Inside and Out

Part II

"Has the jury reached a verdict?"

Blair Sandburg stared at the twelve men and women seated in the courtroom. He swallowed, the acrid taste of bile touching the back of his tongue. Jim, Simon, and Joel sat directly behind him, in the front row of the seating section. Blair dared not turn around. He didn't think he could bare seeing the expression he knew would be plastered on Jim's face.

"Yes, your honor, we have," the jury foreman announced, a small, balding man in his late sixties.

The judge turned to look at Sandburg's lawyer. "Will the defendant please rise."

Blair's legs felt as flimsy as gelatin, but he pushed his seat back and forced himself to stand. He knew, without a doubt, that the verdict would be guilty. Jim and Simon, as diligently as they'd tried, could not find evidence to clear him. The person responsible for the frame was still unknown, and every scrap of damning evidence pointed to himself as the culprit.

"Please read the verdict," the judge said.

"We, the jury, in the case of the People vs. Blair Sandburg, on the charge of  possession with intent to distribute, find the defendant guilty."

Blair's knees threatened to buckle.

"On the charge of second degree murder, we find the defendant guilty."

Sandburg closed his eyes, willing his legs to support his weight. He wouldn't -- couldn't -- collapse here, not in front of Jim, Simon, and Joel.

"Thank you," the judge said.

Yeah, thank you, Blair mimicked inwardly. Thank you for taking my life away. You can all go home now... back to your families... back to watch your favorite shows while sipping on a nice hot cup of tea.... reading the morning newspaper with a loved one... Relaxing on the couch after a hard day's work. Thank you. I appreciate it.

Somewhere, deep inside, he knew the men and women of the jury weren't to blame for his predicament. They were simply doing their jobs, and, after all, all the evidence did point to him. If he were on the jury in a similar case, he'd have voted guilty as well. However, at that moment, he didn't care that the judge, jury, and prosecutor had only been doing their jobs. He only cared that they had each done their part to send him to prison.... Him... Blair Sandburg.... mild-mannered graduate student and teaching fellow. The shaman of the great city of Cascade. Jim's friend and guide.

He swallowed. What would happen to Jim now? Would he find another guide? Could he find another guide? Would he be able to control his senses? What if he zoned in the field and got.... no, he couldn't think about that right now. He'd have to talk to Simon and make sure Jim was taken care of. Later. Later, he'd talk to Simon. Simon would take care of Jim, Blair was sure of it.

"Sentencing will commence immediately," the judge said. "Blair Sandburg, for the crime of possession with intent to distribute, you are hereby sentenced to ten years in the Seattle maximum security penitentiary. For the crime of murder in the second degree, you are sentenced to thirty years, without possibility of parole." The judge's gavel slammed down, sending a hollow blast of sound that seemed to drill a hole through Blair's heart.

No... Blair's legs crumpled, and the hard wood floor slammed into his head.



The intense throbbing in his head greeted his ascent to consciousness. The soft sound of voices tickled his ears.

"What do you mean they're gone," a deep, rough voice asked.

"Not exactly gone. They just go in and out, on and off-line for no apparent reason."

"All of them?"

"Yeah."

Blair recognized the voices as belonging to Jim and Simon. He remained still, not wanting to interrupt their conversation.

A sigh. "Take some time off. You've been under a lot of stress lately, Jim. It's bound to mess up your senses, just like when Danny died, right?"

Silence.

"Come on, Jim. You did all you could. We both did. There just wasn't anything to find."

"There was! Nobody's perfect. He had to leave a trace. I just didn't find it." A brief silence, followed by another sigh. "What am I going to do, Simon? Sandburg won't make it in prison. It's not that he isn't strong, he's just.... he's just too good-hearted and peace-loving. The stuff that goes on in there, hell, I could barely get through it. He'll see someone getting beaten or raped, and he'll try to intervene. You know that, Simon. He'll try to help, and he'll end up getting beaten or killed himself."

A whisper. "I know. The kid's too good for his own good."

"And look at where it got him.... I'm not going to let this happen, Sir. I can't."

"Jim, what are you saying? If it's what I think you're saying, I don't want to hear it. I can't hear it."

"Then leave. I understand, Sir. I know what I have to do. He's innocent, Simon. You know that. We're talking about his life here. Isn't a life... especially his... worth a career?"

The pain in Blair's head increased. What? What is he planning? He can't... He won't... I won't let him...

A deep breath. "God... I can't believe this is happening." A pause. "He's my friend, too, you know. He was there for me and Daryl in Peru. He was there with you all the way when I was taken hostage... he took a bullet in the leg that time. Believe me, I'm more than aware of how much I owe Sandburg."

"This isn't about obligation, Sir. It's about friendship. He told me that once."

A long silence, then a low murmer. "I'm in."

"Thank you, Sir, but this is for me to do."

"That's bull, Ellison. I have as much right--"

"One career is enough, Sir. He'll feel guilty enough as it is, I'm sure. All I ask is your silence."

"You can't do this alone."

"You know I can. I'm a sentinel with special forces, covert ops training. I've been sent on more difficult missions with less resources during my time with the army."

"But you said it yourself, your senses aren't working properly."

"I'll manage. I didn't have these senses in the army, and I managed just fine."

"Where will you go."

Silence.

"Jim, at least let me in on this. I can help you. What about Naomi? We haven't been able to contact her yet, but you know she's going to get in touch sooner or later. She has a right to know where her son is." A pause. "I have a right to know where my friends are. In the future, you might need help. You might need to be contacted. You need me, Jim. You know that. Don't you trust me?"

"Of course I trust you. I just want to keep you out of this as much as possible."

"I'm your friend, Jim... Yours and Sandburg's. Being a Captain on the police force is just a job."

"You have Daryl to think about, Sir."

"Daryl would want me to do this."

"Peru. I figure we'll go to Peru and live with the Chopek for awhile."

"Isn't that kind of obvious?"

"Only to those who know me. Even so, Sandburg's not a big enough ticket item for them to go international for... and even if someone did come after us, we'd be protected by the Chopek. No one will be able to find us."

"How will I contact you?"

"I'll contact you."

Enough. His life was already gone. Blair wouldn't allow Jim to give up his as well. He struggled to raise heavy eyelids. A soft groan escaped his throat.

"Blair?"

He finally opened his eyes, seeing Jim and Simon standing over him. "Jim?" His voice was low and hoarse.

The sentinel placed a hand on his shoulder. "Yeah, buddy. I'm right here."

Blair looked down, noticing that his left hand was cuffed to the bed rail. "I'm going to prison," he croaked.

