Blair walked into the store, girding his loins and his pocketbook. He could do this. He really could do this. As soon as he entered the establishment, he felt eyes on him. His skin crawled as he realized that his watcher was probably calculating how long to wait before calling security. And normally, he'd never set foot in a place like this. But he had a mission. He had to do this. And he could. He was an anthropologist. He had studied foreign cultures, and managed to insinuate himself into small villages in the misty jungles of South America.
And he'd be damned if he couldn't suck it in and get the god damned tuxedo for the police dinner that weekend, which surprisingly, he had been invited to. Something about getting recognition for an invaluable contribution to the Cascade Police Department. Whatever it was, it had Jim in a good mood. So Blair would suffer the indignity of getting fitted for a tux.
Jim recommend this store...Torrence Tuxedos...and it was in the classier part of the mall. His partner had done more than just recommend it. It was more along the lines of insisted. He even foisted his own personal credit card upon the junior partner of Ellison-Sandburg -- or Sandburg-Ellison in Blair's fantasies -- and with a gruff "Buy it, don't rent it" had dropped Blair off. Jim was going on a stake-out that night, not expecting to be back until the next morning so Blair figured he'd get the tux, and catch the next bus home.
Blair fingered the sleeve of a jacket, wincing at the price tag that dangled from a subtle little tie. It cost enough to keep him fed for about three months. He couldn't help the wince that crossed his face.
"Can I help you, *sir*?" The black-clad man oozed over to stand beside Blair, looking over his shoulder at the jacket.
"Um, yes. I hope so. I'd like to buy a tuxedo."
"I see. And will sir be paying in cash?" The sneer on the man's face was enough to make Blair's blood boil. Cash his ass. Like he, what? Held up a bank to buy a tux?
"Uh, no. Credit card." Blair flashed the small piece of plastic.
"We have a number of rental tuxedos on the discount rack. Perhaps..."
"Buy, not rent," Blair said firmly. The snake paused mid-sentence, but took it all in stride.
"Very well, sir. Step this way for a fitting, please."
Feeling out of place, and horribly out-classed, Blair followed the man to the changing room.
"You can change in there." The man pointed to a small booth, a solid door providing some modesty for the customer. "Simply pass your...er...clothes out to me and we can begin preliminary measurements."
With a smile he didn't feel, Blair complied, going into the booth, and beginning the process of removing his numerous layers of flannel and cotton..
In a small janitorial closet across the mall, a smouldering cigarette landed on a pile of oil soaked rags. The crackle of flames grew as the small spark began to flicker and grow. The oil fed the greedy flames, as they licked their way up the walls.
Blair struggled with his sweater as it tangled in his hair, catching on the tie that kept the unruly curls under control. The tie broke, snapping against his neck with a sharp sting.
"Damn!" he swore, struggling to get his arms free from the sweater that had somehow turned into a straight jacket. There was a soft knock on the dressing room door.
"Sir? Is everything alright? Do you require...assistance?" Blair could hear the sarcastic sneer in the man's voice. "Just pass your things out, sir."
Blair muttered dire threats against the man who thought he couldn't even undress, as he stripped down to his boxers and socks. He opened the door a crack, thrust out his bundle and slammed the door shut again.
"I'll be back in a minute, sir, with a preliminary suit to try on."
*Great. You do that, you over-primped pompous...* His colourful description was cut short as suddenly the small room was filled with the clamour of a fire bell. Rolling his eyes at the odds of being caught in a dressing room during a fire, Blair turned the doorknob and pushed. And pushed. And turned the knob again. And pushed. The door had jammed.
"No. Nonononono. See, turn knob, door open. Come on." He tried again. No luck. "Hellloooo! Hello? Somebody? Anybody?" He'd even take the slime ball's help at this point.
But no one came. Trying to keep his breathing even, he began mentally running through his mantra. *I am...relaxed. I am...relaxed. I am...relaxed.*
Then he erupted into a flurry of pounding fists, as he kicked and shouted at the door.
"Hey! Let me out! Hello!"
The small lightbulb above him flickered and died, plunging the room into darkness.
*Oh. Now this is just GREAT!* he mused. He suppressed a shiver, as the cool air breezed over much too much bare skin for his comfort. He took a deep breath and tried to collect his thoughts. Everything would be fine. It was probably just a fire drill. There was nothing to worry about. They'd turn off the alarm, let people come back, and that snake man would let him out. And he would die from embarrassment. At least he hadn't worn his yellow smiley-face boxers. There was only so much indignity that a man should have to put up with in one day.
*I am going to kill Jim when I get out of here. He is a dead man. This is, so, his fault.*
He kicked the door once more in frustration. And proceeded to stare at it in a stupor as it actually swung open with a small creak. Feeling absurdly pleased with himself, Blair peered out into the dim store. The lights were out outside the store as well, the mall dark as hades with small amounts of light trickling through the tiny skylights three stories above.
