Notes: At this point, spoiler warnings may no longer be necessary, but just in case, this one's loaded for "Cypher".
Dedication: To all the members of the Cascade Times list in appreciation of the honor recently bestowed upon me. Thank you so very much!
Danae, as always, thank you for your wonderful beta skills. Any remaining errors are my own. Lory, your ideas and suggestions are so valuable to me. Thank you for them and for your friendship.
Reflections of Terror
The nightmare had begun anew around the beginning of October.
Jim had managed to hide the first two murders from his partner, Blair Sandburg. The young anthropologist had been snowed under with work at Rainier University, and his time spent with Jim on the job with Major Crimes had been limited at best. Of course, he knew about the murders. The whole city knew about the murders. Like the rest of Cascade, he just didn't know all the details.
Details such as the missing belongings of the victims, apparently taken as trophies.
Like the messages scrawled at both murder scenes.
Like the yellow scarf found with each of the two bodies.
Those were the things that Jim had so far managed to keep hidden from Sandburg. That and the fact that an unmarked car was tailing the young man, keeping an eye on him every moment he was not in Jim's presence. For his own safety, of course, and his partner's sanity.
Now, however, the midterms had ended. It was late October, almost Halloween, and a festive sense of fall was in the air. There were no more exams to write, score, and average, and no more mid-semester paperwork to fill out. Blair Sandburg was at Ellison's side again, ready and willing to assist his sentinel in whatever cases the big detective had waiting on his desk. Before Jim could find the right way to fill Sandburg in on the details of the first two murders, Simon Banks called them into his office with the news.
There had been a third murder, and he wanted Jim and Blair on the scene immediately.
Ellison stared at Simon in frustration. "Captain," he began, glancing quickly at his partner.
Simon had known Ellison long enough to pick up on his small signals. He cleared his throat and looked at the departmental observer. "Sandburg," he ordered in his best captain's voice. "I need to speak with Jim alone for a moment. Wait outside."
Blair shot Jim a quick look which clearly asked, What the hell is going on here? Ellison shrugged slightly and forced a small smile as his partner exited the office.
The moment the door closed, Simon skewered his detective with one of the patented looks for which he was deservedly feared. "Don't you dare tell me you haven't told him yet."
Jim Ellison studied the corner of the files stacked on Simon's desk, then he sank heavily into one of the conference chairs facing his captain and friend. "What the hell am I supposed to tell him, Simon? That there's some psycho out there who thinks he's David Lash? That he's copying his crimes, right down to the smallest details? That..." He was suddenly unable to finish his thought.
"That you're scared to death he may be a target?" Simon said softly, giving voice to the fear his detective didn't have the heart to say aloud.
Jim only nodded. When had he begun to admit to himself how much the long-haired anthropologist really meant to him? Deep inside, Jim knew the answer. It was when he'd walked into the loft that terror filled night, only to find his home torn apart and his guide missing. The signs of Blair's struggle had been obvious; the young man had put up an impressive fight. At that moment, Jim had felt his heart contract with fear, an all-too familiar emotion in his life, and the dread of once again losing someone he cared for deeply. It was not an experience he wanted to repeat anytime soon.
Simon was speaking again, and Jim forced his attention back to his commanding officer.
"You've kept it from him this long, Jim, but you're not doing the kid any favors hiding it now. You know that. He's through with his heaviest workload for a while at Rainier, and he's gonna find out. Better from you than someone else." Banks waited for Jim's reply, studying the younger man's features carefully for a clue to his feelings. Most people who didn't know him well considered Ellison a closed book. Simon believed he could read the man as well as anyone, with the exception of Sandburg, but right now, he didn't have a clue what his friend was thinking.
At last, Ellison sighed deeply, reaching up to rub the bridge of his nose as he closed his eyes for a moment. "You're right, Simon. It's just that..." Jim's blue eyes opened to meet his captain's. "The nightmares had stopped, y'know?" For an instant, the detective seemed uncomfortable sharing such intimate details of his friendship with the young anthropologist, shifting in his chair and dropping his gaze back to the safety of Simon's desk. "I mean, right after Lash, for months afterwards, he'd wake up at night, screaming...crying..." Jim looked up at his captain again. "I thought it was over, that he'd put it all behind him. Now this..." He shrugged helplessly. The pain in the light blue eyes was all too clear. Jim was hurting for his friend, and there wasn't a hell of a lot anyone could do to help. Including Simon Banks.
"I don't know what to say, Jim," Simon sympathized. "Except that he is going to find out, and I know Sandburg well enough to know that he'd rather hear this from you."
Jim Ellison stood up and headed for the door. "I know, sir. Thank you. I'll tell him on the way."
Banks nodded. "Good luck, Jim. We'll catch the bastard, I promise. We will catch him."
Before he opened the door, Ellison turned back to his captain. "You're right, sir. We will get him, and I swear, I won't let him lay a hand on Sandburg before we do." His eyes turned cold. "He'll have to take me out first."
Simon's face was hard. "You be careful, Jim, you hear me? Both you and Sandburg, be careful."********************
The ride to 562 Highbridge Street had been nearly silent so far. Blair Sandburg sat in the passenger seat of Jim's truck casting sideways glances at his partner, trying to figure out what the hell was eating at the big detective. He barely noticed the carved pumpkins and orange and black decorations filling the porches of the big, old Victorian homes they passed on their way. Jim was worried, and that automatically was cause for concern for Blair. As far as he knew, he'd done nothing to anger his friend. Hell, he hadn't been around Jim enough in the past few weeks to upset him. Could that be the trouble? Maybe Jim didn't feel he'd been pulling his weight around the station.
"Hey, Jim," Blair ventured carefully. "Something wrong, man?"
He was surprised when his friend turned slightly, casting a small, sad smile in his direction. "Yeah, Chief," he murmured. "Something's wrong."
Blair felt a chill creep through his body. Jim Ellison wasn't the type to admit when he had a problem. He tended to keep things bottled up inside, to try to solve problems on his own before admitting anything was amiss. If he was letting Blair in on the mystery this easily, whatever was going on must be really major.
Jim wheeled the truck off into a parking lot of a grocery store that had gone out of business months earlier. Broken bottles and cast off newspapers littered the broken asphalt, and a dim street light cast a dull glow through the misting rain which had started to fall minutes earlier. Blair wrapped his arms around his middle, the chill which had run through him earlier now turning into a mountain of dread.
Ellison left the engine running after shifting into Park, then turned to face his friend. "Blair," he began gently. "There's something I haven't told you."
Immediately, Sandburg sprang into full guide mode. "Oh, man! I knew it! You've been having trouble with your senses, haven't you? I haven't been around, and you've been dealing with it all on your own. What kind of guide am I anyway? Leaving you to..."
He was interrupted by a powerful hand on his shoulder, pulling him around to face Ellison and shaking him roughly. "Sandburg! Stop it!" Jim's eyes were angry, and his hand reached around to cup the back of Blair's neck under his long curls, forcing his friend to look directly into his own blue eyes. "This has absolutely nothing to do with my senses! You've done nothing wrong, Chief. I just need you to listen to me for a few minutes. Don't talk, don't interrupt...for once, just listen!" His voice dropped, suddenly becoming soft, his hand gently squeezing his friend's neck. "Please, Blair. I feel bad enough about this already. I really just need you to listen, okay?"
His mind whirling through the multitude of scenarios suddenly playing in his imagination, Blair nodded mutely. Was Jim sick? Had his partner heard something about his observer status being revoked? Had someone somehow figured out about Jim's sentinel abilities? Was...?
"Sandburg," Jim said softly, reading the distress in his guide's expression. "I'm okay. Really. I promise."
Blair forced a slight smile. "Okay," he breathed. "Okay. Then what...?"
Jim dropped his hand from Blair's neck. Reaching out, he covered Sandburg's hand resting on his leg with his own and squeezed gently. "This isn't easy, Chief. I hate having to hurt you, to frighten you, and I'm afraid that's what I have to do right now." He took a deep breath, then added, "Blair, you know about the two murders I've been investigating."
He waited for his partner's nod of affirmation, then continued. "What you don't know, what nobody knows outside Major Crimes, are the details of those murders." He could see the inquisitive light glowing now in his guide's eyes, and his heart tightened at the thought of what he had to say next. Jim looked out at the rain, his thumb rubbing unconsciously across his partner's hand, cupped within his own.
"Chief..." He stopped, searching for the right words, but there were no words to make what he had to say any easier. "Blair, the murders have all been committed exactly like those of another serial killer who stalked Cascade. Same choice of victims, same method of death, same objects missing from the crime scene, same..."
"...yellow scarf left behind with each body," Blair interrupted. His face had gone pale, and Jim realized the hand beneath his had grown cold. "I'm right, aren't I, Jim? It's Lash. He's back." The simple words were spoken matter-of-factly, without a shred of emotion, but the look in Blair's eyes spoke volumes. If there were an emotion beyond fear, past the point of terror, then that feeling was shouting from the depths of Sandburg's dark blue eyes. "I always knew it," Blair murmured, as if talking to himself. "I knew it wasn't over. Not yet."
"No! Stop it, Sandburg!" Jim shouted, sounding far too loud in the confines of the truck's cab. He reached out, took Sandburg's face between his hands, and almost roughly forced his guide to look at him. "Lash is dead, Chief. Dead. I pumped those bullets into him myself. I checked his pulse, heard the EMTs call the time of death... David Lash is dead!"
Ellison studied his friend's face, and slowly the terrified look faded, to be replaced by one of confusion, of uncertainty. "Then, who...?
Jim hurried with the explanation. "A copycat, Chief. Someone trying to reenact Lash's crimes. The first new victim was in a wheelchair - Adam Walker. The second was a rock musician - a drummer - Billy Bright. All that was public knowledge. But this case involves someone with inside knowledge of the original murders, because he's included details in his own crimes never reported in the press when Lash was killing his victims. The trophies...the yellow scarves." Jim shook his head. "The perp knows more about Lash than any civilian could, Chief. It has to be an inside job. Question is - who the hell within the department could do such a thing?"
