Papercut
by Kira


Notes:  I have so many people to thank for this.  Techgrrl, Susanne...great beta jobs.  Thanks to Mo and Shelley for the great constructive criticism...it's so much better now.  Thanks to Nora. Thanks to the Sentinel Angst list for being so supportive and giving such great feedback.  And thanks to Jo Ann, Ihket, and all the other chatters who keep me insane


Blair shifted for the what must have been the hundredth time, pulling at the holster that was buckled around his shoulder.  It wasn't natural.  It was completely artificial, contrived, an invention of man.  And it itched like the dickens -- especially during meetings with the chief of police.  He fidgeted again with the leather strap, but ceased when Jim shot him a sideways look.  Grimacing slightly, Blair acquiesced, settling down once again.

"Gentlemen.  I hope that you understand the urgency of this case.  The council will not stand by and see more people die senseless deaths at the hands of these cultists."

"Yes, sir.  We'll get right on it."

After a nudge from Jim's elbow, Blair straightened imperceptibly and nodded his agreement.  The chief looked like he had swallowed something sour as he pushed a stack of files across the solid oak desk.

"These are the coroner's reports on the deaths.  And please, we'd like to keep this as low-profile as possible. Consider that a direct order from the higher ups.  The mayor is not happy about this, and the last thing we need is another fiasco like the Lash case.  Understood?"

Blair felt proud that his heart only jumped once at the mention of Lash.  Perhaps the gun beneath his armpit added a couple of units of courage as well.  He reached over and snagged the files as Jim stood to leave.

"Sandburg?"  Wellington motioned Blair to stay seated as Jim moved out the door.  The detective shot Blair a worried look, but Blair just nodded reassuringly.  The door closed behind his partner, and Blair was alone with the police chief.  Their relationship was a tenuous one,the anthropologist-come-detective and the man who had gone out on an extremely small ledge for him.

"Sir?  Is there something wrong?"

"I just wanted a minute to talk to you.  Without the overbearing mother bear you have as a partner."  That elicited a grin from Blair, mirrored in Wellington's dark brown face.

"I guess he is a bit protective,"  Blair admitted.  Wellington leaned forward, resting his elbows on the desktop and templing his fingers.

"I want you to be totally up-front with me."  Blair shifted uncomfortably but nodded slowly.  "If there are any *problems* with any of the officers in this department, I want to be informed."  He gazed intently at Blair.  "I do not want to come into the office one morning and have a report on my desk saying that you, your partner or anyone else decided to 'take issue' with any pranks, hazing or harassment that might be going on.  And don't even deny that its happening, " he forestalled Blair's automatic protest.  "I happen to have very good sources, and I know about quite a few of the *incidents* that have been happening lately.  I'm not going to tolerate such behavior from the people under my command."

The older man's gaze softened slightly.

"Blair, I don't want to you to rat on fellow officers.  But I do want to know if you think that you're in any danger.  I know the last few months haven't been easy.  But believe it or not, there are quite a few people here who think you're a good cop."

Blair honestly didn't know what to say.  Part of him cheered at the ego stroke that the chief had given him, while part of him winced at the thought of being the 'pet' of the chief of police.  If it got out that the chief was looking out for him, that could make matters potentially even worse.  Not that things were unbearable.  There was one *incident* -- that's what they were calling them noww, 'incidents' -- in the bathroom that resulted in a toilet-dunked head.  The officers -- who happened to be new transfers to the precinct --were suspended and for once Blair had been thankful for the short curls that were easily dried by the hot-air hand dryer.  Jim had almost gone ballistic, but Blair had managed to keep him sane, rambling on about closed societies rituals of acceptance and similar BS.  It had worked.  And the show of support from just about eveyone in the department had been heartening.  Not everyone was out to make his life a living hell.

For the most part, people had let the whole matter about the dissertation slide.  Once Blair had started having an arrest record to rival the best of the rookies, people had grudgingly accepted that, yes, maybe the former grad student was able to pull his weight.  There were the occasional cold shoulders and veiled references to frauds and liars, but never within hearing range of Jim -- or what they thought to be the hearing range of Jim -- and never serious enough that Blair feelt there was going to be trouble.  Things had settled into a routine.  They solved cases, had a day off, solved more cases, drank beer, watched a movie, and solved more cases.  Both Jim and Blair tended towards obsessing about their work, and immersing themselves in casework had kept them busy enough not to dwell on the changes that had occurred in their lives.

Like the gun and holster.

Like the unruly curls that just brushed the tips of Blair's ears.

Like the gold badge that rested in its cover in Blair's back pocket.

Like the fact that Blair was actually enjoying being a detective.

The last one was the kicker and was the one fact that Blair was trying to be in denial about.  But whenever the need for self-pity arose, his enjoyment of his work loomed like a party spoiler who refused to get into the spirit of things.  The nerve of job satisfaction -- what right did it have, taking the oomph out of his pity party?

"Sir, I really appreciate everything you've done to make things go a bit more smoothly.  If anything comes up that I don't think Jim or I can handle properly, I'll be sure to bring it up."

"Good.  Glad that that's out of the way.  Now go catch me those killers."

"Yes, sir!"  With a jaunty salute, Blair left to find his Sentinel.

*********

"So, Chief.  What were you and Wellington talking about?"  Jim asked as they sat in the struck in the middle of Cascade suburbia.

"Oh this and that."  Blair absently reponded, not really wanting to get into the reaffirming conversation he'd had with the boss.  Somethings were private, and he wanted to enjoy the warm feeling that had carried over from the conversation just a little longer.

"This is your Sentinel speaking, Sandburg.  Spill it."  Blair grinned as Jim hauled out the big guns to wrest an answer out of his partner.   Blair sighed a long suffering sigh.

"He just wanted to let me know that things were cool.  You know, that he wanted to make sure that everything was okay." Blair assumed a thoughtful look, tapping on his lower lip with an index finger.  "And he made some comment about a certain partner who had better keep his cool if anything comes up."

Jim simply glared at him briefly before picking up one of the folders that lay between them on the truck seat.

"Ow!  Damn!"

"Jim?  You okay?"

"Yeah.  Damn paper cut.  Who buys this paper anyway?  And since when are reports typed on pink paper for gods sake?"  Jim stuck the offending digit in his mouth, trying to sooth the burn.  He dropped the police report on the seat between himself and Blair.

"Oh right.  I forgot about the departmental conspiracy to buy paper that gives you paper cuts.  I think Rhonda is the high commander.  ."

"Very funny."

"Not as funny as the Sentinel of the Great City sucking on his finger."  Blair broke off in peals of laugher as Jim slowly released his finger from his mouth and adopted an offended air.  "As for the colour, there was a mix-up in shipping and we'll be treated to that lovely shade of fuchsia until we manage to use up the five thousand sheets that arrived yesterday."

The younger man turned to look out the window of the truck.  It was a typical suburban house, complete with manicured lawn, picket fence, pruned bushes and a brightly-colored Welcome mat on the top of the porch steps.

"Weird isn't it?"

"What?"

"How normal the house looks.  I mean its so...normal.  You'd never guess that the people in it are suspect of doing violent cult killings.  I mean, it's the picture of suburbia.  Mind you, I guess all societies by now realize that the most harmless looking things can contain the most danger, while some of the most hideous and terrible appearing things are sources of safety."

Jim nodded absently as Blair rambled on about covers of books, illusions and tribal myths.  It almost felt like the old days, with Blair unconsciously playing professor.  Jim rubbed hishand to dispel the sudden pins and needles that tingled in his fingertips.  Sometimes having Sentinel senses was a real bitch.  He'd have to talk to Sandburg about them tonight.  But detective work waited for no Sentinel and his duty wasn't to unravel the mysteries of being extra touchy-feely, but to focus on finding the perpetrator of some of the most grisly murders that Jim had ever seen.

"Just remember Sandburg, we're only questioning them.  They're not suspects yet."

"Oh come on Jim.  I mean really.  All of the pieces fit.  The lease, the credit card receipts at the farm.  If they're not the ones who are our serial killers than the world is a whole lot more coincidental than I'd like it to be thank you very much."

"Innocent until proven guilty Chief.  Innocent until proven guilty."  Jim paused, his face going blank.  "I've got three heartbeats, Chief.  Two in the kitchen and one out back in the garden."

"Can you pull back on your focus a bit and see what they're talking about?"

"Yeah."  Jm gradually unfocussed his hearing until the background noise solidified into speech.  The one in the garden is talking to himself and the two in the kitchen...."  Jim broke off and a red blush suffused his face from the neck to his hairline.  Blair glanced over with a quizzical quirk to his eyebrow and grinned at Jim's expression.

"What?" Blair pressed.

"Let's just say that the two in the kitchen are doing more than just cooking dinner.  Why don't we just sit here a for a bit."

********

Blair grinned widely as Jim actually blushed, and opened the file that rested on his lap.  The first of six reports, complete with grisly coroner pictures and reports, detailed the crime scene. There had been six victims in all, a nurse, a lawyer, a highschool teacher, a taxi driver, a store clerk and a construction worker.  The body of the nurse had been found in an abandoned apartment complex by two children looking for a lost cat.  The woman had been tied to two hooks in the livingroom walls, her arms outstretched in a parody of the crucifix.  Her back was crossed with welts from a whip, her front, scored with a knife -- a serrated filleting knife according to the coroner's estimate.  Her face had been left untouched, but the rest of her body had been brutalized with a systematic violence that churned Blair's stomach.  The other files housed pictures of a similar sort.

He moved past the gruesome photos to look at the victim profile.  A nurse, with three kids, married for ten years, there was nothing unusual  about her, and that was what troubled Blair.  There was no obvious reason for the hatred that had been taken out on her body.  Senseless violence always tugged at Blair's heart.  Since riding along with Jim, and even more so since becoming a detective, Blair had been faced with more senseless violence than he ever would have thought possible.  But the latest string of murders was more violent than even a Sentinel could handle unaffected.

Blair swallowed as memories of the tortured bodies danced through his head like macabre ghosts. There was a gentle touch on his arm, and he looked up to see Jim looking at him with concern.

"You going to be okay?" The older man had a strained look on his face.

"Yeah.  It's just..."

Blair trailed off as Jim suddenly tensed.  Blair swivelled thinking that there had been a development in the house, but all looked calm.  Turning back to Jim, Blair felt a bolt of fear as Jim's throat worked but no sound emerged.

"Jim?  You okay?  Jim?"  A gasping wheeze filled the cab of the truck as Jim struggled to breathe.  Blair stretched one hand toward his partner as the other instinctively moved toward his cell phone, dialing the number that he knew better than his own.

*******

Jim  idly flicked his senses towards the house, trying to avoid the recreational activities that were heating up the kitchen while keeping tabs on the locations of all the heartbeats.  In the background, Blair's own distinctive beat formed a constant presence, grounding him almost subconsciously.  It was a bit hurried, skipping a bit here and there as he perused the grisly files.

He continued to rub at his hand, the tingling persisting to the point of extreme annoyance.  He was just about to mention the strange sensation to his partner when his hearing suddenly fritzed, garbling the sounds around him.  He blinked in confusion as the interior of the truck widened and Blair's face, which he rationally knew to be only scant inches away, appeared as though at the end of a long tunnel.  Warped sounds continued to barrage his ears and he moaned at the sensory overload.  Or he tried to moan.  Panic flooded though him as air refused to pass through his throat and into his oxygen starved lungs.

He was vaguely aware of an electronic buzz -- Sandburg's cell phone, a small voice in his head informed him dispassionately -- but his entire world had shrunk to the burning, needy feel in his chest as he ached for precious air.  A harsh rasping sound reverberated in his ears, and he was horrified to realize that he was the source of the tortured wheeze.  The tunnel of his sight began to narrow, tinged at the edges with a black haze.  He could faintly hear Blair pleading with him to keep breathing but was unable to comply with the request.  *So sorry Blair.*  Jim's mind screamed out to his guide as darkness slowly overwhelmed him.

