Lonely Is Just An Adjective

By Xasphie

TITLE: Lonely Is Just An Adjective

AUTHOR: Xasphie

E-MAIL: xasphie1@aol.com

CATEGORY: Angst, h/c

DISCLAIMERS: Only belong to me in my dreams. I had a pet fly once, or was it a gerbil? Anyway, someone else owns them.

SUMMARY: When Jim goes missing, Blair returns from Chicago.

STATUS: Complete

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Goes AU during season 4.

Began life as an "open Word, scribble something" drabble and posted on the SA List. It was about 150 words then. This very extended version was written for Fingers, for the Moonridge Auction 2004. With grateful thanks.

 

It wasn't like this was the first time he'd to fight on his own; but he wished that for this one time, he could open his eyes to see a friendly face smiling down at him.

It wouldn't take much for someone to be there for him - hadn't he always been there for other people when they needed him? Would it be so hard for just one person to take a few minutes out of their hectic, self-absorbed day to be here?

Be here for him?

He closed his eyes against the blindfold.

Now who was being selfish?

The pain was all-intrusive and he didn't know how to deal with it. Dials were such a bizarre concept; where had that idea come from in the first place? It's all very well for your body to believe what you tell it to do, but in reality, how possible was it for a human to tell themselves they no longer felt pain?

The pounding of the hammer driving the nail through his head intensified and he longed for someone to tell him that his pain would be over shortly.

Where was he, anyway?

He could feel the fresh soil under his clenched fists, and the dampness of the ground seeping into his sparse clothing. Why had they taken his jacket? Where was the point in that? Why had they shoved him into the back of the van, beaten him and then dumped him unceremoniously here?

Who were 'they'?

Where was 'here'?

Black masks were so cliché-d, but they fitted their purpose. The anonymous tormentors had remained just that. Anonymous. The speed of his capture; the frenetic pummeling of fists into his abdomen, head and back; and subsequent cessation had all happened so fast he held no perception of the identity of his attackers.

He had been walking alone.

Alone was different from lonely.

He had been walking alone, when the squealing of the rubber against the street had pulled his attention around, and his world had hurtled into confusion.

The ride had been short, but the pain severe.

He now lay, on his back, uncared-for, unlooked-for and unnoticed.

He wished for that friendly face to arrive.

He hunted his memory for the face he wanted to see.

His heart lurched at the thought of dying here alone.

He needed help.

He needed sleep.

He slept.

Later, he awoke. Still alone. Still unnoticed. Still bound and gagged. Still in searing agony from his plethora of injuries. Still unable to call, or move.

Still unseeing of the friendly face he was desperate to be present.

Still waiting.

He sank into oblivion and was held in the darkness.

Day faded to night and the dreams faded to black.

His friend would come.

He knew he would.

 

"Blair, it's Simon." The voice of the Major Crimes Captain echoed out from the answer phone. "Can you call me as soon as you get in? It's important." There was a pause while the man clearly fought to form the next words. "We all hope you're doing okay. It's been a while."

Sandburg tucked a stray strand of hair behind his ear and deleted the message. "Yeah, it would have to be important, wouldn't it, Simon, or you wouldn't have called." Blair was enjoying his new life in Chicago and had, for the most part, left his Cascade life behind.

He cast his unopened mail onto the counter and reached for the telephone handset. His fingers paused over the keypad, but failed to dial the first number. He clenched his fists and shoved the phone carelessly back into its cradle. Blair had a date this evening, and if Simon was only prepared to call him in an emergency, and not at any other time, then his shower would take first priority.

Strolling into the fifth floor apartment's bedroom, Blair shucked off his shirt and threw it lazily onto the bed, stripping down to boxers and grabbing clean clothes out of the closet.

Cascade was another lifetime ago, and he had reconciled his departure.

He ran the shower and waited for the water to heat up, recalling with bitterness the day Simon had had to regretfully inform him that his observer status had long since expired, and there was no way the department could justify his continued presence. It had not come as a surprise, especially considering that his doctorate was complete. Riding along with Jim and being present during investigation meetings had become a force of habit for all concerned. Simon's regret had been sincere, as had Joel's. Jim had withdrawn back into himself and, according to older members of the department, had regressed back to the cold, emotionless Ellison of previous years, in the time before he was partnered with Jack.

Blair had fought not to take the drastic mood change personally, but after so many years in Cascade, he knew it was time for him to move on.

So he had.

Jim had helped him box up his possessions, accepting Sandburg's decision far too quickly in the eyes of many. He had remained stoic and calm, in the four-week interim, while Blair searched for other teaching positions. Their late-night conversations over the fate of the Sentinel's abilities were rational and lacked emotion. Neither man allowing the situation to overshadow the necessity of the support network that would have to be established.

On the day Blair threw the last of his possessions into the trunk of his Volvo, and headed towards his new career in Chicago, Ellison had stood at the entrance to 852 Prospect and silently waved him off.

He had not acknowledged or replied to any of Blair's emails, telephone calls or letters since.

That had been six months ago.

Sandburg stood in the shower, allowing the water to stream through his mat of tangled hair and down his back. He was comfortable with his new life, and was already planning a further expedition for the end of the semester. He was teaching Grad classes who respected him as a human; didn't kidnap him, shoot at him, hold a gun to his head or blow things up in his face. The most serious offense any of them offered, was a poorly written paper.

Yes, his life had changed since leaving Washington State, and yes, of course he missed Jim - but life constantly changes, and he could already reflect on the better moments of his time living in apartment 307, and could smile at some of the adrenalin pumping situations he had found himself in.

He didn't begrudge Jim's lack of communication; in fact, the only people who had kept in touch were Daryl and Joel. Daryl made excuses for his father, and Joel made excuses for Jim.

Blair had tried to convince himself that he wasn't bothered either way, and had made a new circle of friends.

He remained in the shower until the water ran cold.

Simon's version of 'important' could be anywhere from a flood, to Daryl stubbing his toe during a basketball game.

Blair switched off the shower and wrapped a towel around his waist.

It wouldn't hurt to call.

It wouldn't have hurt Simon to have called at any point in the intervening six months either…

Sandburg toweled himself dry and used the phone next to his bed to call Cascade.

 

Jim didn't feel nearly as groggy when he awoke for the fourth time, but his heightened senses startled him into an horrific revelation.

There was indeed soil under his hands, where his hands were still tied behind his back. But the darkness was not from a blindfold; the black came from absence of light. The gag was not a cloth restraint, it was a small tube taped against his mouth.

He could not move because he was tied up or injured.

He could not move because he was trapped in a confined space.

His hearing was subdued, deadened. His eyesight struggled to pierce the darkness. He knew it was cold from the shivering wracking his body.

It was his olfactory sense that told him exactly where he was, and why he should never have been actively pursuing the Henshaw murder case alone.

Marty Henshaw had been a businessman who had apparently learned too much, and was 'disposed' of. The Major Crimes division, in liaison with Homicide, had chased an inordinate number of leads to establish the prime motive behind the murder, but were still at a loss to make a concrete connection to the Barnett syndicate, operating out of Seattle. The Seattle PD had, in turn, been liaising with Cascade to try and find some healthy charges that could stick, but until that morning, nothing had worked.

Jim had been certain that he had finally found a man who could help, and it was that man that he had been looking to meet, when he had been abducted.

Marty Henshaw had been found five days before, having disappeared a week earlier. It had been a sheer fluke that the Labrador dog had dug so voraciously in that particular part of the undergrowth and found the sleeve of the buried man.

Ellison knew with dreaded certainty that he had stumbled onto the right answers, and those answers had determined his fate.

He breathed as calmly as he could through the straw attached to his mouth, knowing that it was the only oxygen available to him in his mud coffin; buried several feet under the earth.

 

"Banks." The voice was terse.

"Hey, Simon. It's Blair."

The captain's voice softened when he heard the familiar tones of his friend. "Blair." In the opening moments he realized that this was the first time they had spoken since Sandburg's departure. "How's Chicago?"

"It's good. Great classes. Great girls. Cold weather. Lots of rain." Blair's cheeriness was so typical. "Not dissimilar to Cascade!"

Banks smiled and chewed on his cigar, dreading the news he needed to deliver.

"That's good, Sandburg. That's good." He paused. Having spent hours deliberating the best way to pass on the information, he was still at a loss for words. "Blair, there's… there's… well, something's happened."

"It's Jim, isn't it?" The anthropologist leapt in immediately, his heart in his throat. Why else would Simon be talking to him in such a placatory tone? "What's happened? Tell me, Simon."

The captain envisioned the wild curls flopping over the young man's face as he punched the air with his ever-gesticulating hands, demanding the information. Simon sighed before he imparted the news. "Jim was investigating a case, and we think he got a little too close to the mark. He disappeared some time early this morning, and we have reason to believe he's…"

How in hell was Simon meant to tell Blair what they suspected?

The pit of Blair's stomach fell, and he dropped onto the bed before his legs gave out. Jim couldn't be dead. That wasn't possible. He would know if Jim had died. He couldn't rationalize that thought, but in his heart, he knew he would know.

"He's not dead, that we know of," Simon rushed in to assure, aware that his pause had been too long. "But we have reason to believe that he may be trapped, in - Sandburg, he's investigating a murder case where the victim had been buried alive." The words blurted out. "An eye witness states that he saw Jim being manhandled by three men and thrown in the back of a van. It would be unusual for more than one person to be using this form of imprisonment, but we think there are strong links to a unique drug organization based in Seattle."

Blair didn't care for the facts, or the semantics. He was far more concerned with where Jim was now, and why Banks believed he may have befallen the same fate as the murder victim. "Why do you think he might be bur…" That word hurt to say. "Trapped?"

"He was meeting someone; no, we didn't get the man's name, you know how Jim likes to work." Banks was frustrated. Why couldn't Sandburg just get on a plane and get over here? "There were other situations detailed by Seattle PD where similar victims were handled in this manner. It makes the forensics job more difficult, and keeps the victim out of the way for a much longer period of time, allowing for a greater cover-up and setting of alibis. That's why we've been struggling to find enough viable evidence."

It made sense. The towel lay in a heap on the mattress as Blair sank his head into his hands. Something had been niggling him since the morning, and he hadn't been able to identify what it was. He had initially put it down to too much coffee on an empty stomach, but the more Simon talked, the more Sandburg realized it had been a growing sense of unease.

"I'm coming to Cascade, Simon." The statement was simple. "Can someone meet me?"

"Just call us before you leave, and I'll be there myself." Banks didn't know what Sandburg could accomplish by being here, but both men knew his presence was necessary.

In Chicago, Blair was dressed and out of his apartment before Simon, in Cascade, had finished his coffee and gone to discuss their next move with Taggert.

Where did you start looking for a buried man?

 

It had only been six months, but the sign bearing the words "Welcome to Cascade" seemed strange to the arriving academic. He no longer considered this to be his hometown.

As promised, Simon was waiting for him at the Arrivals gate. The tall man threw his arms around Sandburg in greeting, and Blair was grateful for the contact. His world had been in turmoil in the hours since he had hung up the telephone. He had never felt so bereft of friendship than during the four hours of the flight, when his gut was twisting and roiling in agitation. He had attempted to make a list - but had stopped when the futility of this idea hit him. A list of what? What could he write? Places to look for the missing man? Cascade was a big city, and who was to say Jim was still in the city anyway?

Leaving Cascade had been the easy part. Blair had never considered that he might someday be coming back to visit for such an ominous purpose.

Banks steered him out to his sedan, parked in a No Waiting zone, but with the red light flashing. He didn't usually abuse the system, but this was different.

"So…?" Blair offered, strapping on his seatbelt. He doubted Simon's driving had improved.

"Honestly?" Banks answered. "We have very little to go on."

"Is he definitely being held?" Sandburg was surprised at how swiftly he moved away from his academic way of thinking, into the analytical options required for police work.

"Rafe's tracked down the man Jim was supposed to have met. We're fairly sure it was a set-up." Banks pulled out onto the highway and sped towards the city. "More specifically, he and Brown are terrorizing the man in custody, and demanding to know everything that he knows. It seems the subtle approach didn't work. But I didn't tell you that."

Blair nodded and gazed out of the window at the passing scenery. Nothing had really changed, except the addition of a new construction project at the entrance to the Mall. "Will it work, though?" His voice was quiet.

"We can hope." He changed lanes and accelerated.

"Why am I here, Simon?" Blair's question was not unexpected.

"Because Jim's your friend." Banks was glad he was driving and wasn't required to make eye contact. Still, he knew Blair was watching his face. "And because you have always cared for other people, and have always stuck by them, no matter what."

"And these would be the same people that didn't call, or write at all, in the last six months?"

Damn, the kid was still too sharp.

"I'm sorry, Sandburg. Time got the better of me. I meant to write. Hell, Jim and I had even been talking of flying over to annoy you one weekend, and drag you out somewhere."

"Had?"

"Have. Have been talking." Shit. The kid still knew a lie when he heard one, too. So why hadn't he called? He knew Daryl had kept in touch. Had it really been that long?

"You okay staying at my place, while you're here?"

The issue of accommodation hadn't occurred to Blair, so he was grateful for the foresight. The minor fact that he hadn't brought any clothes with him either, could be dealt with in the morning.

"That's cool, Simon, thanks." He didn't need to ask about their destination, recognizing the Burrard Street sign en route to the back entrance of the PD garage. He was fervently hoping that Rafe and Brown had gotten some information out of the arrested man. Even though Blair had left Cascade, and hadn't spoken to Jim since, it had always been reassuring to know that his Sentinel was alive and well. This uncertainty of where he was now was difficult to cope with.

Sandburg exited the elevator, close on Simon's heels and headed towards the holding rooms with him.

"Eduardo Bautista," Taggert informed them as they approached. "Twenty-three years old; naturalized citizen; currently works for Ratten Enterprises as a computer technician. Used to be based in Seattle but requested a job transfer to the Cascade branch shortly after making friends with one Marty Henshaw." The scribbled notes on the legal pad were thrust into Banks' hands. "Hey, Blair."

