FORGING FRIENDSHIP

By

ANNIE

EMAIL: Annie

DISCLAIMER: The characters of The Sentinel belong to DeMeo and Bilson (and Petfly) but they didn't want them and I did. No money made etc. You know the drill, right?

Thanks to Lyn for the beta and good advice as always and to my son, Josh, who can't understand why his mother would want to do this stuff but came up with a title for this puppy anyway. Thanks also to Shay, who read this story when it was half done and convinced me to finish it.

This is my dues fic as well as being a themefic for Debra Baschal (January, 2003) who wanted a kidnap story. Hope you think I've done your idea justice, Debra.

 

"Ellison, my office now," Captain Simon Banks called into the quiet of the bullpen.

"Right away, sir." Jim glanced quickly over at Sandburg, "Sorry, Chief, Simon said he needed to go over some of the fine points for that protection detail we're supervising on Jeff Davis next week. Shouldn't take too long."

"Oh man," Blair sighed, "We're going to be stuck here all night." He was starving. They'd been here writing up reports from their last case for two hours now, and before that he'd put in a full day on campus. The last food he could remember having time to eat had been at 6 a.m. when he'd snagged a piece of toast on his way out the door of the loft and that was over twelve hours ago.

"Just give me 10 minutes, Chief, then we'll go pick up some takeout, all right?" Jim said, standing up and heading for Banks' office.

"Yeah, right. I've heard that before," Blair grunted. "That's okay, Jim," he called, "I'll just sit here and fade away. Just promise me you'll dust my skeletal remains and think fondly of me from time to time."

"Funny, Sandburg, real funny."

An hour later Blair sat up from the article in 'Anthropology Today' he was reading and glanced around the room. He could see Jim and Simon, heads bent close together across Simon's desk, obviously still trying to smooth the edges of the operation coming up the following week.

Davis was an important witness, Blair knew. He'd helped Jim round the guy up. A series of payroll robberies had taken place in Cascade, all with the aid of what appeared to be inside information from the security firm involved. After a week of undercover surveillance, it had been proven that the inside information came from Jeff Davis, a security guard. When they'd arrested him, Davis had agreed to a deal. He'd roll over on the boss of the organization responsible, Joe Martelli, in return for protection during the trial and protective custody in prison. The cops had agreed. Martelli was big trouble, involved in everything from prostitution to drugs, but they'd never been able to pin anything concrete on him before. This was the Cascade PD's big chance and the men of Major Crime would stand between a speeding bullet and Davis if they had to, just to put Martelli away.

Blair looked up again as the door to the captain's office swung open.

"Hey, Chief, sorry, looks like we're going to be tied up here longer than I thought. A few of the squad are off with 'flu' so we're gonna have to call in favors with some of the other departments and reorganize all next week's duty rosters. Simon and I are just going to get some pizza delivered if you want to hang around," Jim called apologetically.

Blair shuddered slightly at the mention of pizza. It had only been a couple of months since he'd been dosed with an hallucinogenic drug called Golden, delivered courtesy of the drug's manufacturers right to the desk he was now seated at, sprinkled over the top of a pizza purportedly from a grateful Chief of Police. Blair had eaten one piece and, while suffering delusions from its effects, had gone on a wild shooting spree in the police garage. Then he'd collapsed and been in a coma for several days.

Jim noticed the slight spike in his partner's heart rate at the mention of pizza and began to apologize again, then smiled as he heard the accompanying tummy grumble. He looked carefully at Sandburg. Blair looked exhausted. Jim knew he mostly ate on the run these days anyway, thanks to making himself available to work at helping Jim keep his senses under control, as well as trying to maintain his teaching load and research at Rainier.

Glancing around the bullpen, Ellison spotted Rafe still at his desk. "Blair, why don't you grab Rafe and go get some food? He can probably do with some time-out too. Then you can come back here in say..." Jim glanced at the clock before continuing, "a couple of hours and I should be wrapped up. Okay?"

Rafe looked up at the mention of his name.

"Rafe, what do you say? Jim's gonna be tied up here for a while and I could eat a horse, man. That's just a figure of speech, though, right? I'd prefer Thai actually. Anyway, I'm really hungry. Want to come with me and get something. We'll go dutch." Blair smiled across at the good-looking young detective. He liked Rafe. He hadn't got to know him as well as he had Joel Taggart, captain of the Bomb Squad or Rafe's partner, Henri Brown, but what he had seen he'd liked. It would be a good chance for the two youngest and newest members of Major Crime to get to know each other.

"Sure, Blair, sounds good." Rafe smiled across at the young observer, then stood and snagged his coat off the back of his chair, waiting while Blair did the same.

"Okay, we'll be back in a couple hours, Jim. Try to convince Simon to let you out by then, will you? I am totally wiped, man. I need to get some sleep," Blair called across to his partner.

"Ellison!" came a growl from inside the office. "You want to get home any time tonight? How about we get back to work? I'm sure Sandburg's capable of organizing dinner for himself."

"Why, thank you for your vote of confidence, Simon," Blair said, grinning.

"That's Captain Banks to you, Sandburg. Now get out of here, will ya? Some of us have work to do."

"On my way, Captain, sir," Blair replied, snapping a smart salute and spinning on his heels. "Come on, Rafe, let's get out of here, before they change their minds and make us help them."

"I'm with you, Hairboy." Rafe grinned as they beat a hasty retreat and headed for the elevator.

~oOo~

Blair and Rafe ended the meal by arguing genially over Rafe insisting on picking up the tab. He capitulated gracefully when Blair reminded him of their agreement to go dutch.

