This will likely be my final Sentinel story, except for my sentinelangst dues,
as I think I'm ready to retire from the world of Sentinel fanfiction.
However, if inspiration strikes, who knows...?

Thanks to the following beta readers:
CJ, Hephaistos, and Sheffield (Wendy). Mistakes are mine! All mine!


The Nothingness Inside


cy·pher (sfr). n.
       1. The mathematical symbol (0) denoting absence of quantity; zero.
       2. One having no influence or value; a nonentity.

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

Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang!

His body jerked with each impact, the bullets slamming against his chest. Finally, they stopped, and he felt himself falling... falling. He hit. Hard. The air exploded from his chest, and his lungs froze from the shock. Silence. Blank eyes stared up into the darkness, memories playing behind them.

His fading thoughts traveled back to his First. Hoooomer. He sing-songed the name in his head, remembering the feel of the duck's fragile neck in his hand and the delightful give and muffled crunch that sent the bird still.

Jiiiimmy. Little Jimmy, little brother. Mom likes you best. I can be you. I can. I can be you. Shhh. Won't hurt. Soft. Pillow soft. Take the breath away and they all go quiet. Quiet. I can be you. Shhh. Don't struggle. Don't scream. Stop. Stop it! I can be you! Shhh! Th-That's it. All quiet now. My turn. I am you. Jiiimmy. Jiiimmy.

Hairy Blairy and the China doll. I can be you. I can be. Can be you. I am you. I am you.

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

Blair Sandburg shrugged out of his backpack, letting it fall to his office floor. Stifling a yawn, he sank into his chair and swiveled toward his computer. A knock interrupted him, and he swiveled back again to face the door.

"Come in."

The door opened to reveal Blair's now-graying former advisor, Hal Buckner. The older man smiled and walked into the office, closing the door behind him.

Blair grinned and rose from his chair. "Hal, when did you get back?" He maneuvered around the desk and perched himself on the corner.

Buckner stopped directly in front of Blair, his smile turning almost melancholy. "Yesterday. Had a great time." He paused, and his smile faded completely. "I, uh, heard what happened to you." He eyed Blair questioningly. "Are you okay?"

Blair's own smile faltered, and he swallowed, glancing quickly away. "Yeah, sure." He shrugged, straightened, and forced a grin as he looked back at his friend. "That was over two months ago. It's all over now, and I'm fine, thank you."

Buckner's gaze remained steady. "You sure? You're not just putting on a brave front?" He slapped a gentle hand on Blair's shoulder. "Getting kidnapped and almost killed by a serial killer is, I can only imagine, an unbelievably traumatic experience. If it were me, I wonder if I'd ever truly get over it." His eyes softened. "I don't mean to imply that I think you're incapable of handling things, but I have known you for well over a decade, Blair. No matter what happens in your life, you seem to get right back on the horse, so to speak. I do admire that about you, but at the same time, I worry." He gave Blair's shoulder a firm squeeze. "Did you have someone to help you through this?"

Blair fidgeted on the desk, feeling uncomfortable beneath the intensity of Buckner's gaze. Actually, these days, any kind of scrutiny made him uncomfortable.

Lash had given him plenty of scrutiny, plenty of praise. Every time Blair had walked into a room occupied by Lash, the crazed man had looked at him -- looked right at him. Where Jim and Simon had only thrown brief glances his way, Lash had studied him with those dark, inquisitive eyes.

"Blair?" The edges of Hal's eyes crinkled with concern. "You okay?"

Blair swallowed again, nodding quickly and pulling himself away from the quagmire of dark memories. Oh. He'd forgotten to answer the question. "Yes." He took a breath. "I did, actually." A more genuine smile touched his lips as he thought of Jim. If it hadn't been for the detective, Blair would've drowned in that duck pond. He met Buckner's gaze steadily this time. "A very good friend was there all the way for me."

Buckner's smile widened and his eyes grew brighter. "I'm glad to hear that, my boy." He patted Blair's shoulder and took a step back. "Just had to check in, ya know, as your former advisor." With a wink, he turned toward the door. "I'll leave you be now, since I'm running late for a meeting and I can see I've embarrassed you with all this mushy stuff."

Blair chuckled and pushed away from his desk. "Not at all, Professor. I'm touched. Really. And I'm glad to see you back. I trust you had a good time on sabbatical?"