Sandburg's tight smile was short-lived. "But does he know where Jim is?"

"That's what we're still trying to find out." Joel was pleased to see his young friend again, but would have prayed for different circumstances. He took a few moments to pat him on the shoulder and offer a smile of his own. "H isn't going to let this guy off easily."

Blair stared through the partitioning window at the intimidated man in the adjacent room. From the body language of Rafe, Brown and Bautista, this was not the first time they had run through their gamut of questions.

"You were going to meet Detective Ellison to tell him, what, precisely?" Rafe was leaning against the gray wall, flicking lint off his shoulder. Good cop, bad cop was a wonderful concept. Not over-rated in the slightest. Personally he preferred the Lethal Weapon version, of Bad Cop, Worse Cop - but this lad seemed relatively harmless. Just very, very stubborn.

"I've got some files on disk which relate to something he said he wanted." Bautista was beginning to stumble over his words. A convincing sign that his defenses were cracking. "Look, can I have a cigarette?" Brown reached into his pocket and slammed the packet down onto the table with excessive force, making the dark-haired suspect jump.

"What files?"

"F-f-files about, look, I can't t-tell you, b-because h-he'll kill me."

"Who? Detective Ellison? I don't think so," Brown stormed. "Hard to kill someone when you're buried underground, wondering whether or not you're going to suffocate."

In the safety of the second room, Sandburg balked at the words and felt his hands start to tremble. The enormity of the situation weighed heavily on him, and he would have found it hard to remain in the room, without the warmth of Taggert's friendly arm suddenly being draped across his shoulder and the comforting words muttered towards him. "We're going to find him, Blair."

The interrogation lasted a further fifteen minutes before Bautista started to crumble and mentioned names and potential locations for meeting places. Although all the men concerned were aware that these meeting places were liable to be unrelated to the area they sought, nevertheless, it would be a starting point.

 

Time was irrelevant.

It was dark, that was all Jim knew.

He had managed to persuade himself that he was warm, and that he couldn't feel either the cold or the moisture of the earth clawing into his body.

Beyond that; the rest of his dials had gone haywire, and he had lost control over them. He kept his eyes firmly closed now, convinced only that he could see forest above him each time he opened them. He had used his sight to follow the path of the tube up through the earth, and had frightened himself by following the journey of a small leaf that threatened to block the edge of the airway. He knew he had zoned while scrutinizing the tendrils of veins in the leaf, but at least the zone had offered him a reprieve from his prison.

He had had to use large lungfuls of air to blow the airway clear on a few occasions, and he was surprised that whoever had buried him here had wedged a short beam of wood across his chest and face. If they had wanted him dead, then he would already be bartering with St Peter. He couldn't understand why he had been incarcerated in this manner. He reflected on the Seattle autopsy reports, and remembered the confused timeframes surrounding the death. That was why they were letting him die slowly, in this pre-dug grave. In a bewildered confusion of emotions, Jim passed between anger, frustration and cold fear, each crushing his soul into a disorientated haze of dread.

His hearing was playing tricks on him too. He swore he could hear noises within the ground, and allowed himself to extend his hearing out, reaching through the ground, up, up and out. The deluge of minute sounds overwhelmed him, and Jim didn't care that he couldn't bring himself back.

The dial for pain had been shattered, and the pounding from his head, ribs and back fought for control.

He allowed the sounds and the thudding of his pain to lull him into nothingness.

 

Blair brushed his hands against the corner of Jim's desk. The photo of the two of them fishing was no longer there, and it was clear that neat-freak Ellison had re-emerged; each pencil was meticulously sharpened, and all the pens were lined up and had their lids.

Banks watched him, troubled. He hadn't realized that Ellison had been as uncommunicative as himself. Despite outward appearances, he knew the kid must be hurting inside. He and Jim had no right to consider themselves Blair's friends; if that was the way they had been treating him. "Blair," he called from his office doorway, and anxious eyes looked up at him. "It's after twelve, what do you want to do? Joel can run you by my house - "

"Look for Jim," Blair interrupted, feeling like he was stating the obvious. "Are you telling me that you're going to call it a day?"

Stymied, Banks shook his head, mentally kicking himself. "No."

Brown burst in, clutching a sheaf of papers. "Rafe's taken Pascal down to the warehouse on 14th," he opened, handing a sheet of addresses over to his Captain. "I'm taking Pierce with me to search Berringer's Folly, two canine units are meeting us down there. Can you call in uniforms and ask for their help? Someone needs to search Lakelands, as well as the Brewery on Clarion Street."

Banks raised a surprised eyebrow at the audacity of his junior detective to give him orders, but let it ride. Time was of the essence, and Brown clearly had a fuller picture than he did.

Scanning the sheets in his hands, he turned to Joel and barked, "Take Sandburg with you and get down to Lakelands. I'll call in back-up units." Taggert mutely nodded and hooked Blair's sleeve with his hand as he left. As the two men waited for the elevator car to arrive, they heard Simon giving further orders and requesting assistance from other departments. It may have turned midnight, but no one had any intention of giving up.

 

Jim had prided himself in the fact that he'd only zoned a few times since Sandburg's departure, and even then they had been self-induced. He had stood on the balcony of the loft one evening, noted the time, and then cast out his hearing, endeavoring to see just how far he could reach. He had reached the ships docked in the harbor, and intruded on a conversation between two lovers in an alleyway behind the Chinese takeout, the world suddenly feeling much, much nearer. When he had eventually become cognizant of his surroundings again, an hour had elapsed. This was the first of three intentional zones, each becoming longer. He was thankful that he had yet to zone on the job.

Sandburg had taught him well.

He missed his friend; he admitted it to himself only. Initially, he had reveled in the peace and quiet of the loft, and had enjoyed being able to come home and know that any mess was one that he had created himself. However, it only took a few days before he found himself yearning to come home and find papers scattered across the table; unwashed dishes in the sink; wet towels draped across the bathroom; and to discover that Sandburg had been using Jim's razor instead of replacing his own blade. He missed the thud of music he didn't like. He missed the inane banter and continual interruptions while he tried to watch the news or the game. He missed having someone there who didn't mind when he was in a bad mood, but sat patiently until Ellison could bring himself to unwind.

He had listened to Blair's answer phone messages and had always intended to call him back, but somehow it didn't seem appropriate to intrude on his friend's new life. He had read the missives cataloging his new surroundings, but each time Jim had put pen to paper, the sentences began with, 'Nothing much has changed here.' He would never be able to bring himself to tell Blair how much he missed him.

Detective James Ellison, former Army Ranger, Sentinel of the Great City, didn't do sap.

Slowly, Jim grew more conscious of the ground enveloping his restricted form, the claustrophobic stench of rotting leaves saturating his sense of smell. His movements were limited to small twitches of his fingers and the continual rise and fall of his chest. He concentrated hard on lowering his dial for touch, but found himself unable to decide what he could and couldn't feel. His body was not shivering, but he knew that his clothes were damp.

It must be nighttime above ground, because when he plucked up the courage to open his eyes, no matter how hard he struggled to find the pinprick of light encompassing the tube, his eyesight refused to offer anything other than black.

He jammed his eyelids closed again; preventing the unwanted hallucinations of the forest he had created in his mind.

He needed to concentrate on breathing, and keeping the tube cleared.

The smallest item could block the tube, and he would suffocate.

Ellison reflected ironically that, until now, his greatest fear had been to drown, hence his continuing dread of deep, open water. Admittedly he had been struck by the terrorized look on Henshaw's face, features frozen in death, when he had been uncovered, but the idea of what the man must have gone through had been only a fleeting thought. Just like when he heard of people's parachutes failing to open - unlike Blair, who could analyze and hypothesize - Ellison found it easier not to dwell on what must have gone through their heads.

The tube allowed him to breathe. He sucked in as much air as he could and exhaled sharply, clearing any debris. He had never appreciated how much he took oxygen for granted in his day-to-day existence.

His head still pounded from the beating he had taken, and his ribs objected each time he attempted to fill his lungs to capacity.

Why hadn't anyone found him yet? If it was nighttime then Banks must have teams looking for him.

In his mind's eye, he tried to picture the friendly face he would be the happiest to see, but his memory began to play tricks on him and the memories distorted into unrecognizable forms.

Unable to rely on his vision, he stretched out his hearing once more, not sure whether he was hearing sounds in actuality or in his imagination. With concerted effort, he thought he heard footsteps approaching, and opened his eyes in a swell of optimism. Disappointment plunged into him, when he found himself unable to identify the sound, and did not dare to shout, for fear of dislodging his lifeline. The sound was indistinct, and could have been coming from any distance. Whatever it was.

His hearing reached out further into the night and Jim fell into the comfort of another zone.

 

Blair had sat silently in Taggert's car, while they raced towards the Lakelands Park area. It was a massive Leisure Complex that had only been open for a few months. It had been suggested as a convening place for the key financial men of the Barnett Syndicate, and Bautista knew that Samuel Welter Barnett, alleged to be the main man of the organization, often met with them, when in Cascade.

"We're not going to find him, Joel." The pained words cut into the silence.

Taggert grasped Blair's arm and squeezed. "Yes, we will."

"Joel, be realistic." The despair in the younger man's voice was evident. "It's nearly one o'clock in the morning, and we're going to look at a health farm. If anyone's awake, which I seriously doubt, what are we going to say to them? Excuse me, our friend might have been buried in your grounds, by the way, he's still alive." His breath caught in his throat, as he swallowed the rising panic. He knew that nothing was known for definite, but Bautista had admitted that abduction, and the Barnett form of 'hiding' seemed to be fitting for the situation. Sandburg's hyperactive imagination ran into overdrive and he choked down a sob.

"We're going to say whatever we need to," Joel said, unsure himself of how they were going to proceed. "We can start by asking if there's been any unusual activity, and who has been on the grounds today." He pulled in front of the main gates and pressed the buzzer. "Blair, you can't give up already. Is that what Jim would want you to do?"

"I don't know if he would do anything for me, any more. I moved on and left him behind. I don't think he appreciated that."

Joel pressed the buzzer again, more persistently and faced the anthropologist. "As I told you in my letters, and over the phone - Jim misses you. You know him well enough to know that he can't say that for himself." Further words were cut off by the sleepy and disgruntled voice of the resident manager, demanding to know who had the nerve to be calling at this time of night.

Using his most authoritative voice, Taggert gained them admittance, and the two men drove up towards the prestigious house.

 

Reluctantly, Joel pulled his cell phone from his pocket and rang the preset number.

"Banks."

"Simon, it's Joel."

He didn't need to clarify why he was ringing; the disappointment in his voice said it all.

"Nothing here, either," Banks responded, the noises in the background showing that 'here' meant the brewery. "We've been here for nearly two hours. Brown called a few minutes ago, the canine teams are still investigating the woodland area down at Berringer's, but so far they've drawn a blank."

A pained yelp from Sandburg drew Taggert's attention to him. The kid was suppressing his emotions well, but the former Bomb Squad Captain knew it was a façade. He might be a respected academic, but Blair's feelings always simmered near the surface, and his effervescent nature was a poor cover for his true susceptibility. Joel knew how hard it had been for Blair to leave Cascade, but he appreciated that with the doctorate finished, there was no logical reason for him to continue to shadow Ellison. The younger man would have struggled to remain in the city without that element in his life, the part of his life that had come to mean so much. That was the main reason he had moved on.

It hadn't taken much prodding for Sandburg to allow Taggert to read a copy of his dissertation - Joel had already suspected he knew the content, without verification from either source. He respected the decision to leave.

In spite of the distance, Joel knew that the friendship between Ellison and his former roommate was solid. It was just a shame that the two men involved were so oblivious.

And if Ellison wasn't found soon, there would be no chance at a reconciliation.

He dismissed the thought that it might already be too late, put his phone back against his ear and asked Simon where they could begin their next search.

"Uniforms are covering the last two places Bautista offered us," Banks informed him. "We're heading back to the department when we've finished here. Meet you there. Can you dig into subsidiary companies owned by Barnett, or at least wake up someone in Seattle and get them to fax over some more comprehensive Intel?"

Taggert completed the call and gunned the engine. Blair still hadn't offered comment on Banks' words, but sat, fists clenched in his lap, hair hanging loosely about his face.

"What if he's already dead?" The quiet question went unanswered for a long time as the journey continued. Finally, Joel fought down his own emotions to be able to form a simple reply.

"We're going to find him, Blair."

 

The scampering of a field mouse escaping the clutches of a hunting owl mingled with the rustle of disturbed leaves, rising and falling in the night air. The scudding clouds shifted in the darkened sky and a myriad of insects scurried across the open field, scavenging for their supper. A moth landed on an unopened flower, and soon fluttered on, unappeased. A larger creature scavenged in the undergrowth, snuffling, searching, seeking. A raccoon? A skunk? A wolf? The snorting breath brushed past the whiskers on the animal's face, the smell of rotting vegetation prevalent on its exhalation.

Ellison failed to notice the grains of soil edging into the end of the tube until his lungs were startled into awareness by the invaders. He was brought back to reality by the choking and coughing of rejection. His lungs burned and the bruises on his chest flamed as he spat out the asphyxiating fragments. The sounds reconvened into a stifling silence cocooning him; his hearing closing down and taking with it his olfactory senses.

Ellison was surrounded by nothing except the harsh reality that he was buried under a mound of earth, with no friendly faces coming to his rescue. His throat itched against the cold air flooding his lungs, and he fought to calm his breathing into equal measures. The pain in his body flared as his dials flew further out of control.

He lay alone in his prison.

Over the years he had faced bullets, crazed killers, survived a helicopter crash, been threatened with bombs, knives and guns. He had been restrained with ropes, chains and handcuffs.

This could not be the end.

His body reminded him of the grueling punishment he had suffered under the hands and feet of his captors, and he was relieved that he could no longer see or hear anything. Where was Sandburg when he needed him?