Blair had enjoyed talking to Rafe. Their backgrounds were totally different, but Blair was fascinated by Rafe's stories about his life growing up in South Africa, and he tossed in a few anecdotes of his own about the tribal societies he'd studied. They paid the bill and left the restaurant, sauntering back the way they'd come, still chatting companionably.

Blair noticed the time showing on an electronic billboard they passed under. "We'd better pick up the pace, man. Jim'll be pissed if we get back late and he's had to sit around waiting for me. It's been a long week. He's as tired as I am."

"I don't know how you do it, Blair," Rafe commented.

"Do what?" Blair asked.

"You know, stay partnered with Ellison. I mean, I admit Jim's different since you've been with him. More human. But he can still be kind of intimidating at times. I was sort of scared of him when I started at Major Crime, though Jim never said anything to me to cause me to feel like that. As a matter of fact, he never really spoke to me at all. Just his reputation, I suppose. Jim used to stay out in the field most of the time when he was working a case, said he didn't need a partner. Then he brings you in, introduces you as his new partner, out of the blue. I mean, no offence, Blair but you're not even a cop. Raised a few eyebrows in the break room," Rafe explained.

"I can imagine," Blair replied with a grin.

"But then everyone noticed how much easier he was to work with. You know, he joked around with us, didn't bite your head off if you asked him a question. He was just more one of the guys and we realized it had to be your influence." Rafe smiled as he patted the anthropologist on the back. "That's when we really accepted you as one of the team, Blair."

"Thanks, Rafe. But Jim's the best friend I could have asked for. He's always been there for me when I've needed him. Anything I've given Jim, he's given back to me." Blair stopped suddenly just short of the window of a convenience store, then reached out and caught hold of Rafe's sleeve. "Uh... Rafe, please tell me that's not what I think it is?" he asked.

Rafe motioned Blair to stay behind him as they moved into the shadows beside the window. He chanced a quick look through the glass, seeing a man holding a gun on an elderly woman behind the counter.

"Damn, it's a robbery," Rafe whispered, patting his pockets frantically. "Do you have a cell phone, Blair? I think I left mine back at the precinct."

"Yes, but it's in my backpack at the office," Blair whispered back. "There's a payphone on the next corner. Maybe we should just call it in."

"Blair, I want you to go to the phone and call for backup. I'm going to go in."

"You sure you should risk that, Rafe? I mean, that guy's armed. We should probably just call it in and wait for backup." If the situation hadn't been so potentially serious, Blair would have laughed, a picture of Jim berating him for not staying in the truck popping incongruously into his mind.

"I'll be fine, Blair. I've got my weapon on me and there's only one guy. I can hold him off. Just go make the call, okay? Jim will rip me a new one if you get hurt. I'll be fine. I'm a cop. This is what I do. Now get going, man," Rafe said, as he headed stealthily for the door.

Blair ducked beneath the window, then, straightening up, ran full pelt for the phone. Reaching it, he hooked the receiver down, then scrabbled in his pocket for change, his fingers made clumsy by haste and nervousness. Finally, he managed to insert the money into the slot and punched in Jim's number, waiting breathlessly for the call to be connected.

"Ellison."

"Jim, we're at the convenience store just down the block from the Thai restaurant..."

"Sandburg, if you're calling to tell me you and Rafe have picked up a couple of girls..." Jim began.

"Jim, just shut up and listen! There's an armed robbery going down. We need backup, man. Rafe's already gone in. Can you just get down here? I've got to go back and help Rafe." Blair's words spilled out, almost tripping over each other in his urgency to explain.

"I'm on my way, Chief. You stay put, you hear me?"

" No, I have to get back there. Rafe's waiting for me to come back. Just get here!" Blair slammed the phone down and took off back to the store.

Ellison snatched up his gun and holstered it then ran from the room. He caught up with Simon at the elevator and filled him in. They barreled into the elevator and Jim punched the button for the parking garage, his heart beating triple time all the way down.

By the time he reached his truck, Simon was right behind him, climbing up into the passenger seat and reaching forward to snag the radio. He called for backup and an ambulance while Jim put the mars light and siren on and peeled out of the lot, tires squealing.

~oOo~

Blair made his way cautiously back to the store. Approaching the window he hugged the wall then took a look inside. The man at the counter had turned around and now had his gun aimed at someone below Blair's line of sight.

Blair jumped as the man pulled the trigger. Heart pounding he saw Rafe being pulled up from the floor by a second perp. Rafe looked pale and barely conscious but Blair couldn't see where he was injured. He clenched his fists, his breath hitching in his throat as he tried to decide what to do. Jim would be here soon, but by then, it might be too late for Rafe. Making up his mind, he eased himself out of his meager shelter and began to inch toward the door figuring that at least he could try to get close enough to hear what was going on. He froze as he felt the unmistakable pressure of a gun barrel grinding into his neck.

"Well, well, what do we have here?" The voice at his ear was menacing. "Move inside slowly, boy."

Blair held his arms out from his sides and began to move through the door, helped on his way by a shove that landed him sprawled next to Rafe. He glanced at the detective, trying to judge his condition. Rafe was swaying on his knees, his jaw clenched in a grimace of pain.

"Found this hippie hanging around outside, Dave. You want I should waste him?"

"No way, Billy," the perp behind Rafe spoke up. "I ain't going down for murder, man. This was supposed to be a nice easy heist. No one gets killed, remember?"

