to accomplish here. "Let's pull through and pick up some more coffee on the way, sir. I have a feeling it's going to be a long day."

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

The call came through to William's home office promptly at nine. Simon and Jim had arrived an hour earlier, both men believing that they were sure to hear from the kidnapper again. Surely, greed would not allow such a person to give up easily on his dreams of fortune.

Apparently, they were correct.

"Mr. Ellison," the mechanical voice grated. "It seems we have a problem."

Jim leaned forward expectantly, staring at the speaker phone as though he could see through it to the man holding his partner.

"Yes," William agreed flatly with a quick look at Jim. "We do."

"I would guess that your son, the police detective, is there with you now."

"I am." Jim's voice was harsh, even to his own ears. "What is it you want?"

"My demands have not changed. One million dollars, same as before. The way I figure it, you'll force your old man to pay up. From what I've been able to find out, you and your young hippie partner are close. Very close. It doesn't matter to me for whom the ransom is paid. The results will be the same. I get my money. The illustrious William Ellison loses what he values most. His money. It's time he made some payment on his debt to me. And you..."

"What about me?" Jim asked harshly.

"My quarrel is not with you, Detective. You were and will remain merely the means to an end. It is your father who owes me. You will use your influence to see to it that I get what I want. Or your friend dies. The clock is still ticking. My instructions remain the same. You will hear from me again two hours before the deadline. Be prepared. Is that clear?"

"Look!" Jim protested angrily. "Like it or not, you're dealing with me now! I want some proof that Sandburg's still alive. No proof, no payment. Clear?"

For a moment that endured forever, Jim feared he'd pushed too hard. Finally, the odd voice replied, "All right. You'll receive a package within three hours. Once you've seen the proof of Mr. Sandburg's continued good health, you will resume preparations for the payment. But the delay will cost you. The clock doesn't stop, Detective."

There was a click, then silence. A silence that lengthened and deepened until one of them spoke at last.

"What I don't understand," William said thoughtfully, "is why they'd want to go after Jim in the first place. He's a cop. That would make him more difficult to kidnap. Looks like Steven would have been a more practical target."

"Gee, Dad," Steven muttered with a sharp look at his father. "I really do appreciate winning your vote on this one."

Simon filled in the gaps quickly before William could reply. "The way we figure it, Steven's on the road a lot, always traveling. His schedule is very erratic. Jim was much more predictable. That made him an easier target, regardless of the risks they'd be taking going up against Jim's training and experience." Simon added pointedly, "It could have easily been either of your sons, Mr. Ellison. I'm sure you're thankful they are both here, safe and healthy."

"Of course. That goes without saying. He certainly had a detailed list of demands about delivery of the ransom. Do you think these men are professionals?" William's question was quietly spoken, and his eyes were fastened on Jim. It was as though the wind had died, and his sails rapidly deflated.

Jim shrugged. "Probably not. Seems to be more of a vendetta against you. I doubt that would be a professional. As for the detailed instructions, it's probably a control thing. He wants to believe he's jerking you around as much as possible. That's not a sign of a professional."

"That's good, then," William pointed out with an undeniably hopeful look.

"Maybe. Maybe not. Makes them more prone to stupid mistakes. More likely to panic. On the other hand, maybe it also makes them more hesitant to kill."

A part of Jim appreciated his father's concern, but a stronger part of him didn't want to voice the fears that had been building continuously since Sandburg's disappearance. Who knew what these men were capable of doing? Who could predict how they might react?

Simon broke the extended silence. "How are you coming along with the money, Mr. Ellison?"

The elder Ellison glanced at his watch. "My people are working on it now. It should be gathered and ready at my office by 3:00 this afternoon. Steven will go out as soon as we're done to purchase the suitcase."

Simon nodded. "Good. Jim, I guess we should head back to the office. Derrick Rowe's already working on that tape." He flipped open the small recorder attached to William's phone and removed the mini-cassette, replacing it with another. "Now we can add this one to his agenda."

Both officers stood, and William rose from behind his large, antique desk. "Rafe's staying here, Pop," Jim said, nodding toward the chair behind them where the younger detective waited. "If the phone rings and caller ID doesn't show a number you recognize or if the number's blocked, let him get the recorder ready first. Don't answer the door to anyone you don't know. Bottom line, Rafe's in charge." Jim didn't miss the look of consternation that flashed across William's face. His father was not a man accustomed to being out of control.

Maybe that particular trait was inherited.

As he passed Rafe, Jim grinned tightly. "Good luck. I wouldn't have your job for the world."

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

This time when the kidnappers entered his room, Blair sensed a different feeling in the air. Neither man spoke more words than necessary, but the one in charge seemed to be a bit more nervous than usual. His legs were freed, then his wrists. There was no time to enjoy the relative freedom, however. Immediately, his hands were roughly pulled behind his back and cuffed.

"Your partner is extremely persistent." The voice was cold and matter-of-fact. "He demands proof that you're alive."

Behind the gag, Blair tried to smile. That was Jim. His friend would try any possible angle to gain a clue.

The voice continued. "We are going into the other room. I will remove your blindfold and gag only long enough to make a brief video tape. You will reassure Detective Ellison that you are unharmed. If you try to give him any information you think you've figured out about your whereabouts or our identities, I will put a bullet through your brain. On tape. Then that video will be delivered to your partner." A moment of silence. "Think about how that memory will haunt him before you try anything stupid. Do you understand?"

Blair nodded even as his heart soared. He had just been handed his first opportunity to shape his own fate.

Now if he could just figure out what to do with it.

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

While police work as shown on TV and in the movies is brimming with excitement and suspense, the work of a real world detective is much tamer. A few minutes of adrenaline rush are more than likely preceded by months of tedious monotony. Following up on clues, no matter how remote, is part of the job.

He didn't have much hope for a break in the case by following up on the demand for a specific suitcase, but Joel Taggart was waiting when World Adventure Luggage opened for business. If it helped them find Blair Sandburg, there was no clue too mundane to pursue.

The young man opening the door appeared mildly surprised to have a customer already at the door at nine o'clock. About twenty, with dishwater blonde hair that hung over his eyes, the clerk eyed Joel with half-hearted interest. "May I help you?"

"Yeah, you can." He followed the kid over to the counter where the young man took a seat on a high stool. Joel flashed his ID. "Cascade P.D."

The blue eyes widened. "Hey, man, I ain't done nothing..." He hesitated, then seemingly having decided that the truth might be the best course of action, added, "At least, not lately."

He didn't have time for it, but for a fraction of a second, Joel entertained the possibility of jerking the kid's chain. "This has nothing to do with you..." He checked out the name tag on the plaid cotton shirt. "...Jerry. I want to know if you've had a customer in here showing a particular interest in a..." Joel consulted his notes. "A large brown leather suitcase with the stock number 64239."

The kid shook his head. "I don't keep up with the numbers, man."

Joel's tone hardened. "I think you need to check. This is important. A man's life depends on finding the guy who was looking at that suitcase. Now we can do it here, or I can contact your boss and..."

"No... no," Jerry protested, sliding from the stool. "Old man Kramer doesn't like to be bugged about the business, man. He'd fire me in a second. Let me see what I can find."

Taggart left the store a half hour later, his slim hopes of turning up a viable lead at the luggage store crushed. No employee remembered anyone showing an inordinate interest in that particular suitcase. Apparently, the demand had merely been a way for the kidnapper to assert his control over the powerful William Ellison.

He headed back to the station to figure out what to do next.

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

His kidnapper had been good as his word. The taping had proceeded swiftly, but Blair had been hit with sudden inspiration as to how to drop subtle hints to Jim. He hadn't had much time, but Blair was still riding the wave of hope that the clues he'd tried to provide Jim would be received. Surely the Sentinel would figure them out! Jim was an excellent detective, after all, and the addition of his Sentinel senses made him truly awesome.

Jim would figure it out.

Jim would come for him.

For what seemed like hours, Blair lay in nervous anticipation, his anxious thoughts jumping between hope and despair. What if, on viewing the video, his kidnappers also figured out what he'd done? Had he tried to help Jim find him only to sign his own death warrant?

When he heard the approaching footsteps, Blair instinctively tensed. Although, so far, he hadn't been harmed when his two captors fed him and allowed him water, there was always a first time. He was here, after all, being held prisoner against his will. They had been capable of kidnapping and threatening to kill him. Who knew what else they might do?

Unable to see or speak, Blair waited helplessly. Usually, they worked together when he was fed. This time, there seemed to be only one. When his visitor laughed harshly, Blair's blood ran cold.

"So, pretty boy, we're all alone at last."

His heart pounded in his chest. This definitely was not good. What the hell did this guy want? Blair pulled at the ropes binding his ankles to the bed and jerked his wrists hard against the handcuffs, but the bonds held tight.

Cold laughter greeted his efforts. "Still trying to get loose? Don't you know you don't do anything unless we allow it? How does it feel being completely helpless? I can do anything I want to you, and you know it."

The voice hardened. "You really think you're something, don't you? Parading around with that hair... that face... those big wide blue eyes? Damn, boy, you've got Ellison wrapped around your little finger. We've done our homework, after all. I've been curious about how you managed that ever since we found out about you two. Just exactly what is it you've got that keeps a guy like Ellison so interested? Well, I intend to find out."

A hand found his belt, unfastening it roughly, then moving to his zipper. Blair screamed into his gag, shaking his head from side to side. This couldn't be happening! It couldn't be happening! He'd already been kidnapped. Wasn't that enough? Now, his captor's intentions were too clear.

He was about to be raped, too.

The rough hands shifted position now, and Blair felt the ropes tying his ankles together loosen. "We're gonna change your position just a little now, pretty boy. I like to see my ladies all spread for me. We'll start this way, then flip you over when I'm ready."

His legs were free. Scarcely taking time to think, Blair kicked out, putting all his strength behind the blow. His captor yelped loudly in pain as Blair felt his feet connect with flesh. He kicked again and made hard contact. A third kick found only empty air.

Screaming and sobbing under the gag, fighting to be heard, Blair pulled hard against the handcuffs, struggling desperately to get free. "Mmmmm... ! Mmmmmm... !" The pain in his already raw wrists was pure agony, but Blair ignored it, jerking desperately against the cuffs.

"You little bastard! You'll pay for that!"

A hard blow to the side of his head stunned Blair. It was followed by another, and another, until at last, Blair quit fighting and lay still, breathing hard. His head pounded, and he felt the hot flow of blood soaking into his blindfold and gag. He was teetering on the brink of unconsciousness, but fought to stay awake.

He might get another chance to fight.

The cruel hands were working on his jeans now, attempting to yank them down from his waist. They caught on his skin and his genitals, sending more flashes of pain ripping through his body. The hard voice muttered angrily, "I was gonna take it easy on you, for the boss' sake. Kaufman don't need damaged merchandise. But now..."

A hard slap across the face was followed by another brutal blow to the gut. Blair's head spun to the side and he jerked reflexively, but he couldn't move away. His jeans were ripped all the way down then off his body, followed by his shorts. As Blair moaned helplessly, knowing what lay in store but unable to even voice his protest, his shirt was ripped violently from his body, exposing his chest.

He was now completely naked and at the mercy of his assailant. Blair sobbed behind his gag, wishing he had not fought losing consciousness. At least that way, he wouldn't have been awake as the man brutalized him.

Please... please... please. Don't do this. Please... Blair pleaded, but the gag silenced him too effectively. All his ears heard were his own pitiful, muffled moans and sobs. He moved his head slowly from side to side, tears combining with the blood in his blindfold.

"What's the matter, kid? Don't you like it when Ellison does this? You can't tell me he hasn't tied you up a few times. Used those cuffs of his on you. Or doesn't he play this rough? Bet you like it rough, though, don't you, Blair?"

The words didn't have the intended effect. If he hadn't been in such pain and totally helpless, Blair might have laughed. The bastard had no idea what his friendship with Jim was like. Jim was his brother. Nothing this cruel man could say or insinuate could touch the depth of that friendship, of that bond.

This man could wound him in many ways, but he would not be able to use James Ellison against him. That thought was a small comfort in the midst of the nightmare.

His legs were jerked apart, and tight cords bit into the flesh of his ankles. Blair fought weakly to pull away, but that only earned him another hard blow, this time to his genitals. Groaning in agony, Blair lay still.

Moments later, he was tied spread-eagled to the bed - naked, voiceless, and helpless.

He could hear his captor breathing hard above him. "Oh, yes. Now aren't you a pretty sight?"

Hot, putrid breathe burned Blair's face between the blindfold and gag, and the man's whisper sent shivers down his spine. "We're gonna have some fun now, Blair."

As hard, sweaty hands began to explore his body, Blair escaped the only way he could. The alternative was complete madness. Fighting to breathe normally through his nose, he visualized the loft, a place of safety and warmth. Turning his head away, his only means of escape from his attacker, Blair imagined waking up on a sunny morning, a cup of hot coffee in his hand. He and Jim would wander out to the balcony, in no hurry because it was Saturday. They would stand there, watching the city come alive, enjoying the easy companionship they shared.

"What you thinking about, boy? Imagining that I'm Ellison? I don't blame you. He's one hell of a man. Bet you wish it was him on top of you right now, don't you?"

The safety net of his imagination ripped apart, and Blair screamed helplessly into his gag, not at the dirty insinuation, but at the agony of losing the vision of comfort he had managed to conjure in his imagination.

"Must be him you keep trying to cry out for, huh? That's okay. You can holler all you want to. Nobody's gonna hear a thing with that gag on you. I'm good at putting those things on nice and tight. Later, if I decide I need your mouth free, you'll be all screamed out."

More hard laughter followed. "So, go ahead. You can pretend I'm Ellison. That's just fine with me. I don't give a damn what you think, but I guess you've got that idea by now, right? Enough talking. Let's get to the good stuff, pretty boy."

Oh, God, no. As the rough hands explored the most intimate aspects of his body, touching and entering places he would never have allowed the bastard access to discover, Blair jerked violently at the ropes binding his feet and the cuffs on his wrists. He tried desperately to rub off the blindfold and gag against the mattress and bucked up against the bed.

His only reward was more delighted laughter. The cruel voice encouraged his useless struggles. "Yeah! Go to it, boy! That's the way! If I have to fight for it, that just makes it more fun!"

The hands continued violating him... methodically... roughly... and Blair felt nausea rising inside. Exerting all his self-control, he forced the bile back down. He couldn't get sick, couldn't vomit. He would choke to death with the gag in his mouth. Jim? Jim, I need you, man. Please, Jim. Please!

The heavy weight of his rapist was on top of him again, and Blair's body shook with pain and fear. His hips were lifted roughly into the air, and just moments later, a sharp, unbearable pain coursed through him. Blair screamed, pleading with his attacker to stop, but the gag rendered his cries useless.

Then, he heard a cry of pain, and for an unreasonable instant, Blair wondered if he'd managed to scream past the gag. The flash of hope was followed by the sound of a body hitting the floor. Hard.

Blair lay still, breathing hard and shaking, listening intently as he tried to figure out what had just happened.

Other voices were talking.

"Damn bastard. What the hell did he think he was doing?"

"What do you want me to do with Caleb, boss?"

"In a minute..."

Then, there were hands on his body again, and in reflex, Blair jerked away as much as possible, shaking his head from side to side in silent protest. If only he could see...

"It's all right." The voice that belonged to Kaufman was quieter now, more soothing. "Believe me, I never meant for this to happen. Should have known I couldn't trust him alone with you. Look, I'm going to untie your feet and get some clothes back on you, so lie still. If you try to fight me, then I'll have to tie you back up and leave you like this. I don't think you'd like that, would you?"

Blair shook his head. Being bound here was bad enough. To be left naked and exposed was even more humiliating.

"All right. I have a gun, and I won't hesitate to use it. So behave yourself, and I'll have you more comfortable soon."

He kept his word. The ropes binding his ankles were untied. Then, the cuffs were removed, one at a time, and a wet cloth carefully cleaned the blood from the wounds on his head and body. Some kind of shirt was slipped on to cover his upper body. Not his ripped and torn shirt, Blair sensed, but it was soft, and it covered him adequately. Soon, his jeans were back on also. At least, he had some semblance of dignity back.

"You've bled a lot. I wish I could change that blindfold, but I can't take the chance. Not as much as Caleb there, though. Gotta get him out of here somehow."

The two men moved away, and Blair strained to hear their whispered conversation, but his head was still pounding. Concentrating hurt too much. He gave up and surrendered to his complete helplessness once again.

Kaufman's voice spoke again from beside the bed. He hadn't heard him come back. Had he slipped out of consciousness momentarily?

"I'm going to remove the gag and give you some water. I've got a fresh cloth, too, so you don't have to keep this bloody one in your mouth. If you cry out, I swear I'll use the gun. I cannot remove your blindfold right now. I'm sure you understand. Will you cooperate?"

Blair nodded slowly. The cloth gag was untied and unwound from his face, then the sponge ball was removed from his mouth. His captor allowed him a few sips of water. "Thank you," Blair whispered hoarsely, taking the chance that the man wouldn't kill him for a whisper of gratitude. There was no reply.

"Open," the man commanded a few sips of water later. When Blair hesitated, the voice became sharper. "Open your mouth now, or I'll force it in. Your choice."