"Hello? Anyone here?" The alarm was still sounding, the noise driving like a nail through Blair's head. He looked about for his clothes, which he realized held his wallet and what little cash he had, but gave up looking when he caught the first waft of acrid smoke. *Oh man, there really is a fire!*
Dignity be damned, Blair's very well honed sense of self-preservation kicked into overdrive. *Don't panic. Just get out of here, find an exit door and get out. Then call Jim. Then kill Jim. Then get some clothes.* A man had to have his priorities, after all. He spared one more glance at the store, wondering whether he'd even go to the damn police reception after all, before heading out.
The main corridors of the malls had large sections cut out in the centre bordered by railings, allowing a view of all three levels, as well as various large tree-like plants and normally sparkling fountains to display their grandeur for all to admire. At the moment though, all the openings did was to allow the smoke from the fire to spread throughout the walkways, obscuring Blair's vision and making him hack painfully.
Coughing into his fist, he peered through the smoke and shadows. A movement ahead caught his attention and he felt a surge of relief flow through him at the sight of the visor clad, oxygen carrying men who appeared like apparitions through the smoke. He waved and began to shout, dissolving into a coughing fit. The men approached.
"Hey, guys. Man, am I glad to see you," Blair wheezed, blinking back tears, prepared to let the firefighters lead him to fresh air. He blinked, thinking that his eyes were playing strange tricks on him, but it was no trick. *Since when do Cascade firefighters carry M-16s?*
"Uh, guys. You know, I can't see your faces or anything, so why don't you just let me go, huh? I'll just walk away. Okay?" Blair winced as the only response was the tightening of the grip on his arm causing an increased stabbing pain through his shoulder as he was frog-marched down the corridor. Without the benefit of the gasmasks or the oxygen tanks, his visibility was reduced to almost nothing and it was becoming increasingly difficult to breathe.
Finally, they reached their destination. Blair groaned inwardly as he managed to make out the sign above the store. It wasn't a store, it was Cascade First Trust, a local bank which managed to thrive despite the amalgamation of most banks into national corporations. It was popular, and Blair had no doubt that the armed men were about to make a mint.
The crash of glass was almost inaudible over the clamouring fire alarm, and the men easily broke the panes. One took out a torch and efficiently began cutting the metal bars that remained of the retractable barrier that some teller had had the foresight to pull shut before vacating the mall. The man was fast... but sloppy, Blair criticized internally; he could have done better.
Soon they were through. Blair tried to avoid stepping on the glass that littered the floor, his stockinged feet vulnerable to the sharp shards. There were five of them. One stood guard at the entrance to the bank, keeping an eye out for real firefighters. The remaining four jumped over the counter and entered the back rooms.
"You. Sit," the man at the entrance barked gesturing with his gun. Blair sank into one of the waiting chairs, wrapping his arms around his chest, both to calm his nerves and to try to keep in as much body heat as possible. It was freezing in there. He was surprised that ice wasn't forming on the ceiling. He shook his head as he realized how his thoughts were straying. *Stay focussed. You can find a way out of this. You can.* He eyed the courtesy phone on a counter nearby. Positioned to give irate customers even more to be irate about, tucked into a small nook with not much room to move about, the phone offered Blair a way to get help...if he could manage to avoid getting shot and he figured that the partition beside the table could offer some cover.
The air in the bank had been clear, the barred screen keeping out the worse of the smoke. But now, with the gaping hole in it, smoke began to filter in, hazing the air and providing what Blair hoped would be adequate cover.
He started as a violent clanging sounded over the already present fire alarm. This was so not good. This was soooo not good.
"Three minutes," one of the masked men shouted to his companions from where he stood guard at the front of the bank, looking out into the grayness of smoke.
It was now or never.
Blair bolted out of his chair. He was at the phone and punching 911 before the conscious part of his brain took over.
"Hey!" One of the robbers spotted him, shouting out in anger.
Blair begged for the operator to pick up. *pickuppickuppickup*
Before he heard an answer though, blinding pain shot through his skull as the barrel of a gun crashed against his temple.
"You little shit. What the hell were you thinking? Damn it. Time's up, guys! Let's get the hell out of here!"
Blair blinked, trying to clear the stars from in front of his eyes. A hand grabbed his arm, pulling him up and pushing him towards the door.
"Everyone freeze! Cascade PD!" A voice shouted. "On the ground. Now!
*Oh goodie. The good guys,* Blair thought muzzily as his arm was slowly released and the men around him reluctantly moved to the floor.
*That's right, you guys. You tell 'em. Down on the ground you dick heads. Trying to rob a bank in MY city. I don't THINK so.* Blair's thoughts rambled as he wavered unsteadily.
"ON THE GROUND!"