A thousand questions rushed through Blair's mind, but he spoke only one. "Tonight...?"
Jim nodded sadly. "The third victim." He dreaded the next part, but knew that there was no other way than to tell Blair outright. Still he hesitated.
Blair's eyes begged silently, and Jim read the question clearly. "She could be Susan Frasier's twin sister. Same M.O., just like Lash." He hesitated, then added, "Look, Chief. I really don't think you need to see this. I can drop you at the loft."
He breathed deeply, dreading the next bit of news he had to share with Sandburg. "Might as well tell you, I've had an unmarked car tailing you since the first victim turned up. You can go home, get some rest, and I'll have a uniform stationed right outside the door. Inside, if you want. Whatever..." His voice faded away at the look of determination on his partner's face, still gripped between Jim's warm palms.
Blair shook his head emphatically, and Jim's hands dropped to his friend's shoulders. "No way, man. I'm still your backup, Ellison, and I'm going with you to the scene." Forcing his voice to remain calm, Blair insisted, "I can handle this, Jim. I admit, it threw me there for a minute, but I promise you, I can handle it." He chuckled, a tense, forced sound that gave away the anxiousness lying below his calm facade. "Anyway, I'd go nuts just waiting around the loft for you to get back or call or something. I'm okay, Jim. Really."
Indigo eyes held worried blue as the two friends delved into the other's hearts. Finally, seeing the loyalty and grim determination of his guide, Jim nodded slowly. "All right. You're with me." He stared hard into his friend's gaze. "But, I swear, Sandburg, if you so much as look like this case is getting to you, then you're off, do you understand me?"
Blair knew Jim too well. He sensed the heartfelt concern and barely restrained emotion lying beneath Jim Ellison's gruff words, so Blair smiled warmly. "I understand, Jim. And thanks, man."
Leaning forward, Jim briefly touched his forehead to Blair's. "No problem, Chief." Straightening abruptly, Jim put the truck into gear. "Let's get moving. We've got a killer to track down."
By the time the partners arrived at the crime scene, the rain was a full-fledged downpour. Blair stared out the window, shaking his head. "Weatherman says we're in for days of this mess. I mean, I know the Northwest is supposed to be wet, but c'mon!"
Jim grinned as he buttoned his overcoat tightly. "Smile, Chief. Could be worse, y'know. At least it's relatively warm and rainy. Especially for October. You could be freezing your butt off out here tonight."
Sandburg shivered involuntarily at the thought. "No thanks, man. I'll count my blessings. Warm rain. Yeah. Could definitely be worse."
Both men recognized the banter for what it was - an attempt to avoid the thought of what waited inside the small, wood framed house on 562 Highbridge. Neither was anxious to see the nightmare begin again for Blair, but both realized it could not be avoided forever. With a weak smile, Blair joked, "Let's get moving, partner. Can't wait to feel that warm rain on my face."
Jim reached out and squeezed the slim shoulder beside him. "Sure you want to do this, Chief? You can..."
"Wait in the truck," the young man finished for him. Blair shook his head. "I know, Jim, I know. No way, man. We're partners, right? That means taking the good with the bad. Let's go."
Jim Ellison patted Blair's back gently. "You're a piece of work, Junior. A real piece of work." His eyes spoke of his immense pride in his young friend's courage.
Sentinel and guide left the safety and warmth of Jim's truck and stepped into the downpour. The darkly grinning jack-o-lantern seemed to mock them as they stepped onto the porch, and Blair turned away from it, shivering, to follow his friend inside.********************
Although Blair Sandburg had tried to prepare himself for what he knew lay within, nothing could come close to the reality. He followed behind Jim, closely, one hand anchored on his sentinel's back. He realized that the touch was more for himself than for Ellison this time. Somehow, he had the insane idea that if he could just maintain physical contact with Jim, he could stay in control; he wouldn't lose his thin veneer of calm centeredness and go screaming through the ainy night.
Lash...he's back...he's out there...third victim...you're next...I can be you...who am I now????
"Sandburg!" Jim's sharp stage whisper jerked him back to the moment. They were standing in the entryway to the small house, dripping puddles onto the cheap carpeting under their feet. A few dim light bulbs cast poorly defined shadows onto the faded, painted walls. Ellison's sharp stare fixed Blair with its intensity. "Are you okay here?"
Nodding furiously to cover his embarrassment, Blair hastened to assure the big detective. "I'm fine, Jim. Really. Fine. Just...thinking."
A gentle hand descended to his shoulder. "Right now, Chief, don't think. Just remember, it is not Lash. He's dead. You're safe, and this freak's not getting anywhere near you. Understand?"
The emotion in his partner's voice caught Blair off guard. Jim was scared, too. The whole Lash scenario had him remembering as clearly as Blair, and he was scared. Damn. If Jim was that worried, then Blair knew his best hope was to stay as close to the sentinel as he possibly could. The only way he could do that was to hold himself together. If not, Jim would send him home under armed guard faster than he could blink. He forced a smile. "Gotcha, Jim. Everything's under control, right?"
Jim smiled crookedly at his friend. "Right, Chief."
The smile didn't fool Blair for an instant; he saw the simultaneous tightening of the infamous jaw muscles.
One of the Crime Scene Investigation team approached the pair, and Jim nodded his acknowledgement of the woman's greeting. "Sandburg, this is Marjorie Weems, CSI. Marjorie, my partner, Blair Sandburg."
The woman's eyes took in the unusual appearance of Ellison's young partner. Most of the department had heard of the unorthodox pairing, but this was her first introduction to the long-haired graduate student. She put out her hand and clasped Blair's warmly. "Good to meet you, Sandburg," she commented with a wry smile. "I've known Jim here for a while, and I must say, you've brought about some long-overdue changes in his charming personality."
From behind him, Blair heard Ellison's low growl and grinned broadly. "Thanks, Marjorie. I'm not sure I can take credit for that, but..."
"I hate to end this mutual admiration society meeting, but don't we have a murder to investigate here?" Jim interrupted, his gruff countenance barely concealing the smile twitching at his lips.
Marjorie Weems looked at him, then at Sandburg, her gaze frankly appraising. She was a small woman of about fifty, a veteran of the department who knew more about human nature than most psychologists dreamed of understanding. Her dark blonde hair and green eyes gave her the look of a delicate woman, but everyone who knew her respected Marjorie's toughness. Lt. Weems had seen horrors on the job that would make most civilians run in revulsion. She'd worked with James Ellison ever since he appeared in the department, an isolated, prickly man who chafed when assigned to a partner and never seemed to welcome the smallest hint of friendship. It had surprised her when he'd married Carolyn; it hadn't when they'd divorced not long after. The man seemed made for a life of isolation.
Now, his hand resting lightly on the younger man's shoulder, Ellison seemed...she searched for the right word...whole. As if the missing pieces of his life had fallen into place at last. At Ellison's quizzical look, she replied, "A murder. Of course. She's in here, gentlemen." The two partners followed her down the hall and into the small bathroom.
Waiting outside the door was a young man of about twenty-five. With light blonde hair, which he continually brushed from his eyes, and wire rimmed glasses, he gave the appearance of a small, nervous rabbit as he paced anxiously before the crime scene.
"Lt. Weems!" He greeted Marjorie with a near shout, his face beaming in his eagerness. "I finished dusting the room for prints, and I checked..."
"Thank you, Kevin," Marjorie Weems commented with a smile. "I'm sure you've carried out your duties admirably. This is Detective Ellison. He's going to look over the scene now. Why don't you carry your kit back to the lab and start your analysis?"
The nervous blue eyes darted from Lt. Weems' face to Jim's and back again. "Yes...I can do that. If you're sure you don't need me here...?"
Marjorie shook her head. "I'm fine, Kevin. You may go back now. I'll be in as soon as we're finished here." With a nod, she dismissed her assistant, and he turned to leave with a clearly regretful sigh.
When the young man had departed, Jim turned to Marjorie with a smile. "New guy?"
She smiled ruefully. "Kevin Cowart. Not that new really. He's been here almost a year. Just a tad overanxious to please. I think he'll shape up, though, in time. Smart kid, just needs to calm down a little, you know?"
Jim swatted Sandburg playfully on the back of the head. "I know the type, Marjorie. Hyper, always on the go, talking a mile a minute..."
"Ow!" Blair protested, batting at Jim's hand in pretend indignation. "Watch who you're calling hyper!"
Ellison grinned. "If the shoe fits, Chief..."
The CSI chief smiled tolerantly. "Now, boys," she chided. "We've got a job to do, remember?"
They did. All too clearly.
The good-natured teasing ended and the smiles faded as soon as Jim and Blair entered the bathroom. The smell of death hung heavily, permeating the air. "Dial it down," Blair whispered, keeping his hand lightly planted on the small of Jim's back.
His friend nodded his silent thanks and leaned back slightly into Blair's touch. You hang in there, Chief, he thought. Just hang in there, and we'll be out of here as fast as we can. I promise you.
They turned toward the tub, and Jim heard the sharp intake of breath from Blair. "Oh, my God," the young man whispered.
She floated in the tub, her dark brown eyes wide open, her brunette hair drifting lazily about her face. Her lips still bore traces of red lipstick; her mascara was still perfect. Her hands floated at her sides, with their nails manicured and neatly trimmed. A bright yellow scarf was wound tightly around her neck; the soft skin showing bruises beneath its silky folds.
Jim whirled to face his partner. "Get out! Now!" He pushed Blair forcefully toward the door, but the younger man resisted, his eyes locked on the body in the tub. Marjorie Weems watched stunned, as the big detective manhandled his smaller partner.
"No!" Blair's words were breathless as he fought to control the nausea building inside. "Jim! No! I'm okay, I promise!"
For a moment, they were frozen, Ellison's hands locked on Sandburg's shoulders, Blair's hands pushing back in protest against Jim's chest. Slowly, the panic in Jim's eyes faded, and he seemed to actually see his partner for the first time. Lifting one hand, he tugged on one long curl. "You sure? You don't have to stay here, y'know."