Reluctantly, Blair opened his mouth, his jaws protesting mightily. The sponge gag was shoved back in, followed by a clean cloth placed between his lips, a large, hard knot in its center.

"Lift your head."

He complied, and the cloth was pulled tight and knotted behind his head. Blair moaned a little, testing the effectiveness of the gag, but again, he was silenced almost completely. He lay helplessly and waited.

A few moments later, Kaufman spoke again. "I'll be the only one tending you now, so I suggest you cooperate. I'm not interested in anything but the money I'll get for you, so you can relax. No one will try... this... again."

Kaufman and the other kidnapper moved away. There was the sound of something heavy... Caleb's body?... being dragged away. Then there was silence.

He was alone once again. His body ached from head to toe, inside and out. It was so hard not to lie there and think about the nightmare that had just claimed him. But Blair forced thoughts of the attack away. If he dwelled on it now, he might lose all control, might never emerge from the terror. That would be a death sentence. He had to keep his head, had to listen, to think, to take advantage of any opportunity that presented itself.

There would be time later for the pain and the tears.

He forced himself to relax, to rest. Despite the agony his body was in, the exhaustion of his mind and spirit was greater. Unable to sleep, he lay in the silence and waited.

Blair wasn't sure how much time had passed before he heard Kaufman's voice again. "I'll be back later to feed you. Rest now. This will help you."

Something soft and sweet-smelling descended over his nose. Chloroform.

Blair twisted his head, trying to dislodge the damp cloth, but to no avail. Whimpering behind his gag, he felt reality slipping away.

The darkness was a blessed relief.

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

The hours passed with no significant breaks in the case. Jim spent the time on the phone, tracking down Sandburg's friends and co-workers, with the slim hope that just maybe one of them might know something that would help. It proved to be one dead end after another.

Joel had done his best at the luggage store, but to no avail. He'd interviewed the kid on duty that day, plus all other employees of the business, but none remembered anyone being particularly interested in that particular suitcase.

Both audio tapes were already in the lab with Derrick, and Jim held out hope that maybe the young lab tech could discover a source of noise on either tape. That hope was slim, since his Sentinel senses hadn't found anything, but Ellison refused to completely give up hoping the tapes might lead to a break, no matter how small. Anything that could help them locate Sandburg. Derrick had certainly proven himself a virtuoso before with various forms of media. Jim could only hope that this time wouldn't be an exception. With only a few minutes until the time the kidnapper had specified was up, he moved into Simon's office, and there, the two men waited.

Exactly at the time the kidnapper had promised, Joel opened the office door and leaned inside. "Jim, this just arrived by messenger. Guy said he never saw the sender. He was told to pick it up at one of those mailboxes and shipping places - Mailboxes Galore. I'm on my way there now to interview the clerk." He held out a package in his gloved hands.

Simon pulled on a pair of gloves from his desk. "Let's get this down to the lab. I want Rowe to take a look at it with us. He's the best at any kind of video or audio analysis."

A few minutes later, Jim, Joel, and Simon had joined Derrick Rowe in his lab. The young black man placed the box on his desk and studied it carefully, bending over to get a better look. The three men gathered around it, taking in the outward appearance. Jim's name and the PD address were typed neatly. There was no return address. "I'll put money down that we don't get any prints off this," he muttered.

Derrick carefully unwrapped the box. "Joel, run this next door to Marianne, would you? There's a video in here I want to get a look at. While we're working on it, please ask her to check for prints or traces of anything at all on that paper."

Joel nodded and gathered up the paper carefully. "I'll drop it off for Marianne, then I'll be down at Mailboxes Galore. I'll let you know if I come up with anything, Captain."

After Joel's departure, Derrick carried the tape to his VCR. "Let's see what's happening, boys."

The first few seconds were only grainy static. Then, the image cleared and focused. Jim's heart plunged and he leaned forward, eyes focused intently on the image of Blair..

Sandburg sat before a curtained window. He was bound to a chair, his eyes wide and staring. A cloth gag hung loosely around his neck.

"Chief... " Jim breathed helplessly.

"Jim?" Blair's voice was hoarse, sounding painfully raw. "I'm... I'm supposed to tell you... I'm okay. It's... Friday morning. I'm... all right. Just... ready to come home, y'know?"

Blair coughed loudly, shaking his head. "Man... " Cough... cough... "Man, whatever happens, promise me you won't look over my... your... shoulder, wondering 'what if.' Punishing yourself for what you think you should have done. Don't beat yourself up, Jim. None of this is your fault, so promise me, you'll look back, okay? Look back and remember the good times. I..."

"Enough!" A harsh voice interrupted. A figure clad all in black, including its face, shapeless and completely unrecognizable, entered the picture. "Shut up!" The man slapped Blair hard across the face, and Jim winced at his friend's yelp of pain. Roughly the kidnapper stuffed a round sponge into Blair's mouth then pulled the cloth gag over his face. Reaching behind, he tightened the knot with a vicious pull, effectively ending Blair's chance of making a coherent sound. The young man's face turned helplessly from side to side, seeking relief. Pleading blue eyes stared hard into the camera, begging for help.

Facing the camera, his face concealed by a ski mask, the kidnapper barked, "You've seen him. It's time for William Ellison to make retribution. Nothing will ever cancel the debt he owes me, but the first payment is due. The clock is ticking."

The screen went black.

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

Jim stared at the screen, unable to speak or even move. The images were ingrained in his mind, and he seriously doubted if they'd ever be erased. He pressed his palm against the two soft medicine bags around his neck, sending out a silent plea for strength and endurance for his partner. Please... help him... help me find him in time. Wherever Blair was at that moment, Jim could only pray that he, too, felt the power of their animal spirits, giving them strength... helping them survive.

"Jim?" A soft voice called from over his shoulder. "You okay?"

He nodded numbly. "Yeah, Simon. Yeah." A moment later he added, "Run the tape again."

Seconds later, the nightmarish images played again. And then again.

Jim stared at the screen, fixated on applying his senses to this latest piece of evidence. Somewhere, there had to be a clue. Something... anything...

He tried not to focus too hard on Blair's face and voice. He couldn't bear that. If an answer was to be found, it couldn't be in the tortured image of his Guide. Forcing down his emotions, determined not to allow any distractions to keep him from finding the answer, Jim scanned the little bit of the room he could see in the video and listened to what might lie behind Blair's words.

On the fourth time through the tape, he saw it. "Simon! Run it back... there! Stop!"

He had to be certain. Leaning forward, Jim focused intently on the window behind Blair's head. There - a crack in the curtains hanging loosely. He could just make it out...

"What is it?" Simon was kneeling beside him now, peering at the screen. "What do you see?"

Jim shook his head. "I... I think... " He looked over at Derrick who had been silently watching the tape along with them. "Can you pick out the window behind Blair? Blow it up for us?"

"Sure. Give me a few minutes, would you?" He took the tape from the VCR and moved to his computer.

Jim and Simon huddled in the corner. "What did you see?" Simon whispered.

Jim glanced at Derrick but the younger man was working intently on the video and his computer. "I think I could see a building, even make out a few details. If Derrick can get it enlarged... enhanced... maybe... Blair kept saying not to look back. Over his... over my... shoulder... not to look back..." Jim thought for a minute. "What if he was giving me a clue? To look behind him through the opening in the curtain?"

"It certainly is possible," Simon conceded. "Sandburg's had enough experience..."

"Hey, guys!"

Jim and Simon hurried over to stand behind Derrick. "Look," Derrick said, pointing at the screen. "Is this what you wanted?"

His gaze locked on the image on Derrick's computer, Jim nodded. "Yeah. Give me a minute."

Derrick glanced up at Simon, and Jim heard the curiosity in his voice. "What can he see? I've enhanced it already and..."

Jim pointed. "There! That's the Wilkenson Tower!"

"Are you sure?" Simon sounded skeptical, and Jim pinned him with an impatient glare.

"I'm sure. It's..."

Derrick interrupted.. "I see the vague shape of a building in the distance, but how..."

"I've got good eyes," Jim shot back, and he didn't give Rowe time to question. "Using the tower as your reference point can you triangulate the location of the building where that window is located?"

"Piece of cake." Derrick's fingers were already flying over the keyboard. A map of Cascade popped up on the screen. Derrick muttered to himself as small arrows appeared and disappeared on the map. "Here... take the distance south... triangulate with the coordinates of the tower... " He worked silently for a few moments, then announced, "There!"

Derrick looked up triumphantly at Jim. "Here's your address - 349 Charlotte Boulevard. From the height of the window combined with the other variables, I'd say the fourth floor."

Jim was already striding toward the door, Simon on his heels.

"I'll call Henri and Joel... have them meet us there." Simon's phone was already to his ear. "Thanks, Derrick!" he called back over his shoulder.

"I'll get back to analyzing the audio tapes," Derrick replied, still grinning from their triumph with the video.

His heart pounding with hope, Jim hit the hallway at a full run. It was time they'd caught a break.

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

Less than an hour later, Jim was staring across the street at the building where they suspected Blair was being held. He was vaguely aware of Simon beside him, but his complete attention was focused on the rather run-down brick building. He and Simon were sheltered from sight in the alleyway, halfway hidden by two very odorous dumpsters. Out of habit, Jim had dialed his sense of smell down completely long before, and he chuckled quietly when he heard Simon's aggravated quick intake of breath.

"Phew! Damn it, Jim! Couldn't you have found a more inviting place to observe? This place is beginning to make me nauseous."

"Doesn't bother me, sir," Jim deadpanned, still staring thoughtfully at the building. "We can't afford to be seen. This seemed like a good spot."

"Right," Simon said doubtfully. "Look, Jim, I'd prefer to confirm Sandburg's presence before we go in. I've got the warrant, but I'd rather not bust down any unnecessary doors. It'll be safer for Sandburg, too, if we know his location. Can you pick up on anything?"

"Maybe." Jim took a deep breath, thankful he didn't have to inhale the malodorous garbage along with the extra oxygen. "I'm going to try to listen... see if I pick up his heartbeat."

"Don't try too hard," Simon cautioned. "Zoning out in an alley isn't exactly a great idea right now."

"Yes, sir." Jim focused on the building, filtering out extraneous noise. He shook his head, distracted. "Damn..."

"What? What's wrong?"

"Listen..." Jim jerked his head in the direction of a work crew down the street. "That damn jackhammer... I can't filter it out. Every time I open up my hearing, it blasts right through. Let me try again."

The next few minutes brought no more success, and Jim was getting irritated. He glanced at his watch. "That work crew could be here another two hours. I don't want to wait that long, Simon. We need to get Sandburg out of there."

Nodding in agreement, Simon keyed his radio. "Henri... Joel... we're joining you around back of the building. We're going in."

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

Behind the cover of his car, Simon briefed the team. "There's only one apartment up there on four, the floor Derrick pinpointed as the place where the video was made." Dreading the announcement of the decision he'd made moments before, he steeled himself for the protest to come. Joel, you watch the front. Henri, you're with me. Jim, you have the back door."

"No, sir!" Jim's eyes were cold-as-steel blue. "Meaning no disrespect, but you have to let me go in with you, Simon. I can't wait out here and..."

Simon summoned his best command voice, taking a step closer into Jim's personal space. Sometimes, Simon realized, you have to meet a challenge head-on in order to preserve your dominance and position as leader. Even if that challenge came from a man he respected as much as Jim. He'd given a command, and Simon would not tolerate having that command questioned. Not even from a friend. "You can, and you will, wait here, Detective. If you persist in questioning my order, I'll have you hauled out away from the scene before we make our move. What's it gonna be?"

The challenging stare held his for another half-minute before Jim relented. Simon could almost see the battle going on behind those icy eyes. The trained soldier fought an internal war with the protective Sentinel. For the moment, the soldier won out. "All right, sir. I'll wait. But not for too long."

Simon nodded, relaxing inwardly. "I wouldn't ask you to. I'll radio as soon as we're in and clear." Glancing at Joel and Henri and seeing their wide-eyed stares at the confrontation, he ordered quickly, "Let's go!"

On their way in, Henri queried, "So why'd we leave Jim outside? He's an asset in these hostage situations."

They entered the building and quietly began ascending the stairs. "He's too close. Look, we're all hoping we find Blair in there, safe and sound, and we get him out in one piece." Hating the words he had to say, Simon glanced back at his men. "But I can't guarantee that. You know what happens to most kidnap victims. If the worst happens or has already happened... well, Jim doesn't need to see that."

There was no argument.

They reached the door to the single apartment occupying the narrow fourth floor of 349 Charlotte. They building had been constructed around the turn of the 20th century and was built long and narrow, stretching back from the street. The smell of age hung heavy. Wallpaper, faded and dirty, hung in strips from the walls, and the wood floors were sticky, the remnants of too many decades of dirty feet and grime...

Guns drawn, the two men surrounded the door. "One..." Simon whispered, his weapon held up at his chest at the ready. "Two... Three!"

Getting a running start from across the hallway, Henri charged the door, placing a well-aimed kick, driving all his considerable strength behind the attack. The lock shattered, and the door flew open.

"Cascade P.D.!" Simon shouted as they rushed the apartment. "Cascade P.D.!"

Henri and Simon fanned out, checking the rooms to either side. "Nothing here!" Henri called first. Simon eased down the narrow hallway, checking out each room as he passed. Nothing.

Henri joined him in front of the last door, shut tightly at the end of the narrow, dark hall. "It's here or nothing," Simon muttered. He eased open the door.

They rushed into the small bedroom, guns raised, checking out the security of the room. Slowly, the two guns lowered, accompanied by sharp intakes of breath.

"Oh, my God," H. whispered.

Simon's radio crackled, followed by Jim's voice. "Simon?! What's going on in there? I'm coming up!"

Shaking off his shock, Simon keyed the radio. His voice shook as he replied. "No! Jim, stay down there! You don't need to see this!"

Even as he said it, he knew he was too late. The sound of rushing footsteps was already thundering in the hall.

Simon whirled around and caught Jim's shoulders. "Jim! Stay back! You might..." Suddenly aware of the presence of the other men, he bit off the warning about zoning.

Jim was staring at the large pool of blood on the floor beside the bed and another staining the mattress, near where a head would lie, his eyes wide with horror. His stunned gaze froze on the pool on the floor with its smeared red trail toward the door. "Blair...?" he croaked hoarsely.

Joel burst into the room, panting, his gun at his side. "What...?" He stopped cold at the sight of the blood and Jim's pale face.

"He's not here, Jim," Simon hastened to assure the Sentinel, grasping him by the shoulders and shaking him hard. "I don't know what's happened, but Blair's not here." Glancing over Joel and Henri, he snapped, "Get downstairs and secure the scene. Call for crime scene unit to get up here. Wait on them, then one of you bring them up. Move!"

A moment later, they were alone. Simon let his hands fall slowly from Jim's shoulders, but his eyes didn't leave his detective's face. Jim appeared shell-shocked, but not in danger of slipping into a zone-out. "Can you tell if it's his blood?"

Jim shook his head minutely, as if to clear it, then moved to squat down by the horrid red trail leading to the door. Snapping on protective gloves pulled from his jacket pocket, he touched one finger hesitantly to the blood then, his hand visibly shaking, raised it to his nose. Sniffing, Jim shut his eyes against the sudden stimulus. Inhaling again, the Sentinel was the picture of concentration, every fiber of his body alert and intent.

Simon fought the urge to hurry Jim, to find out what the Sentinel was sensing. Was the blood Sandburg's or not?

Jim moved without a word to the blood on the bed and repeated the process, using his other hand. The blood there was dried, completely soaked into the mattress, and Jim had to scrape his gloved hand across the blood to gather some on his finger. He sniffed carefully, then Jim quickly drew back, staggering backward with the force.

"Jim!" Simon instinctively reached out, supporting him with two hands on his back.

Jim looked up at him, and Simon saw the blood draining from his face. Beneath his hands, Jim's shoulders shook. "It's Blair's... this is Blair's blood. The other... isn't." Breathing hard, he stared up at Simon with haunted eyes. "It's Blair's blood."

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

The atmosphere in Simon's office was heavy. After the hope of finding Sandburg was crushed, along with the discovery of the blood, everyone's spirits were let down. No one had given up, yet the frustration among the Major Crimes detectives was tangible.

"The video tape must have been filmed before the injury to Blair. We didn't see any sign of his being hurt on the tape. Whatever happened, the kidnapper must have been worried he'd be discovered and moved the entire operation. He's nervous, Jim, or he'd never have taken the risk of moving Blair. So we're back to square one."

Simon's soft voice drifted through the fog in Jim's brain. The scent of Blair's blood, coppery and tangy, still taunted his sensitive nostrils. Dialing down his sense of smell had done no good. The scent was internalized now, engrained upon his sense memory.

Try as he might to erase it, the Sentinel knew the odor of his Guide's blood would be with him for a long time.

"We've got to come up with something else."

Jim knew Simon was worried about him. He saw the concern in his dark brown eyes, heard it in his captain's voice. He knew he should respond, answer his friend, but even contemplating forming a coherent sentence was just too damned hard. It took a monumental effort to concentrate, as Jim waged the battle between his emotions as Blair's Sentinel and friend versus his training as a cop.