Jim's jaw clenched. "No," he whispered. "Don't worry about that."

Blair swallowed, trying to wet his dry throat. "No, I mean, I know what you're planning. I heard. I won't let you do it."

Jim removed his hand from Blair's shoulder. "Quiet. This isn't your decision."

Blair gazed at Jim, scarcely believing his ears. A surge of anger filled his chest, and he struggled to sit up. He found himself restrained by a strong arm.

"Damnit, Sandburg, stay still. You've got a nasty concussion."

Blair slapped Jim's arm away. "This is my life," he snapped, his voice harsher than he'd intended. "It is my decision. I may not have a hell of a lot of freedom left, but this is one thing you can't take away from me, Jim. You're not doing this. That's final. You try it, and I swear I'll march right back and turn myself in."

"You lie badly, Chief," Jim remarked.

"I'm not lying. You have my word, Jim. You try anything like this, and I swear to you, on Incacha's memory, I swear I'll turn myself in," Blair promised, his voice strong but rough.

Genuine shock touched Jim's eyes, and reached out, placing a hand on Blair's arm. "My God, you're serious."

Blair kept his gaze steady. "Yes, I am."

The sentinel's eyes flared with anger. "Goddamnit, Sandburg! You don't know what you're saying. You think you're being noble? You're not. You're being damn selfish. You don't know what it's like in prison. I do. Remember? You think I can function knowing your on the inside? You think I'll be able to sleep thinking about you laying in a cell, surrounded by the most violent and brutal men society has to offer? Don't you think someone might recognize you? You've been my partner for the last three years. Together we've put a lot of people away. If just one person recognizes you, your life is over."

"Jim," Blair covered Jim's hand with his own.

"You think you're protecting me," Jim continued quickly. "You're not. I'm doing this for me as much as I'm doing it for you. I'll be better off with you by my side. I always have. Without you as my guide, these senses are nothing. I won't be able to function as a cop. I sure as hell don't want to go through the rest of my life knowing you're sitting behind bars for a crime you didn't commit. I couldn't find the evidence to clear you. I promised you I would, and I failed. Damnit, Sandburg, let me help you with this. Peru... it's a good place. The Chopek will welcome us. Incacha passed on his Shaman legacy to you, and they'll respect that. It'll be you and me, sentinel and guide protecting the tribe." He took in a fast, deep breath. "At the very least, it'll make one hell of an anthropological study."

Blair held Jim's angry gaze for a moment longer, than closed his eyes and turned his head away from the two men. "You didn't fail me, Jim," he whispered. "You did your best. Sometime's life just doesn't work out the way we planned." He inhaled a slow breath. "But you can do something for me now. You want to rescue me from this, then promise me you'll help me."

"Help you with what, Chief?"

"Promise me."

"Anything," Jim promised.

Blair opened his eyes and turned to look at Jim, his lips turned upward in tiny smile. "Promise me you'll be okay."

Jim opened his mouth to protest, but Blair cut him off. "It's all I ask. The worst part about all this, well, besides my misssing out on Jags games for the next fourty years, is you. I'm tougher than I look, Jim. I can handle whatever they dish out. I can get through it just fine if I know you're okay. That's the only thing in the world you can give me right now. Do that, and I'll be okay. Nothing else really matters." His words caught on a lump of emotion in his throat. "Jim, you're the best friend I've ever had. You know, don't you? You know I'd take a bullet for you... in a second." He swallowed, closing his eyes again to hold back tears. When he spoke, his voice was barely a whisper. "Please, go... Get on with your life. Find another Guide, someone to watch your back and help you with your senses. Find someone to trust, to confide in."

Jim squeezed Blair's hand. "Blair," he began, his voice strained with such shaky emotion that Blair opened his eyes, letting the tears spill onto his cheeks, to look at his friend. "The only way I'll ever be okay is if you let me do this."

Simon, who was standing with his head low, suddenly spun around and, with stiff shoulders, walked out of the room. Blair glanced in the Captain's direction, watching him leave. He wasn't quite sure what to make of Simon's departure, so he turned his gaze back to Jim.

"There's something I haven't told you, Blair," Jim said.

Blair raised an eyebrow. "What's that?"

"When you were in the hospital... after the cocaine overdose... I had a dream. I re-lived our second meeting, when you saved my life by pushing me under a garbage truck. The truck stopped, and Inchacha stepped out. He told me that it was my duty to protect you. He said that innocence is to be cherished and goodness preserved." He glanced briefly away. "It doesn't take a PhD to realize what he meant. You're the innocent here, Chief. You're filled with more goodness than anyone I've ever met."

Blair turned his head away sharply as fresh tears spilled onto his cheeks. "Jim," he choked, his voice strained and unsteady, "thank you." He licked salty tears off his lips. "That means a lot to me."

"It's true," Jim said.

Blair filled his lungs with air, then exhaled slowly. "Jim, this is what I want. This is really what I want. You have the power to give it to me. Only you."

"Come on, Sandburg. This is fourty years, we're talking about. You'll be an old man by the time you get out... if you get out.""

"No, listen. I have invested far too much in our relationship, both our professional and personal one, for you to throw it away. You're not only an excellent detective, you're a loyal friend and a good man. You also happen to be a sentinel, a rare find, I might add. You mean a lot to me, Jim. Maybe more than you realize. I never thought I would ever find such a good friend, but you've become more than that. If you threw away your life here, left your father and your brother and destroyed your career, just to take me to Peru... don't you think that would eat away at me? I'd feel guilty for the rest of my life, no matter how much you tried to persuade me it was for the best. If, on the other hand, you respect my wishes and honor our friendship by continuing on with your life here, I'll find my own peace. It may not be pleasant for me in prison, but cramped quarters and a saggy mattress are things I can handle." He raised his hand, once again cutting off Jim's protest. "I know there's worst things than that. I know what goes on in prison. I'm not stupid. But, it's only the physical world. They can only damage my body, not my spirit. If I know you're okay, if you remain strong and make it a point to enjoy life, they won't ever be able to touch my spirit." He turned his head back, fixing pleading eyes on the Sentinel. "Which, really, is more important to you? My body, or my soul?"

"Both," Jim said, "cut the neo-mystical stuff. You can't have one without the other." His voice was harsh, but his eyes indicated that he'd already caved to Blair's wishes.

Blair smiled. "So what about your spirit guide? What about Incacha? Was that just a dream, or was it really a message from him?"

Jim swallowed, looking away. "I... I don't know," he admitted.

"Yes, you do," Blair said.
 
Jim clamped his jaw shut, the muscles in his neck popping out. "One condition, Sandburg. I'll do this on one condition."

