Inside and Out

Part III  

Jim sat at his desk, pouring over the surveillance reports on Carter. His concentration was interrupted by a deep voice.

"Jim, can I see you in my office?"

Ellison looked up to see Simon banks standing in the open doorway of his office. Jim nodded, rising from his chair and walking over to Simon. The Captain leaned against his desk and gestured to the door. Jim reached behind him and closed it, then raised his eyebrows expectantly.

"What is it, Simon?"

"I worked out a deal with an acquaintance of mine at the prison - asked him to keep an eye out on Sandburg and let me know how the kid's doing," Simon began.

Jim raised his eyebrows in surprise, suppressing a smile. "Oh really?"

Jim, Joel, and Brown had all been involved in the idea to hire a bodyguard for Sandburg, with each man chipping in equally to cover the bi-weekly payment. Jim could have covered the money on his own, though with the lawyer fees he'd had to pay recently, it would have been difficult. However, Brown and Joel had wanted to be involved, feeling partially responsible for being unable to clear Sandburg and looking for a way to help the kid anyway they could. Simon hadn't heard about the deal, though no one had specifically tried to keep it from the Captain. It was just something the three men came up with in conversation one day while discussing their concerns about Sandburg. As luck would have it, Brown had busted Janson, and that gave Jim the perfect opportunity to set up a man on the inside to watch over his young Guide.

Now Jim wondered if not telling Simon had been a mistake. If his Captain were paying separately for a second bodyguard on his own, such an endeavor would be terribly expensive. Not that Sandburg couldn't use the extra pair of eyes and arms, but, still, Jim didn't want to see his Captain carrying the financial burden for Sandburg's safety.

"Don't give me that look, Jim," Simon admonished. "There's just this guard I know casually... friend of a friend kind of thing. Anyway, he's a cigar-lover, so I gave him a case of my finest cigars and asked that he occasionally send me info on Sandburg. I asked him specifically to notify me should the kid get into trouble."

Jim's heart sank. Trouble? "You're telling me this now, so I can only assume something happened to Sandburg?" His jaw was clenched tightly.

Simon raised a hand. "Take it easy, Jim. Sandburg got into a minor scrape and he's resting in the infirmary. He's got a hairline crack in one rib and another bump on the head. I swear, the kid must have the hardest noggin' in the country."

Jim balled one hand into a fist. "Damnit, he's only been in there a couple of days, and he's already in the infirmary." Jim shook his head. "I never should have listened to him. He's too stubborn for his own good. I should have just listened to my gut and gotten him out of here, rules be damned."

Simon placed a comforting hand on Jim's shoulder. "Come on, Jim. My contact says he's doing fine. He's being held for observation, but he'll be released shortly. Why don't you and I drive up to see him? Being a Captain of Major Crimes has some advantages, you know. It's only a couple hours drive."

Jim nodded, his eyes expressing his gratitude. "Thanks, Captain. Oh, and there's something I should tell you."

"What's that?"

"Brown, Joel, and myself... well, we all chipped in to hire Janson, Sandburg's cellmate, as his bodyguard. Apparently, the guy's not taking his duty seriously. I intend to have a little chat with Janson when we get there."

Simon raised one eyebrow, pursing his lips into a tight line. "You're paying someone on the inside?"

Jim nodded.

"Hell, why didn't you tell me sooner? I'd have chipped in myself."

Jim allowed himself a smile. "I know you would have, Simon. Hell, now that you know about it, you can pay up your fourth of the two-hundred dollars that's due in a week and a half."

"Does Sandburg know about your little arrangement?"

Jim shook his head. "Absolutely not."

The Captain chuckled, heading for the door. "If he ever finds out, I want to be there to see the fireworks. Just remember, though, if and when the shit hits the fan, I had nothing to do with this."

"You know, Simon," Jim began, following his Captain into the bullpen. "With all the secrets I'm keeping for you lately, I think I should start charging a confidence fee."

Simon threw Jim a deadly glance over his shoulder. "That's blackmail, you know."

Jim shrugged. "I prefer the term 'freelance priest'."



Sandburg laid in bed, staring up at the white ceiling of the small infirmary. Great. Just Great. Let's see, it's been a grand total of, what, two days, and already I've landed myself in a hospital bed. Jim's gonna go ballistic and decide to bust me out and take off to Peru, and no amount of persuasion on my part will change his mind. Well, by the time he gets here, I'll make sure this damn bandage on my head is off. Of course, that'll just expose the nasty cut, but, hopefully, the bruising will be gone by that time. Maybe I can keep my head forward so my hair covers it... Yeah, right, good luck trying to fool a Sentinel, Sandburg. That'll happen. I'll just have to try double hard not to limp or clutch my side. There's no need to worry him over this. Besides, if he knows I'm injured, he's gonna want to know why, and there's absolutely no WAY I'm telling him what happened.

He realized his thoughts were rambling, and he even had enough self-awareness to know why. He closed his eyes, flashing on the image of Sikes and his men leering at him, almost able to feel the warm flesh against his thigh. He shivered. God, that had been too close. Way too close. He'd never been so humiliated in his entire life. How could he muster the courage to walk back into his cell and look Janson in the eye? The guy already considered him a weak, bumbling, helpless idiot. Blair was sure that seeing him half-naked on the bathroom floor did nothing to improve that image.

"Hey, Chief, how you doing?"

Blair's heart leapt into his throat. No. No way. I must be asleep, imagining his voice.

"Sandburg?"

He felt a slight pressure on his shoulder, and flinched involuntarily. Instantaneously, the pressure abated, and Blair opened his eyes, staring up into a nightmare that got worst when he spotted Simon standing off to the side, just behind Jim. God, if you ever had any inclination to help me out, how about just killing me right now?

"Take it easy, Chief," Jim whispered. "Your heart's pumping a mile a minute. You okay?"

Blair swallowed, nodding quickly. "Yeah. Fine," he croaked.

"What happened?"

The scrutiny of Jim's gaze hit Blair like a weight on his chest, and he turned his head away, staring blankly at the far wall. "Nothing," he mumbled.

"Really. You've got a cracked rib and another minor concussion. Keep this up and I'm going to start making you wear a helmet," Jim said.

"Come on, Sandburg, spill it," Simon barked.

Blair cringed at Simon's rough tone, closing his eyes.

"Oh hell. Sandburg, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to snap like that," Simon said, his voice soft. "We're just concerned, that's all."

"You promised, Chief, remember," Jim reminded him.

Blair opened his eyes, but kept his face away from the two men. "I said I'd tell you if it got to be too much. It hasn't."

"Tell me what happened."

"Please just leave me alone," Blair pleaded, hating the undertone of desperation in his voice.

"Jim, I'm gonna go stretch my legs. That two-hour drive gave me a cramp," Simon said, silently walking out of the infirmary.

After a brief silence, Jim leaned closer to Blair and whispered. "You wanna tell me now?"

Blair bit his lip, shaking his head.

"Please, Chief. Tell me. Who did this to you?"

"And if I tell you, what are you going to do? Pull them aside? Arrest them?" He chuckled. "Come on, you were on the inside, you know how it works."

"I'm not going to start pulling people aside and asking questions, you know. Don't you trust me?"

Blair nodded. "Yeah, Jim. I trust you."

"Janson didn't do this to you, did he?"

Blair turned to look at Jim, his brow creased. "Why would you think that? I told you he was okay."

A brief look of near-panic fluttered across Jim's face, but the Sentinel recovered quickly. "Just wondering. The way you talked about him when I came to see you that first time... it just sounded like you were worried about him causing you trouble."

Blair shook his head. "Nah. He's not as bad as I thought."

"So who?"

Once again, Blair turned his face away.

Jim reached out and touched the side of Blair's face, sliding his fingers over the tender bruise. Blair closed his eyes, forcing himself not to pull away from the contact.

"If you won't tell me who, then at least tell me what they did to you."

"Nothing," Blair repeated.

Jim sighed, removing his hand from Blair's face. "Chief, you're making me think the worst here," he said, his voice suddenly strained.

"Jim, please... just leave me alone."

"Damnit, Sandburg," Jim growled. "We had a deal here. If you don't live up to your promise, how do you expect me to live up to mine? You want me to go on with my life, find another guide, the whole bit... well, then, you're gonna have to start doing your part. Now spill it."

Blair took a deep breath, finally opening his eyes and turning his head to look at Jim. "Okay," he whispered. "I walked into a bathroom and this guy came up to me from behind. He said he recognized me as your partner." Blair turned his head again and looked back at the wall. "Then two of his buddies showed up. They started to rough me up, and I... well, I got in a few good hits. That pissed them off, so they... uh... they threw me against the wall. That's how I hit my head. I slid down onto the floor, and... they... " He closed his eyes. "They pinned me onto my stomach and... " His voice trailed off, and he took another deep breath, unable to give voice to the act which had almost been committed against him. "They didn't do anything. They tried. They got close, but Janson and a few of his pals walked in and stopped them."

After a brief silence, during which time Blair listened to his own shallow, ragged breathing, Jim said, "Thank you, Chief. I know how hard that was for you."

"No, I don't think you do," Blair muttered softly. "If you really understood, you never would have asked me to go through it."

"Chief, look at me."

Blair remained perfectly still.

"Please."

With a tired sigh, Blair opened his eyes and turned his head to look at Jim. The Sentinel gazed down at him with somber blue eyes, lines of worry etched in his forehead.

"If it's that hard for you to talk about, I can only imagine how hard it was for you to go through. Now, are you going to lay there and tell me this isn't becoming too much for you?"

"I can handle it," Blair said.

"What if they had succeeded," Jim asked.

Blair winced at that statement, and he knew he had no answer to the question. He honestly had no idea how he would have dealt with being.... God, he couldn't even think the word. Sure, when one used the word 'rape' in reference to other people, the word was just that - a word. It might evoke emotions of sympathy or mild indignation, but it didn't leave one quivering shamefully on the inside, unable even to voice the concept. He wondered if that... word... held somewhat different emotional contexts for men than women. The act was a power play, either way, but he wondered, almost guiltily, if perhaps that kind of assault affected men differently... maybe, worst? No, not worst, just different. It was different for a woman to come out and say she'd been sexually assualted. For a man, such an admission held a different kind of consequence. Other men would view the victim as perhaps 'wanting' it, just like a they would a woman, but such innuendos would lead to rumors of homosexuality. While Blair himself really didn't have any preconceived notions about sexual preferences, many of the cops at major crimes did. If Blair had been... assaulted... it would have gotten out, carrying with it a stigma of weakness and shame that would make people look at him differently from then on. Women, perhaps, would be more sympathetic, less judgemental. Men, on the other hand... well, for men it was a pride thing. Even Jim would look at him differently... view him as tainted. The sentinel would never admit it, but Blair would know. He'd see it in the older man's eyes every time they gazed into his own. Blair could live with many things, but he could not live with Jim being ashamed of him. No, that was something he could never, ever live with.

"You've answered my question by not answering it," Jim said, jarring Blair from his thoughts.

