I posted a challenge for folks to write some new "Cypher" and "Blind Man's Bluff" stories, and, of course, decided it would only be fair for me to "put up or shut up!" *grin* So here's mine. This one has not been beta'd because I just didn't have the heart to inflict it on Hephaistos after the tremendous effort she put it on When the Mirror Looks Back. So, if you see any errors, feel free to e-mail me.


LashBack

He held his breath, his jaw clamped shut, his heart thrumming with terror. Lash's clammy hands grabbed his face, holding his nose closed and forcing his jaw open. He struggled against the pry of fingers in his mouth, but he couldn't breath, and the first dose of the drug was still in his system, making him fuzzy.

No, please, God, please don't let this happen.

The warm liquid slid over his tongue. A hand rubbed his neck, and he inadvertently swallowed some. No, no, no. Please, if I stay awake, I can fight him. No more. Don't swallow. Don't swallow.

"Police! Freeze!" A voice boomed nearby, and his heart leapt into his chest.

Lash released him, and Blair immediately spit the small remains of the liquid out of his mouth. His gaze fell in stunned disbelief as the answer to his prayers descended the steps, gun clutched rigidly in his hands.

Jim. Oh thank you. Thank you. He wanted to cry. To scream. He was shaking so hard he thought he might just break into a million pieces right there, but the drug pulled at him, insistent in its attempts to drag him down into darkness and stifling the sob of relief clutched in his throat.

Then the unbelievable happened. Wood cracked, and Jim went down, his gun clattering across the floor.

No! Blair struggled to get out of the chair, but his limbs felt like lead, immovable. His eyelids drooped, in blatant violation of his will. He listened, even as the drug pulled him down... further... further. A crash. Then nothing.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Five bullets. Jim stood at the edge of the drop, panting hard as he peered down at Lash's corpse. His Sentinel hearing told him the man was dead. Finally... Damnit, but the guy had been strong! A strength born of insanity, perhaps -- the result of a crazed mind that had poured every ounce of rage and madness into the fight.

Even as his hearing noted the conspicuous lack of a heartbeat in the dead man, it picked up the fluttering slow-fast beat of his partner several stories above.

Blair! He sprang into action, feet pounding up the stairs as he followed the thrumming heartbeat to its source. He'd almost been too late, arriving to find Lash forcing the drug down Blair's throat.

How much? As he listened to the irregular beat, his own chest clutched with panic. What if Lash had given Blair too much? What had Caroline said? The drug was short-acting, right? Lash gave his victims enough to subdue them but not enough to put them out completely. He wanted them conscious while he drowned them. Son of a bitch! Five bullets had been too easy a death for the bastard.

He trotted down the stairs leading to Lash's lair, his eyes bypassing the clutter of trophies Lash had collected from his victims to focus on the lone figure draped bonelessly in the worn dentist's chair.

"Sandburg?" He didn't expect a response, knowing the young man had fallen victim to the drug, but, with the way trichloroethanol acted, it was possible that Blair could still hear him, and, if so, Jim wanted Blair to know that it was him returning, not Lash.

He moved in front of the chair, swift as a cat. Blair's head rested against the back, tilted upward, his eyelids a sliver open to reveal a glimpse of the lifeless blue eyes beneath.

"Blair?" Jim slid his hand to the back of Blair's neck, clenching his jaw as the silk yellow scarf around the young man's neck brushed against his skin. Gently, he lifted Blair's head forward, feeling the now-slow pulse drum beneath his fingers.

"Come on, kid, wake up." He used his other hand to lightly slap his partner's cheek.

Blair flinched, his head pulling back awkwardly. A low moan drifted from his throat, and his eyelids fluttered open. In an instant, his sluggish heartbeat slammed into overdrive, and he jerked weakly against the chains, his eyes tinged with a cloud of panic.

"Whu...? No. No!" Blair protested, the words thick and barely decipherable.

"Easy, Chief. Take it easy. It's me. It's Jim," he soothed. "Lash is dead."

Blair blinked several times, his head swaying unsteadily. "J-Jim?"

"Yeah, buddy. Right here. You're okay."

Blair squirmed, struggling forward, his arms and legs snapping against the chains.

"Okay, take it easy," Jim soothed, moving away from the chair to search for something that he could use on the chains. The restraints were bolted so he'd need a wrench to open them. "I'll get you out of there."

"J-Jim," Blair murmured again, this time almost as a plea.

Jim scanned the countertops for the tool, glancing back just in time to see Blair topple out of the chair, hitting the ground hard.