Blair's eyes lit up. "Yeah? What?"

The older man turned firm, piercing eyes onto his Guide. "If it ever gets to be too much for you in there... EVER... next week, next year, or ten years from now... I want you to tell me. If your life is in danger, or things just get too bad for you, say the word, and I'll get you out. Then we'll do things my way."

Blair nodded, surprised he had actually managed to win this argument. "Okay. I promise."

Jim narrowed his eyes. "I mean it, Sandburg. If you break this promise... if you get killed in there, I'll never forgive you."

Blair found himself suddenly feeling uneasy under the sentinel's stern gaze. "I promise, Jim," he said. "You have my word."

Jim nodded, then, without warning, collapsed into the chair next to Sandburg's bed, placing his forehead on top of the rail. Blair raised his hand and placed it gently on the back of Jim's head.

"I'll try to do what you say, Blair," Jim whispered. "God, I hate you for this, but I'll try."

"It's okay to hate me," Blair muttered softly. "Just don't hate yourself, big guy. Remember, this was my decision."

Jim nodded weakly. "When you're in there, I'll be out here, working to clear your name. I promise you, if there's a shred of evidence left to vindicate you, I'll find it." He raised his head, staring into Blair's eyes. "When you're in the inside, you have to be strong. You'll be surrounded by the worst common denominator of society. If you show fear, they'll tear you apart. And, for the love of God, Sandburg, keep your nose in your own business. I know you. Things will go on in there that will make you feel compelled to intervene. Don't. No matter what, do not try to play the hero. Look away, keep your mouth shut, and go about your business."



"Have you completed checking out the trial attendees," Jim asked Brown.

The large detective nodded, dropping a folder onto Jim's desk. "Oops, looks like I accidentally dropped this," he said, flashing a brief grin.

Jim nodded appreciatively. He was officially banned from the investigation, but, with Simon's backing, Rafe, Brown, and Joel kept him involved with the investigation. They showed him photographs of the crime scene, dropped folders on his desk, and, generally, kept Jim's involvement quiet. Now that Sandburg was officially convicted, the investigation was officially closed, but, to the officers of Major Crimes, it still remained very much open. Jim, Simon, Joel, Rafe, and Brown all held firm to the belief that Sandburg had been framed. They worked extra hours, trying to find a clue that would lead them to the true culprit.

Simon had bent the rules and claimed that Sandburg's life had been threatened. That gave the officers reason to check everyone's identification at the courtroom door. Jim opened the folder, skimming the list of names. None jumped out at him, but one, in particular, seemed vaguely familiar.

Jim turned his attention next to the photographs. Rafe had stood outside with a camera, discreetly taking snapshots of everyone who entered the courtroom. The sat in a small pocket inside the jacket of the folder. Jim dumped them out, spreading them on his desk, searching for a familiar face.

His heart nearly leapt into his throat. Aha! His mouth went dry, and he closed his eyes, wondering if his vision was playing tricks on him. All this time, and now it looked as though he'd found a lead. Penrose. Jim stared down at the fair-skinned man in the photo. He recognized him as William Penrose's brother. He glanced at the familiar name on the list. Jonathan Carter. The two men had the same mother, but different fathers.

He rose from his desk, heading toward Simon's office. It all of suddenly made sense. Jim had been the arresting officer in Penrose's case. The man had gone to jail on drug and manslaughter charges, and, the entire time, claimed he was innocent. His suicide had spurred his brother into taking vengeance by framing Jim's partner for similar crimes.

Jim knocked on his Captain's door.

"Come in!"

The detective stepped in. Simon sat at his desk, puffing on a cigar.

Jim walked over to Simon and tossed the folder on his desk. "William Penrose," he announced, his eyes fire. "His brother. That son of a bitch was at the courtroom."

The cigar fell from Simon's mouth and, with a curse, he leapt out of his chair, grabbing the cigar as it rolled off his pantleg and placing it in his ashtray. He looked up at Jim, his jaw open. "My God, we finally have something to start with."

"Yes, Sir, we do."

"But we still have to find proof."

"I know."

"It's a pretty cold trail by now."

"I know."

"So what do you have in mind?"

"I could break his arms and threaten to tear his heart out unless he confesses," Jim said, his voice flat.

Simon raised his eyebrows. "O-kay. Why don't we keep that as plan Z and work on a few other ideas first?"



The bus rolled to halt, and the two uniformed officers supervising the orange-clad prisoners rose just as the door swung open, accompanied by the high-pitched sound of air being released. One of the officers walked down the steps, stopping to stand just outside the bus. The other unlocked the gate separating the prisoners from the front of the bus and gestured for the men to stand.

Sandburg rose, following the line of men out of the bus. The guards instructed the prisoners to stand in a line in front of the prison entrance. Sandburg held his body straight, his shoulders back. His eyes darted around the compound, taking in the high brick fence topped with barbed wire, the guard towers manned by armed men, and the stern faces of the guards as their eyes scanned the line of prisoners in front of them.

"Welcome to your new home," a large man in a blue uniform announced, pacing in front of the line of men. "Your world has just become very, very small. You will eat, sleep, bath, exercise, and work. That's it. If you don't give me or my men a problem, we won't give you a problem. In here, I own you. You will do as you're told, when you're told, with no questions asked."

Oh great, testosterone at it's finest, Blair mused, willing his mind clear and his breathing steady. "A sense of humor is man's greatest asset." The words sprung into his mind, but he couldn't quite remember where he'd read them.

The large man pointed to another officer at his right. "You will follow this man into the compound. He'll give you your new pajamas and check you in. Keep your traps shut, and your eyes in front of you. Understood?"

The prisoners nodded, as did Blair.

"Good. Now move!"



Jim followed a good distance behind Carter's silver '95 Mustang. The detective had been following the suspect all morning, keeping a camera with a telephoto lens accessible on the passenger seat. He swallowed, glancing over at the large camera on the seat next to him. Sandburg's seat. He clenched his jaw and returned his gaze to the car in front of him. Jim was sure Carter was the man responsible for Blair's imprisonment, and the sentinel had no intention of letting his prey slip out of sight. Fortunately, now that he had a solid objective in front of him, his senses seemed to have returned to normal... well, normal for him, anyway.



Blair stepped out of the shower, quietly taking the towel offered to him by the guard. Quickly, he dried himself off, then wrapped the towel around his waist and followed the line of damp, naked men to another guard seated at a table. Blue uniforms were stacked on the floor, and the guard handed a uniform to each passing inmate.