Don't let your feelings get in the way.

Check your emotions at the door.

Jim's very words rushed back to taunt him.

He shut his eyes, and Blair's face danced before him in his memory. Yeah, right. I sure know how to shovel out advice that even I can't always follow. There's no checking my emotions when it comes to you, Chief. I'm sorry. I should have been there sooner. Just hang in there, buddy. I'm coming for you. I promise. Damn it all! It should have been me! They were after me! Not Blair!

"Jim? Are you hearing me? Don't you dare tell me you've zoned because..."

"I'm here," Jim growled. "I'm fine." The words came out much harsher than intended, and Jim made a belated effort to soften them with a smile. He realized that it probably came out more like a grimace. "What's Rafe come up with on my father's enemies list?"

"He's still at your dad's, in case the kidnapper calls there, but he's been running leads on the phone and internet. Let's get him on the speakerphone and see what he's found." Simon dialed William's number, then hit the button for the speaker to kick in. A minute later, after a brief conversation with Sally, Rafe's familiar voice came over the line.

"Captain, glad you called. I was about to contact you. We just got the call from the kidnapper with the delivery instructions. This time, the guy said something that clicked with something I remembered on the earlier tape. Each time, he's mentioned paying an old debt. Something like this being a debt too big to erase, but that this would be one installment on what Mr. Ellison owes. Right?"

"Yeah," Simon agreed, looking at Jim and raising his eyebrows. "Has Mr. Ellison connected that to anything in his past?"

"Maybe. About twelve years ago, he had to fire one of his top executives, a guy named Phillip Kaufman. It was during an economic downturn, and Mr. Ellison caught Kaufman in some kind of semi-shady deal behind his back. Nothing illegal, just... questionable. He fired him right before Christmas. Two days before, in fact."

Jim sighed heavily and scrubbed one hand across his tired eyes. "Dad's fired lots of people over the years, Rafe. What makes this guy so special?"

The reply chilled him to the bone.

"Kaufman committed suicide a couple of months later. Left a fifteen year old son. Mrs. Kaufman died less than a year later of breast cancer. Apparently, all the family's money went down the drain with bad investments and medical bills. The son, Randall, bounced around from foster home to foster home. About six weeks ago, he left Nevada, where he'd been serving time for grand larceny auto, and bought a one-way bus ticket. A bus ticket to Cascade."

Simon shook his head, obviously not convinced. "I'm sure Mr. Ellison's fired a lot of people over the years, and more than likely, there have been some very negative consequences that came along with each one. I'm just not sure..."

The answer hit Jim like a meteor. He pounced lightly to his feet, staring at Banks intently. His mind was moving faster than he could possibly explain. Could he possibly be right? "Simon! Where's your copy of the video?"

Looking at Jim as though he'd lost his mind, Simon quickly cut off his conversation with the younger detective on the phone. "I'll get back with you, Rafe. Good work. Keep things moving on your end." He snapped off the speaker phone connection then picked up the TV remote. "Here..." Simon hit the Play button.

Jim snatched the remote and fast-forwarded the tape, searching for the spot he was looking for in the now-familiar video. Even seeing Blair's frightened eyes wasn't as difficult this time. Not now that they had made a promising breakthrough. He gestured to the tape. "Listen... right here." He played a short section, then reversed and repeated it, then reversed and repeated again.

Cough... cough... "Man..." Cough... cough... "Man..." Cough... cough... "Man..."

Simon's eyes lit up, brightly shining stars against the darkness of his face, and he leaned forward in his chair, grinning broadly. "Way to go, Sandburg! Jim, he just confirmed it! Kaufman's our man!"

Jim stared at the frozen face of his Guide on the screen, pride battling with pain for dominance in his heart. As terrified as Blair must be, he was still thinking, still fast on his feet, giving them all the help he possibly could. Leave it to Sandburg to try to give them the evidence they needed to find his kidnapper and his location. I'm proud of you, Blair. Don't give up on me. I'll find you, no matter what it takes. Just hang in there for me. Hang in there, Chief.

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

The effects of the chloroform wore off slowly, leaving only a pounding headache in their wake. Blair had awakened, confused and near panic, fighting against the bonds holding him in place. When he'd regained enough of his mental faculties to take stock of the situation, he realized immediately that he had been moved. The odors were different here. He was no longer bound to a bed, but to a chair of some sort.

His ankles were tied tightly to the chair legs, his arms bound behind the back of the straight chair. The familiar gag was still in place, as was the blindfold, and he moaned helplessly. He jerked against the chair, but it didn't budge. Must be anchored to something stronger.

Blair forced himself to breathe deeply, coached his mind to settle down. If the opportunity presented itself, he wanted to be ready. He was going to survive this. He had too much to do, damn it! He wasn't ready to die... not like this. Not without saying goodbye to his mom... to Jim.

If only he could break free! He'd done his best to leave Jim a clue about his location, but now, he'd been moved. Still, if Jim managed to figure out that it was Kaufman who had kidnapped him...

There was still a chance.

There was always a chance.

He only had to stay calm and wait. To trust Jim and be ready when the Sentinel came for him. Jim would come. He'd never failed him before, and Blair knew beyond all certainty that his friend would die first before he'd allow Blair to come to harm.

Calmer, Blair settled back to wait, every sense alert and waiting.

Somewhere in the distance, Blair heard the scream of the jaguar, then the answering howl of the wolf. His heart soared with hope.

Jim would come for him.

Jim would come.

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

Night fell, but for many hours, the darkness brought no rest. Not for Blair, uncomfortably bound to the straight chair.

Nor for James Ellison. Once more, the loft was too quiet. And too empty. If their positions were reversed, Jim knew, Blair would meditate. Often the answers he sought would appear after a session of relaxation. Jim could certainly use the rest, but meditation wasn't his style. He craved action. More than anything else, Jim needed to do something.

But this time, there was little he could do but wait.

In the distance, Jim heard the chimes of the nearest church strike midnight. He had to rest. But the thought of ascending the stairs to his room exhausted him.

So who said he had to sleep in his bed tonight? Shirtless, clad in his favorite boxers, Jim stretched back on the couch, tucking a throw pillow under his head. The two soft, leather medicine bags he'd worn since Blair's disappearance rested lightly against his skin. He'd catnapped countless times on the couch. An entire night wouldn't be that different.

As he willed his body to relax, Jim raised the medicine bags above his chest, his Sentinel sight revealing clearly every detail of their construction. The memories of his Guide washed over him, and Jim's hand closed to clutch the bags tightly in his fist.

The words bubbled up without thought. "Whoever's in charge out there," Jim whispered, "if you can hear me... help me bring him home. You've helped us before... I know that... so, please... "

Not a man accustomed to prayer, Jim wasn't sure what else to say. His personal belief system wasn't particularly well-defined, but experiences with spirit guides, ghosts, and reappearing deceased shamans had proven to Jim's satisfaction that there was something out there... something beyond the here and now. It was to that undefined power that Jim entrusted Blair's life - their lives.

Without warning, there was a scream in the night. Not a human scream, but that of a cat. Of a feral jungle cat. Jim's eyes widened, and his hand tightened around the leather bags. Seconds later, a long, haunting howl raised the hair on his neck.

The wolf...

The spirit guides hadn't abandoned them.

There was still hope.

As long as the Sentinel drew breath, there was always hope.

Reassured by the voices of wolf and jaguar, Jim rested the soft leather pouches back on his chest and closed his eyes. Minutes later, his breathing slowed and deepened.

At last, the Sentinel slept.

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

He awakened early, too early to head to the station. It was still dark out, but Jim was filled with an uneasiness that made sleep impossible. For a few minutes, he tossed restlessly in his bed, then got up and put on his sweats and running shoes. Maybe some exercise would help clear his mind.

The darkness didn't bother him. Already, his Sentinel sight detected a slight glow to the horizon, but he didn't need the dawn to run safely. Jim set a goal of the marina and back, then set off at a slow jog.

He willed his mind to empty. He needed this time not to think, but to build up his physical strength. There was no predicting how long it would be before this ordeal was over, deadlines or no deadlines. Kidnappings were seldom predictable. If he were to survive, to stay alert and strong for Blair, Jim knew he had to stay healthy. So instead of pondering the facts of the case, he focused on his body, on the rhythmic beat of his feet on the pavement beneath him.

The streets of Cascade were virtually empty. The occasional car or delivery vehicle passed, their headlights shining eerily through the light mist of pre-dawn. Once a cat scurried across his path, darting into an alley without a sound. If he extended his hearing, Jim knew he'd pick up the sounds of early morning coffee brewing, of sleepy conversation in the darkness of bedrooms, of alarm clocks summoning sleepers back from the safe cocoon of the night.

Jim had no desire to remind himself of such normalcy. He should still be in bed, Sandburg safely sleeping in the little room below. A flash of anger caught him unaware. Did he ask for so much, really? Just to do his job, to keep his partner safe, to have his life ordered and structured, the way he liked it. Was that really too much for the powers-that-be to grant?

His feet left the pavement and sank into the softness of the grass in the park that led down to the marina. Jim was breathing harder, and as his feelings of anger and helplessness grew, he ran faster and faster, until he was at a full run. His legs churned, his arms pumped, and he began breathing heavily through his mouth. Why the hell couldn't he do just that one thing right? That one most vital, most important thing? Why couldn't he manage to keep Sandburg safe?

Jim stumbled on an unnoticed depression in the ground, his momentum making it impossible to recover in time to remain on his feet. He lunged forward, helplessly, and plummeted to the ground, face down. He hit hard, the breath knocked from his body with a sudden gasp.

He lay still, panting, his eyes closed. The grass beneath him was soft, still damp from the dew and morning's mist. All the rage he'd felt only moments before had been dispelled with the fall, and Jim lay quietly in the pre-dawn darkness, breathing in the sweet smell of the earth, listening to the wind and the water.

Finally, he opened his eyes, still making no move to sit up. Something caught his attention, only inches from his face. He studied it for a moment, then Jim reached out, taking the delicate object carefully in his hand. He sat up stiffly, then got to his feet.

There in his palm lay a small white feather.

Before Blair came into his life, Jim would have marked it up as sheer coincidence. That was another lifetime. He'd experienced too much to miss the significance of the little feather lying so lightly in his hand.

Reaching beneath his sweatshirt, Jim pulled out the white medicine bag he'd put on that morning. Opening the drawstring, he carefully slipped the feather inside. "He's coming home," Jim whispered. "He's coming home."

He turned and ran toward the loft, suddenly anxious to begin the day.

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

A few hours later, Jim stared down at the lifeless face lying on the slab in the morgue. His anger churned within him, but he resisted the urge to add one more bruise to the battered face. The man was dead. Nothing Jim could do had the ability to inflict further damage.

"A single stab wound. It went straight to the heart. Whoever killed him knew what he was doing with a knife. We matched his blood and prints to that found in the apartment where Blair was being held. His prints were already in the system. Caleb Stillman. Mostly small time stuff with one grand larceny charge thrown in for good measure. He's spent half his adult life in and out of prison."

Jim's voice was flat. "Have we linked him with Kaufman?"

"Not yet," Simon admitted. "At least not beyond both their prints being in the room. But we will. We just got the ID a few minutes ago. Whatever happened in that room, it left Kaufman in this thing alone. At least, as far as we can figure. The prints in the room only came back as Kaufman's and Stillman's. Unless a third culprit wore gloves the entire time, we're down to just Kaufman."

Simon considered the face before them, then mused, "You know, you'd think even an amateur like Kaufman would have taken more precautions not to leave behind prints. He..." The captain's voice faltered. "... must not care whether or not he's caught."

They both understood the implications. An amateur who didn't care was ten times more dangerous than a pro who cared whether or not he spent the rest of his life in prison. The simple fact that prints were left at the crime scene didn't bode well for Blair's survival.

Jim jerked the white sheet back over Caleb Stillman's face, shoved the slab back through the small door, then slammed it shut. "He's of no use to us now. Hopefully, he's already burning in hell."

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

The previous day's audio tape from William Ellison's answering machine had so far revealed nothing new that would help them track down Kaufman. The instructions were short and simple. At nine that evening, William Ellison was to bring the suitcase with the money to a roadside park up on the Pacific highway. He was to leave the suitcase under the last picnic table on the left and immediately drive away.

That was all. Except for a hard-voiced threat to Sandburg if anyone but the elder Ellison was spotted anywhere near the drop-off spot.

Jim listened to the tape several times through without turning up the dial for his hearing. The tape had to go to the lab, but not before the Sentinel had his chance with it. "I want to use my hearing to listen to this one, too, Simon. The first audio tape turned up nothing, but maybe I'll have better luck with this one."

Simon sighed. "Same routine?"

Poor Simon. He really didn't care for playing substitute guide. "Yep," Jim quipped. "You're on, sir. Time for Guide duty." He wished Blair could see the look of discomfort on Simon's face.

Once again, Jim focused all his attention on the sounds coming from the cassette. There was the mechanical voice, obviously disguised. He filtered it out immediately, not caring about hearing the words again. He knew the message by heart. He was interested in what lay beyond, in what the kidnapper may not have realized he was recording when he left the message on William's machine. Closing his eyes, the Sentinel opened his hearing.

This time, he didn't have to go as deep to find what he was looking for. Shaking his head, Jim opened his eyes to the face of his concerned friend.

"Hear anything?" Simon asked immediately.

Jim nodded. "Yeah. Something... I'm not sure what. A thumping... a rhythmic thumping noise, but it comes and goes... not constant." Jim rubbed his temples to ward off the ever-increasing headache pain. "If I could just figure out..."

"Take the tape down to Derrick," Simon suggested. "Tell him what you hear. It might save him some time if he knows there's something there."

Nodding, Jim popped the cassette from the player and headed out the door. Once again, he'd done all he could. As much as it went against his instincts, he was placing Blair's life in the hands of another.

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

The hours passed, ticking slowly toward the appointment at nine that evening. Not an eye in the bullpen failed to glance at the clock several times each hour; not a heart ceased hoping that a break in the case would come soon.

By late afternoon, Jim and Simon were reviewing all the background information the team had gathered on Blair's suspected kidnapper. Print-outs and files lay scattered across the conference table like fall leaves on the ground, punctuated by the remains of abandoned coffee cups. "So we have no idea where Randy Kaufman is now?" Simon asked, rubbing his eyes wearily.

"Apparently, he's been using an assumed name since he hit Cascade. Last thing we can turn up in his own name is the bus ticket from Vegas. Charged it on his Visa, but there's been no activity since." Jim looked up from the notes compiled by Rafe and the other detectives, all of whom had been furiously digging ever since the name 'Randy Kaufman' had surfaced.

Simon leaned back in his desk chair, crossing his arms behind his head, and looked reflective. "Kaufman's strictly amateur. Odds are, just getting out of the joint, our friend Randy doesn't have the resources to hire a pro to put the strong arm on your dad.. He must be coordinating the job himself. From what we've learned, Caleb Stillman certainly didn't have the expertise for something like this."

"He had to have help, even from a second rate con like Stillman," Jim pointed out, stretching his legs out in front of him. "No way he could kidnap Sandburg, make the tapes, move Blair, and plan to make the money pick-up - all alone. He may be an amateur, but he can't be that dumb. Of course, he is on his own now, if the prints at the crime scene are any indication."

"I agree, but..."

There was a quick knock at the door. William Ellison, accompanied by Steven, came in. He was carrying the suitcase, one shoulder slightly bent from its weight.

Simon asked, "The instructions said it would begin at nine P.M.? You're early..."

William set the bulky case on the floor beside the conference table, then he and his son sat down. "Yes. I have to make the drop-off at nine. Steven and I figured..." He shrugged, and Jim could swear he saw a look of helplessness on his father's usually self-assured face. "We might as well wait here..."

"We have slightly less than five hours." Simon shook his head, clearly frustrated. "Our detectives are all working to locate anything at all on Randy Kaufman since he came back to Cascade. Right now, all we're drawing are blanks. Mr. Ellison, as we discussed, there's a team in place to tail you to the park and keep an eye on that suitcase. Of course, Jim will be in place much earlier. He'll be our closest man to the scene."

"I thought the instructions were Dad to make the delivery alone," Steven commented, looking to Jim.

"We can't leave that suitcase for Kaufman to pick up without following him," Jim said tightly. "No matter what the risk. Most kidnap victims are..." He swallowed hard against the tightness created by the cold, impersonal statistics that suddenly flashed through his mind. "Most are never found alive. We can't give Kaufman a clear get-away."

Banks stood up and stretched. Jim could hear his shoulder joints pop as he stretched. "I need a smoke. I'm going to go down to the deli and bring back subs for everyone." He nodded toward the bullpen. "Some of these people have been here around the clock, and we still have a long night ahead, I'm afraid. Steven? Would you lend a hand?"

Jim's brother stood up. "Of course."

Simon shut the door on his way out. Father and son were left alone.

Jim walked to the window and stared down. A minute later, he saw Steven and Simon, cigar smoke engulfing his head, cross the street toward the deli. It was raining - a slow, sad, steady rain that echoed an accompaniment to the pounding ache in Jim's heart.