Blair focused his attention on Jim's face, searching those eyes that could see the impossible for a hint of the truth. Was Jim ashamed of him? Had the fact that Blair allowed himself to be... assaulted... make Jim see him differently? Jim, as loyal and unwaivering a man as he was, stood out as a "man's man." He was an ex-covert-ops-special forces military type with a rigid sense of discipline and a stiff sense of right and wrong. He'd been raised by a man that had used his relationship with his brother, Stephen, as a means of "toughening" him up. Jim's father was a man that encouraged competition, fostered aggressiveness in his sons, and frowned on the display of emotion. As a result, Jim often had a hard time expressing his emotions, and, Blair imagined, he'd have an almost impossible time dealing with the aftermath of that kind of assault on his partner... someone who was supposed to back him up in the field. Who'd want "damaged goods" out with them in the field?

"Chief, there's nothing to be ashamed about," Jim said.

Blair stopped breathing, just then realizing that he'd once again turned his face away from Jim. How on earth could Jim have known? Was Blair so easy to read? He felt his face grow hot, which only added to his embarrasment. A feathery touch on his arm sent a shiver down his spine. It was such a light touch, almost as if Jim were afraid of the contact, perhaps unsure of how Blair would react. Either that, or the ex-military-man no longer felt comfortable touching Blair.

Time to say something, Blair told himself. You're acting like an emotional cripple. God, this is how you react to almost being... say it, damnit! This is how you react to almost being raped. What if you had actually been raped? Man, get a grip. Get over it. Nothing -- repeat -- NOTHING happened.

Blair turned his head back to Jim, fixing steady eyes on his former partner. "Listen, Jim, I know all that. I'm okay, really. It's just been a hell of a week, you know. I'm tired. They gave me some pain killers, and, well, I guess I'm still kind of out of it," he said, desperately hoping he sounded convincing enough.

"Okay, Chief, if that's how you want to play it," Jim said. "But listen to me. Come Tuesday, if that warrant isn't in my hand, I'm going to work on our other plan."

"Jim, no. Listen to me--"

"Forget it, Sandburg. This is ridiculous," he said, then lowered his voice to a low whisper. "You are NOT staying here for fourty years. There's absolutely no way I'm letting you stay in here for a crime you didn't commit. Sometimes life doesn't deal a fair hand of cards, and, in those times, we've got to reshuffle the deck and deal ourselves a new hand. Got that?"

"That's not exactly how Socrates would have phrased it, but I get the picture," Blair said. "There's just one thing you're overlooking."

Jim raised his eyebrows. "What's that?"

"You've been dealt a pretty good hand. I'm the one that's shit out of luck. I don't want you to throw your life away for me," Blair said. "You've got a job you like, one you're good at. There's no way you'd be content living in Peru."

Jim leaned a bit closer to Blair, and the young man pulled back as much as his bandaged torso allowed. He hated himself for doing it, but he just wasn't up to close physical contact at that moment.

"I am only going to say this once, so listen closely."

Blair nodded. "Okay."

"Whatever I do, I am NOT throwing my life away," Jim said. "Do you understand? Life is not a job. It's not a place you live. It's made up of experiences... and friends. These are the the important things... the things you take with you when you die. Believe me, I've seen a lot of death, Sandburg, and no one, absolutely NO ONE, lays on their death bed and says, 'Gee, I wish I'd worked longer hours.' The only thing that matters at the end of the road is where you've been, and who you've met along the way."

Blair felt the sting of tears touch his eyes, so moved was he by the unusual display of emotion Jim allowed himself. Sometimes Jim Ellison was a true enigma. There were times Blair would open up to Jim, just to be shot down. It was those times that made Blair ponder the nature of his relationship with Jim. He still remembered, in painfully vivid detail, sitting in Jim's truck, searching for Incacha, telling his friend how he feared that, without Jim's sentinel abilities, there'd be no reason for Simon to keep him around. He'd even asked Jim if he, as a man with normal senses, would need him around. What he'd been hoping for was an affirmation of their friendship. After all, Blair had given up a pretty awesome opportunity to go to Borneo, all because he'd made a commitment to Jim and valued the friendship. He remembered standing on the balcony, saying the words. "It's all about friendship." However, that night, in the truck, all Jim could say was, "What, are you worried about your dissertation?" Blair had been stunned... and angry. After all that time, and all they'd been through together, Jim still hadn't gotten it. Blair was no longer sticking with Jim out of professional interest. Somewhere along the way, he'd found a friend. Someone he loved dearly, a life he cared about more than his own. It had hurt to find out that maybe, just maybe, Jim didn't feel the same way about him.

Blair forced the tears back, unwilling to let his friend see how deeply those words had affected him. He still felt somewhat unsure about just how Jim viewed him. "Do you really mean that, Jim?"

Ellison nodded. "Yes."

"Can I ask you a question?"

Jim offered a slight smile. "You can ask."

Blair swallowed, bracing himself emotionally for whatever answer Jim would offer. "If you didn't have these sentinel abilities, would you still want me around? And I don't mean in the "let's play cards sometime" sense. Would you really want me in the loft? Would you still be willing to do this -- throw away your career and go to Peru? And take your time man, I don't want a hasty answer. I want the truth."

Jim sighed, pulling back a few inches. "Is that what's bothering you? You think I'm doing this out of some selfish need? You think I'm hanging around you only because you help me with my senses?" He looked away. "Come on, Sandburg. Is that all this is to you, a business relationship?"

Blair felt a clamp of tight realization grip his heart. What a fool he had been. All this time, he'd been feeling so insecure about his role in the relationship, that he never stopped to think that Jim might foster the same insecurities himself. Suddenly, the question Jim had asked him in the car took on a whole new meaning. "Are you worried about your dissertaion" translated into "Is that all I am to you, a research subject?"

You are abominably stupid, Blair Sandburg.

"God, Jim, that's not it at all. It's just, all this time, you never really..." he shook his head, his mind jumbling the words in his head, unable to put them in a coherent order. He took a deep breath, trying to clear his head. "Jim, you know I've never mentioned this since, but I gave up a pretty incredible opportunity with Dr. Stoddard because I valued our friendship. Believe me, I don't regret it... not in the least. It's just that, sometimes I wonder how you really see me. How do I fit into your life? Your not just a research subject, you know, you've become a really good friend... the best I've ever had. That night in the car, when we were searching for Incacha, and you said you didn't want your sentinel abilities anymore... you remember?"

Jim nodded, silently urging Blair to continue.

"You remember I asked you if you'd need me around without them?"

Again Jim nodded.

"You accused me of caring only about my dissertation, like that's all you thought about me." The hurt and anger Blair felt that night resurfaced, catching him off-guard. "After all we've been through, you still thought I was just in it for my career. What do I have to do, man? Take a bullet for you? Throw myself under another garbage truck? Sell all my possessions and form the 'Jim Ellison' worship group?" He suddenly realized what he'd said, and quickly clamped his mouth shut, horrified of what he'd let slip.

Jim's eyes held a mixture of hurt and disbelief, a look that sent a pang of guilt through Blair's chest. Ellison shifted his gaze momentarily, then lowered his head. "I'm sorry, Chief. I was going through a lot of stuff then, with the shooting, the loss of my senses, and then Incacha's unexpected appearance. The whole thing had me off-balance, and I took it out on you." He raised his head, looking at his young guide. "You gotta know I didn't mean it that way, Sandburg."

Blair lowered his eyes, wishing he could take back the words he'd uttered a few seconds ago.  Congratulations, he told himself, you just soared to a new level of jerk-hood.

"I'm sorry, Jim," Blair said. "God, I am SUCH a jerk."

Jim twisted his lip, shaking his head. "Would you stop that, Sandburg? We've both said things in our time that we later regretted. I wasn't being Mr. Sensitivity myself, I'll admit. When Janet died, I know how hard that hit you, but I was so focused on my own problems that I brushed you off and then got angry when you accused the Chopek of killing her. Can we just put it behind us and focus on the present? We need to work out the current mess, and sort through the past later."

Blair nodded, releasing a shaky sigh. "And what a mess it is," he muttered. He swallowed, gazing up at Jim with pleading eyes. "Can you, uh, please not mention this to Simon?"

"What? Our plans for Peru?"

Blair shook his head. "That's your call. No, I mean... the stuff I told you earlier about what happened to me."

Jim tilted his head back in understanding. "Of course, Chief. It'll stay between you and me. He is going to want to know something, though, so is it okay if I tell him you got jumped in the bathroom, but leave it at that?"

Blair nodded. "Sure." He paused, pursing his lips in thought.

There was so much stuff they had just covered, it almost made his head spin. He still wasn't sure what was up with the Peru thing. He knew Jim was serious, but he just didn't believe it could happen. God, he hoped that search warrant came through.

"Everything okay between us now," Ellison asked.

"Huh?" Blair looked up. "Oh yeah." He managed a smile. "We're okay."

"So why do you still look like the wheels are turning in your head?"

Blair shrugged, releasing a brief chuckle. "I just... well... " He shook his head. "All this seems so unreal. It all just happened so fast. It seems like only yesterday I was walking out of my classroom, heading home, on top of the world because of that tea some student left for me. It all went downhill after that, and now--"

"Tea?" Jim's face turned corpse-white. "The tea," he muttered. "God, what an idiot!" He slapped his forehead angrily.

Blair scrunched his nose. "What? You don't think...?"

Jim nodded. "Who gave you that tea?"

Blair shrugged. "It was left in front of my office door with an anonymous note."

Jim closed his eyes, drawing in a long breath of air. "Damnit, if I'd put two and two together sooner, we could have had that tested by forensics. We might have gotten a fingerprint off of it. Damnit, I should have smelled the cocaine in the tea... but I had that damn bag laying around, so I didn't notice it. This whole thing... We might have caught the son-of-a-bitch right off the bat!" He snapped his fingers in the air. "Do you still have the note?"

Blair looked away as he searched his brain for the answer. What had he done with that note? He went through that evening in his head. He'd arrived at his office, saw the tea, picked it up, read the note.... yeah, okay... so then he'd gone into his office to grade some papers. What had he done with the tea and the note then? He'd had them in his hand... went to his desk... had he placed them on his desk? He must have. He certainly wouldn't have put it on the floor. Okay, so after he finished grading the papers, he'd grabbed his backpack and placed the tea inside. He'd left the note on the desk. Damnit! His office had been thoroughly searched and cleaned out since then. The note was probably long gone.

He shook his head. "It was on my desk, Jim. I'm sure it's gone now."

Jim clenched his jaw, stared at the wall for a brief moment, then said, "Maybe not. There's boxes of stuff in your room from your office... things I, uh, cleaned out for you. I threw a whole bunch of papers from your desk into one of the box. It might still be there."

Blair's eyebrows rose almost to his hairline. "For real? You think the note can help me?"

Jim nodded. "When we get that search warrant and find that journal, we'll take Carter into custody and compare the handwriting. With the journal, if it holds all the information I think it does, we should have enough right there. If not, the note will give us an extra edge. If the handwriting matches, it'll show that Carter was up to some funny business with you. He left you a bottle of tea, which you consumed that evening... the same evening you were rushed to the hospital for a cocaine overdose. With that evidence, and the journal, and the fact that I was the arresting officer in the Penrose case, there's no way a judge WON'T overturn your conviction. You'll be a free man!"

Blair's face lit up and he felt a subtle warmth fill his chest. Could it really be that simple? Was it possible that this whole nightmare could come to an end? He smiled, picturing the loft, imagining a good night's sleep in his futon... watching a Jag's game with Jim.... cooking dinner...

H bit his lower lip to hold back the flood of emotion that threaten to overwhelm his composure. "Oh, Jim... I hope it's that easy. I really miss.... the loft."