*Man, stop shouting. My head is killing me. Enough already. They're all laying down. Just look....see? All on the ground.*
The room spun dizzily as suddenly what felt like a freight train bore him down, pinning him to the smooth, but incredibly cold tiles. His head banged painfully on the unyielding floor. Flipped onto his stomach, his already abused arm was twisted behind his back, his other arm brought behind as well, and he felt the cool metal and heard the soft clink of the handcuffs as they were fastened. He looked up muzzily at the gas mask bearing the Cascade Police Department Logo, wanting to protest this bizarre treatment, but unable to articulate his confusion.
That's when hell erupted yet again. Massive explosion from inside the bank sent a shock wave over them, tumbling officers and filling the walkway with debris and more smoke. As yet uncuffed, two of the bank robbers scrambled to the their feet, grabbing the bags of money and darted away into the cover of smoke.
Blair staggered to his feet. He had to go find Jim. Jim would sort this mess out. Shivering in his boxers and thermal socks, hands cuffed behind him, Blair began his search for his Sentinel, confident that the hero of the Great City would be somewhere in the mall. *If ya need to find something, you go the mall. Need Jim. Already at the mall. See? Halfway there.*
Concussed and confused, the trembling Guide went into the smoke and darkness to find his partner.
Jim tapped his fingers against the wheel of the truck, drumming to the beat of a distant drum. A very distant drum. Halfway across town, in fact, if he estimated the distance correctly. Sometimes having Sentinel senses wasn't such a drag, he mused, as he treated himself to a sneak
listen at a rock concert he managed to pick up while doing a scan with his hearing. The pounding beat of the drums kept him alert and focussed in lieu of his normal grounding in Blair's unique presence.
It just wasn't the same with Rafe, the younger man engrossed in filling out paperwork forms to save time later. The silence was strange compared with Blair's normally chatty conversations, which while strange, were at least *something* to listen to. Other than the grumbling of Rafe's stomach and that weird sound he made sucking on the end of his pen. *God, I'm actually missing Sandburg.*
Jim's cell phone rang, startling them both.
"Jim, it's Simon. We've got a situation. Bank robbery at the Southside Mall. The perps started a fire and used it as a cover. Two of the robbers were arrested and three are still at large in the mall. I think we could use you on this one."
"Sure thing, sir. Just let me get a replacement on the stake out and -- wait a minute. Did you say Southside Mall?"
"Yeah, what of it?"
Jim closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose between two fingers. "I dropped Sandburg off there earlier this afternoon." He glanced at his watch, doing some internal math. Only an hour had passed since he had left his partner at the mall entrance. How likely was it that he would somehow be involved? Jim shook his head, not wanting to calculate the odds. "Are you at the scene?"
"Yeah. I just arrived."
"Is Blair anywhere around there?"
"I haven't seen him, but maybe he just caught the bus home."
A moment of silence stretched between the two men.
"Forget I said that. I'll start asking around. You get your butt over here. We need to find those three perps and time is on their side. Our men are finding it difficult to navigate in the smoke, and the firefighters have kept them out of some areas because of the risk of structural damage."
"I'll be right there." Jim turned off the phone, and swivelled to look at Rafe. The younger detective had gathered his papers into a folder and was buttoning his coat, ready to step out of the truck. "Sorry to cut and run on you, Rafe."
"Don't worry about it, Jim. If Blair's involved, you'd better go save his scrawny ass before Simon gets an ulcer. Besides, this will give us more to rag him about at the station." Rafe stepped out of the truck with a laugh. Jim leaned over before Rafe slammed the door.
"I'll call in a replacement. Sure you don't mind waiting outside?"
"Nah, I could use some fresh air anyway...when's the last time you cleaned the inside of that thing you call a vehicle anyway?" Rafe teased.
With a wave, Jim pealed out of the parking lot, leaving Rafe standing on the sidewalk, coffee cup and papers precariously balanced in his hands. Jim radioed dispatch for a replacement, putting the stakeout behind him as he focussed on the task at hand. Catch the criminals, locate Sandburg...not necessarily in that order.
Blair stumbled through the smoke, a small part of his brain screaming at him to run far, far, away. He peered through the fumes. Looming suddenly in front of him was a sign proclaiming a sale at 'Sea of Love', a store which carried soaps and bath oils. He had visited it once, but after Jim's negative reaction to the scent of the herbal shampoo -- three hours of nonstop sneezing, until Blair managed to get the smell out of his hair with numerous rinses -- he had forgone the nicely scented prodducts.
But now, an idea sprung into his fogged mind. Bath oils. Oil. Slickness. Handcuffs. He managed to get into the store, past the treacherously placed display of bottles stacked in a pyramid. Peering near sightedly at the shelves, he located what he was looking for. It was no easy feat with his hands locked behind his back, but he managed to twist around, knocking a bottle off a higher shelf with his nose. It landed on the counter beneath, at the perfect height to grab with cuffed hands.
Awkwardly twisting off the cap, he managed to slop oil over his wrists, hoping that the heady scented oil would work as well as the crude oil that had been his ticket to freedom when he and Jim had been handcuffed out on that rig. *If nothing else, I'll smell better* he mused as the soft smell of lilacs and roses filtered through the acrid smell of burnt plastic and wood wafting through the mall.