Blair stepped up to the table and took his uniform, then moved down the line to the changing room. He slipped into the clothes and took his place in another line, this one made up of clothed prisoners who were ready to receive their cell assignments.

He glanced around, allowing himself a small sigh. The prison walls were dank and filthy, and the men around him wore expressions ranging from anger to despair. He took in a deep breath. This would most likely be his home for the next 40 years.



Jim sat in the truck a block away from Carter's house. His sensitive eyes honed in on a slat between the curtains and focused on the middle-aged man as he sat in a recliner, writing in a journal. He pushed his vision farther, just able to see the top two lines of the page.

'I have never felt greater satisfaction. The look on Ellison's face was priceless. His partner, like my brother, has been sentenced to a crime he did not commit. I hope they both rot in hell.'

Jim wrapped his fingers around the steering wheel, his knuckles white. He inhaled a few slow, deep breaths, then reached into his jacket pocket and removed his cell phone, hitting the autodial for Simon's office.



Blair sat on the bottom bunk, looking desolately at the floor. So this was his new home. The hard cement floor was dirty and cold. He could feel the chill through the souls of his shoes. A large roach scuttled out from under his bed, darting quickly over Blair's foot. He jumped up in surprise, suppressing a yelp just as it reached his throat.

"A little bug gotcha scared, little boy?"

Blair looked up into the face of a six-foot-five-inch, two-hundred-plus pound giant of a man. He swallowed. God, you'd think the prison warden would try to even up the cellmate matches.

The man took a few steps toward Blair, stopping inches from him. Blair's head was tilted all the way back as he gazed up into the man's hard eyes.

"Uh... no, it just surprised me, that's all. Can't say that roaches are my favorite delicacy. Personally, I prefer cow tongue. Have you ever tried it? It's really good on crackers with a little hummus."

The man's arms flung upward and Blair found himself being hurled backward against the bunk. His head hit the bottom board of the top bunk, filling the small cell with a loud 'thunk'. His body folded, and he fell onto the lower mattress.

"That's my bunk, smartass," the man snarled.

Blair scrambled off the mattress, backing into the wall. Looking at the man's angry face, Blair suspected that any bunk he'd have chosen would have been claimed by the man as his own. Jim's words came back to him. "If you show fear, they'll tear you apart."

The anthropologist in him recognized the power play, and he forced himself to straighten, squaring his shoulders and raising his chin defiantly in the air. "Personally, I could give a shit. I can see you don't like to be on top." He snorted. "Figures. Studies have shown that bottom-bunkers tend to have feelings of inadequacy. They also generally score an average of ten points lower on intelligence tests." His statistics were sheer bull, of course, but he doubted the man in front of him knew that. "Such types like to play the bully to fill their egos...overcompensation for inadequacies elsewhere, obviously."

Goliath's face twisted into a mask of rage and he advanced on Blair, grabbing him by the collar and raising him a good foot off the ground. He slammed the small man against the wall, his nose centimeters from Blair's.

"You've got a bit mouth, runt, and a small brain. It ain't smart to back-talk someone who can rip off your balls and shove them down your throat before you can even call out for your mommie."

Blair's heart pounded fiercely in his chest as he worked his brain to come up with a suitable, and self-preserving, reply.

"Let him go, Janson."

Blair shifted his gaze to see a guard standing in the entrance of the cell. The large black man dropped Blair and turned to look at the guard.

"Yes, Sir," he said, his voice tight and sarcastic.

The officer ignored Janson and looked at Blair. "Come with me," he stated, his face expressionless and his voice flat.

Blair nodded, hurrying past the larger man on his way out of the cell. The guard reached behind him and removed a pair of cuffs, grabbing Blair's wrists and slapping the metal rings around them. He then led Blair down a long corridor, past several cells, and through two security gates. Blair realized he was leaving the cell block area and heading toward a more administrative region of the compound. Ahead of him, he saw a room with a large glass wall. Inside stood Jim Ellison, his gaze fixed on his approaching Guide.

The guard stopped in front of the door, opened it, and gestured inside. "You have a visitor."

Blair stepped into the room. Jim gestured toward the cuffs with a jerk of his chin. "You can remove those," he said.

Without uttering a sound, the guard reached into his pocket and removed a set of keys. He unfastened Blair's cuffs and pushed the man over to the table. Then he spun on his heals and left the room, closing the door behind him.

"How you doing, Chief," Jim began.

Blair rubbed absently at his wrists. "Okay," he said. "I'm David, stuck with Goliath for a cellmate. Think you can slip me a slingshot?"

Jim's smiled sadly. "I see you've kept your sense of humor."

"Come on, Jim. I've only been here for a few hours."

"I know. I came to... uh... give you some news."

"You mean you didn't just want to check up on me?"

Jim's smile broadened infinitesimally. "That too."

Blair glanced at the guard through the glass. "What about visiting hours. I'm not quite sure of the schedule yet, but don't they have, like, set times?"

Jim shrugged. "Being a cop has its advantages."

Blair smiled. "So I see. What's the news? You found the guy, got the evidence, and I can go home now? Good, let me just say goodbye to Goliath. I'm really gonna miss him, you know. Such a keen intellect, that one."

Jim tilted his head, his eyes glittering with amusement. "Close."

Blair's heart skipped a beat. He'd been joking, never expecting such an answer. "Are you serious?"

Jim nodded. "I found out who's responsible for the set-up."

Blair raised his eyebrows expectantly.

"Jonathan Carter, Penrose's brother."

Blair whistled. "Man... the guy who just committed suicide? The Skywalker dude?"

Jim nodded. "He was at the court for your sentencing. I followed him around, staked out his house. I managed to get a peek at his journal. He talked about being glad that you'd been convicted of a crime you didn't commit."

Blair's mouth parted in a huge smile, and his face lit up. "Oh man! This is great news. You mean, I have a shot of getting out of here? Can you get a search warrant? Confiscate the journal? There's gotta be more in it. I bet he has the whole thing laid out right there in black and white!"

Jim nodded, his eyes shining with a light Blair hadn't seen for far too long. "Let's hope so, Chief. If it turns out that way, you could be out of here very soon."

Blair nodded, bouncing on his heels. "God, I hope this pans out. One day in here is one day too long." He immediately regretted the words when he saw the almost imperceptible flinch touch Jim's eyes. Remembering their conversation in the hospital, Blair's mind raced to find words that would ease Jim's anxiety. "It's not that bad in here, though. Really. I mean, I've been in here for hours and haven't gotten one proposition yet." He sighed in mock disappointment. "I must seriously be losing my touch."