Jim reached out and patted him on the shoulder. "Just hang in there a couple more days, Chief. Either way, you'll be out of here. I promise."

Blair nodded. "I can do a couple more days," he said.



Ellison looked down at Janson, who sat at the table wearing an expression of impatient tolerance. "I thought we had a deal here, Janson? Did I not make myself clear?"

Janson's eyes narrowed with anger. "Listen, cop, I can't be with your buddy twenty-four-seven. I spend every free moment trying to keep his butt outta the fire. We got different work assignments, so he's on his own at the shop. I ain't got any of my buddies on his shift, and, even if I did, they ain't gonna be persuaded to babysit some brat unless they gettin' some money," he said. "Besides, word has it that your buddy's been put on the hot seat. Seems you ain't the only one willin' to fork out some green."

Jim placed his palms on the table and leaned closer to the man. "Are you saying someone's paid to have Sandburg eliminated?"

Janson shrugged. "I ain't saying nothin'. Just heard one of Sikes' men talking to a buddy, all quiet like, but they didn't know I was listenin'. Guess they don't know about our little arrangement here," he said, gesturing between himself and Ellison.

"Sikes is being paid off?"

"You ain't hearin' it from me," he said. "But you maybe should do a little of that detective work and find out, 'cause five-hundred-bucks a month ain't worth my life. I be damned sure Sikes' is gettin' a helluva lot more."

Jim straightened, fixing Janson with a hard glare. "I'll pay you $500 up front for you to keep Sandburg safe for the next week. If ANY harm comes to him in that time, you'll be dealing with me. If you don't think you can handle this, say so now, because if you fail, things will go down very badly for you. Got it?"

Janson tilted his head thoughtfully. "You pay upfront. Fifty in my hand, the rest to my brother. You got THAT?"

"I can't give you the money here, but I'll make sure it gets to you by the end of the day. Your brother will have the money in a couple of hours. Good enough?"

Janson nodded. "It'll do."



Blair limped into his cell, glancing briefly at Janson, who sat with his back to the wall on the lower bunk. The young man quickly looked away, ashamed of how Janson had seen him in the bathroom. Quickly, Blair made his way to the ladder at the end of the bunkbeds.

"Why don't you take the bottom one, Sandburg," Janson said.

Blair blinked, forcing himself to look at his cellmate. "Huh?"

Janson moved off the bed and walked over to Blair. "With those ribs and that ankle, you'd best take the bottom one. I don't want to be woken up in the middle of the night again 'cause you fell outta bed. Got it?"

Blair nodded hastily. "Okay. Thanks."

Janson shrugged. "Whatever."

Blair lowered his gaze to the floor and sat down on the bottom bunk. "Hey, man. Thanks for... back there."

"It ain't nothin'. Ain't no cellmate of mine gonna be a fag."

Blair flinched visibly, then eased himself onto the bed and pulled his legs up, laying curled on his side with his back to the wall.

"Listen up, kid," Janson said, hoisting himself onto the top bunk in one fluid movement. "You wanna survive in here, you listen to me. You do what I tell you, when I tell you. Got that?"

"Thanks, man, but I don't need a babysitter," Blair muttered.

"Is that why you were on the floor with your ass in the air yesterday?"

Blair bit his lower lip, closing his eyes and pulling himself into a tighter ball, ignoring the protest from his injured rib. Janson's comment didn't merit a reply.

"Hey, runt, you listenin' to me?"

"Mmmm-hmmm," Blair murmured. He didn't want to provoke Janson by ignoring the man.

"Good. Now shut up and go to sleep."

I'd love to, if you'd just leave me alone for five minutes, Blair thought, but remained silent.



The next day, Blair found himself with a shadow... or rather, being a shadow. Janson woke up with the breakfast call and waited impatiently for Blair to change. Then the larger man had hurried him along and practically dragged him to the cafeteria, literally keeping a hand on Blair's arm during the walk to their destination. He'd kept Blair close to him as they stood in line for their food, and pushed him in front as they walked to the table. Finally, he'd barked an order for Blair to sit next to him and, without another word, greedily dug into his food.
 
Now, Blair found himself sitting at a table filled with large, black men with permanent scowls etched on their faces. The anthropologist found himself the subject of several curious and leering glares, and he made a point to keep his head down and his eyes focused, for the most part, on his food.

And what a delicious cuisine it is this morning, he thought, shifting the drippy eggs around with his fork. I dare say the chef has turned scrambled eggs into an artform... more along the style of Picasso, unfortunately.  Blair played with his eggs a bit longer, trying to muster the courage to raise them to his mouth. His stomach growled anxiously, demanding food, but Blair found himself having a hard time viewing the sludge on his plate as food. He did NOT want to know what it tasted like.

"You waitin' for me to spoon feed you, runt?" Janson slapped him on the shoulder. "Need a bib?"

Ripples of laughter filled the table, and Blair raised his head to fix Janson with a defiant glare. "If you call this crap food, your brains must be as scrambled as these eggs."

The chuckles turned to a unifed roar of laughter, and Janson's head shot up sharply as his eyes fluttered angrily over the faces of his amused buddies.

Finally, he turned back to Blair. "You're a real comedian, ASShole."

Blair's face grew hot, and he looked back down at his plate as the laughter gained momentum.

"Awww, Janson, lookie here. I think you hurt his wittle feelings," an deep voice taunted.

"Yeah, he's all red. How cute," another chimed in.

"Little white boy suddenly lost his tongue," a third added.
 
Blair wanted to crawl under the table, curl up, and disappear forever, but he knew he had to hide his fear and shame and stand up to the taunting men at the table. Slowly, he raised his head, moving his eyes over the faces at the table, stopping briefly at each pair of eyes before continuing onto the next. He needed to come up with a suitably sharp reply, not something that would incite violence, but something quick and clever enough to halt their ridicule and turn their laughter for him instead of against him.

"Well what do you know? It appears the collection of homo erectus throwbacks I find myself surrounded by possess the cognitive abilities to give verbal form to their remedial thoughts," he said, taking on an air of smug superiority. "Careful gentlemen, you might strain those fragile neurons of yours."

As if Blair had waived a magic wand, the laughter halted. The men stared at him, mouths open, eyes wide in astonishment. A heavy silence filled the air.

Oops, Blair thought, maybe I went a bit overboard there. He swallowed, glancing nervously at Janson, who was the only one at the table with a closed mouth. Blair's cellmate looked at him, his jaw tight and his eyes tinged with a mixture of anger and confusion.

Finally, one of large dark men at the end of the table broke the silence. "What the HELL did you just say, boy?"

"I think he just insulted us," Janson offered, keeping his eyes on Blair.

"Uh... you'd be correct," Blair said.

"You sassin' us, little white boy?"

Blair looked over in the direction the comment had come from, seeing a collection of bewildered and angry faces staring back at him. Quickly, he turned his gaze back to Janson.

"Look, man, you can sit there and rag on me all you want, just don't go getting all pissed off when I dish a little of it back out," Blair said, hoping he looked sufficiently irritated. Don't show fear...

Janson raised his eyebrows. "Well, hell, if you're gonna insult us, at least make it somethin' we can understand!"

Once again the table erupted into laughter, and Blair breathed an audible sigh of relief, though the sound was masked by the roar at the table.



After breakfast, Blair walked with Janson back to the cell. Blair grabbed his glasses, stuck them in his blue shirt pocket, and turned around to leave.

"Where the hell you goin', runt?"

Sandburg stopped in his tracks, turning his head to glance back at Janson. "To the library."

"No you ain't. You comin' with me to the gym."

"No thanks," Blair said, then continued out of the cell.

He felt a tight grip on his arm, and found himself being spun around. He gasped as a stab of pain sliced through his side, but he clenched his teeth hard, clamping down on the pain. Janson loomed over him, his eyes blazing.

"Listen, boy, you got brain damage? I told you last night... you do what I say, when I say, else you gonna find you'self dead."

Blair raised his chin. "You threatenining me?"

"No, I ain't threatening you, dumbass. I'm tellin' you that Sikes and his buddies are looking for a little rough-house, and they wanna play with you. Think you can take all of 'em on your own?"

Blair swallowed, glancing away.

"Tha's what I thought," Janson said.

Blair stared at the cement floor. "Why are you doing this, man? Why do you even care what happens to me?"

"Don't be asking questions, boy. I do what I want, and I ain't gotta explain it to you."

Blair looked up at him. "I'm not gonna follow you around like a puppy for the next... however many years you've got left. You don't seem like the humanitarian type, so why don't you tell me why you've developed this interest in my welfare?"

"You're a real pain in the ass, kid. You always talk so much?"

Blair nodded. "Bad habit."

"Well, you'd better end it now. I ain't got the patience for chatter, and, like I said, I AIN'T gotta tell you nothin'." He pulled Blair into the cell and pushed him up against the wall, causing the young man to wince and wrap an arm around his injured side. "Now, if you know what's good for you, you'll do as you're told."

"There's something going on with you. What is it?"

With an exasperated sigh, Janson grabbed Blair's arm and yanked him forward, dragging him out of the cell and down the corridor. "You're comin' with me, and that's that," the larger man growled.



Blair slouched against the wall, watching Janson go through his third set of weights on the bench press. He felt as out of place as a hippie at an NRA convention, which actually wasn't far from the situation, he mused, allowing himself a small smile.

Janson finished his set, rose from the bench, and walked toward the leg press, motioning for Blair to follow him. With a sigh, Blair pushed himself away from the wall and headed off after Janson. The large man plopped himself onto the machine, adjusted the weights, and began pumping his legs vigorously. Blair took his place by the wall, feeling very small and insignificant as he looked around at the tall, hulking men scattered throughout the room.

By the time Janson reached the third set, a mild pressure had begun to set in on Blair's bladder. He definitely did not want to repeat his last bathroom experience, but he needed to attend to his problem sooner or later. He sure as hell wasn't going to ask Janson to accompany him to the restroom.

Janson lifted himself off the machine and headed off toward the free weights. Blair scurried after him.

"Hey man, I'm gonna go to the can," he said, trying to sound nonchalant.

Janson pursed his lips. "Alright. Hold on. I'll go with ya."

Blair tilted his head, raising his eyebrows. "Man, don't you find this just a bit ridiculous?"

Janson snorted. "Listen, runt, it ain't like I enjoy this either, ya know, but, right now, I'm your bodyguard, and that's just the way it is."

Blair's throat tightened as realization slammed into him. "Bodyguard?"

Janson winced, muttering a low curse under his breath. Sandburg took a step forward, glaring at the man, his eyes accusing. Slowly, he inhaled a lungful of air.

"Did someone put you up to this," Blair asked, his voice even.

Janson advanced on him suddenly, backing the smaller man into a wall. "Listen, runt, this stays between you and me," he said. "Don't go mouthing off to that cop buddy of yours that you know."

"Ellison paid you to look after me," he asked, keeping steady eyes fixed on the man in front of him.

Janson nodded. "Good thing he did, too, wouldn't ya say?"

Blair clenched his jaw, feeling suddenly very, very stupid. Here he had been, following Janson around, thinking the man might actually like him... wondering if he could strike up a friendship with the older prison veteran. Instead, Blair had been played the fool. Janson had been hired to babysit him. God, babysit him, for crying out loud. His face grew hot with embarrasment and he turned away.