He jerked at the cuffs, the metal digging into the skin. But it was to no avail. The oil only made the cuffs spin about his wrists as they dug in. He closed his eyes, wanting to bang his head against the counter in frustration, but pretty sure that it would only compound the throbbing that already resided in his temples.
*Think, Sandburg. Think. Okay. You're in the mall. Bad guys are in the mall. Police are in the mall. Get out of the mall.* He tried to visualize the layout of the mall in his mind, struggling to remember where the emergency exits were. *That was the thing about emergency exits. You noticed them all the time when you didn't need 'em, but man, when you had to find them in the dark and in the middle of a smoky hallway, they were nowhere to be found.*
He slumped against the counter for a moment. If he kept moving he was sure to find an exit somewhere. Rallying his rapidly dwindling strength, he left "The Sea of Love" behind, the scent of flowers billowing in his wake.
Stumbling around in the dark, socks slipping on the smooth tiles, he fumbled through the smoke. A faint red glow lit a small patch of wall, and Blair's heart leapt in his chest. An exit sign, illuminated from within, shone like a beacon. Freedom! Heaving a sigh and regretting it when he had to cough up a lung full of smoke, he made for the door and the promise of fresh air and hopefully some clothes.
He turned sideways to push open the door with his shoulder when a hand descended upon his neck., squeezing him in a vise-like grip.
"Well, well. Lookee here. Just what we need." Blair struggled to hold on to his lunch -- a delicious salami on rye with goat cheese -- as he was spun about dizzily. Two dark forms materialized from out of the darkness to join the one holding him.
"You found him. Good. Now maybe we have a chance of getting out of here. We'll probably need a hostage if they've got the place surrounded." The masks obscured their features, adding to the threat of danger that lingered like a visible aura about the faceless men.
Blair coughed weakly, only the hand on his neck keeping him upright. *I think I'm in trouble,* he managed to conclude, blinking owlishly against the smoke. He tried to put up a token of resistence as they dragged him through the exit door and into the stairway, but his struggles were met with a sharp blow across his face. He bit back a yelp as a ring gouged his cheek, his head ringing from the impact. Struggling suddenly didn't seem all that important.
Expecting them to go down to the exit, he summoned a modicum of surprise as they pushed him up the stairs towards the second floor of the mall. The clatter of the men's boots was loud in the stairwell, echoing about, seeming to double the number of people. Half pulled, half dragged, Blair was manhandled up the stairs, grateful that the air was at least relatively clear and that there was a bit of illumination from the emergency lights on the walls. The smell of smoke clung to the black fatigues of the men around him, mixing nauseatingly with the fragrance of lavender from the oil on his wrists. His stomach heaved uneasily and he gagged, slumping against the railing.
"Shit. You gonna throw up? Keep him away from me!" Sounds of disgust echoed about him as he heaved. His stomach twisted painfully and he vomited onto the stairs. Spitting out bitter bile, he panted weakly against the handrail, wishing that the ground would stop moving in such a weird twisting way.
"Oh gross, man. That's just what we needed." One of the men pulled at Blair's arm, yanking him up. Blair's vision swam with the sudden change in altitude. *When did it get so dark?* He could see the edges of his vision greying, obscuring the stairs before him, and it was an air of detachment that he watched as the stairs grew closer and closer. And arm caught him before he tumbled completely down the flight of stairs.
"We don't have time for this. Stevens, you carry him."
Blair was barely aware of the arm holding him and the shoulder that met his stomach as he was slung in a fireman's carry over the burly man's shoulder. As he swung dizzily down the man's back his vision darkened and the world went black, bringing blessed oblivion.
Jim braked violently and could smell the stench of burnt rubber. He was going to regret that the next time he went to get his tires aligned. Giving his truck a loving pat in apology for the rough treatment he scanned the milling crowd for the imposing bulk of his captain.
"Jim! Over here!" Simon stood by a SWAT van, hands on hips, looking like someone forced him to eat a lemon for lunch.
"Simon, what've ya got?" Jim asked as he drew near enough to see the floor plan of the mall spread across the hood of the van. "Any sign of Sandburg?"
"Not yet. I've got uniforms looking for him in the crowd, just in case. Did you try his cell phone?" Jim stared at Simon, blinking.
"I...uh...hadn't thought of that."
"That's why I'm the captain and you're the detective, *Detective*," Simon grinned and motioned for him to get to it. "Well...go on, call him. Maybe he's off with some co-ed talking about some weird cultural mating ritual."
"You sound jealous, sir," Jim shot back as he punched the automatic dial on his cell phone. It rang once, rang twice. Jim furrowed his brow as he realized that he was hearing an echo of the ring...in the parking lot. Piggy-backing his sight on the sound of the ring, he found the source of the echo. Blair's cell phone was laying on a bundle of clothes, in the arms of a slickly dressed man, who looked startled by the phone's activation. Snapping his phone shut, Jim pushed through the crowd like an ice-breaker moving across an ice plain. The target of his intensity didn't have a chance to move out of the way, as six foot plus of Blessed Protector came storming into his personal space.