"Shut up, Jesse, I make the call on who gets wasted or not," the man in front of the counter said. "Shit!" He turned as he heard approaching sirens. "Get them out to the van. We can use 'em as hostages if we have to. Or maybe we'll push 'em out on the side of the road somewhere." He picked up the cloth bags on the counter and moved ahead of them through the back door of the store, waiting till Blair and Rafe had been pushed into the back accompanied by his accomplices, then climbed into the driver's seat and accelerated away.

Blair reached a hand down to the crumpled figure sprawled across his legs. "Rafe? You okay?

"Shut up! Keep your hands where I can see 'em, hippie," one of the men growled, pushing him back.

"I just want to see if he's all right," Blair argued hotly.

"I told you to shut up." With that, the man lashed out and caught Blair a hard blow to the side of his head with the gun, causing him to crash back into the side of the van. His head thumped painfully against the metal and he slumped down, unconscious.

~oOo~

"Dammit, Sandburg," Jim swore as they drove past the call box and he saw no sign of his partner. He should have known Blair would head back to try to help Rafe, no matter what Jim ordered him to do. They continued onto the store and pulled up outside, Jim almost falling from the driver's seat in his haste. He and Simon took up position either side of the doorway. Jim extended his hearing. He could only make out one heartbeat. It was rapid, almost jittering. He pulled his gun from the holster and cautiously entered the store, Simon at his heels.

"Jim?" Simon asked.

"They're gone, sir," Jim replied, as he looked behind the counter, following the heartbeat he'd heard before. An elderly woman was leaning against the wall there, one hand pressed to her chest, panting shallowly.

Jim moved round the desk to crouch at her side. "Take it easy, ma'am. I'm Detective Ellison, Cascade PD. This is Captain Banks. We have an ambulance coming. Are you hurt anywhere?"

The woman shook her head. "I don't think so. I was just so scared."

"I can imagine," Jim said gently, patting her hand, the urgency to find out what had happened to his partner warring with his innate instinct to be patient with a victim. "Were there two men in here when this happened?"

"There were three of them," she replied.

"Three? You mean one man as well as the other two men I asked about?"

"Three robbers," the woman explained.

"Was there a detective, young guy, with short hair, wearing a coat and another man with long curly hair?"

"I saw the police officer but one of the thieves grabbed him when he came in and made him hand over his gun and kneel on the floor. Then they told me to sit down here and not move so I didn't see what happened after that. I was too scared to look even when I heard the gunshot. I heard one of them say something about a hippie they'd found outside."

Jim's heart leapt into his throat. "Who was shot? Do you know?"

"I don't know. I'm sorry. I've told Frank not to keep so much money in the safe here, but he doesn't trust banks. They seemed to know it was here and they made me give them the combination. Frank is going to be so angry with me." The woman began to cry softly.

"I'm sure he'll just be grateful that you're safe," Jim said, as he stood up to give the paramedics access.

"Jim, why don't you scope the place out?" Simon suggested, one hand on Jim's shoulder. "See what you can sense, if you know what I mean. Just don't zone on me, all right. I don't quite have Sandburg's touch."

"I'll be careful, sir." He moved slowly around the interior. He could recognize the scent of Blair's shampoo in the air, leaving him in no doubt that his Guide had been in here. A small pool of blood on the floor caught his attention. He bent to look at it, dialing up his sight as far as he dared. All he could tell was that the blood was relatively fresh. He didn't dare concentrate too much on sight alone without Sandburg here to ground him. A zone out was the last thing he needed right now.

"Detective?"

Jim turned, seeing the storeowner about to be pushed past him on a gurney.

"Wait, just one moment," she called to the medics. "Here, it's the license number of the van they used. I saw it in the alleyway when I was getting some things from the storeroom just before they broke in. I wrote it down. I felt foolish doing it at the time but I guess I was just nervous about being here on my own at night. I was too upset to remember when I spoke to you before." She pressed a crumpled piece of paper into his hand.

"Thank you. This will be a great help," Jim said, forcing a reassuring smile onto his face. He waved the medics on. "Simon, can you put an APB out on the van? The woman got the plate number." He handed the paper to the captain. "I couldn't really find much else, a patch of blood there," he said, indicating it, "No way to tell whose it is, though, till Forensics get here. I'll be outside, sir."

Simon called in the APB then walked outside to find Jim. The detective was leaning up against the wall, head bowed. He looked up as the captain approached. "This shouldn't have happened, Simon. It would have taken me ten minutes to grab some takeout and bring it back to the office..." Ellison began.

"Climb down off the cross, Jim. Someone else needs the wood. You'd blame yourself for the invention of gunpowder given half a chance. Sandburg's an adult. He doesn't need you to hold his hand every time he walks outside. Give the kid some credit, Jim. He's been in tough spots before and he's handled himself pretty well, though if you tell the kid I said that, I'll deny it." Simon placed a hand on Jim's shoulder, giving it a comforting squeeze.

"What the hell was Rafe thinking about? He knows Sandburg's not a cop. He should have called it in and waited for backup, not asked Blair to cover his ass," Jim ground out heatedly.

"Listen up, Detective. We don't know how this went down yet. As far as I can see we've got two men missing here. Rafe's a good cop and a good friend. I don't want anything to happen to either of them." Simon sighed, running one hand wearily over his face. "I'm gonna go call Brown. He's still in New York for his mother's funeral but he'll want to know what's happened to his partner." He moved away, one hand pulling his cell phone from his pocket, the other searching for a cigar.

~oOo~

"Blair? Wake up for me, will you?" The voice was insistent, the hands tapping lightly at his cheeks, annoying.