"You're relieved of duty," Blair muttered, waving his hand in the air for emphasis.

Janson grabbed the younger man's arm. "I ain't relieved 'til the man says I am. He's footin' the bill on this one, kid."

"How much," Blair asked.

Janson sighed. "I swear, kid, if you mention a word of this to Ellison, you're dead."

"How much?"

"Five hundred up front. Another five hundred a month."

Blair pursed his lips, pulling out of Janson's grip. "Listen, man, I'm going to go to the bathroom, then I'm heading off to the library. You wanna be my bodyguard, you're gonna have to come with me. I'm tired of hanging around this weight room listening to you grunt."

Blair stormed off before Janson could form a reply.



Blair sat at the table, a book on Celtic myth opened in front of him. He'd been somewhat disappointed to discover that the prison library shelved a whopping five books on various anthropological subjects, but he supposed it was better than nothing.

"You really find that stuff interesting?"

Janson's voice jarred Blair from his concentration. Blair looked up at his not-so-blessed protector and nodded. "I was a graduate student in anthropology before coming here," he said, a hint of sorrow in his voice.

Janson pursed his lips. "So, how'd you end up here."

Blair shrugged. "I suppose telling you I was framed would sound weak and cliche?"

Janson shook his head, grunting. "Hell, kid, if you killed someone, I'm the Pope's grandson. You ain't got it in ya, and you sure as hell don't have the smarts for crime."

Blair cocked an eyebrow. "And you do?" He gestured to his surroundings.

"Boy, you've got a sharp tongue on ya. Yeah, so I got caught. Most of us do eventually."

"Well, I didn't get caught. I was set-up."

"Doesn't surprise me," Janson said.

Blair raised his chin. "Why's that?"

Janson shrugged. "The only way you'd get in here is if someone wanted you in. You just ain't a criminal. I've seen all types, and you just ain't one of us."

Blair's mouth parted in a soft smile. "Well, at least you believe me."

Janson raised his eyebrows. "And that cop buddy of yours does to. You two must be pretty tight for him to shell out that kind of dough."

Blair bit his lip, hating the thought of Jim digging into whatever savings he had left to hire a bodyguard.

"He's one tough bastard, ain't he," Janson asked.

Blair grunted in amusement. "Yeah, that he is."



Two hours later, Blair and Janson left the library, heading off to their cells before the lunch buzzer sounded. As the two men walked down the corridor, passing a bathroom, they found themselves suddenly surrounded by a group of six men and pushed roughly into the restroom.

Blair's legs were kicked out from under him, and he went down on his side, hitting his shoulder hard on the tile floor. Stifling a grunt, he looked up to see two large men holding Janson, while the rest looked down at him. The group parted, and Sikes stepped through, coming to a stop in front of Blair.

"Time we finished it, you little prick," the big man hissed.

Oh God.  Blair backed away, pushing himself into the corner. Sikes advanced on him slowly, reaching behind him to pull out a large, triangular shard of glass. Blair's vision honed in the sparkling edges of the fragment, and he pressed himself harder into the wall.

"Poor little innocent kid... goes to prison for a crime he didn't commit, and, deciding it's too much, slits his own wrists."

"Sikes, you'd best leave him alone," Janson snarled.  "However much you're being paid, it ain't worth your life. My buddies'll make sure you die slowly if you touch either of us!"

Sikes waved a hand in the air and one of his men punched Janson in the gut, causing the dark man to double over. The two goons held him firmly, refusing to let him fall to the ground.

"Leave him alone!" Blair pushed himself off the floor, glaring at Sikes.

Sikes smiled menacingly. "Oh? You finally getting a backbone?"

Blair lunged forward, slamming his fist into Sikes arm as he barreled into the larger man. The shard of glass slipped out of Sikes' grip, careening into the air. It hit the wall and shattered into two pieces before crashing to the floor. Sandburg and Sikes flew to the ground in a tangle of flesh, with the smaller man on top.

Sikes jabbed his fists upward and rolled, shoving Blair off of him. Blair grunted in pain, but quickly rolled to his feet, his actions mimicked by his much larger opponent. Both men stared at one another for a few seconds, oblivious to the intense stares focused on them. Sikes briefly glanced at his men, then looked back at Sandburg, a smile playing on his lips.

"You've got balls, kid," he said. "So you wanna try me? You think you can take me?"

In a blur of movement, Sikes' leg shot out, catching the smaller man in the groin. Blair doubled over, falling to the floor as he gasped for air. A roar of voices filled the air, egging on the fight. Sikes' wasted no time, kicking him hard in the stomach. Blair curled into a ball, clutching his injured side. Sikes pulled his leg back to deliver another blow, but Blair acted quickly, kicking his foot out to sweep Sikes' supporting leg out from under him.

Sikes fell backward, slamming his head into the floor. Blair pushed himself up, gritting his teeth against the pain in his groin and ribs. The bathroom door flew open, admitting a sea of uniformed guards.

"Stand down!"

Blair turned to see the officer who'd met them that first day standing in the center of the bathroom. He walked over to Sandburg, glanced briefly at the dazed man on the floor, and said, "You two gentlemen need to be taught some manners, I see."

Blair opened his mouth to protest, but Janson spoke up, free of the hands that had held him. "Ain't nothing goin' on here, Sir. Sikes' fell and hit his head. My buddy here was just helping him out."

The officer turned to look at Janson. "Is that so?"

Janson nodded. "Yes, Sir."

He turned to look back at Blair. "You gonna lie to me to?"

Blair swallowed. He knew he couldn't "rat", as the term went, but he knew the man in front of him was in no mood for bullshit. Instead, he simply shrugged, glancing down at Sikes.

"He did fall and hit his head, Sir," he said. Well, it's not a lie.



Blair was pushed into a small dark room that became pitch black as the door slammed shut. He wrapped a hand around his throbbing side, gritting his teeth against the pain. He stood still for several seconds, straining his vision to penetrate the darkness. His ribs ached mercilessly, forcing him to take slow, shallow breaths. The darkness surrounded him, as thick as molasses and as impenetrable as lead. Gingerly, he lowered himself to the floor, pulling his legs beneath him as he assumed a meditative position.



Ellison sat in his truck, his eyes locked on the figure sitting in the window seat of the diner across the street. The high-pitched ringing of his cell phone pierced his hearing, and he winced, quickly grabbing the offending item from his pocket and flipping it open.

"Ellison."

"Jim, I've got some more news on Sandburg."

The detective held his breath. "What now?"

"He's been placed in solitary confinement. Seems he got into a fight with another prisoner earlier today."

"How long has he been in there?"

"A couple of hours."

"Who'd he get into it with," Jim asked.

"I don't have that information."

The ache in Jim's lungs reminded him to release the breath he'd been holding. "What's the deal on the search warrant?"

"I've think I can get it by tomorrow morning. Damn, this whole thing is frustrating. I'm having a hard time convincing the judge we have reason to search Carter's house, but, don't worry, I'm working on it. I've given up on Judge Aickman and started nagging Judge Bills. She seems more inclined to issue one."

"I hope it happens soon, Simon. With Blair targeted, there's no telling how long he's got."

"I know. We'll get that warrant. Don't worry. It's just that one needs a little bit more than a 'please' to get a judge to issue one of those things. Unfortunately, that note you found isn't evidence in and of itself at this point, but it does play suspicious that Sandburg was rushed to the hospital that same day. Bills agrees with me."

Jim breathed a sigh of relief. "So she's going to give it to us?"

"Looks like it. I spoke with her briefly on the phone, and she's in court all day today, so I won't be able to get it until this evening or tomorrow morning."



Blair floated in a quiet sea of darkness, still in the lotus position he had maintained for the past two hours, though he'd barely been aware of the passage of time. His heart beat slow and steady, accompanied by the regular sound of air going in and out of his lungs.

He knew Naomi had maintained a meditative trance for over five hours, and he aimed to beat her record this time. The warden had sentenced him to twenty four hours in this dark, lonely prison, and Blair, though he couldn't maintain the trance for that long, was determined to use this respite from the general crowded, noisy prison environment to clear his mind and calm his spirit. No where else could he meditate in peace. During the day, Janson was in and out of the cell, and between work, meals, and sleep, Blair had little time to medidate, even if he could find a quiet place in which to relax.

He now existed on the edge of a light trance, his body relaxed and the normally frantic workings of his mind slowed to a tranquil dream-like state. Though his body existed physically in prison, his mind was free, able to send him anyplace his imagination desired.

He travelled to the one place his heart ached to visit again: home. Only, home wasn't the loft. His home, in that imaginary place, existed with Jim, beside a crystal blue lake on a warm clear day at the edge of a forest.

Blair sat next to his friend on the grassy shore, a fishing rod grasped in his hands, identical to the one Jim held in his own. Suddenly the line tugged on Blair's rod, and he pulled it upward quickly, reeling in the line a fraction.

"I think I got one, Jim," Blair said.

The Sentinel turned warm eyes to look at Blair. "Okay, buddy, pull it in nice and slow."

The line pulled again, hard, almost ripping the rod out of Blair's hand. His grip tightened, and he slowly turned the handle to reel in the line.

"That's it, Chief," Jim said. "Looks like you win."

Blair smiled as he continued to reel in his catch. "Aha! And you were so smug that you'd make the first catch of the day. I told you it wouldn't be as easy if you didn't use your sentinel vision to hone in on the fish."

Jim smiled. "You're just jealous."

Blair cocked his head, raising an eyebrow as he continued working the line. "Me jealous of you? I'm not the one who has to cough up twenty bucks AND make dinner tonight."

Jim chuckled, his eyes sparkling with amusement. "Anything that has ME doing the cooking I consider a win on my part. Punishment would be having to digest whatever weird concoction you could create using fish and the native plants."



Some time later...

Blair awoke in a puddle of drool, the side of his face plastered against the hard floor. He opened his eyes... to darkness. Something touched his cheek, darting over his lips and down his neck. With a yell, he pushing himself off the floor and batted himself wildly on the face and chest in an attempt to brush off the offending creature.. He inhaled a sharp gasp as a spike of pain shot through his ribs.

He wrapped one arm around his side and clenched his teeth, looking around, trying to blink away the almost-suffocating darkness. His mind, still foggy from sleep, worked sluggishly as he tried to gain his bearings. Where was he? He shook his head. Oh. His heart sank, and a dull ache filled his chest. Prison. I'm still in solitary confinement.

How long had it been? He didn't remember falling asleep, and he had absolutely no idea how long he'd been out. An hour? Ten hours? How much time remained of his twenty-four hours?

He heard a fast scuttering sound to his right, and instinctively whipped his head in that direction, even though the darkness rendered him blind. A second later, something touched his leg, and, with a yelp, he scooted backward. A high squeek pierced the darkness, and Blair jumped in surprise. Oh great... rodents. Rats? Mice? How many were there? Had they crawled over and around him while he'd been asleep? He shivered at the thought, his mind flashing back onto the cat-sized rats that had co-inhabitated the warehouse he'd lived in before moving in with Jim. Rats that size could bite off a person's toe.