 

The Sentinel's Guide sat forlornly on a chair in Simon's office. Spread in front of him were the fax copies in from Seattle. Rafe replaced Blair's half-finished black coffee with a fresh mug, and pressed a sandwich into his hand. "Eat, Blair. If you won't go and get some sleep, at least eat."

Unfocused eyes looked up at the detective standing over him.

"Get that sandwich inside you, Blair," Rafe reiterated, pointing at the bread.

Sandburg looked at the item in his hand, seeing it for the first time. He went to place it on the table, but found Rafe's hands wrapped around his own. "Do I have to force-feed you?"

Blair shook his head meekly, and nibbled on one corner. Satisfied, Rafe sat down in a chair opposite and pulled two of the sheets towards him. "What have we got?"

"H has Patrol checking out the sites underlined in red, and the highlighted ones are places that have already been covered."

Rafe mused over the findings, adding his own pencil scribbles in the margins. "What does Simon say?"

"He's in with Calladine from Vice, seeing if they can track down the van. That is," Blair added resignedly, "if the van actually exists."

"Trust me, it exists." Rafe grinned lopsidedly at Sandburg. "H wasn't very forgiving over any lies he was told. Don't forget how quickly Bautista spilled his guts when I offered to leave the room!" They studied the notes carefully, noting recent acquisitions and, more importantly, properties undergoing renovation. Hiding a corpse in a building plot had been done before, many times.

"Why was Jim meeting Bautista alone?" Blair asked, gulping down the remainder of the coffee, and wishing the caffeine would clear his thinking. "Why wasn't someone with him?"

"He won't work with anyone," Rafe stated, adding the construction at the Mall to their list, and calling in Detective Harper to go and investigate. While it wasn't owned by Barnett or any of his subsidiaries, there was considerable work being undertaken there, and no one would notice an extra layer of concrete. "Believe me, we've all tried. He's just turned back into the grumpy, anti-social loner he was before you bounced along."

Sandburg wasn't sure whether or not to take that as a backhanded compliment, but it did worry him that Ellison seemed to be alienating his colleagues.

"We had this bimbo, Cassie Wells, her name was, here for a while, but he frightened her off within days." Rafe snatched up the sheet headed Hereditary Ownership. "Have we checked these?"

"Joel's running them through the system." Blair ran a hand across his face. "What happened with Cassie?"

"He growled at her, told her he didn't appreciate her all-knowing attitude, demanded that if she was to ride along with him then she had to keep to his speed and not hold him back. So she rode along with him for two days… and transferred straight back out of Cascade." Rafe opened the door into the bullpen. "We weren't sorry to see her go. Joel?"

The large man looked up from the computer screen, his face showing his lack of sleep.

"What do you have on Hereditary Ownership for Barnett?"

"Nothing so far," Taggert answered, yawning and stretching his back. "The usual, boats, houses, estates."

Banks entered the bullpen and gestured for the larger man to join them in his office. His expression left Taggert no option. "Sandburg, I thought I told you to go and get some sleep," he snapped as he walked through the door.

"Tried, Simon. Couldn't."

Banks bit his lip and joined him at the table. "Do we have anything new?"

"H is opting for another round with Bautista. I'm not convinced he's told us the whole truth either. For a computer technician he's already proven that he knows too much."

Simon nodded and looked at Joel for his contribution. "I've been searching for properties that have been dormant, and wouldn't arouse suspicion if left unattended for long periods of time. I don't have much, but Kendall in Vice has taken his partner down to the haulage company on Hastings to have a look around."

"Blair?"

"Nothing, Simon." The young man's voice cracked in despondency. "I'm not sure why we're even looking at properties this man Barnett owns. Why would he take Jim? Why would he want to hold him? If he wanted to kill him so badly, why not put a gun to his head and drop him in the ocean?"

They were questions they had all asked themselves, but with the information Seattle had been sharing with them, and the facts obtained from Bautista, it all pointed towards a continuation of their current searches to be the right way to find the abducted detective. "We're out of other options."

The statement could have been misinterpreted as callous, but the men present in the room knew differently. Where else were they supposed to look? The only reason they had to believe that Ellison had in fact been taken, and not just disappeared of his own volition, was his truck still sitting in the yard of the warehouse, and Bautista's statement.

"And if Bautista is indeed all part of the deception?"

"H will beat it out of him," Rafe promised, a side of him appearing that Blair had never seen.

"I'm going to pretend I didn't hear that," Banks suggested, noting the time. "It's been over twenty-one hours since Jim was last seen. Do what you have to, gentlemen. Keep me informed. And Blair?"

"Yes, Simon."

"Get some rest."

"Only when you do."

Touché.

 

Was that a dot of light or was his vision still off?

Ellison focused on the glimmer in the distance and felt it draw him forwards.

 

Thirty minutes later and Banks was back in his office, scrubbing his eyes in a vain effort to stay awake. He was exhausted, and so were the rest of his men. Every potential lead they thought they had, had drawn a blank. He was not someone who gave in easily, but he had to admit that the longer they spent in finding his friend, the more the likelihood would be that they either wouldn't find him at all, or it would be too late when they did.

He was not going to share that with the pale-faced kid slumped against the table in his office.

"I'm not asleep, Simon." The closed eyes told a different story. "I'm thinking."

"About?"

"Hereditary Ownership. I'm missing something." Blinking his eyes open, he propped his glasses back onto the end of his nose. "You know how it is when there's something screamingly apparent, and you can't see what it is?"

"Talk to me." Simon made himself comfortable behind his desk, and lit the last of his cigars.

"We've checked out everything that he owns."

"Right."

"But what about things that he doesn't own?"

Simon knew they were both tired, and he recalled how in the past, Blair's way of thinking had often been radically unlike his own. He had never understood how Ellison had lived with it day and night.

"What are you talking about, Sandburg?" He inhaled the pungent fumes from his cigar, and relaxed into the sensation. He was as worried as the next man, as to the fate of his favorite detective, but his thought process was becoming a struggle through lack of sleep.

"Joel was looking at property which Barnett currently owns, yes?"

"Agreed."

"Well, what if there's property which he will inherit in the future, but is currently held in trust, or is owned by other members of the family?"

"Such as?"

"Parents, sisters, spouse, ex-spouses, uncles."

"I meant properties, Sandburg." Simon's exasperation bled through into his words, and Blair cringed at the ferocity of the remark.

"I don't know, yet, Simon. I was just thinking out loud. Like you suggested." He stared at the cigar-chewing Captain, and was bombarded by the turmoil of emotions he remembered feeling on the day his observer status had been revoked. For the first time since then, he recollected that a small part of him wouldn't be sorry to leave behind the times when he was treated as a nobody, as somebody who was tolerated and didn't know anything. When he was considered to be useful. He had devoted a great deal of his spare time to helping his friends in the Major Crimes unit; time he could have spent at a part-time job, earning money to pay off his horrendously high debts. Yes, the payback had been the research he needed for his dissertation, but was he being selfish to think that he had dedicated far more time and energy than necessary?

Blair continued to stare at Simon while he pushed back the chair, and got to his feet.

"I don't know, Simon," he repeated, taking the cover sheet of paper with him. "I'll give this to Joel, and…"

And what? And be on his way?

Blair was out of the door and across the outer area by the time Banks realized what had occurred. Damn, he was tired. He sat forward in his chair, and heard Sandburg glossing over the outline of his idea to Taggert. The larger man expressed his gratitude and began making telephone calls. Sandburg paused for a moment, before looking back at Captain Banks, then headed out of the bullpen.

"Sandburg!" Simon was up, and at the entrance to his office. Joel raised his head and looked first at his Captain and then at the closing doors of the elevator. "Dammit, Sandburg!" Banks punched his fist against the doorframe and slammed the door, rattling the glass.

 

The thread of light grew with each minute. It expanded and twisted, warped and waned, contorted and writhed. It drew him in and refused to let him go.

 

Blair repeatedly hit the button for the first floor, and waited for the elevator doors to release him.

He didn't know why he had left Chicago. He hadn't been of any use here.

This was a perfectly functional Police Department that had been competent enough before he arrived, and would remain equally as competent when he left. He had fooled himself into believing that his time here had made a difference.

Like hell it had.

He had completed his research, had his word validated, received his letters after his name, and left. His time here had been useful to himself. He had helped Jim to appreciate and control his Sentinel abilities, and hopefully stopped him from becoming a target during his line of work.

Not that that had helped him when he had been abducted.

No one knew where Ellison was being held, and no one, apart from himself, had dared to utter the idea that they were already too late.

He was not a pessimist; he was being a realist.

Somewhere inside himself, he knew that his Sentinel was still alive. Incacha had created an irrefutable bond between them when he died, and Blair still felt that part of him, beating. He didn't feel the sickening desolation of emptiness that would come one day, on the day when he and Jim would become permanently separated. He often wondered if Jim felt the same link, but had never asked. It was somewhere inside the Sandburg Zone, that wild, wacky place that Ellison hated to visit.

Blair stood in the lobby of the police department and didn't know which way to turn.

He had nothing here in Cascade.

It was too early to find a coffee shop, and his office at Rainier would be in use by someone else.

He wandered out of the main entrance and turned left, heading towards the harbor.

 

"What's up with the doc?" Brown asked as he returned from the interview room, a grim look on his face.

"Blair?" Joel dialed a further number and crossed out another listing. "Don't know. He told me about some idea to do with uninherited properties and then left. Simon stood at his door, and shouted after him, but that was a while ago. Why?"

"Rafe saw him leave. Just surprised us."

"Any luck with Bautista?"

Brown scowled and helped himself to the box of donuts in front of Taggert. "I'm off for round two. I know he knows more than he's telling us. Data Control has some of the disks he was talking about, but they're getting hard pushed to make too many concrete connections without it becoming circumstantial. We need something that will hold up in court."

"And tell us what they've done with Jim."

 

The sun was breaking through the clouds when Sandburg had a sudden flash of inspiration.

Something Simon had said shortly after arriving back from the brewery crystallized in his head.

He spun around and ran back towards the police building. "Oh God, Jim. Why didn't I think of that earlier?"

 

"SIMON!" Blair gasped out the name, panting from his flight up the stairs. The elevator had taken too long to arrive.

The startled officers in the bullpen turned at the flamboyant entrance. Hardly any of them had slept since the previous day, and all of them were desperate for a break in their hunt.

"I think I know." Sandburg clutched at his sides to stop the cramp, as he stumbled into Simon's office. "Think about what you said earlier."

Banks wiped spilled coffee from his loosened tie, and eyed the younger man speculatively. "About what?"

"You said to us, several times, 'Where do you look for a man who is buried?' didn't you?"

"Yes."

Taggert appeared behind the disheveled man and instantly caught onto where he was headed, sickened at the realization. Why hadn't they thought of it earlier? It was so pitifully obvious.

"Where would a six foot length of disturbance in the soil be the least out of place?" The pause seemed interminable as thoughts crystallized. "Simon, we need to look at cemeteries."

 

Blair seriously thought he was going to be sick as they hurtled towards Cleveland Community Cemetery.

Before dispatching Uniform and Canine units to each of the local cemeteries, Simon Banks had stormed into the interview room and towered over the cowering computer technician. If Eduardo Bautista didn't provide every last scrap of information to the Cascade Police Department, he would regret the day he had ever heard the name Samuel Welter Barnett.

Rafe had backed off immediately and even Brown sidled into the corner. It wasn't often they saw their Captain lose his temper, but they knew that he would be willing to sacrifice his badge to protect a life.

"Cemeteries," he bellowed. In excess of six foot and weighing close to two hundred pounds, the captain loomed over the terrorized man. He might be held up on charges of intimidation, but if this upstart didn't produce a satisfactory answer in the next two minutes, he would voluntarily haul himself up on charges of aggravated assault. "I said," he glowered, "cemeteries."

Brown looked away and winced as the terrified Bautista started to blubber. H promised himself that he never wanted to make his Captain angry.

"WELL?"

Twelve hours into his unpleasant and frightening stay at the Department, Bautista caved and whispered the word: "Cleveland."

 

Four Canine Units met them in the extensive grounds of the resting place, as well as a medical team. It was the first positive indication they had had, and sleep deprivation was forgotten.

Simon had deviated to the scene via 852 Prospect and used his spare key to retrieve some shirts from Ellison's laundry pile. Blair had blanched at the thought of returning there, uninvited, and without Jim present, so he had caught a ride with Taggert. The dogs needed a recent scent to be able to determine Ellison apart from any permanent residents at the site.

The initial assumption that merely looking at fresh plots was displaced on arrival. There were many, as well as places where divots of grass had been placed over the mounds of earth. With the canine units and a full team of police officers, the search began in earnest. Three machines for the detection of heat were also in operation.

Banks had ensured that everyone was reminded that Henshaw had been found with a tube attached to his mouth, and if Ellison was being held the same way, then it was vital that whichever team found him, was aware that it was a lifeline.

Blair shivered involuntarily when he watched the men and women of Cascade spread out across the area. He had participated in evidence searches before, when they had scanned fields as a line, moving forwards, scouring every inch. He had never thought that they might one day be doing this to find someone who had been buried alive.

It was like something out of Edgar Allan Poe.

He stuck closely to Joel, grateful for all the support the large man had been giving him, and joined in as they moved between the various plots, hunting for signs of recent activity.

It was a painstakingly laborious task, which no person took lightly. They treated the ground with hallowed respect, but remained diligent, ever considerate that this could easily have been them who had been incarcerated.

Minutes steadfastly turned into the passing of the first hour. There had been two false alarms given by one of the canine units, to the point where the handler felt that his charge was not suited to the task in hand for that day. He had apologized and removed his dog from the scene, assuring the animal that it had tried, and would not be reprimanded. He bundled the pining creature into his car and drove away, allowing the remaining three dogs to concentrate.

A break was called as the clouds started to thicken. The dogs needed a rest, as did their human counterparts. They would collectively stop for a few minutes then resume. It was important that the search be completed before the onset of the rain, as it would dilute the scent for the dogs, and would meld the earth for the officers. It went unspoken that rain would also block the breathing tube.