Adding to his fear was his own helplessness. Being so completely useless aggravated Jim, and it took all his self-control to keep a measure of calm. Having his father around didn't help, but it was necessary. William was the target of all this madness, after all. The kidnapper would probably continue to want to deal with him directly, and it was Jim's responsibility to keep him safe, both as his son and as a cop.

"I'm sorry about all this, Jimmy."

William's voice was so soft, so sad, that at first, Jim thought he'd imagined the words. Still staring out at the rain, he asked, "What?"

His father's voice was firmer now, but beneath the words was an undeniable measure of pain. "I'm sorry that your friend is in danger because of me."

An apology. Not something Jim had heard often from his father. And it was for Blair's sake. For that, he was genuinely grateful. "Thanks, Pop. I know you didn't intend for any of this to go down. I just..." He stopped before he said something he'd regret. "Just... thanks."

"What? What were you going to say?" Now there was a hint of aggravation, of challenge, a tone much more familiar to Jim.

"Nothing. Nothing important."

"It was important or you wouldn't have begun to say it. Damn it, Jimmy, you never could say what you meant, not even as a kid."

That did it.

Jim turned slowly from the window, staring at his father. Who was this man? How the hell had he ever been his father? "All right, Pop. You want to know... I'll tell you. I was just wishing that you'd shown more compassion for people in your lifetime. If you had, maybe Blair would be safe right now, not terrified of dying at the hands of..." Realizing that his voice was shaking from anger, Jim stopped, breathing deeply. "You fired the guy two days before Christmas, Pop!"

William's eyes flashed. "He was making deals on the side! Losing money for the company at a time we could not afford any more losses! I had every right..."

"Every right to fire him, huh, Pop? A man with a family, two days before Christmas? Sure you had the right. You're the boss! The powerful William Ellison!" Jim scrubbed his hand through his short hair, too frustrated to remain still. "Do you ever stop to think how your decisions affect others? Did you ever once consider his wife? His son? Would a couple of weeks have mattered that much? Hell, a couple of days?"

"It was business, Jimmy. Nothing personal."

Bitterly, Jim turned back toward the window, his stomach churning. "Yeah, and business always comes first. Nothing personal. It's never personal with you, Pop, is it? I sure as hell should know that by now."

"Jimmy, I didn't want any of this to happen. Surely, you couldn't believe that of me."

"Of course not. Hell, it's my fault, too. I should have driven my own truck. It was me they were after, not Sandburg." Suddenly, Jim was too tired, too emotionally exhausted, to continue the argument, one that had already stretched out for a lifetime. There was more than enough blame - and guilt - to go around. "Apology accepted, Pop."

It was raining harder now, and Jim spotted Simon and Steven running back across the street, their hands laden with food, getting soaked in the downpour. "It'll all work out okay. We'll get him back. We have to."

Jim only wished he felt as confident as his own words sounded.

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

He managed to force down a few bites of the sandwich Simon had brought. Each bite stuck in his throat, requiring a determined effort to be swallowed. None of the men gathered around Simon's conference table spoke. Small talk was out of the question and discussing the numerous dead-ends they'd encountered thus far in their search for Randall Kaufman seemed detrimental to their goal of eating something to keep up their strength.

So silence reigned.

One by one, they gathered their trash and left the office, each heading back to work, still doggedly determined to find Sandburg and return him to their close-knit fold. Blair wasn't a cop, wasn't technically part of Major Crimes, but since he'd been with Jim, he'd become one of their own. They would not give up easily, and they were well aware of each tick of the clock. Even if each one of the members of Major Crimes hadn't been fond of Blair, they would still have done everything humanly possible to bring him back safely. They needed no extra impetus to solve this case. The pain in Jim's eyes was motivation enough.

When the other detectives had departed, Jim looked over at Simon. "We've still got some time before we have to roll. Let's go down and check on Derrick's progress. Maybe something's turned up on the tapes."

"Good idea.." Banks turned to William and Steven. "Wait here. Your calls at home are being transferred here, so in case we hear again from Kaufman, you should be where Rafe can reach you quickly to record the call. He'll let us know if there's a call, and we'll be right back up."

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

In his lab, Derrick Rowe was hunched over his desk, eyes shut tightly, headphones clamped over his ears. Ellison had been right; there was definitely something going on in the background of this last audio tape. All that remained was for Derrick's talented ears to figure out exactly what that something was.

The young black man leaned back in his chair, his face a mask of concentration, as the tape played another loop of its endless cycle. His lean, dexterous fingers fiddled with the computer keyboard and mouse, filtering out some sounds, enhancing others with the touch of a maestro.

Derrick had once been a musician with a bright future in classical guitar until his own intense interest in forensics lured him away from his musical studies. Now, the combination of his trained, sensitive ears and quick intelligence made him much in demand with detectives using auditory clues to solve crimes. He fulfilled his need for music with weekend gigs at local jazz clubs around Cascade. He was as much in demand as a guitarist as he was as a lab tech with the CPD.

His mind drifted to the gig he and his trio were playing Friday night. He hadn't been pleased with the way their last rehearsal had gone. The new bass player and he just hadn't clicked. He hoped...

Suddenly, Derrick sat upright. That was it! He grinned broadly and fiddled some more with the computer. Just as it so often happened, when his mind was occupied elsewhere, the answer appeared before him. Oh, man! It was so obvious all the time! How could he have missed it before?

As the light changed in the room from the opening of the door behind him, Derrick whirled around in his chair. Perfect timing!

"Hey, guys," he chortled, ripping off the headphones and grinning at the surprised Jim Ellison and Simon Banks. "Have I got a surprise for you! You are not gonna to believe this!"

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

Jim had to fight to suppress a grin at Derrick's enthusiasm. The amusement was bittersweet, however. The tech's zeal reminded Jim too much of a certain missing partner.

"See, I sometimes just let my mind wander when I'm tuned into a tape or something, y'know? It's like I focus better when I'm not so focused. Make sense?" Without waiting for a reply, Derrick zoomed on. "You guys may not know this, but I play jazz on the weekends and sometimes the rare weeknight. Nothing fancy, just local gigs. Anyway, as I was listening to this tape for the umpteenth time, the old mind started wandering off to our play list for Friday night. My toe started tapping to the music in my head, and that's when it hit me."

Grinning like the proverbial Cheshire cat, Derrick sat waiting. Jim bit back the impatient retort half-way launched from his lips. He caught Simon's glance, then the captain said hurriedly, "What, Derrick? What hit you?"

A look of pure triumph glowed in the younger man's eyes. "The beat on the tape, man. I recognized it. It was... me!"

Two sets of eyes widened in amazement. "Y... You...?" Jim stammered. "How...?"

"Are you sure?" Simon pressed. "How do you know for sure? The sound wasn't even clear. How...?"

"Because I know my own beat, guys. Plus, once I isolated the background sound, I recognized the rhythms... the chords... everything down to the reverb setting I was using on the song. Don't Get Around Much Any More, by the way, in case you're interested."

"W... what?" Jim was still reeling from the news. This was too good to be true, and as a veteran cop, he knew full well that what was too good to be true, often really was.

"The song," Derrick explained none-too-patiently. His hands gestured broadly; another reminder of Sandburg. "That's what we were playing when the call went down. Don't Get Around Much Any More."

"Where? Where were you playing?" Jim had recovered his equilibrium enough to think logically. There was no time to waste.

"We were at The Purple Plum, a restaurant and bar over on Cook. It was our first gig there, so we came in early to check out the scene and the set-up. It must have been about three or three-thirty yesterday afternoon when this tape was made. That's about the spot in our set when we do that song."

"What's around this place?" Simon asked, eyes intent on Derrick.

The younger man thought. "It's on the corner. On the right's a small grocery store. Mom and Pop sort of place, you know. I think there may be an apartment above that. The Plum goes all the way back on the ground floor. Upstairs are some loft apartments. Two, maybe three."

Simon nodded. "Then we assume Blair's being held somewhere around this restaurant. We need to zero in further, if possible." He picked up the phone on Derrick's desk. "Henri... I need you to find out everything you can about residences and businesses in and directly around the building where the Purple Plum restaurant and bar is located. This is urgent, top priority. I'll be back up in a minute."

Finally. The break they'd so desperately needed. Jim laid an appreciative hand on Derrick's shoulder. "Thank you," he said simply.

The younger man grinned broadly, and once again, Jim was struck by how much Derrick reminded him of Blair. "Not a problem. Just glad I could help. What are the odds, anyway?" Derrick shook his head, still smiling, obviously pleased with his contribution to the investigation.

"Call us if you come up with anything else on the audios or video," Simon said over his shoulder as they headed back up to Major Crimes.

"Will do!"

Too filled with energy to wait for the elevator, Jim loped down the hall, heading for the stairs. It was a long climb up, but he welcomed the exertion. He didn't hear Simon behind him and knew that the captain had opted for the elevator. Taking the steps like an athlete running to the top of his stadium, Jim charged upward. The pounding of his heart and the straining of his lungs were exhilarating. He felt alive again, in charge, no longer helpless, a victim to the imposed waiting.

They knew where Blair was.

I'm coming, Chief. Hang in there, kid. It won't be long now.

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

Less than three hours remained before the delivery according to the ransom delivery instructions. Gathered in Simon's office, frantic plans were underway to find and release Sandburg before the nine P.M. rendezvous at the park.

"We need to call in SWAT!" Simon shouted, no longer keeping his voice calm and reasonable. He'd been arguing with Jim for ten minutes, but the Sentinel stood his ground firmly. Jim insisted that he was the one going in after Blair, with back-up from the Major Crimes squad, but he was going in.

Jim crossed his arms, planted there in front of Simon's desk like an oak tree - unmoving and unyielding. "That's not the way. We can handle this, Simon. You and I take the first wave, and Joel, H., and Rafe can back us up. We know these guys aren't pros. And Blair's in there. I'm the one to go in after him. I have the training and experience. I can handle this. And you know it."

Simon glanced at William and Steven Ellison, both seated behind Jim at the conference table. Steven shrugged slightly, an obvious 'what can we do?' gesture.

Simon checked the clock. They were running out of time. If William Ellison didn't make the drop... if Sandburg weren't really where they suspected he was... the risk was just too great. "All right, all right," he surrendered, throwing up his hands, both literally and figuratively. He caught the triumphant look in Ellison's eyes. "Let's roll!"

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

The first step was to see for themselves exactly where Blair was being held. This time, as he stood in a darkened alley across the street from where they suspected his Guide was being held captive, Jim focus his hopes as intently as he directed his hearing at the buildings surrounding the Purple Plum. Blair had to be there. The minutes were dwindling quickly.

At least this alley didn't smell as putrid as the last one.

The sentinel began with the lively sounds emerging from the Plum. Lots of people having a good meal and a good time. A wistful longing intruded momentarily, interfering with his concentration. When was the last time he'd just relaxed and had an enjoyable evening out with friends? Had life ever been that simple?

It was dark, and the cheery lights from the restaurant/bar added to the sense of everything being out of whack. He was ready for this to be over. Jim was ready to get his life back.

Forcing out the distracting thoughts, Jim moved on. Filtering out first one sound, then another and another, as a skillful fisherman uses his net to find the desired catch, Jim patiently kept searching. Amazingly, he felt calm, absolutely certain. Blair was in there. He just had to find him.

When he heard it, unmistakable and undeniable, the Sentinel wanted to shout with relief. Blair's heartbeat! Following the welcome sound, Jim pinpointed its origins. "There!" He pointed to a window in the building next door to the Plum, on its right. "The second floor, front. I'm picking up two additional heartbeats besides Sandburg's."

Simon immediately sprang into command mode. Radioing to his men, waiting in cars around the corner, he ordered them in on foot. "We'll meet you out front." Turning to Jim, he asked, "You ready?"

Jim met his captain's eyes. "Very ready, sir. Let's go get Sandburg."

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

"Jim and I go in first," Simon said, his voice clipped and determined. "Rafe, you handle crowd control outside. Keep everyone away from that door until back-up arrives. "Henri and Joel, you follow right behind us. Watch our backs. We think there's only two kidnappers in there with Blair right now, that it's Randy along with some new hired gun Kaufman picked up, but we can't be sure." He jerked his head toward the building. "Let's go."

There was a separate entrance to the second floor apartment, and Simon had no trouble breaking its lock. Weapons drawn, he and Jim quickly moved up the stairs, and once more, found themselves barreling into an apartment, unsure of exactly what kind of firepower they might be facing.

Jim rushed through the door, and a bullet whizzed by his head. Without hesitation, he fired once to his left, the direction of the bullet. Simon's bullet followed his by a fraction of a second. A tall, thin man in his mid-thirties clutched his chest, a look of complete surprise mixed with agony contorting his face. His pistol clattered to the floor a few seconds before his body fell on top of it. Keeping his gun pointed at the assailant, Jim looked for any sign of movement. A quick check with his hearing confirmed that the gunman was dead.

One down, one to go.

Simon motioned to the doorway to their right. Jim nodded and stepped through, his gun ready. Taking two steps inside the room, he immediately pulled up short. Keeping his gun trained on the man he now recognized as Randall Kaufman, his other arm shot out to block Simon's path. "Easy," he cautioned.

Kaufman stood in the far corner of the bedroom, away from the window, beside a straight chair that was tied to a bed railing. In the chair was Kaufman's captive, bound tightly, gagged and blindfolded. Kaufman held the barrel of his pistol firmly against Blair's temple.

"Make another move, and I'll blow his brains out!" At the words, Blair shifted nervously against his bonds, his head moving restlessly against the pressure of the gun. He cried out, but the sound was only a muffled moan.

"Easy, Chief," Jim soothed, his eyes locked on Kaufman. "It's Jim, buddy. I'm here. Easy... easy."

Blair calmed instantly at the sound of Jim's voice, but Jim could hear his heart hammering. His muffled voice moaned again. "... immmm... immm..."

Jim recognized the sound of his name from behind the gag. His throat tightened at the desperate sound. "That's it, Blair. Just take it easy. I'm here now. Everything's going to be all right. Hang in there."

Turning his attention to Kaufman again, Jim spoke calmly. "You don't want to do this, Randy. It's all over. You can see that. Right now, it's kidnapping. We don't know what happened with Caleb Stillman. Could have been self-defense. That's negotiable. But if you pull that trigger, it's murder. Of a cop's partner. You don't have to take that next step. Just lay down the gun and kick it over to me."

"No!" Jim could see the kidnapper's hands shaking. "He's got to pay! My dad... my mom... he's responsible, and I'm gonna make him pay!"

"That's just not going to happen, Randy," Jim pointed out reasonably. "We've got a street full of cops down there. No way you're getting out of this alive if you shoot Sandburg."

"I don't care!" Kaufman's voice bordered on hysterical, and he jabbed the gun barrel hard against Blair's head. The bound man winced, crying out from beneath the gag.

"It's okay, Blair." Jim wanted nothing more than to make a break for it, to charge in and force that damned gun away from his partner's temple, but Jim restrained himself. He couldn't take the risk. Not with Blair's life. He heard the panicked thundering of Sandburg's heart, and he forced his voice to remain soft and soothing. "Easy... easy."

"Listen to me," Jim said, forcing his eyes from Blair and making eye contact with Kaufman again. Beneath the rapid drumming of Blair's heart, he could hear Simon's anxious breathing behind him, could smell his sweat. Everyone in the room was terrified, including the desperate man holding the gun. Literally, holding Jim and Blair's lives in his hands. "Randy, no one here wants to hurt you. You have to believe that."

Jim searched desperately for the right words, the words that would end the nightmare. "You want revenge against my father, right? Killing Sandburg isn't going to accomplish that, believe me. You lost your mom and dad, both within a year of each other, so you know what pain is."

For an instant, Jim saw Kaufman waver, a momentary softness appear in his eyes. Jim pounced on that slight sign of humanity.

He worked to keep his voice calm... reasonable... despite the thundering of his own heart and the answering pounding of Blair's. Never had so much been riding on his words. Not a man given to easy expression of his own emotions, Jim realized instinctively that baring his soul to this stranger, this calculating, violent stranger, might be the only way to save Sandburg. As difficult as that might be, it had to be done.

Taking a deep breath, Jim held Kaufman's desperate eyes. "I haven't hurt you, Randy. Blair hasn't hurt you. If you hurt him, you'll only be putting me through the same pain you felt back then. If you kill Blair..."

Jim's last words broke with emotion, but after swallowing hard, he forged on, hating the sheer vulnerability he heard in his own voice. "If you kill him, you won't hurt William Ellison one iota, but I swear to you, you'll kill me. Your parents were your life back then, weren't they? It hurt like hell to lose them. It still hurts, doesn't it? Well, Blair is my life, Randy, and if you take him from me forever, you won't be doing anything to avenge the death of your father. You'll just be sentencing me to a lifetime of grief and pain. William Ellison won't give a damn, believe me, but his son... his son will never stop hurting again. Just like your father's son has never stopped hurting. Stop the pain now. You can do that. Put down the gun, Randy. Please."

Jim held his breath expectantly. He didn't know what else to say, what else he could do. Jim knew that across the street, on the building directly opposite, a sniper waited. If Kaufman didn't back down, if he didn't release Blair, Jim's next option was to try to maneuver the kidnapper in front of the uncontained window. But that meant drawing him away from Blair, and Jim didn't hold out much hope for that. Kaufman's hostage was his only hope.