Blair nodded slowly. "Yes," he replied softly. "I do. I need to stay here, Jim. For you. And for myself. If I run from this now, if I leave you here and go home, then I'll never really get over what Lash did to me. He'll win, and I'll be damned if I'm going to let that happen." His gaze never wavered from his partner's.
At last, Jim nodded. "Just stick close, understand?" Unsaid were the words, For me as well as for you, Chief.
But, Blair understood. "Like glue, man. Like glue."
As Jim prowled the small room, Blair stood right behind him, his eyes occasionally glancing briefly at the body floating in the tub. Most of the time, he kept his gaze focused on the face of the tall detective, sometimes whispering to him words that Marjorie Weems couldn't quite catch. Ellison would smile then, glancing down at the smaller man with a look of undisguised affection.
The CSI investigator watched them, fascinated. Whoever this Sandburg was, he'd certainly done what no one else had managed to do, including Carolyn Ellison. He'd made Jim Ellison human again. Her pager began to vibrate, and Lt. Weems left the detective and his unorthodox partner to their work while she stepped out to get a better signal on her cell phone.
By the time she'd returned to the house, Jim and Blair were in the living room. Ellison had something in a plastic bag, and when Marjorie approached, he held it out. She took the bag, holding it up to one of the dim lights.
"What is it?" She squinted her eyes, wishing the light was better in the room. Or that she'd not dropped her glasses earlier in the day and cracked the lens.
The Major Crimes detective smiled. "Maybe our first lead, Lt. Weems. A blonde hair. Obviously not from the victim, and just possibly, from the perp."
Marjorie Weems stared at the straight blonde hair encased in plastic. "Good work, Detective. Good work."
As Jim prepared to scour the rest of the house for clues, the bright red letters on the bathroom mirror seemed to glow with an unearthly light:
Who am I now?
By the time Jim had finished his search of the premises, it was nearly two am. Bleary eyed, the two friends stumbled into the loft, too tired to work any longer.
Blair rubbed his blood shot eyes. "Want some soup? We never got dinner. Did we?"
Ellison shrugged. "Don't remember. I'm not hungry anyway. Besides, it'll be time for breakfast soon. I hate to say it, but I need to get to the station at the normal time. Don't want to waste a minute on this case."
There was no way Sandburg could argue. "I'm beat, too, man. Think I'll turn in." He started toward his room, then glanced back at Jim. "Get some rest. I have a feeling it's gonna be a long day tomorrow."
The sentinel groaned. "Afraid you're right, Chief. You sleep well, too. I'll see you in the morning."
Within ten minutes, both men were asleep.********************
The hard, cold metal of the dentist's chair cut into his arms and legs. The straps binding him were as immovable as ever, despite his constant struggles for freedom. All around him were the trophies of previous victims, displayed proudly, as if in a macabre museum of the damned.
Blair moaned against the yellow scarf tied tightly between his lips, desperately rubbing it against his shoulder in an attempt to dislodge the smooth cloth. He knew that even if he succeeded in getting the gag out of his mouth, there was no way anyone could hear him in this desolate, abandoned warehouse. Yet, he couldn't stop trying. If he could only hold on, just stay alive long enough, Jim would come.
Wild blue eyes darted to the doorway, half expecting to see the sentinel standing there. "...'IM!" he screamed through the gag, his cries muffled to near nothingness. "Mmmmm....!!" He shook his head again, fighting the gag and his bonds, but his limbs remained as tightly bound as his mouth.
Then, a figure appeared, illuminated from behind by the light from the doorway. "...'IM!" he tried to scream again. "...Mmmmmmm!!" His heart surged with hope. Jim had come at last. He would be free. He would live!
The figure seemed to float toward him, growing larger and larger, until it was looming over him. It was Jim's face, smiling down at him with a somehow leering smile which never seemed to reach his eyes. Jim didn't reach out for him, though, made no effort to free Blair from his bonds.
Blair's eyes over the yellow gag grew larger, more confused. He moaned again, shaking his head from side to side, silently begging his friend to release him, to free him before Lash came back. "Mmmm...!! ...im!! Mmmmm..."
Then, Jim began to laugh. He reached out to stroke Blair's face, and his hands were icy cold. Blair jerked away, repulsed by that touch of death. Then, slowly, the numbing truth set in. This...was...not...Jim.
"Who am I now???" The laughing voice inquired, as the figure slipped its fingers behind the gag. With one quick movement, it jerked down the cloth, catching it painfully on Blair's teeth. At the same instant, Jim's face swirled and twisted until it had changed form completely, revealing the contorted, decayed features of a man Blair had thought never to see again.
"Nooooo!!" His mouth freed at last, Blair howled his terror to the skies above. "Noooooo!!!"
Hands were on him, seeking to hold him down, to restrain him. Blair fought against the unseen arms, kicking and hitting and biting with every ounce of strength left in his exhausted body. Lash would not win. He wouldn't let him win.
"Nooo!" he cried again. "No!!!"
"Sandburg! Chief! Easy, buddy, easy!" A voice began to penetrate the darkness, a familiar, warm, concerned voice. "Blair, it's me. It's Jim. You're safe, Blair. You're with me, and everything's all right. Open your eyes, buddy, please. Look at me. Look at me, Chief."
The hands were gone now. There was only the voice, coaxing, comforting, begging him to open his eyes. The voice that sounded like...Jim.
Could it be...?
Frightened blue eyes flickered open and found his sentinel's face, then scanned the room anxiously to reassure himself of where he was and who he was with. Jim's hair was tousled, his eyes red rimmed and filled with worry. He wore only his shorts, and his robe lay discarded on the floor beside Blair's bedside. Apparently, the poor guy had given up trying to get it on in his haste to reach him.
"Blair? Chief? Take it easy, now. Deep breaths, that's the way..." Carefully, Jim reached out to place his hands on the shaking shoulders. Then, with a mighty gasp, Blair threw himself into his partner's arms and held on as if he would never let go.
Jim Ellison held the terrified young man, and his mind flashed back thirty years to another night, another nightmare, this time in his father's house. The demons had seemed just as real, the fear just as intense.
Stop that crying, Jimmy! You've had a bad dream, that's all. There's nothing here to hurt you, and you know it. Your mother's not here anymore, so you might as well stop that babyish behavior right now. Be a man, Jimmy, for once in your life. Be an Ellison.
Now, decades later, Jim Ellison held his best friend close and smiled as he felt the younger man worm his way even closer into the cocoon of his embrace. Broken sobs still wracked the smaller body, even as Jim felt Blair's struggle to compose himself.
"It's all right, Chief," he whispered into the tangle of curls tucked under his chin. "Let it all out. Go ahead, Blair, just let it go. You've held it all in long enough, kiddo. Shhhhh... It's okay...I'm right here. I'm right here. I've got you, and I'm not letting go. I promise. I won't leave you." Murmuring his reassurances, content to hold the sobbing young man in his arms and let him cry out all his fears, all his pain, Jim closed his eyes and let his own soul heal as it had not done in years.
Outside, the rain beat down on the sleeping city.********************
Morning came, a gray, misty, wet dawn, scarcely discernable from the night before. Jim's back protested mightily the night spent in Sandburg's cramped little bed; a dull, constant ache which served to remind him that he was no longer as young as he once was. Although he grumbled as he scrambled the breakfast eggs about lack of sleep and beds that were made for only one occupant, deep inside he felt a warmth he had not experienced often enough in his lifetime, a warmth which came from being needed, trusted, and absolutely loved. Last night his friend had needed him, and he had been there. Completely and without reservation. As no one had ever been for him.
Blair shuffled into the kitchen, clad only in his jeans, his toes emerging from beneath the tattered hems, his long curls tumbling over his bare shoulders. He pulled on a blue denim shirt, well worn and faded, and buttoned it quickly, tucking it into his waistband, then tightening his brown leather belt.
"Morning," he greeted the sentinel with a slightly embarrassed smile. "Hey, man, about last night..."
Ellison removed the skillet from the stove, then turned off the gas. "It's okay, Chief. Yesterday was tough. On both of us. Forget it."
Surprised at the wetness that sprang to his eyes, Blair blinked hard. "Just the same, man. Thanks. You were...there...for me, and I..."
Never comfortable with gratitude, Jim scraped the eggs onto the two waiting plates, dividing them equally, and interrupted, "I'm your partner, Junior. We take care of each other. It's somewhere in the sentinel/guide job description, I think. Paragraph Six, Section Forty-Two." He grinned at Blair and jerked his head toward the table with its waiting sausages and hot coffee. "Grab some toast and let's eat. I want to fill Simon in on last night, and then we need to run down to the lab and see what Marjorie's turned up on that hair sample."
Gratefully, Sandburg took a piece of toast and joined Jim at the table. Jim Ellison - tough cop, Army hero, and best friend. His best friend. Who had promised never to leave him. Suddenly, his heart soared. David Lash was dead. Dead and buried. But, they were alive, damn it. Alive and together and as long as that was true, no nightmare from the past was going to threaten his sanity. He wouldn't let it. Jim wouldn't let it.
Breakfast had never tasted quite so delicious.********************
The two friends sat in their captain's office, along with Marjorie Weems, who had dropped by Major Crimes on her way back to the crime scene. Her assistant, Kevin Cowart, sat perched on a windowsill, his right foot tapping constantly on the floor. Blair sat next to Jim at the conference table, across from Simon and Lt. Weems.
"We could bring in a profiler," Simon remarked, staring at the open file on the table in front of him.
"Yeah," Blair Sandburg remarked darkly. "Sorry Dr. Anthony Bates is no longer available. We all know how great that idea turned out last time." He ignored the look Simon shot him from across the table, but caught the warning in Jim's eyes.
Lt. Weems watched the interaction. "I remember that. David Lash posed as the psychologist, didn't he? He ended up leaving one of his messages right here in the station." She glanced over at Blair. "I'm sorry, Mr. Sandburg. I forgot for a moment. I really don't need to tell you any of this, do I?"
Smiling weakly, Blair shook his head. "It's okay. Really. Ancient history - dead and buried. Just like David Lash."