*******

Blair eased Jim out of the truck, settling him on the cold pavement.  The asphalt chilled his knees as he knelt beside his gasping friend.

"Jim!  Stay with me, man.  Help's on its way.  Just breathe okay?"  Blair's heart pounded in his chest, as the rasping in Jim's throat suddenly ceased altogether.

"Oh god.  Oh god.  Breathe, dammit!"

He tiltd the detective's head back, pinched the sensitive nose closed and began puffing air into Jim's lungs.  Blair continued mouth-to-mouth, pausing to see if his efforts were having any effect.  Jim's chest was barely moving in response to his efforts, but a little movement was better than none in his book and he returned to his task with a single-mindedness that characterized all of his endeavours.  He was oblivious to the wind that swept through the open doors of the truck, scattering crime scene photos over the ground.  As sirens sounded in the distance, he continued to breathe and pause, breathe and pause.  Jim lay limply on the cold ground, chest unmoving.

"Is everything okay here?"

Blair didn't look up as the deep voice penetrated his worry for Jim.  In one of his pauses he managed to spare a quick breath to gasp, "Ambulance is on its way."

He didn't notice the silent pause, he didn't see the figure staring at the crime scene photos and he didn't see the crow bar that descended on the back of his head.  Blinding pain shot through his skull and he collapsed limply on top of his partner, oblivious to the hands that grasped him collar, pulled him into a fireman's hold, and carried him away from Jim's side -- leaving the Sentinel alone.

**********

Paul Williams hadn't intended to take one of the men with him.  he had gone over to see what had happened, if there had been an accident.  But when he had seen the photos of his handiwork strewn on the pavement he knew that he had to do something.  The big cop looked like he was already dead and Paul had no intentions of carryng around an already dead body.  Where was the fun in that?

So here he was, carrying some kid, probably barely out of the academy by the look of it.  The brief glimpse he'd taken of the face belonging to the body over his shoulder told him that he would have a lot of fun with this one.  A lot of fun.

"Paul?  Was it an accident?  I heard the ambulance driver over the scanner...."

Ah, Marcie, the love of his life, all legs, red hair and curves to die for.  Standing in the doorway, she looked like an angel.

"Oh Paul.  You've brought someone over to play."  Her eyes brightened and she licked her lips eagerly.

"Where's Rafael?"

"In the garden.  Why?"

"We've been made.  This is one of the cops who were watching us.  The other is outside...dying if not already dead.  We've got to move, and I mean now.  Go get Rafael, grab out stuff and let's skedaddle.  She didn't even bat an eye as she went to get her brother and collect their belongings.

Paul slid his burden onto the couch, crouching to get a better look.  Short dark curls framed the face and Paul ran a hand tentatively though the soft tendrils of hair.  How long before you crack?  How long before you scream?  Paul traced a finger along the strong jaw and up the cheekbone.  Soon.  We'll find out soon.

********

Rafe sighed as he hung up the phone, fielding yet another call meant for Petty Crime.  The day had been dragging, misdirected calls all ending up at Rafe's desk, much to the amusement of his partner.

"So what was it this time?  A lost kitty?"  Brown smirked in amusement.

"Very funny, H.  Very funny."

"Blair would probably say you have some really bad karma on the go today."

Rafe scrunched up his face in disgust as the phone rang again, staring at it as if the plastic casing carried the plague.

"Hello?  Major Crimes, Detective Rafe speaking."

"Hello.  I'm calling from Cascade General Hospital.  We have a detective Ellison here.  It's imperative that we make contact with a Blair Sandburg.  We have him listed as Detective Ellison's emergency contact."

Rafe was puzzled.

"I'm sorry...did you say that Jim Ellison is there....and Blair Sandburg isn't?"

"Yes, that's what I'm saying.  Now, look.  Where can I find Mr. Sandburg.  It's crucial that he be called."  The frustration in her voice carried over the phone line.

"Is there a number where I can call you back?  Sandburg ought to be with Ellison.  I'll let you know when we find him."  Rafe grabbed a pen from the desk organizer and ripped a piece of paper off his notepad.

"That will do just fine."  She quickly rattled off the number  "Please.  It's very urgent."
"I'll call you as soon as we find him."

Henri looked up quizzically as Rafe put the receiver back on its hook and stared at the number he had scrawled across the piece of paper.

"What's up?"

"Trouble."

*******

Simon sighed as he signed off on yet another report.  This particular one -- by Sandburg -- had been meticulously detailed and was a joy to read.  As opposed to Jim's reports which generally consisted of something to the effect of "Saw crime.  Chased criminal.  Caught Criminal.  Booked Criminal.  Talk to Sandburg."

Simon placed the completed report in his mostly empty "out-box" and pulled a fresh one from the overflowing "in-box".  *Damn bureaucracy.  Why did I ever accept that promotion.*  But while he bitched and complained out loud, inside he was incredibly proud -- yes proud -- of his achievements.  Not many of his close friends at the police academy had managed to climb the ranks, racism being alive and well in America.  No sirree.  He had a lot to be proud of.  Even if it meant putting up with detectives who didn't know that difference between "their" and "they're".

A determined knock on his door interrupted his reading.

"Come in!"

Rafe poked his head through the door.

"Captain?  We have a situation."

Ten minutes later, Henri, Rhonda and Joel were seated in Simon's office.  Simon closed the door and turned to his people.

"We have a problem, people.  Jim's in the hospital and Blair is missing.  Rafe is at the hospital because they won't release information over the phone.  Something about needing to see a badge.  Brown, I want you to go to the stakeout where they were doing surveillance.  A unit was dispatched there when the 911 call came in from Sandburg about an officer down.  I'll be doing some digging into why I wasn't informed.  But in the meantime, get that place scoured with a fine tooth comb.  I want to know what went down over there.  Rhonda, Joel.  I want the complete set of files on the cult case that they're working on.  Everything.  Every scrap of paper, every little post-it note that Sandburg uses.  Everything.  Collect it in conference room 119.  We'll meet in an hour to compare notes.  Move!"

******

Rafe tapped his hand nervously against the counter top, smoothing fingers over the marbleized ceramic.  The hospital receptionist had help up a hand to forestall any questions while she talked rapidly on the phone.  Punching a button on the device aggressively, the harried woman looked up.

"Can I help you?"

"Detective Rafe, Cascade PD.  I'm here about..."

"Oh yes.  I talked to you on the phone.  You want to talk to Dr. Stone."  She pointed over to the bustling activity behind the triage area where a rake of a man stood, struggling to write on a clipboard balanced on his hip while talking to what looked like a fresh-faced med-student.

Rafe nodded his thanks to the nurse and made a beeline for the frazzled doctor.  The physician had closely cropped, salt and pepper hair, which added an air of dignity, wisdom and competence to an otherwise disarmingly young face.  Rafe knew from experience that it didn't matter how old you were.  It mattered how old you looked when it came down to how people treated you.  Not that he wanted to go prematurely grey, mind you.

"Dr. Stone?  I'm Detective Rafe, from Cascade PD.  I was told to speak to you about Jim Ellison."

Rafe flashed his badge and the doctor extended his hand in a firm handshake.

"Finally.  We've been waiting for someone to show up.  Where's his partner?"  Rafe was a bit taken aback by the doctor's reaction.  *He must have treated them before and seen how they're joined at the hip when it comes to injuries.*

"Detective Sandburg has been...detained.  Can I see Jim?  I'd also like a copy of your medical report."

"Certainly, right this way."

The doctor led Rafe down hallways and up an elevator, down another hallway.  Rafe was expecting to see Jim ensconced in a private room, begging to be let out, so he was shocked then the block letters on the wall signaled their location.

"ICU?"  Rafe turned to the doctor. "What happened?  Is Jim okay?"

"Well -- and this is all in my report, by the way -- the paramedics found him alone and  not breathing by the side of his truck. They managed to get an airway en route.  His heart did stop but we managed to get it going again.  Basically his throat was almost completely constricted.  we were lucky to get an airway.  We've had to keep him on the ventilator because we don't know what to do about the swelling.  We've tried some antihistamines which weren't flagged already in his records but he's responding very, very slowly.  We have to be careful because of his drug reactions."

"Wait a minute.  He wasn't injured?"  Rafe struggled to make sense of the situation.  "I mean, he wasn't beaten, or shot or stabbed?"

"Heavens no.  It looks like he had a reaction to a bee sting.  But the middle of March isn't exactly bee season.  I've scheduled some tests to figure out what's going on.  He's unconscious right now, but he should be coming around soon.  We don't think that there will be any lasting damage.  So that's good news.  But things would be a bit clearer if Mr. Sandburg...I mean, *Detective* Sandburg was here.  I've been Jim's physician now for a couple of months and Blair's been indispensable in identifying Jim's allergies"  If the doctor suspected anything about Jim's senses, he wasn't saying, but Rafe got the impression that he, like many of Jim's close friends and colleagues were not as convinced by Sandburg's *confession* as they all made out to be.

Rafe let out the breath that he suddenly realized that he was holding throughout the doctor's report.

"I can't tell you how glad I am to hear that Jim's not injured  Can I see him?."

"You can have all the time you'd like.  We've only got him here to keep an eye on him 24/7, but he's not in any immediate danger.  Just let the nurse know when you leave.  I'll have a copy of the medical report waiting with him when you go."

Stone's beeper took that fortuitous moment to buzz insistently.  He smiled ruefully at the detective and with a wave trotted off down the hallway.  Rafe entered the dim room, taking in the confusing tangle of wires that led from various machines to the still body on the bed.  Jim lay flat, his chest moving up and down in time with the gentle whooshing sound of the ventilator that pumped precious oxygen.  Rafe moved to the side of the bed and gently touched  the bare arm that lay exposed on the sheet.

"Hey Jim.  It's Rafe."  He chuckled weakly.  "You're probably wondering what the heck I'm doing here. And more importantly, where Blair is.  Believe me, we're wondering that too."

Rafe paused and pulled up a chair from along the wall.

"What the hell happened out there, Jim?"

The unconscious Detective's eyes remained stubbornly closed.

"But don't you worry Jim.  We'll find him.  Be nice to have your help.  Anytime you want to wake up and tell us where he is...feel free.  God knows how you manage to find him all the time. " Rafe paused.  "Well actually, Henri and I have our suspicions.  I mean we are detectives right?  But no one's saying anything.  We protect our own.  You're secret is safe with us.  And we'll find Blair.  He's one of us too...always has been.  We'll find him."

Rafe lapsed into silence, unsure of what to say.  The older cop had been his role model when he had first come to Major Crimes.  He had been more than a little awed by the impressive arrest record that Jim had under his belt, and more than a little intimidated by his crusty demeanor.  Until a certain anthropologist appeared on the scene.  All of a sudden Jim began treating the Rafe as though he was a human being instead of his personal gofer.

Now, sitting next to who could only be described as a past idol, present friend, Rafe vowed that there was no way that they could fail.  They had to find Sandburg...they couldn't afford to lose two good men.

*******

By the time Henri pulled up at the last known location of the missing detective, the neighborhood had been transformed into a hub of activity.  Henri got out of his car and surveyed the forensic teams. They were covering the crime scene with plastic to protect evidence from the chilling, misting rain that had begun just minutes before.  One team was hastily erecting wooden frames around the truck and roping off the area with brightly colored police tape.  The other team was placing a similar ribbon around the perimeter of a green house down the street.  Apparently the uniforms on the scene had enough concern to call in the big guns.  That did not bode well.

Henri rubbed his forehead as a headache began to pound at the front of his skull, compounded by multiple flashing lights.   He wasn't sure that he wanted to go and find out what forensics had found.  *Not a body.  God.  Just not a body.*  He jogged over to the truck, flashing his badge at one of the officers who were keeping interested bystanders from nearby houses out of the crime scene.   Peter Johnson, a forensic scientist who had worked closely with Henri and Rafe on many of their cases, waved him over to the truck.

"What have we got, Pete?"  Brown crouched beside the shorter man who was scraping at the pavement.