Jim apparently didn't appreciate Blair's attempt at humor, as his eyes remained clouded with dark emotion. "That's not funny, Sandburg. Don't let anyone here you make jokes like that... not in here."

"Come on, Jim. This is you and me here. Lighten up. Things are finally starting to look up."

Jim sighed, raising one hand to squeeze the bridge of his nose. "I hope so, Chief. I'm sorry if I'm a bit down. I know that's the last thing you need from me right now."

Blair took a few steps closer to the detective, glancing uncertainly at the guard outside the door. He wasn't sure if he was allowed to touch Jim, so he stopped several feet away from his partner. "It's okay, Jim. I know how hard this is on you. Remember your promise, okay?"

Jim nodded, lowering his arm and raising his eyes to fix Sandburg with a stern gaze. "And you remember yours, Blair. Got that?"

Sandburg nodded. "I gave you my word, didn't I? You trust me, don't you?"

Jim nodded. "Yes, of course I do... It's just that sometimes you tend to a little obfuscating if you think it serves a good purpose."

"Come on, man, that thing with Joel... That was different," Blair insisted. "I'd never break my word, especially not to you."

Jim lowered his head, looking slightly abashed. "Sorry, Chief. I know you wouldn't."

"It's okay." Blair shrugged. "I'll let you slide this time, big guy."

Jim smiled, shaking his head. "You just hold onto that sense of humor, Sandburg."

Blair nodded. I know. I'm going to need it in here.

"Well, I guess it's time to end this little visit. I'll be here Saturday for visiting hours."

"Is that when they hold them?"

Jim nodded. "Twice a month."

"Okay then," Blair said. "Get a move on." He waved the larger man toward the door, then paused when he remember something. "Oh, did you find all my journals?"

Jim nodded. "Yes. They were right where you said they would be."

Blair swallowed, suddenly uncomfortable. "So?"

"Let's just see how this thing with Carter pans out. I may not need them, after all."

"But you're still in the field, man. You need someone with you."

"Simon's helping me."

Blair nodded. "That's good. I knew he would."

"He's just a temp, Chief. He makes a great police Captain, but you've got him beat hands down in the annoyingly talkative Guide department," Jim said, his eyes twinkling with a hint of amusement. "Besides, he gets cranky because I won't let him smoke in the truck."

"Why doesn't he just insist on taking his car?"

"I won't let him smoke there either."

Blair chuckled. "You mean he's taking orders from you? This I gotta see."

Jim smiled, raising a finger to his lips. "Shhh... I'll have him trained soon enough."

Blair winked, raising his hand in the air. "The secret is safe with me... for a fee, of course."

Jim laughed, taking two long strides to close the distance between him and Blair. He reached out and gently cuffed Blair on the side of the face. Sandburg glanced nervously at the guard, who remained with his back to the two men, oblivious to their interaction. Ellison mirrored Blair's glance, then raised his hand to ruffle the younger man's curls.

"It's okay, Chief," he said. "No hugging or kissing, and I think we'll be fine."

Blair chuckled nervously, then patted his cheek. "Come on, how 'bout a big wet one right here?"

Jim pushed him back in mock disgust. "I'd rather kiss a sweaty wild bore."

Blair raised his eyebrows. "Ah. Attracted to your own kind, I see."

Jim threw his partner a deadly glare and popped him gently on the side of the head. "Just for that, I'm going to send your new cellmate some of your baby pictures."

Blair's eyes widened and he raised his hands defensively in the air. "Whoa, man. You do that and I'll have to tell Cassie how you've secretly admired her all this time."

Jim's eyes narrowed. "That'd be a lie," Jim said.

Blair shrugged. "She'll believe it."

"Okay. You win."

Blair smiled, raising a fist triumphantly through the air. "Sandburg ten. Ellison zero."

Jim crossed his arms over his chest and gazed at his partner skeptically. "I think that's more like 'Ellison one hundred, Sandburg one.'"

"Yeah, yeah. Keep dreamin'." He waived toward the door. "Now, didn't you say you needed to be going? Not that I'm in a rush to get back to anything, but I AM most definitely in a rush to get out of here... which means you need to be out there working to get me out of here."

Jim nodded, sobering immediately. "You got it. Like I said, I'll be back Saturday." He walked over to the door and waved the guard inside. The young man walked over to Sandburg, fitting him with the cuffs again as he led him out of the room. Blair looked briefly over his shoulder back at Jim as he was led silently back toward his cell.

Jim stood stiffly in the small room, his eyes fixed steadily on his retreating partner. Finally, when Sandburg and the guard rounded a corner and could no longer be seen, Jim walked out of the room and hurried over to the guard's desk down the hall. He stopped in front of a thin, balding man with a white mustache.

"I'd like to see one more prisoner. He may also have some information pertinent to the case I'm working on."

The guard yawned, gazing at Jim with tired eyes. "And that would be?"

"Janson Cole."

The guard swiveled his chair to position himself in front of the large keyboard of a bulky, outdated computer. He pecked a string of letters into the computer, then stared blankly at the screen for a few seconds. Finally, he swiveled back around, grabbed the phone, and barked the request into the receiver.

Jim thanked the man and headed back to the small security room. Ten minutes later, another guard led a large black man into the room. This time, Jim didn't ask that the cuffs be removed.

Janson Cole took a seat at the square white table against the wall and stared at Jim defiantly. "What is it, cop?"

"You remember officer Brown?"

Janson nodded. "Yeah. He's the cop that busted me."

"I'm glad to see your memory's intact. Well, Brown's a friend of mine. He said you have a reputation of being a tough bastard who'd knock off his own grandmother for a dime."

"I ain't quite that low," the man growled.

"He also said I could trust you to complete a job. You're not opposed to collecting money, I take it?" Jim leaned on the table, looming over Janson, forcing the prisoner to look up at him.

Janson shrugged. "Who is?"

"You want a job?"

His dark eyes narrowed suspiciously. "What kind of job?"

"Protection. I want someone in here protected, and I'm willing to pay you."

"Who and how much?"

Jim wrapped his foot around the leg of the nearest chair and scooted it away from the table. He plopped himself into the seat and folded his hands on the table. "Four hundred dollars a month, for starters. I also know you're up for parole in five years. You do this job well, and I'll speak on your behalf at the parole meeting."

Jim watched Janson's guarded expression shift to one of concealed interest. "You ain't answered all my questions. Who?"

Jim shook his head. "First you accept, then I'll tell you. Oh, I should warn you, if you do accept, I'll hold you to it. Any harm comes to this man by your hand -- and I WILL find out -- and not only will you not get paid, I'll leak the word out to Scally that you spilled your guts about his little business."