Jim laid a supportive hand on his partner's arm and smiled reassuringly. Then, he spoke to his captain. "This guy apparently looks up to that psycho, Captain. Look at the trouble he's gone to in recreating Lash's crimes. Each victim bears a striking resemblance to each of Lash's vics. The crime scenes are set up to look just like the originals. Even the handwriting on the notes is amazingly similar to Lash's."
Jim leaned back in his chair, patting Blair's arm twice before breaking contact with his guide. "There's only one problem, at least for this David Lash wanna-be."
Simon looked quizzically at his detective. "A problem, Jim?"
Ellison's eyes found his partner's and held, seemingly reading the younger man's thoughts. His voice was void of emotion as he asked, "Simon, who was Lash's next victim? After Susan Frasier?"
Blair never gave the captain a chance to answer. "It was me, Simon. And I'm still alive. If this sicko plans to go on recreating Lash's crime spree, he's reached the end of his victim list. He'll have to come after me next."
The small group of investigators sat in stunned silence for long moments after Blair's announcement. Blair glanced around the table at his friends and colleagues, then he spoke up, laughing tensely. "Hey, guys! At least this time we know the pattern. I mean, if we know who he's gonna come after, we can set the trap, right?"
Jim Ellison's breath caught roughly. "No way, Chief!" He looked to Simon for support. "We're not using you as bait. Just forget it!"
Simon Banks studied the two men sitting across from him. Jim looked wired, tighter than a drum, grimly determined not to put his partner and friend in any more danger at the hands of this killer. Blair, unexpectedly calm and accepting of his role in the drama, leaned close to Jim, their shoulders touching lightly, his hand resting on Ellison's arm as if trying to calm his sentinel with his touch. "Jim..." Simon began.
"No!" Jim glanced around at the two onlookers, Weems and Cowart, and Simon could clearly see that he was uncomfortable talking about this in front of them.
Simon Banks stood up. "Marjorie? Would you excuse us? I think we have some planning to do."
Sensing the tension in the room, Lt. Weems nodded, standing and moving toward the door. "Of course. We've given you all we have at the moment. Kevin? Let's go back to the lab."
The young man smiled at them as they departed. "Good luck with your 'trap,' Detective. I wish you much success."
And they were alone.
Jim turned to face Blair, his eyes flashing. "Listen, Chief. I almost lost you to David Lash. I won't lose you to his protégé now. You're not going to be the bait for this trap. No way."
Blair shot up from his chair. "Jim! You know I'm the best bet to draw this guy out. Man, I'm the last living link to David Lash! He's gonna want to finish what his hero started, right? He just had to work his way up the chain of victims 'til he got to the right link." Blair knelt down in front of Jim's chair. "I'm that link, Jim, and you know it."
Reaching out, he placed both hands on Jim's knees. "I know you're scared. So am I." His blue eyes blinked back the tears. "Trust me, there's absolutely nothing I'd rather not do than play victim to David Lash or anyone remotely like him ever again. But, this guy's seriously bent, Jim. Someone's gotta stop him. I'd prefer it not have to be me, but..." The young man shrugged. "I'm it. Face it; it's me or nothing. I'm the only shot we've got." A wry grin flashed briefly. "Bad choice of words, huh?"
His eyes never left his guide's face. "Simon, you got any other ideas?"
The tall captain shook his head dejectedly. "Not right now, Jim. We got zip on this guy, except for the fact that he's recreating each of Lash's crimes, and he probably has some connection within the department. Much as I hate to admit it, Sandburg's right. Logically, he's next. I think we've got to play the only card we've been dealt."
Jim brushed the back of his fingers along Sandburg's cheek. "I don't like this, Chief."
Blair grinned up at him. "Hey, man, it's cool. My Blessed Protector's gonna be there, right? If the real David Lash couldn't take us down, what chance does this sicko have?"
As the rain fell down outside the window, Jim Ellison reluctantly nodded his assent.********************
Blair hung back as they approached the coroner's doorway. He hated admitting to Jim exactly how much he disliked their visits here, but couldn't decide which was worse - owning up to his cowardice where the morgue was concerned or actually going into the place.
Jim was halfway inside when he glanced back and noticed his partner was lagging behind. "You can wait out here, Chief," he offered.
Today somehow, being alone in the hallway seemed worse than staying beside Jim, even if it meant entering the dreaded morgue. Shaking off his dread, Blair followed his friend inside. "No, I'm okay. Might as well hear what Dan has to say about the third victim firsthand." He wrinkled his nose. "I don't even want to think about what that smell is."
Ellison punched him playfully on the upper arm. "Just think of it as a fact finding mission, Chief. Research. It won't take that long, I promise." Glancing around, he didn't see Dan or any of the other familiar coroners he was accustomed to dealing with in the medical examiner's office.
"Wonder where everybody is?" Blair remarked as he flipped through a file lying on a desk.
"That's privileged information," a voice snapped. Coming from one of the exam rooms was a tall, thin man of about forty wearing the standard lab coat. Tossing another file down on the desk, he shot an unfriendly look at Sandburg. "Who allowed you in here? You certainly can't be with the department, unless it's vice, and you hardly look tough enough for that assignment."
Jim stepped forward, flashing his ID. "Jim Ellison, Major Crimes. This is my partner, Blair Sandburg. Don't think I've had the pleasure." Jim's expression was obviously defensive as he waited for the stranger to introduce himself.
For a moment, Blair didn't think the man was going to explain his presence in the lab. Finally, he held out his hand, and Jim gripped it firmly. Maybe too firmly, Blair thought, fighting a smile as he watched the other man wince at the grip. Blessed Protector Rule Number One - don't mess with my guide.
"Charles Lambert. There's a big conference down in L.A., and we've got another couple of guys on vacation. Left the department short-handed, so they 'borrowed' me from Seattle. I've been on loan here before." The man's tone was slightly warmer now, although it was clear he wasn't happy about this intrusion into what he obviously considered his turf.
Jim studied his face carefully. "I remember. You helped out on the serial murders."
Blair felt a tickling along the back of his neck. Instinctively, he took a step closer to Jim.
Lambert nodded. "The David Lash case. Yeah, I was in on it. I assisted during the autopsies on all the victims." He smiled for the first time, shaking his head. "I'll hand it to the guy. Crazy as he was, he was unique. Never seen another case quite like it."
His blood ran cold, and for an instant, Blair was afraid he was going to be sick. This guy actually seemed to harbor an admiration for that psycho.
Sensing his discomfort, Jim turned to him, placing a warm hand on his shoulder. "Chief, I left my notebook up on my desk. Mind running to get it for me?"
Nodding, Blair backed out of the office. "Meet you at the truck," he told Jim.
"Won't be long, Chief. Thanks."
Without wasting another minute, Blair Sandburg made his escape.
Ten minutes later, Jim opened the driver's door and climbed in. "No notebook?" he commented dryly.
Blair grimaced. "What a jerk! I think he really admires Lash!"
Jim started the engine and backed out of his space. "No accounting for taste, Chief. We'll file that bit of information away for future reference, though. Simon's also doing a background check on Lambert. Just in case."
"What did the autopsy show on our last victim?"
Checking the traffic in both directions, Jim pulled out into the street and headed toward the loft. "About what we expected. Like Susan Frasier, she wasn't drowned in the tub. She was dead before she was put there."
"Let me guess. There was pond water in her lungs. That's a little fact not everyone knew back then either, isn't it?" Blair pointed out. "Except, maybe, someone in the ME's office."
Jim nodded. "Something to consider." He glanced at his watch. "Hungry? Tonight's likely to be a long one. How about we stop and pick up something on the way home?"
"Sounds good to me. Maybe we'll nail the bastard tonight, then we can go celebrate."
Jim smiled at his friend. "Amen to that, Chief. Amen to that."********************
Late that evening, Blair Sandburg sat alone in the darkness, his collar turned up against the rain. He wore a microphone, taped to his chest under his flannel shirt and jacket. The park was deserted. Nobody wanted to be out on a night like this, and he'd been sitting there since midnight. He could hear the sound of ducks quacking softly in the pond behind him.
"Me and the ducks, man," he joked softly, knowing Jim was listening to his every breath, his every word. "Why the hell does it have to rain so much? Especially when I have to sit out in it like this?" Nervously, Blair glanced around at the shadows of the trees moving slowly in the wind.
"It's getting colder, Jim. I know it's not winter yet, but I swear the temperature's falling. Man, I wish we were in the loft. Get a warm fire going, maybe some popcorn, a good movie, a little wine..." He sighed, shoving his hands deeper into his pockets. Why on earth hadn't he thought to wear his gloves?
"Hey, Jim? Let's go to the mountains, okay? Rent a cabin, spend a long weekend. I could really use some R&R after this one, man."
There was no response, but he really didn't expect one. After all, it was a one-way communication set up. Jim needed to hear Blair; there was no reason for it to work both ways.
How long had he been sitting here? Blair glanced at his watch. Nearly three hours. He stood up and stretched. "Think I'm gonna walk around a little here, Jim. I won't go out of sight, okay?"
He made several short trips back and forth under the dim glow of the street lamp hanging high above the bench where he had been waiting. How long should he wait? It was after three in the morning, and nothing had happened. No sign at all of the psycho killer. Nothing but the ducks, the rain, and the distant sound of occasional cars passing by.
"Jim?" Blair called softly. "Hey, Jim? I'm getting pretty whacked here. Don't think this guy's gonna show tonight, do you? Come on down and get me, man, and let's go home."
He waited. "Jim? Hey, man, have you gone to sleep on me? I said I want to get out of here now and go home. Jim? Please, don't tell me you've zoned!"
Blair's eyes darted around the park. Suddenly, the sounds of the raindrops seemed louder, and the whisper of the wind in the leaves turned to shouts.
"Jim?" Blair called out. "Jim?"
He took off at a dead run toward the street beside the park where Jim was waiting in his truck. Blair stared in through the broken glass of the driver's window.
Jim Ellison was gone. Only a long smear of blood on the truck's rear window bore silent witness to his earlier presence.
Blair reached out and touched it with a trembling finger. Still warm.