"Where did you get this?" Jim didn't waste time with pleasantries as he grabbed the now silent phone. That's when he recognized the pile of clothes, plaids and flannel intermingled with worn cotton.
"Where's Blair Sandburg?" Jim grabbed the cringing man by the lapels of his expensive suit, hoisting him up so he could stare him in the eye. "Where'd you get those clothes?"
"A...a....a...customer," the man stammered, dropping his armful as he tried to save his suit from damage. "I...I just happened to be holding them when the alarm went off."
"Where was he?"
"In a changing room. I...I thought he left when the alarm went off. Honest!" The man's voice rose as Jim's knuckles turned white as the fingers tightened on the silk lapels. "The jacket...please, the jacket."
Jim dropped him back onto his feet, turning away. Simon found him minutes later, simply staring at the mall, where tendrils of smoke wound up like seaweed in a sea of sky. Jim shook his head slowly.
"He's in there somewhere." He jerked his chin towards the sprawling of commerce, running his sleeve under his nose as if to rub away the acrid smell of smoke in the air.
"Can you hear him?" Simon too, turned and stared, as if willing their friend to come sauntering out of the building.
"No." Jim's voice was flat. "But I know he's in trouble."
"This Sentinel shit is getting a bit tiresome, Jim. I mean, I know that you and Blair have this bond thing, but I gotta tell you this supernatural stuff is getting --"
"Simon, this doesn't have anything to do with the whole Sentinel thing. Call it cop instinct, call it knowing the trouble magnet that Blair is. Call it whatever you like. But there's nothing mystical about it, so stop making it out like it is."
Simon fell silent at Jim's sharp words. "Sorry, Jim. It's just that...well, you know."
Jim turned on his captain, feeling a rage building inside of him. "No. No, I don't know. Look. Somehow I've got to find him. And you know what? My Sentinel abilities are worth squat. There's too much smoke. I can't breath through my nose without it feeling like I'm sandblasting my sinuses. I can't listen for him because there's too many people here, and the sirens are like air raid signals. But I'm going to find him. How? Because I'm a cop, and I'm good at finding people when I have to. Being a Sentinel sometimes makes that easier, but right now, all I can be is a cop...without his partner."
Jim wound down his rant, suddenly feeling very foolish for barraging his captain like that. It wasn't his fault that Simon thought that being a Sentinel was always going to help solve cases. Despite the man's scepticism about the mystical and fanciful, Simon had adapted surprisingly well to the notion of a man with enhanced senses who had a jaguar for a spirit guide and could see ghosts in mirrors. *If only I could adapt so well,* Jim sighed inwardly.
"Show me that map, Simon. Let's find out where our errant anthropology student is...the cop way."
Blair slowly, and with great reluctance, opened his eyes. A cough escaped from him as he took a deep breath to settle his queasy stomach. He was rather gracelessly sprawled on the floor of what appeared to be a department store, shelves stretching out in either direction for as far as the eye could see. Which wasn't that far, given the darkness that permeated the store. Struggling to get upright, he winced as the handcuffs made their presence known. The skin on his wrists was beginning to feel flayed, as the cold metal scraped against raw flesh.
"Jacob, he's awake!"
Blair squinted at the shadowy figure that crouched down beside him. A disembodied hand removed the gas mask, the black-clad arm hidden in the darkness. Blair stared at the face that was revealed. It was pale, almost luminescent in the faint light, and green eyes peered at him.
"What's your name?"
"Uh...Blair," he rasped, his throat parched from the smoke.
"Listen, you don't cause any problems and nothings going to happen, okay?" The man reached towards him, and Blair cringed. "Easy, I'm not going to hurt you." A gentle finger explored his temple, brushing back his hair to get a better view of the damage.
"I think you'll be okay. You got a bit banged up, but nothing too bad. Just keep your head down. Last thing we need is for you to get hurt. You can call me John. You want some water? I got some bottles from the grocery aisle." Blair watched as John twisted off the top of a plastic bottle and brought it to Blair's mouth. "Sorry about the cuffs, but we can't take them off. Go on. Drink."
Blair complied, sipping at the water and closing his eyes in relief. The water was lukewarm and flat, but it was like the wine of Dionysus to his parched throat.
"Stevens, what the hell are you doing?" Another form materialized out of the darkness. He too removed his gasmask, revealing finely chiselled features, strong jaw and dark eyes. "He's a hostage, not a houseguest."
"Jacob, I was just giving him some water for god's sake."
"Yeah, well remember, first sign of trouble and he's toast." Jacob snarled as he checked over his gun. "I've taken a look at the building plans and I think I've got us a way out. There's an entrance to the sewer system in the basement. I figure we can enter the sewers and just walk right out of here. We'll dump him when we leave the sewers."