"Hey H.  So far, not much."  The contamination suit-clad man held up a plastic bag with some dark red scrapings.
"Although, this might help.  It's blood, not much, but more than enough to type.  Whether it's Sandburg's, Ellison's or our mysterious attacker we won't know until later."

"Put it on high priority. "  Brown looked around at the scattered files that littered the asphalt.  "That must have been one hell of a struggle, huh?"

"Well, actually, I don't think so.  Normally we'd see more wrinkled sheets, footprints all over them.  People don't care about stepping on paper when they're fighting.  I'm more inclined to say that they were just blown about.  As for what other preliminary findings we have,"he stood and gestured Henri to follow him as he began walking towards the house.   "Some of pictures in the files were of this particular house, so the uniforms went in and we've got some more blood stains in the house on the sofa.  Yet again, not much help for now.  However.  This will probably be very significant, now and in the long run."

Henri followed the pointing hand to the lawn.  The grass was neatly trimmed all the way to the edge of the lawn, where a strip of mud separated the property from the road in lieu of a sidewalk.  The damp weather had reduced the normally solid ground to a soft paste.  For once Henri was grateful for the rain because embedded in the soil were footprints.  Johnson was practically glowing as he bent down.

"See these?  I couldn't have made a better mold myself."

Henri looked dubiously at the imprints but then crouched down to take a closer look.

"They're different."

"Yessiree.  The ones going from the lawn to the road are really light, you can barely see the imprint of the sole.  But this one?  The one going from the road to the lawn?  Its much deeper.  I can even see the brand label

"He's probably carrying something..something heavy..." Brown trailed off as the pieces clicked.

"You got it in one.  Our guy, and he is a guy, by the way, it's a man's shoe, was hauling something heavy when he went back to the house.  Offhand, a body is pretty close to the weight we're looking at." Johnson looked up at Henri's suddenly weary face. "Oh sorry, H.  If its any consolation, we have nothing to indicate whatsoever that Blair is dead.  Nothing."

"Small consolation, Pete.  Small consolation.  Come on, show me the house before I go back to the department."  Henri straightened up, popping his spine.  Given what he had seen in his brief glimpse of the photos laying around the truck, he wasn't sure that it would be better if Blair was alive.  Shivering at that morbid thought, he followed Johnson into the house, determined to find something, anything, that would expedite Blair's recovery.

********

Pain.  Cold.  A shiver ran its course down the length of Blair's body as he slowly climbed back to awareness.  First came touch.  His entire left side was freezing cold as it lay in contact with what must have been a concrete floor.  Sore muscles began to shiver in response to the deep chill.  He tried to roll over but found his movement checked by thick ropes around his ankles and wrists which dug painfully into his flesh.  Then came sound.  The throb of his heart beat was mirrored in the pounding of his head, echoing pain in his skull.   Voices echoes in the room, murmuring indistinctly around him. His head felt like it was stuffed with cotton though and the words simply wouldn't resolve into clarity.  He groaned and realized that he wasn't actually making any noise.  Taste returned with a vengeance as the dry cloth in his mouth made itself known.  It had a vaguely oily taste and he grimaced. The pungent mell of incense filled his nostrils and he almost gagged at the heady scent.

*Notgoodnotgood*  Blair tried to steady his breathing. *Oh my god.  JIM!*  Fear for his partner shocked him into complete awareness.  His eyes flew open and his body jerked convulsively as he tried to find Jim.  The room that met his gaze was obviously a basement, with concrete floors and walls, cluttered with an assortment of cardboard boxes and broken appliances in various states of disrepair.

One corner of the room however looked strangely out of place.  On the floor in the corner was a deep red, almost purple carpet, and Blair found himself wishing he was lying on it rather than the bare concrete.  The walls were still bare concrete but had hooks drilled into them with iron manacles hanging menacingly from them.  Blair swallowed involuntarily as he took in the collection of tools that lay inconspicuously on a small table set against the wall:  knives of varying shapes and sizes, a whip and things that he couldn't even identify.

This was not good.  He tried to twist onto his stomach and succeeded.  Hunching himself up, he managed to balance precariously on his knees to see the room more fully.  The smell of incense was coming from another small table.  It was placed about two feet in front of the wall with the manacles. Unlit -- but obviously used –candles squatted  in their holders on the scratched table top.  From the lingering smell, Blair figured that whoever had blown out the candles had only left in last half hour or so.

Flashes of memory from the crime scene photos that he had so recently perused send a cold shiver of dread up his spine.  He was in very very deep trouble.   But even more worrying was the lack of Jim's presence, unconscious or otherwise.  Was he dead?  Did he start breathing again?  Did his mysterious assailant only take Blair prisoner or was Jim currently suffering unspeakable horrors at the hands of a psychotic killer.  The questions poured through Blair's mind as he slowly lost the fog surrounding his injury.  The pain in his body was nothing compared to the pain in his soul at the thought that he had been unable to help Jim or that Jim was next victim in the series of murders.

A muted, hitching sob escaped from behind the oily gag as Blair struggled futilely to free his wrists.  He didn't want to die.  He didn't want Jim to be dead.  But he had learned a hard lesson in the last few months being a detective: you rarely got what you wanted in life.  Blair's eyes closed  as he rocked minutely back and forth on his knees.  You rarely got what you wanted.

*********

Rafe dumped the evidence box out onto the conference table.  Combined with the contents of the other five boxes, the piles were very daunting.

"This is all the evidence seized from the scenes.  This," He pointed to one pile" is from the Cardigan murder, this from the Pollack.  The Simpson and the Davidson boxes were mixed up, but all the bags are labeled; they just need sorting.  And that is the collection of stuff from the stake out."

"Okay.  Now that we're all here, we need some strategy.  We can't go off half-cocked without knowing what direction we need to go in."  Simon pulled out a pad of paper.  "So first things first.  Megan, I want you to focus on the killings themselves.  Work at it from that angle.  Find the commonalities between them -- if there are any.  Sandburg kept...keeps... a notebook somewhere in his desk with all the evidence they gather on cases.  Start there.  I want to know who they thought was responsible.

Rafe, Henri, I want you to focus on house where the stakeout was.  Find out who was leasing it.  If there's a mortgage, find the owner.  If we can get those two angles to meet in the middle then we're that much closer to finding Sandburg, and more than likely finding our killer.  Joel, stay at the hospital.  If our killer finds out that Jim is still alive he could be at risk as a witness.  I want to know the second that  Jim wakes up, right now only he knows what went down out there."

After a chorus of "yes sir"s and agreeing nods, Simon and his team began sifting through the mounds of evidence, looking for that vital clue that would unlock this potentially tragic mystery.

**********

As he pulled the keys out the door to his apartment, and tossed them onto the counter, Rafe pulled his coat of aching shoulders.  He couldn't remember the last time that he was this tired.  He carefully brushed down the coat with his clothes brush and hung it neatly in the closet, ensuring that the sleeves wouldn't be caught by the sliding door.

"Honey, I'm home!"  He kicked off his shoes, then as an afterthought picked them up and set them in the closet as well.  The answering meow brought a small smile to his face as the calico cat strolled haughtily from his bedroom to the small entrance area,  winding about his ankles.

"So, Honey.  What did you do today?" He picked up the long-haired cat, too tired to care that the fur was going to totally ruin his Armani jacket.   *I must be tired.*  "I bet you slept all day, huh?  Sounds pretty good."

The rumbling purr as he stroked behind Honey's ears was a balm to his ears as he tried in vain to relax.  But the worry for his colleagues...no, his friends...was still overwhelming him.   He carried his burden over the kitchen and laughed as she climbed onto his shoulder to drape around his neck, freeing up his hands to work the can opener for her daily meal.

"I get the hint, Honey.  KittieSupreme coming up."

Losing himself in the after work routine, he almost managed to forget his worries -- until he went in to the bathroom and saw his haggard features.  Worry will do that to you, he mused as he tilted his head to one side to better see the lines that creased his eyes and ran from his nose down to the sides of his mouth.  *Well, you wanted to look older,*
With a self deprecating sigh he went to the living room after retrieving a cup of coffee from the kitchen and sat down to look at the files he had brought home.

So far they had managed to find Sandburg's notebook, with the evidence found at the truck, but Megan had found nothing to indicate who Jim and Sandburg had thought might be the killers.  Rafe shook his head in frustration.  Ellison was used to playing by his own rules, but dammit, if you've got a suspect who you're going to question or keep an eye on, the least you do is tell someone.  Like, 'Oh, by the way Rafe, this is who we think killed those people'  or 'Simon, you know that psycho that's out there killing people?  We know who it is.'.   Then if something does happen, at least the ones who have to pick up after you know where to start.  And with Jim's -- abilities -- there was no telling if the rest of the mere mortals in Major Crimes would even be able to figure out the leads as he had.

And Sandburg.  Let's not even start with Blair's pitiful excuse for a notebook which they had managed to find in the mess of papers at the abduction scene.  The shorthand that Blair used must have been composed of more than two languages, one of which used symbols that Rafe had never seen before.  Totally useless.  But detecting was like driving,  you picked up all the bad habits.  And Blair had definitely learned the art of noncommunication-with-others very well.  Rafe sighed.  He was being unfair, and he knew it.  But that he had lack of information from Jim, and information that they couldn't access from Blair were starting to wear down Rafe's patience.  He had worked damn hard at becoming a detective and thought that you could solve anything with the right clues and enough grunt work.  If only Blair and Jim had played along.

He pulled out the pictures of the house and the crime scenes, mulling over them as he sipped his coffee.  Honey curled up on the sofa beside him, providing a silent presence as the night wore on.

*********

Joel shifted in the chair for what felt like the hundredth time.  The plastic seat was a vile invention and he longed after the cozy, soft armchair that sat in his den at home.  But even so, he wouldn't have budged from that chair for anything short of a natural disaster, and even then he was pretty sure that they'd have to pry him away with a crowbar.

In his lap lay a pile of computer printouts that threatened to spill out onto the floor.  Megan had drafted him for her investigations into the murder and seeing how he was just sitting around, thought that he could do some non-leg work.  Currently he had the lists of all the tenants, leasers and mortgage holders from all of the locations and he was trying -- mostly in vain -- to make some sort of correlations.  So far he had come up with nothing, the lists of names grew, but none were cross referenced in more than one of the lists.

"Jim, you know that it would be so much easier if you woke up and told us who the hell you were watching.  Any clue, any sign.  Anything."  But his plea fell on deaf ears as the ventilator continued to pump air into Jim's lungs.  The doctors had --after a myriad of tests -- concluded that Jim had had a toxic reaction to some sort of dye.  Apparently the dye in the paper that the reports were written on.  He had gone into anaphylactic shock as far as the doctor could tell.  They had plied him with antihistamines and all they could do for him now was wait for the swelling in his throat to go down and for him to wake up.  The former was going to happen relatively quickly according to Dr. Stone, the latter was anyone's guess.  Joel had his own suspicions about Jim's comatose state, knowing that if Blair were there the younger man would be able to talk Jim out of this deep sleep.

Joel studies Jim's face.  *Where are you Jim?*

"Excuse me, Detective?  Hi, I'm Jill Parson.  I'm the respiratory therapist.  I'm here to check on Detective Ellison's ventilator." A young dark-haired woman poked her head through the door.

Joel got up and checked her i.d., letting her pass.  The young woman bustled about the machinery, checking the tube and Jim's chart.  Joel turned aside, not wanting to witness as she performed a blood gas, labeling and neatly collecting the vials of blood.

"How is he?" Joel asked as the young woman began to leave.

"I really can't say.  The doctor will be in early in the morning for an assessment.  Until then, Jim's looking well.  "

Joel accepted the vague reassurances and settled down again to continue his dogged slogging through the lists of names.  The night shift went on as the precious hours ticked away.

**********

"Wake up, Mr. Sandburg.  Wake up."