"Jim?" he rasped out.

"No, it's me, Rafe. How you doing?"

Blair opened his eyes, eventually focusing on the figure next to him. "Okay, I think. Head hurts though." He struggled to sit up, managing it with Rafe's help. "Oh man, I'm gonna..." He turned to the side, away from Rafe, and retched violently, feeling the pounding in his head increase to massive proportions as the spasms wrenched him. He could feel Rafe's hand rubbing soothing circles on his back. It reminded him of Jim doing the same thing, and he clenched his eyelids shut against the threat of hot tears. Eventually the vomiting stopped and he dropped back to the ground, exhausted. He looked carefully at Rafe. The detective was pale, his face sweat-sheened. "Rafe, how are you feeling? You look terrible, man."

"I got hit in the shoulder. It's not bleeding as much anymore but I think the bullet's still in there."

Blair pulled aside the lapel of Rafe's coat, grimacing at the sight of the bullet wound surrounded by blood, high in the detective's chest. "Looks bad, Rafe."

"You ever heard of a good bullet wound, Hairboy?" He patted Blair's shoulder awkwardly with his good hand.

Blair carefully pulled himself to a sitting position again. This time his stomach stayed in place although the pain in his head made him feel as if it was about to split in two. "Where are we, man?" he asked, gazing around, trying to pick out their surroundings through the encroaching darkness.

"Not sure exactly. I don't know how long we drove for. They must have stolen my watch while I was out. The perps had a police scanner. I heard an APB for the van come over it just after I came to. Next thing I knew they stopped, grabbed me out and pulled you out after me, then climbed back in the van and took off. The city's in that direction." Rafe pointed to the skyline Blair could make out in the distance, and then suddenly he was slipping down onto the ground next to Blair, trying to force his eyes to stay open against the sudden vertigo.

Blair ripped a long strip off his shirt and used it to bandage the wound in the detective's shoulder. Rafe looked even paler than he had before. He hissed as Blair pulled the substitute dressing tight and knotted the ends as well as he could.

"Blair, we need to start walking. Even if they find the perps those guys probably won't say where they dumped us. We need to start walking back. There's gotta be some traffic along here sometime."

"You're not up to it, man. I should go on my own. Leave you here to rest up," Blair argued.

"No. You've got a concussion at the very least, maybe a fractured skull. If you get dizzy and walk off the side of the highway, nobody will know where I am, anyway. We need to stick together. Besides, it's cold. I'll probably freeze to death if I just lay here. I gotta keep an eye on you, Blair. Jim's gonna be pissed as it is at me for getting you into this."

"Okay, man, okay. Let me help you." Blair pulled Rafe to his feet, keeping an arm wrapped around the detective's back. His vision wavered for a moment at the exertion but he stiffened his resolve, then huddled together, they began their torturous way back toward Cascade.

~oOo~

Banks eyed the detective sitting next to him with concern. They'd been back at the precinct for over 6 hours and in that time Ellison had barely spoken. A few times Simon thought he'd zoned but he answered monosyllabically each time the captain asked if he was okay. The only sign that he heard anything else at all was when updates came through regarding the APB on the van. Then he'd raise his head but when there was no progress to report he'd slouch down at the desk once more, his jaw clenching.

"Jim, why don't you go get some coffee or something? Stretch your legs at least?"

"I'm fine, sir."

"Come in!" Banks called, hearing a knock on the door. "What's up, Dills?" he asked as the man stuck his head round the office door.

"We've got 'em, sir!" Dills was grinning widely.

Ellison jumped to his feet and pushed past the detective, pausing to grind out, "Where?"

"They ran the van down on Oakley. The perps gave up without much of a struggle. They've just brought them in downstairs."

"What about Sandburg and Rafe?" Simon asked, his breath catching in his throat.

"They weren't in the van. But we have these guys. We can offer a deal. One of them is bound to crack," Dills replied quickly, taking in Ellison's grim face.

Jim took off at a run.

"Jim! Wait! You go busting in there and you could … Shit!" Simon followed Ellison, catching up with him at the elevator. "Jim, stop!" Simon grabbed the detective by an arm and pulled him to a halt. "I know you want to find out what happened to Blair. So do I. I want to know where Rafe is, too. But you go busting in there in the frame of mind you're in right now and you're likely to blow any case we have right out of the water."

"I just want to ask them a few questions, Captain." Jim's face was set and hard, but his voice was calm and even. "We don't have time to pussyfoot around. Blair and Rafe have been missing for over 6 hours. We already know at least one of them is hurt. Look, I'll keep it together."

"Yeah, right, Jim. I don't need sentinel hearing to know that your blood pressure's through the roof right now and given half a chance you'd punch these guys through the wall to get the answers you want. I'm warning you, Jim. We do this Q&A by the book or you stay out of the room. Got it?" Banks moved in until he was only inches from the sentinel's face, staring him down.

Ellison stared back, his eyes flinty. A heartbeat passed. "Got it…sir."

They entered the elevator and Jim punched the button for the ground floor.

"Hey, Captain?" the booking sergeant called as they stepped out.

"Yeah, Ross. What's up?" Simon replied, walking to the desk.

"One of the guys we brought in from that store robbery wants to talk to you. Says he wants to make a deal. He'll tell you where they dumped your men in exchange for protection and less time."

"We don't make the deals, Sergeant. That's up to the lawyers," Banks said evenly.

"Hey, I know that, Captain but this kid's only 17. And he's scared stiff. He's got no record, says he got suckered into this because he owed the head honcho some money. I figure if you play your cards right you can get what you want."