So, now what? He'd meditated, slept, and, he realized, suddenly aware of the pressure in his bladder, hadn't gone to the bathroom. He slowly pushed himself to his feet, mindful of his injured rib, and, not knowing where the toilet was, began to inch his way forward, his hands outstretched in front of him. What I wouldn't give for Jim's senses right now, he mused. Prolonged periods of isolation... Hmmmnnn.... This would qualify. He half-seriously wondered about the possibility of discovering latent sentinel abilities in himself. He imagined being able to hear the heartbeat of another person, see the colors on a bird's wing a mile away, and, of course, listen into the conversations of pretty young grad students to find out if one of them liked him.

His outstretched hands contacted something solid, and he stopped, turning to his right and using one hand on the wall to guide his movement. Something light and fast scurried across the hand that touched the wall, and he yanked it back, scrunching his nose in disgust. With a determined set of his jaw, he placed his hand back on the wall and continued moving forward.

Some time later, after rounding two corners, his foot bumped into a solid mass, though the empty space in front of his outstretched hand informed him that he hadn't contacted another wall. He lowered his hand, his fingertips contacting a smooth, porcelain surface. Finally. With a sigh, he unzipped his pants and got on with his business.

A short time later...

Blair, having returned to a lotus position on the floor, opened his eyes when a hollow, metallic clang rang through the air. The blackness around him was suddenly pierced by a square-shaped window of light just above the ground. His eyes closed automatically, protecting his retina from the sudden, unexpected brilliance. Something scraped along the ground, and he lifted one eyelid a few millimeters to identify the source of the noise.

A hand pushed a flat tray into the room. Then, the hand retracted and the window of light was extinguished by the sliding of a thick panel. Blair crawled forward, white spots dancing in the blackness, as he made his way toward the tray.



The next morning...

"Police! Open up!" Jim stood outside the Carter's house, listening as the man inside released a string of low curses. Ellison mentally counted to three, then yelled, "Open this door now or we'll force it down!"

A couple of seconds later, Jim heard the deadbolt disengage. The door cracked open, and Ellison pushed his way in, gun raised in one hand, search warrant held in the other.

"Mr. Carter, we have a warrant to search these premises. Please stand aside," he barked.



Blair laid on his back, staring up into the darkness. How much time had passed? Hours? Days? Wasn't this cruel and unusual punishment? Shouldn't there at least be some light so he could make his way to the toilet easily? Was this even legal, keeping a man locked up in a tiny, dark room for endless hours?

Well, at least I'm safe in here, he mused. Though a mattress sure would be nice.

He raised his hand in front of his face, straining his eyes to his wiggling fingers through the darkness. He could just barely make out the silhouette of his hand, though it could have just been his imagination. So, this is what it's like to be blind?

His thoughts drifted back to the time Jim's sight had been temporarily lost due to a dose of Golden. Blair remembered telling Jim about the 'bat echolocation trick'. He'd told Jim that blind people tapped their canes on the same principle: using the bounce of sound waves off solid objects to gain information about their surroundings. Instead of a cane, Blair had told Jim to clap.

Well, you've got nothing better to do, Blair told himself. Might as well see if it works.

Mindful of his injured side, he rolled over and pushed himself onto his feet. He stood motionless, his eyes closed in a reflexive act of concentration, and clapped his hands twice, cocking his head to listen to the echo of sound. The claps reverberated off of the walls in a dim echo, but Blair was unable to determine anything about his surroundings from that sound. He tried it again, this time moving forward and clapping every couple of seconds, concentrating on his hearing to determine how, if at all, the sound changed as he moved in the room.

After several repetitions, during which time he bumped repeatedly into various walls and muttered several curses as the jarring motion sent bolts of pain through his side, he was able to determine that, as he moved closer to the wall, the sound became a bit more terse, its echo cut short. Aha! He smiled victoriously, wallowing in his small success. So there's something to this, after all.



Jim sat in the passenger seat of Simon's sedan, his eyes skimming over the pages of Carter's journal as the Captain sped through the highways of Cascade toward the courthouse. While Jim hadn't been able to give the book a thorough examinations, he'd skimmed enough passages to know that it contained information that would clear Blair Sandburg, so he and Simon had decided to waste no time in getting that information to Judge Bills, hoping it would be enough for her to grant Blair a supervised release from prison pending the outcome of a new investigation.

Jim smiled, turning the page to start reading a new entry.

I managed to secure the large purchase of cocaine, and, though it's a serious chunk of money, it shall go toward a good cause. Bill will finally be vindicated, and Jim Ellison will get a taste of his own medicine, as the saying goes. I've got it all figured out. I'll pay one of the local junkies to approach Sandburg, shove some cash into his hand, maybe on the pretense of asking for change, and then take off. All I'll need is two seconds to get a snapshot, preserving the moment forever. Then, I'll spike something of his, maybe leave a nice, classy bottle of his favorite beverage outside his office with an anonymous note from 'a student'. I'll have to follow him for a bit, see what his taste in food is. Then, I'll break into his office, plant the stuff, and the rest will take care of itself. All I'll have to do is sit back and watch as Ellison watches his best friend's life destroyed. Ah, vengeance truly is sweet.

This one's for you little, bro. Rest in peace. May Jim Ellison and that hippie partner burn in hell for all eternity.

"Simon, this is it, handed to us on a silver platter. I can't believe how someone cunning enough to orchestrate this whole thing could be stupid enough to write it all down in glorious detail," Jim remarked, unable to suppress the wide grin plastered on his face.

Banks glanced briefly over at Ellison as he rounded a corner, his lights flashing. "Thank God. Everyone's got a weakness Jim. Everyone messes up sometime. Carter's no exception. He went through a lot of trouble to set Sandburg up, and you know he's going to want to document it someway, either by boasting to friends or, in this case, writing it all down in a journal."

Ellison nodded, flipping through the pages of the journal til he got toward the end of the entries.

I've paid Sikes a great deal of money to see to it that Sandburg meets with the same fate as Bill, a 'suicide' in prison. Granted, it'll most likely end up being a murder, though I did ask Sikes to put the bastard through some serious hell first, so maybe the kid'll just off himself. Yeah, that would be nice. Poetic justice, as they say. Either way, he'll be dead, but Ellison will live his life believing his 'innocent' partner committed suicide in prison, stripped of everything dear to him, alone. Maybe, if there's anything even resembling a God in this universe, Ellison will be so devastated that he'll put a gun in his mouth and blow his fucking brains out.  If not, maybe I'll do it for him a few years down the road. Piece of shit cop, thinks he can just ruin people's lives and continue on with his own.

Ellison gribbed the book tightly in his hands, his jaw muscles taut. Hold on, Chief. Just hold on...



"Out of the night that covers me
Black as the Pit from Pole to Pole
I thank whatever Gods may be
For my unconquerable soul"

Blair Sandburg laid once again on his back, shivering from a chill that touched him all the way to the bone, staring into the thick darkness as he mumbled words to whatever songs, poems, or literary passages he could remember, trying anything to pass the mind-numbing time.

"Time won't give me time," he sung, "something, something, something, something." He sighed. Okay, back to 'Invictus.'

"In the fell clutch of circumstance,
I have not winced nor cried a loud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance,
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

"In this place of wrath and tears,
Looms but the horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.

"It matters not how straight the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate.
I am the Captain of my soul."

Yeah, right. He chuckled, a hollow cackling sound that rose to an almost hysterical laughter. Blair Sandburg, would-have-been PhD and mild-mannered Shaman, you are SO not in control of anything, most especially not your 'fate.' William Ernest Henley, sorry to break the news to ya, but that's some serious B.S. you're shoveling... unless you got some secret, and, if so, you could have done us all a favor and put in another stanza to let the world in on it, thank you very much.

"Well I'm a loser baby, so why don't you kill me," Blair sang, his mind grasping onto the first set of lyrics that sprung forth. Yep, it's the Blair Sandburg theme song, ladies and gentlemen! He burst into renewed laughter, his body shaking almost convulsively as a result. He stifled his laughter long enough to repeat the line. "Well I'm a loser baby, so WHY DON'T YOU KILL ME!" He screamed the last words angrily into the darkness, then disintegrated once again into a fit of laughter that was punctuated by sporadic coughs.



Simon and Jim flew out of the courthouse, jumped into the Sedan, and sped off with a squeel of rubber.

"Goddamnit, Simon. Twenty-four hours may be too late," Jim grumbled, slamming a fist against the dashboard in frustration.

"Take it easy, Jim. It's the best she can do. Paperwork takes time, ya know. It's not like she can just call up the warden and say, 'hey, let Blair Sandburg out'."

Jim nodded. "I know. I know."

"We'll be there soon."

"For all the good it can do."

"Hey," Simon reassured his friend, "if I can get them to let him out of solitary, that'll be something. I can probably even persuade them to let us see him - AGAIN - and you can break the good news to him."

Jim flashed his Captain a grateful smile. "Thanks, Simon." His smile faded. "But he might be better off staying in solitary, safer, at least."



Ellison and Banks stood in front of Warden Bailey's desk, wearing identical expressions of barely contained raged.

"Listen, Warden Bailey, I don't care what you say happened. We have evidence clearing Sandburg and implicating Sikes as a hired assassin. Anything Sandburg did was in self-defense, I'm sure."

The Warden shook his head. "Look, I've given both of you gentlemen a lot of privileges here. I've let you see him whenever you want. This time, though, I'm going to have to keep him locked up for the remaining three hours."

Jim sighed miserably. "Jesus. It's a lousy three hours!"

"Watch it, Detective. This IS my prison."

Jim took an angry step forward, but Simon placed a restraining hand on his arm. Reluctantly, the Sentinel backed off. He glanced at Simon, then looked away, cocking his head in a familiar gesture that indicated the use of his sensitive hearing.

"Warden, you're being unreasonable here. Sandburg's an innocent man, and, by tomorrow, you'll have papers mandating his release," Simon argued. "Surely you don't want to punish an innocent man any more than necessary."

Ellison's attention faded from the conversation, his hearing searching the prison for the sound of his partner... a heartbeat... a word... anything. His heart skipped a beat when he heard the familiar voice, but the hysterical sound of it send shivers down his spine.

"...WHY DON'T YOU KILL ME," Blair's voice screamed, quickly followed by an almost insane laughter that hit Jim like a blow to the chest.

Blinding rage exploded within the Sentinel, and he lunged forward, grabbing Bailey by his collar and pulling him over the desk, sending several papers sailing to the floor.

"ELLISON!"

Jim didn't even register Simon's voice as he slammed the man up against the nearest wall. "Listen to me, you pathetic son of a bitch, you've got an innocent man in there, and, so help me GOD, if you don't get him out of there RIGHT NOW I'll make damned sure a lawsuit the size of FUCKING JUPITER lands right in your lap. I'll have the media all over this place, and I will make it my personal mission to see to it that you never sit behind that desk again. DO I MAKE MYSELF CLEAR?!"

"ELLISON, BACK OFF!" Jim felt strong hands pulling him backward, and he released his hold on the warden, smiling in satisfaction as his sensitive ears picked up the frantic heartbeat.

Bailey backed toward the door. "Listen, Banks, your man here is insane! That's assault, and I'm going to make sure it costs him his badge."

Simon stepped in front of Jim, glaring at the warden. "If you don't do as he says, I can assure you it'll be your ass on the line. Now get on that phone, call Judge Bills for confirmation, and send Sandburg back to his cell. While you're at it, I want Sikes and his goons secured in lockdown."

