This one goes out to Jeannie, who asked me to take up the challenge on Suzie's page! :-)
 I should warn you. It's getting around finals, and, like a crazy woman, I'm still writing... so don't be expectin' no masterpieces, 'kay? *grin*

Echoes of a Gunshot

Jim and Blair walked into the Bullpen, immediately heading for the detective's desk. With a sigh, Blair plopped himself down on the extra chair while Jim maneuvered around the desk to his own chair.

The Sentinel was just about to lower himself into the chair when Captain Banks flung open his door and barked, "Ellison, Sandburg, my office!"

Jim and Blair exchanged glances, then headed toward the Captain's office. His blinds were closed, as usual, but the small slits allowed both men to distinguish the figure of a man standing near Banks' desk. Simon withdrew into his office as the two men approached. Jim entered first, followed closely by Blair. A large man with short grey hair stood facing Simon, who was now seated behind the desk. The stranger didn't bother to turn around when the two men entered, and Ellison frowned at the obvious slight.

Simon gestured for the two men to take seats. Jim sat on the edge of the table while Blair leaned against the doorjamb.

"Yes, Sir, what is it?" Jim asked.

"This here is Sheriff Barker from Bryan, Texas," Simon said. "He's got some information for us on the Palsey case."

Sheriff Barker turned around, revealing a hard, sun-worn face with deep lines and cold brown eyes.

Blair's heart nearly stopped, and the blood drained instantly from his face. He swallowed, his eyes locked in disbelief at the man before him.

Oh God. This isn't happening, he told himself. There's no way this can possibly be happening.

Jim seemed to notice Blair's distress because he turned his head and focused concerned blue eyes on the young man.

"You okay, Chief?"

Blair blinked, barely hearing the question. He managed to nod, but didn't tear his gaze away from the man.

Sheriff Barker took a step closer to Blair, gazing at the young man with narrow, suspicious eyes. "Do I know you, son?"

Son. God, there it was. It was him. That's what he used to say. Oh God, it was definitely him. That voice. Those eyes.

Simon rose from his desk. "Sandburg, what's with you?"

A memory from long ago erupted to the forefront of Blair's mind. "C'mon, Blair. Leave me alone! I gotta do this. He killed her! I gotta do this and you can't stop me!"

The memory brought sudden and unexpected tears to Blair's eyes, but he held them back, refusing to let them spill onto his cheeks. God, it had been so long ago but now, all of a sudden, he remembered it like it were yesterday.

Sheriff Barker's jaw dropped, and his eyes widened with sudden realization. "Blair Sandburg?" Suddenly, his face contorted into an expression of rage. "Son of a bitch!" He took another step closer to Blair.

Blair shook his head, snapping himself out of the stupor, and fumbled for the door knob. His hand closed around it and, with a deep breath, he turned the knob and yanked the door opened, staggering out of the office. He slammed the door behind him, but it opened a second later. He didn't bother to look back. He knew Jim was following him. His legs threatened to betray him, but he managed to quicken his pace as he headed for the bathroom. 

Jim had never seen Blair succumb to such a sudden and unexpected anxiety attack before. As a matter of fact, although Blair had claimed to have experienced many anxiety attacks, the only time the Sentinel had ever witnessed such events had been during times of extreme stress, like the Lash incident.

His throat tightened at that memory, and, as Blair stumbled out of the office, Jim cast a brief look at Simon, noting the Captain's concerned, questioning gaze.

"What the hell's going on?" Simon barked, casting a pointed look at Sheriff Barker.

Jim shook his head, sparing only a glance at Barker before pushing the door open and taking off in pursuit of his partner. Sandburg had just ducked in the hallway, and Jim broke into a run after him. He ignored the curious glances thrown his way by the other detectives, and extended his hearing to focus on Blair's rapid heartbeat and shallow breathing.

Blair flew into the bathroom, and Jim was only seconds behind. Sandburg rushed into a stall, closed the door, and, seconds later, retched violently, ridding his stomach of its breakfast.

Jim pushed on the stall door, but it was lock. "Sandburg? What's this all about?"

Jim could hear Blair breathing heavily in the stall, almost gasping for air. The young man sounded on the verge of unrestrained sobs.

Jim clenched one hand in a fist as he listened to his Guide's distress. "Blair? C'mon, talk to me. Tell me what's going on here."

The bathroom door flew open, and Jim whirled around in surprise. He had been so focused on Blair that he hadn't heard the footsteps.

Sheriff Barker stormed inside, followed seconds later by Simon. The Sheriff's eyes immediately focused on the closed stall Jim was standing next to, and he practically stomped over to it, then pounded on the door.

"Blair Sandburg! You fucking hippie bastard--"

Jim placed a hand on the Sheriff's chest and pushed him away from the stall. "I suggest you step back and lower your voice," Jim said, his own voice taking on a low, dangerous quality.

"And tell us what the hell is going on," Simon barked, grabbing the Sheriff's arm and pulling him away from Jim.

Barker's eyes blazed angrily, and he looked about ready to take a swing at the Captain. Banks held the man's angry gaze with one of his own. The bathroom door opened again, and Brown and Rafe stepped inside, both looking decidedly nervous.

"Uh, is everything okay in here?" Brown asked, looking at Simon.

"You need us?" Rafe added.

Simon shook his head, keeping his gaze fixed on Barker. "Thanks, but I don't think so," he said, his tone clear. If Barker got out of hand, Simon would be more than willing to have Rafe and Brown haul him off to a detention cell, cop or not.

Jim almost smiled, recognizing the protective glint in Simon's eyes.

Rafe and Brown nodded, then backed slowly out of the bathroom. For several seconds, the room was silent, each man staring at the others. The silence was so thick, that it alerted Jim to the fact that Blair was no longer gasping or heaving. In fact, the anthropologist wasn't making a sound. Jim turned his gaze onto the closed bathroom stall, opening his mouth to call out. The door opened, cutting off the question caught in his throat.

All three pairs of eyes locked onto the pale young man standing in the stall door, but the expression in Blair's eyes took both Simon and Jim off-guard. A hint of fear glistened in those blue orbs, but it was the flare of rage in Blair's eyes that stole Jim's breath.

Jim reached out cautiously and laid a gentle hand on Blair's shoulder. "You okay, Chief?"

Blair kept his gaze fixed on Barker, but acknowledged Jim with a curt nod. Several seconds passed, and nobody spoke. Sandburg and Barker simply glared at one another, and it seemed like neither man knew what to do or say now that both were out in the open.

Simon finally broke the silence. "One of you had better start explaining."

Barker pulled his gaze away from Blair to look at the Captain. "I always knew you northerners were different, but, hell, I can't believe you're allowing some hippie junkie to prance around the station in an official capacity."

"Now wait just a minute," Jim started, but Simon silenced him with a wave of his hand.

"How do you know Mr. Sandburg?" Banks asked, his tone impatient.

Barker snorted. "The little shit most definitely isn't a 'Mister'."

"Why don't you tell him, Sheriff?" Blair prodded, his voice soft. "Or maybe that's a skeleton you'd rather keep hidden in the closet."

Barker whirled around. "You shut your fucking mouth."

Blair set his jaw and met Barker's gaze. "Why don't you tell them what happened to Jason?"

"Why don't you go crawl under that rock you and your whore mother slithered out from?" Barker retorted.

Blair's eyes flashed angrily, and he clenched his fists at his side. "What's the matter? Not getting any? Too old to catch little boys?"

In a blur of motion, Barker lashed out, one fist connecting solidly with Blair's jaw. Sandburg flew backward into the open stall door, and, before either Jim or Simon could react, Barker's hands were wrapped around Blair's neck.

Jim and Simon lunged forward, each man grabbing one of Barker's arms. Blair opened his mouth, struggling for air as his fingers clawed at Barker's hands. Finally, Jim and Simon managed to pull the Sheriff off of Blair, and the young man collapsed to the floor, gasping.

"What the hell are you doing?" Simon shouted at Barker, yanking the man out of Jim's grasp.

It was all Jim could do to stop himself from throwing Barker against the wall and giving him a taste of his own medicine. Instead, he clenched his jaw and dropped next to Blair, grabbing the young man's trembling shoulders.