"Simon…" Jim began.

"Okay, we'll talk to the kid. But no deals all right, Jim? We'll do what we can for the boy, but that's all. No promises."

"Thank you, sir. Where is he, Sergeant?"

"Interrogation room one. Thought we'd keep him separate from the other scum. His name's Jesse Ramirez. Go easy on the kid, Detective. He's scared out of his wits. Bit off more than he can chew, if you ask me."

Ramirez was a skinny kid with clothes that looked way too big for him. He looked up as they entered, and immediately burst into a non-stop run of words, before they could even sit down.

"I swear, I didn't know they were gonna shoot anyone. Dave said nobody'd get hurt. I heard the old man talkin' to someone about the money in the safe last week. Dave promised me no guns... I swear, man!" The kid's words dribbled out, his eyes taking on the look of a deer in the headlights.

"Whoa, slow down, son. Take a breath." Simon pulled up a chair opposite the boy and waited while Jim did the same. "What's your name?"

"Jesse, Jesse Ramirez. I ain't never been in no trouble before. I borrowed some money off Dave to get my kid sister an operation... she's in a wheelchair. Then I lost my job and I couldn't pay him back..." The boy was beginning to hyperventilate.

"Listen, Jesse. Slow down, okay? Do you want to have a lawyer here? Did they read you your rights?"

Jesse nodded. "Yes, they told me I could have a lawyer here. I don't want one yet. I want to talk to you first."

Jim stood up and moved around the table to sit next to the kid. He was sticking to procedure even though every part of him wanted to grab the kid into a headlock and demand the answers to what he most wanted to hear. *Where was Blair? Was he still alive?* But he reined in his emotions, ruthlessly dialing them down in much the same way Blair had taught him to dial down his other senses. He gave the boy a halfway genuine smile of reassurance.

Simon held his breath. If Ellison showed any real signs of intimidating the boy, Banks planned to have him removed from the room, even if he had to handcuff the big detective and drag him out himself. He watched cautiously as the sentinel placed an arm casually around Jesse's shoulder.

"Jesse, we want to help you. We know you want to do the right thing here, that you realize you made a mistake. But right now, there are two men out there who need your help. You say you only wanted to help your sister. Well, all we want is to help our friends..." Jim raised a hand as the boy started to interrupt. "We can't promise you anything, Jesse, except this - we can make everything a hell of a lot harder for you if we don't get them back in one piece."

"Jim..." Simon warned quietly.

"It's okay, Captain. Jesse here's a bright boy. He knows how it's gonna go down, don't you, Jesse?" Jim tightened his hold around the kid's shoulders, though his expression didn't change. He pulled Jesse in closer and whispered, "I want my partner back, Jesse, and I know you want to help me get him back. Am I right?" He smiled grimly into the boy's face.

"Yeah, I do. I can tell you where we left 'em. I mean, not exactly. But I can give you some landmarks, man," the boy gibbered.

"How badly are they hurt?" Simon asked.

"I'm not sure... honest, man," Jesse replied defensively, seeing the disbelieving look on the cops' faces. "I was out back looking for the safe when the cop came in. I heard a shot and I came running out. He looked sorta groggy but I couldn't see if he was hit or not. He had a coat on but I didn't see no blood on it.

"What about the other guy, the one with long hair?" Jim asked, almost not wanting to hear the answer.

"He was okay until we got in the van but then he said something to Billy about wanting to see if the cop was all right. Billy hit him with the gun and I guess he banged his head or something because he was out cold when we pulled 'em out of the van. Get me a map, man. I'll show you where we left 'em. It's about a two hour drive up towards the mountains. We dropped 'em off then Dave said we should go back to the city, dump the van somewhere. Said you wouldn't expect us to do that."

"Jim?" Simon asked, knowing that the sentinel would have been monitoring the boy's vital signs constantly.

"He's telling the truth, sir. Let's get him that map."

~oOo~

The trek back was proving to be hard and slow. Blair and Rafe found themselves having to stop every ten minutes or so for one or the other to rest.

Blair's headache was increasing incrementally for each bout of nausea he suffered. His vision was blurry at best and he knew it had little to do with the fact that he didn't have his glasses. Each time he stopped, he found it harder to push himself up again, the need to simply lie down and give in to the drowsiness pulling at him was almost overwhelming. Added to that was his growing thirst. He hadn't had more than a glass of water at the restaurant and now the frequent vomiting was depleting his body of fluids even more. He mentally kicked himself for not taking his backpack, with its ever present water bottle, with him when he'd left the precinct, but then realized the robbers were hardly likely to have offered him his bag as they'd pushed him from the van. He found himself smiling at the picture that popped into his head and tried to stifle a giggle that he knew sounded more than a little hysterical.

Rafe wasn't faring any better. His shoulder throbbed in time with his heartbeat and a quick check under the bandage the first time they'd stopped had verified his fear that it had started bleeding again. By the time they'd walked for a half- hour the blood had spread to his sleeve and now dripped in slow trickles from his lax fingers onto the roadway. Blair had tried to tighten the dressing but his blurred vision and the lack of light made it almost impossible to do more than hope that he'd cinched the knot enough. Rafe knew that he was losing too much blood and he hoped against hope that a car would come along soon. He wanted nothing more than to sink down and let oblivion take him away but he knew he couldn't. He was the cop, Blair was his responsibility and he had no intention of giving in now.

"Rafe, wait a minute, man. I'm sorry. I gotta stop and rest again."