Jim could see tears leaking from beneath Blair's blindfold, could see the minute tremors that wracked his body. "It's all right, Chief," he murmured, as much for his own comfort as for Blair's. "He's not going to hurt you. It's going to be all right. I'm right here. It's almost over. Take it easy."

A lifetime later, Kaufman slowly lowered the gun from Blair's temple.

And raised it to his own.

"I can't go back," he said deliberately, shaking his head slightly. "I can't go back to prison. It would be for life this time, and I just can't do that. I won't..."

Jim felt Simon's gun lowering slightly beside him, heard the swish of steel brushing through air, smelled the metallic scent grow stronger. The relief at seeing the gun moved from Sandburg's head battled with the horror of the image of it now pressed to Kaufman's. Even if the man had kidnapped and hurt his Guide, Jim had no wish to see him splatter his brains all over the wall. And Blair.

"Randy, that isn't the answer, either. Surely you have some family, someone who cares about you?" He was grabbing for straws and knew it.

Somehow, it seemed he'd clutched the right straw. He saw the hesitation in Kaufman's eyes.

Jim pressed on. "Who? Wife? Kids?"

Kaufman nodded. "Wife... back in Vegas. A kid, too. A son. Randy, Junior."

Jim pressed harder. "You don't want them to lose you completely, do you? They'll understand what drove you to this, but if you end your life, your son will lose you just like you lost your dad. You don't want that to happen, do you?"

Randy's words tumbled like dry straw in a whirlwind. "He deserves better than me. He always has. If I'm gone, Mary can find someone else. She's young, and oh, man, so beautiful." Tears welled in the confused brown eyes. "I have to leave her something..."

Slowly, the gun lowered, and Jim breathed a half-sigh of relief. It caught in his throat as the gun raised once more, this time, pointed directly at him. Kaufman took one step closer... then another... and another.

No, Jim thought, don't do this. Please, don't make me...

He saw Kaufman's thumb ease back to cock the gun. "Randy, don't..."

"Don't you see? This is the only way out, for me and for Mary." Tears flooded his eyes, trailing down his cheeks in rivers. Jim could smell his fear, the sweat of it and the salt of his tears. "I'm sorry for what I did - for what Stillman did - to him." He jerked his head toward Blair. "And to your father and you. Look at it this way, I'm saving the state the expense of a trial." The tears stopped and a look of grim determination replaced the fear. "I'm sorry..."

Jim watched Kaufman's trigger finger, moving back in slow motion. He had to be sure... had to be certain the man intended to shoot.

He did.

Jim fired, and at precisely the same moment, Simon fired, once each and then again, simultaneous bullets ripping into flesh. Hot blood spattered everywhere, coating the walls - and Blair - with a thin, hot crimson sheen.

As the bullets hit, Kaufman jerked back, his eyes wide with realization and shock. Jerkily, like a broken marionette, he crumpled to his knees. Frozen for an instant, he looked up at Jim with a sad half-smile. "Thank... you."

He pitched forward and didn't move again.

"'Death by cop'," Simon muttered, lowering his gun and grabbing his radio.

Jim was frozen to the spot, staring at the man lying motionless on the floor. How the hell had this happened? His trance was broken by the sounds of muffled sobs.

"Blair!" Rushing forward, he reached his trembling Guide. Blood was splattered all over the younger man, dripping from his face. Ripping off the blindfold, he found the wide, frightened blue eyes, almost black from fear. "It's all right," Jim murmured as he worked to free his partner. "It's all over, Chief. You're okay now."

Jim's hands shook as he fought to loosen the gag. The cloth was knotted tightly and had tangled in Blair's long, matted curls. As he worked, Simon moved in and began cutting the ropes binding Blair to the chair. They encircled his arms, wrists, legs and feet, rendering him unable to move at all. Jim thought as he worked that they should have put on the plastic gloves, required now anytime a cop dealt with blood at a scene. But that would have taken precious seconds and at that moment, nothing mattered to Jim more than freeing Blair. He noticed that Simon hadn't taken time to put on gloves either.

The damned knots just wouldn't come out. He considered using Simon's knife, but he hated to bring a blade so close to his traumatized partner's face. "Damn it!" Jim cursed his own clumsiness, as Blair stared up at him, then down at the bloody body of Randall Kaufman, with those cursedly terrified eyes.

Low, keening moans, muffled by the gag, added to Jim's sense of urgency and heightened his clumsiness. All he could do was keep up the flow of words, hoping they might bring some comfort. "Easy, Blair, easy. It's all over, I promise. Just can't seem... to get... the damn knots undone. Shhhh... it's all right."

Finally! The last knot slipped loose, and Jim carefully unwound the cloth from Blair's head, easing it from his mouth. Reaching in with gentle fingers, he took the wadded sponge out of his partner's mouth and threw them both angrily on the ground.

Immediately, Blair drew in great, gulping breaths. "J... J... Jim! I... I... Jim... "

At that moment, Simon cut through the last of the ropes binding Blair's arms, and the younger man reached out, grasping for Jim. The Sentinel reached around Blair, pulling him roughly to him, easing them both to the floor and out of the chair that had become Sandburg's prison.

Blair's entire body was shaking in great waves. He buried his head hard into Jim's shoulder, his arms wrapped in a vise-grip around Jim's neck. Sobs shook his body, and Jim tightened his hold on Blair. He bent his head low. "It's all right... shhhh... I'm here... I'm here... let it out, Blair... let it out."

Dimly, he heard the crime scene investigators arrive and begin processing the scene. They spoke in hushed voices, and no one came too close to the two figures huddled together on the blood-spattered floor. Eventually, Jim felt Simon's warm hand on his shoulder, squeezing gently in unspoken support. "Jim? He okay?"

Jim nodded. He'd already done a quick inventory of his Guide, skimming sensitive fingers over his body to check for obvious injury. "A head gash... must be where all that blood came from. Otherwise, except for some pretty nasty bruises and cuts, he seems okay. I want to get him checked out, though."

"I've called for the ambulance," Simon said quietly. "It should..."

"No..."

Jim bent back down, closer to Blair's face. "Chief? You have to go to the hospital. You know that. I'll be with you. I promise."

The weary head pressed against him shook as Blair whispered, "No... no ambulance."

Jim glanced up at Simon, confused. "No ambulance? But..."

"Don't... want to... have anyone... touch me. The noise and... everything. Can't handle that... yet. Not after he... please, Jim... don't make me." The final word broke on a sob.

Oh, God. Jim's heart plummeted. What had they done to Sandburg? He remembered Kaufman's apology for something Stillman had done. His heart turned icy at the thought. Were there injuries he hadn't yet discovered? Injuries not immediately visible? From the look on Simon's face, he was thinking the same thing.

"Okay," Jim said gently, never easing his hold on Blair. "This is what we'll do. Simon can drive us to the hospital in his car. When we get there, Dr. Carroll can take a look at you. You know Dr. Carroll, Blair. You trust her, right?"

A barely perceptible nod was accompanied by a whispered, "Yes..."

Jim heard the relief in Blair's voice, and his arms tightened around the man he considered his brother. "No one else will touch you, and it'll be nice and quiet. No fuss, no pressure. I promise. You're doing great, Chief. Everything's going to be fine." In one corner of his mind, Jim was amazed at the calmness of his own voice. A definite contrast from the anger and pain churning in his heart.

"You... won't... leave... me?" The words were heartbreaking in their need. Jim felt Blair's fingers clinch at his sweater and hold on tightly.

Jim closed his eyes against the stab of pain in his heart. Pressing his cheek tightly to the crown of Blair's head, he whispered, "I won't leave you. I promise. I won't leave." The words may have reassured Blair, but Jim looked up at Simon with haunted eyes.

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

The ride to the hospital was one of the longest Simon could remember taking. Throughout the silent drive, his eyes flicked to the rearview mirror where he could see the two men in his back seat. They'd found a blanket for Blair and that seemed to have helped ease the violent tremors. Still, frequent shivers wracked his frame, and an occasional sob broke from his throat. No wonder, given what the kid had endured.

And that was only what they knew about for certain. Simon didn't want to consider what else they might discover at the hospital about the treatment Blair had received at the hands of his abductors.

Blair rested against Jim, turned sideways on the seat, curled up tightly against his Sentinel. Jim's arms enfolded Blair, providing a haven of safety, a bulwark against the terrors of the world. There was an expression of raw grief mixed with unabashed love on Jim's face as he gazed down at the battered face of his partner. Simon had no doubt that the Sentinel would shelter his Guide forever within those powerful arms, if necessary.

Simon had seen many close partnerships in his career. He'd seen men willing to lay down their lives for their partners. Hell, he'd had partners he'd have died for many times over. But never had he witnessed the closeness - the brotherhood - that bound Sandburg and Ellison together. To catch such an undisguised glimpse of Jim's feelings for Blair was a rare occurrence, however. Usually, Jim's public displays of affection for the younger man were limited to quick taps on the cheek or a grin that couldn't quite be contained.

To see the pain on Jim's face as he gazed down at Sandburg...

It hurt. Physically hurt.

Simon knew once they hit the hospital doors, Jim's walls would once again go up, shielding his churning emotions from the outside world. Simon was thankful his friend had these few minutes to let his pain show.

And he was thankful Jim trusted him enough to let down his defenses, if only for the short ride to the hospital.

Sandburg appeared to be dozing for the moment. That was good. He needed rest, and once they arrived at the hospital, there wouldn't be any of that for a while. "Is he asleep?" he whispered.

Jim lifted his head as his eyes met Simon's in the mirror. "Yeah. He's drifting in and out. That's good. For now."

When Simon glanced back again, Jim's head rested against Blair's once more. One hand cupped the back of Sandburg's head, pressing it to his shoulder. Before he had time to suppress the question as too personal and probably none of his business, Simon asked, "If they did... something... to him, will he be all right? Will you be all right with that? Will you be able to get past it?"

Jim didn't ask him to clarify. "Yes." No hesitation in that reply. "Blair's strength never ceases to amaze me. He'll survive this someone. It won't be easy, but he'll survive."

He fell silent, staring down at the sleeping face nestled against him. Simon saw the moisture gathering in Jim's eyes when he glanced back in the mirror. "Me? It's not even an issue. None of it was his fault or his choice. Whatever happened, we'll get past it together. Nothing anyone could do to Blair would change how I feel about him, Simon. We're stronger than that. No matter what happened, they can't touch us."

Jim drew a ragged breath, then added softly, "If Sandburg's taught me anything, it's that this Sentinel/Guide thing is long-term. It's for life. Nothing can change that."

Simon smiled tightly in relief and concentrated once more on the road. It took a special kind of friendship - a special kind of family - to survive all that the world had thrown at Jim and Blair. They had survived in the few years they'd been together more than most partners endured in two lifetimes. Jim and Blair would get through this, too. Simon would put money on it.

Behind him, a ragged voice whispered, "Did you mean that?"

Simon felt an immediate sense of intrusion, as though he was hearing something so private that he wished for a way to leave the two of them, but it was impossible. He could only bear witness and be honored that they trusted him to do so.

Jim's voice was rough with emotion. "Every word." A gentle hand smoothed back unruly curls. "You know what you are to me."

"Works both ways, man. I was... so glad... to hear your voice." There was a quiet sob.

"Shhhh... You did a great job, Chief. You helped us find you. I don't know..." There was a hitch in Jim's voice, in his breathing, and Simon winced at the obvious pain in his friend's voice. "I don't know if I could have found you in time without your clues."

"Doesn't... matter how. Just... that you came." A pause, then another soft whisper. "Jim... he... Caleb... came... to... he tore off... all my clothes... I was tied up... tried to fight..." A muffled sob stopped the words, and Simon glanced back to see Jim cradling Blair tightly, hugging him close.

"Shhhhh..." Jim whispered, glancing up to meet Simon's eyes in the mirror. The anguish in those blue eyes was unmistakable, but Jim's voice remained calm and reassuring. "Later. We can deal with it all later. Whatever happened, it's going to be all right." The timbre of Jim's voice grew richer - darkened by strong emotions. "Everything's going to be all right, Blair."

When the bright lights of the ER entrance shone in his eyes, Simon blamed them for the wet fog threatening to obscure his vision.

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

"All right, Blair," Dr. Carroll said softly. "I'm all done." She brushed a strand of graying hair back behind her ear and looked over at Jim. "I'm going to talk with Jim out in the hall, okay? You get dressed, and we'll be right back. Do you need any help?"

Blair shook his head but didn't reply. He'd been quiet ever since Dr. Carroll had begun her exam, too quiet for Jim's comfort. Then again, Blair had just endured a traumatic experience. He had a right to withdraw a little, to take a step back from the world for a while. "Will you be all right, Chief?"

"Yeah. I'll be okay." His voice sounded too small. Too lost.

Giving Blair an encouraging smile, Jim followed Dr. Carroll into the hallway, keeping his hearing focused on the small exam room to monitor their patient. He'd been a bit surprised when the doctor had requested talking to him apart from Blair. "Is he all right?" Jim asked immediately once the door closed behind them.

Janet Carroll leaned back against the wall and nodded. "Physically, yes. The head laceration took quite a few stitches, and he's going to be sore for a while from the blows he took, but that's about all. I've checked him out thoroughly, and the x-rays I took don't reveal any internal damage. The bruises were only superficial."

Jim winced as he remembered the dark, ugly bruises that covered Blair's face and body. Superficial, maybe, but painful just the same. "He said that one of his captors tried to..." Jim swallowed hard. "He didn't finish telling me everything, but I got the feeling he might have been sexually assaulted."

She nodded. "Yes, I'm afraid there was an attack. There was penetration, and on top of that, the attacker worked him over pretty badly. You saw the bruises on his abdomen and the rope burns on his ankles. He's going to hurt from the rape for quite a while, but there was no lasting damage. Not physically anyway." Dr. Carroll frowned. "And those wrists... We're going to have to be careful with those lacerations. The risk of infection is high, considering how long they were left untreated. It's obvious that Blair fought like hell for his freedom."

The image of his Guide jerking his cuffed wrists hard enough to cause the damage he'd seen turned Jim's stomach. He tried to focus on other things. Like Blair, he could deal with the rest later. "You didn't ask him much about the attack."

"No. I got the distinct feeling from Blair that he isn't ready to talk yet. There weren't any serious injuries, so I really don't have a medical reason to delve into what happened to him. Of course, I'm going to talk to him about receiving counseling, but frankly, Jim, I think you are the one he needs to open up to."

She hesitated, looked down for a moment, then reestablished eye contact with Jim. "I've known a lot of cops in my days, Detective. I know the attitude out there toward any lifestyle considered deviant. I'm sure the two of you have been the brunt of innuendo and jokes before."

Jim nodded slowly, hating to admit the truth. He'd heard the whispers. There was no way he could miss them.

The doctor continued. "I know Blair will be worried about the rape becoming public knowledge. He trusts you. Get him to talk about what happened. Help him work through his emotions so that he can understand that nothing that happened to him was his fault. I think he'll be all right, but he's going to need your help. You may find you need someone to talk with as well, Jim. The two of you are extraordinarily close. In many ways, you are a victim, too."

Jim couldn't deny the truth of that statement, at least to himself. "We'll be all right, Doctor. If he needs counseling, I'll see that he gets it." Jim held out his hand. "Thank you for your patience and understanding."

Dr. Carroll shook Jim's hand firmly. "My pleasure. Blair's one of my favorite patients. So are you, for that matter." After a quick grin, she wrote quickly on the chart she held. "There's really no need for him to remain here tonight. I think he'll rest much better in his own bed. I'm dismissing him, but I want to check him again on Monday. Of course, if you need me, just call the hospital, and they'll page me immediately. I'm just a phone call away."

Jim thanked her again, then he went back into the small exam room to collect his battered partner and go home at last.

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

Blair breathed a sigh of heartfelt relief when Jim closed the loft door behind them. He was home. He'd wondered if he'd ever see it again, and over the course of his captivity, there had been times he'd been sure that he wouldn't. Strange how quickly life can turn around, he thought as he walked slowly toward his room. One second, everything's normal. Just an average day. The next, your whole world blows apart.

"Hey, Chief."

Blair turned to find Jim watching him.

"You want something to eat? Joel sent over some homemade chicken soup. Looked pretty good."

Did he want to eat? Blair considered briefly. Maybe... he needed his strength. Still, the thought of food made him almost nauseous. But he needed to eat, right?

Why was such a simple decision so hard to make? Eat or not eat? What was so hard about that? Yet, it made his head hurt to think about it.

He opted for the easy way out. "Not yet. What I really want is a long, hot bath." As a look of disappointment flashed across Jim's features, he added, "But after that, yeah, some soup sounds great. Go ahead and put it on to heat. I'll be out in a little while." He even managed a quick smile and hoped it served to ease Jim's mind, at least a little.

Retreating to his room, Blair gathered up his softest warm sweats and socks and, after a moment's deliberation, one of Jim's old flannel shirts he'd saved from the pile of discards destined for Goodwill. Sure, it was silly, maybe even juvenile, but he knew that sliding into Jim's worn-out shirt would add to his sense of safety. So what if it was silly? Hadn't he earned the right to pamper himself a little?