On the windshield, written in red lipstick, was the message:
Every student must one day surpass the teacher and, in doing so, move beyond his greatness. So the pattern is rewritten. Who am I now?
Blair threw back his head and screamed his denial to the tear laden clouds above. "NOOOO!!!!!"
The rain beat down on the deserted streets of Cascade, and there was no one to hear his cries.********************
The mood in the bullpen was pensive. One of their own was missing, presumably taken by the mad man posing as the long deceased David Lash. Jim Ellison had vanished, Simon Banks was livid, and Blair Sandburg...
Blair Sandburg was on the verge of breaking down completely.
Simon watched as the long-haired young man paced incessantly from one side of his office to the other. His hands fluttered like a nervous bird's wings, constantly in motion, and he continually tucked one strand of hair back behind his ear, where it immediately escaped once more.
Marjorie and Kevin were there, along with Henri, Rafe, and Joel Taggart. All units on the street were on alert for Jim Ellison, search dogs had been called out to patrol the areas around the docks and warehouse district, and every available detective had been called in and was knocking on doors in the vicinity where Jim had vanished, asking questions. Still, there had been no sign of Jim.
They all watched Blair pace, either openly or covertly from behind lowered lashes. The young man had been nearly hysterical when he had pounded on the door of Simon's house the previous night, screaming that Jim was gone. The search had continued all night and into the morning, when, finally, Simon had brought Blair back to the station. No one had slept; no one had eaten.
Blair scrubbed his fists into his bloodshot eyes. "I've gotta do something, Simon," he muttered, turning desperate eyes toward the exhausted captain. "I just can't stay here doing nothing while Jim's out there with that psycho...!"
Suddenly, Kevin Cowart spoke up. "What exactly do you think you can do, Mr. Sandburg? I mean, even with all your education, your special observer's pass, and your experience with the real David Lash, you're as helpless as the rest of them, aren't you?"
"Kevin!" Marjorie Weems nearly shouted at her young assistant. "What do you think you're saying?" She glared at him, her eyes furious. "You get out of here this instant! I'll be down to the lab in a few minutes. I expect to see the report on Jim's truck on my desk when I get there!"
For an instant, Blair thought he saw the briefest flash of hatred flare in the young CSI investigator's eyes. Then, it was gone, and Kevin Cowart smiled. "I'm sorry, Mr. Sandburg," he apologized smoothly. "I was merely making an observation." With that, he left the office and took the elevator back to the CSI lab.
Lt. Weems shook her head. "I'm sorry, Blair. I don't know what's got into him lately. The past few days, he's been an emotional rubber ball, bouncing from one extreme to another. I'm sure he didn't mean anything by it."
Blair nodded slightly. " S'okay. Doesn't matter." He sank down into a chair, staring out the window at the downpour outside.
Simon jerked his head toward the door. "Get back to your lab, Marjorie. See if the sweep of Jim's truck turned up anything at all. I'll check with you in a few minutes."
The CSI chief nodded, resting her hand on Blair's shoulder as she passed. "Hang in there," she whispered. "We'll find him."
When she'd departed, Taggart turned to Blair. "You're not doing Jim any good by wearing yourself out, Sandburg. Why don't you let me drive you home? Get some rest, then maybe something will have turned up..."
Blair shook his head. "No. I'm not leaving here. Not until we find Jim."
"Okay," Simon said, standing up and stretching his tired back. Nodding at Rafe, Taggart, and Henri, he ordered, "You all get back out there on the streets. Sandburg, you're with me."
After the rest of the Major Crimes unit had departed, Blair turned to the captain. "What are we doing, Simon?"
The taller man moved to his couch and took down an afghan lying across the back. "I'm going down to Marjorie's lab and see what's she's turned up. You are lying down here and taking a nap." Seeing the beginnings of an argument in Blair's eyes, he used his most forceful captain's voice, "That's an order, Sandburg. Unless you want me to take away those credentials of yours and banish you from this station, you are getting some rest. Now, lie down, close your eyes, and try to sleep."
Realizing that he stood no chance of winning an argument with Banks in his own office, Blair sank down on the couch and curled into a tight ball. He felt Simon drape the warm afghan over him, then pat his shoulder lightly. "We'll find him, Sandburg. Don't worry. We'll find Jim."
Even as worried as Blair was, sleep claimed him before Simon's door closed softly behind him.********************
Lt. Weems' lab was empty. Frustrated, Simon chomped down harder on his unlighted cigar and stalked down the hall. "Benny!" he called into the next lab. The technician at the lab table looked up from his microscope. "Where the hell's Weems?"
The young Asian shrugged. "Hasn't been back down since your meeting, Captain."
Puzzled, Simon asked, "What about Kevin Cowart? Where's he?"
Shaking his head, the tech replied, "Don't know. Haven't seen the kid all morning. Funny, though. With Ellison's case, I figured they'd be glued to the lab stools."
"They should be," Simon muttered as he stalked back down the hall in search of the missing CSI chief and her assistant.********************
"Sandburg! Wake up!"
The insistent shaking of his shoulder and the command in Simon Bank's voice pulled Blair from the deep, dreamless sleep of exhaustion. "Huh?? Wha...?" He jerked upright, staring up at the face above him. "What's happening, Simon? Did you find...?"
Simon shook his head. "Not yet, Sandburg. But, something else has happened. Marjorie Weems is missing, and so is Kevin Cowart. Something strange is definitely going on with that kid."********************
Two hours later, the answers were beginning to take form.
Rafe began his report. "Cowart's been with CSI since right before the Lash case. Just out of college. Kid came from Vermont originally, but his real name's not Cowart. It's Cox. Don't know why his background check didn't catch this, but here it is." The young detective handed a file to Banks.
Simon skimmed it, then whispered, "Oh, my God."
Blair stared at each of the faces gathered around the conference table. "What?"
Rafe shook his head. "I'm sorry, Blair. The kid's got a mental history a mile long. Seems he was in and out of institutions all his teenage years. The diagnosis list would reach down to the street and back. Basically, Kevin's never been able to form attachments, his conscience development was arrested as a young child, he lives vicariously through his heroes..."
Rafe sighed. "He's psychotic, and, get this, he's a sociopath. The last diagnosis is the really scary one. No regrets over his actions, thinks nothing of causing pain to others. No sense of who he is or the importance of human life."
"A walking time bomb," Taggart commented grimly.
They all looked up as the door to Simon's office burst open. "We've got a warrant for Cowart's apartment," Henri shouted, sticking his head into the room. "Let's roll!"********************
Blair stood in shock at the doorway to Kevin Cowart's bedroom. The walls were plastered with newspaper cutouts, articles, photographs, and amateurish drawings of faces that were all too familiar.
Lash...the original victims and the new...Blair...Jim.
All except those of Lash had their eyes blacked out, their faces mutilated, and their bodies slashed.
Sandburg walked slowly up to a newspaper photo. It showed Jim on the evening he was named Cop of the Year. The tall detective stood next to Sandburg, his hand resting easily on his partner's shoulder. Both were dressed in tuxedos. Blair was smiling at Jim, a look of pride and affection on his face as he gazed up at his friend. Kevin had drawn a heavy, jagged red line between the two men in the picture, figuratively ripping them apart. At the top of the photo had been written, "Ex-Cop of the Year ... Ex-Partners ... Ex-Friends," in the same red ink. Below the photo was pinned a computer generated image of two headstones. One bore the name "James Ellison," the other "Blair Sandburg."
"Simon," Blair whispered brokenly as he stared around him at the macabre images.
The captain forcefully turned the young man and escorted him from the room. "Take him outside," he ordered Taggart. "Stay with him."
The former bomb captain nodded, wrapping one beefy arm around Sandburg, "C'mon, kid," he urged gently. "Captain's orders."
Sandburg complied without argument. He had no desire to face the surreal scene inside the apartment again.
Blair sank down on the top step of the brick duplex, burying his face in his hands. "Where the hell is he, Joel? I gotta find him." He looked up, desperation etched all over his face.
Joel's kind eyes filled with unshed tears. "I'm so sorry, Sandburg. I'm sure Jim's still alive, though. You know Ellison. He's tough."
The younger man shook his head. "Not nearly as tough as everyone thinks, Joel. Not nearly as tough." The tears spilled down his cheeks, as Blair let his pent up emotions free at last.********************
The loft was dark when they parked outside. Blair stared up at the windows, searching for any sign of movement. "Let's go up," he said quietly.
Taggart and Sandburg moved cautiously up the stairs. When they reached the top landing, Joel moved quickly in front. "Stay behind me, Sandburg," he ordered. "No arguments. Get back and stay back. I'm not going to have Ellison skin me alive, if something happens to you. Got that?"
Blair smiled tightly. "Yeah, Joel. Got it."
They paused outside the loft door, listening. No sound, no movement. Nothing.
Sandburg glanced nervously at Taggart. "Let's go in," he whispered. At Taggart's nod, he slipped his key into the lock, then turned the knob.
If a hurricane had ripped through their home, Blair didn't think the powerful winds could have caused much more destruction. The loft had been torn apart completely. Bookshelves were overturned, with Blair's artifacts, looks, and Jim's CDs scattered across the floor. Lamps lay broken beside slashed pillows and couch cushions. Every window had been broken from the inside, and their feet crunched the shattered glass as they walked.
Blair stared at the floor beneath his feet. Every photograph in the loft had been gathered into a small pile and torn, ripped viciously as if run through a shredder. Blair shivered uncontrollably. This was the psycho who had Jim...
This must have been how Jim felt when he came home to find that Lash had taken him away...
It was almost like reliving that terrifying night all over again, but with one variation. This time, it was Jim whose life was in danger, and Blair who was left behind, desperate to find him in time. It was as if the script had been rewritten, Sandburg thought bitterly. He could only wish he was still the one in the leading role instead of his best friend. Somehow, he had much more faith in the sentinel's ability to save his life than in his own to locate and rescue Jim.
Wait one damned minute...
Joel was speaking, saying something about calling Simon, but Blair waved him off impatiently, struggling to organize his half-formed thoughts into a coherent whole. Kevin was trying to reenact Lash's crimes...Kevin wanted to surpass the teacher...Kevin was rewriting the pattern, but to what extent? Rewriting? Could it be...?