Blair didn't understand why they rested at all if time was so precious. "Think, Blair," Joel had pacified. "If you're looking at something for too long, you stop seeing everything you should, don't you?"

"Yeah, man. You're right."

He hung his head, not content with having to wait. He was thankful for the hug he received from Taggert and clasped his back in return, drawing on the strength offered.

The search resumed.

As the first drops of rain fell, a call went out from Dorset, a female handler to Tyrone, a two-year-old Alsatian. The bevy of people converged on their location as the dog whined and scrabbled frantically at the grass-covered soil. Tufts of green flew away in the clawed grasp of the dog, and the handler called him to heel. The search teams watched as one of the heat machines was used against the soil, and a cry of jubilation went up with the positive reading.

On hands and knees, five men and women cleared away the top covering as quickly as possible, searching for the end of the tube before they began to dig. There would be no point in excavating the soil if they robbed the victim of his air supply in the process.

Taggert held Blair up, noting that the younger man's knees had ceased to hold him when the heat reading was acknowledged. If there was a heat signature, then Ellison stood a good chance of still being alive.

"Got it!" A uniformed rookie trembled with relief when he held the end of the white, plastic tube carefully between his thumb and forefinger. Within seconds the activity around the area heightened as the earth was stripped away.

Simon held back, standing next to the members of his department. They all wanted to assist, but too many crowding in could cause more harm than good. The medical team had been called forward, and now stood off to one side in readiness.

The tube was held securely and traced down through each stage of the digging. A four-foot depth of soil had been removed, when one of the team struck a slab of wood.

"We've got something," an officer by the name Keller, called out. "Bring in the medics."

Sandburg's blood ran cold as the situation overwhelmed him. A combination of stress, lack of sleep and insufficient food drained the last of his resources, and Joel barely the caught the younger man as his eyes rolled back in his head and he crumpled to the ground.

"Simon!" Joel summoned his colleague. Torn between wanting to watch the rescue of his detective and wanting to help the prone man lying unconscious in Taggert's arms, Banks crouched in the wet mud to assist.

"He's passed out," Joel managed, needlessly. Simon brushed the damp strands of hair from the anthropologist's face, and lightly patted his cheek.

"C'mon, Blair," he cajoled, listening with half an ear to the sounds behind him. "Jim's going to need you very shortly." Sandburg was unresponsive, the raindrops falling against his pale face. "Can't you hear that sound over there?" Simon offered, as the rescuers fought against the solid weight of a plank of submerged wood. "That's Jim being found."

"Medic! Now!"

Blair's eyes flickered open at the panicked shout of Keller, and he gazed around in confusion. The world hadn't been at that angle just now. He stared at the paramedic rushing towards the unmarked, open grave and scrambled to his feet. Unsteady, and barely able to stand, Sandburg pushed aside all offers of assistance and knelt over the pit.

Eager hands were hauling Ellison's filthy figure from the hole, the tape still firmly secured to his mouth. The short hair was matted with congealed dirt, and livid, purple bruises marred the rugged features. The blue eyes were closed and many of those present feared the worst.

The medical team eased the still figure onto his back, and gently pulled away the tape to assess his condition. Pressing an ear against the chapped lips and lightly touching a hand against his chest, the man eventually announced, "He's breathing." A collective sigh of relief preluded copious pats on the back, and thanks to one another for a job well done.

The bindings on Ellison's hands and feet were cut away and a blanket tucked around his barely-clothed form. Banks encouraged the entourage of people to move back to give the team room to work, concern bleeding from his brown eyes. Ellison was not responding to the stimuli around him.

As the coating of dirt was wiped away, and an oxygen mask lowered onto the detective's face, wild eyes shot open but slammed shut again almost immediately.

Sandburg was by Jim's side in an instant, pulling away the mask and smacking away the helping hands.

"What are you doing?" came a protesting voice, trying to drag him back.

"No, you don't understand." Blair's own tones were panic-filled, and he caused further consternation by ripping away the blanket, exposing the array of bruises through the ripped t-shirt. Shouts of displeasure washed over him, as he yanked the shirt open even more, easing the material away from the battered body.

Banks intervened at the objections to Blair's seemingly irrational behavior, and held the workers back.

"What do you need, Sandburg?" His strength overrode any protestations.

Blair was on his knees, whispering softly to Ellison. Simon couldn't make out all of what was said, but stopped when he caught the word 'dial'. "Bring it back, Jim. I'm here. Nothing can harm you now. Dial it back." Sandburg's hand reached behind him, in Banks' direction. "I need a handkerchief," he stated.

Banks fumbled in his own pockets, but quickly accepted the one Rafe handed him. They stood in silence as Blair gently placed it over Jim's eyes. "Okay, you can dial back your sight now, Jim. The light doesn't hurt your eyes any more, and you're safe. Can you hear me, Jim? You're safe. No one can harm you." Blair kept up the litany of soft reassurances and signaled for the medics to move in closer. "I'm going to put an oxygen mask on your face, Jim, and it's not going to hurt. You will feel a light pressure but it's not hurting you. I'm putting the mask over your mouth and nose now, Jim, and you're going to carry on breathing gently. In, and out. That's good, Jim. It's not hurting you. You've turned your dial for touch right down, haven't you? That's good, Jim. You're going to get cold unless I can pull this blanket back over the top of you. It doesn't itch; it feels comfortable. Your dial for touch is under control now, isn't it. Visualize that dial, Jim. It's on one. I can take this handkerchief off your eyes now, and the light won't hurt anymore, will it?"

The medical team eyed the long-haired intruder curiously, but if Banks was accepting of his actions, then they were ready to oblige. Their patient didn't appear to be in any imminent danger, and the strange young man was having a positive effect. They watched as the white stretch of cotton was removed, and the blanket re-covered their patient.

"These men need to look after you, Jim," Blair continued to whisper. "They're going to talk to you in quiet voices, because they know you're fighting to keep your dial for hearing under control." He raised his eyebrows, asking for unspoken support that the men understood what he had said. They didn't need to know details, but they did need to understand the importance of Blair's words.

The older of the two medics shrugged. He'd played sillier games in the past. If Ellison had been trapped underground for twenty-four hours then yes, his senses of sight and hearing probably were off the mark.

"They need to examine you, Jim." Blair heaved a sigh as the frown lines began to fade from Ellison's forehead; he seemed to be getting through to him. "Can you talk to me, Jim, and tell me where it hurts?"

The remaining audience of tired, wet and enthralled spectators looked on in silence, waiting for conclusive evidence that their search efforts had indeed been rewarded.

After a few moments, the one word Blair had hoped to hear reached his ears.

"Chief?"

Blair's sob nearly drowned his answer. "Yeah, it's me, Jim." He placed his hands either side of Jim's face and used his thumbs to wipe away the remaining frown lines, tears adding to the rainfall that dampened the world.

Banks encouraged the last of the crowd away from the graveside edge, satisfied that his detective was out of any immediate danger. "People, I can't thank you enough, but go home. Get showers. Get food. Get some sleep." The weary group followed his instructions and slowly meandered back to their vehicles. The Major Crimes team remained. This was still a crime scene and even when Ellison was safely out of the area, their job would not be over.

Barnett still needed to be brought down for his audacious attempt to murder one of their own.

Convinced that Jim's dials were working within vaguely acceptable parameters, Blair eventually stepped back and allowed the paramedics to continue their assessment, and prep him for transportation to Cascade General. He still hovered, needing Jim to know that he was here, and that had no plans to go anywhere for a while.

Taggert stood behind him, as Ellison was transferred onto a stretcher and loaded into the awaiting ambulance. He kept a firm hand supporting Blair's back as the kid looked wiped, and set to drop again any time soon. When Sandburg was seated in the ambulance next to the now sleeping Ellison, Taggert returned to his own car to follow them to the hospital.

 

"Sandburg, when did you last sleep? Or eat?" Blair was standing with his nose virtually up against the door of the hospital room, bouncing on his toes to catch a glimpse of the activity within. Banks was fed up with trying to get the young man to sit down.

"Oh, Rafe gave me a sandwich earlier." He didn't turn around.

"Rafe told me you ate a hamster portion, at about 5am."

"Not hungry."

"Sandburg, would you please come and sit down. I'm exhausted watching you." Banks was firm. "Doctor Castano said he'd come and talk to us as soon as Jim's comfortable."

Blair pouted but finally obeyed. He flopped onto the cold, hard chair and sank down into himself. Yes, he was tired, but until he saw that Jim was in full control of his dials, he couldn't afford to rest. The Sentinel could be going through torture with their ministrations, and the lights could be up too high, or they might be talking too loud, or not loud enough.

"Drink this." A warm cup of reconstituted coffee was thrust into his hands. "Joel's gone to get you some food."

Blair shoved his nose into the plastic cup. "Monday."

"What?" Banks had just fallen back into the world of the weird.

"Monday." Blair swallowed some of the sugarless brew. "You asked when I last slept. Monday."

Simon could have happily throttled the kid. "Today is Thursday, Sandburg. Are you telling me you pulled an all-nighter on Tuesday night, flew here last night and haven't slept since?"

"You asked." The coffee was vile, but he was thirsty and his head was spinning. Perhaps the caffeine on yet another empty stomach wasn't such a good idea, but hell, it was in front of him.

Joel returned with a tray of food. "I sweet-talked the canteen staff into letting me bring him a meal!" He propped the tray on Sandburg's knees. "The doctor checked you over yet, Blair? You still look a little pasty."

"Are you kidding?" Simon grumbled. "It's the most I could do to get him to sit down."

"Just hungry." Blair dug into the food in front of him. It was hard to ignore his rumbling stomach, and he was grateful for the sustenance. He didn't need to see any doctor - it was hardly surprising he'd taken a tumble at Cleveland Cemetery. Who wouldn't? The all-nighter had been to help his TA with a chapter of her thesis, and somewhere along the line he hadn't eaten since Tuesday evening either. He had forgotten.

That was something he missed about not living with Jim any more. With Ellison's continual nagging, it was hard to skip a meal.

Joel and Simon supervised until only a few forkfuls remained. "Better?"

Blair's answered with a grin and wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. He nearly sent the contents of the tray to the floor, as he stood up in response to Doctor Castano approaching them, a smile on his face.

"He's had one very lucky escape." The doctor adjusted the stethoscope around his neck. "Multiple bruises and contusions to his head, chest, back and wrists, a few bruised ribs, but his lungs are clear, and his body temperature is surprisingly normal. We'll move him up to a room upstairs shortly, purely for observation. He'll be sore for several days, but other than that, he should be okay." He glanced at Blair before turning to Simon and Joel. "How's my other potential patient?"

Blair squirmed and moved sideways. "He's fine, he's eaten, and he's going to see his friend?" He nudged past Joel, muttering the word "squealer", and scooted towards Jim's room before any of the men could stop him.

 

The smell of aftershave, mud, sweat, deodorant, cleaning fluid, disinfectant and a whole host of other acrid odors immersed the wakening Sentinel and he found himself choking to gain a lungful of clean air.

Taggert sat up in his seat and let the report he was reading, fall into his lap.

"Jim?"

The weak coughing persisted and Joel slid the oxygen mask back over Ellison's nose and mouth. "Breathe normally."

The rise and fall of the beaten chest evened out, and blue eyes slowly focused on the room.

"Too bright," the muted voice complained. Joel switched off the bedside light, berating himself for his carelessness. Blair had warned him that Jim's dials were probably still shot to hell.

"Better." A heavy sigh failed to remove the pressure that was clearly building in Ellison's head.

"How are you feeling?" Taggert asked, leaning forward in his chair.

"How do I look?" He screwed up his nose, as he tried in vain to lessen the assault on his olfactory nerves. Hadn't Taggert heard of showers?

"Not bad, considering," Joel replied. "Anything I can do to help?" The blinds were already drawn, and as many potentially scented objects as possible removed from the room. Blair had also left a small white noise generator running by Jim's pillow. The captain wasn't sure what assistance he would be able to offer, if any.

"Just got to concentrate." The mask was filtering some of the combined stench, but it was still overpowering. Jim tried to picture the dials in his head, but the thudding behind his eyes destroyed his concentration. "This headache isn't helping." His face contorted in pain as a sensory spike speared his temples.

"Want them to give you someth - ?"

"No, thanks." Ellison didn't mean to sound so abrupt. Taggert may know about the Sentinel abilities themselves but had either forgotten, or didn't know that when his senses were as out of line as they were now, foreign substances in his blood could send his system spiraling further downwards. He just needed a moment to try and pull himself out of this. Where was Sandburg when he needed him? God, he missed the kid.

Taggert kept his hand paused over the call button just in case.

It took Jim several minutes before he could speak.

"Joel, I remember being got out of wherever I was, and it was weird. Y'know, I could have sworn I heard Sandburg's voice bringing me back from a zo… What?"

The smile and pointed finger aimed Jim's sight onto the small cot that had been brought into the room. The curled up shape of a slumbering Sandburg accounted for some of the odors Ellison had been fighting to control.

"He flew in late last night. He's been up all night helping in the search for you. The kid was out on his feet and refused to leave until you woke up," Joel explained. "His body stopped listening to his brain and he fell asleep in the chair about an hour ago. They moved the cot in here so he could still be near you."

A small part of the ice that had been building within Ellison in the six months since Blair's departure began to melt. He didn't deserve his friendship. He was too selfish. What made Blair such a dedicated and devoted friend? Jim had listened to all of the news-filled or enquiring calls, but not returned one. He had read all of his emails, but never replied. He had read all of the missive-length letters, describing Blair's new life, but nothing had ever gone back in the mailbox.

He didn't know why.

And yet, Sandburg, the man who had jumped out of an aircraft with him, despite his fear of heights, was here. The one person who Jim desperately wanted near him while he fought to regain his self-control. The same person he had pinned against a wall for having ideas so vastly different from his own. The person he had overtly ignored.