"Oh, the best!" Buckner opened the door, grinning widely. "Nothing like a semester-long vacation to keep one feeling young! Wait 'til you're my age and teaching students like you. You'll want to take a vacation every other year."

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

Jim gave the sauce one final stir and set the lid on the pot. He cocked his head slightly when he heard the ding of the elevator out in the hall followed by the soft hiss of the double-doors parting, then the squish of footsteps on the floor. Jim's eyes flicked to the answering machine, then to the balcony, and his lips twitched as he watched the hard rain outside. Blair would be wet and cold and on his way to the shower the moment he walked through the door.

Keys jangled, the knob jiggled then turned, and the door swung inward. Blair shuffled inside, his wet, dark curls clinging to his jaw and neck. He flashed a smile at Jim as he tossed his keys in the basket and dropped his backpack beneath the coat rack. Shrugging out of his jacket, he kicked the door closed behind him.

"Hey, Jim. What're you making?"

Grabbing a couple of plates from the cupboard, Jim went about setting the table. "Rigatoni and meat sauce."

"Sounds great. I'm gonna take a quick shower. Be out in ten."

"You got a message." Jim's voice sounded strained even to his own ears.

"Ah." Blair detoured to the answering machine. He was just about to hit the PLAY button when Jim's voice stole his attention.

"Just a reporter, actually." He tried to seem casual when he said it, but he eyed Sandburg in the periphery of his vision as he turned to grab some silverware from the drawer.

"Not another one?!" Blair ran a hand through his sopping curls. "Geez, man, it's been over two months! Isn't this old news by now?"

Jim grabbed two tall glasses from the cupboard and set them on the table. He turned back to the sink, grabbed the dishtowel, and began wiping the counter, still keeping his eye on Blair but trying not to look obvious.

With a sigh, Sandburg hit the machine's PLAY button.

A man's voice drummed from the speaker. "This is Dan Gipson with Hard Copy. We're interested in doing a story about your unfortunate experience with the serial killer, David Lash. We're willing to pay a generous amount, and we can send someone to Cascade so you don't have to disrupt your schedule. If you're interested, please give me a call at..."

Blair hit the ERASE button, then turned and resumed his trek to the bathroom. He shot a glance at Jim just before ducking into the hallway. "You could've trashed that one. I told you before, I'm not interested in talking to reporters."

Jim shrugged, wiping at a spotless section of the counter. "I know, but since they were offering money..."

"Doesn't matter." Blair's voice turned hard, becoming slightly muffled as he disappeared into the bathroom. "Living through Lash once was bad enough. No way do I want to do it again, especially on national television."

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

Ah, Friday. Blair tossed the last graded essay on top of the stack and leaned back in his chair. Stretching his arms above his head, he gave in to a slow, deep yawn. More relaxed, he glanced at the round clock hanging high on the far wall. 7:30 p.m. It was definitely time to go home.

He pushed himself out of the chair and grabbed his backpack from the floor, snatching his keys from the desktop as he eagerly strolled toward the door. It had been a long week, and all he wanted to do was go home, fill his stomach, and hit the sack.

He locked the door and hurried through the building's front entry, stepping into the cold, breezy Cascade air. Walking across the street to the west parking lot, he noticed that his Corvair was one of the few cars remaining. The sun had set, and twilight had faded to early night, making the parking lot lonely and dark, so he hurried his pace.

An elderly man headed toward him from the other side of the car. The man walked with a limp, his right arm held against his side. His gray hair melted into a full, unkempt beard, and it was obvious from his tattered, filthy clothes that he lived on the streets.

Blair's heart sped up a notch as he reached his car and slid the key into the lock. The homeless man looked harmless enough, but Blair had learned the hard way that appearances could be deceiving.

The lock popped up just as the man got close enough to speak to him. "Hey, man. I'm trying to get on the bus..."

Blair avoided eye contact with the guy, but managed a smile even though his insides were twisting into knots. His passenger seat was filled with a small box that tilted against the dashboard, along with a scattered pile of books he'd forgotten to take to his office earlier that morning, so he couldn't toss his backpack there.

Reaching down for the lever to bring the back of the seat forward, he mumbled, "I'm sorry. I don't know when the bus comes."

His fingers fumbled for the lever, but he refused to look down at it, wanting to keep the man in his peripheral vision. Damn. Where is it? He'd popped the lever hundreds of times. But why now, when he needed to get the hell out of there, was he not finding it?