"Joel," he breathed. "The warehouse where Lash took me...what was the address? I don't think I ever knew. What was the address!?"
Joel flipped through his pocket notebook, searching for the information. "It was...312 Bayview. But, Sandburg, we've already checked that warehouse."
Waving off his last sentence with a broad sweep of his hand, Blair moved through the shattered windows onto the balcony and stared out at the lights far beyond down at the bay. " 'The pattern is rewritten...'" he murmured. "Joel!" Blair whirled around, his eyes glowing with excitement. "What's the rest of the way up and down Bayview?"
The older man replied, trying not to appear too confused, "It's all warehouses, Sandburg. Most of them are in use, but there are a few abandoned ones scattered about."
Hurrying inside, Blair grabbed a torn sheet of paper from the floor and scrambled for a pen. "Here...123...231...132...321..." He grabbed Joel's arm and tugged him toward the door. "Call in these numbers, Joel. Fast! I think Jim's at one of these addresses!"
The rain beat down unceasingly through the night.********************
The search was on. Blair and Joel met Simon and the other members of Major Crimes on Bayview, and the possible addresses were divided between them. Blair was teamed with Simon, who insisted that the young man remain where he could keep an eye on him. Taggart, Henri, and Rafe all split up to cover as much territory as possible. Each took a uniformed officer along for back-up.
Only the light from their flashlights illuminated the gloom of the old, musty warehouse. Apparently empty for years, rats scurried from the unexpected glow, skittering noisily away toward whatever cover they could find. Blair wiped a spider web from his face, sputtering at the sticky taste of the fine fibers on his lips. "Ugh!" he muttered as he followed Simon through the darkness.
"Shhh..." Simon warned, hastily glancing behind to warn Blair. The younger man nodded and moved along silently.
"What was that?" Blair whispered urgently a few minutes later, staring straight ahead into the blackness.
Simon froze in place. "Where? What...?" Suddenly, the sound of a gunshot rang out, blasting through the silence with a resounding echo.
"Simon!!" Blair watched in horror as the tall captain dropped to the floor, clutching his shoulder. Sandburg swung his light anxiously through the darkness, searching for their assailant, but found nothing. He dropped to his knees beside Simon.
The older man was unconscious, his breathing labored. "Simon!" Blair checked frantically to see how badly he was bleeding. There... The wound was in the left upper shoulder. The rest of the blood was coming from a cut over Simon's temple where he had apparently struck his head as he fell.
Blair's head jerked up. Footsteps. Running, getting more and more distant.
Kevin. And he was heading back toward Jim.
"Sorry, Simon," Sandburg whispered. "I promise I'll get help for you, but I've gotta go find Jim." Grappling blindly, he found the small radio attached to the captain's belt and called in for assistance. But, there was no time to wait. Taking a deep breath, Blair ran after the sound of the departing footsteps.
"Oh, man, I can't...believe...I'm doing this," Blair muttered as he jogged down another flight of old, wooden stairs. He'd lost the sound of the footsteps, but somehow knew that he needed to descend as far into the bowels of the old warehouse as he could. That somewhere, deep in the basement, he would find Kevin. And Jim Ellison.
He could only pray that his friend would still be alive.
Then, he stumbled. Over something soft and pliant.
Regaining his balance, Blair shone his light downward and bit back a scream as his eyes widened in horror.
His light reflected in the dead green eyes of Marjorie Weems. She lay sprawled on the steps, her arms and legs splayed awkwardly, and a shocked look still haunting her face.
For an instant, Blair was frozen in shock. Kevin Cowart had already killed Marjorie. Was there any hope that Jim still lived? Briefly, he considered running back upstairs, waiting for the welcome assistance of Rafe, Henri, and Taggart. It would surely be only a few minutes at the most.
A few minutes that Jim might not have.
Moving his light from the still features of the dead CSI chief back to the wooden stairs, Blair charged deeper into the depths of the warehouse.********************
He reached the final step and stopped, waiting, listening, panting with exertion. Then, he heard the crazed chuckle from somewhere off in the distance. It echoed from the empty walls, bouncing and reverberating so that Blair couldn't tell from which direction it had originated.
"So, Mr. Sandburg, you've tracked us down at last! We've been waiting for you."
With no warning, the lights flickered on, and the basement was illuminated with a dull, brown glow. Sandburg looked around in horror at the apparition before him. Hanging from the walls and ceilings were the trophies, mementos of dead victims, swaying slightly in the breeze from the broken windows, casting living shadows on the dusty walls. A wheelchair here...a sequined gown there...a set of drums...an all-too-familiar cap with the Jags insignia...
"Jim!" Blair called urgently as he looked frantically around the basement. "Jim!"
The crazy laugh resounded again. "He's with me, Mr. Sandburg! Didn't you know that all along? That to save his life, you would have to face your most terrible nightmare?"
Another light flicked on, and then, he saw them. It was undeniably Kevin, but he was dressed in what appeared to be the very same corduroy jacket and trousers that Lash had worn when trying to 'be' Blair. A long, dark curly wig completed the horrific ensemble.
Blair stared past the macabre figure to the dentist's chair behind. Jim Ellison lay strapped down, manacled to the chair with straps and chains, a yellow scarf tied tightly in his mouth.
When he saw Sandburg, his eyes widened with fear, as if his worst nightmare had come true. Jim shook his head wildly, crying out against the gag. Oh, God, no! Get out of here, Chief! Please, get the hell out of here! NOW!
At the sight of his helpless partner, Blair felt the rage building within him like a slow fire building from a smoldering ember to a full-fledged inferno. To see Jim Ellison - strong, courageous, proud Jim Ellison - bound to that damned chair, reduced to...
Reduced to what I was that night, Blair thought with a sudden flash of insight. Well, I'm sure as hell not helpless right now!
"Cowart!" he shouted. "Move away from him! Do it! Now!"
The only answer was a high-pitched, insane laugh from the skinny young man standing next to Jim.
Ellison's eyes rolled toward Cowart, and he felt physically ill at the sight of the madman masquerading as his guide. Memories of seeing Lash in the same guise pouring the liquid drug down Sandburg's throat flashed before his eyes. Jim had come so close to losing him that night, and now, tonight...
Blair had walked right into the trap laid for him, right into Cowart's insane plan, and Jim himself had been the bait. If Blair died, it would be because he'd loved Jim enough to walk right through the gates of hell to free him. Hot tears sprang to his eyes at the thought.
The worst part was, he was completely helpless to stop what was about to happen. Jim struggled fiercely against the chains. He felt the hot, sticky blood on his ankles and wrists, but he ignored the pain. Somehow, he had to get free. The thought of lying there, unable to move, and watching Blair's death was unbearable. If he had to, he'd tear his own body apart to get free. Again and again, the sentinel threw himself against his bonds, fighting to reach his guide. He screamed his rage, but the gag in his mouth muffled his cries.
Kevin Cowart merely watched his captive's distress and laughed. "David would be pleased," he murmured.
Even in the dusky light of the warehouse, Blair could clearly see the blood pouring from Jim's torn skin and the stark terror in his eyes. Terror not for himself, Blair realized, but for him. In a whisper only the sentinel could hear, Blair murmured, "It's okay, Jim. Easy, big guy. I'm okay, and I can handle this. Stop fighting now, please. Trust me..."
At those words, Jim's crazed struggles eased, and his eyes locked onto to Sandburg, the tears spilling out to run down his cheeks and soak the yellow scarf filling his mouth. Yet, at that moment, Blair saw the glow of absolute trust shining from the big detective's eyes.
He trusts me, Blair realized in wonderment. He trusts me to get us out of this. I'll do it, Jim. One way or another, we're not letting this bastard win.
Turning his attention back to Cowart, Blair called out, "The cops are on the way, Kevin! The entire Major Crimes unit, plus about a hundred uniforms. You won't get out of this and you know it! Don't hurt anyone else! Let Jim go!"
Kevin Cowart reached down, holding a gun against Ellison's temple. Jim's eyes remained locked on Blair, still trusting, still hoping.
"Mr. Sandburg! Now, you know better than that! I can't let either of you live. It's not what David would have wanted. We're partners, right? I have to finish what he started. I'm already you, aren't I?" The madman looked down at his clothes, then touched his curly wig with one hand. "I make a good you, don't you think? Maybe better even than you do yourself."
Blair felt a rush of desperation and fought it down. He had to stay calm, stay in control. "Kevin! You're not doing exactly what David would have wanted, y'know?" He waited until the younger man's head shot up, staring at him in confusion. "Lash was going to kill me first, and he didn't plan to hurt Jim at all!"
What the hell are you doing, Chief? Jim thought. Don't you dare try to sacrifice your life for mine! His body tensed against the chains once more as he prepared to resume his struggle. Then, Blair's words ghosted through his mind.
Taking a deep breath, Jim lay still, although not to move took all the discipline he possessed. To focus his concentration, Jim bit down on his gag with such force that he tasted blood. It would do no good to struggle. This time, it was all up to Blair. He had trusted the young man with his sanity, with his life before. Once again, that trust would have to be enough. All right, Chief, he thought. All right...
Ignoring the flash of disapproval in Jim's blue eyes, Sandburg had already forged ahead. "I mean, I was the one strapped in the dentist's chair, Kevin, not Jim. Are you saying that David didn't know best? That you are smarter than David Lash?"
Kevin shook his head harshly. "No! He was brilliant! I'm just changing the pattern, so no one can figure out..." With the hand not holding the gun, he rubbed his eyes. "I'm doing what David would have done, what he could have done! I'm doing his work for him!"
Suddenly he reached down, yanking the gag from Jim's mouth. The sentinel sputtered, shaking his head and working his jaws in relief.
"Sandburg!" he shouted. "Go! Get the hell out of here!"
Blair watched in horror as Kevin quickly pulled a small vial from his pocket and held it up high for him to see.
"Remember this?" he shouted to Sandburg, waving the vial around wildly. "You remember the sweet taste, don't you? It's his turn now!"