"Just take it easy, Chief," he soothed, pushing Blair's shoulders back against the door. "You okay?"

Breathing heavy, Blair nodded, his eyes wet with unshed tears. "Yeah," he croaked, raising one hand to rub his throat. He looked up at Barker, who was pushed against the bathroom door by Simon. "I want to press charges," he said, his voice strained. "Assault. Attempted Murder. Anything and everything."

"No one is pressing charges until I find out what all this is about," Simon barked.

Blair closed his eyes and rested his head against the stall door. "Ask him what happened to his stepson."

Simon released a slow sigh. "Okay, Barker, you wanna explain that?"

Barker remained silent. Blair finally opened his eyes and, seeing that no explanation was forthcoming, pushed himself to his feet. Jim steadied him with one hand, and Blair flashed a quick, appreciative glance at his partner. Then he looked back at Banks. "Captain, he just tried to strangle me. I want to press charges."

Banks took a deep breath. "Just hold on a minute, Sand--"

Blair shook his head angrily. "No, damnit!" His tone was harsh, matching the sudden fury in his eyes. "I don't care if he's a cop! You two saw what he did. I have rights here. I want him arrested. I want him booked and photographed and shoved into a holding cell!"

"Just calm down, Chief," Jim said.

Blair inhaled a deep breath, then looked up at Jim. "I said I want to press charges. Why is this an issue? Is it because he's a cop?" He looked back at Simon. "You don't want to arrest a cop? What, does he have to kill somebody before you two put him away? Man, Naomi always warned me--" He shook his head. "I can't believe you guys." He turned an accusing gaze up at Jim. "I'm telling you I want to press charges, and you're gonna stand there and protect him just because he wears a uniform?" His voice held unrestrained contempt, and he pinned Jim with a fiery glare.

Jim lowered his head, turning his gaze onto Simon. Banks sighed tiredly. "Sandburg, if you insist on pressing charges, then we'll file them. We can't really stop you, but I'm asking you two to come into my office -- all of us -- and talk this out. I want to know what happened between you two."

Blair shook his head. "After he's in a holding cell, we can talk. I'm not sitting in a room with him."

"Chicken shit," Barker hissed. "You're as much of a--"

"Shut up," Simon barked. "Barker, you're under arrest for assault. You have the right--"

"What?" Barker pushed Banks away. "You've got to be kidding me."

Jim rushed forward, grabbing Barker's shoulders and slamming him forward into the wall.

"Jim--" Simon warned.
Ellison reached behind him and pulled out his cuffs. "Barker, you have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you." He slapped the cuffs around Barker's wrists. "You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed to you by the court. Do you understand these rights?"

Barker gritted his teeth and turned his head, catching Blair's refection in the mirror. "This ain't over, kid," he threatened.

Jim yanked the Sheriff away from the wall. Simon opened the bathroom door so Jim could lead him out. With a final glance back at Blair, Jim pushed Barker out of the bathroom.

Half an hour later, Jim and Blair sat in Simon's office. Blair sat with his head bowed. His lip was swollen and sported a small cut on the lower left side. Banks gazed coolly at the two men for several seconds, then looked pointedly at Blair.

"Now are you going to tell me what all that was about?"

Blair swallowed hard, leaning forward and resting his elbows on his knees. He buried his face in his hands and shook his head. "It's a long story."

"I've got time," Banks said, his voice flat.

Blair rubbed his face, and, when he looked up, his eyes glistened with barely restrained emotion. Jim placed a hand on Blair's knee, and the young man glanced at the detective.

"It's okay, Chief. Just take your time," Jim said.

Blair nodded, releasing a long sigh. Then he looked back at Simon. "I was six or seven at the time. Naomi -- well, we moved around a lot and one time we ended up in this town in Texas. It was a college town, College Station. We actually lived in Bryan, which was right next door. I went to school there for a couple of months... I always moved around a lot so I never got to make long-term friends. Anyway, I made a friend at that school -- Jason. Naomi and I, well, we were different. Bryan and College Station are pretty conservative places. Texas A&M University has the corp there, so it's a big republican-military-christian town." He swallowed, taking a deep breath. "We stuck out like sore thumbs. The only reason Naomi stopped there was because she met some guy--" He shook his head. "Anyway, Jason was in my class. Most of the other kids either teased me or avoided me, but Jason was different. He'd never been out of Bryan and I guess he was curious about me, you know, because I'd done so much traveling and looked different. He'd ask me about all the places I'd visited, and I'd tell him stories about them... of course, I made a lot of it up, but he never knew that." He allowed himself a small smile, then lowered his gaze to the floor. "We became good friends. He was kind of shy, so he never hung out with the other kids, anyway. He latched onto me and we did everything together." He closed his eyes and swallowed. "Anyway, his dad was Sheriff Barker... only he wasn't Sheriff at the time. He was just a cop. I rarely went over to his house, and whenever I did Barker was working... most of the time, anyway. I only saw him a couple of times, and he was drunk on both occasions." He took a deep breath and glanced up at the two silent men. "Jason's mother died, so he only had his father... well, it was his stepfather. I never knew what happened to his real father. Anyway, Jason was always coming to school with bruises and... well, you know. He kept it really well-hidden, so I was the only one who found out. I pushed him on it once and he broke down and told me that his father..." Blair paused to take another deep breath. "Barker abused him both physically and... sexually."

Sandburg closed his eyes and rested his forehead on his hands. "One day Jason came to school and his face was all bruised. That got the teacher's attention, and she asked him about it. He gave her some story, and she bought it. His father was a cop, after all, and it was a relatively small town. I asked him about it after school and he said his father had gotten drunk the night before and hit on him pretty bad. Apparently, from what I remember of the conversation, Jason told me that his father said something about making him have an accident just like his mother. Jason never told me everything his Dad said, but it was enough to put the kid over the edge. Somehow, he'd gotten hold of his Dad's gun, and he'd carried it with him all that day at school. He was planning on killing his Dad, but he wanted to know if Naomi and I would take him with us when we left. He was just a kid, he--" He swallowed again. "He was scared and crying. I tried to talk him out of it, but he wouldn't listen. I told him that I'd tell the teacher, and then he pulled the gun out and put it to his head. He told me that if I said anything, he'd kill himself." Blair took another shaky breath. "Man, he was only six years old but he seemed almost ancient. He talked like an adult and his eyes... well, they were always so sad. I really thought he'd do it, so I didn't tell anybody... but I did follow him home. I begged him not to do it. I didn't know what to do. I'd never seen a gun before, and I just didn't know what to do. Jason didn't listen to me. We got to his house, and his Dad was there... drunk, of course... and furious. He saw Jason and started yelling. Then he went after us. That's when Jason took out the gun and pointed the barrel at him. Barker just froze, but then he started yelling again... He said things about Jason's mom, and about my mom."

Blair wiped quickly at his eyes and swallowed. "I don't actually remember what specifically happened after that. It's kind of a blur. I just remember Jason pulling the trigger. He hit Barker... in the shoulder, I think. Barker passed out, but we both thought he was dead. I mean, he was shot, he was bleeding... we thought he was dead. Jason freaked out. He said he didn't want to go to jail or into a home. He begged me to tell Naomi to leave and take him with us. I... I just didn't know what to say. I was too in shock. I'd never seen anybody get shot before and there he was still holding the gun... and it was pointing at me, though I don't think he even realized it at that point.

"Anyway, I was too focused on the gun to really hear what he was saying... and the things I can remember him saying... I just didn't know how to handle. I didn't know what to say. Then he shook his head and just looked at me... real quiet. He raised the gun, put the barrel to his head, and pulled the... trigger." Blair's voice cracked, and he covered his face with his hands again. His shoulder shook gently and, when he spoke, his voice was heavy with emotion. "I yelled something, then I just remember standing there, but I can't remember how long or what I was thinking. Then Barker was up and in my face. He was screaming, but I couldn't understand what he was saying. I remember that... remember staring at him as he was screaming at me and wondering why I couldn't understand him. Then he had the gun and it was in my face." A small sob escaped him, and he felt a hand on his shoulder. He didn't dare raise his head, so he continued. "God, man, I had just seen Jason blow his brains out and all I could think about was that I was going to be next. I remember crying, saying something about my mom. I think I was afraid of her finding me... seeing me like Jason. I didn't want that to happen. Then Barker... well, he just bent over, threw up, and passed out again."