"God, Blair." Jim dropped next to him in an instant. "Calm down, Chief. I'm here, but I need to find something to get you out of these chains." Blair either didn't hear him, or wasn't listening, because he continued to struggle weakly against the restraints, his heart wild with panic.

~~~~~~~~~~

Jim! Blair tried to focus on the blurred face in front of him, but the room seemed to be spinning, taking his stomach along for the ride. He could hear Jim speaking to him, but he couldn't make sense of the words. Instead, he used the voice as an anchor to keep him from drifting back into the black, menacing fog of Lash's drug.

The face and voice disappeared, leaving only the spinning room and the touch of nightmares. Jim?! Where was he? What if he'd never been there and Blair had only imagined it, his mind's last-ditch effort to provide a measure of comfort in the face of death?

"J-Jim." He tried to move, pushing against what felt like a block of cement on his chest. The room spun and tilted at the same time, and his stomach lurched into his throat just before his head slammed into something hard.

A touch on his shoulder, and the voice returned. The spinning room began to slow, and he felt his shoulders being lifted. A warmth pressed against his back, encircling his chest. The voice continued, low in his ear. He felt himself drifting, giving into the weight of the drug. Everything seemed slow and heavy, as though the air had turned to molasses.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Simon held the lead as the swat team stormed through the warehouse. Room by room, level by level, they searched. They'd found Lash's body, pumped full of bullets. Simon's mind whirled with questions. Where was Jim? Where was Blair? Would they find the kid alive? He allowed himself a small sliver of hope. Lash had thus far preferred to keep his victims alive until drowning them in the duck pond. Simon had men at the duck pond, so he knew Lash hadn't gotten there yet, thank God. Well, not unless they were way too late, and Lash had already completed the deed. A shiver snaked down his spine as he flashed on the the image of Blair laying dead in the loft's bathtub, a yellow scarf around his neck.

No, that's not gonna happen. The kid's way too young too die. Damnit, I never should have approved him, he's not made for police work. He should never have been in the same room with Lash. He should have seen it earlier, he berated himself. All the photos of Lash's previous victims looked a lot like Blair, with the exception of the woman, but even she had the same general features. He should have realized it the first time he opened the folder to see William Bright's pale, slack face. Hell, the man could've been Blair's brother, the only difference being the dark eyes.

He heard a faint voice. Jim? Slowly, gun poised, he walked through the doorway. Granted, he already knew that Lash was dead, but he'd learned in his years of police work that one could never be too careful, so he kept the gun at ready just in case. Two officers followed behind, but when Simon peeked his head in and saw the sight below, he waved the two men back and holstered his gun.

"Jim?"

The Detective sat on the floor with his arms around Blair. The young man looked barely conscious, his fingers wrapped around Jim's arm in an weak grip, his head resting against the Sentinel's shoulder. Jim looked up, the corners of his eyes pinched with a mixture of concern and anger. As Simon descended the last step, he got close enough to see the tremors in Blair's hands and heard the soft, muffled crying.

Simon couldn't help but think of Daryl -- of the time Kincaid had taken over the station and threatened Daryl's life. The kid always acted independent, putting on the standard 14 year-old tough act, but that day he'd just been a little boy, scared out of his wits. Simon's chest twinged with the memory of Daryl in his arms, trembling, and he'd been so very, very grateful that his boy hadn't been taken from him, his life snuffed out because his father was the Captain of Major Crimes.

Quietly, he approached the two men, his chest growing tighter as he listened to Blair's distress. He'd seen it before, in men more experienced and hardened than Blair: the aftermath of a near-death situation, the let-down of an adrenaline rush. He remembered the first time he'd cradled a grown man in his arms. Baker -- an officer on his second undercover assignment. The deal had gone bad, and the perp had pulled a gun. Simon remembered listening to the struggles even as he and the team rushed into the hotel room to give assistance. A gunshot blasted out of the headset, sending his own heart into his stomach. He'd burst through the door to see the two men struggling for a gun on the floor. Officers swooped down and grabbed the perp, freeing Baker. Simon remembered the look on the man's face: shock, disbelief, a numb realization that he was still alive. Simon reached down and helped the younger man up, guiding him to the edge of the bed. Moments later, the 3-year police veteran broke down, sobbing and trembling like a leaf, and Simon had held him, telling him that everything was okay.

Just like Jim was now doing to Blair... but, God, Sandburg wasn't a cop. He was a kid. A college student, for chrissakes.

"Is he okay?" he asked Jim.

The Sentinel nodded, replying in a near-whisper. "He's a little out of it -- drugged. It's starting to wear off, though."

"The EMTs are outside. I'll give them the all-clear to come in, Jim."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Jim should have seen it coming, but he'd been so focused on just monitoring Blair's heartbeat that he hadn't thought about how the kid would react to being restrained again. The moment the paramedics began fastening the straps on the stretcher, Blair went ballistic. One moment he seemed completely out of it, his eyelids drooped half-closed, and the next moment he went wild, in near convulsions the second the restraints tightened around his chest and legs.

Blair's sudden hysteria caught the two paramedics off-guard. They hadn't completely fastened the restraints, and the straps flew out of their hands as Blair fell off the stretcher. He scrambled in a mad, awkward dash toward the wall, a low keening noise erupting from his throat.

Jim cursed himself silently as he pushed past the two EMTs. "Blair, take it easy. You're okay." He crouched down in front of his partner.

Blair lay on his side, pressed against the wall, his legs curled in front of him. His heart beat wildly, audible only to Sentinel ears, and he kept blinking at Jim as though having trouble focusing his vision.