With that, Kevin Cowart popped off the top of the vial and moved to pour the liquid down Jim's throat. The sentinel shook his head roughly, back and forth, fighting Cowart's efforts. With a sharp crack of the pistol against Jim's temple, the crazed young man brought Ellison to near unconsciousness.
Blair had taken all he could stand. Reaching into his jeans waistband, he withdrew Simon's pistol and took aim, his hand steady, his eyes perfectly calm.
The young man stopped his hand holding the vial poised over Jim, his other hand holding open the stunned detective's mouth. Blair was well aware that even a single drop of the potent concoction might kill the sentinel. Jim's unpredictable reactions to drugs were one of Blair's biggest concerns as his guide. So, he held the gun steady, with no doubt in his mind that he would shoot, could shoot, this man if he had to in order to save Jim Ellison's life.
Cowart stared at the barrel of the gun, judging the intentions of the police observer standing there, aiming directly at him. "You won't shoot," Kevin said uncertainly. "I've heard all about you. Blair Sandburg doesn't believe in violence. You've probably never even fired a gun. I don't believe you'll shoot me now."
Blair's voice was cold. "I've never shot a man before, no. But, I've never had to do it to save my partner's life before." Blair nodded toward Jim. "I'll do whatever it takes to get Jim out of here alive, Cowart. Whatever it takes. Believe that."
Jim's eyes fluttered, and Blair knew his sentinel was hearing every word, but he could only imagine how helpless his friend must feel. He whispered softly, "I'm okay, Jim. Hang in there. It's gonna be over soon, I promise.********************
To Cowart, he shouted, "Back off! Move away from him! Now!"
He could see that Cowart's hand was shaking now, and his eyes darted around the warehouse basement as if looking for a way to flee. Suddenly, he reached into his own waistband for the gun he had stashed there.
Jim Ellison erupted, or at least, as much of him as could move. Jim's head shot up, catching Cowart's arm and sending the gun flying. "Sandburg! Now!" he shouted, his voice raspy from disuse.
Blair didn't need Jim's urging. He was already moving forward at a dead run, the gun still pointing at Cowart. "Hold it!" he shouted at the confused young man. "Don't you dare move!"
"No!" Cowart screamed, his cry the torn sound of a crazed man. "No!" He whirled around, dropping the vial to the floor and ran toward a second set of steps behind him.
Blair rushed to his partner. "Jim!" He looked anxiously toward the fleeing Cowart.
"Sandburg, no!" Jim ordered. "Let him go! The others will..."
But, Blair was already rushing toward the steps. "I can't, Jim! This has to stop! Now!"
"Chief! Don't!" Once more, Jim Ellison struggled against his bonds, even as he knew it was hopeless. "Blair!!"
His young guide was already on the second flight of steps leading up to the next level of the warehouse. He could hear Kevin's pounding footsteps above him, and Blair shouted up a warning, "Stop! Hold it!" Without thinking, he fired a warning shot into the air, and its echo rang through the empty building.
They reached the third flight of steps, then the fourth. Blair was nearly breathless, panting from the exertion of running up the stairs, the stress of the evening, and his lack of rest and food. He paused, gasping for breath, and stared up the dark stairway.
Suddenly, a torpedo fell on Sandburg in the form of a desperate Kevin Cowart. Simon's gun went clattering down, bouncing off the stairs as it fell.
The two men struggled in a desperate fight for survival. Blair thought wildly that if he succumbed to Cowart, both he and Jim were as good as dead. Where the hell is our back-up?
Blow after blow rained down on Blair's face, his torso, and his legs. Cowart was a man possessed, and it was all Sandburg could do to hold his own and land a few blows to his adversary's body. He could feel himself weakening, and he realized that he could not remain conscious much longer.
As Blair hit the floor of the narrow landing once again, his arms splayed out to the side, he felt it. The rough-hewn, splintery surface of a piece of broken lumber. Wrapping his hand around the wood in as strong a grip as he could manage, Blair scrambled to his feet, lifted the heavy board and took aim. The swing was as powerful as any major league batter could attempt. Wood connected with flesh and bone with a sickening thud, and Kevin Cowart's body tumbled backward. The flimsy railing splintered into a dozen pieces, and Cowart tumbled backward into thin air. For an instant, he seemed to hang suspended, a shocked look in his eyes. Then, he disappeared, and seconds later, Blair heard a dull thud. He peered over the landing and saw Kevin Cowart lying below. He lay motionless.
Blair dropped to his knees for a few moments, panting and stunned. Blood trickled down his face from the gashes opened by Cowart's fists. His head pounded in a steady beat of pain, and his whole body hurt. Yet, somehow, his mind was clear.
Staggering up from the floor, he stumbled back down the stairs again to the basement where Jim was waiting, he knew, listening in fear to every blow that had fallen in the fierce battle. "I'm okay, Jim," he called as he ran. "It's over!"
Then, it truly was. Blair ran to his partner, collapsing to bury his head against the broad chest. "It's over, Jim," he whispered, suddenly exhausted. "It's over..."
Still unable to move his arms and legs, Jim lowered his head, finding the mass of curls pressed against him. Rubbing his cheek against the top of Blair's head, he whispered, "Are you okay, Chief?"
The curly head nodded slowly. "Yeah, man, I'm fine." He chuckled softly. "A little banged up, maybe, but basically fine."
Jim pressed a kiss into the soft hair. "Thank God. I..."
Suddenly, they were surrounded by a mass of activity. Joel and Rafe hovered over them, checking Blair's injuries and calling for an ambulance.
"Simon!" Blair managed to blurt out. "He's hurt, and needs..."
Henri reassured him. "The Captain's already loaded into the ambulance, Hairboy. He's gonna be fine. Already coming around when we found him."
Blair was still pressed as close to Jim as the dentist's chair would allow. "Where's that damned key?" he shouted, seeing Jim straining again against his bonds.
"Here!" Rafe hurried over with a key ring he located on a broken down table. His steady hands tried first one, then another, until the locks sprang open one by one, and the chains binding Jim fell away.
With Sandburg on one side and Taggart on the other, Jim slowly sat up, then stood on trembling legs, moving away as quickly as he could from the horrible chair. He leaned heavily against the far wall, taking deep, long breaths. Blair stood in front of him, hands on his friend's shoulders.
For the first time, Jim could see his guide's face. His heart tightened at the sight. Blood, already drying, was caked under his nose, on a wide gash on one cheek, and on a cut under his right eye. Bruises were beginning to show up, their deep purple a vivid contrast with Blair's pale skin.
The young man grinned crookedly, wincing at the pain in his split lip, and quipped, "You should see the other guy."
That was all it took. Blair's humor in the face of all they'd been through was too much for the sentinel's overburdened emotions to handle. Reaching out, he drew the young man to him, wrapping his strong arms around him, and holding him close. Cupping the back of his head with one hand, he anchored Blair to his body with his other arm across his shoulders.
Sandburg buried his face in Jim's neck, breathing in the welcome scent of his best friend, alive and well. His breathing grew ragged for a moment as he thought of how very differently this evening could have turned out. "Oh, God, Jim," he whispered.
Ellison took a deep breath, drawing in strength along with the comforting scent of his guide. "We gotta get you to the hospital, y'know?" His arms showed no signs of relinquishing his hold on his partner anytime soon, in spite of his words.
Blair nodded against his neck. "Yeah. Later. Right now..."
"Right now...," Jim echoed, pulling Blair a little closer against him. "Thanks, Chief," he whispered. "You know you shouldn't have..."
Finishing his sentinel's thought, Sandburg added, "'Put myself in danger like that.'" He looked up at Ellison and smiled. "A very wise man once told me that partners take care of each other. I am your partner, right?"
Ellison leaned his cheek against Sandburg's forehead. "Chief, what you are to me goes way beyond the definition of partner. But, yeah, for lack of a better word, you are my partner, Blair. In good times and bad, you are my partner."
Blair laughed softly. "Thanks, man."
Both men were silent for a minute, soaking in the closeness and relief of the moment. Then, Sandburg joked, "Hey, we stay like this much longer, big guy, people are gonna talk." He hugged Jim tightly, but still did not let go. He would stay as long as Jim needed him, gossip be damned.
The sentinel became aware of the voices and movement around them. Regretfully, he nodded. "You still need medical attention, Chief." Breaking the embrace, but keeping one arm protectively around his guide, he led his injured partner up the stairs and to the waiting ambulance.********************
Regardless of how hard the ER doctors searched, they could find absolutely nothing wrong with Jim Ellison other than the injuries caused by his struggles against his bonds. As soon as the first doctor had finished checking him over and had applied dressings to his wrists and ankles, Jim began insisting that he be taken to his partner. By the time the second, then the third had completed their exams, the sentinel was literally chafing at the bit.
Finally, sliding off the exam table and pulling on his jacket, Jim moved toward the door. He ignored the painful throbbing under the bandages and forced himself not to limp. He would be damned if he'd give them an excuse to detain him one second longer.
"Mr. Ellison!" the current doctor called to him. "You received a blow to the head. Even though there doesn't appear to be any sign of concussion, we really should..."
Jim waved him off and disappeared out the door. Pausing for a moment outside, he stretched out his senses, zeroing in immediately on the scent and sound of his guide. Three doors down to the right.
Jim pulled open the curtain, peering into the small exam room. "Hey, Chief," he called softly.
The young man lying on the table blinked his eyes open, then grinned. "Jim!" As he started to pull himself up to a seated position, a small groan escaped him. Immediately, his sentinel was at his side, assisting him with a supportive arm across his shoulders. Blair smiled up at him weakly. "Sorry, man. Think I may be a little sore for a few days."
Jim winced inwardly at his friend's battered face, then caught a glimpse of the angry red and purple marks spreading out over his belly and back as Blair hurried to pull his shirt closed. Gently, yet firmly, Jim opened the shirt again to inspect the injuries.
Running touch sensitive fingers across the bruised ribs and back, Ellison bit back a groan of frustration. Sore wouldn't begin to describe the pain his guide was going to experience for the next week or more. Jim laid his warm palm lightly over the largest of the bruises on Blair's tender belly. "I'm so damned sorry, Chief."