Blair paused for a moment, trying to get control of his breathing. The hand on his shoulder gave a small squeeze. "God, Chief," Jim said.

"I'm sorry, Sandburg," Simon added.

Blair shook his head. "It's okay," he said, but didn't look up. "I'm okay... Anyway, I just ran. I took off and I guess I ran all the way home... which was a pretty long way. I don't remember anything until the next morning... at least I think it was the next morning. The cops came, and I told them everything. They didn't believe me. Barker told them a different story, well just different enough that it sort of fit my story but made it look like I was just too shaken up to remember things clearly. He was a cop and, well, they weren't all that eager to convict one of their own. Plus, Naomi and I were the outsiders, who where they going to believe? And it was a suicide, and as for the abuse... well, there was no one to testify. Now that I think about it, I guess when they took Jason's body they had to have seen all the bruises, but I guess they just looked the other way.  Naomi tried to convince them, she really did, but then Barker threatened me... one night, I remember, he came over and stood outside. He was drunk and yelling. There were no neighbors... it was out in the country. Nothing happened, though. He got tired and left. The next morning, I woke up and all our stuff was packed. We left Texas and never went back."

Blair wiped his face with his hands, then raised his head and looked at Jim with red, puffy eyes. "I never wanted to see or touch another gun after that. I had nightmares for a long time... but finally it just sort of faded into the background. I'd almost forgotten about it, actually. Maybe blocked it all out, I guess." He shook his head. "Man, yesterday if you had asked me about Barker, I probably wouldn't have remembered his name... or his face. But when I saw him here..." He swallowed. "Well, it just all came back to me suddenly."

Jim and Simon just gazed at Blair in silence, both men wearing stunned expressions. Finally, Jim broke the silence. "I'd wish you'd told me that was the reason you don't like guns."

Blair shrugged. "Like I said, I pretty much blocked it out... pushed it way in the back of my mind."

"So you were trying to provoke him in the bathroom... when he made that comment about Naomi?" Jim asked. "You wanted him to go after you, didn't you?"

Blair offered another shrug. "Maybe." He lowered his gaze back to the floor. "I didn't do anything then." He sniffled quickly. "Jason died and Naomi and I just took off. Barker got away with it, and now he's a sheriff. I bet you he still drinks, though. He's obviously still got a temper." He raised one hand and rubbed his eyes. "I guess... yeah... I guess I was hoping he'd go after me. I wanted to do something... wanted to see him put behind bars."

Simon rose from his seat, and walked to the side, propping himself on the edge of desk. "Listen, Sandburg, why don't you go home? You--"

Blair shook his head. "No, Captain. I'm okay."

"Blair," Jim began. "I think it's a good idea." He pushed himself out of the chair and gently grabbed Blair's arm, pulling the young man to his feet. "Come on, I'll drive you home."

Blair shook his head. "No, really guys. I'm fine. You may need me, Jim."

Jim gazed skeptically at Blair. "You sure?"

Blair nodded.

The Detective's gaze softened measurably and he jerked his chin at Blair. "How's the lip?"

Sandburg managed a small smile. "It's okay. It doesn't really hurt."

"And your throat?"


This time Simon chimed in. "Maybe you should take him to the ER just in case, Jim."

Blair shook his head emphatically. "No. No way, man. I mean, I'm fine. I'm not in the mood to sit around a dreary ER room for five hours."

Jim nodded. "Okay, Sandburg." The detective glanced at Simon, who nodded his consent. "Then how about you help me type up some reports?"

Blair rolled his eyes. "Figures."

Jim smiled and guided Blair toward the door. "Hey, don't complain or I'll drag your butt back to the loft, snatch your keys, and leave you there."

Blair chuckled, but it sounded forced. "Oooh. I'm so scared," he said, as Jim pushed him out of Simon's office.

Later that evening, Blair and Jim returned home to the loft. The detective tossed his keys in the basket and made a bee-line for the refrigerator.

"You want a beer, Chief?"

Blair hung up his jacket and nodded. "Yeah, sure."

Jim grabbed two beers our of the fridge and handed one to Blair, then he walked into the living room and sank onto the couch. He rubbed the back of his neck with one hand, massaging out the day's tension, then grabbed the remote and flicked on the television.

Blair hesitated a moment, standing in the kitchen and staring at the back of Jim's head. Then, with a sigh, he moved into the living room and plopped himself in the armchair.

"So what's going to happen to Barker?" Blair asked.

Jim muted the television and turned to look at Blair. "I'm not sure. I hate to say it, Chief, but he'll probably get out on bail. I doubt the D.A. will even move forward with the case."

Blair's eyes widened. "What?! What do you mean the D.A. won't press charges? Because he's a cop?"

Jim raised on hand to silence Blair's protests. "Partly, yes. What will probably happen is that Barker will go before a judge and get a slap on the wrist. It will go on his record, though."

Blair shook his head. "Great. Just great. So he gets out, and he's gonna be royally pissed off, and guess who he's gonna come looking for?"

Jim's eyes hardened. "Don't worry about that, Chief. Simon's already been on the phone with the Mayor in Bryan and Barker will be shipping home as soon as he's released by the court."

Blair did not look happy. "So that's it?" he asked, his voice tinged with anger. "He killed his wife and he molested and beat Jason. He just gets off? Nobody does anything?"

Jim clenched his jaw, releasing a tired sigh. "Blair, the guy deserves to be behind bars for life, but the facts are that there are no witnesses to testify against him. That happened over twenty years ago. Nobody saw him kill his wife, right?"

Blair nodded.

"All you had were the accusations of a six year-old distraught child. As for the molestation, abuse, and manslaughter, well, it's impossible to prosecute that kind of a case twenty years after the fact. All the evidence is gone."

Blair looked away and rose out of the chair. "I remember... I know, that's not good enough," he said, and headed into his room, closing the french doors behind him.

Jim sighed and rubbed his face over his hands. "I really wish there was something I could do, Chief," he mumbled to himself.

Jim laid in bed, his mind too active to succumb to sleep. He rolled over on his side, trying to get comfortable. He wondered, not for the first time, what kind of childhood Blair had experienced. He knew awfully little about Sandburg's past, but he did know that the kid had moved around a lot and had never known a father. He was amazed how well Blair had turned out, all things considering. He supposed Blair's good-nature and kind heart was a tribute to Naomi, but he suspected Blair might have turned out essentially the same no matter who raised him. There was just something innately good about the kid, if such a thing were possible.

A soft moan reached the Sentinel's ears, and he automatically extended his hearing to listen to Blair's heartbeat. He frowned when he found the frantic rhythm, accompanied by fast, shallow breathing. Then he heard Blair mumble softly, his voice heavy with sleep.

"No, Jason... Don't..."

Jim pushed the covers away and slid out of bed. He trotted down the stairs and stopped in front of the closed french doors, listening.

"God. Oh God. Please..."

Jim turned the handle and pushed the door open. Blair laid on his bed, tangled in his covers and drenched with sweat. He turned his head from side to side, his brow creased anxiously.

"JASON!" The name exploded from Blair's throat as a sob, and he bolted into a sitting position, his heart hammering wildly. His eyes, however, remained closed.

Jim wasn't even sure if his partner was actually awake, so he moved forward quickly and placed a firm hand on his shoulder. "Blair?"

Blair jumped back, slamming into the wall, his eyes wide and his heart hammering in his chest. "No, don't..."

"Easy, Chief. It's okay. It's just me," Jim soothed.

Blair blinked, and it was then that Jim realized Blair probably couldn't see him in the darkness.

"I'm going to turn on the light now, okay?"

Blair nodded and slid back down on the bed. He closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the wall, breathing heavy.  Jim reached over and flicked on the table lamp. Soft light flooded the room, and Blair opened his eyes to gaze at Jim.

"Sorry, man," he whispered.

Jim sat on the edge of the bed. "Want to talk about it?"