"It's me -- Jim," he reassured Blair. "Lash is dead. Five bullets. He's not coming back, Chief. You're okay. Just let the paramedics help you."

Blair shifted his gaze to the toppled stretcher, its nylon straps laying open on the floor. "N-No," Blair muttered, his voice low. "No. I can walllk, Jimmm."

"Chief, you can barely move," Jim countered gently.

Blair shook his head, looking back at Jim. "No. No ambulance. Please, Jim. I just want... want to go h-home. Please." His eyes were wide, pleading, tinged with a hint of desperation.

Jim found himself trapped by that child-like, pleading gaze. He didn't have the heart to force the kid into restraints, but he absolutely had to get Blair checked out by a doctor. Not only had Blair been given two doses of the drug, but he'd also had a knock-down-drag-out fight with Lash in the loft, and even though Jim had felt for broken bones and found none, he still wanted to make sure the kid was physically in the clear.

"Okay, Blair," he began softly, hoping his tone would help calm the young man. "No stretcher. No ambulance. Just let me drive you to the hospital. Okay?"

Blair acquiesced surprisingly quickly, uncurling a fraction from his protected position. "'Kay, Jim." He shifted, pushing himself into a sitting position, his eyes flickering warily to the two paramedics, then back at Jim. "Sorry," he muttered.

"It's okay, Chief." He extended his hand, and Blair grasped it gratefully, allowing the Sentinel to pull him to his feet.

"Whoa." Blair wavered, raising one hand to his head, but Jim reacted quickly, catching Blair and swinging the young man's arm around his shoulders.

"Easy does it, Sandburg," Jim said, supporting Blair as he guided him toward the stairs.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Blair sat on the edge of the exam table, his shoulders hunched, as he listened to the doctor's report. His stomach hurt, his head pounded, and he felt incredibly nauseous. All he wanted to do was go home and sleep, but, instead, he had to go through a barrage of tests. He was hooked up to a heartmonitor that beeped regularly in the background. Jim stood a few feet away, giving the doctor enough space to complete his examination unhindered.

"Your heart and lungs sound good," the doctor said, draping his stethoscope around his neck. He then pulled out a penlight and examined each of Blair's eyes. Blair flinched slightly from the light, blinking when the doctor dropped the instrument back in his pocket. "Your pupil's are dilated."

The doctor brought his hands to Blair's head, feeling his way along the skull. "Tell me if anything hurts," he said.

Blair winced when the doctor's fingers probed a tender spot in the back of his head.

"That hurt?" the doctor asked.

Blair nodded. "A little."

"Do you have a headache?"

"A little."

"Where's the pain?"

"My whole head," Blair replied.

"Does your neck hurt at all?"

"A little," the doctor chimed along with Blair.

"Can you be a bit more specific, Mr. Sandburg?" he asked, scribbling some notes onto the clipboard.

Blair shrugged. He was feeling disconnected, as though the whole night had been a dream and he was still dreaming. He glanced at Jim standing quietly in the corner, and wondered what the detective thought about him now. Just how much had Jim heard before he'd burst into the warehouse room?

"Did you understand the question, Mr. Sandburg?"

Blair looked back at the doctor, a flash of irritation in his eyes. "Yes."

The older man sighed, studying him. "We should get your test results back soon. I put a rush on them. I can't prescribe any medications until I know for sure what's in your system."

"Chloral Hydrate" Jim said. "I told you."

The doctor looked at Jim. "Actually, it's trichloroethanol, to be precise. Chloral hydrate, the liquid drug Mr. Sandburg was given, is rapidly and extensively metabolized in the liver and erythrocytes by alcohol dehydrogenase to active trichloroethanol. However, I need to know how much Mr. Sandburg was given and if the drug was mixed properly... And I'm not ruling out the possibility that Mr. Sandburg was given other drugs, despite what you've told me about the killer's M.O."

Jim nodded, satisfied. "How much longer?"

His answer walked into the room in the form of a young blonde nurse carrying a sheet of paper. "Mr. Sandburg's blood test results," she announced, handing the sheet to the physician.

"Thank you, Clara," he said, dropping his gaze immediately to the report. After a few seconds, he looked back up at Blair. "It seems you got a fairly substantial dose. I'm going to forego giving you a pain killer tonight. I'll prescribe some pills, but they aren't to be taken for at least another twelve hours. Understand?"

Blair nodded. "Yeah, I understand."

"What do you mean? How high of a dose?" Jim asked.

"I'm not too concerned at the moment," the doctor reassured him, "but I imagine that Mr. Sandburg won't have much of an appetite for awhile, and it's probably best to avoid giving him food. I doubt he'd be able to keep anything down, anyway. Do keep up his liquids, though, to avoid dehydration. Also, he shouldn't drive for at least another 24 hours. He should stay in bed and relax during that time. No work, no physical exertion, and, like I said, no pills or other medicines for at least another 12 hours. If his headache gets worst, you can give him two aspirin, but that's all. Also, make sure you don't ingest any alcohol for at least 24 hours. The combination of ethanol and chloral hydrate produces additive and possibly synergistic CNS depressant effects."

The doctor glanced back at the report, his brow creased. "I'd like to keep you here a bit longer -- monitor you for CNS and respiratory depressive effects. Deaths associated with the use of chloral hydrate for sedation have been reported," he said, punctuating his words by a pointed glance at the Blair. "The most frequent adverse effect of chloral hydrate is gastrointestinal irritation, manifested by nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and stomach pain. Rarely, hallucinations and nightmares have been reported, but you don't seem to have been affected that severely by the drug."

Blair shivered. Nightmares. I think I'm guaranteed those for awhile. He took a deep breath, trying to push back the tide of nausea that threatened to overwhelm him. "I just want to go home now, Doc. I feel fine," he lied. "You don't need to keep me for observation". All he wanted at the moment was his bed, to bury beneath his covers and put this night behind him.