"You gonna be okay for a while, if I head back downtown?" Joel smiled at the relaxation overtaking Jim's face. He knew Sandburg being here would be the only cure.

"Huh? Uh, yeah. Yeah, sure." Jim lowered the mask, flinching at the sharp pain in his bandaged wrist. "Joel? I don't remember anything of importance. I'm sorry. Some detective I make, if I'm in the hands of the guys we want and I can't tell you anything."

Taggert shook his head. "You just worry about getting better, Jim."

"They wore black," Jim insisted, intent on offering information. "There were three of them in a white transit van, they beat the shit out of me… and then I woke up somewhere extremely dark."

Joel stood, wanting to leave before Ellison could ask his guaranteed next question, but he was too late.

"Where did you find me, anyway? I know it was underground." He shivered with recollection. He wasn't one for confined spaces at the best of times, but for once in his life, he had been grateful for the zones. Bizarrely, they had quite probably kept him sane.

"I'll explain," a croaky voice spoke up from the cot. "You go, Joel. Thanks, man, I've got it."

"Chief, you're supposed to be sleeping." The warmth in Jim's voice was evident. "I hear you've been doing your usual, again."

Taggert was relieved to see the banter return so quickly between the two men, and made his escape while he could.

Blair yawned loudly and swung his legs around on the makeshift bed. "Yeah, good to see you too, Jim." His shoulders popped as he stretched back. "I would have had a decent night's sleep last night, in a nice, warm cozy bed, if someone not too far from me had played nice and taken a friend along for his meeting."

"The only friend I trust is living in Chicago."

"You've got other friends?"

"Yeah, and most of them shower on a regular basis. Chief, you stink."

"So would you if you had left your place so quickly, you hadn't brought a change of clothes, and then spent the morning running around fields."

"Which field?"

Shit, he had walked right into that. Blair delayed his response with another yawn and got up to perch on the edge of Jim's bed.

"Do you remember Mark Twain's quote: 'The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated'?" Sandburg rubbed his hand over his nose. He didn't want to consider what Jim had been through, but wanted to tell him exactly where he had been found, even less.

"When his obituary appeared in the New York journal. Yeah. Why?"

"How are your dials doing there, Jim?" Not his best deviation, but all he could manage on an hour's sleep.

"Pretty crap." He appreciated Blair keeping his voice down, but would have preferred him to have showered as well. "Why the Mark Twain?"

"We found you in Cleveland Cemetery."

If Blair listened closely enough, he could hear the whirring from the white noise generators. Jim's Adam's apple twitched, and his jaw set firm. The fists clenched and unclenched and the frown lines re-emerged, furrowing into his forehead.

"But you found me, Chief." The sotto voce words hung in the air. "Thank you."

 

Part 2

The next morning, Blair was snuggled up asleep on the cot. Simon had brought over some spare clothes of Daryl's for him to borrow and it hadn't taken too much persuasion for Blair to go and take a shower. Ellison hadn't felt particularly tired, and had spent the majority of the night staring at the sleeping form. He was grateful for the company - there was something about the thought of sleeping in the dark on his own which unnerved him.

Two breakfast trays were brought and left, and the detective was about to wake up his former partner to join him when there was a soft tapping at the door.

A blonde head poked through, seeking entrance.

"Detective Ellison?"

The woman wore a white lab coat, and warning bells went off in Jim's head. Where was the obligatory stethoscope and pocket full of pens?

"I was wondering if you had a few moments so that we could discuss what happened to you."

"Let me guess," Jim groaned. "Reporter or shrink?" The woman, who had still not introduced herself, didn't seem taken aback.

"Shrink, Detective Ellison." She spoke confidently. "Although it uses the word 'psychologist' on my qualification certificate."

"Either way, I'm not buying." Jim drew his food tray forwards, and winced when his chest reminded him of the horde of punches and kicks sustained two days before. "I don't trust strangers - and you can knock yourself out analyzing that statement to death. I'm hungry, I'm going to eat my breakfast, and you're going to leave now, because my friend over there is still asleep." He picked up the nearest item. "And you're going to disturb him if you stay." It was pure Ellison; the smooth, calm voice and the piercing blue eyes.

The awakening Sandburg was so proud.

The unnamed psychologist had no choice but to leave. Referral was an option but not mandatory in this case, and she had to abide by the patient's wishes. She didn't even leave her card, knowing that it would be pointless.

"Chief?" Jim slowly chewed on the rubbery toast, and knew Blair was awake from the elevated heartbeat. "When that doctor gets here, we're leaving."

 

Simon dropped the pair off outside the loft apartment. He hadn't been in the room when Jim had asked Blair if he would stay with him for a few days, but evidently the discussion had been short.

Jim eased himself out of the sedan, holding his tender sides. What he wouldn't give to have caught at least one of those bastards in the groin. Blair waited patiently on the sidewalk, having summoned the elevator.

"Call me if you need anything, you two," Simon said, getting back into his car. He watched Blair guide the slow-moving detective into the apartment building, before driving away.

When Blair came to a halt outside the door of 307, Ellison was not surprised.

"Ever shared a place with a girlfriend, moved out, then gone back to visit?"

Sandburg laughed. "Except I sure as hell never dated you, Jim!"

"Get in there. I need coffee." Ellison slid the key into the lock and pushed Sandburg in ahead of him.

Blair agreed that the short, swift approach worked better for him. He didn't live here anymore. He liked his new apartment within walking distance of the CTA station. It was carpeted throughout which alone made it different from the loft. It had an elevator that hadn't broken down once in his time there. He also had an automatic coffee machine that had a steaming mug of black go-juice ready for when he stumbled out of his bedroom in the mornings.

Ellison collapsed onto the couch and studied Blair's reaction to his previous home. While none of Blair's possessions remained, Jim had replaced the missing furnishings with similar pieces, in terms of color and size, if not in South American design.

"Is my room the storage closet again?" Sandburg asked, impishly.

"Of course." Jim grinned. "Which means it's tidy in there now!"

Blair hadn't felt ill at ease until this moment.

"What is it, Chief?"

"What's what?"

"My senses might be off the scale, but I still know when you're worried about something. Is it being here?" The flinched reaction confirmed it. "Remember what I said to Incacha?"

"You talked to him in Chopec."

"I told him that my house was his house. And the same applies to you, the same way it did when your warehouse apartment went up in smoke. As long as you don't have a Barbary ape in your coat pocket!"

There was a slight pause as the words fought to sink in.

"So," Blair pondered slowly, running an idle finger over the edge of the counter. "Would it be okay if I made us some coffee?"

"I would love some coffee, Chief. Nothing's moved." Jim shifted slightly to ease the pressure on his bruised back. "Thanks," he added as an afterthought. He was relieved to see Blair happily pottering about in the kitchen as though it had only been a few hours. He didn't like his friend to feel uncomfortable, but he also appreciated that this was a difficult situation for him.

Some time later, Jim sipped at the coffee, glad of his usual blend as opposed to the dishwater served at the hospital, but his taste buds were bothering him and it tasted bitter and far too strong. He hoped it would be a short-term glitch and nothing more. He did not want a repeat of the cayenne pepper episode the previous month when Brown's wife had cooked a Chicken Surprise, and the 'Surprise' spice had nearly hospitalized him. It had taken a lot of fast-talking by Banks to explain Jim's subsequent dash to the bathroom and why he had plunged his head into the sink.

Ellison attempted a few more sips of the hot drink, but placed his mug back on the coffee table with a pained moan, his ribs reminding him of why he would not be on active duty for a while.

"You want any pain meds, Jim?" Blair asked, quickly rising from the couch to collect the prescription bottle.

"No thanks, Chief." On the second attempt Jim managed to haul himself into a standing position. "I'm going to take a bath, and try and relax that way. Help yourself to clean sweats, you know where everything is." His limp was barely disguised as the rebelling injuries complained against his movement. Blair watched him enter the bathroom and chewed his lip in thought.

Jim had not admitted it to him in the last few hours, but he knew the Sentinel senses were still not controlled. The grimace on his face when the coffee hit raw taste buds was evident. His sense of touch was probably also off the scale, and would find his regular cotton sheets too itchy on his recovering skin.

Searching the cupboard, Blair found the silk sheets which Jim always used when too tired, and unable to keep all his dials in place. It wouldn't take him too long to strip and change the sheets.

Sandburg climbed the stairs, bedding in his arms. The room was immaculately tidy, as always, the clothes all neatly folded on the shelving. He smiled to himself; he had tried to emanate Jim's tidiness in his new apartment, in the increased space he now owned, but it had felt unnatural. He was far more comfortable surrounded by his usual filing system of clutter.

Rapidly changing the sheets, and stuffing the old ones in the laundry basket, Blair's eye was caught by something on the bedside table. It was the missing picture that had formerly sat on Jim's desk at Major Crimes. Simon had taken the photograph as a memento of one of their fishing trips. The pair of them looked happy, carefree and relaxed.

Blair was dumbstruck to find the picture here. It spoke more to him about how Jim must still value their friendship than the hole left by his lack of communication. It hadn't surprised him to learn that Ellison had elected to work many night shifts and pulled several all-night surveillance operations on his own. It was the man's way of coping with situations.

His musings were disrupted by agonized screams from the bathroom. Blair was down the stairs and hammering on the door in seconds. "JIM, talk to me."

The distressed pants he could hear worried him, and he charged into the room.

The Sentinel sat on the edge of the tub, massaging the red raw skin of his legs. The livid bruises on his chest stood out in a rainbow of colors, the numerous lesions extending down past his hips.

"Jim?" Piecing together the evidence, Blair immediately launched into one of his spiels on dials, commanding his friend to lower the dial for pain and touch. He gently rubbed his hands up and down Jim's arms, comforting the hurting man.

After several minutes Jim made eye contact. "My dial for touch is wrong."

"No shit, Sherlock," Blair enthused.

Jim threw him a wry smile.

"While I'm here, I need you to tell me when your dials are off. Why didn't you ask me to check the temperature of the water for you if you weren't sure?"

"Because I thought I was sure."

"And your sense of taste is fine too, I suppose?"

Caught. "Okay, Chief, you win."

He allowed Blair to add cold to the bath water that had scalded him earlier, and dip in his hand to check the new temperature.

"Thanks."

"Your legs okay?"

The nod sufficed, as Jim slid into the tub.

"Is it okay if I use the phone while you're in here, Jim? I didn't bring the charger for my cell phone."

"Help yourself." Ellison closed his eyes in pleasured relief, as he sank down and the water soothed his aching body.

 

Blair left Jim to his bath and switched on the stereo in the living room to give privacy to his next conversations. He took the phone out to the balcony, and keyed in the number for the faculty office at the University. He had called his absence in as a family emergency, but with being a recent appointee, he felt he must offer greater justification. As far as he was concerned, Jim was family, so he hadn't lied. He called the Head of Anthropology and asked for a few more days of leave, as the family member was convalescing and needed short-term round the clock assistance.

It would have held much less credence had he said that the subject of his doctorate was in danger of reaching crisis point with his Sentinel abilities.

He promised to email over copies of his lesson plans before the afternoon session began, and made a mental note to ask to borrow Jim's laptop.

His second call was to Kira, his missed date from two nights before. His dating habits had changed drastically in the last couple of months, as he found himself caring for the Research Assistant far more than he had about anyone else he had gone out with in Cascade. It couldn't be said that he hadn't learned from his mistakes from dating in the past. He had remembered her birthday last week, and had bought her flowers on their one-month anniversary. Kira was accepting of Blair's excuses and apologies, expressed her concern about his friend, and merely asked that he keep her informed of their progress. Sandburg found himself blushing at her closing words, and was glad that Jim didn't overhear his own words in reply. His cheeks were still flaming when he walked back into the apartment.

He couldn't leave until Jim was back in control, but part of him wanted to return to Chicago immediately.

Ellison was refreshed after his late morning bath, but headed up the stairs to his bed. His body was crying out for more rest. It would be easier to sleep with daylight filtering through the blinds Blair had considerately drawn for him.

He wasn't surprised when Blair followed him up the stairs, and flashed him a grateful smile when he noticed the silk sheets adorning his bed.

"White noise generator just here." Sandburg gestured to the small table. "Do you want earplugs or a face mask?"

"Just sleep." Ellison crawled under the covers and lay back.

"Where are your dials, Jim?" In the rapport that they had built over the years, it was automatically accepted that Blair would soothe the erratic senses. However, as agreed earlier at the hospital, it was Sandburg's intention to lead Jim into a state of hypnosis prior to letting him sleep.

Ellison may not consciously remember many of the details of his abduction, but they were both convinced that the unconscious mind might hold missed information. Skeptical in the days preceding Blair Sandburg's arrival in his life, the detective had since become more open-minded.

Anything they could retrieve to help find the men responsible would be invaluable.

 

With Ellison's consent, Blair had tape-recorded the session and he notated the results onto the laptop. He mailed the transcript over to Banks, and quickly ran off some lesson plans, sending them across to Chicago in the same connection. He had set the phone to silent, and would wait and listen for the whirr of the answer phone, should anyone call. It had taken a while to get Jim to settle, but Blair had promised that he wouldn't leave the loft, or, if he did, would wake him first.

The Sentinel didn't need a psychologist. He just needed to rebuild his sense of security. With a friend he could trust, neither man believed it would take too long.

Jim had recalled a scent in the interior of the van, but was hard pushed to describe it. It was "like ammonia but it wasn't" was the best he could manage, so Blair had made him isolate and store the smell, and they were going to visit the University Chemistry department when Jim re-awoke. Ellison had wanted to go there at once, but Blair had objected so strenuously that he relented, for the sake of some quiet.

Rafe was dropping the truck home later that afternoon; they could visit Rainier then.

Out of curiosity, Blair stepped into his former bedroom. It was indeed tidier than he had kept it. It felt very strange to see so many of Jim's things in 'his' room. It wasn't sacrilegious - Blair didn't live here any more.