"I just need two dollars, man. You got two dollars?"

Blair shook his head, his fingers finally finding and lifting the lever. The seat jerked forward, and he tossed his backpack on the rear floorboard. "No, sorry."

"Sorry?!" The man's voice rose, growing angry, and he rushed closer to Blair. "You four-eyed college punk, I'll --"

Blair's heart slammed into overdrive. He jumped into the seat and slammed the door closed, slapping the lock a split-second before the man tried the handle. He looked up at the face outside his window -- confronting a pair of dark eyes.

Familiar, soulless eyes.

He gasped, his chest so tight his lungs felt like they would burst. The man tried the handle once, and, apparently realizing his prey had eluded him, spun on his heels and stormed away from the car. His limp was less pronounced now, but his movements had become jerky with anger.

Blair watched the vagrant retreat. Same height. Same build...

No! He closed his eyes, and with a shaking hand, slid the key into the ignition and started the engine. It's not Lash. It's not him. He's been taken care of for good this time. He can't hurt anybody, anymore. The pressure in his chest seemed to increase, shooting his panic a notch higher as he struggled for breath. Get a grip, man. It's not him!

Blair closed his eyes and fought against the rising panic, knowing it would only amplify his feeling of suffocation. His lungs burned, and his pounding heart felt like it would explode at any minute. Ignoring the pain, he drew into himself, picturing a mountain meadow beneath an infinite sky.

I am calm. Relaxed. I can breathe. Nice and easy. Take a slow, deep breath. Despite the continuing hot pressure in his chest, he forced himself to inhale a deliberate, measured lungful of air. For a moment, the pain flared, but as he exhaled, it seemed to flow out of him with the release of air molecules. Just as suddenly as it had arisen, the pressure in his chest lifted, and he could breathe again.

Ring! Blair almost jumped through the roof of his Corvair. Ring!

He burst out laughing, tears stinging his eyes. Realizing he was flirting with hysteria, he managed to marginally clamp down on the laughter and reach behind his seat, feeling into the front flap of his backpack and yanking out the cell phone. Answering just after the fourth ring, he hoped he'd beaten the voice mail.

"Hello?" The greeting came out rushed and breathless.

"Chief? You okay?"

"Yeah. I, uh... was just trotting to my car. Out of shape, I guess." He managed what he hoped was a casual chuckle.

"Uh-huh." Jim sounded skeptical. "Maybe I should start having you do sprints to the bakery down the street."

"Funny. Did you call just to hear my charming voice?"

"Of course... And to ask you to stop by the grocery store on your way home, if it's not too much trouble, and pick up some beer, bread, and milk."

"Not a problem."

"Thanks... And, uh, you sure you're okay? You sound weird."

"Thanks, man. Nice to hear your voice, too."

"Okay, okay. Just get the stuff and hurry back here, Junior. I want a beer."

Blair rolled his eyes. "I hear, I obey. Grunt. Grunt."

He could hear the smile in Jim's voice when the older man answered. "Smartass."

"Always. Now, good-bye. I'll be home in a bit."

"Drive safely."