The doctor leveled a disapproving gaze at him, but finally caved in and sighed. "Okay, fine. If that's what you want. Just pick up your prescriptions at the pharmacy either tonight or tomorrow."

"Got it," Blair said, hopping off the table. The room tilted suddenly, and he reached out to grab the edge of the table for support. A hand on his arm helped steady him.

"Hold on, Mr. Sandburg. We'll get you a wheelchair," the doctor said.

Blair shook his head. "No. I can walk."

"Hospital policy," the doctor informed him.

Blair didn't have the energy to argue. All he wanted was out of the hospital, and if he had to be wheeled out, then so be it.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

The sense of unreality followed Blair to the loft. Jim kept a steady hand on his arm as they left the elevator and walked to the apartment. The front door hung partially open, the wood frame splintered and useless.

Oh God. The loft. Blair had forgotten about the mess. He glanced quickly up at Jim as the detective pushed open the door, but the older man's face gave no hint as to his state of mind. Taking a deep breath, Blair pulled his gaze away from Jim and let it sweep over the chaos in the living room.

The television rested on its side on the floor...

Lash was right behind him, so close that Blair could almost feel the man's breath on his neck. He didn't dare turn around, though. He had to make it to the backdoor. A crash echoed in the air, and this time he did glance back to see the television on the floor. Lash lunged forward, grabbing his legs and sending him sprawling forward. Blair broke his fall with his hands, kicking wildly at the madman, but Lash seemed impervious to pain, deflecting the blows easily. One kick managed to catch Lash squarely in the jaw, sending the man careening backward.

One armchair lay overturned...

Lash tackled him, sending him careening over the back of the chair. He hit the floor hard, his head cracking against the wood, and the chair came down on top of him. Pain blossomed just behind his eyes, but he ignored it. He tried to move out from under the armchair, but the weight of the furniture suddenly disappeared and, in the next moment, Lash was on top of him.  He tried to scream, to call for help -- surely the neighbors would hear -- but his mouth filled with warm liquid, drowning his scream. He coughed, tried to spit it out, but some of it managed to snake down his throat. Lash's weight pinned him to the floor. He struggled, but gravity seemed to have doubled. The muscles in his legs and arms quivered, their strength sapped. More liquid filled his mouth, and this time it slid down his throat without resistance. Darkness encroached upon the edges of his vision, and then everything faded to black.

A hand on his shoulder caused his heart to spring into his throat. Blair spun around, his heart racing, and jumped three feet away from the large figure in the doorway.

"Easy, Blair," Jim said, holding his hands out, his shoulders slightly hunched. "It's okay. Just take it easy."

Blair blinked, and reality slammed back into him, blowing away the dream-like haze that had surrounded him earlier. His lungs tightened, the air growing thick around him. All of a sudden, he couldn't breath. A sharp pain sliced through chest, and he had the sudden fear that he was going to die after all, that his heart would just give up, exhausted by the onslaught of adrenaline it had been forced to endure all night.

"Blair?"

His legs gave way, but Jim caught him, easing him to the ground.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Blair jerked awake, his heart pounding, the remnants of a nightmare pounding in his skull. He opened his eyes to darkness. A terrifying sense of disorientation afflicted him as he tried to remember where he was, then it all came back to him, and he felt the weight of the covers on his chest and the softness of the pillow beneath his head. He released a relieved sigh. He was in his bed, back at the loft.

His face grew hot when he remembered the panic attack he'd had in front of Jim. He didn't remember going to bed, so that must have been Jim's doing. Embarrassment flushed hot in his cheeks, and he pulled the covers over his head as though he could hide from the shameful memory. Not only had he freaked in front of Jim, but the detective had obviously tucked him into bed as well.

He must think I'm pathetic.

He lay there for quite a while until the darkness became too much for him. He knew that sleep was hopeless, so he sat up and flipped on the table lamp.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Jim couldn't sleep, the events of that night playing over-and-over again in his mind. Why hadn't he heard his beeper go off? He was a Sentinel, damnit. Why hadn't he seen it coming? Lash had taken an obvious interest in Blair during the investigation. Hell, Lash's intent couldn't have been more clear if he'd written, "Blair's next" on the bathroom mirror rather than "Who Am I Now?".

His ears picked up movement down below, and he listened to Blair shuffle around in the lower room. The kid can't sleep either. No surprise there.

With a sigh, he threw off the covers and slid out of bed. He slipped on a pair of sweat pants and trotted down stairs, glancing at the soft light visible behind the curtain to Blair's room. Jim frowned slightly. He'd have to put something more substantial up than just a curtain since Blair was now officially living there.

His eyes drifted next to the front door. He hadn't had a chance to fix the frame yet, so he'd jammed a chair under the knob. It wasn't the best security measure, but he wouldn't be able to get anyone over to repair the damage until well after dawn.

Walking over to the coffee table, he snatched up the remote control. Remarkably, the television hadn't been broken in the fall. Have to remember to buy more electronics from that manufacturer, Jim mused. He let his gaze drift over the living room. It had taken him less than an hour to clean up the mess, most of it being overturned furniture and a few shattered breakables.

He turned on the television, raising the volume so that Blair would be sure to hear. Then he walked into the kitchen, grabbed a couple of bags of popcorn, and popped them in the microwave, setting the heat to high. He clanged around a bit more in the kitchen, grabbing a large bowl for the popcorn and snatching a beer and a soda from the refrigerator. Minutes later, the microwave dinged, and Jim withdrew the bags and poured the hot popcorn into the large bowl.