It still hurt a little that he had learned about every recent event related to Jim through a third party. Communication just wasn't the Ellison way. He would have to persuade him down to Chicago sometime. Kira was desperate to meet him.

 

The labored breathing alerted Blair. Without Sentinel hearing he was reliant on human intuition and fled up the stairs to reassure the older man that he was not alone. Jim had wrapped himself in the sheets and was fighting for freedom. He was clawing at the silk material, battling to break free, and the panicked pants of breath and the pained anguish on his face, spoke volumes about the content of Ellison's nightmare.

Blair sat on the edge of the bed, checked the soft shushing of the white noise generator and gently extricated his friend's thrashing, gauze-covered limbs from their bonds. Through low whispers, he encouraged Jim to wake up and know that he was safe, that there was space around him, and more than enough oxygen to breathe. He picked up the discarded eye mask from the floor, and settled it loosely over the Sentinel's face. The muted light in the apartment would probably still be excruciatingly bright if he awoke without full control, but pitch black would only aggravate the panic.

Treating the situation the same way he would a zone, Blair lightly brushed Jim's arm, trying to show the fighting Sentinel where to ground himself.

He was relieved when Jim gripped his wrist, and although the white-knuckled hold hurt, and the fingernails dug into his skin, Blair bore it silently. This was what Jim needed.

After a moment, the pressure eased, and Jim whipped off the eye mask. "God, I'm sorry, Chief." He sat bolt upright in bed and reached for the damaged wrist. "I didn't mean - " He cut himself off with a wince as the light pierced his eyes.

"Dial it back, Jim." Blair's voice was still a hushed whisper, not sure how the rest of Jim's senses were reacting. He slowly massaged his wrist and watched the pain lines fade from Ellison's brow. "You there?"

"Yeah. I'm sorry." He rubbed his hands briskly over his face, brushing away the sleep.

"Don't be." Blair grinned to cover his concern. "You okay?"

Ellison paused to self-check. "I think so." He didn't move to get up, but pulled the covers up around his waist. "What time is it?"

"A little after 4pm. You hungry?"

"I could eat."

"Rafe brought your truck over, I could always use that to…" Blair slowly shook his head, in response to Jim's raised eyebrows, "… or not, as the case may be."

"Some things don't change, Chief. And that includes the rules about my truck!" The two men laughed in the easy manner that they used to have.

"You never wrote, Jim." Blair's voice was stilted, killing the relaxed atmosphere, and the brief silence that followed refused to let Jim leave the comment unanswered.

"I know. I tried to." It wasn't much, but at least he had said something. Finally.

"I couldn't be sure if you were happy that I'd left, or hated me for going, or resented the fact that I'd moved on, or pleased that I wasn't hanging around you any more, or glad that I'd finally moved out of the loft." The academic couldn't bring himself to make eye contact, and fiddled with the stitching on the borrowed shirt.

"It wasn't any of that, Blair." Jim shifted uncomfortably; he didn't like discussing emotions.

"The only reason I knew you even received any of my phone messages or letters was from Joel telling me." He didn't want to sound like he was whining, but equally he didn't want to lose his temper. Jim was still recovering from a traumatic ordeal, but Blair needed to clear underlying issues of his own, before he could offer the full support necessary.

"That was rude of me, I don't have a good excuse." Damn the headache that was sitting behind his left eye. "I'm happy for you that you've got the job you wanted, and a place of your own - that's not to say I didn't like having you here."

"But?"

"No 'but', Blair." He ran a hand over his tender abdomen, and the colorful collection of bruises. "I'm happy for you."

Blair read something in Jim's face that the man would not want to put into words. With respect for their friendship, he let the issue drop. At some point before he returned home to Chicago, he would squeeze those suppressed words out of him. He would get the tough Detective Ellison to admit that he had missed him.

"Thanks." Sandburg stood and changed the subject. "You okay to go over to Rainier to see what we can establish in the Chemistry department? Can you still recall that scent you remember from the van?"

 

Pride refused to allow Ellison to be the passenger in his beloved truck, even though his injuries protested. They stopped off at the deli on the way over to the University and Blair lambasted the weary man with lists of products and naturally occurring phenomena that could account for the tang of ammonia.

"The list is almost inexhaustible," Blair resumed, the plastic cartons wedged between his legs and the water bottles on the floor. "Ammonium nitrate mixed with TNT belongs to a family of explosives called -"

"Amatols, yeah I know. No, this wasn't like that. This had more of an, how can I describe it? More acidic scent?"

"Acidic?" Blair scanned the sheaf of papers he had printed off the Internet while Jim slept. They had covered the basics and dismissed nitrogenous animal and vegetable matter, or the synthetic forms of fertilizer. "Don't forget that the van could have been used as a refrigeration unit in the past, and if that was prior to the widespread use of Freon then that would explain the ammonia."

Jim shook his head, trying to banish the persistent tug of headache. "It wasn't pure ammonia, in any form that I've smelled before. It felt familiar, but I can't get it clear. Pass me some of that water, Chief." He unscrewed the lid and took several long swigs of the cold liquid. As the water ran past his taste buds and into his throat, he slammed on the brakes, thrusting both of them forwards into the full lock of the restraining seatbelts. "What's in that water, Sandburg?"

Blair prised his hands off the dash, gathered the scattered sheets and stared at the driver, bemused. "They only had flavored water, I didn't think you'd mind."

"What's in it?" Jim ignored the honk of horns behind him, his truck blocking the street.

"It's elderflower and lime. Why? Is it your senses?" In a rush of guilt, he belatedly figured that Ellison would have needed the blandness of plain spring water.

"No, it's my memory." He gunned the engine and caused even more frustration in the driver's behind him as he pulled out into the second lane. "Let's go."

Sandburg was even more confused and his jaw worked fruitlessly, trying to form words that didn't emerge. Jim had remembered something, but was working it through in his head, whereas Blair preferred to chatter his way through ideas, finding it helped his thought process.

 

He noticed Jim holding his side as they got out of the truck's cab at the campus, and the pull of hurt on his face. "Senses all right?"

Ellison returned a thin-lipped smile. Obviously not, but he didn't want to waste time.

"This friend of yours in the Chemistry Department? Is he averse to mixing different compounds?"

"She."

"I might have guessed." The detective rolled his eyes and followed his former partner into the building.

Katrina Salic was the stereotypical science geek. Lab-coat, black-rimmed glasses, hair severely tied back in a ponytail. It wouldn't surprise Ellison if Blair hadn't dated her at some point in the past.

"Blair, how's my baby?" The Eastern-European accent was subtle. She entwined some of the anthropologist's brown curls in her fingers, and ran her hand down his back, watching him squirm in front of his friend. His cheeks burned and he tried to duck away from her invading touches.

"I'm um, good, thanks, Katrina." He shifted from foot to foot, eyeing Jim's amused look. "Uh, this is Detective Jim Ellison, the man I was telling you about."

She stepped forward and shook his hand. "Ammonia, Blair said. You want to sniff some ammonia."

Ellison was not in the mood for dripping sarcasm, but she turned on her toes and produced a rack of Vaseline sealed jars. A no-nonsense person. That was exactly what Jim wanted.

"Now you probably know that ammonia is a major metabolic waste product from fish, produced through the gills with the excretion of…"

Dialing his sense of smell as low as he could without voiding the experiment, Ellison screwed up his nose and subjected himself to the assault of the various forms of ammonia that Salic was able to provide. He could think of more exotic fragrances to experience.

"Do you have anything to synthesize lime or elderflower?" The detective recalled the water from the truck.

Salic didn't question the request, having understood from Blair that this was vitally important in an ongoing police investigation.

Turning from an overhead cupboard, she provided a mild concoction of ammonia with lime residue, and while Blair had a quiet word with his struggling Sentinel, worked on a thought that had occurred to her.

"You doing okay, man? You look a bit green?" Sandburg's concern evident. "You need to take a break?"

"No, I need to catch these fucking bastards so they can't hurt anyone else." The malice in Ellison's tone was enough for Blair to forcibly drag him out of the room. Enough was enough. Calling over his shoulder to the surprised chemist, he hauled the overloaded detective out into the evening air. With emotions running so high, a zone-out would be inevitable, and this was something Blair wanted to avoid at all costs.

"Take deep breaths, Jim," he commanded. "In, out. In, out."

"I know how to breathe, thank you, Sandburg," he cut in. "I've been doing it for nearly forty years." The snapped response confirmed Blair's reasoning for getting him outside.

"Calm down." Blair's own temper was frayed. He was tired, irritable and had spent the latter part of the week out of his mind with worry and no sleep.

Jim rallied at the angrily shouted order, and offered a beseeching smile. "I don't know how you put up with me, Chief." The audible sigh spoke volumes at both their levels of tiredness. He leaned against the brick exterior of the imposing building and concentrated on pulling his senses back into line.

His hearing couldn't miss Blair's ill concealed "I don't," which stabbed into him.

The blue eyes met and Sandburg turned away, muttering curses against his hurtful comment. He hadn't intended to say that out loud, but he really hadn't slept much, and his worry for the Sentinel was all consuming. He had dropped everything to come here, had returned to the place where he no longer felt welcome, if he ever really had, and for what? For Jim to shout at him? Yeah, that sounded like a fun part of his life. Jim was alive, and remarkably unscathed. There would be fallout in due course, and Ellison was already exhibiting signs of nervousness in confined areas and darkened surroundings, but that was too be expected.

Both men were intent on finding those responsible for Jim's interment, but they were headed for the same impasse as before. The case would be resolved one way or another and Blair would return to Chicago. Ellison would go back to being the hard-nosed macho cop who was tough enough to slam unsuspecting grad students up against walls if they accused him of being a Neanderthal throwback. In the meantime, neither man would have discussed the burning issue of their friendship.

"Ready for round two?" Blair eyed Jim carefully, looking for warnings of over-extended senses. Ellison slowly nodded and pushed off from the wall.

"Yeah." They passed through the arched entrance and Jim held open the door. "Blair?" Sandburg stopped, unused to hearing his first name from his friend's lips. "Thanks."

The Guide grinned in relief. "You're welcome."

 

Salic had prepared a further two solutions of ammonia and lime in their absence and presented them to Ellison in a petri dish.

"That's it!" Jim exclaimed, re-sniffing the second blend. "Or as near as damn it. What is it?" Three sets of shoulders relaxed at the news.

"It's a weak solution of fish residue and a cleaning solvent." Salic triumphantly held up a yellow container of a store brand used in the facility. "As we discussed, ammonia is a metabolic waste from fish, and it's a commonly known fact that one way of eradicating the smell is to use either Clorox, lemon or lime. The acid dissolves the smell. It's one of the reasons lemon is such a widely used fragrance in toilet cleaners, and washing-up liquid."

"You," Sandburg delighted, grabbing Katrina's face in his hands and planting a sloppy kiss on her cheek, "are a god."

"And that's why you left me for a sophomore, is it?" The truth was out, and he looked suitably abashed. "That's okay, Blair, I forgive you!" Katrina returned the kiss and handed over the cleaning product. "Take this, and the lidded petri dish, if either are of any use. Now go," she added, ushering them out of the door. "I believe you've got some bad guys to catch, and I have a home and a steady boyfriend to get back to."

A chuckling Ellison followed a contrite Sandburg back across the campus to the awaiting truck. "Good result there, Chief. Thank you for your help."

Blair couldn't resist. "Two 'thank yous' in one day. You feeling all right?" The playful pat on his back he received in return was just like old times. He scrambled into the passenger seat and smiled amiably at his friend. "Admit it, you missed me."

The lock of the jaw told Blair he'd pushed his luck too far. This was Ellison clamping back down again. Diversionary tactics needed. "How are the ribs?" he asked instead, noticing the pallor of Jim's face as he reached for the seatbelt.

"Sore." The admission was something, but it also ended further conversation until they reached the station.

 

"Jim!" Banks called across the packed bullpen. He indicated his office and both men followed him in. "Good to see you up and around," Simon remarked, pulling on the end of his cigar. "But you shouldn't be here."

"I think we've got a lead," Jim managed, rubbing tiredly at the dressings on his wrist. "Tell him." He nodded at Blair to recount their experiments at Rainier, and closed his eyes for a moment. Images of damp, brown soil flashed into his mind, pressing in on him, forcing oxygen from his lungs, tumbling in around him, choking his thin lifeline and squeezing the life from his internally screaming body.

He jerked his eyes back open, craving the light to banish the vision, and hoped that no one had noticed.

Too late. Sandburg was too observant for his own good.

No words were spoken about his fear-filled action, as Blair continued to explain about the ammonia ramifications, but Jim found a comforting hand gently laid upon his shoulder, and a soothing pattern of circles eased his breathing back from panic.

"So you're telling me," Banks made hasty notes on the desk jotter, "that what you smelled during your abduction, was most likely to be from a truck that had been used to haul fish at some point, and had been scrubbed clean using a product containing lime." He too had noticed his detective's startled movements, but for Jim's sake, said nothing.

"That's about the sum of it, yes." He didn't dare stand, because the pain meds he had taken earlier were wearing off and his back was reminding him of the pummeling he had taken.

"That's great, Jim. Good work." He didn't encourage either of the men out of his office, figuring Jim was remaining seated for a reason, but instead took the information to his team of detectives who had again run into brick walls in their current investigations.

The hive of renewed activity outside was a positive sound, and Banks left the two men in his office while he offered to follow up leads himself. He doubted that the conversation had gone anywhere beyond the current situation, and his friends could use some time.

Blair's calming hand stopped, and he shifted his chair around to face the weary man. "Flashback?"

A mute nod.

"Don't you just hate those?" How many times had Ellison been there for him when he'd had his own nightmares? Most of those terrifying dreams had stayed behind in Cascade, but the memory of their reign was not an easy emotion to lose. "You need more pain meds?"

Another mute nod.

"Okay." Blair stood and helped himself to Simon's coffee, holding his hand out for the bottle he knew Ellison had stowed safely in his pocket. He dosed out two tablets and waited for Jim to down them.