Janson rose from the chair. "He'll kill me."

Jim smiled. "I know. Society will mourn the loss, I'm sure. Now sit down."

Slowly, Janson lowered himself back into the chair.

"This is the deal," Ellison began. "You are to act as this inmate's guardian angel. As long as he remains relatively unharmed, you'll get paid. Payment will be rendered twice a month, $200 every two weeks. If, during any two week period, this inmate receives anything more than a scratch, you'll lose payment for the entire month. If he receives any permanent injuries, or if he dies, payment will stop completely and I will personally appear before the parole board in five years and make sure you never see the light of day. You are to be this man's shadow. Take him under your wing and in your group. If I'm satisfied with your performance, your salary will increase to five hundred dollars a month after six months." Jim hoped his partner wouldn't be locked away for anywhere near that long, but, if such turned out the case, than five hundred dollars would be a small price to pay to ensure his friend's safety.

Janson eyed Ellison undecidedly for several long seconds, then said, "Six hundred to start. Eight hundred later."

Jim shook his head. "No negotiating. $500 a month over five years. Do the math. You'll be a rich man when you get out. Take it or leave it."

Janson stood back up. "Fine. I'll take it. I want $50 in cash in my hand every two weeks. The rest you give to Russel Cole, he's my brother. He'll take care of it for me. I warn you, though, you skip a payment on me, and I'll personally make sure he takes a trip to the infirmary."

Ellison's eyes turned to ice, and his hands shot up to grab Janson by the collar. "Listen to me you pathetic sack of shit. If you touch one hair on his head, for any reason, I WILL make sure Scally takes you out. You got that?"

Janson's nostrils flared, his eyes locked with Ellison's. "Just you make those payments. Now, who's my new friend?"

Jim pushed Janson back into his chair. "Your new cellmate. A small guy with long curly hair. Sound familiar?"

Jim watched the man for a reaction. The detective had found out which cell Blair had been assigned to almost as soon as the decision had been made. He was almost amazed at how easy it had been to get the information so quickly. Of course, he hadn't dare relate that information to Blair. The kid might accuse him of violating the agreement or, more likely, of not trusting Blair to take care of himself.

Janson snorted. "That little runt. No wonder. He wouldn't last five minutes in here on his own."

"Remember what I said, any harm comes to him, and it'll be your head that rolls."

"Don't worry, Cop. Mr. baby blues will be well taken care of." He tilted his head. "So why's he so special to you, anyways?"

"He's a friend. That's all you need to know" Jim replied.

"Must be real tight, you two. How's it feel to get a glimpse of the other side?"

"Do I look interested in small talk? Listen up, there's one more thing," Jim said.

"What's that?"

"Not a word of this to anybody, especially the kid. This little arrangement stays between you and me."

"Sure thing. As long as the money keeps comin', that is."



Blair laid on the top bunk, staring blankly up at the brown-speckled ceiling. He desperately wished he'd been able to bring some books in with him. He knew the prison must have some sort of a library, and he decided that would be the first place he'd paid a visit to during rec hours.

"Hey runt," a low voice growled.

Blair closed his eyes. Oh great, Goliath's back. "What do you want, man? You got the bottom bunk."

"You got a name?"

Blair opened his eyes, rolling on his side to look at the man. "Blair Sandburg," he said. Maybe there's hope, yet. Maybe I can actually strike up a friendship with this guy.

He snickered. "Figures. Sissy name."

Or maybe not. "Is Janson your first or last name?"

"It's the only name you need to know, runt."

"I see."

"So, whatcha in here for?"

"Drug and murder charges," Blair stated, hoping he sounded convincingly boastful.

"Drugs, I can see, but I ain't figured you for a murderer. Too scrawny, and you ain't got the eyes for it."

What does that mean, Blair wondered. Maybe I should work on my look in a mirror sometime.

"So who'd you kill?"

Blair shrugged. "None of your business." Yep. Act tough. He'll either learn to respect you, or rip your spine out. I'm hoping it's the former.

"Tough talk for such a little birdie. You as stupid as you seem?"

Blair raised his eyebrows. "Ain't that like the pot calling the kettle black?"

Janson walked over to Blair, grabbed him by the scruff of the collar, and locked him in a steel gaze. "You got a big mouth punk."

Blair swallowed, his pulse thundering in his ears. "So does Aerosmith, but it hasn't seemed to hurt him." Where did THAT come from. That's gotta be a contender for the world's stupidest come-back.

Janson's eyes widened, and he raised his eyebrows in surprise. Gradually, his lips turned upward in a smile and a clacking chuckle escaped his throat. "You're a real piece of work, runt. If you like Aerosmith, you can't be all that bad. I'll let you live.. for today, anyway."

Janson released his hold on Blair and dropped into his own bunk. Sandburg released a silent breath of relief and rolled onto his back, his eyes closed. Well, that's one disaster averted. Maybe I can get some sleep, now.



He shivered, pulling the covers tighter around his shoulders. Man, Jim, turn up the thermostat a little. It's like an icebox in here. He rolled over onto his side, fighting to return to his slumber. His mind was hazy with sleep, though he was now officially awake. With a groan, he shifted forward, forcing himself further awake so he could get out of bed and put on a pair of sweats. He swung his legs over the side of the bed and lunged forward, expecting his feet to contact the ground and propel his body upward. Instead, he found himself falling. His stomach lurched into his throat during the brief free-fall, and then he found himself slamming into something cold and unyielding. He released a surprised yelp of pain as his ankle twisted beneath him, causing his body to crumple hard to the cold floor.

"Huh? Wha... Wha's that?" A sleepy voice penetrated the night, and Blair raised his head, his teeth clenched, squinting his eyes to penetrate the darkness. He saw a shadowy figure on the lower bunk in front of him, and realization finally dawned on him, making him suddenly queesy with despair.

This isn't the loft. That's not my home, anymore. This is. Prison.

The shadowy figure slipped out of bed and knelt beside him. Blair felt a strong hand clamp around his arm and found himself being hauled to his feet.

"What are you brain damaged, kid? Fucking Christ, don't tell me you fell out of bed? Idiot. First night and you hurt yourself. I swear, I ain't no babysitter."

Blair winced, keeping his weight off his right ankle. He tore out of the man's grasp and hopped over to the end of the bed, grabbing onto the wood frame that served double-duty as ladder.

"I'm fine. Thanks for the oh-so genuine concern," Blair mumbled. "Sorry I woke you."

Blair pulled himself up, using his arms to take the burden of his weight off the injured ankle. He scrambled back under his covers and rolled over, his face to the wall. A hollow ache filled his chest and he bit down on his lower lip, clenching his eyes shut. He'd never missed anybody so much as he missed Jim at that moment.