Blair sniffled and shook his head. "No." He reached down and pulled the covers up to his shoulders. "It was just a dream. You can go back to bed now."

Jim frowned. "You were dreaming of that night, weren't you?"

Blair lowered his gaze. "Did I talk in my sleep?"

Jim nodded. "A little. It didn't sound very pleasant."

Blair slid lower on the bed. "It wasn't" He swallowed. "Thanks for coming down here, Jim, really, but you can go back to bed now. I'm sorry I woke you."

"It's not a bother, Sandburg. If you want to talk about it, I'm here." He offered a small smile. "I was already awake, anyway."
Blair swallowed hard and slid all the way down onto the mattress, pulling the covers up to his chin. He managed a shaky smile and said, "Thanks, but I'm fine. I'm just gonna go back to sleep, okay?"

Jim sighed. If Blair didn't want to talk about the dream, then Jim wouldn't push the issue. "Okay, Chief." He gave his partner a quick pat on the leg and rose from the bed. "I'll see you in the morning."

"Goodnight, Jim," Blair mumbled, rolling onto his side.

"Goodnight, partner," Jim replied, then closed the doors as he headed back to his own room. 

Blair accompanied Jim to the station the next morning to get the latest information on Barker. He had a 10:00 class, so he intended just to pop in and find out what was happening with the Sheriff's case. He was completely unprepared for the sight that greeted him when he entered the bullpen with Jim.

Simon's blinds were open and inside stood Sheriff Barker. The large man stood in front of Simon's desk, his head bowed a fraction as he spoke to the Captain. Blair glanced at Jim, noting the tilt of the Detective's head which indicated he was listening to the conversation.

"What's he saying?" Blair whispered.

Jim raised a hand in the air to silence his partner, then, after a few seconds, he looked at Blair and said, "He's apologizing."

Blair took a step back and raised his eyebrows in disbelief. "Apologizing?!" He'd almost yelled the word, causing the other detectives to cast curious glances in his direction. He ducked his head and lowered his voice. "What do you mean he's apologizing? For what? Trying to strangle me? Killing his wife? Beating his stepson? What exactly is he apologizing for." The anger in Blair's voice surprised even him, but he didn't really care about propriety at the moment.

Jim grabbed Blair's elbow in a firm grip and pulled him into the hall, steering him toward the breakroom. Inside, he shut the door and released his hold on the young man.

"Listen, Chief, I know this is hard for you--"

Blair's eyes flashed angrily, and he threw the Sentinel a look that clearly conveyed how little he appreciated the condescending tone.

"I do, Chief," Jim quickly amended. "Believe me. I'd pummel the guy's face in myself if I could, but I can't. We have to work within the rules on this one. Okay?"

Blair released an angry breath. "Rules, yeah... Like they really worked the last time."

"Sandburg, this is me and Simon you're dealing with, now. You trust us, don't you?"

Blair face softened, and, after a brief pause, he nodded. "Yeah, Jim, I trust you." He lowered his gaze. "It's just that--" He shook his head, then released another frustrated sigh. "You have to work within the rules, I know that, Jim... but sometimes the rules just don't work."

Jim clenched his jaw, revealing taught muscles. "That's true. I can't make promises, but I can tell you that we'll do our best."

Blair inhaled a deep breath, then said, "I know. I'm sorry, Jim." He glanced through the glass windows of the break room toward the bullpen. "I should go now. I have class. Let me know what happens, will ya?"

Jim nodded. "Of course." He placed a hand on his partner's shoulder. "You okay?"

Keeping his gaze fixed on the doors to the bullpen, Blair nodded. "Yeah, I'm fine." Then he turned the knob and ducked into the hall, placing his hands in his pockets as he hurried toward the elevators.

Jim watched Blair walk down the hallway, then sighed and headed into the bullpen, intent on finding out just what was happening with Barker's case.

Jim knocked on Simon's door, and, upon the Captain's order, turned the knob and stepped into the office. Barker stood in front of Simon's desk, and he turned to look at Ellison.

"Detective." Barker nodded. "How's Sandburg?" The man looked genuinely concerned.

Ellison extended his hearing and listened to Barker's heartbeat, finding it calm and steady.

"He's fine," Jim replied flatly, then looked at Banks. "Sir?"

There was no need for Jim to voice his thoughts, the Captain no doubt knew what Jim's intent was the moment he'd knocked on the door.

Banks rose from his seat, placing his hands on the edge of his desk. "Barker pleaded guilty. The court fined him and gave him time served."

Jim clenched his jaw and leveled a steely glare at Barker. "I see. Will you be heading back to Texas now?"

Barker nodded. "Yes, Detective. I'm free to leave Cascade."

Jim nodded curtly. "When might that be?"

Barker offered a small, humble smile. "Tomorrow morning. I already booked a flight." He glanced uncertainly at Banks, then looked back at Jim. "Uh... Could you please tell Mr. Sandburg that I'm sorry. I..." He swallowed. "It was just that I didn't expect to see him. It brought back a lot of painful memories. I know he's not to blame. Hell, he was just a kid... but... well, after it happened... I... uh... I just needed someone to blame and the kid was as good a target as any."

Jim's face expression remained etched in stone. "And what exactly did happen, Sheriff Barker?"

Barker glanced away. "Hasn't Sandburg told you?"

"I'd like to hear it form you."

Barker nodded, then took a deep breath. "Years ago I had a drinking problem. It started after my wife died -- Jason's mother. I was mad in love with Kathryn, and her death hit me real hard. To top it off, I found myself a single father -- and I didn't know the first thing about being a parent. I know it ain't much of an excuse, but I was young and stupid at the time.. that's my only defense." He shook his head. "Jason was going through a lot. He took his mom's death hard, but I was too into my own problems to pay him much attention. I didn't notice the signs. Then one day he came home from school and pointed a gun at me. I was drunk that time, too. I don't remember too much of the conversation, but I do remember him putting the gun to his head and pulling the trigger. Then I passed out." He pursed his lips and looked up at Ellison. "I don't even know how he got the gun. I always kept it locked up... but... well, kids figure out the darndest things. I didn't know that at the time. I just hadn't had a lot of dealings with kids."

Jim kept his hearing tuned to the man's heartbeat, noting with a tinge of regret that the beat remained steady. Either he's telling the truth, or he's told this story so many times that it no longer phases him, Jim thought.

"Did you ever abuse Jason?" Jim asked pointedly.

"Ellison..." Simon warned.

Barker flinched visibly, and his heart beat jumped slightly. "I may have been a lousy father, but I never hurt Jason."

"Care to explain the bruises Sandburg reported?"

Barker sighed. "That's part of the reason I blamed Sandburg all these years. He was just a kid, I know, but, damnit, he jumped to some pretty serious conclusions, and he almost ruined my life." He swallowed. "I don't blame him now. I know he was just a child, and he'd gone through a pretty traumatic experience himself... seeing Jason... well... witnessing the whole thing. No kid should have to go through that."

"No he shouldn't," Jim agreed, his voice flat.

Barker nodded solemnly, then walked past Jim and placed his hand on the doorknob. "Please... tell Sandburg that I am sorry. I lost it, and I'm sorry he got hurt."

And how many times did you 'lose it' with Jason, Jim wondered.

Barker turned the knob and stepped into the hallway, closing the door behind him. Jim stared at the Sheriff's retreating back for several seconds, then turned to face Simon.

"One day? Time served was one day, Captain," Jim protested.

Simon raised his hands. "I know, Jim. I know." He sighed. "The judge bought the sob story... How 'bout you? Could you tell whether he was telling the truth or not?"

Jim shrugged. "He was pretty cool. His heart was steady, except when I asked him about abusing Jason... but a small jump could be expected considering the nature of the question," Jim rationalized.

Simon nodded. "If he's lying, he's damn convincing," he observed. "What about Sandburg? Have you talked it over with him anymore?" He paused, taking a breath. "He was just a child, Jim. It happened decades ago. Is he sure he remembers it accurately? And even if he is remembering it accurately, he was just a child... he could very well have misinterpreted things."

Jim raised his hand to squeeze the bridge of his nose and released a tired sigh. "I don't know, Simon, but Blair does seem pretty sure."