That left the problem of what to do with the clothes he was wearing. The jeans were his, but the shirt... It was the one Kaufman had put on him after the... attack. Quickly, he slipped out of every stitch, letting them fall to the floor in a crumbled heap. Blair stood in the middle of the floor, staring down at the pile of discarded clothing. He shivered, then grabbed his old robe, pulling it around him like a shield.

A hand descended on his shoulder and squeezed firmly. "It's okay, Chief. I'll get rid of them while you clean up. You've got plenty of other jeans, and... that shirt doesn't look like your style anyway." Again, the hand tightened on his shoulder. "You go soak a while. I'll take care of this."

Gratefully, Blair looked up into Jim's face. The genuine warmth and concern he saw there bolstered his spirits. Jim would take care of anything he couldn't handle. He was home. Cared for and loved. Not sure he trusted his voice to speak, Blair nodded, reached up and laid his hand over Jim's and squeezed. He nodded quickly, then retreated to the bathroom.

Closing the door behind him, Blair leaned back against it, breathing heavily. Okay. One problem down. Now all he had to do was take a bath, then slip into his own soft, clean clothes. He could do that.

Feeling a little stronger, he shuffled over to the tub and started the water, adjusting it with a hand beneath the faucet. While the water warmed up, he stood before the mirror and slowly, deliberately, peeled off the robe, his eyes closed.

He didn't want to look, didn't want to see, but he had to do this. Taking a long breath, Blair slowly opened his eyes and stared at the reflection of a stranger.

The face looking back at him was too thin. Dark circles hung below the lifeless blue eyes, and bruises and scrapes and cuts punctuated his face. The corners of his mouth were cut and bruised where the gag had bitten into his skin. Looking down, he saw rope burns on his ankles, and Blair shuddered at the memories. His wrists were bandaged heavily, but beneath the bandages, they throbbed steadily with every beat of his heart. Even Dr. Carroll had cringed at the sight of his battered wrists. His mind flashed back, remembering how hard he'd pulled against the cuffs, struggling for freedom, forcing the blood to flow in hopes it would help him escape.

He pushed away those memories. Forcing himself to look, Blair stared at the bruises on his torso where he'd been punched and hit by his rapist. He could see the bruised imprints of Caleb's thick fingers where he'd pinched Blair. There were several distinct bite marks, colored bright purple now, where...

Blair jerked his head up. Unable to bear the memory, he groaned softly. Biting back the sound for fear Jim would hear, Blair moved quickly to the tub.

He was so filthy. He had to get clean. Had to remove all traces of his captors. All traces of the attack. Oh, God, how had Jim been able to stand being around him? How had he been able to hold him, to comfort him, when Blair reeked of them? The sense of smell was so powerful, and Jim could smell their scent on his Guide, smell the stench of their hands and bodies and their mouths and the blood and...

Grabbing the hot water handle, Blair twisted it hard, turning the water temperature up until it was steaming hot. The steam filled the small bathroom, fogging the mirror and sending droplets of water dripping onto the sink below.

Blair stepped into the shower. The hot water struck his body like a pot of boiling water, but Blair ignored the pain. Hot water was good. It would cleanse him and then he could begin to forget. He twisted the handle again, cranking up the temperature even more.

He started with his hair. They had washed his hair, at least partially, in the hospital. At least enough to remove the blood splatter from Kaufman. He didn't think he would survive seeing his kidnapper's blood washing down the drain.

Blair carefully avoided the protective bandages over the stitches in his scalp, but everything else was fair game. Scrubbing furiously, he lathered and rinsed... again... again... again. Despite the hospital washing, he definitely could still smell and feel the filth there, so he washed his long hair three more times, each time scrubbing harder and harder. The curls would be tangled beyond hope with such a vigorous washing, but what did it matter? He had to get clean... had to wash the stench from his hair. More determined than ever, Blair once again lathered and rinsed until the shampoo bottle was finally empty.

Blair turned his attention to the bruises on his body. With a washcloth lathered with soap, he scrubbed angrily, ignoring the pain the contact with his battered, bruised skin caused. Every inch of his body hurt, inside and out. The inside pain was much worse, for it triggered the nightmarish memories once again.

But like the tangles in his hair, the pain didn't matter. He had to get rid of the smell, wash away the imprints of their fingers.

Jim would know.

The Sentinel would see their marks, smell their stench. Jim wouldn't be able to stand him if he didn't. He couldn't hurt Jim. He wouldn't cause his friend any more pain.

So he had to get rid of every trace of the men who had done this to him. He had to cleanse his body. Completely. Had to rid himself of every vestige of the days they'd held him captive... kept him totally helpless... raped him. If he scrubbed hard enough, surely even the marks of his teeth would disappear. He had to make it all disappear.

Tears flowed freely down his face, even as Blair worked furiously to clean himself. "Can't... get... it... off... gotta get clean... can't let... Jim... see... can't let him... smell them...," he chanted, over and over and over in a desperate mantra. If he repeated the words often enough, if he could just scrub hard enough, maybe he would feel clean.

The hot water fizzled out, ending little by little, as though warning him that its precious warmth was limited. Blair didn't notice even though his skin was reddened and raw. He knew he was shivering, but compared to the enormity of the task at hand, it seemed an insignificant distraction.

He could still see the imprints of his fingers, scent the foul odor of their body. How could that be? He was scrubbing so hard, working so diligently to erase all trace of him. Why couldn't he get rid of him?

Now he was bleeding again. The red water swirled down the drain in a crimson whirlpool. Damn it, why wouldn't the bleeding stop? He sobbed brokenly, biting his lip in a desperate attempt to keep quiet so Jim wouldn't hear.

Jim couldn't hear.

Please don't let Jim hear...

Jim already blamed himself for his kidnapping; Blair could sense that so clearly. Every stolen glance his way radiated guilt and pain. Jim was hurting enough already. Blair couldn't let Jim hear him cry. He had to be strong. Jim would be strong... why couldn't he?

He bit down harder on his lip and tasted his own tangy, coppery blood. He was still dirty and bleeding and filthy and now he couldn't stop crying and Jim would hear and he would ruin everything and...

The shower curtain parted, but Blair shut his eyes, not wanting to face his failure. The water shut off, then gentle, firm hands were on his shoulders, drawing him around. A soft voice whispered to him, never rushing him, not chastising him for using all the hot water, guiding him carefully from the tub and onto a soft, dry mat.

Blair kept his eyes closed and focused on the low rumble of Jim's voice. A warm, soft towel patted him dry, carefully tending to the sorest areas and gently drawing out the pain along with the moisture. He didn't have to think, didn't have to care for himself right now. Jim was there, his soothing voice carrying Blair away from the horrible memories.

Was this how Jim felt when he listened to his Guide? Safe? Secure?

Completely and utterly cared for?

Loved unconditionally?

Blair fervently hoped so.

For a brief moment, Blair sent up a quick prayer that he somehow provided for his brother the very peace that swept over him now.

He felt his legs drawn into twin tunnels of warmth. His sweatpants. A few seconds later, Blair felt his arms being maneuvered into a shirt so soft, so warm that he smiled with delight. It had to be Jim's shirt, wrapping him in comforting flannel, just as its owner had wrapped him in this cocoon of safety. He drew a deep breath, burying his face in the worn fabric and smiled when he caught a whiff of Jim's familiar scent. How had Jim known that was what he needed?

Strong, yet gentle hands guided him to his own room, to sit on the edge of the bed. Jim's voice rumbled low, close to his ear, but Blair didn't bother listening to the words. They weren't important.

He felt Jim come to sit beside him then turn Blair slightly away from him. As Jim began weaving his fingers through the thick, difficult mats in his hair, Blair smiled with delight. Even though it pulled a little, despite Jim's slow caution, it felt so wonderful to be cared for. As Jim worked, brushing out his hair, then lightly toweling it dry, Blair kept his eyes closed.

Strong arms wrapped around him then, drawing him close. Again, the rumbling of Jim's voice reached through the heavy fog surrounding Blair, but he couldn't understand the words. He relaxed against Jim, letting his friend support his weight. He could lean on Jim. What an amazing concept. There was finally someone in his life he could trust to take care of him. Trust to protect him. Blair sighed in contentment.

He wasn't alone.

When Jim eventually pulled the covers over him, Blair felt the Sentinel settle himself at the foot of the bed.

The Sentinel was keeping watch.

All was well.

Blair tried to whisper his thanks, but he didn't think the words came out past the drowsy numbness in his throat. But words didn't matter. Jim knew. Somehow, Jim always knew.

It was over. He was home. Warm, safe, and dry.

What more could he ask?

Only that he never have to open his eyes again.

Exhausted mentally and physically, knowing his friend - his Sentinel - would keep watch over him through the night, Blair sank deeper and allowed the darkness of sleep to claim him.

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

Jim heard every word Blair muttered as he scrubbed and scrubbed, heard every bitten-off moan. For a time, he chose to ignore it, to give his friend the privacy and the dignity he so richly deserved.

But as the minutes ticked by, and the sobs and the moans and the sad, helpless mutterings grew more intense, Jim could hold back no longer.

Pure horror raced through Jim at the sight of Sandburg standing in the cold shower, rubbing his skin completely raw. Rivulets of blood dripped down Sandburg's naked body, coloring the water below a horrific shade of pink. Steam covered the bathroom in a heavy cloud, making it clear that until the hot water ran out, Sandburg had been taking a scalding shower.

His first instinct had been to grab his friend, to shout at him and literally shake some reason into him.

His second had been to gather Blair into his arms and hold him, for as long as it took for the healing to begin.

The second, more powerful, instinct won out.

As soon as Sandburg was dry and that mess of hair combed out and dried, the Sentinel acted on his strong primal instinct to protect. Maybe Sandburg needed this as much as he did; maybe not. Jim only knew that he needed to hold Blair, needed to feel with every sense he possessed that his friend was truly alive and safe. If Blair objected, if he pulled away from Jim, he could deal with that. Could understand it, considering what Sandburg had been through. He just hoped it wouldn't happen.

It didn't.

He held Blair close. Opening his senses up, Jim allowed the warmth of Blair's body, encased in the soft, clean shirt and sweats, to seep into his own skin. He breathed a sigh of gratitude.

Where there was warmth, there was life.

Sandburg was alive... safe... where he belonged once more. Jim's breath caught at the thought of how close he'd come to losing Sandburg this time. He shut his eyes against the pain of it. "Shhhh..." Jim knew the soothing sound was more for himself than his partner.

His arms tightened instinctively, and Jim dropped his forehead to rest on Sandburg's shoulder. Blair rested quietly against his chest, his breathing deepening by the minute, and Jim knew his friend would soon be asleep.

What had they done to him? More importantly, how could he help Blair recover?

"I'm sorry, Blair," Jim whispered, not caring that his voice was rough and unsteady. "I promise you this... I don't give a damn what they did to you - or tried to do. I'm here for you... no matter what. It doesn't matter what they did, do you understand that? It only matters that you're safe. Here... with me. Where you belong."

Jim stopped for a moment, just taking in the feeling of holding Blair - alive and safe. "I promise you... we'll get through this. Together, we'll find a way to handle it. Whatever it takes, Blair. Whatever you need."

The last words were barely whispered, Jim's breath scarcely stirring the chestnut curls against his lips. "I love you, my brother."

He saw the smile that curved Blair's lips and knew.

Blair had heard.

Gently lowering his friend down on the bed, Jim carefully pulled the covers up around his shoulders. He studied the battered face sadly. As many bruises as Blair had on his body right now, the worst bruises weren't visible, even to Sentinel eyes. There was a long road ahead of them.

Sighing sadly, Jim found a spot on the end of Sandburg's bed and leaned back against the wall. Tired as he was, he couldn't entertain the thought of leaving now. He would rest better right where he was, where he could keep watch. Closing his eyes, Jim took a deep breath.

Sandburg was safe. He'd done all he could for now.

They could rest.

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

Days passed. Jim refused to leave the loft, to leave Blair, during the first days of his homecoming, so the members of Major Crimes ran 'care packages' to their comrades. Every member of the unit understood; no one questioned Jim's stone-faced refusal to leave Blair unattended. His partner was hurting. Jim wouldn't leave him. No mystery there.

Every one of them would have done the same.

Jim watched Blair carefully. The younger man was jumpy, starting at the sound of a door closing upstairs or the sudden blare of the television. Understandable, given the ordeal he'd just experienced.

Blair spent quite a few hours alone in his room, but that didn't worry Jim either. Blair left the door open, an obvious signal that he wasn't shutting his friend out, just taking time to be by himself. To deal with what he'd been through.

A part of Jim wanted to know - needed to know - what had happened to Blair during his abduction. Another part dreaded ever obtaining that knowledge. Simon hadn't deemed it necessary to take a detailed statement, given the fact that the kidnappers were all deceased. Jim would be eternally grateful that his friend had been spared that agony.

Still, Blair needed to talk about it. Jim was no shrink, but he knew keeping the memories and emotions inside couldn't be healthy. He appreciated the irony of that realization. He was the one with the reputation for being the king of denial. Yet, Jim knew Blair needed to talk about this.

He didn't ask... didn't press... but Jim tried everything he could think of to make it easier for Sandburg to bring up the matter. He kept a fire burning in the fireplace and candles burning throughout the loft. Jim even picked the scents he remembered Blair saying were for relaxation. He prepared comfort foods for their meals - warm, nourishing soups and hot, fragrant breads. Quiet music played on the stereo.

Finally, almost a week after Blair's return home, the younger man tentatively sat down beside Jim on the couch. Ellison had been reading the morning paper, but he lowered it when his friend joined him.

Blair looked better. The bruises on his face were fading, and his eyes had lost most of their haunted pain. He'd spent most days in soft sweats with socks, and today was no exception.

Blair snagged the coverlet from the back of the couch, tucking it around him, and stared into the fire. For long minutes, the only sounds were the crackling fire and the quiet flute music from the stereo.

Jim stared into the flames, keenly conscious of the rapid heartbeat beside him. He knew what Blair had come here to say, and he ached for the pain his friend was obviously feeling. Staying very still, very quiet, Jim waited. Easy, Chief. It's okay, kid. Just take it slow.

"You haven't asked," Blair said at last.

No point in questioning the words. Jim knew full-well what Blair meant.

"Whenever you're ready, Chief," he said quietly. "Not before."

"Yeah..." Blair leaned back into the couch, accepting Jim's words. "You know most of it, I guess. How they took me... and why. If it had only been that - the kidnapping - then it wouldn't hurt so much, you know? It's the other... what else happened... that I..." He stopped, then added in a whisper, "... that I need to tell you."

Another long silence. Then Blair shifted closer, his shoulder pressed hard against Jim's. Jim reached over, covering Blair's hand in silent support. "No hurry, Chief. Whenever you're ready. I'm right here."

Blair nodded, glancing up at Jim, his eyes speaking his gratitude. When he spoke again, it was in a flat voice, and Jim had to dial up his hearing a notch to make out the words. "At first, I wasn't even sure anyone else was there. It was so quiet, y'know? Then, he - the one Kaufman called Caleb - came into the room, and..." Taking a long, shaking breath, Sandburg tugged nervously on one long curl. He shifted, then tucked one leg beneath him.

"He made it pretty clear what he was after." A nervous laugh. "I'm not exactly experienced in the signals one man gives another, but when he unzipped my pants and..."

Blair's breathing hitched, and Jim squeezed the hand beneath his.

A moment later, Sandburg went on. "He had to untie my legs to get my pants off, and I tried to fight, man. I really did. That's when he started hitting me. My hands were still cuffed to the bed, but my legs were free. I kicked, and I tried to scream, but the gag was too tight, and he got really mad, then. He hit me so hard, over and over, and I couldn't breathe... "

"Oh, God, Jim, I really thought he was going to kill me... then he tied up my legs again and started to touch me and he got on top of me, and I screamed, but nothing came out and he liked it that I was fighting and... he was raping me... and... he... kept saying... he said that... I wished... it was you!"

The final words were nearly obscured by a brutal sob, and Blair flung off the coverlet, striding to the broad expanse of glass that looked out over the city.

As he stared into the flames, Jim hated the image that was now etched in his mind. The anger boiled inside, and he gritted his teeth hard in an effort not to allow Blair to feel the depth of his hatred. The bastard had tortured Blair's body, and as if that wasn't enough, he'd dared to use Jim against him. If Kaufman hadn't already killed Caleb, Jim would have willingly taken care of it with his bare hands.

No longer able to remain still, Jim moved to stand behind Sandburg. He lifted his hands, and they hovered for an instant above the slim shoulders, before settling into place. "You okay?" Jim said softly, squeezing gently as he asked to let Blair know he wasn't rushing him, that there was no weakness in either needing or accepting his comfort.

"I guess. Sometimes at night, I wake up shaking. I think I'm back there. That it's still happening. I thought talking about it might help, but..." His voice fell to a whisper. "It's so hard to say the words."

Keep it calm. Keep it easy. "That's natural," Jim said softly, gently massaging the tense muscles beneath his hands. He kept up the soothing motion, hoping it would relax his partner further. "No one blames you, Blair. Not for what happened. Not for finding it tough to talk about. And don't expect a overnight healing... this is a long-term process. You know that."