Before Blair could respond, the doctor came back into the room. "Mr. Sandburg, since you've declined hospitalization overnight..."
Jim shot Blair an accusing glare, but the younger man only shrugged and grinned sheepishly.
"...I'm sending you some pain medication to get you through the next few days. I'd like to see you back here Monday morning, and..."
The doctor's voice faded into the background. They were going home, Blair thought. In only a few minutes, they'd be in the truck, on their way home to the loft. He stifled a yawn. Man, his release from this place couldn't come too soon! He hated hospitals.********************
Rafe opened the door to the loft with a flourish. "Welcome home, gents," he greeted them, ushering Blair and Jim inside with a hand on each of their shoulders.
Joel and Henri stood grinning in the kitchen, like two cats caught in the canary cage.
Blair looked around the loft in amazement. "Man! What happened to this place? It was a disaster, and now..."
Jim flashed him a look. "Disaster? What are you talking about, Chief?"
Joel stepped forward. "Our friend, Kevin, kinda paid you a visit here, Jim. Let's just say he wasn't the neatest of house guests."
The glass in the windows had been replaced. Blair didn't think he even wanted to know what kind of money that had cost the guys in the middle of the night. The floor had been swept clean, and every object that was unbroken was back on the shelves. Maybe not exactly in the right place, but upright and neatly arranged just the same. The couch had been covered over with several brightly covered afghans to hide the gaping rips in the upholstery, and the kitchen cabinets had been reorganized and closed. Sandburg was impressed, given the complete mayhem he'd seen earlier.
"Nice work, guys," he commented with a grateful smile as he moved slowly around the living room, inspecting their work.
Rafe shrugged. "There's lots more to do, but at least you can stay here tonight. Sorry we couldn't do more."
"How's Simon?" Jim asked. "They told us at the hospital he'd been released."
Henri replied, "Yeah, Daryl came and drove him home. He's fine. The bullet went in and out of his shoulder clean. His head needed a few stitches. That's what knocked him out. All he needs is some rest and a few days of pain meds. He'll be good as new."
Blair breathed a sigh of relief, cringing as his ribs protested, then he asked the question he'd been dreading all evening. "What...? What about Kevin Cowart?"
Everyone in the room froze in place. Blair looked from Henri to Rafe to Joel. "Somebody tell me. Did I...?"
Jim stepped forward, laying a hand on Blair's shoulder. "No, Chief, you didn't kill him. They found Cowart lying at the bottom of the stairs, unconscious. A few broken bones, along with a concussion from the blow you landed, but he'll survive. They've got him now in the psych ward, doing an evaluation. Probably spend the rest of his life in an institution."
"At least we can hope, babe," muttered Henri.
Rafe added, "The hair Jim found at the third crime scene was a genetic match for Cowart. He took the hair itself before he ran. Fortunately for us, the kid wasn't that bright. He forgot that the DNA report was done by an outside lab. They have all the records we need on file. That, plus Jim's testimony on the kidnapping charge, should put him away for life."
The sentinel took a breath for courage. "I'm afraid Marjorie wasn't as fortunate, Chief. She..."
Blair reached up to squeeze the hand resting on his shoulder. "I know," he whispered. "I... When I was looking for you, I saw her."
Jim shut his eyes briefly. "That bastard..."
Joel cleared his throat. "Hey, Jim, Blair... It's late." He looked at his companions. "Guess we'd better be shoving off. Gotta work tomorrow, y'know. Simon said to tell you two that he doesn't want to see your faces around the office for at least a week. He'll have the reports sent over to you to fill out. No need to come in."
Blair elbowed Jim gently in the ribs. "Hey, man, some vacation time! Maybe we can head up to the mountains for a few days?"
"Yeah, Chief, maybe." Jim escorted their co-workers to the door. "Thanks, Joel. Rafe. H. We owe you. Big time."
With slaps to the back, handshakes, and shoulder pats, the three detectives departed, leaving Jim and Blair alone in the loft. Sandburg smiled at his friend. "They did a great job, man. You wouldn't believe it."
Jim began walking around, inspecting the damage to furniture, the floor, and the rest of their home. Suddenly, he was stopped by a restraining hand on his arm. "Yeah, Chief, I would," he said softly. "I've seen it before, remember?"
Reading the pain in his friend's voice, Blair moved closer to the sentinel. "Jim," he said quietly. "There's time for this tomorrow. Nothing you can do about it tonight anyway."
Jim sighed, staring down at a long rip in the back of the couch. "Yeah, you're right, Chief."
Blair looked puzzled. "Jim? How did Cowart sneak up on you? Didn't you hear him coming?"
Ellison moved over to the newly repaired door and stared out for a moment at the rain. "I was distracted, Chief. I..." Jim hesitated. "I think I zoned, listening so closely to you over the radio. I don't remember hearing Cowart at all. All I recall is a flash of pain, then I woke up in that damned chair." He ran his fingers through his short hair, then he smiled at his partner. "Let's call it a night, okay? It's gonna be morning in an couple of hours anyway."
Sensing that Jim didn't want to discuss the matter in any more depth, at least not yet, Blair grinned. "Not that we have to get up, though, right? We get to sleep in?"
Jim nodded. "For several days to come, Chief."
The two moved to their rooms, stopping in front of Blair's door for a moment. Jim let his hand find the back of Blair's neck and squeezed gently. "'Night, Sandburg. I was proud of you tonight. I mean that. You were pretty amazing out there. No cop could have done better."
From Jim Ellison, there could be no higher praise. Blair's blue eyes glowed in appreciation, but he only nodded. "Sleep well, Jim. See you in the morning."********************
The pink hues of dawn slowly spread across the Cascade skyline. Jim Ellison leaned against the railing of his balcony, a cup of steaming coffee in his hand. He breathed deeply, thankful for the normalcy of this morning, thankful for the simple pleasures of a sunrise, coffee, and fresh, morning air.
He smiled as he heard his guide slipping through the living room and out the sliding door to join him. "Hey, Chief," Jim greeted him quietly. "You're up way too early."
Blair hugged a worn quilt around his shoulders to ward of the morning chill. "Might say the same thing about you. The rain's gone." The young man moved slowly, trying not to jar his injuries. He moved to stand next to Jim, close enough to feel some of the bigger man's body heat seep through to warm his shoulder.
"Looks like it's going to be a nice day. About time." Jim fell silent as he gazed out at the slowly brightening city.
Something was wrong with his friend, of that much, Blair was certain. He waited, content to let Jim talk to him in his own time, at his own pace. He watched as the clouds turned from pearly pink to bright orange.
At last, Jim broke the silence. "When do they stop, Chief?"
Blair turned to face Jim, his eyes warm with concern. "What, Jim?"
Jim glanced away for a moment, then back again. "The nightmares. I...dreamed last night. About Cowart...and Lash...and..." A shiver shook his body, barely noticeable, but heartbreaking all the same. James Ellison was not a man prone to tremors.
"And...me," Blair finished. "Cowart was trying to be me, and you saw my face in your nightmare." It wasn't a question, just a quietly spoken statement of fact.
Jim's eyebrows arched in surprise. "How'd you...?"
His guide shrugged. "Makes sense, doesn't it? That you'd see my face at some point? Makes more sense than my seeing..." Realizing that this wasn't the time to discuss his own nightmares, not when Jim's pain was so fresh, his voice drifted off.
Ellison's tone was gentle. "You've seen my face on Lash before, haven't you?" He could see the confirmation in his friend's eyes, even though Blair didn't speak the words.
"Oh, God, Blair," Jim breathed.
Blair took a deep breath. letting the fresh morning air fill his lungs. It felt wonderful, despite the soreness which reminded him his healing process had just begun. "It's over, Jim. Lash is really dead; I know that now without a shadow of a doubt. Cowart will never see the light of day again. It's over. All but the nightmares, and they won't last forever." Glancing upward, he found his friend's eyes. "Trust me?"
Jim smiled sadly. "Always, Chief. Always."
Jim grasped Blair's shoulders and turned his friend around so they were face to face. "You know what I want to say right now, don't you?"
When Sandburg looked confused, Jim continued, giving the slim shoulders a gentle shake. "I'd like nothing more at this moment than to tell you never to pull a stunt like that again. Ever. To get out when you can, to keep yourself safe, regardless of the consequences to me or anyone else."
Sandburg shook his head quickly, then opened his mouth to protest. Before he could speak, however, Jim pulled him forward roughly, hugging him against his chest in a tight, desperate embrace. Dropping his head so he spoke directly into Blair's ear, he whispered in a voice raw with emotion, "I know I don't have the right to give you that order, Chief. We are partners. In every sense of the word. I can't expect you to do what I couldn't do myself. But..."
Jim's voice broke, and Blair could feel him struggling for control. Even though being held so tightly caused his sore ribs and muscles to ache, Blair ignored the pain. Whatever Jim was telling him was more than worth the hurting.
"The point is, I cannot lose you, Chief. I just do not think I could handle that. Do you understand what I'm trying to say here?"
Carefully, Blair pulled back, just enough to gaze up into Jim's eyes and was taken aback by the raw emotion there. The younger man nodded, and a smile touched his lips. "Yeah, Jim. I understand." He paused, then added gently, "I love you, too, you know?"
This time, Jim's arms were gentle as he drew Blair to him. Wrapping himself around his friend, then drawing the warm quilt around them both, Jim sighed deeply, with only a hint of sadness. "I know, Chief. I know."
He turned them both slightly so that they could watch the end of the sunrise out over the bay. The nearness of his guide warmed his soul as the growing heat of the sun warmed his body. Jim dropped his head and whispered into the soft curls covering Blair's ear, "I love you so damned much that it scares me sometimes. You know that, right?"
The only answer from the smaller body nestled so close to his was a nod and a tightening of the arms wrapped around his waist.
The terrors of the past had come to an end at last. In the early dawn light, there was merely the shining reflection of days and years to come, a future bright in promise and hope. Nightmares might come and go, that much was a certainty for sentinel and guide, but the reflection of their future together would remain...forever.
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