Simon shook his head. "Then I don't want to be there when you tell him the news."

That unpleasant prospect came sooner than expected. At 1:00 Blair walked into the bullpen and, seeing that Jim was not at his desk, glanced at Simon's office. Sure enough, Jim stood inside, engaged in conversation with the Captain. Fortunately, Barker was no where to be seen.

Blair squared his shoulders and headed to Simon's office. He offered a brief, tentative knock, and, after a brief silence, was told to come in. Turning the knob, he pushed the door inward and stepped into the office.

"Hey, Simon," he said, closing the door behind him. Then he looked at Jim. "So what's the deal with Barker?"

Simon and Jim glanced uncomfortably at one another, which, besides being anything BUT subtle, sent alarm bells ringing in Blair's head.

"What is it?" Sandburg asked cautiously.

Jim sighed, gesturing to the empty chair. "You might want to sit down, Chief."

Blair shook his head. Now he knew it was bad news. "Just tell me what's going on."

Simon spoke up. "Barker was released. He got a slap on the wrist from the judge and he's heading back to Texas tomorrow."

Blair blinked. He couldn't believe his ears. "He's free?!" He shook his head, leaning against the door. "I can't believe this! How? I mean, geez, he tried to strangle me! That deserves some kind of jail time, doesn't it?"

Simon rubbed his eyes. "He gave one hell of a convincing sob story, Sandburg. The judge let him off."

Blair's nostrils flared. "And he's a cop, of course."

Simon nodded. "That may have had something to do with it." He glanced at Jim briefly, then looked back at Blair. "Sandburg, sit down, please."

Blair obeyed, slipping into the chair without a word, his face betraying his anger.

The Captain took a deep breath. "Sandburg, Barker gave a pretty convincing story about what happened that night."

Blair's eyes narrowed as he gazed at the Captain.

Simon continued. "He also denies abusing Jason. You were only a child at the time... and it was a long time ago. Are you sure things happened the way you remember them?"

Blair eyes narrowed further with a mixture of disbelief and betrayal. "Did it--" He shook his head. "Did it happen the way I remember?" He shot out of the chair. "I don't believe you!" He threw an accusatory glare at Jim, and the Sentinel took a step closer to him, raising his hand in a gesture of sympathy.

"Chief--" Jim began.

Blair slapped Jim's hand away. "No! I can't believe you guys! You're exactly the same. You believe him! You believe him over me... and, Jesus, you only just met him. I'm not some seven year-old kid anymore." He stalked over to the door. "You told me to trust you, Jim, and I did." He swallowed and yanked the door open. "A lot of good that did," he finished, then stormed out of the office and slammed the door behind him.

Jim took a step back, looking like he'd just been punched in the gut.
Simon sighed and sank back into his chair. "Well, that went well."

Later in the evening, Blair pulled the Volvo up to the loft and breathed a sigh of relief when he didn't see Jim's truck. Truth be told, he was feeling a bit guilty about laying into Jim so hard earlier, but he was still angry about Barker being released. Still, he'd gone too far by accusing Jim of betraying his trust. He knew the Detective had done everything he could within the confines of his position, but it just hadn't been enough... and Jason deserved some small measure of justice. Even if Barker did some time for assault rather than for murder and child abuse, at least that would be something; but no, he'd gotten off once again.

He turned off the engine and stepped out of the car. But, damnit, I can't believe Simon asked me if I was "sure". He gritted his teeth. It hurt to know that after all the years of hard work he'd put in at the station, Simon still didn't trust his judgment. What more did he need to do to gain some respect?

He slung his backpack over his shoulder and locked up the car, then headed up to the loft. On the way up in the elevator, he allowed his mind to wander. Would Jim be pissed at him when he got home? He took a deep breath and leaned against the wall. He just didn't want to deal with an angry Sentinel tonight. Blair knew that Jim would probably be steaming over the way he'd mouthed off at Simon, but, damnit, he had a right to defend himself. He definitely had a right to stand up for Jason and protect his memory. Blair hadn't been able to do anything to help his friend before... had failed miserably, in fact, but at least he could try to do something now.

The elevator came to a halt and Blair stepped out, fumbling with his keys as he walked toward the loft door. He adjusted his backpack and opened the door, tossing the heavy pack onto the floor. He threw the keys in the basket, hung up his coat, and then reached for the light. Twilight had settled outside, and Blair wondered what was keeping his partner so late. Not that he was all that anxious to have Jim home soon, but a part of him always felt uneasy when the Detective stayed late and he wasn't with him. He always worried that Jim would zone and get hurt during one of the times that Blair wasn't with him.

The red light on the answering machine blinked insistently, and Blair pushed the play button.

"Hey, Chief. I'll be late today so don't worry about dinner... But when I get home you and I have to talk. I'll see ya sometime around eight if all goes well here."

Blair pursed his lips. Jim didn't sound mad, but the Detective obviously wasn't going to let Blair's outburst go undiscussed. He groaned inwardly. The one thing he really didn't want to do was "talk about it". He knew if Jim pushed him, he'd just get angry again and say something he didn't mean. He was having a hard enough time dealing with the resurfacing memories, and, since it seemed that Barker was going to get away a second time, Blair just wanted to put it behind him and try to forget about it once again.

He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Sorry, Jason. I failed you then and I'm failing you now. He swallowed and opened his eyes, heading toward his room. He stopped halfway, remembering his discarded backpack. The last thing he needed was Jim getting all over his case for violating the house rules, so he made a 180 and grabbed his backpack, then walked to his room.

He opened the french doors and stepped inside... and his heart leapt into his throat when he saw the unconscious figure on his bed. Barker laid sprawled on top of the blanket. A near-empty bottle of whiskey rested sideways on the floor next to the bed, surrounded by a small puddle of alcohol.

Blair's mind whirled. The front door had been locked when he'd walked in, and a quick glance at his bedroom windows confirmed that they were locked shut. So Barker must have gained entry without breaking anything and re-locked the door or windows once inside.

Blair backed quietly out of the room and tip-toed over to the phone. He doubted Barker would wake up easily, since he had played the answering machine without any regard to being quiet, but he didn't want to take any chances. He thought about just getting in his car and driving to the station, but he didn't want to risk Barker getting away, and his cellphone battery was dead. He wanted the man behind bars, and unlawful entry had to be enough to put him away for some time. He snatched the cordless receiver and dialed Jim's desk phone.

Three rings sounded and the Detective's voice mail picked up. Damn, Blair cursed silently, listening for the tone. Okay, he's bound to have his cellphone on him. He'd leave a quick message on the voice mail and then dial the cellphone. The tone sounded and Blair opened his mouth to speak when he heard a soft grunt. His heart nearly jumped out of his throat and his head snapped up as his eyes focused on the large figure staggering through the doorway toward him.

"You little bastard," Barker slurred. "You almost rrrruuined my life onnnce. You wannna try for a s-second time?"

Blair bolted toward the front door. His hand closed around the knob and he flung the door inward just as something grabbed the back of his shirt collar and yanked him back. The phone clattered to the floor, skidding toward the kitchen. Barker stood over Blair and kicked the door shut, then set the chain in place.

"You litttttle shit!"

He administered a hard kick to Blair's midsection, and Sandburg doubled over as his breath exploded from his lungs.

"How you like that, asshole?" Barker sneered.

Blair laid gasping on the floor, unable to form a response. Barker stooped down, almost toppling himself over in the process, and grabbed Blair's shirt. He yanked the young man to his feet, and surged forward, slamming him into the wall next to the stairs.

"Not so hot now, are ya?" Barker huffed, blowing alcohol-permeated breath into Blair's face.

Blair focused on getting his breathing under control as he looked into Barker's enraged face. The guy was staggeringly drunk, that much was obvious, and all Blair needed was a moment to push the guy off-balance and make a run for it. However, Barker also had a good seven-inch-one-hundred-pound advantage over Blair, so overpowering the man, even in his current state, was not an option.

Blair looked passed Barker's face, his eyes searching for the discarded phone. Had the voice mail picked up? Would Jim hear it in time? Knowing he couldn't count on Jim to save his butt this time, Blair decided to take affirmative action. He turned his gaze back to Barker and forced his lips into a tight smile.