The Warden finally looked uncertain, a near-panic fluttering across his face. "Uh... Sikes is still in solitary... he's got the same solitary sentence as Sandburg."

"Make sure he either stays there, or gets put in a locked cell when he gets out," Simon barked. "If any harm comes to Sandburg before he's released from your custody, you'll be facing serious negligence charges. Got it?"



"Hello?" Blair yelled into the darkness, not really expecting anybody to answer, but hoping some bored guard would take pity on him. "Can anybody hear me? How much longer? HELLO?!"

Nope, nobody's home. Blair opened his eyes, chuckling when he met with the unending darkness. Time for some show tunes? Or maybe a bit of Dr. Seuss' Green Eggs and Ham, Sam I Am. Sam I am. Blair I am. Blair Sandburg. Yep, that's me. Blair Sandburg.

The lyrics from an old song floated to mind, and, once again, he broke into song. "I see trees of green, red roses too, I see them bloom, from me to you, and I think to myself, what a wonderful world." He broke into laughter again. "Yep, it's a wonderful, wonderful, WONDERFUL WORLD!" As quickly as it rose, his laughter died, threatening to disintegrate into sobs. "Hello? Can anybody hear me?! I'd really like to get out of here now! IT'S A WONDERFUL WORLD AND I'D REALLY, REALLY LIKE TO SEE SOME MORE IT!"

Maybe I can entertain them with something a bit more interesting... perhaps a bit of Les Mis? Yeah, I think I can find some sufficiently depressing stuff from a song about The Miserable. He chuckled briefly at that thought, his mind searching for a song he was sufficiently familiar with. One, in particular, sprang to mind, and he grasped it instantly.

"I dreamed a dream in time gone by
When hope was high and life worth living
I dreamed that love would never die
I dreamed that God would be forgiving

"Then I was young and unafraid
And dreams were made and used and wasted
There was no ransom to be paid
No song unsung
No wine untasted"

As Blair fell into the song, his voice rose to a loud, angry pitch.

"But the tigers come at night
With their voices soft as thunder
As they tear your hope apart
As they turn your dream to shame"

He decided to skip the next few lines and just go with the finale, as he found that part particularly suiting.

"But there are dreams that cannot be
And there are storms we cannot weather."

He paused to take a breath, closing his eyes against the unnatural darkness, though his actions changed nothing about what his eyes saw. He opened his mouth to continue the song, but suddenly became aware of a scratchy rawness at the back of his throat. He continued the song mentally in his head, mouthing the words rather than give them voice.

"I had a dream my life would be
So different from this hell I'm living
So different now from what it seemed
Now life has killed the dream I dreamed."

Yep, dead and gone, he thought bitterly. No thesis. No PhD. No Guide-Sentinel thing. Nothing. Just this cold, dank, dark, tiny, rat-ridden, roach-infested cell.

A line from Hamlet sprang to mind, and he whispered the words to a passage he'd memorized long ago for a high school English class. "O, that this too too solid flesh would melt, thaw and resolve itself into a dew! Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd His canon 'gainst self-slaughter!  O God!  God! How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable, seem to me all the uses of this world! Fie on't!  ah fie!  'tis an unweeded garden, that grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature Possess it merely."

A loud clank interrupted Blair's whispered monologue, and the door to his small cell swung open, bathing the room in a harsh light that sent slithers of pain through his pupils and into his brain. He closed his eyes quickly, raising his upper body off the ground and backing uncertainly away from the harsh intrusion.

"Chief?"

The familiar voice sent a slice of terror down Blair's spine. Just how much of his muttered insanity had been overheard? Slowly, he opened his eyes to narrow slits, raising one hand in front of his face to shield himself from the light. He squinted, barely able to make out the silhouette of a tall man standing in the doorway, bathed in a surreal light that gave an angelic impression to the blurry figure.

"Jim?"

The figure stepped into the room, and Blair blinked, trying to clear his vision, desperate to confirm the man's identity with his own eyes.

"Yeah, Blair, it's me. You okay, buddy?"

Blair nodded reflexively, recognizing that a question had been asked of him, but too stunned to consciously process its meaning.

"We got the search warrant and seized Carter's journal. It clears you. You should have your walking papers by the end of tomorrow," Jim said.

Jim's words reached Blair's ears, but took several seconds to register with his conscious mind. When they did, an indescribable emotion clutched his chest, robbing him of his breath and sending violent tremors through his body.

"What? I'm.... free?" Tears welled in his eyes, and his lower lip began to quiver. "Am I dreaming?"

Jim closed the distant between himself and his guide, kneeling in front of Blair and placing a reassuring hand on his shoulder. Blair looked down, staring at the hand that gripped his shoulder. Then, slowly, his eyes followed along the path of Jim's arm, up to his shoulder, finally coming to rest on the clear blue eyes of the sentinel.

"Yeah, Chief, you get to go home," Jim whispered. Then, his voice strained, he added, "Tomorrow. Just one more night in here, but you get to go back to your cell now."

Blair lowered his head, his expression distant, his eyes guarded. "'Kay," he muttered, reaching out a hand in a silent plea for assistance.

Jim grabbed Blair's outstretched hand and pulled the smaller man to his feet. He heard Blair inhale sharply at the motion, and immediately, Jim took a step back, gazing at the young man critically.

"Your rib?"

Blair nodded. Jim reached out a hand and placed soft fingers over his friend's side, feeling through both the rough material of his shirt and the thick bandages for signs of abnormal swelling or protusions that would indicate that his cracked rib had snapped. Gritting his teeth, he noted the heat emanating from the injured area and felt a localized swelling that might indicate a broken rib.

His nostrils flared and he spun around, gazing at the men that stood just outside the doorway, his eyes focusing on Warden Bailey.  "You put an injured man in here? Son of a bitch," he growled, his voice dangerously low. "He's probably got a broken rib, and he's been in constant pain for the past day." He stormed over to the doorway, stopping sharply when Simon stepped directly in front of the warden.

"Not now, Jim. Let's just get Sandburg back to the infirmary," the Captain said.

After several tense, silent seconds, Jim nodded, spinning smartly on his heels and walking back to Sandburg. He wrapped an arm around Blair's shoulder, gently guiding him out of the small room that had been his world for the past twenty-one hours.



Carter sat in the holding cell, gazing at the older man in front of him with stern eyes. "Listen, man, I'm probably gonna go down for this. You? From what you told me, you'll be spending fifteen to twenty in the joint yourself, so this is your way of getting some new-start money."

The man's narrow, dark eyes peered at Carter skeptically. "You sure that's all I have to do?"

Carter nodded. "You get four thousand dollars just for delivering a message. That money'll give you a good start should you decide to, uh, skip bail," he whispered.

"And what if my buddy doesn't wanna do it?"

Carter shrugged. "His loss. He'll get a thousand up front, and an additional six thousand upon completion. I'll let him know where the money is once the job's done."

"You sure want this dude dead, eh?"

Carter's eyes hardened. "If I'm gonna go down for this, at least the job's gonna get done right," he said.



Jim sat in the infirmary, positioned next to Blair's bed. His young Guide was sleeping, unaware of Jim's presence, lost in a cloudly haze of pain killers. The Sentinel took in the puffy redness around Sandburg's eyes and the soft stubble on his jaw.

"Detective Ellison?"

Jim looked over at Warden Bailey, clamping a lid on the surge of anger that flared in his chest when the moment he laid eyes on the man.

The warden stood in the doorway, obviously keeping his distance from the detective. "You're, uh, going to have to leave now. I'm heading home myself. Its almost lock-down and we can't allow any visitors overnight."

"I'm staying," Ellison stated. "There's no way I'm leaving him alone in this place."

Bailey sighed. "Listen, Detective, I can assure you that Mr. Sandburg will be just fine. You don't yet have any kind of warrant or release papers, so I am perfectly within my authority to ask you to leave. It's against prison regulation and a violation of security to allow overnight visitors. I'm sorry."

"Like hell you are."

"Leave now, or I'll have you escorted out."

Jim stood abruptly, walking stiffly over to Bailey. The man took a step back, glancing over his shoulder nervously.

"Listen to me, Warden, if anything happens to Sandburg while I'm gone, I'll make damned sure you're slapped with criminal negligence charges, and whatever else I can dish up. Understood?"

Bailey nodded quickly. "He'll be perfectly safe here. Sikes and his men are in lockdown."

Jim looked back at the sleeping figure of his Guide, taking steady, deep breaths to calm his raging emotions. Take it easy, Ellison. Sandburg's out for the count, and Sikes and his buddies are out of the picture. You both will get a good night's sleep, and tomorrow you can take him home.



Jim placed the slide key in the slot and pushed the hotel room door open. The soft flickering light of the television cast amorphous shadows on the pastel walls, and Jim closed the door behind him as he headed over to the far bed, throwing a glance at Simon, who sat against the headboard, remote in hand.

"Hey, Jim," Simon said, flicking the MUTE button on the remote. "How's Sandburg?"

Jim plopped down onto the bed, falling limply onto his back. "He's okay, considering. They've got him on pain killers, and re-wrapped his rib." He sighed miserably. "I can't believe that son of a bitch Bailey. He sent Sandburg into the pit without even getting him checked out, knowing about his cracked rib and not even considering the possibility that the fight aggravated the injury."

"I know, Jim. Don't worry, once Sandburg is safely out of there, Bailey will be taken care of. Right now, it'll be to our advantage to just patronize him until our official paperwork comes through."

"If you say so, Sir."

Simon turned off the television and leaned back on his pillow. "You know, I've never seen Sandburg that way before, and I hope I never do again."

Jim closed his eyes, remembering the long walk down the corridor he and Simon had made as they'd followed Bailey to Blair's isolated cell. Jim's sensitive ears had remained tuned into his Guide's voice the whole way down, and it had taken all of his self control not to burst into a mad run down the empty hallway. When Bailey finally slowed his pace, then stopped in front of a large door, Simon gasped, quickly looking at Jim, indicating he finally heard Blair's tormented monologue. Sandburg's desperate words, sung with an almost meniacal insanity, placed a chill in the air.

Simon leaned close to Jim. "You've been listening to that all this time?" His voice was low, audible only to Jim's sensitive ears.
 
Jim simply nodded, jaw muscles tight, eyes blazing.

"What else did he say," Simon asked, jolting Jim from the memory and bringing him back to the present.

"What?"

"Sandburg. What else did you hear him say. Jesus, he sounded so... so... "

"Crazed," Jim finished, wincing at the word. "I know."

"I hope he's okay," Simon said.

"He will be." It was a statement, spoken with absolute confidence. "Simon, can you imagine what it must have been like for him? Stuck in a dark cell, in pain, all alone like that. Jesus, when you said they stuck him in solitary, I had no idea their cells were so... " He shook his head. "Damn bastards! He had a hundred and two degree fever, and no one even bothered to check on him."



Sandburg woke to the sound of shouting. He opened his eyes, looking to his right toward the source of the noise. Three stretchers were being wheeled into the room, each one supporting a semi-conscious prisoner.

"What do you want us to do with them," one of the two pairs of guards shouted, sticking his head through the doorway as he yelled to someone in the hall.

"Wait just a moment," came the reply.

A few seconds later, two men with white jackets walked in. Blair recognized the first one as Doctor Burber, the physician who had treated him.

"There's no bed space here," the second doctor reply.