His roommate muttered angrily on the bunk below. "Just my luck. Stuck with a bumblin' fool."



Saturday seemed long in coming, even though Blair knew only a day had passed. Fortunately, those twenty-four hours proved relatively uneventful. The prison food sucked, but he supposed he could learn to live with it. He'd received his work assignment, and was scheduled to report to the welding shop at 2 pm. He'd spent a summer at a sheet metal plant a few years ago, so he felt comfortable with his assignment.

Visiting hours began at ten a.m., and Blair found himself limping behind the impatient guard that led him to the visiting area. As he walked through the doorway of the long room, he spotted Jim sitting rigidly on the other side of the glass partition. Blair walked over to his seat, making an effort to walk normally. He clenched his jaw as spikes of pain shot through his ankle each time he put his weight down, but he was determined not to let Jim discover his injury. He sure as hell didn't want to explain to the sentinel how the injury had occured.

He sat down in the chair and offered his friend a forced smile. "How's it going?"

Jim tilted his head, his eyes narrow as he peered at Blair. "What's with the ankle?"

Blair cursed himself mentally. Damnit, and I thought I'd done a rather good job of hiding it. Rather than voice his irritation, he simply shrugged. "Nothing. I sprained it, that's all."

"How'd it happen," Jim asked, his voice taking on an almost deadly tone.

Blair pulled back slightly, taking a better look at the man in front of him. Deep lines were etched in Jim's forehead, and his eyes held a dark, angry quality.

"Hey, what's with the bad vibes, Jim?"

The transformation in Jim's face was almost magical. The lines in his forehead smoothed, and the anger in his eyes melted to gentle concern. "I'm sorry, Chief. I guess I'm feeling a bit frustrated, and it's coming through."

"Frustrated about what," Blair asked.

"We're having a problem getting that warrant. We obviously can't mention how I found out about the journal, and, without that information, the judge doesn't have sufficient reason to issue one. Simon's working on it, though. We hope to have it by Monday or Tuesday."

Blair swallowed, the hollow ache he'd felt earlier returned with a vengeance. "That's okay," he muttered. "At least we know the journal is out there."

Jim nodded. "I'll get it, don't you worry." Quickly, he scanned the room, his eyes brushing over each of the other prisoners and their respective visitors. Then he leaned closer to the glass and asked, "So what happened to your ankle."

"I said it's nothing," Blair insisted.

"If it were nothing, you'd have told me already."

Blair sighed. "Fine. I fell out of bed, okay."

Jim looked momentarily stunned, as if that were the last answer he'd expected. Then the edges of his mouth turned upward and a glint of amusement touched his eyes. "You fell out of bed?"

Blair nodded. "I woke up in the middle of the night, freezing cold. I thought I was back at the loft, you know, in the futon that's about two inches off the ground. I jumped out of bed and, well, gravity did the rest. It was a rude awakening, let me tell you."

Jim's smile faded instantly, and the mirth left his eyes. "Don't worry, Chief. We'll get you back there soon. I promise."

Blair nodded, smiling in an attempt to reassure his obviously guilt-ridden partner. "I believe you. Don't worry, like I said, it's not that bad in here. My new roomate's not hassling me near as much as I thought he would. I think he's planning on letting me live after all."

"So he's not giving you a problem?"

Blair shook his head. "Nope. He's okay, actually. A bit uptight, but I'm sure I can straighten him out." He smiled briefly, then his expression turned more serious. "So, have you heard from Naomi?"

Jim shook his head, his eyes betraying an additional pang of guilt. "No. Don't worry, she's bound to write or call sooner or later. She's probably on some enlightenment journey in the wilderness, knowing your mom."

"Hey, don't knock it, Jim."

Ellison smiled. "She is most certainly an interesting woman."

Blair glared at the detective. "Don't even start, okay? This is my mom we're talking about."

Jim raised an eyebrow thoughtfully. "You know, if she and I did ever get together, that'd make me your stepfather."

Blair's eyes widened in sudden horror. "Oh MAN, that is SO not funny!"



In a separate visitor's room several yards away from Jim and Blair, Carter sat in front of a similar glass pane, looking at a large, muscular man with sun-worn skin and shaggy blonde hair.

"So what's the job," the man asked.

Carter leaned forward, his voice barely a whisper. "Two thousand upfront and two thousand upon completion. I want you to take somebody out."

"Who?"

"A new arrival. I want him to suffer. Go hard on him. Make him wish he were dead before you kill him. Oh, and, if you can, make it look like a suicide. If you put him through enough hell that he actually does off himself, that's even better," Carter whispered.

The man smiled, revealing uneven, yellow teeth. "Okay. Deal. Who's the unlucky son of a bitch?"

"Janson's new roomate. His name is Blair Sandburg and he used to be teamed with Detective James Ellison of the Cascade P.D."

The man's eyes widened. "He was a cop?"

Carter shook his head. "No, just some police observer. Academic type. He's a scrawny brainiac with the muscles of a teenage girl. He won't be a problem for someone like you."



Blair reported to the welding shop five minutes before 2 pm. A large officer with slate green eyes pointed him over to another large man, a dark-skinned inmate who was apparently the work foreman. Blair looked up at the guy, thinking that he looked an awful lot like Janson. That train of thought led him to ponder the curious conversation he'd had with his cellmate earlier that afternoon. Janson, knowing Blair was scheduled to work at the welding shop, told the young man to keep his eyes down and his mouth shut.

"I ain't gonna be there to get your butt outta the fire, boy, so you'd best behave yourself," he'd grumbled.

Blair had been shocked to discover that Janson actually held some concern for his welfare. He smiled wistfully at the thought, maybe he'd end up having a blessed protector on the inside, after all. Janson's words had filled Blair with a slow warmth, giving the anthropologist hope that a friendship could be forged between him and the older man. Maybe prison wouldn't be so bad if he had a good friend to spend the years with. Even though Blair knew Jim was fervently searching for evidence to clear his name, Blair's hope of vindication faded with each day. Prison was a dark, cold, lonely place. During the day, he could busy himself with work and reading and, for the most part, keep his mind off his whereabouts. Nights, however, were an entirely different story. Cloaked in the ubiquitous darkness of night, he'd lay in his bed, listening to the silence and the occasional soft murmuring or groans of his fellow roommates. His brain, finally idle, would start to drift to what he'd lost. Friends. A warm bed. His mother. His research. Jim. He sighed. Yes, nights were the hardest of all.