"That doesn't sound too bad." John pulled the bottle way and Blair sagged back against the floor, resting his head against the tiles. "I mean, how hard can that be?"
"Aside from the fact that we have to go through the mall to get to the entrance? I don't know. The cops know we're in here somewhere so we've got to move now. Take care of him. If he can't walk, carry him." Jacob stood, cocking his gun. "If he gets in the way, I'll shoot him. Don't go soft on me now, kid."
"Okay, okay. Just leave him to me." John crouched by Blair. "Come on. Time to go. Let's get you up." He pulled on Blair's arm, managing to set the befuddled man on his feet. Blair swayed gently, leaning against the offered support. "Can you walk?"
Blair nodded, not wanting to be carried like a sack of grain. He didn't think his head could take being swung about upside down again. John patted him on the shoulder.
"Just stick by me, and don't piss Jacob off." At John's gentle urging, Blair forced his feet to move, following Jacob back into the smoky blackness of the mall walkways.
The trio made their way through the corridor, Jacob and John ever vigilant for the sudden appearance of the police. Blair simply tried to remain upright, despite the pounding in his head and the weakness in his knees. He couldn't shake the feeling that, despite John's assurances, he wasn't going to get out of this easily. He had seen their faces. He knew their names.
*Shit. I am SO screwed.*
A hand on his shoulder brought him to a halt.
"We'll take the emergency stairs. And we've got to go fast. And John. Get out your gun, for Christ sake." Jacob shook his head, his voice muffled by the gasmask. "Why the hell I agreed to let you come on this job, I don't know."
They entered the staircase, Jacob in the lead and John taking up the rear. Blair had a sinking suspicion that a hostage sandwich really wasn't what he wanted to be. He stumbled and was steadied by a firm hand on the small of his back.
Blair could hear the irritation in the man's voice. His socks provided no traction on the slippery stairs and he felt as though he was going to take a header down the stairwell with every step. The two robbers, with their rubber soled shoes -- not to mention the nice warm cozy black fatigues -- were losing patience with their staggering, shivering hostage. But it wasn't enough for them to let him go. They weren't going to let him go while he was still breathing.
It was inevitable that it happened. Blair took a step, the cotton sock skidding to the edge of the stair. Blair's stomach rose in his throat as he realized that there was no stopping the inevitable. With a muted cry, he slid backwards, jarring his tail bone as he landed hard. His legs tangled about Jacob's knees, throwing the man off balance and sending him tumbling down the stairwell. John cursed behind Blair, but the younger man had no intention of allowing this window of opportunity slip by. Twisting his torso around, he wrapped his hands around John's ankle and pulled.
John gave a shout, his arms wheeling as he tumbled down the stairs to join his partner in crime in a heap on the landing. Blair didn't stick around to find out whether they were okay. Scrambling back to his feet, he bolted up the stairs, hitting the door with his shoulder as he pushed it open and scuttled back to the relative safety of the murky innards of the mall.
"They know that we know that they are in there," Simon mused out loud as they studied the plans. "They'll be looking for us to stop them. Too bad we can't get the others to talk, but they're keeping pretty quiet."
"Yeah, but we know, that they know that we know that they're in there," Jim replied absently, tracing a fingers along the fine blue lines. "That gives us an edge." He stabbed his finger at the wrinkled piece of paper. "Here. Right there. There's an exit that they'll probably think we won't be covering. The service access point for the sewer."
Simon peered where Jim's finger pointed, his eyebrows scrunching together. "I don't know, Jim. Why the sewer?"
"Why not? It's the only way out that we don't have covered. So we better cover it." Jim rolled up the plans and began walking towards the mall. He stopped and turned when Simon failed to follow. "Well? Are you coming....*Sir*?"
Simon pulled his gun, checked the chamber, and gestured Jim to continue. "Lead on."
Blair shivered and tried to calm his racing heart. Crouching behind the counter in the department store, he pondered his situation. His wrists were aching and the dull throb in his shoulders kept disrupting his train of thought as the floor tilted beneath him. He closed his eyes and bit down on a shout of frustration as his muzzy thought refused to coalesce into something substantial.
He sat back on his heels, wavering dangerously with a sudden rush of vertigo. Barely inches off the floor, he felt as though the world were spinning out from beneath him. His fingers trailed on the tiles as he tried to steady himself, and that's when he realized that he could probably step over the chain linking the cuffs.
Relaxing his shoulders, taking a deep breath and letting the tension drain from his arms as he exhaled, he closed his eyes. The chain tinkled on the hard floor and he shuffled awkwardly backwards, the thick wool socks providing some protection from the scraping metal. With a heartfelt sigh, he managed to pull his arms in front of him, relieving the painful tension on his arms, shoulders and back.