He was proud that the Sentinel was holding up so well, considering he had only been excavated from his early grave the morning before.

The thought made Blair shudder, and he was glad that Jim's senses were toned down far enough not to notice.

"What say we let Brown finished terrifying Bautista with the custody extension they've got, and go find some decent coffee?"

"Bautista's here?" Jim's head snapped up, all pain ignored as his body tensed in rage. "That lying, double-crossing, scum-sucking piece of shit. I'm going to rip his fucking balls off and shove them down his throat." The chair overbalanced and fell backwards as Ellison slammed out of the office before Blair could stop him.

That was why Blair always wanted to stay on the right side of the vengeful wildcat. Incensed Ellison was a disturbing sight.

The distance to the room where H was intimidating their only detainee was covered too quickly for Sandburg to muster support. The door crashed back on its hinges, even making the stoic Brown jump. He hadn't even known the older detective was in the building, let alone aware that he knew they had Bautista in custody.

He had seen Jim mad, but this fuming monolith was awe-inspiring. Brown did the only sensible thing, and stood well back. Ellison may well cop assault charges within the next few minutes, but diminished responsibility was a wonderful loophole in the law.

"You fucking liar," Jim roared, enraged by the betrayal. "You're not just a computer technician, are you? I was getting too close to it, wasn't I? You agreed to meet me so your murdering boss could add another to his list of victims." The fist pummeling against the table had to have hurt, but Ellison was too infuriated to care. "Who killed Henshaw?" His demand was issued inches from the petrified suspect's trembling face. "Was it you?" The dark-haired man had nowhere to turn, his back pressed into the small wooden chair where he sat. "We've traced your call to me, and I can have you up on conspiracy to commit murder charges, and then I can go and tell Barnett that it was you who gave me all the information I needed to get the search warrant. Capiche?" The ire settled momentarily as his sparking eyes turned to the attentive Brown. "You got the traces back? You got the search warrant?"

"Yeah," he lied, knowing that the call had been untraceable and there was insufficient evidence for any warrant. "We've got a team moving in, in Seattle. Should be there in..." H glanced at his watch. "Should be there right now."

The barely controlled maniac in front of Bautista snarled his hate. "I am going to so enjoy informing your boss just exactly who it was that spilled their guts. So you might as well get talking to save me the pleasure."

The sweat was pouring off the man's face. A frantic glance towards the security camera was his only hope, but with Ellison now seething his words so quietly, and his body blocking the view, Bautista knew his chances of surviving to lay an assault charge were slim. "Y-you're supposed to be d-dead." He stammered, digging fingers into his palm so hard that he sliced into the skin. "I… I w-was t-told th-that if I arr... arranged the m-meet, th-that you'd b-be taken c-care of."

Standing in the open doorway, Blair heard the words of confession and offered up silent thanks that there was finally something concrete for charges to be brought. Jim's behavior on the other hand, needed to be tackled, and fast.

"Now, that wasn't so difficult, was it, you little fuck?" Ellison patted the ashen skin with a patronizing hand. "All you have to do now is offer up some more details, and I will leave you alone permanently." The calm in his voice had an unmistakably threatening undercurrent. "I'm going to leave you here, with the nice Detective Brown, and you're going to tell him who owns the van that I was thrown into, where I can find it, and proof of how to connect that with the Barnett Syndicate's operations." There was no reaction from the computer technician apart from the rancid smell of fresh urine. "Aren't you?"

Finally a terrified nod, and Ellison left the room.

He knew he would be facing disciplinary charges, but he didn't give a damn. Those bastards had tried to kill him. If it hadn't have been for his stalwart colleagues and Blair…

Blair.

Damn.

The kid looked horrified at what he had witnessed. He hadn't looked this sickened when subjected to the most gruesome of murder scenes.

If anything, that expression was one of disappointment. Had he wanted Bautista to confess to something more substantial? Had he expected the Latino to roll over with less intimidation?

Or was Blair disappointed in him?

Walking away from the dark interview room, Jim's feet caught on the floor and he stumbled against the wall. He half-expected the steadying arm of his Guide to be there, but the regimental heartbeat was behind him, not following. Ellison dragged himself towards the elevators as he realized that his emotional response had alienated his former partner. Sandburg would probably forgive him, considering the events that had led up to the outburst, but all he had done was act irrationally.

There were plenty of other worthy officers working the case. It didn't need a victim to come in and give the DA just cause to overturn the charges, and quash a confession that had been bullied out of the suspect.

He was a victim.

Had his rescue come any later, he would have been a statistic.

Feet from the elevator and Jim sagged against the chipped paint of the wall. Every broken blood vessel piling inside of his bruises shrieked at him, the pain medication refusing to work. The abrasions on his wrists and ankles tore into his soul. Protesting muscles and out of control senses screamed in their vindictiveness. Losing his last ounce of control, his whole body began shaking with the tumult of suppressed terror, and as the unfettered emotion destroyed the last of his reserves, Jim sank, unimpeded, to the cold floor.

 

Blair had watched the scene in the interview room play out, and although he shared relief in the firm leads now available, he couldn't help but consider the cost. This was an Ellison he had never truly seen. This was beyond Sentinel, or the hard cop he had heard described to him from previous years. This was a man who had no intention of stopping before he had what he wanted.

The rush of thoughts had clarified in his head as he watched Jim stride away from the room. While here, studying for his dissertation, he had loved the roller coaster ride of this partnership, and he had begun to question whether or not he missed the buzz now he was a fulltime academic. Yes, he had missed being here, being out on the streets chasing down suspects with Jim, or sharing a poker night with the rest of the team, but this? This was something he had shelved in the back of his mind.

This was the pushy, dirty side of matters that he had always been able to ignore.

He had never associated this with Jim. Or H. Or Brian. Or Joel. Or Simon.

Did he resent Simon for allowing him to leave? No, Simon had been doing his job. What about Simon threatening Bautista in order to locate Jim? No, that had been to save someone's life.

So what about Jim now threatening the same man?

Bautista had set Jim up, with the intention of having him killed. There was the revenge aspect. If Bautista had been an accessory to the man they had rescued, who was to say that he hadn't been involved in the Henshaw murder? The stack of files full of fax copies sent over from Seattle came into Blair's mind. Pertinent information had been gleaned from them during the early hours of study to find Jim's location, and they contained photographs of men and women who, it was suspected, had been murdered by the Barnett Syndicate. Of which Bautista was a part.

If they could be brought down, further lives would be saved.

For the first time, Sandburg viewed the situation with a form of justification.

Firefighters and hospital workers rescued people after the event. Ellison and the Major Crimes were trying to prevent some of those events from happening.

Shocked at the speed of his thoughts and conclusions, Sandburg followed Jim's unsteady course towards the elevator and ran when he heard the soft cry, and witnessed his friend crumple to the ground.

Within seconds he was there, cradling the distraught man in his arms. Those nearby either shielded them or quietly moved away. No one would have inflicted the interred torture on their worst enemy, and Ellison was a good man. That he was in the building at all was a miracle. That he was now suffering the forecasted breakdown was of no surprise.

"Sssssshhh," Blair murmured, rocking the sobbing man back and forth. "Let it go, Jim. I've got you."

He brought his legs around to give Jim more body contact, and kept up the mesmeric movement, tenderly stroking the crying figure in his arms. "You're safe, Jim, I've got you. Ssssssshhh."

The whispered words brought tears to the eyes of those around, and as Simon came to a ragged halt, he thanked God that Sandburg had flown to Cascade.

Dark curls fell haphazardly over the Sentinel's reddened face, obscuring the streaks of tears running down. The weeping continued, as did the comforting litany of words, and the gentle rocking motion, Blair's head bowed over the tormented man.

Blair found a jacket being tucked around them, and looked up to see Simon's tear-filled eyes. "I'm going to call someone," he whispered, not wanting to interfere but unable to stand idly by.

Blair nodded reluctant acquiescence, and restarted his reassuring utterances. No psychiatrists were needed, but a sedative might buy enough time for the healing process to begin. He couldn't help but think that he must have been responsible for the public collapse, by allowing Jim not only to come into the station during the investigation, but to divulge Bautista's presence. His brow furrowed in worry, and he cajoled the keening man into a more restful state.

When the time was right, they had to talk. There was too much that had been left unspoken.

 

"We'll get the pair of you home when he wakes up," Banks promised, watching his detective sleeping on his couch. The medics had given Jim the once over, but decided that no medical intervention was necessary. Once roused, he had been brought into Simon's office, but had not managed more than a few one-word answers before falling asleep. "How are you doing, Sandburg?"

"Oh me, I'm fine," Blair lied, airily switching on the side table lamp. "My breath is like an iguana, I'm dressed in borrowed clothes, my girlfriend in Chicago is going to think I've dumped her, my students will think I've deserted them, and my Sentinel is having a small, but impressive breakdown."

"Your Sentinel?" Simon pulled closed the blinds to the bullpen to offer some privacy.

"I found him, I trained him, he's mine!" The impish grin was typical Sandburg, and Simon realized how much he had missed their enigmatic observer.

"So, how is life in Chicago?" He pulled up a chair next to his friend.

"It's good," Blair admitted, truthfully. "I like being there. I have a good circle of friends, and my academic life is fantastic. I've got so many more opportunities there than I ever had here, and I sometimes wonder why I didn't try and move there sooner. In fact, there's an expedition I'm trying to find funding for in the summer, we're going to - " The gesticulating hands dropped into his lap, and his mouth opened and closed silently a few times. He missed Chicago. Coming back to Cascade had only proven to him how far on he had moved with his life.

"You're not going to stay, are you?" Banks interpreted, reading the unspoken into the stalled sentence.

"I don't live here anymore, Simon." The imploring stare bore into the captain. "But…" He pointed towards the couch where the sleeping Sentinel looked restful for the first time in nearly two days.

"He understands, Blair." Simon had to find strength within himself to exonerate his friend for leaving once more. "Your life is in Chicago, and you can't stay here unless it's for you."

"He's not coping," the younger man confided. "I have to stay until he can cope."

Simon stood to fetch some water. "He will cope, Blair," he assured. "What happened earlier is the beginning of his recovery. You know that. But..." There was an admonishment in his tone. "Before you go anywhere, this time, you and Jim are going to sit down and work out just what the hell is going on with the two of you." The fatherly smile was in place. "I'm not picking up the pieces this time."

Blair accepted the bottled water. "Okay, Captain." The smile was returned. "Whatever you say."

 

Jim's twitching nose was the first sign of returning awareness. Expecting Ellison's first words to be related to the episode in the corridor, Blair was surprised to hear the word "sneaker".

"Excuse me?"

The detective frowned with the tight pull of his recovering injuries. "Your sneaker, Chief."

Blair had dozed off with his feet on Simon's couch, but hadn't realized how close they had crept towards Jim's head. "Oh, I'm sorry." He hurriedly flopped his tired limbs onto the floor.

"No, need your sneaker."

Sandburg knew that pain meds often had an adverse effect on Sentinel senses, but he hadn't previously known them to cause early senility. "My sneaker." His raised questioning eyebrows indicated he doubted Jim's sanity.

"Just - " Ellison leaned forward, pulled Blair's foot up towards him, and ripped off the piece of footwear. Sandburg thought his friend must have really lost it when he began sniffing hard at the sole. "Where have you been?"

What kind of ludicrous question was that? Perhaps another visit to the hospital might be an idea.

"Chief?" Ellison seemed lucid. "Where have you been?"

"Uh, uh… huh?"

Inhaling as deeply as his bruises would allow, Jim patiently asked again, "Where have you been?"

Blair's confusion heightened as the waking man continued. "I don't think my senses are out, if anything my sense of smell is too high, and Chief, wearing my deodorant does not suit you."

There weren't many things that caused Sandburg to be at a loss for words, but…

"Your sneaker," Jim elaborated, shaking the offending item under Blair's nose, and showing frustration that the kid hadn't yet latched on to his way of thinking. "This patch of mud here," he indicated a small patch lodged in the well of the tread, "It's similar to the smell we're after."

 

At 3am Simon Banks finally pulled rank and demanded that Ellison either return home immediately or face suspension. If the bruised visage wasn't a big enough pointer as to his detective's injuries, the lack of concentration and inability to follow the hurried conversations sealed the man's need for rest.

Yes, they had leads. Yes, the teams would no doubt be working through the night once more. But no, neither Ellison nor Sandburg were currently welcome at the precinct.

Period. End of discussion. Finito.

Go home.

Banks knew his judgment to be sound when he heard Jim willingly handing over the keys to his truck and allowing Blair to escort him out of the building.

He cleaned his glasses on the hem on his shirt, and set his shoulders. They had a lot of work to do.

 

It had been a tough night for both men. In the end, it had been easier for both to make themselves comfortable in the living area. Ellison had fallen asleep easily, but the nightmares arrived quickly and Blair found himself sitting on the upstairs floor with his back to the wall, simply waiting for the next one. When Jim finally admitted that the ceiling felt too close, Blair persuaded him downstairs and draped a rug over his friend's tired form.

"No blanket, Chief," Jim muttered, as sleep tried to claim him. "Too tight."

So, Blair had slept in the chair, his feet perched on the coffee table; Jim had slept in fitful bursts, succeeding in waking his Guide each time his imagination overthrew reality.

Saturday morning was as overcast as the previous day, and it was close to lunchtime before the two men arrived at the station.

"What do you mean you let Bautista go?" The dressings on his wrists were causing too much aggravation, so Jim ripped away the gauze and launched it in the direction of the trashcan. "You had him on conspiracy to commit murder, conspiracy to commit fraud, embezzlement, money laundering. What the fuck were you doing?"

Banks looked across at Sandburg for support but the latter seemed to equally as pissed as his friend.

"Jim, please, if you would just listen to me for one minute." His best conciliatory tone was having little effect. Simon continued to plead for a moment's grace, trying to cut across Ellison's irate diatribe. Eventually, the gentle guiding hand of Blair eased Jim into the office chair, and Banks was able to get a word in edgewise.