The foreman grabbed Blair by the arm, dragged him over to a workbench, stuck a blow torch in his right hand, and waved over one of the inmates working on another bench a few feet away.

"Sky, get your ass over here," the foreman bellowed.

A small white man with graying hair walked over to Blair and the foreman. "Yes?"

"Show this kid the ropes, 'kay?"

Sky nodded. "Sure thing."

With that, the formean turned and stormed off. Blair spent the next three hours working with Sky as the older man showed him the intricacies involved in the art of welding. Finally, it was time for dinner. Inmates were allowed twenty free minutes before being required to report to the cafeteria. Blair's bladder motivated him to find the restroom, so he said his goodbyes to Sky and headed off down the crowded corridor, squeezing his way through the scattered inmates as they wondered through the corridor, chatting with friends or arguing with foes.

He pushed his way into the restroom, stopping when he realized it was deserted. A tingling sensation in the back of his neck told him something wasn't the way it should be, and, slowly, he turned around, preparing to walk back into the hall. He found himself stopped by an immovable force as his face bumped into a large, hard chest. He looked up into the cold blue eyes of a leather-skinned inmate with blonde, shaggy hair.

"Hey, you're that cop's parnter, ain't you?" The man took a step forward, causing Blair to stumble backwards.

Blair's mouth went dry, his heart pounding choatically in his chest. "Uh... I don't know what you're talking about. I'm an anthropologist, not a cop," Blair stammered. God, if they found out he'd worked with Ellison, his life would be over in a heartbeat.

"Yeah, you're Sandburg." He grabbed the front of Blair's shirt and hauled him up. Blair's feet dangled in the air, and he swallowed, forcing himself to meet the man's angry glare.

"Hey," Blair began, raising his hands complacently, "Look, I've got no problem with you. I don't want any trouble."

Two more men pushed their way into the bathroom, stopping to stand directly behind the blonde. "Looks like you found trouble," the man sneered.

"Time for initiation," one of the new arrivals added.

"Who are you?" Blair's voice was strained and shaky, and he mentally kicked himself, remembering Jim's advice about not showing fear.

"Name's Sikes. Remember it."

"Oh I will," Blair promised.

The man released his grip, and Blair dropped to the floor, immediately backing away from the three large man. Sikes advanced on him. The two other men shifted their positions to either side. Blair's avenue of escape was effectively blocked.

Sikes pushed Blair into the wall. The other two men circled around and grabbed Blair's arms, one man on each side of him. Blair felt his heart pounding so fiercely, he thought it would burst from his chest. Sikes gazed silently at Blair for several seconds, then smiled, his eyes holding a dangerous quality.

God, Jim, I'm sorry... Sorry I couldn't stick around long enough to see you take down Carter.  Blair closed his eyes briefly. Damnit, this was only his first week on the inside, and, for pride's sake, he was determined to last more than a week.

Without consciously thinking about it, he raised his feet quickly, kicking outward. He felt the satisfying contact as his feet slammed into Sikes' groin. The large man doubled over, falling to the ground.

"Son of a bitch!" Sikes' voice was strained and angry, filled with murderous rage.

Blair threw his legs downward, launching himself into the air so suddenly that the goon on his right was taken off guard. The man stumbled sideways, and Blair twisted, landing a fist into the remaining attacker's face. Goon number two screamed, a sound that appeared to be a mixture of pain and anger. Blair didn't wait any longer. His legs sprung into action, vaulting his body toward the door. He'd managed to reach the door, almost swinging it open, when he felt himself grabbed from behind and hurled into the air. He slammed into the wall, the side of his head contacting the hard wood with a loud bang. Spots danced in his vision, and he felt himself sliding to the floor.

He shook his head, trying to clear his vision, and saw Sikes looming over him. "Goddamned hippie freak. You're gonna pay for that now!"

The two goons fell on top of Blair, turning him over onto his stomach. One of the men landed a sharp kick into Blair's ribs, and he clutched his side, gasping for air as the pain shot into his back. His arms were pinned painfully behind him, and he felt rough hands around his waist. A few seconds later, his pants were pulled down, and he heard grunts of amusement behind him.

"Nice ass, Junior."

Blair winced, his eyes clenched shut and his stomach tight. Junior. He swallowed, suddenly angry that these assholes had used one of the nicknames Jim held for him. The young man struggled against the hands holding him, but the men's grips were firm.

"Now it's time for your initiation, little bro."

Blair's breath came to him in shallow, quick bursts, and he realized dimly that he was on the verge of hyperventilating. He forced himself to take a slow lungful of air. God, oh God... not this... anything but this... He swallowed, his throat tight. Okay, Sandburg, you can get through this. You can live with it. It's not much. Just a thing... Just your body... It's out of your control, so live with it... if they let you....

His legs were shoved apart, and he felt a heavy weight fall on top of him, crushing his chest and making breathing virtually impossible. Warm skin pressed into the top of his right thigh, and he clenched his eyes tighter, willing away the nightmare, knowing that he was powerless to stop it from happening.

Jim, God, I hope you don't think less of me...

He heard a loud bang, followed by the shout of angry voices. The weight pressing down on him suddenly lifted, and he sucked in a greedy gulp of air.

"What the hell you doin', Sikes," a deep, familiar voice bellowed.

"None of your goddamned business, Janson. You and your buddies just stay out of this."

Blair realized he was laying on the floor, half naked, in a less-than-dignified position. He shifted, wincing as pain shot through his right side, and reached down, slowly pulling his pants up. He blinked, taking in the several men now occupying the bathroom. Janson stood in front of a group of four large men, three black, one hispanic. Sikes and his two partners faced them, poised for a fight.

"He's my cellmate. That makes it my business," Janson growled. "You wanna do this here? You think you and your two buddies can take on the five of us. Three white boys against me and my men?" He laughed. "You're sick in the head!"

Sikes glared at Janson, then his eyes fluttered over the other four men. He apparently decided that he was outmatched, because he waved his partners toward the door and pushed passed Janson and his men, exiting into the corridor.

Janson walked over to Blair and knelt down in front of him. "You okay, runt?"

Blair felt his face grow hot with embarrasment, but he managed a quick nod, his throat too dry to produce intelligible sound.

"They hurt you?"

Blair clutched his side, not wanting to admit to being injured, but knowing he couldn't stand on his own volition. Janson's eyes fell to Blair's side, and he reached out, pushing the younger man's arm out of the way.

"They punch you? Kick you?"

Blair swallowed. "Kicked," he croaked.

Janson sighed. "Damn, probably busted a rib. Best get you to the doc. Jesus, kid, can't I leave you alone for a few hours?"