"Advice from a man who has wrecked enough vehicles to join a buy-ten-get-one-free auto club."

~~~~~~~~~

Jim heard Blair's footsteps in the hall outside the loft and rose from the couch. With a smile, he opened the door just as the young man came to an obvious halt, then took the bag of groceries from him.

"Thanks, Chief."

"No problem." He shrugged out of his jacket and gave into a long yawn.

"I wrapped you a plate of dinner. It's in the fridge."

Blair flashed a tired smile, heading toward his room. "Thanks. I'll take it for lunch tomorrow. Right now, I'm exhausted. I've got to finish a bit of reading for class, then I'm going straight to bed."

Hearing an unusual note of tension in Sandburg's voice, Jim turned a scrutinizing look on his partner. Unfortunately, all he saw was Blair's back as the kid headed to his room.

"Chief, hold up."

Blair stopped and turned to face him. "Yeah?"

"Everything okay?"

He grinned and shrugged. "Yeah, sure. I'm just not very hungry. I ate a late lunch."

Jim raised an eyebrow. "How come your heart just skyrocketed when I asked you that question?"

Blair swallowed hard, his Adam's apple plunging. "Uh...It's nothing." He shook his head.

Jim moved closer to his friend. "What's nothing?"

Giving another nonchalant shrug, Blair's gaze darted away. "I was walking to my car on my way home and some guy came up to me, asking for money. I turned him down and, well, he became a bit hostile. Tried to grab me."

Jim straightened. "This was before I called you on the phone?"

Sandburg's eyes flashed guiltily up at him. "Yeah."

"Why didn't you say something?"

"I told you. It was no big deal. I got in my car before he could get to me." He swallowed again, and a hint of color rose to his cheeks. "Besides... that didn't really get to me. It was... uh..." His voice trailed off, and his gaze hovered on the balcony.

"Yeah?" Jim prodded, his voice soft. "What happened?"

Blair closed his eyes briefly and took a deep breath. When he opened them again, he met Jim's gaze. "He, uh, tried to open my door. I... I looked up at him, and... and I swear, Jim, for a second there he looked like Lash. His eyes..." He shivered visibly, shaking his head. "It wasn't him, I know. It just freaked me out." He offered a shaky smile. "Guess I'm not quite over it yet, huh?"

"That's a normal reaction, Chief, but why didn't you say something on the phone? I would've called it in, sent a unit over there."

Blair shook his head. "I don't know. I guess I was just too freaked out to think straight, and well, I might have overreacted a bit. You know, I'm just a bit jumpy after...Lash."

"You have a right to be. Anyone would. Don't worry about feeling stupid, Chief. Something like that happens, you let me know. Can you tell me what the guy looked like?"

Blair gave a sharp chuckle. "Hey, man, didn't I just say he looked like Lash? I'm a certifiable nutcase, not a reliable witness." His gaze dropped to the floor, and he shrugged one shoulder, turning away slightly.

Jim suddenly didn't have the heart to push the issue. The kid was being hard enough on himself. "It's okay." He gently batted Blair's cheek. "Your being a nutcase isn't exactly news to me. No sane man would call an 'algae shake' breakfast."

Blair looked up, flashing a scowl that was obviously fake. "Oh, real funny." Blair slapped Jim's arm. "If you ate better, you might have a bit more hair on your head."

Jim swatted the back of Blair's skull, displacing a few long curls. "You've got enough for both of us, Chief."

~~~~~~~~

Blair woke to sunlight, opening his eyes and groaning as he turned toward the bureau and blinked, bleary eyed, at the clock. It was barely seven on a Saturday morning, which made it far too early for any sane person who didn't have to be at school or work to be awake.

Closing his eyes, Blair pulled the covers over his head and tried to reclaim sleep, but after fifteen unsuccessful minutes, he declared the battle lost and reluctantly threw the blanket back, yawned, and rolled out of bed. Cocking his head, he didn't hear any sounds that would indicate Jim was awake, so maybe, just once, he'd beat the detective out of bed on a weekend and surprise him with a nice breakfast.

Blair rubbed the sleep out of his eyes and shuffled through the door, automatically turning to the bathroom to wash up and do his business. He brushed his teeth, pondering the wisdom of doing so just before breakfast, and headed out, going straight to the kitchen and trying to be quiet as he pulled out the pans and utensils he'd need to cook eggs and turkey bacon.

Setting the items one by one on the counter, he returned to the fridge. Maybe he could round up something a little tastier than toast for the carbohydrate portion of the meal. He found a bag of cinnamon raisin bagels on the bottom shelf and eagerly retrieved them, taking out two and expertly slicing each in half. He then set the oven to two hundred degrees and rested the bagels on the top rack, letting them toast slowly.

He glanced again at the clock and realized the morning paper should've arrived, assuming the newspaper boy was on time, which wasn't all that often. He decided to run down and check while the bagels were toasting, then start on the eggs and bacon. Hopefully, he'd time it well enough that he'd be able to wake Jim, if the aromas didn't first, and serve everything hot.

Trotting downstairs, he frowned when he saw the newspapers on the sidewalk just outside the front doors. One day, he'd give up the hope that the carrier would actually take a few extra seconds to toss the papers inside the lobby. Stepping outside, he shivered when his bare feet touched the cold cement and, just as he stooped to grab one of the four rolled-up newspapers, he heard a familiar voice.

"Hey, man, spare some change?"

Blair spun around, his heart pounding against his breastbone, the paper forgotten. The person standing before him looked like the one that assaulted him last night, and the man's face was umistakably that of David Lash, slightly narrow, with those same black eyes.

The beggar held out one hand, palm up. "Come on, man...."