"Simon probably thinks I'm a wimp..."

"No way." Jim was certain in his reply. He knew his boss and friend far too well, recognized the signs of Simon's respect and admiration as he'd interviewed Blair. "Simon knows you, Blair. Knows the man you are. A brave man. Someone who survived an experience that might have broken a lesser man."

"How do you know I'm not broken?" The words were spoken softly, less than a whisper. Without his Sentinel hearing, he might not have heard them at all.

Jim shut his eyes against the sudden rush of pain those simple words induced. How did he know Sandburg wasn't broken? Because it just wasn't within the realm of possibility. He'd seen Blair endure too much, survive too much, to believe that these events, no matter how horrendous, had broken his spirit now. But how to explain such a gut-level certainty to a man who doubted his own resilience right now?

"Because you're... you, Chief. No matter what the world throws at you, you manage to take it and turn it around into something positive, something that makes you stronger. Granted, this one's tougher than most. But you will survive it because the alternative is just... wrong. You won't give into it because if you do, they win. They win, Blair, and you'll pay the price for that victory for the rest of your life. You'll pay, and I'll pay."

Jim stared out at the city that lay beyond the loft's windows. His protectorate. At that moment, he felt isolated from it. Cut off. The only reality was in that room. One day, he would care again about what lay beyond these walls. But not today.

"They took us both on with this, you know. They took you from me and then tried to use you against me. But they underestimated us, and you know it, Chief."

When Blair didn't argue, Jim reminded him, "I'm in this with you. All the way. I'll fight with you, Chief. I promise. Every step of the way back, if you'll let me. We'll beat them together. You and me."

Gently, Jim eased Blair around to face him. With fingers beneath Blair's chin, he tilted his friend's face up until he could see into Sandburg's eyes. Trying to read the emotions he saw swirling in the blue depths, Jim smiled gently. "Let me help, Chief. Fight them with me. Together, there's nothing we can't do. Remember?"

For a long time, there was no reply. Then, slowly, a light flickered in the blue oceans... once... twice... then it caught and flamed into undeniable hope. The corners of Blair's mouth twitched slightly. "You and me, Jim?"

"Always, kid. Always." He raised a gentle hand to brush a stray curl back from Blair's face. "Hey, I've got an idea. It's Thursday, and Simon's not expecting me back until Monday. What would you like to do with my time off?" He rested his hands lightly on Sandburg's shoulders.

"Nothing. Absolutely nothing." Blair's grin was slightly crooked, and Jim's heart lurched as he recognized a glimmer of the old Sandburg within that smile. "It's supposed to rain all weekend. Let's make some chili, rent some old movies, and dig in. By Monday..." He took a deep breath, and Jim saw him make up his mind with visible determination. "By Monday, I'm going to be ready to face the world again."

Jim knew he hadn't succeeded in hiding the doubt that flashed across his mind. Was Blair underestimating what it would take to recover from the nightmare he'd experienced? Surely he didn't expect to be back to normal so soon.

Blair must have seen the emotion register because he smiled patiently. "Not healed, man. That's going to take a lot more time. Just ready to take that first step back toward normalcy. You get my meaning here?"

That sounded reasonable. And good to hear.

There was determination in that voice. Determination and life.

"Yeah, I gotcha, Chief." Yeah, I've gotcha. I've got you back, and I intend to hold on for as long as it takes, kid.

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

Simon knocked on the loft door late in the afternoon. Jim let his captain in, and the two men moved to the balcony where they could talk without disturbing Sandburg, napping in his room. Simon settled into a chair, fingering his cigar thoughtfully before looking up at Jim.

"Are you all right?"

"He's doing okay, Simon." Jim stretched his long legs out in front of his own chair. "He opened up today about what happened and..."

"That's not what I asked." Banks' wouldn't allow Jim to dodge the question that easily. "I said, are you all right?"

That obviously wasn't what Ellison expected. A curtain immediately drew over the light blue eyes, hiding whatever might be revealed within. "I'm fine, Simon. I wasn't the one kidnapped and... raped... after all."

"Like hell you weren't." Simon kept his voice low, not wanting to antagonize Jim more than necessary. "You need to deal with everything that happened, too, Jim, and you know it. Families and friends are victims in cases like this, too, and..."

"I don't have time to be a victim, damn it!" Blue fire flashed at Simon. "The least I can do is hold it together for Sandburg!"

"The least you can do?" Simon prodded at the open wound, and he got the reaction he was expecting.

"It should have been me, damn it!" Jim bolted from his chair and paced the balcony like a caged animal. "I was the one Kaufman wanted! Not Sandburg!"

Simon worked to stay calm. One of them needed to remain in control. "Okay, so they were after you. And you weren't in your truck that morning. Those are the facts, and your piling a ton of guilt on yourself isn't going to change a thing."

Jim's fist pounded against his leg in frustration, as his jaw clinched tightly. "Damn it! Why did it have to be Sandburg?" Jim leaned against the wall, breathing hard, his broad shoulders heaving with the strain of his emotions.

"Because life isn't fair, Jim. Because sometimes, we just can't protect the ones we love most, no matter how hard we try. You would have died in a heartbeat to keep Blair safe. I know that. You know it, too, and so does Sandburg."

Simon spoke slowly, watching Jim. His breath still came hard and fast. The man was in pain. He just hoped Jim could hear him through that pain. "We all know what the life of a cop is like, Jim. We just do the best we can do, day by day. You can only pray it's enough. Maybe it's worse for us than for the general public because we see the dark side of life every day on the job. We're eye-witnesses to the worst humanity has to offer."

Simon swallowed hard. "You don't think I lose sleep every night over Daryl? I'd like nothing more than to lock him away where it's safe and I can protect him, but that's not an option. You've got to let Blair live his life the way he chooses. He's a grown man, Jim. A brilliant, insightful man, and he's found his place in the world. With you. Granted, that may not be the safest place for him to be, but I know Sandburg well enough to feel certain it's the only place he wants to be. At your side... come hell or high water."

Jim turned toward him again, then leaned his shoulder heavily against the brick wall of the loft. "It hurts, Simon," he said softly. "When I come so damned close to losing him, it... it scares the hell out of me."

"I know."

"But that's the reality, isn't it?" The corners of Jim's mouth turned up slightly, and the cloud lifted a little from the blue eyes. "Not a hell of a lot I can do but keep on trying to protect him... and put the pieces back together again when I fail."

"You're damned good at it, Jim. The protecting part... and the putting back together part."

Jim sighed deeply. "Maybe." He moved to the balcony railing, resting his arms on it. "I just wish I was better at it."

"We've all been where you are, Jim. Wishing we could have done more. Remember that. You're not alone."

Simon stood up. "I've got to go. Daryl's coming for dinner tonight."

As they turned to go back inside, Jim said quietly, "Thank you, sir."

Simon stopped him with a hand on Jim's arm. "Are you all right?" Banks asked once more.

This time, he believed the reply.

"Not yet, sir. But I will be."

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

"How's he doing? Really?"

Jim didn't take his eyes off Sandburg to answer his father. They were standing on the balcony, looking in as Blair put the finishing touches on the night's dinner. It was Sunday, and true to his word, the younger man seemed... well, certainly not normal, not yet, but at least... better.

Yeah, better.. Blair was better and getting stronger every day, and as he healed, the gnawing emptiness inside Jim eased as well.

Blair was going to make it. They both were going to make it. He would return to work on Tuesday, and life would begin to resume a semblance of normalcy.

At last, Jim answered his father. "He's going to be all right, Dad. It's not going to be easy, and it sure as hell won't be fast, but I can tell. Sandburg's going to be okay. He's agreed to go talk to the department shrink this week. Maybe... maybe I'll go, too. I have to deal with this along with him."

His father leaned against the railing and took a sip of his water. "I am sorry about everything that happened, Jimmy. I hope you know that. I wish I could do something to make it up to him. To both of you."

Empty words.. Surely his father knew that nothing, absolutely nothing, would ever make up for what Blair had endured as a result of his cold-hearted business acumen. No amount of money could...

Then it hit him, an unexpected lightning bolt in the midst of a soft, gentle shower. During the next few quiet moments, the skeleton of a plan formed in his mind. At last, he tilted his head slightly as he regarded his father's profile. "Well, Pop," he drawled, then took a long drink of beer before lowering the bottle slowly. "I think maybe there is something you could do."

William Ellison turned to look at him, a puzzled look on his face. He listened without comment to Jim's explanation, but his son could see the growing storm clouds gathering in his eyes. What he was suggesting was the only thing to do - the absolutely right thing to do - to try to make up to Blair, at least in a small way, for the horrible things that had been done to him in William's name. If he had to fight his father over it, then he'd been in worse battles.

And emerged victorious.

"You're talking about a lot of money," the elder Ellison pointed out. "And it's bound to be a complicated procedure. I'm sure there are rules and regulations to contend with, and frankly, they may not even be interested. Not to mention the cost."

Jim ignored the aggravation that niggled at him with his father's words. "Haven't you learned anything from all this?" He spoke slowly and clearly, determined to open his father's eyes at last. "Money is not the most important thing in life, Pop. There's family and friendship. Honor and obligation. All those things are involved here. Blair is my family and my friend. The only right thing to do, the honorable thing, is to try to somehow help him realize that you are sorry for what happened to him."

"Of course I'm sorry for what happened," William snapped. "Regardless of what you think of me, son, I'm not an evil man. I'm not the one who kidnapped him. That wasn't me, Jimmy."

At the look of consternation on his father's face, Jim quickly added, "No, I realize you didn't do this to him. Not directly. But it was done to him in your name because of a mistake you made a long time ago. Because of your devotion to the almighty dollar and your business."

"It was that almighty dollar that provided such a good upbringing for you and your brother!" William's voice rose, but he glanced toward the loft, clearly concerned that he'd be heard. "You didn't have it so hard growing up, you and Stevie. A fine home, the best camps, private lessons in whatever interested you at the moment. I don't see much room for complaint. Yet you always manage to turn it all around. Always find a way to blame me." William stared hard into his son's eyes. "Well, I'm not taking the blame for this one, Jimmy! I don't deserve that!"

Heated anger burned inside him, and it took every ounce of Jim's self control to refrain from driving his fist into his father's face. He doesn't get it. He really doesn't understand, and if he doesn't now, he never will. Knocking his father out would serve no purpose, beyond giving him a momentary sense of relief. It certainly wouldn't help Blair. And wasn't that the purpose of it all? To bring about some healing for Blair?

Jim took a deep breath and slowly released it. He waited until he was certain his voice would remain steady. "I'm asking you to do this, Dad. For Blair and for me. You may not understand this concept, but what they did to him, they did to me. He's hurting, and I'm hurting. I'm asking you to do this to help us both get a few more steps beyond the hell of this past week. You'll be doing a good thing, and not just for Sandburg. For you, too. I haven't asked much of you in my life, but I'm asking this." He held his father's gaze steadily, waiting for William's reply.

It came at last. He could see the inner war raging as William debated his request. Doubt, then resentment, and finally, resignation passed across his father's eyes as swiftly as dark clouds in a stiff breeze. Jim knew the answer before it was given. For one of the few times in his life that he could remember, his father had given in.

Slowly, the older man nodded. "All right, Jimmy. You win. I don't understand the need, and I sure as hell don't understand why you couldn't find something slightly less expensive, but if it means that much to you... Maybe it will help your friend heal. And you, too, for that matter. I don't see how it will help, but you seem awfully sure it will."

Curious, Jim asked, "And what about you, Pop? I know you must feel bad about all this. Won't doing this help you just a little, too?"

For a long moment, William's eyes remained locked on the building across the street. "Maybe." There was still great doubt in his father's voice. "I have a lot of thinking to do, Jimmy, about all of this. At first, I thought Kaufman was simply insane to do what he did out of some warped sense of revenge. Now, I wonder... " William shook his head, clearly not a man with a peaceful conscience. "Maybe I have made some bad choices through the years."

Jim was genuinely moved. It wasn't often his father admitted to any sense of inadequacy. "Yeah," he said softly, turning to watch Blair in the kitchen. A jolt of near-pain at the normalcy of it all shot through him. How close he'd come to losing this... to losing everything. "You have. So have I. I think there's plenty of guilt to go around on this one."

"You start the ball rolling, Jimmy. I'll see to whatever's necessary to make this work out. You have my word on it." William turned and followed Jim's gaze through the window to Blair. "I don't understand your relationship with him. I never will. But I suppose understanding isn't necessary, is it?"

Jim shook his head. "There's a lot I don't understand about it either, believe me. All I ask is that you accept it, Pop. Accept that Blair is very important to me. That he's in my life to stay. That I'm a better man for having him here. Isn't that enough?"

There was no reply for a long moment. "It's enough," William said slowly. "I'll try, son. That's all I can promise. That I'll try."

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

Five weeks later...

"What's going on, man?" Blair asked, not for the first time that day. Friday morning, the end of his first week back at the university, albeit with a reduced work schedule while he regained his equilibrium.

Jim had insisted on meeting him in his office at lunch. For weeks, he'd been walking around with that secretive gleam in his eye, as if he knew something really important that his Guide didn't. That and the patented Ellison stubborn refusal to reveal even the slightest clue had driven Blair into a state of almost continuous frustration.

Not that he was really worried. Jim seemed too happy for Blair to have any doubts that whatever the secret his partner was harboring, it had to be a good one. It was just the waiting that was driving him nuts. Then, maybe that was also a good thing. For the first time since he'd been kidnapped, Blair was excited about something. Excited and full of hope and anticipation.

Jim leaned back against the doorframe, his muscular arms folded, one leg carelessly crossed over the other. "Going on? Don't know what you mean, Chief." His look was one of pure innocence.

Blair tossed a stack of ungraded essays to his cluttered desktop and grinned up at Jim. "That's it! I've had enough of your evasiveness, man! Now, you either tell me what's been going on with you or..."

"Or what, Junior?" Jim's voice was lightly teasing, and despite the sternness of his expression, Blair caught the glint of laughter behind the steely blue eyes.

"Or..." Blair thought quickly. "Or... or I'll go on report strike. That's it - you won't have the 'Sandburg Report Typing and Filing Service' to take all that paperwork off your hands any more."

Jim feigned a look of pain and consternation. "Ouch! That's a low blow, Chief. You win. I'll tell you... but not right now."

"Remember the paperwork, man," Blair warned.

"Tonight," Jim agreed. "Trust me, you don't need to worry. It's a good thing - I promise."

Jim half-turned to leave, then he hesitated. "By the way," he added casually. "Dad and Steven are coming for dinner. I'm making my special meatloaf. You up to taking care of the salad?"

Blair blinked quickly, eyebrows arching in surprise. "Your dad and your brother are joining us for dinner? Sure, for such a momentous occasion I can handle the salad. Your dad came by the first week after my kidnapping and now dinner. Any particular reason for this sudden familial socialization?"

"If that's your way of asking why they're coming," Jim replied with a slow wink, "you'll find out tonight. They'll be there at seven, so don't get caught up in something here and forget, Darwin."

"I won't," Blair promised. "I'm too curious to find out what this is all about."

The cat-that-swallowed-the-canary expression on his partner's face only piqued Blair's curiosity even more.

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

By the time dinner was finished, Blair's anticipation was clearly visible. Jim worked at suppressing his amusement during the meal, steering the conversation deftly away from any topics that might lead into an early announcement of his plan. For something this momentous, the timing had to be perfect.

He and Blair took charge of the dishes after the meal, quickly washing and drying and storing the leftovers while William and Steven sipped their after-dinner wine in the living room.

Blair stole a furtive glance at Jim's father and brother, and Jim grinned as he rinsed the last of the salad bowls then handed it to Sandburg to dry. The suspense was literally driving the younger man nuts. He placed a mental bet with himself that Sandburg would try to coerce the big secret out of him within the next sixty seconds.

It took less than thirty. Jim silently congratulated himself on his ability to observe and predict human nature. Especially his Guide's.

"Hey, man," Blair said softly, for Sentinel ears alone to hear. "C'mon, you can tell me now. You said after dinner, remember?"

He sounded for all the world like an anxious child on Christmas Eve. Jim playfully flicked a few suds at his partner and chuckled as Blair jumped back with an offended yelp.

"Watch it, Jim! This is my new shirt, man!" He brushed the tiny bubbles off with exaggerated motions.

Drying his hands on the dish towel, Jim pointed out, "Yeah, and I said this involved my dad and Steven, too, remember?"

"So let's get to it." Blair motioned toward the living room with his head. "They're ready, I'm ready, so if you're..."

Jim caught Blair's neck with his hand and squeezed affectionately. "I'm ready anytime, Chief. Before we start, though, pour us each a glass of wine."

His eyes bright with anticipation and curiosity, Blair poured a glass of red wine for himself and Jim. Handing his friend the glass, he joined Jim on the couch. Steven and Mr. Ellison took the two chairs. All eyes turned to Jim. William nodded to his son, then Jim shifted on his couch to look directly at Blair.

"Chief, I think you're going to have a lot of reading to do this weekend." He waited for the reaction he knew would come.