Heartened by his success, he rose to his feet, able to stabilize himself on the counter as another wave of dizziness passed over him. He padded slowly down the aisle, past the kitchenware towards the hardware section of the store. A clatter behind him startled him, sending him scurrying to the scant protection of an aisle. Surrounded by pots and pans, he crouched. And waited.
Jim released his pent-up breath, gasping the relatively clean air of the mall basement level. The stench of sewer water clung to their clothes and Jim could swear he could practically see the aura of odour that surrounded them like a thick London fog. He pulled out his gun, and motioned for Simon to stay still. Extending his hearing, he struggled to get past the buzzing of the battery-run lights in the staircase before them.
"I've got one in the stairway. His heartbeat's sluggish. I don't think he's awake, or if he is, he's on some pretty powerful drugs."
"Is it Blair?"
Jim turned to his boss, his brow wrinkled in confusion. "How the hell should I know?"
"I don't know," Simon muttered in exasperation, "Is it his heartbeat?"
Jim closed his eyes. "Simon, do you think heartbeats are like fingerprints? I'm not omniscient here!"
Simon held up his hands in surrender. "Okay, okay. Let's just get this over with. I'll let Blair deal with this Sentinel stuff."
With a long-suffering sigh, Jim opened the door and covered Simon as the taller man ducked through the emergency room leading to the staircase. Simon held his gun at the ready and motioned Jim to proceed him. Feeling slightly like a hound dog told to seek out a scent, and resenting it just a little, Jim moved up the stairs with his captain in tow. They arrived at the first landing.
A black clad man lay crumpled in a pile, arms and legs jumbled together. Jim pressed a finger to his neck. "Pulse is strong, but slow. Better call an ambulance."
Simon spoke quietly into the receiver of his radio, alerting the backup to the situation. "Jim, do you hear anyone else?"
"No, but I can smell something."
"Yeah. Flowers. Roses and . . . lilacs?"
"I'm flattered, Jim, but I'm not you're type." Simon grinned, his teeth flashing in the dim light.
"Yack it up, sir. I think they went that way." Jim gestured with his gun upwards. "You okay with taking care of him?" Jim pointed to the motionless figure on the landing.
"Yeah. You be careful." Simon put a hand on Jim's shoulder, squeezing hard. "Bring him back safe."
Jim didn't need the advice. There was no other option.
The clang of the fire alarm finally ceased, leaving an uneasy silence in the department store. Blair sighed with relief, no longer having to battle his headache and the clamour, settling instead for waging a war with the jackhammer in his skull. He knew that it was just a matter of time before the robbers found him. The question was whether he could come up with a plan before they did so.
Blair groped around for a weapon, discarding the spatula which his fingers encountered. Flipping the robber to death didn't seem like a very good plan. That's when his eyes lit upon the rows and rows of pots and pans which hung from hooks on the adjacent set of shelves. He scooted over and hefted a pan, careful not to jar the others into making noise. It was a good pan, a large pan, a non-stick pan. While cast-iron would have been his first skillet of choice, it would have to do.
The squeak of rubber on tile made him freeze, his pulse sounding like a set of timpani in his ears. Silhouetted against grey smoke was the dark figure of a man. Blair couldn't tell if it was John or Jacob, but the point was moot. Either way, he was pretty sure that he was a dead man if they caught him. The simply solution to that was not to get caught.
Glad for his quiet socks, Blair silently made his way amongst the shoulder high counters, for once blessing his height which allowed him to keep low with little effort. He closed his eyes against another wave of dizziness and reached out to steady himself. His hand met the closest support, which was a rack of swimsuits. Blair watched with detachment as the rack overbalanced with his weight, idly wondering why the hell any store would be selling swimwear in Cascade. The clatter of hangers on the floor was deafening in the tense silence.
Drawn like a moth to a flame, the black clad figure stalked towards the sound, gun held at the ready.
"Come out, come out, wherever you are, kid."
It was Jacob. Mouth suddenly dry, Blair swallowed. John had at least seemed a bit less trigger happy than Jacob, and Blair didn't like the thought of taking on the more violent of the two. But the adrenalin lent speed to his feet as he darted behind another clothes rack, careful not to disturb the fabrics and leave a telltale sign of his path.
He waited behind the line of polyester printed shirts, breathing softly through his mouth. His fingers tightened on the handle of the pan and if there had been enough light, he would have been amazed at the whiteness of his knuckles.
Jacob prowled past the fallen swimsuits and began to pass by Blair's cover. Blair held his breath until the man was past him. Then with a loud shout -- which he hoped would be even vaguely wwar-like instead of the shriek of terror that threatened to make its way out of his chest -- he charged out from behind the rack and swung the pan with all of his strength. The solid thunk was satisfying, as was the sight of Jacob hitting the ground like a sack of whole wheat flour.
Blair stood over his quarry, panting with the exertion. He was exhausted. Buying a suit was traumatic enough, but putting a bank robbery on top of that had really tuckered him out. Muzzily he peered down at the fallen robber. Out like a light. Maybe a nap would be a good idea. He could just take a quick one before going to find Jim. That sounded good to the exhausted young man.