He stole a glance at the curtain to Blair's room. His ears told him that Blair was still awake, but he was no longer moving around. Come on out, Chief, Jim prodded silently. He was half-tempted to peek his head in the room and invite Blair to join him in the living room for a late-night movie, but Blair had to know he was awake just from the smell the popcorn and the noise of the television. If Blair wanted company, he'd come out on his own. If he wanted to be alone, Jim would let him be.

He brought the drinks and popcorn to the living room and plopped down on the couch. Grabbing the remote, he began to flip through the channels, finally settling on a TMC showing of Dead Poet's Society. He figured that would be safe enough. No monsters. No bad guys. No psycho killers. Mostly talk. If Blair ventured out, maybe the movie would lull him to sleep.

Sure enough, a few minutes later, Jim heard the shuffle of footsteps on the hard wood floor. He twisted his head back to look at Blair, who was standing at the edge of the kitchen in his boxers and a T-shirt, his eyes red, looking for all the world like a lost boy.

"Popcorn?" Jim asked casually, gesturing to the bowl. "There's a soda here for you, if you want it."

"Did I wake you?" Blair asked, almost timidly.

Jim smiled, shaking his head and looking back at the television. "Nah. Just can't sleep, that's all. I was hoping I hadn't woken you," he lied.

More shuffling. Then Blair maneuvered around the couch and sank onto the cushion next to Jim, grabbing a handful of popcorn. "Dead Poets Society," he observed, popping a few kernels into his mouth.

"Uh-huh." Jim muttered a reply.

They stayed that way for nearly an hour as the movie played on. Neither man spoke much, but Jim kept his eyes and ears tuned inconspicuously to Blair, noticing every time the young man's eyelids drooped, only to snap back open again. Blair made it all the way through the movie, and, when the screen darkened for the credits, Blair shifted toward him.

"Jim?"

"Yeah?" He looked over at Blair, waiting for the young man to continue.

"I was just wondering... How much, um... Well, how much did you hear before you came into the room at the warehouse?"

Jim raised his eyebrows. Just what was bothering the kid? "I heard you trying to get inside Lash's head, telling him he couldn't be you."

Blair swallowed, turning his gaze to the scrolling credits on the screen. "Pretty stupid, huh?"

Oh, so that's what it was about, Jim realized. "Not at all, Chief. You did everything right. I was quite impressed."

Blair looked at him. "Really?"

Jim nodded. "Absolutely"

"Thanks, Jim," he said, managing a small smile.

Jim grinned, glancing back at the television. "You up for the next movie, or do you want to crash?"

Blair shrugged. "I could stay up."

"Great. I'll make some more popcorn," he said, rising from the couch.

Jim placed another bag into the microwave, keeping his eye on Blair. Before the kernels finished popping, Blair was asleep, his head tilted against the back of the couch. A tiny, self-satisfied smile tweaked Jim's lips, and he walked over to the young man, easing him gently onto his side. Then he raised Blair's legs onto the cushions and draped the afghan over him.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The next morning, Jim rose early to call in the repair job for the door, while Blair slept in late on the couch -- dead to the world. Simon had given them the morning off, requiring only that they stop in the station sometime to fill out paperwork and let Blair give his statement. It was a little after one O'clock when they arrived at the station, parking on the street a block away to grab a bite at the deli.

A large group of camera-toting, pencil-waving men and women stood in front of the station. Jim was just about to pull Blair around the corner and take the side entrance when two of the reporters spotted him.

"Detective Ellison! Mr. Sandburg!" In an instant, the two men were surrounded, lights flashing amidst a barrage of questions.

"Mr. Sandburg, can you tell us what it was like almost becoming one of the killer's victims?"

"Is it true that David Lash made advances on you during his time at the station?"

Jim heard Blair's heart kick into overdrive as the young man's eyes darted wildly over the faces in the crowd. The kid looked like he was ready to bolt, but there was no escape route. Each flash of a camera light caused him to flinch, and he inched closer to Jim.

"Back off," Jim growled, sweeping a glare across the crowd. "Leave the kid alone. He's had a rough time."

Jim's warning only served to draw attention to himself, and he suddenly found three microphones in his face.

"How did you find the killer's hide-out?" a woman asked.

"Detective Ellison, you shot the killer five times. Wasn't that a bit excessive? Was the killer armed?"

Jim clenched his jaw. "I said enough." He took a step forward, but the mass of reporters remained solid.

"Mr. Sandburg, did the killer sexually assault you?"

Jim heard the small gasp from his partner, and a tide of anger washed through his chest. "ENOUGH!" He resisted the urge to punch the reporter and, instead, grabbed Blair's arm, pushing his way through the crowd. "If you folks don't back off, I'll have you arrested for assaulting a police officer! Now move!"

He rushed into the building, and, thankfully, the reporters remained outside on the sidewalk. Jim turned to Blair, easing his grip on the young man's arm. Sandburg leaned against the wall, head low, his curls hanging forward to hide his face.

Jim's anger melted, and he bent his knees slightly to get a look at Blair's face. "You okay, Chief?" he asked gently.

Blair looked up, his face pale and his eyes tinged with red, but he managed a small smile and nodded shakily. "Yeah." He glanced outside to where the reporters laid in wait. "Can you believe those people?"

"They're less like people and more like vultures," he replied, placing a hand on Blair's shoulder. "Come on, let's get this paperwork finished with."

Blair allowed himself to be steered toward the elevators. He swallowed as the doors closed, his Adam's apple bobbing. "Uh, Jim?" he shifted his weight and leaned against the wall, his gaze drifting to the floor. "Who's gonna take my statement?"

"It'll have to be someone other than me," he said. "It'll probably be either Brown or Simon, but if you'd feel more comfortable with someone else, just say so."

Blair shrugged. "No -- no one in particular. Just wondering."

"Hey," Jim prompted.

Blair finally looked up at the detective, and Jim offered a tiny, reassuring smile. "You did good, kid. You don't have anything to be embarrassed about."

Blair remained silent for several seconds, obviously studying Jim's face to gauge the sincerity behind the words. Finally, he offered his own smile. "Thanks."