The detective turned to see Blair wandering drunkenly into the middle of the highway. He reached a hand out and managed to snag an arm, pulling the observer in close to his side, then steering him to the shoulder of the road. There was a layby a few feet ahead and he urged the young man to stay on his feet just a little longer. Once he had them both well clear of the blacktop, he lowered Blair to a sitting position by dint of virtually falling to his own knees and taking Sandburg with him.

"Blair? You still with me?" Rafe grasped Blair's chin, tilting his head up. The observer's eyelids hung at half-mast, the blood from the cut on his head snaking down toward his cheek.

Blair could hear a voice coming as if from a vast distance, competing with a vicious buzzing in his head. His head felt as if it was floating away from the rest of him. "Jim?" The word was a whisper. He heard the voice again. It was telling him to stay awake. He wanted to. He tried to tell the voice that. He knew it was important that he did but he was so tired, too tired to remember why it was important. Suddenly he just couldn't hold the darkness back anymore. He closed his eyes and let it carry him away.

"Damn!" Rafe cursed as he saw Blair fall to the side, reaching out to grab him before he hit the ground, jarring his shoulder in the process. The pain caused a profusion of lights to prickle across his vision and he bit down hard on his lip to keep from passing out. He pushed Blair over into the recovery position and checked his pulse. It was slow but just the fact it was there was reassuring. He made sure the observer's airway was clear, then collapsed back onto his knees as he tried to decide what to do.

There'd been no traffic at all since they'd been dumped here, so he figured the chances of getting help in the form of a vehicle weren't good, at least till morning and he wasn't sure either he or Blair could last that long. He stood shakily, waiting until his head stopped spinning then bent over the limp body at his feet. He pulled Sandburg to a sitting position and hoisted him experimentally, trying to see if he could take his weight in a fireman's carry. The wound in his shoulder screamed its objection and he carefully pushed Blair back down onto his side again. The exertion and subsequent pain had almost caused him to pass out and he stayed crouched on his haunches, his head drooping till he was relatively sure he wouldn't fall flat on his face again.

He checked Blair again, ensuring that he was visible from the road but well back from the edge. He tried rousing him, fearing that Blair might come to after he'd gone and stumble off the side of the highway under the wheels of a car. The observer appeared to be deeply unconscious, giving no reaction even to the sternal rub the detective used to try to get a response.

Finally deciding that he had no choice but to continue the search for help himself Rafe stood up and began the seemingly endless tramp up the road towards the lights in the distance.

By the time the sun was coming up Rafe had been forced to stop three or four times. Each time, despite the urgency pulling at him, it had taken longer and longer to get himself moving again. He trudged on, trying to ignore the increasing pain screaming for his attention. Lifting his head to scan the road for cars, he saw a small stand of trees a little way ahead. He promised his body a short rest there if it just didn't give out on him now.

It seemed to take him an impossibly long time to cover the distance but finally he made it, sinking to the ground in an uncoordinated half fall when he got there. He ached to stretch out on the ground and close his eyes but in the forefront of his mind was a picture of Blair, helpless on the side of the road and he forced himself to stay awake. He began counting out loud, deciding that as soon as he reached a hundred he would set off again.

~oOo~

Rafe heard a vehicle heading towards him and pushed himself away from the scrubby tree he was leaning against. He'd made it to hands and knees by the time it had come to a stop next to him. He shook his head, trying to clear it and struggled to push himself to his feet, desperate to make his rescuer help him to go back for Blair. His arms collapsed under him as pain shot through his injured shoulder and he ended up almost flat on his face. A strong arm caught him round the waist and he found himself pulled back to rest on his knees. Another pair of hands gripped the front of his coat and began to pull him upright, the strain on his wounded shoulder causing him to utter a hoarse scream. Immediately he heard a muttered apology and felt the hands gripping his coat loosen. He would have fallen again if not for the arm around his waist. His vision began to fade and he felt his head lolling forward on his chest. He had the sensation of being lowered to the ground and he fought to stay conscious.

Jim placed a hand behind Rafe's head and helped Simon roll the detective onto his back. Rafe was pallid, his eyes barely tracking as they flickered back and forth across the faces above him.

"Rafe, where's Blair?" Jim asked the question urgently. He knew Rafe was barely conscious and he wanted desperately to keep him lucid long enough to answer.

Rafe moaned, a hand wavering up to his shoulder, tugging weakly at the front of his coat. His breath puffed out past arid lips. He licked at them vainly, endeavoring to moisten them enough to make himself heard.

Jim noticed the small hole in the fabric and pulled the coat apart. He heard Simon gasp as they saw the bloodstained shirt underneath and the makeshift bandage made from Blair's shirt.

Simon spun back to the truck, grabbing a bottle of water and the first aid kit from under the front seat, then kneeling at Rafe's side again, he snagged a handful of dressings and pressed down firmly on the wound.

Rafe tossed his head, groaning, trying to twist away from the pressure but another hand came down on his uninjured shoulder, holding him still. He struggled against the fog clouding his brain, trying to school his tongue to coherence. He knew he had to tell them where to find Blair but the pain was overwhelming him. He reached a hand up, catching the front of Ellison's shirt in a shaking fist and pulled the other detective down to within whispering distance of his mouth. He swallowed the dryness that threatened to choke him and finally managed to make himself understood.

"Blair... back up the road. Sorry... couldn't carry him..."

"It's okay, Rafe. We'll find him," Simon soothed. He wet the wounded man's lips with a scant amount of water. "Can't give you too much, son. You're gonna need surgery on that shoulder." He turned as he heard the ambulance pull up, then moved away to give the paramedics room to work.