Blair groaned into the gag as a hand shook his shoulder mercilessly.  The foggy residues of sleep dissipated and he opened his eyes.  He must have fallen asleep at some point, having no recollection of doing so.  The last thing he remembered was struggling with the ropes.  Another groan escaped the gag as the memory forced him to focus on reality and the raw sting that encircled his wrists.  He looked up from his prone position on the floor.  A young man, about his age, no more than thirty by the looks of it, crouched over him.

"Oh good.  You're awake!."  The man smiled happily and flipped an errant blond lock of hair off his forehead.  "I couldn't believe it when Paul brought you here.  I mean, the others needed saving too, but you, oh man, this is going to be so great!  I didn't expect to have the chance to save you too.  I mean I followed all the news stories about you and your detective friend.  I thought about asking Paul about liberating you, but didn't want to make him mad."  His voice dropped to  whisper. "Paul is a bit short tempered, but I need him to do my work, you understand.  I mean, how else will you all confess?"

Blair struggled to make sense of the rambling one-sided conversation.  Confession?  Liberation?  What the hell was he talking about?  He jerked away as the younger man reached out to brush the short curls that were matted to Blair's forehead.

"I'm so glad you are here, Blair.  Can I call you Blair?  You can call me Rafael...just like the angel." Rafael's face glowed with self assurance.  "I hope that you will be as wise as I think you are and will confess your sins straight off.  It gets messy when Paul and Marcie have to get involved.  So if you're good, then you'll be able to be freed so much sooner.  Won't that be great?"

Blair strained to see what Rafael was doing as the blond man reached behind him.  There was the rustle of plastic and the high pitched clink of small glass bottles.    When he turned back, Rafael was already filling the disposable syringe with a clear fluid from a small vial.  Blair felt his heart speed up, his breath coming in aborted gasps through his nose as he shook his head in vain, trying to summon the strength to move.  He kicked out with his bound feet as Rafael brought the needle toward the bound man's thigh.  But his cramped muscles lacked speed and force and Rafael was more than capable of avoiding the kick aimed at his groin.

"Now, now.  Stop that.  Don't worry.  This is just to make things a bit easier at the beginning.  So we can get you ready without you hurting yourself."  Rafael grabbed Blair's thrashing legs.  He managed to pin them by straddling his shins right beneath the knees, resting his weight painfully on the bone.

With his arms trapped behind him and a hand on his shouilder keeping his torso pinned to the floor Blair could only screamed mentally as the needle sunk in to the thigh muscle.  *Not drugs. Oh god.  Not drugs. JIIIIMMMM!*  His panic was in full throttle, speeding his heart which pumped the drug  throughout his body.  Consciousness began to fade, black impinging on the borders of his vision.  He blurrily saw Rafael smiling down at him, backlit from the bare bulb that swung over head.  An angel...a fallen angel.   Hopelessness flooding his mind, Blair gave himself over to the darkness and merciful unconsciousness.

*********

Rhonda grimaced as she observed the detectives of Major Crimes stagger into the bullpen at six o'clock in the morning.  She had come in early -- being a self-confessed morning person -- to do some file cataloguing before things got busy.  Considering that generally people didn't start coming into work until about eight, this was quite the event.  But then again, so was the disappearance of Blair.

Renouncing her vow never to fall into the trap of most secretaries, she plugged in the coffee maker and made a quick call to the doughnut shop across the street to arrange for some breakfast.  Anything she could do to help find Blair.

*********

"Okay, so basically we've got only one common element at each crime scene aside from the ritual in the actual killing."  Simon pilled five evidence bags in the center of the table.  Blood-streaked feathers lay limply within the plastic.  Rafe picked one up.

"They're emu feathers according to an ornithologist at the university.  Definitely not native to Cascade, not even North America and you need a license to import them.  I'm expecting a call back from the Department of Agriculture this morning with a list of all importers and licence holders."

"Joel called from the hospital, there's no change yet in Jim, but the doc said that there has been a slight decrease in the swelling.  He might even be waking up sometime soon."

"That's great, but I don't want to wait for Jim, just in case.  Anything at the stakeout, Henri?"  Simon refused to place his eggs all in one basket while they still could do work.

"We've got a footprint"  Henri pulled out a plaster cast.  "Forensics got a perfect print and we've got a model and a shoe size.  Definitely a man's shoe, and unless we've got a woman with a really large foot, we can be pretty sure it's a man who at least carried Hairb...Blair away.  I managed to find out the manufacturer and it's a European brand which only sells to very select stores in Cascade.  I figured I'd start there."

"Good.  Keep an eye out for credit card receipts.  If we can get as many names as possible to correlate the better."  Simon turned to Megan.  "How's the paper trail coming for the leases and mortgages?"

Megan rubbed bloodshot eyes.  "Slow,Simon.  Really slow.  I've got Joel doing cross-listings but its more than a two person job."

"Unfortunately we just..." Simon didn't get a chance to finish as the door to the conference room opened and Rhonda entered with a tray and a young delivery man with a paper cap bearing "Donsee's Doughnuts" on the sides.

"I figured you all could use a morning infusion of caffeine and something to keep the indigestion at bay."  The coffee was quickly poured in to mugs and the ravenous detectives fell onto the assortment of bagels, muffins and turnovers that the young man had set out beside the coffee before beating a quick retreat.

"Did I hear something about there being a lack of person power?" Rhonda put forth the question quite innocently, masking the fact that she had been eavesdropping behind the door since the start of the meeting.

"That's right.  Joel and I just can't wade through the piles of paper fast enough."  Megan spoke around a mouthful of Danish.

"Give me an hour.  You'll have all the help you need."  With that mysterious remark the administrative assistant breezed back out of the conference room.  The detectives stared after her.

"What do you think that means?" Rafe asked in the silence.

"I have no idea Rafe.  No idea."  Simon shook his head and they went back to piecing together the puzzle of Blair's disappearance, without the aid of a picture on a box and without having the edges nicely filled in.

"Well I took Blair's notebook to the university and managed to make some headway.  I thought some of the symbols looked familiar.  They're actually sketches of the wounds on the victims' bodies." Megan took out the dog eared notebook and pictures of the crime scenes.  Turns out that these marks are part of a ritual for cleansing in very obscure religious cult.  A professor at the University -- a Dr. Phillips -- said that these marks here are supposed to signify closure, while these here are meant to be symbolic of new birth.  But other than that Captain, I don't think we're gong to get very far without some sort of name to follow up on.

"Unfortunately we don't have much time. The victims were missing for three days and were dead for about 36 hours when they were found.  Blair doesn't have much time."  Rafe dumped a stack of papers onto the desk.  "Why don't we focus on getting some connections in  the paper trail."

"Why on earth isn't this all on computer?  I mean, shouldn't we be able to do some sort of search for commonalities on computer?"  Henri sighed with frustration as he grabbed a sheaf of the papers.

"Henri, you give me the money...I'll get us the computers.  We're strapped to the ends of the budget as it is.  You try convincing the Chief to give us more money for computer networking."  Simon echoed Brown's movement, grabbing his own stack.  "So until we get a miracle...we're stuck."

"Sir?  I think that your miracle just arrived."  Megan pointed with an awestruck look on her face towards the bullpen.

The men turned as gaped as Rhonda, looking much like the pied piper, led a virtual army of women into the bullpen, pointing out the locations of the computers.  Before the stunned eyes of the Major Crimes detectives, Flip charts were erected, spread sheets tacked up and computers were commandeered.

"Captain." Rhonda arrived at the entrance of the conference room.  "I called in a few favors.  I've got all of the off duty secretarial and administrative staff from all departments here to go through the paper work.  Leave this to us."

"Rhonda...I can't authorize this much overtime.  We don't have the fund for..."

"Dont worry about that, sir.  This is strictly volunteer.  Everyone wants to help find Blair."

She swept up the paper from the desk, bearing the stacks off to be distributed to the thirty-some individuals out in the bullpen.

"What just happened here?" Simon looked about at his detectives.

"I'd say we just got freed to do some more leg work."  Rafe slapped Henri on the back. "Come on, pardner, let's go bug the Dept. of Agriculture and find out who sells emus around here."

********

Blair was pretty sure that the hands caressing his body weren't the hands of his latest girlfriend.  He jerked into awareness, trying to shake the numbness in his limbs and mind.   He swallowed once and realized that the gag was gone.  He tensed as the hands wandered up and down his legs, gently pushing a wet cloth over his skin.

"Relax Blair.  I'm just getting you clean.  That's all.  Nice and clean."  Rafael's voice filtered through the fog in Blair's head.  He cracked open his eyes.  The numbness in his arms was quickly explained away as he realized that he wasn't lying down.  His arms were chained to the wall that supported him, wrists clamped in the iron manacles he had spotted before. He shivered and realized that he had been divested of his clothes, stripped down to his boxers which weren't much protection against the damp chill in the basement.

Rafael was crouching down by his legs and the other man looked up and smiled gently.  Then he went back to his task of gently sponging water onto Blair's legs.

"All nice and clean.  You have to be clean so that you can guide the others to full freedom.  They are almost there, but they need you to guide them.  Guide them to the next plane.  The others...they confessed.  So they were ready to move on.  But they need someone who knows the way. The way to true freedom."  He followed the water with a fluffy towel, patting the damp skin dry.   Blair bit down on his lip, trying not to shrink from the man's touch.  He shifted his arms and the chains clinked, drawing Rafael's attention.

"I'm sorry about the chains, Blair. But its better to be safe than sorry.  Now.  I'll be back in a few minutes.  Paul and Marcie are coming soon.  Then we'll be ready to start."

Blair watched as the young man stood, dumped the damp towels into a bucket, and pushed the container into a corner.  He then pulled out a plastic bag, reaching in and carefully removing the contents.  Blair caught his breath.  If there had been any doubts that these people were the killers, they were banished at the sight of the lush feather that settled lightly on the knife-filled table.

Rafael was about to go up the stairs when footsteps sounded and the door at the top of the stairs opened.  Blair twisted his wrists in the manacles, scraping his skin in desperation.  His thoughts were still muzzy, but the drugs whatever sedative he had been given was loosening its hold on his body.  Blair watched mutely as two others joined the grinning young man.  The older man was tall, and well built, much like a boxer.  He was dressed in a suit, completely incongruous with the surroundings.  The woman on the other hand, she oozed sex, clad in a short skirted dress that did little to hide the curvaceous body.  The deep crimson of the outfit was very much like the carpet that was beneath Blair's feet.  Blood red, Blair's mind supplied helpfully.

"So, our little man wake up?"  The well dressed man strolled over to stand in front of Blair, invading his personal space menacingly.

"Yes, Paul.  He's all ready.  I think he'll want to do this the right way too.  So maybe we won't have to do all the other stuff."  Rafael's voice was filled with hope.  Blair stared into the face of who he gathered was Paul, refusing to look away.

"Oh, I hope not." Paul had leaned forward and whispered the words into Blair's ear, his breath ghosting across the detective's cheek.  Blair swallowed, refusing to look away, refusing to say anything that would please his captor.  He would not submit.

"Let's get the party started," Marcie drawled, pulling a dusty chair out of a dark corner and perching daintily on the edge.  Rafael picked up one of the knives from the table and after Paul had backed away, stepped up to gaze at Blair earnestly.

"Blair.  You have sinned.  It is time for you to be free."  He gently placed the tip of the knife against Blair's chest, pricking the skin above the bound man's heart.  Blair held his breath against the pressure, wincing as a small bead of blood welled and began to slide down his skin.  He clenched his jaw.   He was pretty sure that if he confessed he was dead.  And if he didn't...well, he'd be dead later,  but at least he could hope that Jim would come to his aid before that happened.  If Jim was alive.

***********

"YES!"

All head in the bullpen rose and stated at Rhonda who was pumping her fist in the air.  She was standing in front of the main spread sheet where names were being inputted with the hopes of finding a correlation.

"We have a match!!"

Whoops and shouts of triumph filled the air.  Simon came out of his office to investigate the hysterics as the secretarial and administrative staff thumped each other on the back.  He was met with a flushed Rhonda, holding out two sheets of paper.