~~~~~~~

So this is what an interrogation room looks like, Blair mused, absently tapping his foot on the floor as his eyes scanned the small, windowless room. A large mirror hung in one wall. A two-way mirror, Blair figured. I wonder if Jim's watching this. He shifted in the chair, trying to find a comfortable position, but the seat was too hard and the back lacked any support whatsoever.

"You ready, son?"

Blair looked at the Captain and nodded. His throat tightened, and he swallowed. He felt more like a suspect than a witness.

Banks hit the play button on the recorder. "Just start from the beginning."

Blair nodded. "The beginning. Okay." He took a deep breath. "Well, Christine and I were leaving Hargrove Hall. We, uh, had a little fight and she took a cab home. In the window, I thought I saw Lash. It was just a glimpse, but he was wearing a black wig." He chewed the inside of his cheek and tried to push back the well of terror that gripped him with the memory. "I sort of freaked, and rushed back to the loft. I locked the door and all the windows. I thought maybe my eyes had just been playing a trick on me, you know? But then I saw this figure through the skylight, and then someone started jiggling the knob on the back door. I dialed Jim's beeper and tagged it with 911 so that he would know to call me back right away."

"Why didn't you just dial 911, Sandburg?" Banks asked.

Blair dropped his gaze. He knew someone was bound to ask that question sooner or later. Hell, he'd asked himself the same thing over and over again. What it came down to was that he'd been afraid of embarrassing Jim if it turned out to be a false alarm. Hell, he could just hear the guys at the station talking about "the scared little baby afraid of the bogeyman." More than that, though, was something else... Something he'd never admit. When it came right down to it, he'd been scared out of his mind, and he hadn't been thinking. He'd just acted on instinct, and instead of turning to 911 or the station, he'd turned to Jim. Something about the Sentinel just made him feel safe.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Outside the interrogation room, Jim tensed. He wanted to hear the answer to that question himself. Why hadn't Blair called Emergency Dispatch? Of course, he realized that help probably wouldn't have arrived in time, anyway, but the response time would have been a lot faster than his had been. Why'd you call me instead of 911, Chief?

Blair dropped his hand to his leg and absently rubbed at the denim. "Um, well, I didn't want to call it in and have a whole bunch of cops show up if it was nothing. I mean, you know, I already screwed up at the church and I didn't want to embarrass Jim anymore."

Jim closed his eyes, raising one hand to squeeze the bridge of his nose. Awww, hell. He should have talked to Sandburg after the church incident instead of just letting the young man's guilt fester. Blair had nearly died because he was worried more about Jim's reputation than his own safety. What the hell kind of logic went through the kid's head? Jim resolved that he'd sit Blair down and have a nice, long talk with him once the post-Lash fervor died down.

Jim heard the recorder snap off, and he opened his eyes to see Simon leaning forward, his elbows on the table. Blair's eyes were wide with apprehension, darting back and forth between the Captain and the recorder.

"Listen to me, Sandburg," Simon said. "Next time, God forbid something like should happen again, you call it in. Don't worry about looking stupid or reflecting badly on Ellison. No one's going to care much about a false alarm, got it? Consider this an order, Sandburg. You think someone's after you, call 911. Do you understand me?"

Blair ducked his head and nodded quickly. "Yes, sir," he croaked. "I know I was stupid." He folded his arms on the table and dropped his head down. Jim noticed the tiny tremors afflicting the young man, and he actually had to strain to hear Blair's muffled "Sorry."

Simon glanced at the mirror, and Jim saw the misery and guilt he felt himself reflected in the Captain's dark gaze. He knew the older man was thinking the same thing: We screwed up, and Sandburg paid the price. Blair's confidence had been shot, both from the church and because of Simon's suspicions about Blair being "the leak" to the press. On top of that, they'd messed up by allowing Lash to get so close. The psycho had played them for fools, and if they'd checked him out better, his charade would have been revealed earlier and maybe they would have caught him before he'd had a chance to do more harm.

Simon tore his gaze away from the mirror and looked back at Blair. He leaned forward some more and placed a hand on the younger man's arm. "Look, Sandburg, I didn't mean to jump down your throat like that, but your safety is well worth my men's time. We've all had quite a scare here, and I'm just glad we got you back safe. I'd like very much to keep you that way. I'm not angry at you. I'm angry at Lash and for myself for letting it get that far... And I owe you an apology."

Jim smiled approvingly, paying silent thanks to his Captain. Blair raised his head to look at Simon, his cheeks flushed.

"I'm sorry I accused you of leaking information to the press," Simon continued. "I jumped to a conclusion, and it wasn't fair to you. Truth is, you handled yourself extremely well in a bad situation, and you kept your head when most people wouldn't have."

Blair swallowed, his gaze darting to the mirror, and Jim knew that Blair had figured out by the Captain's earlier reaction that he was there.

"You want some water or coffee?" Simon asked.

Blair looked back at the older man. "No, thanks. We can continue... and, uh, thank you, sir."

Simon smiled and nodded, hitting the play button on the recorder. "Okay, Mr. Sandburg. What happened next?"