Jim ran to the truck, heart in his mouth.

"Ellison. Wait up!" Simon took off after the detective, "Jim, you can't find him on your own. We need to get another ambulance here. Maybe Search and Rescue, as well."

"There's not enough time, Simon. They need to get Rafe to the hospital. It's too cold out here. Blair needs to be found now, otherwise..." Jim forced down the lump in his throat that was threatening to choke him. "If you drive I can follow the bloodstains," he forced the words out, "from Rafe. I can see them, Simon. We can bring Blair back in the truck and save time."

"You sure, Jim?" Simon asked, already pulling himself up into the driver's seat.

"I'm sure."

~oOo~

Simon brought the truck to a sideways halt mere inches from the body on the side of the road. Jumping down from his side of the truck, Jim ran over and crouched down, gently turning the man over. A hand reached to brush the blood-matted curls away from his partner's forehead. He winced as he saw the gash hidden beneath the hair and the bruise on Blair's cheek. The touch brought a groan from the dry lips and Jim spoke soothingly. "Easy, Blair, easy." He felt Simon nudge his shoulder and looked up to see a water bottle being offered to him. Carefully he eased Blair up so he was resting with his head and shoulders supported against Jim's leg. "Blair? You with me, buddy?"

Blue eyes slid open and swept lazily over Ellison's face. "Jim? Find Rafe."

"It's okay, Chief. We found him. He's on his way to the hospital. Let's get you there, too." Jim tipped the bottle slowly against Blair's mouth, "Just a couple of sips, Blair. You've got a head injury. Too much will make you sick."

Blair gulped at the water, his hands coming up greedily to try to snatch the bottle back as Jim pulled it away.

"No more yet, Blair. Can you stand?" Ellison waited till Blair nodded carefully, then he and Simon grabbed an arm each and cautiously levered the smaller man to his feet. Blair swayed within their support and Jim saw his eyes close again, his face a deathly white. Ellison bent and lifted Blair into his arms, then headed for the truck, Simon running ahead to open the door and helping to manhandle Blair inside.

"You drive, Simon," Jim called as he climbed in next to Blair, pulling his partner down to lie across his legs. He turned Blair over onto his side, taking the jacket Simon thrust at him and covering the shaking shoulders with it.

Blair was quiet, his eyes half closed. Jim ran his hand under the jacket, extending his sense of touch, his fingers probing gently, searching for other injuries. He could feel the heat of bruises across his partner's back but they didn't appear to be too serious. Jim began to pull his hand away, but as Blair moved restlessly against him, he replaced it and began to move it in gentle circles over the trembling skin.

"How's he doing, Jim?" Simon asked, glancing over at the two men. Blair appeared to be asleep, his eyelids fluttering as if he were dreaming.

"Okay for now, I think. He's got a few bruises and definitely a concussion, not to mention being dehydrated and hypothermic." One of Blair's hands lay quiescent in Jim's, the sentinel stroking his thumb soothingly across the pulse point at the wrist. "Sir... Simon, what I said about Rafe..." Jim began.

"Not now, Jim. Let's get your partner taken care of, first. Maybe, by the time you know for sure Sandburg's going to be all right, Rafe'll be up to accepting your apology." Simon turned his attention back to the road. He was still angry with Ellison, at his seeming shortsightedness where Sandburg was concerned, but seeing the two of them together now, Jim's rage gone, and Blair's obvious faith that Jim would find him... He sighed. He guessed it had something to do with the sentinel stuff, stuff he'd told them both he didn't want to know more about than was absolutely necessary. And he knew, despite his misgivings about it all, it worked, not just for the good of Sentinel and Guide but for the department and the people of Cascade as well.

~oOo~

'How's he doing, sir?"

Banks looked up to see Ellison standing next to him. He'd been sitting at Rafe's bedside for over two hours now, ever since the detective had come out of surgery. He was exhausted, having had no sleep the night before and he'd been on his feet almost continuously since Blair and Rafe had disappeared. The worry over the two men's condition hadn't helped matters and right now his nerves felt fried.

"He's going to be all right. They got the bullet out. It split the muscle in his shoulder but didn't hit any bones, so that's good. They're mostly concerned about infection, seeing he was out there so long without medical attention. The doc says he'll be in a fair bit of pain when he wakes up but they'll keep him doped to the gills for the next twenty four hours, anyway. How's Sandburg? I thought you'd be in with him. We normally can't pry you from the kid's side when he's hurt." Simon eyed the detective speculatively. Jim looked like he felt and that couldn't have been good.

"Blair's okay, too, sir. He's got a pretty heavy-duty concussion but no skull fracture, thank goodness. They put an IV in to rehydrate him and his temperature seems to be back up to what passes for normal in the Sandburg Zone." Jim's lips quirked up at this. His partner could never be warm enough. "I stayed with him till he was settled. He's sleeping now but he was very insistent that I come find out how Rafe was doing and, well... I was worried about him too. You want me to sit with him for a while. You could go get some coffee, have a break..." Jim patted Simon's shoulder.

"You sure?" Simon stood up and stretched. Hospital chairs weren't made for someone his size to sit in comfortably for too long. He wondered if that's why they made them that way, to discourage visitors getting under the nurses' feet. "I'll be back in a while, Jim. Rafe had it pretty rough out there. I didn't want him waking up on his own."

"I know, Simon. I'm glad to do it." Jim sat down in the chair the captain had vacated.

Simon walked to the door, glancing back as he heard Rafe moan softly. He saw Jim lean forward and place a hand on the man's arm in much the same way he did for Blair.