Blair bolted through the doors, flying into the staircase and careening up two flights to the third floor. His heart hammered wildly, and he could barely breathe in enough oxygen to keep his legs moving. The world spun as he slammed open the loft door and crashed into a warm mass.

He cried out as his butt hit the floor, then scampered away, stopping only when his back hit the wall.

"Easy, Chief. Easy! What the hell happened?"

Blair blinked, his chest heaving, and looked up into Jim's concerned face. He sagged forward, taking a few deep, shuddering breaths. "He's down there. Oh, man, Jim, he's down there. It's him. I swear, it's him."

"Who?" Jim crouched in front of him.

"Lash!" Blair shouted, grabbing Jim's bare arm. The sentinel was dressed only in boxers, his thin hair slightly messy. "I went to get the paper," he panted," and he was there, right there, in front of me, just like last night. It was the same guy."

"The one that tried to grab you before you got into your car?"

"Yes. I'm not crazy, it's him. I saw his face in broad daylight this time, and his voice was the same. Those eyes...." He shuddered.

Jim rose, and Blair noticed for the first time that the gun was already in Jim's hand. The detective moved to the open door, his head cocked. After a moment, he closed the door, slid the chain into place, and turned to Blair. "I don't hear anything unusual, but if there is someone that's a threat, I don't like the idea of going down to investigate and leaving you up here."

"Not someone, man," Blair panted, but he was beginning to get control over his breathing. "Lash. It was him, I swear it was him."

"It can't be."

"It is! Just... I don't know. Call and check, or something," Blair ran his fingers through his hair.

"Okay." Jim flicked the safety on his gun and grabbed the cordless off the hook. He dialed one handed, and after a moment, said, "I'd like to check on the status of a patient."

~~~~~~~~

"Oh God, oh God, oh God." Blair rocked on the couch, his face in his hands.

Jim paced, the phone against his right ear, and listened to Blair's thundering heart as he waited for Captain Simon Banks to pick up.

On the third ring, Simon answered. "What is it?"

Jim paced, his senses alert as he tried to keep his ears on Blair, the street below, the hallway outside, the roof, the elevator, the staircase, and....

"Jim!"

Jim winced and blinked, his right ear ringing. "Sorry, sir." He didn't have to ask how Simon knew it was him. The man had ordered Caller ID the moment it had become available. "Sir, Lash is out."

"What?" Simon's surprised bellow slammed into Jim's skull, and Jim held the phone momentarily away from his ear as he listened to Simon's blast of frantic questions. "How do you know? Did something happen? Why wasn't I told...."

"He's stalking Blair. He attacked the kid last night at Rainier, and he showed up this morning downstairs."

"How the hell did he get out?"

"He escaped. Again. Killed an orderly."

"Christ! I thought he was permanently disabled. He should have never survived those five bullets, but when he did, the doctor said he'd never be the same again physically. How the hell did he manage to kill an orderly and escape a top security ward?"

"I don't know, Simon. I just spoke briefly with the doctor handling his case. Lash has a limp and some residual physical issues, but he's made a remarkable recovery."

"Well, that's just great. Real inspiring. I can't believe this is happening. What kind of security do they have over there? Is the kid okay?"

"He's shaken up, but okay. Lash got away."

"Listen, you two sit tight. I'll send a unit over, and I'll be there myself in about an hour."

"Yes, sir. Thank you." Jim ended the connection and hung up the cordless, then pulled the gun out of his rear holster and checked the safety for the second time since he'd thrown on jeans and a shirt and slipped into the holster. He wasn't taking any chances. The safety was off, and if Lash got anywhere near the loft, Jim would pump enough lead into the psycho to set off metal detectors in Hell, where Lash would be spending his eternity without possibility of parole or escape.

"This canNOT be happening. Oh, God. Oh, God," Blair murmured in a shaky, stammering voice as he continued to rock back and forth on the couch.

Jim slipped his gun back into the holster and hurried to the back of the sofa. He dropped a hand on Blair's shoulder, and the kid sprang off the couch and whirled around as if propelled by an electric jolt.

"Easy, Chief." Jim raised his hands and moved around the sofa. "You're wound too tight. Try to relax. He's not getting anywhere near you." Jim closed the distance between him and Blair and grabbed the younger man's arms. "Okay?"

Blair nodded, his face alarmingly white, and sucked in a deep, trembling breath. "I'm trying to calm down, but I can't. He's out there, Jim! He's out there, and he obviously wants to pick up where he left off. God, I can't believe this is happening. He already escaped once. How the hell did he get out again?"

Jim guided Blair to the armchair and pushed him gently down. "Believe me, we're going to find out, but try not to worry. It's different now. We're on the alert. He showed his hand too soon, and we're ready for him. I'm not going to leave your side, and Simon's sending over a unit right now."

"I know." Blair took another deep breath, this one slightly less shaky, and leaned back in the chair. "I just.... The guy's freaky. He's escaped high security facilities twice, and he does a good job of making himself into other people. He might not be so easy to spot in a crowd, if you know what I mean."

Jim sank to the corner of the coffee table and patted Blair's leg. "I spotted him at the funeral, right?"

Blair grimaced. "Yeah, you did." He closed his eyes, his grimace deepening. "Unfortunately, so did I."

Jim chuckled and slapped Blair's arm. "That's water under the bridge, Chief."

Blair sighed and opened his eyes. Color had returned to his cheeks, and Jim listened, noting with satisfaction that Blair's heartbeat had returned to an almost-normal rhythm.

"So," Jim rose and moved to the kitchen, focusing on the weight of his weapon tucked into the small of his back, "you want--" he stopped and sniffed the air. "Uh, Chief," he began hurrying to the stove and turning it off as he opened the door. Smoke poured immediately out, and he coughed a couple of times and waved his hands to clear the air. "Were you cooking something?" He stared forlornly at the four black rings perched on the top rack.

"Crap! The bagels." Blair shot out of his chair and hurried to the stove, coming to rest behind Jim as he stared at the mess in the oven. "Man, you should've smelled those earlier!"

"Give a guy a break, Chief. My mind's on other matters." Jim turned and patted him on the shoulder. "Why don't you hit the shower, and I'll make breakfast?"

Blair managed a grin. "I won't argue with that. Thanks." He turned and, with a wave, disappeared into the bathroom.

Jim eyed the pan and utensils on the counter and decided to make omelets loaded with plenty of cheese and bacon. He managed a smile at that thought, despite the grim situation. There were advantages to not having Sandburg cook.