"I was waiting for the phone to ring, and then the front door flew inward. I guess he kicked it in. I froze for a second, and, um, I really don't remember what happened in detail. Just bits and pieces. I remember running, and Lash knocked over the T.V. He tackled me, and I fell forward. I just started kicking, and I got loose. Started throwing anything and everything I could at him, but nothing slowed him down. Then I made a dash for the front door, but he slammed into me and I went flying over the armchair. I think I hit my head then. I tried to get him off of me, but he was too strong, and he forced the drug down my throat. I thought I was screaming for help, trying to alert the neighbors, but I don't know what happened after that. I guess I blacked out from the drug. Next thing I remember is waking up on a cold floor in a dark room. I tried to move, but there were chains around my wrists and ankles, and my head was spinning. There was this scarf in my mouth, but I don't think I could have yelled even if there wasn't."

Blair paused to take a deep breath, casting another quick glance at the mirror before continuing. "I guess I blacked out again because the next thing I remember is someone slapping me. I opened my eyes and Lash was right there in my face. He started talking about making friends, trying to imitate the way I spoke. Then he started messing with the chains around my legs and I thought he was getting ready to take me somewhere and drown me. I started yelling, trying to, anyway. He asked what I was saying and then told me he needed to hear my voice some more, anyway. He took the scarf out of my mouth, and I just started screaming, but he tilted his head back and screamed right along with me." Blair swallowed, dropping his gaze to the table, his tremors becoming more pronounced. "That's when I knew that I was far away from help, that no one would hear me no matter how loud I screamed. Then he started telling me that I was going to take a bath. He was there, wearing my jacket -- you know, the one with the patch in the arm from when Kincaid's guy shot at me. Then Lash put the wig on, and he turned around and asked if he made a good me. I guess something just clicked then. I figured I was going to die, and I really didn't want to die. I had only one advantage over Lash's other victims: I knew about his childhood. I knew about his pet duck, about his brother, and about the abuse he went through. I figured I had nothing to lose, so I just started talking... taunting him. I figured that somewhere beneath all that insanity was a scarred, messed up little boy. I was hoping I could reach that little boy and play on his insecurities. Pretty stupid, I know. Hell, his own doctor couldn't get through to him."

Simon shook his head. "Not stupid at all, Sandburg. In fact, it's pretty damn impressive." He paused, allowing his words to sink in, and then continued with the interview. "So you were taunting him. Then what happened?"

Blair dropped his gaze to the recorder, his hand clenched around a loose fold of denim on his thigh. "I pissed him off. He told me to shut up and then rushed over to me with the drug." Blair's voice broke on that last word, and he took a deep breath, his fist tightening around the denim. "I thought that was it. He was going to drown me and I'd end up in some tub like all the others. Probably in the loft, and Jim would find me, and I really didn't want to be found like that." He swallowed, closing his eyes. "I tried to keep my mouth closed, but he pinched my nose and pried his fingers into my jaw. I tried. I really did, but I was still a little groggy from the last dose, and he was so strong. God, he didn't look that strong, but he really was. I didn't want to swallow. I thought if I could just remain conscious that I might be able to get away, but he started rubbing my throat, and my lungs were burning. I swallowed some, then I heard Jim... and Lash let me go. I spit the rest out. You know what happened after that. There was a bad step, and Jim went down. I couldn't believe what was happening. I tried to move, to help, but I couldn't. My legs and arms weren't working. Then Jim and Lash crashed through the floor. I don't remember much after that, just flashes, really. Waking up and seeing Jim. Paramedics. I remember being strapped down, or something, and then I was on the floor and Jim was in front of me. I was trying to stay awake, but I was so tired. I didn't want to black out again because I thought I wouldn't wake up. I know it doesn't make much sense, but I wasn't really sure if Jim was actually there or if I was just imagining it, or maybe Lash wasn't really dead and I'd black out and he'd come back and finish --"

"Hey." Simon pressed the stop button on the recorder. "I think we can stop, now, Sandburg. Are you okay? You want some water, now? Maybe some coffee?"

Jim sighed gratefully. It was obvious that Blair was beginning to hyperventilate. He'd been rambling, his words running into one another, barely decipherable.

Blair opened his eyes and looked up. "Y-yeah, maybe some water. Thanks," he answered, a quiver in his voice.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"... call Christine -- beg, crawl, whatever you gotta do."

Blair looked sheepishly at Jim, his face growing hot. "Yeah, I'm pretty good at that, huh?" I managed to do some pretty good begging with Lash, didn't I?

"Don't ever lie to her," Jim continued, ignoring the comment. "Remember: trust, commitment."

Blair chuckled. "Speaking of commitment, I've been thinking about getting a Cascade PD insignia tattooed right on my chest."

"Above the nipple ring?" Jim asked, hitting the elevator button.

Blair's jaw went slack. "How'd you know about that?"

Jim laughed. "Let me tell you something, you get a tattoo and your Blessed Protector's gonna kick your ass down seven flights to the lobby," he said, faking a jab toward Blair just before ducking into the elevator.