Blair pushed himself up with his elbows, his torso stiff from the tight bandages. "I don't need to be here," he said.

Doctor Burber looked at him, momentarily stunned. Then he shook his head quickly. "Okay, okay. We'll take you back to your cell and get you in bed." He turned back to the other doctor. "That'll free up a bed, and we'll just keep one of them on a stretcher."

"What happened," Blair asked.

"A fight... just before night lock-down," the doctor muttered quickly.

Almost twenty minutes later, Blair found himself being wheeled to his cell. The sound of the bars opening jarred Janson from his slumber, and the big man peered sleepily over the top of his bunk.

"Sandburg?"

Blair nodded, still drowsy from the pain killers. "Yeah, I'm back. Let the fun begin," he said.

Janson chuckled. "You ain't half-bad kid... sometimes. That was a swift move you pulled with Sikes."

The orderly wheeled Blair over to the bed and lifted him onto the mattress, securing the blankets over him. "Thanks," Blair muttered, both to Janson and the orderly.

"You stay in bed and we'll have someone check on you in the morning," the orderly said.

"Hey, my fever's down, right," Blair asked.

The orderly nodded. "Yep. Doc says you're fine."

"You got more lives than a cat, kid," Janson muttered.

The orderly left the cell, rolling the empty wheelchair in front of him. The guard slid the gate closed, and a mechanical click signaled the engaged lock.

"Janson," Blair mumbled.

"Yeah, runt?"

"I'm leaving tomorrow."

"What?"

"Jim came to get me," he mumbled drowsily. "Said I'm cleared.... going home."

"Is that so?"

"Mmmmnnn-hmmmm.."

"Well, congratulations kid."

"Thanks." His eyelids fluttered closed. "For everything." A few seconds later, he was fast asleep.



The morning came far too soon, announced by the obnoxious blaring of the breakfast buzzer. Blair groaned, shifting to roll onto his side and immediately regretting the action when a stab of pain shot though his ribs. Slowly, he swung his legs over the side of the bed, took a deep breath, and pushed himself to his feet.

"You feelin' okay," Janson asked, then yawned as he plopped himself off the top bunk.

Blair nodded. "Sikes managed to bust one of my ribs. They've got me bandaged so tight I can barely breathe," he said.

"Well, we best brush up and get to breakfast," Janson said.

Blair nodded. "Yeah, I'm looking forward to the food," he said sarcastically.

Janson chuckled. "Well, if what you said last night is true, you ain't gonna have to stomach it for long."

Blair smiled. Yeah. Just a few more hours and then I'm out of here! I wonder when Jim's gonna get here? Man, I can't wait to eat some real food!

The two men dressed and brushed their teeth, Janson moving quickly while Blair shuffled along like an old man. Finally finished, they turned to leave the cell, but found themselves stopped by a group of five men. Blair's chest tightened, and he glanced nervously down the corridor, hoping to spot a guard. Instead, he saw only blue-clad prisoners.

"What do you want, Brandon," Janson asked, stepping in front of Blair.

The large hispanic man stepped into the cell, followed by three men. The six men filled almost every spare inch of the small cell.

"You can leave Janson," Brandon said. "This is going to go down either way, but you can walk out, or be carried out in a body bag."

Janson remained motionless. "What you got against Sandburg?"

Brandon shrugged. "Nothin' man, just a little job I gotta do. Time's a wastin' and I want to finish this before the guard makes his round. Now, how you wanna play this?"

Janson glanced back at Sandburg, who was backed against the wall, eyes wide. Slowly, Janson turned his gaze back to Brandon. "You ain't gotta do this, man. His partner'll pay you a lot more to keep him alive."

"I know all about his partner. Cops don't make that much," the man said. "Now I'm losing time!" He reached behind him and pulled out a jagged stick of metal with a pointed end, a make-shift knife. "You know I ain't got a beef with you, Janson, but you also know you can't take on all of us. You leave, keep your mouth shut, I'll let you in on five percent."

Janson stiffened. He remained silent for several tense seconds, then whispered, "Okay, but you make it quick. I don't want the kid to suffer."

Brandon seemed momentarily uncertain, then nodded. "Can do."

"What?!" Blair slid along the wall, trying to put as much distance between himself and the group of men as he could manage, trapped by the small confines of the cell.

Janson kept his back to Blair as he walked mechanically out of the cell. Brandon watched him leave, then turned his attention back to Sandburg.

"I ain't got time to waste, kid, so this is how it goes. You don't put up a fight, and it'll be quick and painless. You struggle, it'll go down hard."

Blair's head spun, his pulse thundering in his ears. "Come on, man, you don't have to do this. If you know about my partner, you know he's a cop. He'll find out you did this. You'll... You'll...."

"What? Spend the rest of my life in jail?" Brandon laughed.

Blair swallowed. "What about the death penalty, man? You kill me, you're looking at that."

"You know when's the last time they killed someone on death row," Brandon asked. "Now shut up! I'm getting paid big for this, and I do NOT intend to waste that money rotting in prison."

He advanced on Blair, grabbed him by the shirt collar, and flung him over to his waiting men. Blair grunted with pain as he flew into the men. Rough hands grabbed his arms, spinning him around to face Brandon.

A rope made from shredded cotton was flung into Brandon's hand, and he quickly fastened it into a noose. He held the rope up for inspection, then moved over to Blair, lowering the noose to place it over the young man's head.

"Just stay still and this'll be easy," Brandon said.

Yeah, right. Blair gritted his teeth and raised his legs, shoving his feet hard into Brandon's stomach. His own body flung backward from the impact, causing the men holding him to stumble backward.

A jumble of bodies fell on top of Blair, and he lashed out wildly with his arms and legs, adrenaline dulling the pain of his broken rib. His foot connected with something solid, and he heard someone scream. Something hard slammed into his injured side, and he cried out in pain, curling into a ball.

No, his mind screamed. Fight, damnit. You're hours away from freedom... from having your life back. He thought about Jim, and the recent revelations the two had shared about their relationship. He knew that if he allowed these men to kill him, Jim would blame himself. Blair had made the Sentinel a promise, and he couldn't bear the thought of breaking it, knowing that doing so would crush Jim's delicate conscience.

With an almost primal scream, he pushed himself upward, elbowing one of his attackers in the ribs and kicking another in the groin. All he could see were bodies around him, pressing in, lashing out. Someone grabbed his hair, yanking his head back. He twisted around, vaguely aware of the throbbing in his side, and bent over, ramming himself head-on into the person responsible. The man flew backward, slamming his head onto the wood frame of the top bunk. Strong arms grabbed his shoulders, and he dropped to the ground, slipping out of the grasp. A foot hit him in his right kidney, and he screamed, rolling over. He felt a slice of hot pain in his shoulder and lashed out, grabbing onto a hard object, his fingers wrapping around cool, wet metal.

He yanked his arm back, pulling the knife from the man's grip, surprised by his own strength. The mass of bodies pulled back a fraction, and Blair bolted to his feet, waving the knife wildly in front of him, spinning around and around to ward off potential attacks.

"Back off!" Blair lunged forward randomly, causing a few of the men to stumble backward as they tried to keep out of reach.

"Hold it! Police!"

Blair didn't register the words as his attackers scattered. All he saw was a blur of images and the sound of frantic footsteps.

"Stay back!" He lashed out again, swinging the knife through the air, blinking to clear the salt and dirt from his eyes.

"Chief! It's me. It's Jim. Take it easy."

That familiar voice sent a slither or disbelief through Blair's mind, and he lowered the knife warily.  "Jim?" He blinked, trying to focus on the large man in front of him. "Is that you?"

"Yeah, buddy. Right here. You wanna put that down now?"

Slowly, with a shaky hand, Blair lowered the knife completely. His fingers loosened, and the metal fragment fell from his grasp, clattering harmlessly to the floor.

Blair shuddered, suddenly feeling very weak. His pains flared to life, making themselves known all over his body - his side, his back, and, especially, his shoulder. His knees buckled, and he sagged forward, expecting to slam into the ground, and only mildly surprised when he felt himself stopped mid-way by a warm object. Arms encircled him, lowering him gently to the floor.

"My shoulder hurts," he muttered, then everything went dark.
 
 "Get a medic over here!" Jim cradled the limp body of his Guide, feeling the soft beat of his heart like a slow, steady drum as it coursed through the smaller man's veins. He listened to Sandburg's shallow breathing, assuring himself that Blair was safe, alive, and in no immediate danger from his injuries.

"How is he, Jim?"

Ellison looked up to see Simon standing over him, looking very much like a concerned father. The detective smiled weakly, nodding his head. "I think he'll be alright, Sir." Then he looked back down, feeling the warm slick wetness soak through his jeans. "He's been stabbed in the shoulder, though."

"Where's that medic," Simon bellowed, turning his head out into the hall.

Carefully, Jim shifted out from beneath his Guide, resting Blair's head on the floor. He pulled off his overshirt and placed it beneath Blair's bleeding shoulder. He pressed down on the shoulder, hoping to ebb the flow of blood. Blair moaned softly, turning his head to the side, his brow creased in pain.

"Shhh... Easy, Chief," Jim soothed. "You're going to be okay."

"Mmmmmnnn?" Another moan.

Jim kept the pressure on Blair shoulder, but placed one hand on his partner's forehead, wishing the gentle contact could ease his friend's pain, hoping it would at least provide some measure of comfort.

"Sorry, buddy. I know it hurts, but just bear with me a little while longer. Soon we'll have you out of here, and you'll be back home, in the loft. You can sleep in your nice, warm bed and I'll make you some of that chamomile tea you like."

Another moan escaped Blair's lips, and he turned his head toward Jim's voice, his eyes fluttering open.

"Jim?"

"Yeah, Blair. I'm here."

Blair scrunched his face, releasing another moan, his hand squeezing Jim's. The sentinel slid his other hand over Blair's forehead, to the top of his head, brushing back the stray curls.

"I know it hurts right now, but you're going to be okay."

"God, my side hurts," he gasped. "And my shoulder."

Jim clenched his jaw. "Yeah, I know. Just hang on, okay?"

"Okay," Blair mumbled, his voice barely audible. "Cold..."

A voice penetrated the air. "Okay! What happened here?"

Jim looked up to see two medics standing over him. "What the hell took you so long?"

The men ignored his question, kneeling beside Blair. Jim felt himself being pulled away from his Guide, and he turned his head to see Simon standing next to him, his hands grasping the Sentinel's shoulders.

"Let's move out of here and give them some room, Jim," Simon whispered.

Jim nodded, offering no resistance when Simon led him quietly into the hall.



Jim and Blair stepped off the elevator, the Sentinel leading the way to the loft door, one hand positioned gently on his Guide's shoulder.

"Feel good to be home, Chief," Jim asked.

Blair gave Jim an incredulous look. "Duh. No, I'd much rather be back in prison with my friends."

"Friends?"

"Yeah, the rodents and roaches. Let's see, there was Mannie, Moe, Jack, Squiggy, Vinnie, Buster, Spot--"

"I get the picture, Sandburg," Jim muttered, his eyes feigning irritated tolerance.

"And let's not forget the exquisite cuisine," Blair added. "Drippy, slimy eggs.... a delicacy in France, I'm sure. Then there was that brown sludge they served for lunch one day. I think you should send forensics down there to test that stuff."

Jim chuckled, stopping in front of the loft door as he fumbled for the key. "You're exaggerating."