"W... what? Reading? I always read on the weekends. Weekdays, too. You know that. Come on, man, what's this about?" The confused look on Sandburg's face was priceless.

Jim turned to his father. "I think maybe you should be the one to tell him, Dad."

Another priceless look. Jim wished he'd thought to have a camera ready. Twice tonight, he'd ruffled the feathers of two people he was seldom able to catch off-guard.

Steven jumped in. "I agree with Jim, Pop. Seems to me you're the best one to tell Blair the news."

Blair's confused expression had escalated to one of pure bewilderment. "You Ellisons are all alike! Must be in the genes or something. Can't you ever just get to the point? I mean, did you guys take avoidance training together or something? C'mon! Would someone just tell me what's going on? What news?"

After the laughter had subsided, William's surrender was gracious. "Perhaps Jim and Steven are right. I'll be glad to explain, Mr. Sandburg."

"Call me Blair, please. After all we've been through, we should at least be on a first-name basis."

William inclined his head slightly. "All right, Blair. Soon after your release, I contacted my attorney, the Board of Trustees of Rainier University, and Chancellor Edwards."

There was an audible intake of breath from Sandburg, and his worried eyes flickered from Jim back to William. "Why? I haven't been notified of any problems, and..."

Jim rested a reassuring hand on Blair's shoulder. "It's okay, Junior. You're not in any trouble. Far from it, in fact."

Relief cleared away the anxiety from Blair's face. "Whew... that's a relief. It's just that you never know. Especially with Edwards. I don't always stay in the administration's good graces, if you know what I mean."

There was a flash of amusement in William's eyes, along with a hint of a smile. "I'm sure. No, Blair, I went to see them to make a suggestion. More of an offer, actually."

He picked up his briefcase and opened it. Pulling out a thick folder, William handed it over to Blair. "I believe this is what Jimmy meant about doing some reading this weekend. You have some important decisions to make, young man."

"Now that sounds like our old man," Steven quipped. "Pop was always big on advice when it came to those 'big decisions', Blair."

Blair stared at the folder in his hands. His eyes flickered to Jim's face, obviously searching for a clue.

"Open it, Chief." Jim grinned at his father and Steven, relishing the surprise to come.

Slowly, Sandburg opened the file and quickly read the first page. "What the...?" Confused blue eyes looked from one face to another, then back again. "What is this?"

Jim tapped the folder then thumped Blair lightly on the head. "C'mon, Einstein, what does it say?" He knew he was grinning like a jack-o'lantern, but at that moment, he honestly didn't care.

Blair read the first paragraph. "'In conjunction with William T. Ellison and his estate, the Trustees of Rainier University do ordain and establish... '" Blair's eyes flicked up to Jim and held. "'...the Blair Sandburg Grant for Graduate Studies in Anthropology.' There's a lot of other official stuff here, but..."

He turned to Jim's father, blue eyes wide. "Mr. Ellison? What does this mean? Why did you...?"

Jim held his breath, waiting for his father's reply. Surely, he wouldn't say anything about Jim forcing his hand and hurt Sandburg now. Not after everything they'd been through to get to this point. For once, his father did not disappoint him.

William cleared his throat. "I... I realize that I am responsible in part for what you went through at the hands of that maniac. I have made some very poor decisions in my life... "

Jim saw his father's quick glance at him and at Steven. "Poor decisions both in my personal and professional life. Decisions that have hurt a lot of people, including my own sons. I can't make up for all of them, and I certainly cannot make up for what you endured during your kidnapping."

He nodded toward the file in Blair's hands. "I can, however, do that. You will head a committee with the responsibility of selecting a highly qualified applicant each year who will have his proposal for research in anthropology fully funded through this grant.. Jimmy tells me that you are an excellent teacher and researcher. This way, you'll have an even broader impact upon your chosen field. I can't claim to know much about anthropology, but Jimmy seems to have taken quite an interest in your work for some reason..."

Jim shot a quick wink at Blair as his father continued and was rewarded with a brilliant smile from his friend.

"So, Blair, does this idea meet with your approval?" William finished.

"It better, Chief," Jim teased. "We've already brought Chancellor Edwards on board."

"I... I'm stunned." Blair looked from one Ellison to another slowly, then held Jim's father's eyes. "Thank you, sir. This... this wasn't necessary. I know that what happened to me wasn't your fault, that you didn't mean for it to ever happen." He held up the file and shook his head. "This is... too much. I mean... "

William interrupted. "I wanted to do it, Blair. Really. I admit, Jim had to do some fast talking at first, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it would be a good thing. Not only for you, but for the university, and... for me as well." The older man looked over at both his sons. "It's helped mend some fences, Blair. I hope you'll accept and allow me to do this - for all of us."

Jim watched his friend's face carefully, and he breathed a sigh of relief as a slow smile crept into place. "Thank you," Blair said simply. "I promise I'll try to make wise use of your endowment, Mr. Ellison. Thank you." He hesitated, and Jim could see the wheels turning behind the blue eyes. "I only have one request."

"C'mon, Chief." Jim glanced at his father in concern. This wasn't the time to push the old man.

"It's okay, Jim." Blair spoke carefully. "Mr. Ellison, I'm honored by what you're doing, but I think we should consider a different name for the grant." As he talked, his words picked up steam, building to the familiar rapid-fire pace Jim knew so well. "I mean, usually scholarships and grants are named in memory of someone, and frankly, man, I am so not ready to throw in that particular towel yet. So, I was thinking, and I hope you'll see the reason in this, we should really name this grant in honor of someone who has made a difference in my life but who is no longer with us, you know?"

Jim's curiosity was piqued. One thing about Sandburg, he never failed to surprise. Leave it to Blair to take a totally unexpected turn. One look at William and Steven confirmed that they were both a little taken aback by Blair's little speech, too. "Any ideas, Chief?"

Gratitude flashed in the warm blue eyes. "Actually, yes. I was thinking..." Blair stopped and his expression grew serious. He leaned in closer to Jim. "I was thinking it should be called *The Incacha Grant for Graduate Anthropological Studies..* The Incacha Grant for short." The young man's smile was just a bit nervous as he waited for Jim's reaction.

Jim needed a moment to collect himself before he could reply. How did Sandburg do it? Manage to say and do exactly the right things? Reaching out, he tucked a single loose curl behind Blair's ear and let his hand cup his friend's cheek for a moment before lowering it to his side. "I think..." Jim swallowed hard, grateful for his friend's compassion and generosity even in the face of his own ordeal. "I think it's a great idea, Chief. Incacha would be honored."

Without thinking, Jim's hand strayed to his neck. He fingered the small leather pouch hanging there and the tiny figure housed within. "I think... I know... he is proud. Thank you," he ended simply.

"Who is Inca... In... ?" William stumbled over the unfamiliar name.

"Incacha, Pop." Jim explained calmly. "He saved my life after the crash in Peru. If not for him and his tribe, I would never have made it home."

That simple explanation seemed to pacify his father. "Is this what you want, Blair?" William inquired.

Sandburg held up the file. "Nothing would make me happier. Really. Just sitting on the committee will be more than enough for me. The grant should be named for Incacha. He really deserves it. After all, it's the Incachas of the world - past and present - that anthropology is all about."

Jim picked up his wine glass and held it aloft. At his signal, the other men also raised their glass. "A toast." He looked at his young partner and smiled gently. "To friendship... to healing... to family and to the future. Salute."

Four glasses rang out in harmony.

"Salute... "

"To friendship... "

"To family... "

"To the future... "

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

In the distance, a solitary church bell chimed the last of twelve strokes. A heavy mist hung over Cascade, draping itself around the city like a filmy gauze, obscuring light and softening harsh corners and edges. Most of the city was inside, either asleep or preparing for rest after a long hard day.

A fire burned down in the loft's fireplace, and scattered around the room like fireflies, candles flickered. An empty bottle of wine was abandoned on the kitchen table. Another, also empty, lay on its side on the counter. On the stereo, soft flutes, the music of the jungle, whispered softly into the peaceful night.

Of the four who had begun the evening, only two remained. Sitting side by side on the couch, they stared into the flames. Blair's feet were tucked beneath him, while Jim had broken his own house rule to rest his socked feet on the coffee table. Each held their last glass of wine and sipped occasionally as the minutes ticked past. They were comfortable in the quietness of the night, neither feeling the necessity to fill the silence that had reigned since the other two had departed with words.

They had sat that way for nearly an hour, each within his own thoughts, until Blair broke the silence at last. "I didn't say it earlier, but thank you, man."

Jim's eyes didn't leave the fire. "I didn't do anything."

Blair chuckled softly. "Yeah. Right." His words were slightly slurred, the result of too much wine and too much comfort, but he didn't care. William Ellison would never have come up with such an idea on his own, and Blair knew full well what pressuring his father into funding the grant would have cost Jim. "Thanks."

Jim took a sip of wine. Somehow it never affected him, Blair thought, wondering vaguely why. Maybe Jim had learned to control his body's reactions to alcohol along with his other skills as Sentinel. He made a mental note to ask sometime as he enjoyed another fruity sip from his own nearly empty glass.

"Well, maybe I suggested it." Jim shrugged. "Doesn't matter. It was the right thing to do."

A few more minutes drifted past. A slow rain began to fall outside, tapping out a rhythm on the loft's windows and roof. Relaxing, Blair thought, his eyelids growing heavier. Peaceful.

"That was a nice thing you did, naming the grant for Incacha. Kind of threw my dad for a loop, but he'll get over it. Don't think he really understood. Probably couldn't understand. Not really. Took me off guard, too, Junior."

Blair leaned back, resting his head on the back of the couch and staring up through the huge skylight at the rain. "Without Incacha, the Chopec might not have accepted you into the tribe and saved your life out there in the jungle. Without Incacha, you might have allowed your senses to remain off-line. Without Incacha, I might never have known that I'm the Shaman of the Great City. Whatever the hell that really means... " Blair let his thoughts drift along with the rain.

"Yeah." Jim sounded thoughtful, and Blair lifted his head to look at the Sentinel. Jim was holding up his glass of wine, staring into its depths. What could he see there? What must it be like to see so much? Hear so much? Sometimes, even he tended to forget the very real emotions that lay behind the controlled exterior Jim liked to present to the world. It couldn't be easy coping with all that sensory input, day after day, yet Jim dealt with it like he did everything that had ever happened to him. With courage and honesty and honor.

Blair's heart tightened painfully with the sheer power of his emotions. "Without Incacha," he whispered, "I never would have known you. That alone more than earned him the honor."

Slowly, Jim lowered his glass and rotated a quarter-turn on the couch, then regarded Blair with those eyes that missed nothing. Blair had never been able to hide anything from those eyes.

Jim's voice held a touch a roughness. "I meant what I said earlier, Blair. He would have been honored. Incacha was a man of great dignity, of great pride in his people. He knew you respected the Chopec, and he appreciated that."

Blair swiped at his eyes with his sleeve. "I wish I could have known him better. I wish he could have had time to teach me all I needed to know to be your Guide. To be your Shaman." He felt a heavy hand squeeze his shoulder, then move to cup the back of his neck beneath his hair.

"Incacha couldn't have taught you a thing you needed to know, Blair."

Surprised, Blair looked up into those light blue eyes. "But, Jim..."

Ellison cut him off. "Incacha was my friend. A great man and a powerful shaman among the Chopec. He helped me survive, as a man and as a Sentinel. But the things he could teach me, they aren't all that relevant to our lives here, Chief. What you do is help me survive in the real world. Incacha knew he was only there for me temporarily. We talked about it once. He said that once I returned to the Great City, I would have to find another to walk my path with me."

Jim's eyes glistened brightly in the firelight. "He was right. I found you - or maybe you found me. Doesn't matter much in the end. The way I see it, Incacha began the Sentinel journey with me, but you're the one who'll be at my side to see it to completion."

Blair drew a deep, shaking breath and managed a smile. He lifted his glass. "To Incacha."

"To Incacha."

Their glasses touched in silent salute, then Jim placed his glass on the table. Blair took another sip, then as he was lowering his glass, Jim reached out, catching him around the wrist. He took Blair's wine glass from him and set it on the table beside his own.

Still grasping Blair's wrist, Jim said quietly, "I want you to know something else. You're still not completely healed, Chief. Physically, maybe. Emotionally... well, that's going to take longer. I haven't been where you are, but I want you to remember that I'm here. You're back at work now, you have the grant to concentrate on, and life's going on, but don't get so wrapped up in everything that's normal that you forget to take time to..." Jim grinned quickly. "To process everything that's happened to you. I want you to keep seeing the counselor, for as long as you feel like you want to."

Jim's expression grew serious. "I mean it. Give yourself time, Blair. Let yourself hurt. Let yourself heal."

The concern and sincerity in Jim's voice were undeniably real. Blair twisted his wrist around within Jim's grip so that he, too, was clasping his friend's arm. Looking down at their joined arms, he nodded. "Yeah. Sometimes, it's just so much easier to stay too busy to think, y'know? I'll watch it, Jim. I promise. I'll take time out to work through it all."

"Would a few days on a trout stream in the mountains help?"

Blair raised his head slowly. "You're serious? When?"

"How about tomorrow? The forecast is for the rain to move on through by tomorrow. I've already got our gear packed in the truck, ready to roll first thing in the morning. If you're not too hung-over to get up, that is." Jim grinned, his eyes teasing.

Blair laughed.. "I'll set my clock. We'll see who's awake and making breakfast first in the morning, Ellison." He felt a rush of something that might have been joy flood through him.

He tugged slightly on their joined arms, and Jim willingly leaned closer. Blair rested his forehead against the muscular shoulder. As he did, he felt something beneath Jim's shirt and patted it quizzically. "What's this?"

Pulling back, Jim hesitated for a moment, then he reached beneath his shirt. He pulled out two small leather bags, one white and one tan. He slipped Blair's from around his neck and held it out.

"Our medicine bags!" Blair reached out and took his, running his fingers over the soft leather. "Why are you wearing them?"

A flash of discomfort crossed Jim's face. "I don't know. When you were gone, I found them on the shelf and figured... " He shrugged. "They're supposed to be powerful medicine, right? I thought maybe they'd help bring you back, I guess. And they reminded me that sometimes we just have to trust in something stronger than we are. It's gotten us this far, right?"

Touched at Jim's honesty, at his willingness to try anything in his arsenal to get his Guide home safely, Blair pointed out gently, "It worked, didn't it?" He smiled at the look of relief on his partner's face at having been spared a good-natured teasing.. "So what do you say we put these back on the shelf for a while? Hopefully, we won't need to call on them again anytime soon."

Together, they placed the two bags back in their positions on the bookshelf. Jim's fingers lingered on the white leather of his bag for a moment, then he nodded, as though releasing a burden he'd carried for a long time. Blair laid his palm over the tan bag, feeling the residual warmth of Jim's body and remembering the wolf that lay inside. Maybe he had had its protection as he struggled to survive the kidnapping. Something had kept him alive. Something had definitely been looking after them both.

Jim took the first turn in the bathroom. After his Sentinel left the living room, Blair stood in front of the loft's wide windows, looking out at the rain and listening to the peaceful sounds of the flutes.

Earth music...

Blair smiled at the memory.

"Hey, Sandburg! Your turn."

He heard the sound of heavy steps jogging upstairs, then the creak of bedsprings as Jim lay down. "Clock's set for five, Chief. Better turn in soon."

"I will, Jim," he said quietly, knowing the Sentinel would hear and sending up a quick prayer of thanks for his protective friend. "Thanks, man. For everything."

Suddenly, a hint of movement from the corner of his eye caught his attention. Curious, Blair opened the sliding door and stepped out onto the balcony. A stroke of white stood out against the gray concrete as a light breeze coaxed it upward, dancing on the air. Blair caught it in his hand and stared down in wonder.

A white feather. Scarcely big enough to tickle his palm, but an undeniable sign.

//**'Your feather is white because you are unique among those who soar among their dreams, leaving the everyday world behind. A powerful energy resides within you, yet I feel you have not yet begun to understand it.'**//

"Thank you," Blair whispered, knowing Jim would hear. "Thank you, my brother." Taking a last look out at the lights of the city they both served, Blair stepped back into the loft with a soft laugh. He stepped quietly over to the bookshelf, tucking the tiny feather inside his medicine bag, then securing the soft leather thong closed.

"Chief? You okay down there?"

Blair heard the concern in Jim's voice, heard him turn in his bed, ready to come downstairs to Blair's side in an instant.

"Fine, man.. Really. Just tidying up a bit. I'm turning in now. See you in the morning."

He was a little surprised to find that he hadn't lied. Not at all. He wasn't healed, but he would be. Time and some good therapy would see to that.

Blair stood for a moment outside the door to his room and surveyed the loft, the echo of all that had transpired there ringing in his heart.

So many memories, and so many of them good. The joy he'd felt earlier lingered, warming his heart as the dancing fire warmed his body. Once again, he'd survived. He had his life back, a little battered and scarred, but intact. Jim would stand beside him through whatever dark days lay ahead, and he had the new grant to look forward to, along with his work at Rainier and, most importantly, his life's calling as Jim's Guide..

And tomorrow, they were going fishing.

He closed the door of his room behind him with a smile.

Life was most definitely good.

Finis...

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