"When you are fighting against Barnett's lawyers, there is little choice in who you can and who you can't keep incarcerated. Yes." He held up his hand to prevent a fresh onslaught. "The system often stinks, but that's what the system does, and there will always be people with enough money to buck it. When it was insisted that we either press charges or release him, first thing this morning, the moment we filed charges, the lawyers were in there and had him released on bail."

It was an unhealthy silence. Jim ground his teeth so hard he could feel his pulse in his gums. Even Blair was ripping at the edges of his fingernails in frustration. "Jim." The namesake ignored the summons. "Jim?" Banks almost pleaded for attention. "You know there was nothing more I could do, don't you?"

The question was rhetorical, but Ellison finally nodded. More out of politeness than acceptance.

"You know we won't see him again, don't you?" Gone was the barked disapproval, and instead were the quiet tones of hopelessness. Blair eyed his friend with distress. Everyone knew that without Bautista, the case was lost. With no Bautista, everything they had was purely circumstantial.

The earth on the sole of Blair's sneaker may well have been from the Lakelands Park area, but when Pierce, Brown and Rafe arrived there in the early hours of the morning, armed with a search warrant and a bevy of uniformed cops, they were greeted by a swarm of firefighters and their fleet of fire trucks. The arson investigation was ongoing, but any potential evidence was long destroyed. The knowledge that had been gleaned from the disks Bautista had provided was now obsolete. Dates and arrival times of key members of the Barnett Syndicate would have been altered the moment Bautista's arrest became known. Their only hope was on some of the historical dealings pinning down some of the lesser members of the group.

"I know this is hard on you, Jim. It's hard on all of us." Jim's tired eyes stared back at his superior's equally bloodshot eyes. "You want Barnett. He may have sent his henchmen after you, but it was he who did the ordering. We know that, he knows that, and Bautista knows it. Our only problem is being able to prove it."

"We won't see him again," Ellison reiterated, getting to his feet. "My guess is, unidentified remains will be dug up in about three months' time, or the partially eaten remains of a John Doe will wash up along the Californian coast, and Mr. Samuel Welter Barnett will have the best iron-clad alibi his billions can buy." It was another busy shopping day in downtown Cascade, and the bustle of people roved seven floors below, preoccupied with their own set of problems, their own array of fears, and their own agendas. The rolling clouds overhead threatened to shower each of the passers-by, who hurried onto their next port of call. "The same billions he's stolen by destroying other people's lives."

The ache in his ribs was duller than it had been yesterday, but the throbbing in his back persisted. The pounding in his head was more controlled, and today he could stare out at the world without zoning, or losing his focus.

But at least he was here.

Three days ago - seventy-four hours before - Jim Ellison had woken to find himself in his own coffin. It would take him a long time to recover from the ghastly revelation, but it would make him value all the more, the hours that had been returned to him. In each of those hours, it would burn him to think that the man responsible for his interment would remain free. Sure, they could bring down some of the lesser individuals within the organization, but they would simply be the fall guys. It no longer mattered that the scent of the earth had been from a torched house, where fish had been kept in the lakes of the extended grounds. Nor did it matter that the van smelled of ammonia from where the equipment had been transported and then the transit cleaned using solvents.

The discovery of the burned-out hulk of a van had been one of the last reports Ellison had heard before Banks had sent him home the previous night.

If he caught the reflection in the window, he could see the to and fro of people in the bullpen, and in the office, he could see Simon trying not to watch him, and pretending to find an empty manila folder of interest. Behind him he could see Sandburg overtly guarding over his Sentinel, his concern palpable.

Sandburg.

Blair.

Chief.

His friend would be returning to Chicago very soon. If not today, then certainly by the next evening. He had his new life to return to, and lectures to deliver on the Monday morning. He should value these hours he still had with him, and enquire as to how he met Kira, what expeditions he planned to join, exciting discoveries in the realms of long-dead civilizations, and whether the mating call of the Dodo really did resemble that of a parrot's.

The purplish-green of bruising across his jaw made him wince as Ellison smiled very slowly. He knew Sandburg would ignore the single tear that tracked down his cheek.

 

"I appreciate you flying here, Chief." There, that was close to the right words, Jim mused, as he watched Blair down his second cappuccino. "Want another one?"

Blair jiggled the stirrer and scooped out the last of the froth. "Ummmm…" He gazed at the wall clock in the small Starbucks at the airport, and debated. It was a four-hour hop, but they had bathroom facilities on board the plane. Besides, Jim was buying. "Sure. Same again, please, but with extra froth this time!" That impish grin was so Sandburg, and it made Jim stop for a moment before ordering fresh coffees. He pocketed the change and brought the drinks back to the table.

He couldn't help but shake his head in wonderment at the four sachets of sugar Blair sprinkled into the cup, and recalled the never-ending discussions over adding sugar to food, and the pros and cons of additives. As Sandburg reached over for a fifth, Jim finally blurted out what it had taken him six months to say.

"I missed you, Chief."

Blair froze in his actions before bringing his hand back to the table, his time-honored grin firmly planted on his face. "Nah, you didn't, Jim. Not really." The stirrer saw a frenetic spurt of action as Blair mixed in the sweeteners. Ellison wasn't sure how to take the rebuttal of his statement. Didn't Blair understand how much courage it had taken to admit to emotion?

"You missed the idea of me, Jim." Down went the stirrer and the first luxuriated sip took place. "You'd gotten used to having someone hanging around the loft to take your mind off your anal-retentive neat-freak approach." The grin broadened, Sandburg knew precisely what he was doing. He hadn't minored in psychology at Rainier, and begun evening classes in Chicago, not to know that Ellison was clinging on to what he knew, for fear of losing it again. Keeping up their familiar banter was the best way of keeping his Sentinel strong. "Sure, it must have been weird going back to having everything carefully color-coded, with no fear of green algae spilling over your 12lb steak marinating in the refrigerator …"

Jim balked. Yes, that was true. But he'd missed the conversations that turned left at the traffic lights and took him out beyond his comfort realm; he'd missed coming home with an amused sense of anticipation over what he'd find; he'd missed that friendly banter over the dirty towels and blunt razor blades. He'd missed Blair. The solitary life he had been comfortable to live between his worlds of Carolyn Plumber and Blair Sandburg, had been an interesting stopgap, but that was all it had been. Simon had given up trying to partner him with anybody, because Jim had found himself pathetically comparing them to the anthropologist. He knew he had become withdrawn and taciturn, to the point of being boorish, and he regretted that.

"You need to get out more," Blair offered, slurping down the rest of his coffee and rechecking his ticket details. "In fact, there's this gorgeous red-head who's just started at the faculty. Her name's Stepha…" Ellison's hand over his mouth halted further articulation.

"No, you don't, Junior." The King of Obfuscation had moved them away from Sandburg being missed in Cascade, to potential blind dates. And Jim knew their conversation to be over. It was how they had dealt with Blair's initial departure to Chicago, and it seemed it was to be the same way again.

It was the old adage, life moves on and everything stays the same.

"So, when do I get to meet Kira?" The detective tried the block out the sound of Blair's flight being called.

"Kira?" Sandburg blushed, and chewed his lip. "You'd love her, man. You'll have to come down sometime and we can all go out."

Would all passengers on Flight 782 to Chicago O'Hare Airport, please make their way to their Departure Gate. All passengers flying on Flight 782 to Chicago O'Hare Airport please make their way to their Departure Gate.

"Yeah." Jim hoped that the non-committal word covered all possible answers.

"I gotta go, Jim." Blair stood and straightened his shirt, running a cursory hand through his hair, ticket in readiness. "You gonna be okay?"

The connection between them reminded them of the three years that were now locked away in the past. The Sentinel's Guide had been there to help, but now it was time for him to return.

"Yeah." It wasn't a lie, and they both knew it. It had been a difficult few days and the healing process was still continuing, but he would cope. He always had.

"You gonna write this time?" Sandburg could see the previously quelled Ellison reticence pushing to flood back, and offered the quick escape. "Just give me a hug, man, and I can go. Don't wanna miss my flight!"

Their embrace was cut short by the ringing of Blair's cell phone. "Sandburg." He accepted the pat on the shoulder, threw Ellison a grin, and walked out of the cafe towards the departure point, phone held against his ear. "Hey, Kira. Yeah, it's on time, I'm just heading towards the gate now. That would be great. Yeah, you too. Bye." He snapped shut the phone, and turned back to wave at his former partner.

"You'd better write!" Blair launched across the expanse, causing a multitude of turned heads. "E-mail's not that difficult."

Typical Sandburg, Ellison mused with affection. At this distance, Sentinel hearing could have picked up those words at a whisper, but no, Sandburg had to do things in his own inimitable style.

 

Hey Blair,

Sorry I didn't write before, but it's been hectic around here. It was great to see you while you were here last month, and great to see you looking so well. You brought a lot of animation back to this department - don't think any of us had realized how boring we had become!

Jim's doing okay. He wasn't to begin with, and I overheard him asking Simon for nightshifts again so he wouldn't have to sleep in the dark, but we soon sorted him out. Several buddy get-togethers; poker; beers; teasing, etc. It helped when he finally got a decent night's sleep, and you know what? He even admitted to using that cd of whale song you left him!

So how's everything going with you and Kira? I want a wedding invite when the time comes, buddy. I know you'd want Jim or Simon to be your Best Man, but I can organize a mean bachelor party. Don't let H or Rafe tell you otherwise.

Blair wiped off some of the spaghetti sauce that had splashed out of the pan onto Joel's letter.

I wanted you to be one of the first to know, that my nephew has finally gotten the go-ahead to set up his new ranch business, and I'm keeping my promise to him, to go and help him out. So I'm taking an early retirement and will be selling up and moving from Cascade to Colorado by the end of next month. There have been some big changes in MC, I hope Simon and Jim have been keeping you up-to-date,"

"Joel, don't be silly. Haven't heard a thing." Blair reached for a large bowl and tipped in the pasta.

"They managed to pull in four of Barnett's senior executives, but I guess you read that in the news. Because of that success, Simon's been asked to head up a new permanent task force specializing in National high-profile cases, and Jim's been asked to go along with him. Rafe's finally making an honest woman of Theresa and is planning on moving down to LA with her. He and H are thinking of setting up their own detective agency down there."

Raised eyebrows accompanied the revelations, as Blair grabbed a fork from the drawer.

"The Mayor's a bit confused that his media-worthy department is going to have to be re-staffed, and his publicist is panicking. Simon's determined to stay in Cascade, but Jim's been looking for a reason to move on.

"It's one of the reasons I'm writing, Blair. I know you have your new life, but Simon and I were talking about him having one of the field offices in Chicago. We know you're happy with your job at the University, but if you ever wanted a job as a profiler, he'd love to have you back on his team. Jim's ready to have more responsibility, and this would be perfect for him, to head up the field unit across the country. Can you think about it? I know I'm asking a lot, and I don't want to put pressure on you. We may have taken you for granted when you were here, but I think you know how much we value you for your skills as well as a person."

Joel's letter went on to give further details about his nephew's plans, and the Realtor issues he was dealing with, but Blair's mind was already wandering over the minefield of information before him. Simon leaving Major Crimes? He could see why Joel would want to leave if the old gang was splitting up this way. What a great promotion and opportunity for both Jim and Simon. Blair couldn't help the swell of pride at the success of his friends; but it was underpinned by a peculiar sense of desolation. It had seemed fine to leave Cascade - Captain Banks in charge of Major Crimes, keeping Detectives Brown, Rafe and Ellison in line; accepting donuts from the slimmed-down Captain Taggert. Although it was no longer his world, there was something traumatic knowing that that part of his universe was changing irrevocably. There was a stabbing in his gut to know that he could never return to that family as it had once stood.

He scanned the middle part of the letter one more time, abandoned his freshly served dinner, and dialed 1 on the speed-dial. "Kira, I know we agreed to have tonight alone, but do you have time for me to come over and talk to you about something? Please?" He burst out laughing at the response from the other end. "No, it's not a marriage proposal. Not today!" He wiped down the counter top, placed the dishes in the sink and looked around for his keys. "You don't mind? That's great, hun. Thanks. Be around 20 minutes."

Hanging up, he gave the apartment a final check. "When will my life consist of easy choices?"

The walls didn't answer him, and the front door ignored him.

 

The office building had plush carpets in the foyer, shining brass fixtures and far too many lights. The extravagance ceded as Blair exited the elevator and strolled casually down the second floor corridor. Workmen scrambled across wooden stepladders, steering cabling through ceiling panels, and creating a larger mess on the floor. The smell of freshly applied paint was quite overpowering, and he screwed up his nose as his journey took him towards the office door at the end.

The nameplate gave him a thrill of pride as he stepped through the thick, oak door, without bothering to knock. He was late, and so didn't care. Why bother to be punctual?

"Lieutenant Ellison, I presume." The sarcasm did not become him, but neither man cared.

"That's 'Sir' to you, Chief."

It was four months exactly since that day at Cleveland Cemetery, nearly three months since the bloated remains of a John Doe was fished out of the river, and just over a week since the Barnett Syndicate had been brought down.

"You got a Starbucks nearby?" His Cheshire cat smile made the words hard to utter.

"Oh, I've gone one better than that, Chief." Jim signaled behind his own desk, and pointed out a refrigerator. "Algae shakes and iced coffee on demand, and…" He indicated behind the second desk on the other side of the room. "Your very own coffee machine."

Blair bounced on the balls of his feet, as he gazed around the plush surroundings. With a contented grin, he turned towards his Sentinel, and accepted the warm embrace of friendship.

The airy office was a far cry from the bullpen at the Major Crimes Unit in Cascade, but it was the new home of the working partners.

Lieutenant James Ellison, Head of the Eastern Specialized Crimes Force, and Dr. Blair Sandburg, part-time profiler.

Sentinel and Guide.

 

 

Fin.

copyright Xasphie 04/08/04

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