"Easy, Rafe, take it easy. You're gonna be fine. Just rest, buddy," Jim murmured.

Smiling to himself, Simon left the room. Rafe was in good hands.

~oOo~

"Come in," Rafe called, hearing the knock on the door. He smiled broadly as Sandburg was pushed through the door in a wheelchair steered by Jim. Captain Banks brought up the rear of the cavalcade.

"Hey, Rafe," Blair said delightedly. "I am so glad to see you in one piece, man. For a while there, I didn't think either of us was going to make it."

"Likewise, Blair. You going home?" Rafe asked, seeing Blair was dressed in his usual attire of jeans and layers of shirts.

"Yeah. I can't wait. I mean the food in here..." Blair shuddered expressively. "But I gotta admit the scenery's sorta nice." He gave the detective a lascivious grin, wiggling his eyebrows suggestively.

"Uh huh. Guess that mean's you got all the pretty nurses, hey, Hairboy? How'd you get to be so lucky with women?"

"Don't let it get to you, Rafe," Jim broke in, grinning. "Sandburg here may think he's got what it takes to hook the ladies but his ability to keep 'em hanging around once he's hooked them could use some work."

"Hey, Jim. That's not fair, man. I'm not the one who's been divorced here," Blair responded in a mock wounded tone.

That remark earned him a whack on the head from both Simon and Jim. He let out a yelp. "Easy, guys, I'm injured, remember?"

"Enough of the divorce digs, Sandburg," Simon growled. He smiled over at Rafe. "Henri called. Said he just knew he shouldn't have left you on your own. He'll be back tomorrow. The doc says you can go home then so Henri's gonna pick you up."

"That's great, Captain. I'm so bored. I can't wait to get back to work."

"All in good time, son. Doc says a week at home then desk duties for a few weeks after that."

"Oh, I'll be fine, sir. It hardly even hurts any more..." Rafe sighed, seeing the firm look on his captain's face. "Yes, sir," he finished glumly.

"Best just to go with it, Rafe," Jim said. "He's a stickler for following doctor's orders, right, Captain? Um, sir, would you go help Blair out to the truck? I want to have a quick word with Rafe."

Rafe looked at him inquiringly as Simon nodded and wheeled Blair out. "I'll see you soon, Blair. Take care of yourself," Rafe called after them. He swallowed hard as he waited for Jim to speak, He was guessing this was the bit where Ellison took him apart, metaphorically speaking anyway, for endangering his partner.

"Rafe, I just wanted to apologize to you," Jim began, sitting on the edge of the bed.

"What?" Rafe blinked, trying to decide if the pain meds they were giving him in his IV had affected his hearing, or maybe his sanity. He was sure that the great Jim Ellison had just said he wanted to apologize. To *him*, the guy who'd almost got Sandburg killed. Ellison was famous for the way he looked out for the observer, and the way he hung around the kid's hospital bed whenever he was hurt.

"Yeah. When I first found out you and Blair had been kidnapped I told the captain that it was your fault. That you should have known better than to expect Blair to back you up. You know, the whole 'he's not a cop' thing."

"Well, you were right, Jim. I shouldn't have. Although I'm pretty sure I just told him to call for back up. I might be wrong, though. My memory's a little hazy about everything that happened that night. The doctor said it's just shock. But you don't need to apologize, man."

Jim held up his hand to cut him off. "Just let me do this, will you? I'm not real good at this 'sorry' business, a fact that I'm sure Blair can attest to. I shouldn't have blamed you because I know how hard it is to get Sandburg to follow my orders, especially the one that goes, 'Stay in the truck, Chief.' Then when we found you, I was so caught up in worrying about Blair that I wasn't exactly gentle with you."

"I don't really remember you finding me either, Jim, so that's okay. I was worried about Blair, too. And if it had been Henri out there with him, I would have felt just the way you did." Rafe smiled at the older man. "I do remember one thing, though."

"What's that, Rafe?' Jim asked, glad to have the hard part over.

"I half woke up and I was in so much pain. I heard someone talking to me, telling me to take it easy. It was you, wasn't it?" Rafe asked. "The next morning when I woke up properly, I thought I must have dreamed it because you would have stayed with Blair, like you always do. That's when I got really scared, man. I figured the only reason you'd be with me was if Blair hadn't made it."

Jim nodded. Simon had told him that the young detective had become so distressed that they'd had to sedate him again, just so they could get him calmed down enough to be able to convince him that Blair was okay.

"Yeah, well, Captain Banks did his share of keeping vigil over you, too. Guess we both just thought that with H not here, we should keep an eye on you for him," Jim said with a grin. "So are we okay here, man?" He held his hand out to shake Rafe's.

"Sure, Jim. We're fine. You know, in a way it wasn't all bad," Rafe replied, an answering smile creasing his face.

"How's that?" Jim asked.

"Oh, I got to know Blair better for one thing. I can understand now why you wanted him for a partner, cop or not. He's pretty tough, you know. I'm proud to call him a friend."

"Me too, Rafe, me too." Jim stood up and turned to leave. "You get well soon, all right. I might have babysat you in here, buddy, but next poker night I'm still gonna take all your money."

"In your dreams, Ellison. I'll catch you soon." Rafe gave up a thumbs up and lay back on the pillows, closing his eyes. He decided, maybe Sandburg had been right about Ellison being a great friend. And he knew he was right about that having more to do with Blair than even Sandburg thought. He'd have to remember to thank the kid for that the next time he saw him.

THE END

September 14th, 2003