"Paul Williams rented the house where Jim and Blair went missing.  Marcie Phelps is the name on the books for the apartment where the nurse was killed.  Turns out they're husband and wife.  Phelps never changed her name, so we never came up with a clear connection until I ran a check through city records," Rhonda reported, trying to keep the excitement out of her voice.  Simon took the two sheets of paper and stared down at the photos of their suspects.  Silence fell as he merely stared at the printouts.   When he looked up again, the determined look in his eye flashed on every person in the room.
"Spread the word.  I want these two people found.  Rhonda, arrange a press conference to distribute pictures.  Contact family members, friends.  Get these pictures to all units and get an APB out.  I want every person in Cascade to know there faces."  Simon's intensity had transfixed everyone.  "Let's do it people."

Rhonda grabbed the phone.  She had to tell Joel the good news.

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

"Confess Blair."

"No.  I...I...I haven't' done anything wrong..."  Blair gasped as Rafael kept the knife above his heart.

"Please Blair.  Don't make this hard.  The others are waiting for you to guide them to the next plateau.  But you must be clean.  Please.  Confess."  Rafael pleaded with his prisoner, cupping his face with a gentle hand.  Blair jerked his head away, clenching his teeth as the metal cuffs rubbed against raw skin.

"Rafael, let me."  Paul stood up from his chair and slowly perused the implements on the table.  After a few minutes of careful deliberation, he selected a one of the serated knives from the table.  Walking over to Blair he ran the knife lightly over the kin at the base of Blair's neck, tracing the artery that throbbed with every beat of Blair's frantic heart.

"You struggle, or you do anything to make me upset and I'll slit your throat like a pig, Rafael be damned. Understood."  He jerked Blair's chin up, forcing the younger man to meet his eyes.  Blair nodded jerkily

After removing  the manacles, keeping the knife at Blair's throat, Paul pulled at the detective's shoulder, spinning him around to face the wall.  The manacles were locked back on and Blair was splayed face first agains the wall, arms outstreched above his head.  Paul turned to the young man who was watching the proceedings with reluctant eyes.

"Why don't you go upstairs and start supper, Rafael?  I'll call you when he's ready for you."  Paul gave the man a gentle shove towards the door.  Rafael gave him a grateful grin and trotted up the stairs.

Blair tried to control his rapid breathing as he pressed his forehead against the cool concrete.  He could hear Paul pick up one of the whips from the small table.   Corporal punishment had never been that prevalent in his life.  Naomi had stoutly refused ever to spank her little tyke, even when he did get into heaps and heaps of trouble.  But despite never having experienced a beating, he had no doubts this was going to hurt.  Hurt in ways that he had never experienced before.

He barely had time to take a breath when there was a brief whistling sound and the air was driven from his lungs.  A streak of fiery pain burned down the length of his spine and his body jerked as though given an electrical shock.  Blood filled his mouth and he realized that he had bitten his bottom lip, trying to keep from gasping.

<CRACK>  He shuddered at the pain, but refused to cry out.  He wouldn't give the strap wielding psycho the satisfaction.

"Stay strong, Blair" The breathy whisper startled him as he could suddenly feel Paul standing behind him.  "Don't break.  You see, Rafael -- he's insane."

A hand stroked down one of the painful welts, caressing the reddened skin.

"He thinks that he's going to set you free. "  The hand went lower and Blair shut his eyes, squeezing them shut against horror of the man's touches.  "Of course, we know that he's just gong to kill you and there is no 'other realm'."

"So why do it?"  Blair ground out.  "Why feed his fantasies."

Marcie slunk out of her chair and gave a light laugh.  "Why that's easy Blair.  Paul here likes to hurt people.  That's it.  No hidden motives, no weird freaky ideas about cleansing people.  Paul likes control. And pain.  So, you just keep on sayin' you did nothing wrong.  Eventually you'll crack, but until then, let Paul have his fun.  Me, I just like to watch."

She stepped over, gave Paul a passionate kiss and sashayed up the steps.  Paul watched her swaying form, leering at her while trailing one hand over Blair's hip.  He then turned his attention back to his current project.

"You know what the greatest form of power is, Blair?  Pain.  Everything is controlled by pain.  We avoid everything that hurts us.  Ultimately we're all hedonists, looking for pleasure, wanting softness and light.  But what people don't realize is that there's something better than happiness.  Something greater than pleasure.  Power. And with power comes pain."

Blair felt him step back and braced himself as the blows rained down on his unprotected back.  Blood began to flow and the pain melded into an unending stream of agony.

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

Joel hung up the phone at the intensive care unit and closed his eyes, fighting to remain in control  Finally, they had a break in the case.  It had only been thirty six hours since Blair's disappearance, but Joel knew that as each minute passed, the chances of them finding the youngest member of Major Crimes were rapidly becoming low.  He thanked the nurse at the duty station and went back to resume his vigil by Jim's side.

The doctors were still puzzled by Jim's lack of visible response to the antihistamines.  The swelling had gone down, but they were concerned enough that he remained on the ventilator.

Joel tossed the now useless pile of names onto the spare chair and rubbed at blood-shot eyes.

"You know Jim?  I'm not sure how much more I can take.  I mean, how much does one person have to go through? First Lash, Quinn, then Barnes...Ventris, that gun dealer.  When's Blair going to just stand up and say 'I'm not going to take it?'  Where will we be then?"

Joel looked up from his tightly clenched hands and started.  Vivid blue eyes stared balefully in his direction.  Joel watched transfixed as Jim's right hand twitched and slowly moved towards the tube in his mouth.  Taggert broke into  a huge smile and reached for the call button.

"Take it easy, Jim.  You're having some problems breathing, an allergic reaction to some chemical."

The strained eyes flicked about the room and then back to Taggert's face in mute appeal.   Joel knew what Jim wanted to know.  *Where's Sandburg?*

"Jim.  You just relax okay?  You can't do anything."  Strangled noises erupted from behind the tube as Jim frantically tried to talk.  Joel put a hand on his shoulder, providing a calming presence as the nurse came in, doctor in tow.  Joel grabbed onto Jim's hand and winced as the younger man clenched it hard.

"Ah, Detective.  You're finally awake.  Just try to relax and don't fight the machine.  The swelling in your throat is still inhibiting your airway, so we'll have to keep you on the vent for a while."  The doctor proceeded to run through a number of tests to check Jim's reflexes.  At one point he looked as though he was about to ask Joel to leave, but one look at the white knuckled death grip on the older man's hand seemed to convince him otherwise.

Joel slowly began to explain the situation to Jim as the doctor continued to poke and prod.

"....but we've got a name...Paul Williams and Marcie Phelps.  We're going to get them.  Don't you worry."  Joel moved up to stand by Jim's head, and had to swallow hard as he saw the salty tracks that were trailing down Jim's cheeks.  Unable to talk, unable to do anything.  Unable to help find his guide.  Joel squeezed Jim's hand.  "We'll get them Jim.  We'll get them.  Just hang on."

Jim made a motion with his free hand, and a light dawned in Joel's head.

"You want to write?  Hold on..." He reached over and grabbed a piece of paper from the stack on the chair beside him and pulled a pen from his breast pocket.  Jim grabbed the pen and wrote frantically.

//how long//

"We found you Wednesday morning...its late Thursday evening now, around thirty six hours."

//Blair?//

"As far as we can tell, they took him from the scene where we found you..We searched the house, but they must have been prepared to mobilize because they were already gone."  Joel watched as Jim's eyelids closed tightly against the fear that not even Jim could hide.  He sent up a prayer to whatever deity was listening, hoping that Blair would be found.  He didn't want to think of what would happen to Jim if they didn't find the young man.

After Jim fell into a light doze after being mildly sedated to make the ventilator more tolerable, Joel quietly went to the nurses station to call the department to relay the news.

**********

The shock of a bucket of cold water cascading down his back, brought Blair back to his senses.  Fiery brands of pain burned across and down his spine, his backside and the back of his thighs.  Paul had taken malicious pleasure in ensuring that there wasn't an inch of flesh that wasn't smarting from the sting of the leather strap.  At some point, Blair's torturer had switched to a thin whip that had actually broken the skin.

"Wakey wakey Blair.  So...you ready to confess?" Paul grabbed a handful of Blair's short curls and pulled his head back from where it rested against the wall.  "Tell you what, why don't I go get Rafael.  I'm hungry and he can entertain you while I get some supper."

Blair felt Paul release his hair and sagged gratefully against the concrete.  He had managed to withstand the assault with remarkable stoicism....Jim would be proud.  A stifled sob caught in Blair's throat at the thought of Jim.  If he only knew if his partner was alive.

Footsteps sounded on the stairs and Blair craned his neck to watch as Rafael awkwardly made his way down the stairs.  The blond man was carrying what looked like a small television and could barely see his feet as he walked down the steps.

"Hello Blair.  Paul tells me that you might be a bit more open to confession." At Blair's stubborn silence, he continued."Or not.  So just in case, I brought something that I think will help.  We have to go out for while and I thought that this might speed things up a bit."

As he spoke, Rafael plugged in the television, which Blair realized was a combination of a TV and a VCR, and pressed the play button.  Then the young man walked over to where he had left the needle and drugs on the table.  Filling up the syringe, he depressed the plunger slightly before going to stand behind Blair.

"This will keep you relaxed so that you can focus on the message.  Focus."  There was a jab in his left buttock and Blair winced at the unexpected sting, flinching.  His head spun as Rafael turned him to face the room, the concrete scraping at the raw wounds on his back.

"I know that this is uncomfortable, but the neighbors are about.  It's all for the good.  You'll see."  Rafael trailed a hand down Blair's cheek apologetically before pressing a tightly wadded cloth between his lips and wound a strip around his head to keep it in place.  Sharp green eyes stared intently into Blair's face and then went over to the television.  He turned it on to reveal what the tape had been playing.  Blair's muddled brain barely registered the picture.  But the volume was loud enough for him to discern the content of the video.

//...media informed culture, a scientists receives validation by having his or her work published and after year of research there is great personal satisfaction when that goal is reached.....//

"Now you just listen and ponder deep in your heart, Blair.  Isn't is better that you confess?  I'll be back later tonight."  Rafael made his way up the stairs and closed the door after him, locking it with a loud click.  Blair closed his eyes against the torrent to fear, pain and guilt that welled in his heart as his own voice droned in his ears.

**********

Rafe took the key out of the ignition and stared at the billboard sign before them.  On a large green background the bright yellow letters proudly proclaimed 'Ed's Emu Farm" to the world.  Henri pulled out his sunglasses, put them on and opened his door.

"Let's do this."

Ed's Emu Farm, the only retailer of anything emu in the greater Cascade area according to the department of agriculture, sprawled unkemptly over a large plot of land that bordered a forest on the outskirts of the city limits.. the farm itself consisted of a large barn, a number of smaller shacks and a house which Rafe decided also doubled as an office.  The rickety sign nailed to wall with the hand painted letters "Main Office" helped with that observation.  Chicken wire fenced encircled the property and Rafe stared in fascination at the long-legged birds that pecked about in the grass, unconcerned with the visitors.

"Phew.  I thought chickens smelled bad."  Henri waved a hand in front of his nose and squinted.

"The bigger the bird H., the bigger the smell."

The two men approached the house and mounted the steps leading to the porch.  Rafe straightened his jacket and rapped sharply on the door.  After a brief moment the door opened and an overall-clad man peered out from the crack in the doorjamb.

"Hello sir.  Are yo the owner of this establishment?"  Nervous eyes darted from Rafe to Henri and then back to the well groomed detective.

"What's it to you?"

"I'm Detective Rafe, this is my partner Detective Brown.  We have a couple of....ah damn!"  Rafe broke off as the door was slammed shut and the rapidly retreating footsteps heralded the fleeing owner.

"I'll take the back." Without even waiting for a response, Rafe vaulted the railing of the porch and took off around the back.  They had played out this scenario enough in countless previous arrests that they both knew what the other would do, no questions asked.  So while Rafe went to check the back, Henri entered the house in pursuit.