Blair raised his hands in front of him, chuckling. "Hold it, tough guy. C'mon you really think I'd put something on my body that I couldn't take off? I was just kidding. Although, an earring would be nice. You know something tasteful... maybe a small silver badge."

~~~~~~~~~~

When Jim and Blair finally made it back to the loft, they found ten messages waiting for them on the answering machine. Jim raised his eyebrows as he looked at the digital display on the machine, and Blair grabbed a beer and a bottle of water from the refrigerator.

Jim hit the play button, and an unfamiliar female voice started speaking. "I'm calling for Mr. Blair Sandburg. My name is Janet Barret from the Cascade Herald, and I'd like to talk you, Mr. Sandburg, about your experiences with David Lash. I'd --"

Jim clenched his jaw and hit the erase button. The next message began playing, a male voice this time. "Yes, this is Mr. Michael Johnson calling for Detective Ellison and Mr. Blair Sandburg. I work for the Daily --"

Erase.

"Hello. Mr. Sandburg? I'm with Smith and Tyler Publishing and we're interested in commissioning you to write a book about your ordeal with David Lash. We're willing to make you quite a generous offer..."

Jim's finger hovered over the button, and he glanced at Blair uncertainly. He was pretty sure the kid wouldn't even consider the offer, but since a rather large sum of money could be involved, Jim didn't want to take that choice away from his friend. It would be nice for Blair to get something positive out of his ordeal."

Blair met Jim's gaze and walked into the living room, handing him the beer. "You can erase that," he said, dropping onto the couch.

Jim nodded and slapped the button, moving quickly through the rest of the messages just to be sure none were actually important, then he sank onto the sofa next to Blair and took a sip of his beer.

"I'm sorry, Chief. I don't know how they all got this number."

Blair shrugged and hit the remote control, bringing the television to life. "They're reporters. They get paid to be resourceful," he muttered.

Jim turned to the young man. "You okay?"

Blair barely glanced at him. "Yeah. I'm okay. Just tired, Jim. It's been a long day."

"Tell me about it," Jim sighed, turning his attention back to the television.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

A hand slapped his face. "Come on, Sandburg, wake up," a deep voice commanded.

Blair opened his eyes to see a tall figure wearing a dark knit cap and a black police jacket. "Jim?"

"Yeah, it's me. I'm here to save you, Blair."

Blair blinked, his head swimming. The figure shifted into focus, a bright smiling face with...

Oh my God! Cold, dark eyes gazed at him. Lash.... wearing Jim's clothes. No, no, no. Not Jim. God, not Jim. Blair tilted his head back and screamed.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Jim sprung out of bed, his ears ringing, a scream echoing in his skull. Blair! He heard a crash below, and flew down the stairs. "Sandburg!" He rushed through the curtain to Blair's room to see the young man on the floor, wedged in the corner between his closet and the bureau.

"Blair?" he asked, more softly. He heard the kid's heart pounding like a jackhammer, and blue eyes turned up to look at him, wild with fear. Blair flinched, pressing himself harder into the wall.

"Hey, it's okay." He turned on the light, knowing Blair wouldn't be able to see him clearly in the dark. Light flooded the room, and Blair winced, blinking several times. Jim rushed over to the young man and dropped in front of him, placing a reassuring hand on his shoulder. "It's just me, Chief. You want to tell me what happened here? Did you --?"

Blair lunged forward, nearly knocking Jim off-balance. "You have blue eyes. Jim, man, oh God, you have blue eyes," he rambled, his whole body shaking.

"Hey, hey," Jim soothed, wrapping his arms around the shivering figure. "It's okay, Blair. It was just a dream." Must have been one hell of a dream. He stayed that way, his arms wrapped firmly around Blair until the tension drained out of the younger man's muscles and his trembling subsided. "You want to tell me about it?" Jim prompted.

Blair pulled back, and Jim released him, watching as the kid slumped back against the wall, his face red. "Sorry," he blurted, avoiding Jim's gaze. "You're right. It was just a dream. Sorry I woke you."

"Not a problem," Jim said quickly, shifting to a more comfortable position on the floor. "It was about Lash?" God, he hated that name!

Blair nodded. "Y-yeah. What else, right?" He looked up slowly, his gaze hesitant. "I, uh, I dreamt that instead of you killing Lash, he killed you. He put on your clothes and came back for me." Another shiver shot through the young man, and he closed his eyes. "That was scarier than seeing him dress up in my clothes with that stupid wig."

Jim gave into his own shiver, flashing on the eerie image that Blair described. He remained silent for several moments, giving Blair's heartrate time to return to normal. Finally, he said, "Lash is dead, Blair. I put five bullets in his chest. Dead. He's never going to be able to hurt you or anybody else again."

Blair nodded quickly, nervously. "I... I know, Jim. I'm being stupid, it's just --"

"No, you're not," Jim said quickly. "You're having a normal reaction to a traumatic event. Don't sell yourself short." He held his hand out, and, after a brief hesitation, Blair took the offering. "You're going to be okay, Chief," Jim continued, helping Blair to his feet and draping an arm across the smaller man's shoulders. "It's just going to take some time. That's all."

'Yeah, I know," Blair replied, letting Jim push him onto the edge of the mattress. "Thanks, Jim." He looked up, a hint of a smile playing on his lips. "You know, big guy, you can be pretty sensitive when you wanna be."

Jim flashed a lopsided grin. "Only after the sun sets, kid," he shot back.

Blair chuckled, scooting backward and pulling the covers over his legs. "Oh, so I see. Come day your alter-ego takes over, eh?"

"You got it," Jim said, whacking the kid lightly on the back of the head as he glanced at the clock on the bureau. "So you'd better get back to sleep because in a few hours this nice guy you see in front of you is going to turn ugly... especially if he has to drag your tired butt around the station all day."

"Okay, okay," Blair laughed, dropping back onto his pillow. "I'm in bed. See? Just turn out the light on your way out."

Jim's smile softened, and he pulled the covers over Blair's chest. "Goodnight, Chief," he said, walking to the doorway and flicking the light switch.

"Goodnight," Blair said into the darkness. "Thanks, Jim."

"You're welcome, Chief."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The End. All done. Finis. The Grande Finale.