"Go to hell," he spat, then jabbed one knee upward, connecting solidly with Barker's groin.

The Sheriff screamed and doubled over, but his grip on Blair's shirt tightened, causing him to pull the young man down with him. Both men fell to the floor, with Blair on top. Sandburg acted quickly, ramming his knee into Barker's stomach.

"Fuck!" Barker released his grip.

Blair shot to his feet, leaping toward the door, but his right foot caught on something and he found himself falling forward. He brought his hands out to break his fall, but he still hit the floor hard. His heart hammered in his chest, and he looked down at his foot, seeing Barker's hand wrapped firmly around his ankle.

The Sheriff's face was red, and the veins on his forehead pulsed angrily. Blair recognized the unbridled fury, and knew that his situation had just taken a turn for the worst. Oh shit, he's pissed. With a grunt, Barker pushed himself off the floor and flung forward, slamming on top of Blair. Sandburg tried to scramble backward, but Barker moved too fast -- surprisingly fast considering his inebriated state. Blair found himself pinned to the floor, with Barker on top of him.

Barker's arms lashed out like lightning, and he grabbed a fistful of Blair's hair. "Stupid fucking punk!"

He slammed Sandburg's head into the floor, and a spike of pain shot through Blair's skull as black dots danced around his vision.

"I'll kill you! You goddamned fucking piece-of-shit fag!"

The second impact drove Blair into unconsciousness.

The throbbing in his skull dragged him to painful awareness, almost masking the incessant ringing in his ears. A low rumble drifted from his throat, causing the pain in his skull to multiple ten-fold.

"'Bout time, boy," a voice growled behind him.

He winced, releasing another small groan, and opened his eyes. It took him a moment to make sense of the assortment of images filling his vision. He saw long bars, and he tilted his head back to look up. His hands were bound above him, handcuffed to the staircase banister, and the soft chill made him realize that he was bare-chested. He suddenly became aware of an acute pain in his wrists, and it snaked all the way up to his shoulders. His feet dangled below him, forcing his wrists to support his entire weight. The metal cuffs dug into his skin and cut off the circulation to his fingers.
"You need to learn some manners, son."

Oh God. Barker. It all came back to him in a flash.

"Goddamned, Kid. 'Bout time you learned some respect."

Blair swallowed. His tongue felt thick in his mouth, but he forced it to work. "Hey, man, you don't have to do this." God, that sounded pathetic even to his ears.

His whole body jerked when a sudden, unexpected pain slashed across his back, causing him to cry out.

"You say something, son? You try to call for help and I'll sssslllit your throat real fast. Gotttthaaat?"

Anger flared in Blair's chest, and he gritted his teeth. "Is this what you did to Jason?"

His question was answered with another beating. Something whip-like slashed through the air, and he felt a sharp, hard object slap against his back, slicing into his skin just before being yanked back. Another cry of pain erupted from his throat, and he clenched his eyes shut, biting his lower lip hard enough to draw blood. Another crack sounded, producing more pain and another cry.

Oh please, Jim. Please, please, please come home, Blair prayed.
"I told you to keep quiet boy!"

Barker's reprimand was followed by another whip... and another. Blair's body jerked with each assault, and he felt hot tears escape his clenched eyelids and roll down his cheeks as he struggled to keep from crying out.

Then something soft thudded to the floor just behind Blair, and he felt hot breath against his shoulder, and, a second later, his back erupted with fire when rough hands dug into his skin.

"You wanna know what I rrreaaallly did to Jaaason?" Barker drawled.

The Sheriff's hands slid down Blair back, leaving streaks of pain in their wake. He felt a warm sticky wetness against the skin of his back, and recognized the soft stench of blood. His blood. His stomach churned, and then he felt hot hands slide around to his stomach. His chest tightened, and renewed panic flared as fingers unbuttoned his jeans.

No. Blair's eyes shot open, and the world spun suddenly, renewing the throbbing in his skull. "Get away from me," he hissed softly, his voice barely audible.

Barker's body slammed against his, and strong arms wrapped around his chest. "Shut up," the man breathed in his ear. "Take it like a good little boy and maybe I won't kill you."

Blair closed his eyes, his stomach queasy. There was no way he was going to let Barker do such a thing to him. He had to do something. With a monumental act of will, he forced his body to relax.

"Good boy," Barker whispered, releasing his hold on Blair.

Barker's hands moved down Blair's torso toward his jeans. When Barker's fingers grabbed the zipper, Blair lashed out, biting down hard against the pain in his wrists as he wrapped his legs around Barker's knees and pulled the man off his feet. A hard thud sounded, followed by a groan. Blair twisted his head around in an attempt to get a look at the fallen man, but his head spun wildly, threatening to topple right off his shoulders.

He closed his eyes and groaned as the blackness threatened to overtake him. He tried to open his eyes, but they felt glued shut. No. He had to stay awake. He didn't know if Barker was still conscious, and he couldn't let the man near him. He couldn't let...

The darkness pulled him into its soft embrace.

Jim pulled the truck up in front of the loft and turned off the engine. He released a tired sigh as he opened the door and slid out of the seat. He took a moment to inhale the cool night air, then walked tiredly through the front doors.

In the elevator, he leaned against the wall and ran a hand over his face. He'd spotted Blair's Volvo outside, so he knew the kid was home, and, despite the message he had left earlier, he really wasn't looking forward to the 'talk'. He knew Blair's emotions were flying high at the moment, and he couldn't blame the kid. As a matter of fact, Blair was handling it pretty well. He couldn't imagine any kid witnessing his best friend's brains being splattered to the wind without being permanently scarred... and Blair was scarred, but he had managed to hide those scars pretty well.

Barker on the other hand deserved a whole lot worse than what he'd gotten... and Jim could think up several satisfying punishments.

The elevator doors opened, depositing him onto the third floor. His body went rigid as the coppery smell of blood assaulted his nose... Blair's blood, he was pretty sure. Bolting into a run, he automatically extended his hearing. He found the slow beat of his Guide's heart inside the loft... and there was a second beat as well.

He jammed his key into the loft door and withdrew his gun, then slammed the door inward as he rushed in, poised for an assault. The sight that greeted him stopped him cold.

Oh dear God. Blair was handcuffed to the staircase banister, his feet dangling several inches above the floor. Bloody gashes marred his back and shoulders, and his head hung forward limply. Barker laid unconscious on the floor near the kitchen, a small pool of blood around his head. On the floor next to him rested a discarded leather belt, its brass buckle wet with blood.


He received no answer. Swiftly, he yanked out his handcuffs and knelt next to Barker, securing the man's arms behind his back. Then he searched through the man's pockets and found a set of keys. His fingers wrapped around one of the smaller ones, easily recognizable as belonging to a set of handcuffs.

He pushed himself to his feet and rushed over to Blair. His height advantage over the young man allowed him to reach the handcuffs easily enough, and he quickly unlocked the left cuff. Blair's body crumpled against him, and he grabbed the smaller man just in time, sinking to the floor with his limp partner.
The motion seemed to jostle Blair toward consciousness, and he released a soft moan. His brow furrowed and, suddenly, his eyes shot open and his back went rigid.

"No!" His arms shot up wildly, but Jim deflected the blows and grabbed Sandburg's arms.

"Easy, buddy. It's okay. It's me, Jim," he soothed.

Blair blinked quickly, his face a mask of terror. "J-Jim?"

"Yeah, Chief."

He looked around wildly, almost blindly, and Jim noticed the dilated pupils and dried blood on the side of his face that indicated a concussion.

"Hey. Hey, it's okay, Blair. He's out for the count," Jim reassured him, pulling him gently against his chest.

Blair inhaled a sharp gasp and closed his eyes.

"Sorry, buddy," Jim said with a clench of his jaw.

"My back," Blair croaked.

"I know. It feels worse than it looks, I'm sure," he lied.

He kept one arm snaked around Blair's chest, and, with his free hand, pulled his cellphone out of his jacket pocket. He dialed 9-1-1 and gave the instructions for the ambulance. Then he dialed Simon's office phone.