**********

"Oh good, Detective, you're awake.  We've been keeping you sedated so that you don't struggle against the ventilator, but today is your lucky day.  It seems the swelling has gone down and we're going to take that nasty tube out."  The doctor's voice was overly chipper, Jim decided as he floated on the remains of a drug induced haze.

"Now I want to you breathe out as hard as you can, on three.  One...two ...three!"  Jim gagged as the tube moved up his throat, surely removing the top layer of flesh on its way out.  This was definitely one of the times that being a Sentinel was not a good thing.  He could have sworn he could feel each individual cell being scraped away.

Joel -- bless his kind soul, Jim thought -- was immediately at his side with a glass of cool water.

"Joel...get me out of here."  Jim croaked after he downed half the glass, stopping only when the doctor 'tsked' and took the glass away.

"Hold on there Detective.  As much as you'd like to go charging off on your white horse, you won't do your partner any good if you end up back here in an a hour."  Dr. Stone had been quite upset at the news that Blair was missing.   he had always been willing to listen to Blair go on about Jim's chemical and drug sensitivities whenever the Sentinel was hospitalized.  He seemed to miss the dynamic young man.  "We'll keep you here over night, and if the swelling hasn't returned you'll be free to walk out of here....under your own power as opposed a wheelchair which is probably the only way you'll get out of that bed right now.  Understood?"

Jim could tell the doctor really wasn't asking his opinion and simply couldn't rally enough energy to argue with him.  He doubted that he could raise an arm, let alone get his butt off the mattress.  The doctor seemed to take his silence as agreement and after peering around inside Jim's mouth, patted him on the shoulder and departed on rounds.  Joel took a seat by the bed, twisting his hands nervously.

"Jim, everyone's working overtime on this.  We'll find him."

That was what worried Jim -- that they would find him...too late.

"We're running out of time."  Jim swallowed painfully against the rolling of his stomach.  His mind filled with images from the crime scenes, the brutalized nurse, the tortured young lawyer, all of the twisted bodies and blood stains.  Except the dead bodied he saw were replaced with the lifeless corpse of his partner, roommate and best friend.  A flicker at the corner of his eye cause his head to jerk, and he could only watch in exhausted hopelessness as the ghostly image of a black jaguar silently roared its distress and faded through the hospital room wall.

*Be strong Blair.  Be strong.*

*********

Rafe pushed his prisoner ahead of him into the bullpen and watched tightlipped as everyone in the immediate vicinity vacated their desks, holding hands over noses as they made their escape.  Rafe pointed wordlessly at a suddenly empty chair and Ed took the hint, sitting quickly.

"What the hell is that smell?"  The bellow from the captain's office only reinforced Rafe's wish that he hadn't gotten out of bed.  With a sigh, he turned to face the music.  Simon stood in the doorway to his office, arm akimbo, staring at the spectacle of his detective.  Rafe looked down at his appearance, looked up and shrugged.

"Shit happens, Captain."  Henri broke into gales of laughter.  Rafe pulled a tissue from the box on his desk and dabbed at a bleeding gash on his cheek.

"I just don't expect it to happen so...so...aromatically...in my bullpen.  Go shower, detective.  You too, Brown.  Whatever the hell happened, some of it rubbed off on you."  Simon waved a hand in front of his face.  "When you're decent, I want a full report."

Half an hour later, Rafe and Brown found themselves telling their boss the events which transpired that afternoon.

"Well, you see Ed, he's the owner of the farm, also has a side business of supplying a few friends with marijuana occasionally.  When we introduced ourselves as detectives, he thought the worst and decided to run.  We caught him and brought him here."  Rafe succinctly told the tale.  He didn't think that his captain needed all of the picky little details.  Simon quirked an eyebrow at him.

"And how do you explain *this*?"  Simon gestured at the multitude of bandages that were present on every inch of Rafe's exposed skin.  Henri snickered.

"He got...uh...attacked..." The detective broke off into gales of laughter, grasping at  his stomach.

"It was an emu, sir."  Rafe shot Henri a glare.

"An emu?"

"Yes, sir.  An emu."

Simon templed his hands together, resting his elbows on the table.  The corner of his mouth twitched.

"You were attacked by an emu."

"Yes sir.  After chasing Ed through the barn we entered the compound where the emus were.  They are free range birds apparently.  One of the emus became upset and...uh...defended itself."

"And when exactly did you take a roll in a manure pile?"  Simon stared at a point behind Rafe's head, not meeting the embarrassed young man's eye.

"That would be in the barn, sir."

"I see."

"On the upside sir, we did get the name of a man who bought a bag of emu feathers.  Ed remembered him because he was muttering about setting them free.  Ed thought he was talking  about his emus, but Henri and I think it has to do with the case.  We have a name from the credit card receipt.  A Rafael Phelps.  I've arranged for a sketch artist to do a composite drawing from Ed's description."

"Phelps?   The woman suspect's maiden name is Phelps.  Brother and sister maybe?  Check it out."

"Yes sir," the two detectives chorused.

"That will be all gentlemen."

The two detectives stood and left the room.  As Rafe closed the door behind him, he could hear the burst of laughter that sounded in their absence.  If nothing else, he had given them a laugh.  At the expense of a very expensive suit, but a laugh nonetheless.  And that was something none of them had done in the last few days.

Rafe drew a concerned glance from Henri as he winced and grabbed at his side.

"Rafe?  What's wrong, man?"  Rafe could feel a solicitious hand on his arm.

"Oh, it's nothing Henri.  really.  Just a little scratch."  Rafe tried to sound nochalant despite the wicked burning senstaion that was creeping along his ribs.  Henri's face knotted in concern and Rafe soon found himself seated in the break room as Henri fetched a first aid kit.

"Lift up your shirt," Henri ordered while brandishing the bottle of iodine.  Rafe held his hands in front of him.

"Forget it H.  Forget it.  I don't need that--" Henri ignored his protests, pulling Rafe's shirt tails out of his pants to reveal numerous scratches that were bleeding and irritated.

"Damn, Rafe.  You should go to the hospital and get these looked at."  Henri cautiously swiped at the gashes with a swab.

"Ow, damnit," Rafe hissed.  "No, no hospital."

"Look, buddy.  Do you realize the sorts of germs that hang around in barns?  You're going to the hospital if I have to handcuff you and drag you there myself.  We'll visit Jim while we're there."

Reluctantly, Rafe let Henri lead him out of the break room.  After a quick stop to let Simon know where they were going, the were on their way to Cascade General.

*******

As the drugs coursed through his body, Blair began to lose his tenuous grasp on consciousness.  He just knew that this wasn't going to end well.  Some cop he was, letting Paul get the drop on him.

God, he was tired.

//...However, my desire to impress both my peers and the world at large drove me to an immoral and unethical act...//

Was it all worth it?  What had he gained?  He had hurt the people around him so badly.  The guilt that had plagued him since that day at the station when bullets had exploded around them and Megan and Simon found themselves at death's door, returned with full force.

//..My thesis "The Sentinel" is a fraud...//

God.  How could Jim even stand to look at him.  He had been so goddamn bloody careless.  He should have learned from the whole thing with Brackett.   His whole life was a fraud.  A massive disillusion that he could actually do anything with the knowledge of Jim's abilities.  He was a fraud.  Not to the world...but to himself.
//..while my paper does quote ancient source material, the documentation proving that James Ellison...actually possesses hyper-senses is fraudulent..//

A choked sob welled in his chest, but he cut if off with a strangled hiccup.  He wouldn't cry.  He hadn't yet, and he wouldn't now.  His eyes didn't obey though, and a tear leaked between his tightly clenched lids.

//..Looking back I can only say it is a good piece of fiction..//

He was a fraud.  Who did he think he was? Thinking he could play cop?  All these years were a smoke screen.  His knees threatened to buckle, increasing the pressure on his arms and he forced himself upright again.

//I apologize for the deception.  My only hope is that I can be forgiven for the pain that I've caused those that are close to me...//

 The tape stopped with a click and began to rewind.   A gasp too desperate to be called a sigh made its way from Blair's chest.  A reprieve.  But only a short lived one he soon discovered as the tape automatically began to play again when it reached the start.

//Thank you for all coming. I just have a short speech prepared here...//

*******

"Goddammit, Paul.  I thought that we weren't going to do this again." Marcie flung herself into the overstuffed leather chair that decorated their temporary home.

"Marcie, baby, I couldn't just leave him there.  He had pictures of the other bodies and everything.  I think that they were onto us.  What was I supposed to do?"  Paul moved to take her hand, but she pulled it out of his reach.

"We had an agreement.  I'd make the arrangements, pick the victim.  We'd convince Rafael that they were the chosen ones and you'd have your fun.  But in the end, we'd be making a profit!!  There's no profit when I didn't sell him the the life insurance."  Her eyes glittered dangerously.  "This is disrupting my plans."

'Oh for gods sake, babe, let your brother have his fun.  He's been good about the whole thing, keeping quiet and all.  He wanted this guy from the very beginning.  I'll hide the body this time, they won't find it."  He knelt by Marcie's side and pulled her head down for a deep searing kiss.  "So you juse relax and think about that carribean cruise we're goin' to take when the heat dies down, while I go put in those shelves I promised out landlord."

Marcie responded with another kiss and went to shower.  It had been a long day and she was ready to have a little nap.

********

"Excuse me?"

Rafe looked up from his scanning of the county's birth certificates at the soft spoken question.  The trip to the hospital hadn't been that horrendous.  He didn't have to wait that long before being poked, prodded, injected and stiched.  He wouldn't let Henri drive him home, insisting that he was well enough to continue the paper chase.   He had been looking -- so far unsuccessfully -- for a connection between the emu buyer and the female suspect.  An elderly woman, with her graying hair pulled back into a soft wave, clutching a large quilted bag stood by his desk.

"Can I help you ma'am?"

"Well I hope so.  I'm here about a picture I saw on the television.  I was watching my soaps and right in the middle this commercial comes up.  Right in them middle, I tell you.  NO warning, or anything.  Anyway, there were two pictures of a man and a lady."

Rafe perked up.  That sounded like the press release.

"Are you referring to the announcement about the city search for two murder suspects?"

"Oh yes.  That's it.  I can't believe that they would be involved in something like that.  Such a sweet couple.  Her brother is so nice.  And her husband helped me put up a set of shelves just this afternoon."

Rafe sat stunned.  It couldn't be this easy.

*********

Rafael skipped down the steps to the basement.  It was time.  He could sense it.  Soon Blair would confess and would be free to travel to the next plane.  He cupped the emu feather in his hand.  Poor emus were stuck on the ground.  They had the wings to fly, but were just unwilling to take that next step.  But Blair, Blair was smarter than an emu. He'd guide them all.

Rafael turned off the droning tape and turned to his savior.

Blair was practically hanging by his wrists and Rafael tsked softly to himself as he inspected the scraped flesh.   He lightly patted the slightly stubbled cheek.

"Wake up, Blair."

Two bleary blue eyes looked up at him, glazed with the effects of the drugs, before lowering again.  Rafael smiled warmly and picked up the largest knife on the table beside him.  Once again placing the tip of it against Blair's chest, Rafael cupped Blair's sagging chin in his other hand, raising his head to peer closely at his face.

"Let yourself go Blair.  Confess.  Be free."

One tear trickled from the watery eyes and the parched lips opened.

"i...i...i'm guilty"  It was the softest whisper but it sung through Rafael's heart like a choir of angel.  The moment of truth had come.

"And what are you guilty of Blair?"  Rafael quietly urged, stroking the anguished face.  The one tear was followed by more as hiccuping gasps preceded Blair's confession.

"I'm a f-f-fraud."

NO!!  With a curse Rafael tossed the knife aside, kicking over the table and the torture implements scattered across the floor.