~~~~~~~~~~

"I appreciate this, Jim, but...."

Jim pushed through the doors and stepped into Hargrove Hall. "No buts. This is necessary until that psycho's caught."

Blair nodded. "I know. I know. And believe me, I'm not exactly complaining here, but I do feel a little," he shrugged and gave a self-conscious smile, "you know.... babysat."

Jim smiled. "You have too much hair to pass as a baby."

"Funny, man."

"Look, I know having me tag along is probably cramping your style--"

"Oh, come on," Blair shot him a look as he walked into his office, "that's not it, I was--"

"It was a joke, Sandburg. I know. I get it. But I'm not taking any chances here, and since Banks agreed you need protection, with these senses, I'm the logical one to do it. Besides," he shrugged, "spending a few days at the university is like a mini-vacation." He patted his jacket pocket, feeling the solid shape of the paperback he'd brought. "It'll give me a chance to catch up on my reading."

"What?" Blair's eyebrows rose. "Fishing Illustrated?"

Jim aimed a swat at Blair's head, but the kid ducked. "Cute, Junior."

Blair managed a smile, though it looked forced, and rifled through his backpack. He pulled out a three-ring binder and book, then glanced at his watch. "Okay, my first class is starting." He looked up at Jim. "You ready to become engrossed in the world of the Yanomano?"

Jim blinked, but his face remained otherwise impassive. "I can't wait."

~~~~~

Contrary to what he'd told Sandburg, Jim didn't bother reading. Situated in the back of the room, his elevated position gave him a good vantage point to keep tabs on students as they filtered in to take their seats. Lash was a chameleon, and it wouldn't surprise Jim if the serial killer took on the identity of one of Blair's students to get close to the anthropologist.

He paid particular attention to those whose features were obscured by hair or clothing. Casually, he tracked one young man with a dark beard, who was wearing jeans, birkenstocks, sunglasses, and a tie-dye shirt, to a row in the front. The kid walked with a casual swagger, lugging a binder, his face turned away from Jim as he studied the writing on the board that outlined the day's lecture.

A woman followed, and Jim gave her special attention since Lash had already proven he could capably disguise himself as a female. She had long, dark hair, and he got a quick look at her face before a couple of girls hurried past, blocking his view. By the time they had moved forward enough for Jim to get a better look, the suspect had already taken her seat in the third row, facing the front.

Jim's eyes next snapped to a middle-eastern woman wearing a full head dress. Her face was covered, except for her eyes, which sported a pair of tinted glasses. She walked a bit too slowly, as Lash might if he had to compensate for a limp.  Jim straightened, trying to focus his hearing on the woman, but the multitude of heartbeats in the room beat against his eardrums, and he finally gave up, shaking his head and rubbing his temple to ward off what he suspected was an impending headache.

"Well, good morning, ladies and gentlemen," Blair began, his deep voice soothingly resonant in the lecture hall.

With a sigh, Jim leaned back in his seat and began his hour-long watch.