The Captain picked up on the second ring. "Banks here."

"Captain, I'm at the loft. Barker broke in and attacked Blair. I need a couple of units dispatched here."

There was a brief pause, then Simon said, "They're on their way. How's the kid?"

Jim looked down at Blair's pale face. His eyes were closed again, and he leaned heavily against Jim, his forehead creased with pain.

"Rough, but he'll live," Jim said, his throat tight.

"I'm on my way," Simon said. "Anything else before I hang up?"

"No, Sir."

Jim ended the connection and tossed the cellphone on the floor. "Okay, buddy, I'm gonna move you now," he said, his voice soft. He needed to lay Blair on his stomach so he could take a closer look at the cuts on his back.

Blair groaned and his eyelids fluttered open. "'Kay," he mumbled.

As gently as he could, Jim moved Blair forward, clenching his jaw when his partner released a soft hiss. "Sorry."

He wondered if Blair had any injuries to his ribs. He had noticed some bruised swelling in that area, but he didn't think anything was broken. Carefully, he turned Blair onto his stomach and laid him down, gently setting his cheek on the floor.

"Hold on, buddy," he said, then moved away long enough to snatch a pillow from the couch. He lifted Blair's head and set the pillow beneath his cheek. "I'm gonna check out your back, okay?"

"Okay," Blair said, closing his eyes again. "It hurts, man."

Jim swallowed. "I know, Chief. Does it hurt anywhere else?"

"My head... and my wrists."

Jim nodded, glancing at the red gashes around Blair's wrists where the cuffs had dug into the skin. The right wrist was still trapped in the cuff, and Jim quickly grabbed the key and unlocked the remaining cuff.

Jim rose to his feet and moved to the kitchen, stepping over Barker's body. Anger flared in his chest as he glanced down at the man, and he suddenly wished that the guy had been conscious enough to put up a fight when Jim had returned home. Pushing that thought aside, he grabbed a clean dishtowel from a drawer and wet it in the faucet. Then he hurried back to Blair, dropping to his knees next to the motionless young man.

"I'm going to clean these off a bit, okay? It's just water."

Blair grunted, keeping his eyes closed. "You even think about using a disinfectant and I'll put you in a really crappy old age home in a few years."

Jim smiled, glad to hear the humor in his partner's voice. "Smartass," he muttered, then lifted the wet towel over Blair's back, his smile fading. "I'll be as easy as I can."

Blair swallowed and nodded.

Gently, Jim began to clean the wounds. Blair clenched his eyes hard, burying his face in the pillow, but he didn't make a sound, and Jim assumed that was for his benefit. He shook his head. Leave it to Blair to think about someone other than himself at a time like this.

Jim wasn't aware that he was holding his breath until he heard the faint sounds of the sirens, and he exhaled slowly. "Hang on, Chief. The ambulance is almost here."

Blair took a shaky breath and turned his head from the pillow. His face was noticeably whiter. "Good. Do you think you can stop that until they get here?"

Jim looked at the bloodied towel in his hand and draped it over his shoulder. His shirt was already stained with Blair's blood, and a little more wouldn't matter. He'd had to turn his sense of smell very low to combat the nauseating stench of blood and sweat, and he cast another glance at the unconscious man. Barker's pulse was slow but steady, and he gave no signs of waking up anytime soon.

Jim rested a reassuring hand on the top of Blair's head. "Okay, Sandburg. No more until they get here. How're you holding up?"

Blair managed a weak smile. "Oh just great. Never better."

Jim forced a smile in reply. "You think you can tell me what happened?"

The sirens sounded louder, and Jim suspected they were just outside.

Blair closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "I came home and found Barker asleep in my bed -- drunk. I... uh... called your office phone, and that's when I turned around and saw him coming toward me. I ran to the door, but he got to me first... knocked me out. I woke up handcuffed to the stairs."

"He passed out?"

Blair shrugged one shoulder weakly and swallowed. "What did he hit me with?"

Jim clenched one hand into a fist. "A belt. He used the buckle."

Blair grimaced. "That really sucked, man."

"You know, Chief, your eloquence never ceases to amaze me," Jim replied, offering a soft smile.

Blair croaked out something that vaguely resembled a chuckle, then he opened his eyes and turned his head to look at Jim. "He told me what he did to Jason... Well, showed me, actually."

Jim's smile faded. "I know he hit you. Did he... Did he do anything else?"

Blair swallowed, closing his eyes once again. "No," he muttered. "He tried, but I managed to knock him off-balance."

Jim nodded. "He must have hit his head pretty hard on the way down."

A knock sounded on the door, and Jim's head snapped up. He hadn't even heard anybody approach. He must have been too focused on Sandburg.

"In here! Come in!" Jim shouted.

The door flew inward, and Simon rushed in, followed by Brown, Rafe, and two paramedics carrying a stretcher. One of the EMT's dropped next to Sandburg, and the other knelt beside Barker. Jim clenched his jaw, but bit back the remark on his tongue. Barker sure as hell didn't deserve medical attention.

"Jesus." Simon walked up behind Jim, and the Detective moved back to allow the EMT more room. "How's he doing?" Simon asked, jerking his chin toward Sandburg.

"He feels lousy -- ouch!" Blair grumbled, clenching his teeth and releasing a sharp hiss as the paramedic inspected his wounds. He opened his eyes and saw the four officers above him. His gaze drifted to Jim, and the Sentinel thought he saw a hint of shame in Blair's eyes.

"Hey, Hairboy, you... you doing okay there?" Brown asked, leaning forward over Jim's shoulder.

Jim glanced only briefly at Brown, then furrowed his brow and leaned forward. "What is it, Chief?"

Blair clenched his jaw, his eyes filled with pain. "Nothing," he said, but he glanced back up at Simon, then at Brown and Rafe.

Suddenly Jim understood, and he cursed inwardly. Blair obviously didn't want to be seen in such a condition in front of the guys at the station. Jim knew, of course, that no one would think less of Blair... hell, that was just plain ridiculous, but obviously Blair thought otherwise.

Although the younger man would be the last person to put on a macho front, Jim knew that Blair still felt like he had to prove himself at the station. He supposed that being seen half-naked and beaten on the floor in front of people you worked with everyday wasn't something that tended to bolster self-esteem. So Jim did the only thing he could think of to salvage Blair's pride.

"Chief, I wonder if Barker ever even knew what hit him. You laid into him pretty good there," Jim said, glancing up at the three men standing behind him.

"You mean Sandburg took out Barker?" Simon asked, his face betraying a mixture of disbelief and awe.

"Okay, we're ready to move you," Blair's paramedic announced.

The other paramedic looked up and said. "This one's out. Pulse steady, probable concussion. Possible alcohol poisoning. We're gonna have to take them both in."

Jim clenched his jaw and glanced at Barker. Better than you deserve.

Unexpectedly, Barker groaned, and all eyes snapped to the large man on the floor. Blair inhaled sharply, and Jim placed a reassuring hand on his partner's arm.  For a moment it looked as though the Sheriff would wake up, but then he mumbled something incoherent and drifted back into unconsciousness.

Jim felt the small tremors start in the arm beneath his hand, and he looked down at Blair. The paramedic seemed to notice the unspoken need, because he moved back and began to ready the stretcher, giving the two men their space.

Jim leaned closer to Blair, placing his lips just above the younger man's ear. "It's okay, Chief. He's not waking up anytime soon... and even if he did, he wouldn't get anywhere near you."

Blair closed his eyes and managed a small nod. Seconds later, sleep claimed him.

Blair woke to an incessant beeping. He recognized the sound immediately. He should, he'd heard it enough times. He swallowed hard, but his throat felt like sandpaper.

"Sandburg?" A familiar voice questioned.

Jim. Hey man, how long have I been out? What happened to Barker? He's in jail, right?

Several seconds passed as Blair waited for a response. Jim's silence began to worry him, and he struggled to open his eyes.

Jim? You okay?

Damn, his eyelids felt like lead.

"You awake, Chief?"

Blair frowned. Hadn't he just spoken? Speech generally indicated consciousness... but maybe he hadn't spoken. Maybe he'd only thought he'd spoken. Okay, let's try that again, he thought.