"No, dammit!   You have to confess.  The real confession, dammit!"  Rafael backhanded Blair across the face and then froze as he saw a small trail of blood trickle from Blair's mouth.  He had hit the one who would guide them.  Oh no.  This was all going wrong.  Wrong wrong wrong.

"I'm sorry, Blair."  He pushed the sweat matted curls of the bound man's forehead.  "I didn't mean to hit you."

Blair jerked his head away from the touch and Rafael frowned in concern.

"But you see, Blair.  I want your *real* confession.  You need to be pure.  Tell me.  Tell me how you left your Sentinel vulnerable and open to attack.  I saw the tape, I checked out Detective Ellison's history.  I saw the truth.  Now tell me how you ignored your duty to protect him.  CONFESS!"  Rafael stopped at he realized that he was shouting.  That wouldn't do.  He wasn't like Paul.  He was the liberator, the bringer of peace, not the bringer of pain.

"Confess how you failed your Sentinel, Blair."

Rafael watched as blue eyes widened in shock and disbelief.  Ahhh yes.  He finally understands.  Now the freeing would begin.

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

Simon slogged through another budget report, trying to concentrate on the matter at hand.  It was hard enough to deal with the fact that it was becoming clear their chances of finding Blair alive were dwindling.  To be expected to carry on the regular duties of a police captain on top of that was pressing on his soul.  He hated losing men, and each one was like a knife in his chest.  *But we haven't lost Sandburg yet.* He admonished himself.  Yet.

The office door flew open but before Simon could ream out the offender for lacking common courtesy, Rafe burst out into a babble of words.

"We've got it, sir.  Old lady says she rented her basement apartment to a couple fitting their description.  And the wife...she had a brother.  The names are a match.  1456 Lakewood Drive"  The detectives face was a study in contrasts.  His eyes were bright with triumph, yet the worry lines around his mouth and between his eyebrows spoke to the concern he had about actually finding Blair.  Simon could relate.

Simon snatched up a phone and punched the button for dispatch
"I want all available units at 1456 Lakewood Drive.  No sirens.  Patch me through to them.  Listen up people.  We're dealing with  hostage situation.  Approach with extreme caution.  They've killed six people already and they've got one of our own....let's not let him down.  Set up a perimeter and wait until I get there.  Let's not set these people off!"

Simon snatched up his gun and jacket and ran from the room, the detectives of major crimes following at his heels.

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

Jim fidgeted impatiently.  His strength had been returning in leaps a bounds, and the inactivity was driving him slowly insane.  The thought of his partner out there, in the hands of the psychos churned his stomach.  Joel had calmly explained that all that could be done was being done and that no blustering and shouting on the part of his partner could bring Blair back any faster.  So he resigned himself to the enforced bed rest.

But the appearance of the black jaguar had shaken his faith in his colleagues' ability to find his partner.  The big cat had disappeared for a time, but had returned and was now pacing the length of the room., passing unerringly through an oblivious Joel who stood at the door talking with  a nurse.  The big detective had been shooting glances at Jim all afternoon, probably wondering what on earth the bedridden cop was staring at.

Jim fiddled with the patch of itchy skin that plagued him.  The adhesive from the electrodes that had monitored him while in the ICU had left annoying red patches.  The doctor had hummed and hawed about them, but Jim managed to deflect the worst of the interest by referring him to his lengthy medical chart detailing the numerous allergies.  So many people suffered from environmental allergies these days it wasn't hard to brush off his sensitivities as just that, environmental sensitivities.  He didn't have Blair's flair for BSing the physicians but for the moment suspicion was averted.  Mission accomplished.

Now if only he could avert his fears of losing his best friend.  The fear that they would find the gregarious young man, dead, beaten and mutilated was oppressive cloud, darkening his thoughts.
Jim turned his head to face Joel as the detective returned, a piece of paper clenched in his hand.

"Message just came in, Jim.  They found them.  They're moving in."

"Any word..."

"No...they haven't made contact.  But I just told the nurse get a message to dispatch an ambulance just in case one hasn't already been sent."

The jaguar roared and stalked to the door, looking back at Jim.  Meeting the yellow eyes, Jim knew what he had to do.  He flipped the blanket back and pushed himself up, swing his legs over the side of the bed.

"I've got to be there Joel."  Jim cut off any protest with a cold glare that stopped everyone, with perhaps the exception of Sandburg.  "Don't argue with me...just get my clothes.  Then go get your car and meet me at the entrance."

Joel seemed to realize just how futile any argument would be and retrieved Jim's clothes from the small closet.

"I'll be waiting downstairs."

Jim began to dress, buzzing the nurse to arrange the discharge.

**********

Blair simply stared in shock at the man before him, the drugs coursing through his systems making it hard to think.  The kidnapper knew.  The bastard somehow knew.  Oh God.  How many others.  How many others could possibly figure it out.  Was it all for nothing?  Had he destroyed his academic career for nothing?  The self pity which had been kept at bay for so long by the knowledge that his sacrifice had a deeper meaning, welled up within his already abused soul.  But it couldn't even compete with the  guilt.

"Confess Blair.  Put it behind you and embrace true freedom."

"I...I didn't do anything."  Blair fuzzily thought that if he just kept refusing to say anything that maybe the psycho would just leave him alone.  So he clammed up, pressing his lips tightly together and closing his eyes.  "Blair.  You were supposed to protect, and guide your Sentinel.  You failed in that duty.  Confess and be healed of the inner pain."

This was not happening.  This was not happening.  Jim's secret was safe, no one could figure out that he really was a Sentinel.  His sacrifice had a purpose.  Delusion, his inner voice nastily pointed out, is such a comfortable yet ignorant state of being.  How could he think that some petty press conference was going to persuade anyone who actually gave a damn .  He hadn't absolved himself in that act of supposed sacrifice.  All couldn't be forgiven.   Another backhand rocked his head and pain radiated from his jaw.  He forced himself to look up and meet Rafael's horrified gaze.

"CONFESS!!!"  Rafael roared.  Then with considerable effort the blond man managed to get his emotions under control.  "I wish I didn't have to do this Blair, but I'm going to have to call Paul."

Blair could hear footsteps going up the stairs and Rafael's voice calling out.  No....not Paul, Blair thought.  He wasn't sure he could stand another session with that sadist.  The drugs continued to work their magic, muddying his thoughts and clouding the world with a grey haze.

A hand fisted in his hair, wrenching his neck as it yanked backward.  Blair blinked as he tried to focus.  The room had begun so shimmy in the most disconcerting way and he just wanted the roller coaster ride of pain to end.  He was ready to get off and he was out of tickets.

"So, you're going to be stubborn, huh?  All the better for me.  Pain and power, Blair.  They go together.  And you know what the ultimate form of power is?  That strips a man of any sense of worth?  That digs inside you and just wrenches out any sense of manhood you've got left?  Take a guess."  Blair tried to turn his head away, not wanting to see the depth of craving in the man's eyes.  But the hand was firm and Blair's quickly failing strength reserves were just about tapped out.  He had nothing left to give.

"Let's find out just how far you're willing to go before you confess."

"Paul, you know I don't like it when you do that to them.  I'm not sure that it doesn't make them less pure.  I mean..."

"Rafael, I've explained this before.  They leave their bodies behind right?  Nothing that happens to them here affects them in the next plane.  This is just to get him to confess so that you can let him go, lead him to the next phase of his existence."

"Oh...right.  Okay."

Blair could feel the brush of air against the side of his neck as Paul leant close to his ear.  Large hands pushed the gag back into his mouth

"He is so gullible," the man whispered softly.  Blair bit back a moan as a large hand slid along the a welt on his side and came to rest on his hip.  More breath ghosted against his ear.  "Let's party."

Blair's mind shrieked in denial as he was again unmanacled, pushed around to face the wall and re-chained.  *This was not happening.  This was not happening.  Oh God.  Jim.  Where were you?  Please help me.  I'm sorry. Please forgive me!*

**********

The perimeter was secure.  No one was getting in or out of the split level house.  The elderly woman had given them a description of the interior, explaining that she had converted two of the rooms to an apartment of sorts, self sufficient, yet attached to the house so that one could enter it either from outside or from within the house.   Simon surveyed the solemn group of officers, decked out in vests and armor, ready to move.  The tension was getting unbearable, but he couldn't move until he had some confirmation that there were indeed people inside and with a rough estimate of where they were.  The two men he had sent to do reconnaissance were coming up empty.

A touch at his shoulder made him start, and he pulled around from where he crouched behind a squad car.

"Good god, Jim.  What the hell are you doing here?  I thought you were in the hospital.  You look like shit!"

"Nice to see you too, sir," Jim said wryly as he waved off Joel's supporting hand.  "I had to be here sir.  Trust me."

Simon knew better than to argue with that look, and he had a sinking suspicion that Jim's presence was the result of more than just concern for a partner and friend.  No, the odds were it was one of those 'Sentinel' things that he would never be able to explain and would never actually want to.  And since Jim was here, there was no way he was going to let the opportunity slide to get information.

"Jim, we need to know if anyone in there, and where they are, before we can move in.  So far no one's been able to get anything, and the tech guys ran into some problems with the directional mikes.  Care to give it a go?"

"Already on it, sir."  Jim's face took on a blank look, one that Joel was pretending not to notice.  Simon gave a discrete nod towards the other captain and was rewarded by the smile.

"Don't ask, don't tell, Simon.  We protect our own." Joel said enigmatically.

Jim started out of his 'trance'.

"Oh my god.  Send them in!  They're in the basement and one of them's....Send them in now!!"  Jim grabbed Simon's gun, and took of at a sprint towards the house.  Simon was frozen for a moment then gave the signal.

******

Jim burst through the unlocked door and quickly located what he presumed to be the entrance to the basement.    He kicked the door open and pointed his gun down the stairway.

"POLICE!!  FREEZE!"  He shouted before he could even see anyone.  The structure of the basements steps and ceiling was such that he was halfway down the stairs before the tableau in the depths of the basement came into view.  Hi blood ran cold.  Blair was gagged and chained to the wall, wrists taking his whole weight as he sagged face first against the concrete.  Sentinel vision zoomed on the bloody welts that ran across the planes of Blair's back and down the back of his legs.  With a roar, Jim jumped down the rest of the steps to threaten the man who had frozen.

"Get your hands off him," Jim snarled, gun pointing unwaveringly at the burly man who dared accost his partner.  Paul moved away, hands held to his side.  Another movement caught Jim's attention.  A slender blonde man, walked forward, wringing his hands.

"Oh no.  You've ruined it all.  Now how is he supposed to be free?"  There was sincere distress in the young man's voice, but Jim hardened his voice as he swung his gun around to cover the both of them.

"Shut up Rafael." Paul snarled.

"Stop right there.  Go stand next to your buddy, here.  Move."  Jim punctuated his command with a twitch of his gun.  Rafael obeyed and began to move towards Paul.

Jim caught a flicker out of the corner of his eyes and turned, barely in time to see Paul grab a knife off the floor and lunge at the near comatose Blair.  As Jim drew the bead, he watched helplessly as Rafael gave a strangled cry and threw himself between the knife and its intended victim.    By the time the echo of the gunshot had faded, both criminals were down, Rafael clutching the knife handling sticking from his chest, Paul, staring lifelessly from dead eyes, a bullet in his heart.

But Jim only had eyes for his partner.  He quickly supported the limp body, trying to take some of the weight from the abused wrists.  His hearing picked up the rattle of footsteps over head.  The shrill protests of a woman's voice put a grim smile on Jim's face.  They would at least take one alive.
"i...i...didn't want to....hurt him"

Jim turned his head and stared.  Rafael was slumped against the wall, blood quickly turning his shirt bright red.

"Where's the damn key to the cuffs."

"...just...wanted to..set him..truly free..."

"Dammit, just tell me where the keys are dammit!" Jim shouted.  Pain filled eyes flicked to the dead body beside him.

"...pocket..."  Rafael's eyes rested on Paul's innert form before glazing over. A bubble of blood formed at his mouth as he gave his last breath.