Jim peered into the gloomy interior of Sears. The din of the alarm had been silenced a while ago, to the appreciation of his sensitive ears. He checked his gun once more and entered the store cautiously. Racks of clothes and shelves of various nicknacks provided ample hiding places and he wasn't going to take any chances. Blair might have already been captured by the other robber, and the last thing he wanted to do was make a hostage situation any worse.
He made his way past the women's lingerie and entered the sports wear section. He slowed down and stopped, mouth agape. There on the floor was the second robber, complete with M16 and gas mask. Jim padded closer and tentatively prodded the man with the toe of his shoe. Seeing no response, he whipped out his cuffs and secured the man's hands behind his back. For good measure, he grabbed the top half of a bikini from a fallen pile of swim suits, idly appreciating a speedo which was on sale for half price, and bound the handcuffed wrists to a nearby support post. This was one crook that wasn't going anywhere.
Jim pressed the button on his radio. "Simon, I got the perp. Clean up in aisle seven."
Simon's laugh echoed in the earpiece. "Very funny, Jim. What store are you in?"
"The Sears, second story, sportswear. They have some nice sales on this time of year."
"Blair with you?" came the terse response. Jim set his mirth aside, casting his hearing afar now that the alarm was gone.
"No, but I hear his heartbeat. It's slow and steady. I'll go get him. Meet you up here?"
"We're on our way. Good job."
Jim made his way through the twisting maze of the store, trying to locate the source of the thunderous beat in his ears. Past the lamps and the electronic section, he found himself among curtains and blinds before he could pinpoint Blair's location.
"Sandburg?" he called, brushing through some drapery. He stopped in his tracks, taking in the odd sight before him.
Clad in a pair of red plaid boxers and grey woolen socks, his hair tousled, and smelling of flowers, Blair was curled up on a display bed, a comforter pulled around him as he had burrowed into the soft pillows. His hands were cupped under his face, the handcuffs pressing a line into his cheek. Soft snores emanated from his slightly opened mouth. Jim would have paid a fortune to have a camera, wondering what the going rate for blackmail was these days.
Chuckling softly to himself, he went to wake up Sleeping Beauty before the rest of the department showed up, knowing that Blair would never forgive him if he didn't.
"Come on, Chief. Wakey wakey."
"not now, j'm. g'wy." The faint mumbles were barely coherent as Jim shook Blair's shoulder.
"Time to go, Blair. You've had a rough day." Jim noticed the bruises on Blair's face and the sluggishly bleeding gash on his forehead, his relief at Blair's safe return changing into worry about a possible concussion. "Blair, wake up. Open your eyes, buddy."
"head hurts. tired."
"I know. I know. But you might have a concussion. Come on." He was relieved as Blair cracked open his lids to reveal tired, but evenly dilating eyes. Blair accepted the support as Jim levered him to a sitting position. "Are you hurt anywhere?"
Blair started to shake his head, but apparently thought it would be a bad idea. Jim could see his shoulders trembling with the cold and quickly stripped off his leather jacket. Blair sighed as the bulky warmth enfolded him.
After assuring himself that there were no broken bones or other injuries, Jim pulled Blair up and supported his arm as they began the walk to join the backup which Jim could hear arriving.
"i'm not getting a tux."
The mayor continued to drone on, and Jim began to fidget with the collar of his tuxedo, wishing that the bow tie wasn't quite so tight. He was convinced that he was losing brain cells from the oxygen deprivation. He glanced down at the guest of honour at the banquet. Blair was glowing with pride. And it was well deserved.
Having taken the shaken young man to the hospital, where it was determined that he was indeed concussed, Jim had taken him home, promising the ER physician to keep an eye on him though the night. Cocooned in Jim's jacket, Blair was too tired to protest being wheeled to the truck in the wheelchair.
Two days later, the bruises were a spectacular shade of purple, and elicited many sympathetic gazes and comments from many of the young ladies attending the dinner. The concern of the women was amusing, given Blair's numerous exclamations of "Jim, stop fussing. I'm fine," over the previous two days. And Blair lapped it all up.
The small medal given to Blair for his contribution to the department was overshadowed by the large gleaming plate which sat by Jim's elbow. The bank had been ever so thankful that the heist had been thwarted by the frying pan wielding hero, and for some reason thought a silver-plated plate was the proper response.
So the medal hung sedately on Blair's lapel. The lapel of his tweed jacket, a splash of brown in a sea of black and white.
"This is so cool, Jim. I can't believe it! Who would have thought, huh?" Blair's whisper was Sentinel-soft so as not to disturb the mayor's ramblings. Blair's eyes sparkled as they were drawn to the plate, and his fingers unconsciously fingered the PD's gesture of appreciation.
Jim looked down at his partner, wondering what he had done to deserve his lot in life.
*Who would have thought, indeed.*