"Jim?" This time he heard the word himself, but it sounded hoarse and weak.

He felt a pressure on his shoulder. "Right here, buddy. You can open your eyes, you know."

Believe me, man, I'm trying.

"Barker?" Blair croaked.

"You knocked him out pretty good... that and the alcohol. He's still in the hospital."

A dull pounding started in Blair's skull, and his brow creased in response. "Head hurts," he mumbled.

Actually, now that he thought about it, his back hurt too. Oh man. He realized suddenly that he was laying on his stomach with a pillow underneath his cheek.

"I know, Blair. You've got a concussion. You also have two bruised ribs... and some pretty nasty gashes on your back."

Sandburg finally managed to lift his eyelids. Jim's blurry figure slowly focused into a coherent image, and he saw the Sentinel's concerned eyes gazing down at him.

"About time," Jim remarked, his lips turning upward in a small smile.

The images assaulted his consciousness so suddenly that he gasped... being handcuffed to the banister... beaten... Barker's hands sliding down his torso. He swallowed and his eyelids snapped closed again.

"Easy, Chief," Jim soothed.

Jason. Oh Jason, is that what he did to you? Hot tears swelled beneath his closed eyelids. I'm sorry... I'm so sorry. I should have done more... been a better friend. Maybe I could have saved you. The tears spilled onto his cheeks.

A light touch stroked the back of his head, offering comfort. "Blair? Hey..." Jim's voice sounded hesitant... unsure. "You're okay now. Everything's going to be okay."

It's not okay, Blair wanted to say, but his voice failed him. The frightened seven year-old boy stirred inside him, mourning the loss of his friend, drowning his soul in a sea of guilt. Long-buried memories crashed mercilessly to the forefront of his consciousness.

That first day of school. He walked into the classroom. Just another "first day" in a new school... started mid-term like so many before. His colorful shirt and ragged jeans set him apart from the other kids, but he was used to being different.... but, Texas was REALLY different.

The teacher pointed to an empty desk behind a scrawny kid with thin brown hair and green eyes.

"Blair, you can sit behind Jason."

Jason. Blair swallowed, trying to stop the flow of tears and failing miserably. Jim continued to stroke his head gently, and Blair gave up, succumbing to the soothing rhythm and allowing the tears to flow freely. I wonder what you'd be like today, Jason? Probably a republican like everybody else in that town. He allowed himself a small smile, and he tasted salty tears on his tongue.

"What?" Jim asked, and Blair assumed he was referring to the smile.

Blair finally opened his eyes and looked up at Jim. The Detective stared down at him, his eyes strained with uncertainty and concern, but his lips mimicked Blair's small smile.

"Just thinking about Jason," Blair whispered. "I haven't thought about him in so long... too long."

Jim nodded solemnly and continued to stroke Blair's head gently. Blair fell into the touch, letting his eyelids drift closed as sleep claimed him.

Ellison left Blair long enough to walk down the hall to Barker's room. The sheriff laid asleep on the bed, his left hand cuffed to the railing. A uniformed officer sat at the man's bedside, and he looked up from the magazine he was reading when Ellison entered.

"Parker," Jim nodded, his tone flat. "Why don't you take a coffee break?"

Parker raised one eyebrow, looking momentarily unsure. After a brief hesitation, he nodded and rose from his chair. "Okay, Ellison. I'll be back in fifteen minutes."

Jim managed a smile as Parker left, then turned his full attention to the man asleep on the bed.


The Sheriff didn't respond. Jim leaned over the limp figure and gave him a quick slap on each cheek. Barker flinched, his eyes snapping open. Jim's gaze narrowed and he glared down at the man.

"Hello, Barker."

The Sheriff looked to the empty seat where Parker had kept watch, then he turned his eyes upward to meet Ellison's steel gaze. "What do you want?"

"I think you know what I want," Jim said, his voice low. He leaned a little closer to the man. "You're going down a long time for this one, Barker... and I think you know what they do to your type in prison." He lowered his voice another notch. "I know people on the inside, remember that."

Barker's eyes widened. "What the hell are you saying?"

Jim managed a small smile. "Just that I suggest you think long and hard about what you want to say at your trial. You know you're going down for this, but how you go down is another matter."

Barker swallowed, his jaw set firmly but his eyes betraying a hint of fear. "What do you want?"

Jim leaned back a fraction. "You ever come near my partner again... you even look at him wrong, I'll make sure you regret it." He cocked his head slightly. "And I assume you'll do the right thing when it comes to testisfying at the trial."

Barker scowled. "You don't think that little hippie partner of yours is man enough to deal with it. Right?"

Jim's hand lashed out, and his fingers found an appropriate pressure point on Barker's arm. The Sheriff flinched, obviously struggling to control the rising pain as Jim increased the pressure. "Do we have an understanding?"

Barker nodded quickly. "Yes," he said, his teeth clenched.

Jim released the pressure and Barker breathed a sigh of relief. With a nod and a small, dangerous smile, Jim spun on his heels and headed toward the door. Just before walking into the hall, Ellison glanced over his shoulder at the Sheriff.

"Oh, and Barker, I don't bluff," he said, then walked out of the room.

A couple of hours later, Simon showed up for a visit. The Captain walked into Blair's room and found Jim snoring softly next to the young man's bedside. Blair laid on his stomach, his face toward Jim, sound asleep.

Simon couldn't help the small smile that appeared on his lips. Not wanting to disturb the two men, he turned around and was just about to leave when Jim's voice stopped him.

"Hey, Captain."

Banks turned slowly on his heels and looked at his sleepy-eyed detective. "How's the kid doing?"

Jim brought one hand to the back of his neck and rubbed out the tension. "He'll be okay. His back's not gonna feel good for awhile, though."

Banks nodded grimly, then swallowed. "He's out for the count, huh?"

As if on cue, Blair moaned, then shifted beneath his covers. A few seconds later, his eyelids drifted open. He blinked, shifting his gaze back and forth between the two men.

"Sandburg," Simon greeted. "How are you feeling?"

Blair swallowed, then brought one hand up to rub his eyes. "Never better," he groaned.

Jim smiled, patting Blair's elbow. "Doc says you can go home tomorrow," he said, obviously anticipating the young man's inevitable question.

Banks took a couple of steps closer to Blair's bed. "Look, Sandburg," he began, glancing nervously at Jim before continuing. "I owe you an apology."

Blair furrowed his brow, turning his cloudy gaze to Simon. "Huh? F'what?"

Banks cleared his throat. "I... uh... I should have taken your accusations more seriously. If I came across as doubting your story, I'm sorry."

Blair's eyes seemed to clear infinitesimally. "Oh," he said, his voice heavy. He waved a weak hand in the air. "'S'okay, Simon. Don't worry about it."

Banks nodded curtly. "Good." He managed a small smile. "And since you probably won't remember my apology in the morning, I feel even better about giving it."

Jim chuckled lightly. "Oh but I'll remember, Captain."

Banks threw the Detective a deadly glare. He opened his mouth to form a retort, but Sandurg's soft voice interrupted him.

"Jim," the anthropologist started, obviously fighting the effects of the medication in an attempt to stay awake. "I'm sorry, too."

Jim leaned forward. "What could you have possibly done, Sandburg?"

Blair's eyelids drifted shut. "Sorry for saying I shouldn't have trusted you... I didn't mean it."

Jim smiled softly and shook his head. He placed one hand on the railing and leaned closer to Blair. "Don't worry about it, Chief. You were angry and upset. I understand."

Sandburg opened his mouth as if to add something, but a soft snoring cut off the reply in his throat. Jim's smile widened, and he leaned back in his chair, glancing at Simon.

Banks chuckled. "Well, I think that's a first... Sandburg too tired to talk."

Jim rose to his feet. "Hey, Simon, why don't we leave sleeping beauty here alone for a bit and go grab some coffee?"

The Captain nodded, heading toward the door. "Sounds good, Jim. You sure look like you could use some."

With a final glance back at his sleeping partner, Jim followed his Captain out of the room and closed the door. He looked briefly down the hall toward Barker's wing and, with a clench of his jaw, silently renewed the promise he'd made to the Sheriff.

The End