Jim shifted, unwilling to release his burden.  Blair's head lolled onto Jim's shoulder and unfocussed eye met Jim's.

"J..Jim?  Alive?"  Jim had to strain to hear the softly gasped words.

"Yeah buddy.  I'm alive.  And you're safe.  Everything's going to be fine."  He reached up and lightly stroked the matted curls.

"Oh my god. Jim.  Is he alright?"  Jim looked up to meet Simon's concerned gaze.

"He'll be okay, Simon.  He'll be okay.  Could you get the keys to the cuff?  They're in the big one's pockets."

Simon went over to root through Paul's pockets.

"We caught the woman.  She was upstairs in one of the bedrooms.  She was trying to get out of the window."

"Yeah, I heard."  Jim maneuvered his armful so that Simon could access the chains.  "Blair needs an ambulance."

"One's waiting outside.  I sent Johnson back outside to get the paramedics."  As the manacles came loose, Jim slowly lowered Blair to the floor, despairing that there wasn't a way to hold his partner that didn't cause more pain.  He pulled off his jacket and wrapped it around Blair's body, cringing at the thought of what Williams was about to do.

"Not on my watch. Hold on buddy.  Just hold on," Jim whispered, not caring that Blair probably was beyond hearing him.  When the paramedics came they were unable to get him to relinquish a hold with his guide, resigning themselves to working around the detective who insisted on clutching his partner's hand.   They soon had him ready for transport, radioing ahead the condition of their patient.  Jim insisted on accompanying them, and simply looked at the joined hands when they began to protest.  Blair's hand had returned the tight grasp and was now gripping Jim's hand so hard the knuckles were white.

"I'm not leaving him alone.  So let's just go."

Sirens wailing, the ambulance pulled away from the scene and sped towards the hospital with its cargo of one protective Sentinel and one hurt Guide.

**********

The smell was the first thing that clued Blair into his location.  Hospitals always came with the distinctive odor that just screamed 'medicine'.  Warmth surrounded him and, despite the throbbing of his back, he felt pretty comfortable.

Until he moved.

His eyes shot open at the flares of pain that shot through his body.  His immediate view was of the mattress which he was laying on.  He was on his stomach, a sheet draped loosely over his torso and the pricking sensation in his hand drew his attention to the IV that was connected its stand.    A large hand on his shoulder startled him

"Take it easy, Chief.  Relax.  Don't try to move."

Taking the advice to heart, Blair only moved his eyes -- about the only thing that wasn't screaming in protest.  Jim's smiling, yet concerned face slowly swam into focus.  His first attempt at talking resulted in a harsh croak that made Jim wince and reach for a glass of water.  The older man stuck a straw into it.

"Here you go.  Just take a couple of sips.  Don't overdo it.  You've been dehydrated and your stomach won't like it if you drink too much."  Jim patiently explained as he slipped the straw into position, made awkward by Blair's unusual position.   Blair gratefully sucked cold mouthfuls of the water.  When his mouth no longer felt like a desert, he pillowed his head on his folded arms, looking sideways at Jim.

"What happened?  I mean, I know what happened.  Sort of.  Things got kind of blurry at the end there."

"Paul and Rafael are dead.  Marcie is in custody, facing kidnaping, assault, accessory to first degree murder and fraud."

Blair pondered the fate of his captors, when he latched onto the last word that Jim had spoken.

"Fraud?"

"Yeah.  It seems that the victims weren't random.  She actually was picking them out, unbeknownst to the others.  She had sold them all insurance with the stipulation in the fine print that if they died she would get the money.  Not very subtle, and god knows why she thought she could get away with it.  But criminals aren't very smart very often, huh?"

Blair managed a small grin.

"I saw what was on the video tape, Chief."

Blair closed his eyes at the guilt in Jim's voice.  When he opened them again, Jim was fiddling with the corners of the plastic arms of his chair, clearly using Sentinel touch to distract himself.  The drugs were making thinking incredibly difficult and his eyelids felt incredibly heavy.  A comforting hand stroking his hair accompanied the voice that bid him rest.  Complying he sank back into sleep.

What seemed like moment later, he bolted upright, shaking from the terrors that chased him in his dreams.  Hands touching him, voices taunting him, blows hurting him.  He pulled up his knees to his chest, whimpering and rocking slowly back and forth to dispell the phantasms.

"Blair?"  The groggy voice of his partner, pulled Blair back to reality.  He raised his head from where he had buried it in his arms.  Jim was slouched in a backbreaking position next to the hospital bed.  The redrimmed eyes betrayed the worry that Jim had been having for his Guide.

"Jim?"  Blair winced at the sound of his voice.  It sounded child-like, afraid and desperately in need of some reassurance.  But fortunately he had a friend who was never too frugral with comfort.  Strong arms enfolded him, mindful of the healing wounds.

"You okay, Chief?"  Jim asked and then laughed softly.  "Stupid question, I suppose."

Blair took a shaky breath.

"I'll be okay, Jim.  Really."  He was in no hurry for his Sentinel to go away, though.  He let his head drop to Jim' shoulder.  "I'll be okay."

********

The healing took longer than Blair thought. He was in the hospital for a week, battling a nasty bout of the flu on top of painful welts, some of which were infected.  But the time flew as he was kept lightly sedated, the days passing in a blur of visits from the relieved members of Major Crimes and the continued presence of his Sentinel guarding over his sleep.

But eventually he was ready to go home.  He was tired by the time Jim got him settled on the chesterfield with a pile of pillows and blankets to keep him comfortable and warm.  Jim bustled aroun the kitchen, making tea and putting away the groceries he had picked up on the way home.

When the Sentinel came into the living room to deliver the cup of steaming herb tea into Blair's grateful hands, the younger detective patted the couch.  Jim sat, looking at his young friend with concern.

"You know Jim.  We never did talk."

Jim suddenly looked haunted.

"Talk?"

"Yeah..about...well, everything.  I mean you threw me the badge, I caught it, life goes on.  But we never talked about any of it.  How you still felt.  How I felt.  What we both wanted."

Jim continued to fidget.

"I've never been one for talking about that sort of stuff."  He paused thoughtfully.  "You mean you don't want to be a cop?"

Blair pushed himself painfully upright.

"NO!  I mean, no.  Well, yes.  But not really."  Blair wriggled with impatience at the unfamiliar feeling of not being able to express himself. "I like being a cop Jim.  I like what we do and I like being able to help.  And not just help you.  I mean, it's probably not what I would have chosen as an ultimate life plan, but it's better than some other options.  I mean, I loved being an anthropologist.  It was what I knew how to do.  But you learn new skills, Jim.  You grow.  You try new things.  I just didn't quite expect to enjoy it as much as I have been."  He paused and took a calming breath.  "It's just that I know you feel guilty about the whole mess, despite the fact that it wasn't your fault  You just reacted the only way you knew how.  And while it hurt that you thought I just wanted the money and all, I know that it's just because you've been betrayed by so many people already that it was the natural conclusion to draw."

"I never thought that you would..."

"No Jim.  You did think it.  But that's not the point.  You had reason to think it.  And I see that.  The point is, you forgave me for not taking enough care with the diss.  That's all that counts."

"So, what the problem?"

"He knew Jim.  Rafael knew.  He figured it all out.  I thought that he wanted me to confess that I lied, that I was a fraud.  But that wasn't it."

Jim looked confused and Blair forged ahead to clarify things.

"He wanted me to say I had failed my Sentinel."

Jim's face paled.  He shook his head slowly.

"Sandburg, you didn't fail me.  You didn't..."

"I know.  Let's just say for a while there it felt true.  But whether it was the drugs, or whether it was just a moment of existential angst, it did cross my mind that this whole detective thing hasn't changed or hidden anything.  I got up and said I was a fraud, but what's the point if people don't believe me?  Was it all for nothing if everyone can see through it?  Did I just fuck it up again?"

Jim grabbed hold of Blair's hands which had started waving about in distress.

"Chief. Slow down.  Listen.  .  There's always the risk that someone will notice.  There's always the chance that someone will draw a connection.  But your sacrifice wasn't in vain.   As long as the only people who draw the connections are loony psychos, who's got to worry, huh?"  Jim tried to lighten the mood, and surprisingly, Blair found, he wanted to laugh.    But after letting a small grin break through, he grew serious again.

"Jim.  I meant it when I said that I liked being a cop.  Lots of people change their careers.  Being an anthropologist wasn't my life.  Being a guide is."

Jim's throat worked as he struggled with emotions Blair knew were hard for the gruff detective to process.

"I know Blair.  I know."

********

Three weeks after his ordeal, Blair was ready to make it back to the station to resume some limited desk duty.  His back was still tender in spots and the nightmares which had plagued him were gradually loosening their hold.  He had hoped that getting back into a routine would make things a bit more normal.  Besides which, Jim's mother henning was getting a bit stale.

At first it was nice having his roommate at his beck and call.  But when Jim insisted on monitoring him while using the bathroom, Blair realized that things had gone a bit too far.  Getting back to work would hopefully force Jim to realize that while getting help lifting heavy objects would be nice, bathroom duty was really quite unnecessary.

So he had made plans to surprise Jim, coming into the department in the middle of the afternoon to fill out the final paperwork on his abduction.  Marcie had pled guilty so there wasn't really that much work to do case-wise, but the paperwork was still the size of a mountain.  Blair had never realized until becoming a cop how much work had to be done...even if the perp pled guilty!

As he exited the elevator, he was struck by the silence in the bullpen.  Normally the room as a buzz of activity that one could hear before one even entered.  He pushed open the door and suddenly the room exploded in a fury of sound.

"WELCOME BACK!!"

Blair stood stunned at the chorus of detectives who stood next to a large banner with those very words painted somewhat crookedly in bright green letters.  A table with cake, muffins, and assorted treats lay in wait, and Blair could see the side looks of more than one of the detectives towards the buffet.

"Wow. "  Blair simply stared and allowed Jim to steer him towards the food, smiling at people who patted him on the shoulder, taking care not to jar his still tender back.

"Great to have you back, Hairboy" Henri's face was split with a huge grin.

"Yeah, glad you're okay.  We've been missing you." Rafe added as he offered Blair a plastic cup with punch.

"We've missed you Sandy," Megan said as she came up to gently squeeze Blair in a hug.

"Gee guys.  I should get kidnaped by psychos more regularly.  Oh wait...I do get kidnaped by psychos all the time"  Blair joked, unsure as to how to respond to the outpouring of support, sympathy and caring from a normally tightlipped bunch of hard-assed detectives.

"Why do I see people eating and drinking and not working?"  Simon's voice boomed across the bullpen.  Pieces of cake mysteriously disappeared under desktops and cups of punch were hidden under file folders.  Simon gave his well-practiced 'boss-stare' and work slowly began to resume.  Before shutting his door however, he turned and nodded to Blair.

"Good to have you back, Sandburg.  Let's not make the last three weeks a habit shall we?"

Blair grinned and nodded.  Simon had spent long hours at the loft, checking in to make sure that the one half of his prize team was going to be back on its feet.  The caring side of the captain was rarely seen by many, but Blair knew better.  Simon was a creme puff.  Jim, on the other hand, was a marshmallow.  And he had them both wrapped around his little finger.  He sat down at his desk with an exaggerated wince.

"You okay, Chief?" Jim was instantly at his side.

"Yeah."

"Can I get you something?  Coffee?"

"Well, now that you mentioned it, last month Susanne down in Records was telling me about this great green tea that she had brought in with her.  She said I could borrow some anytime.  Would you mind?"

"Sure thing.  I'll be right back."  Jim trotted off to retrieve the elusive green tea.  Blair chortled to himself and opened the first of a stack of folders on his desk.   Enjoy it while it lasts.

A phone rang, the photocopier made that strange rattling noise, Henri and Rafe argued about the viability of peanut butter as a substitute for Cheez Whiz, and the voice of Simon yelling at his phone could be heard through the doors of his office.  Life was returning to normal.  Well, as normal as things ever got in Cascade at any rate.


Finis