"No way, man."

Jim raised his eyebrows hopefully. "So you're hungry?"

Blair nodded. "Starved. That hospital food wasn't much better."

"How's your rib?"

Blair shrugged. "As long as I walk straight and don't try to sit, turn, lay down, or alter my position in any way, it's fine," he said, offering his friend a reassuring smile to off-set his complaints.

"And the shoulder," Jim asked, indicating Blair's sling with a jerk of his chin.

Blair sighed. "Fine, man. Can you just open the door already. I'm dying to get home."

Jim glanced at the door, then back at Blair, looking suddenly uncertain. "Are you... uh... up for some company?"

"Huh? Tonight?"

Jim nodded. "Simon, Joel, and some of the guys want to see you."

Blair thought about it for a moment, then shrugged his good shoulder. "I guess so. I mean, I'm kinda tired, but I guess it would be really nice to see them."

Jim sighed. "Great."

He stuck the key in the lock and opened the door, pushing it open and gesturing for Blair to enter ahead of him. The anthropologist gave Jim a curious, almost skeptical look, then walked into the loft.

Blair looked around the quiet loft, hearing the door shut behind him. He turned around to see Jim toss the keys into the basket by the door. Blair's gaze settled on that familiar object, remembering countless times he'd done the same thing with his own set. Come home, toss the keys in the basket, hang my jacket up...

His breath caught in his throat, and he turned his face away quickly. Slowly, he moved deeper into the loft, his eyes moving over the room, taking in the white couch, the kitchen table, the french doors to his room...

My room... He shuffled over to the doors, reaching out almost hesitantly, his fingers wrapping around the knob. He took a deep breath and pushed the door open. The room was almost exactly how he'd left it, the only deviation being a stack of boxes near the closet. Probably my office stuff, he thought.

He stepped through the doorway and walked over to his bed, staring down at the colorful woven blanket on top of the futon mattress. Then his eyes moved to his bureau, coming to rest on an old, worn book propped on the edge. He moved closer to it, glancing at the title. Shaman practices in primitive South American tribes. He pursed his lips, remembering that the book had been due back in the library quite a while ago.

He then turned around, glancing at the small desk in the corner, noticing his backpack resting on the floor by the chair. His backpack... A trusty companion he'd carried with him long past its prime, grateful that the tired material had held up to the burden of carrying his books over so many semesters. Thoughts of past semesters reminded him that he no longer held his university position. He swallowed, feeling the sting of tears touch his eyes. He lowered his head, letting his curls fall forward to hide his face. Okay, so I won't be getting my PhD anytime soon... but I'm home. This is real, he thought. This is really real. I'm home. Really home.

"Blair, you okay," Jim asked.

Blair glanced up, seeing the Sentinel standing in the doorway, looking unsure about whether he should remain outside or step in to offer comfort.

"I'm... okay," Blair said, his voice shaky. He turned his head back to his bureau, away from Jim. "It's just that... well, there were times when I thought I'd never see this place again." His voice cracked, and he clamped his mouth closed, biting back the tears.

Jim glided over to Blair in two long strides, placing a hand on his good shoulder. "Hey, it's okay. You can let it go," Jim whispered. "I understand. I've been there, remember?"

Blair looked up, his eyes wet. "Yeah, you have," he said.

Jim nodded, pulling Blair close. "Only I knew it was just an act. I knew I'd be coming home. You didn't," he said.

That was the final blow to Blair's nebulous control, and he leaned forward into Jim's chest, shaking as he released the pent-up emotions. His muffled sobs filled the room, and Jim wrapped his arms gently around Blair shoulders, offering his Guide comfort, letting him know that, here, he was finally safe.

The two men remained that way for several minutes. Finally, Jim said, "I have some good news for you."

Blair pulled back, his tears quieting as he gazed up ag Jim. "What?"

One edge of Jim's mouth turned up in a lopsided smile. "You can start back at the University next semester. Since you've been cleared of all charges, you've been asked back."

Blair sniffled. "You serious?"

"Yep."

Blair's face lit up in a broad smile. "Oh man.... That's great!"

"One more thing?"

Blair tilted his head, quickly wiping the tears from his cheeks. "I hope it's good."

Jim raised an eyebrow. "Me too... It's sort of... Well, the guy thing tonight..."

"Yeah," Blair prompted.

"There's sort of been a party planned. I told them I wasn't sure if you'd be up to it, so they're waiting for my call. Yay or nay," Jim explained.

Blair took a step back, stunned. "You mean, like, a welcome home party?"

Jim chuckled. "No, they just decided it would be nice to come over my place tonight and get wild. You know I have such a reputation as a party animal."

Blair slapped Jim on the shoulder. "Funny, man.... Well, ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer," he said.

"So?"

Blair nodded. "Yeah. I'm okay. Tell 'em to come on over."

Jim cuffed Blair gently on the side of the cheek, then turned around. "Alright, then," he said, walking out of the room. "I'll give them the go-ahead."



An hour later there was a knock at the door. Blair looked up from where he sat on the couch, quickly flicking the OFF button on the tv remote control. Jim placed the last clean dish in the strainer and hurried out of the kitchen. He plastered a grin on his face and opened the door, revealing a hallway full of smiling men and women, with Simon and Joel in the front, a gift-wrapped package in each man's hand.

"Hey, Jim," Simon said, slapping the detective on the arm as he walked into the loft, followed by Joel and the rest of the gang.

"There he is!" Joel rushed over to Blair, grinning broadly as he ruffled the young man's curls.

Blair raised his hands defensively over his head. "Hey, man, not the hair!"

The room erupted into laughter, and Brown and Rafe stepped over to the couch. "So, how's it feel to be home, Hairboy," Brown asked.

Blair grinned broadly, his eyes lighting up with their usual spark. "Fantastic! I can't tell you much that prison food sucked!"

Rafe placed a large gift on the cushion next to Blair. "This is from Brown and me. I picked it out. If it were up to H here, you'd be receiving a inflatable woman!"

"Hey, watch it," a female voice yelled.

Jim chuckled, standing away from the crowd as he leaned against the kitchen wall, happily watching the men and women from Major Crimes swarm around his partner, offering heart-felt gestures of compassion punctuated by affectionate teasing. Simon caught Jim's eyes, and quietly walked over to him.

"You okay, Jim?"

Ellison grinned, nodding his head. "Yeah, Simon. I'm just taking in the sights."

Simon nodded his understanding, a smile in his eyes. "You take the next few days off, okay?"

"Can do, Sir. Thanks."

Simon glanced back at Blair. "So, how's he holding up? Doing okay?"

Jim nodded. "I think so. His shoulder and rib seem to be healing fine."

"And the other stuff," Simon asked, his voice suddenly low.

Jim shrugged, his expression turning more serious. "I think he'll be okay. He hasn't told me everything that happened in there, but, for now, I'm not going to push it. He needs time to recover, to focus on getting his life here back together."

Simon lowered his gaze to the floor, shifting his weight from one foot to another. "Uh... Do you know if... there was any type of, uh, sexual assault?"

Jim pressed his lips together, shaking his head. "No, not that, I'm pretty sure."

Simon released a breath. "Thank God."

"Hey, Jim, how 'bout a beer?"

Ellison glanced over at Brown and nodded, offering the detective a brief smile. "Sure thing." He pointed to the fridge. "You got a healthy set of arms and legs, don't you?"

Rafe laughed, pushing Brown over toward the kitchen. "Go on. Get me one too, and put the sodas we brought in the fridge."



Jim woke with a start, cocking his head as he tried to identify the sound that had woken him. The loft was quiet, and he automatically searched for his Guide's familiar heartbeat, finding it slow and steady out on the balcony. He frowned, figuring it must be close to thirty degrees outside.

He threw the covers off, grabbed a T-Shirt from beside his bed, and slipped it on as he shuffled down the stairs. He spotted Blair standing outside, one hand gripping the rail, his back straight. Jim opened the glass doors and walked out into the chilly night.

"Hey, Blair. What's up?"

Blair turned his head to look at Jim, keeping the rest of his body relative stationary. "Nothing. Just couldn't sleep," he said.

Jim walked forward and leaned on the railing, taking in the myriad lights of the city. "Care to talk?"

Blair smiled. "Isn't that usually my line?"

"Hey, who says I haven't learned a thing or two from you."

Blair raised his eyebrows. "Can I quote you on that?"

Jim grimaced. "Not on your life."

Blair threw him a look of mock insult, then turned his gaze back to the city. "Beautiful view."

"Yes, it is."

"I haven't seen the night sky like this before."

"What do you mean? You've been out here at night before."

Blair leaned back a fraction, tilting his head up to take in more of the stars. "It just seems different now. Bigger. I mean, think about it... The universe is virtually infinite, and we're just infinitesimal specks on an infinitesimal planet. It makes me feel kind of small... and big at the same time."

"You lost me with that last one, Chief," Jim said.

Blair glanced briefly over at Jim, then looked back up at the sky. "We're small, insignificant creatures compared to the vastness of the universe, but we have the intellect to look up and realize that... to appreciate the cosmos and wonder what's out there."

"Okay." Jim wasn't quite sure where the conversation was leading, so he decided to let Blair do most of the talking, figuring the young man would work to the heart of the matter soon enough.

"You know, it's... it's kind of awesome. All these stars, and some of them died out thousands of years ago, but the light they gave of continues to soar through space for all eternity." He paused, taking in a deep breath. "We could be looking at the light from a star that fueled life on some distant planet long ago, but died out before the Egyptians even built the pyramids."

"I never thought about it that way," Jim said.

"I wonder if we're anything like that," Blair whispered.

"Like what?"

"Stars. I mean, when we die, does some part of us go on forever?" He looked at Jim. "I mean, you know I believe that there's a spiritual aspect to our universe, but believing and knowing the exact nature of such a spiritual side are two different things. Do we continue on as intellect, emotion, or just random energy?" He tilted his head. "I mean, there's your spirit guide... was he, she, or it always a spirit? I've read a lot of books on the subject, but, you know, the truth is that nobody knows. There are a lot of different beliefs out there, but it's not exactly a hard science, you know."

"These are some pretty deep questions, Chief. Care to tell me what brought them on?"

Blair shrugged his good shoulder. "Part of the time I was in solitary confinement, I went into a meditative trance. I don't know how long I stayed in it, but I pictured myself in a place of peace and happiness." He looked back up at the stars. "With you, fishing. I caught a big one, by the way, and won a bet."

Jim chuckled. "ONLY in your dreams, Sandburg."

Blair smiled. "Yeah, well, that's the point. I was thinking that my body may be imprisoned, but my mind could be set free. It helped with the pain, anyway. So, I was thinking, what if I hadn't been cleared? What if I'd stayed in prison... assuming you didn't go ballistic and break me out," he amended. "Eventually, you and I are going to die." He swallowed, lowering his gaze to look at the city lights. "I just hope there's something more waiting for us after this. It seems like there should be... That maybe even if I had spent this life in prison, there would be another one waiting for me... hopefully one with Jim Ellison's essence in it." He smiled softly, locking eyes with the Sentinel.

Jim reached out and wrapped an arm around Blair's shoulder. "I don't know what's on the other side, Blair, but I do know what's in the here and now. You and me, partner. Even if we do only get one round on the ferris wheel, it'll at least be one hell of a ride."


 The END