~~~~~

Weeks had passed since they'd discovered Lash had escaped, and except for a couple of incidents, there'd been no sign of the serial killer. Simon leaned back in his chair and sighed, studying the two apprehensive faces on the other side of the desk. There was no easy way to break the news to the two men, so he decided on the straight approach. "I had a talk with the Chief. Tomorrow's your last day on full protective detail, and you're to resume normal duties."

Blair's shoulders sagged, his face registering resignation. Obviously, he had expected such news.

Jim, on the other hand, straightened, his eyes blazing.  "With all due respect, sir, Lash is out there, and he's stalking Sandburg."

"It's been almost a month, Jim. That's a long time to have you shadowing the kid with no concrete evidence other than--" he threw an apologetic glance Sandburg's way, "a few iffy sightings."

"It was him." Blair leaned forward. "Trust me, Simon. It was him."

"Well, the Chief can't spare the manpower, and since there's been no sign of him in several weeks, we can't justify having you guard Sandburg full time. The higher ups have come to the conclusion that Lash has done the smart thing and moved on."

Blair shook his head. "That doesn't fit his profile, Simon. I was his last victim," his voice shuddered ever-so slightly on that last word, but he continued, "he'll want to finish where he left off. The fact that he already approached me twice is convincing enough. It's a game to him now."

Simon leaned back in his chair. "I'm sorry, but there's nothing I can do." He eyed Sandburg, who looked suddenly a shade paler, and forced himself to take a slow, deep breath. Unlike the Chief of Police, Simon fully realized the danger Lash presented. He didn't know how he'd ever forgive himself if something happened to Sandburg because the department no longer deemed the serial killer a threat. "Look, there's nothing I can do...officially. I have to take you off, Jim, and you'll have to resume your normal duties here at the station, but we can modify your schedule a bit so that you can spend some time, if need be, at the university, and there are a few things we can do, safety-wise." He took another breath, then continued. "As your supervisor, I've got leeway in making your schedule, so I want you two to coordinate your respective schedules and get me something in writing by tomorrow morning. I want you, Jim, to follow Sandburg to the university in the morning and stay with him until his first class, lecture...or whatever. Just get him into his office and make sure it's secure before you leave. Sandburg, I suggest you stay on campus around as many people as possible. Park as close to Hargrove as you can. Don't stay past dark--"

"Simon, that's not always possible," Blair interrupted.

"It will have to be for the immediate future. If your safety's a priority, you're going to have to make some adjustments."

Blair nodded, slouched dejectedly in the chair.

"When you leave campus," Simon continued, "call Ellison or myself. If Jim's not at the loft when you leave, which is likely, come directly here. Stay here until the two of you can go home together, with Jim following. Do not, under any circumstances, go home alone. Got it?"

"Yes, sir," Jim said, though he didn't look happy about the arrangements.

"Do you understand, Sandburg? Don't put yourself into isolated situations. When you're in your office, lock the door. Make sure you leave while there's still a decent crowd at the school, don't wait until it's dark. Take work home if you need to. I'll personally call the university and explain the situation if you think that'll help."

"All right. There's just one problem. Three days a week, I have a four o'clock journal class that lasts an hour, and then I hold office hours from five to five-thirty. My fellowship stipend depends on that. It's that time of the year when it's getting dark by five-thirty."

"Is there still a crowd by that time?"

Blair shrugged. "Not a big one, but there are still a decent number of students on campus at five-thirty."

Simon looked to Jim. "Okay, those days, Jim, you leave here by five-fifteen and meet Sandburg at the university. I don't want to give Lash any easy opportunities."

Jim nodded. "Yes, sir."

Blair managed a half-hearted smile. "Thank you, Simon. I know you're doing the best you can under the circumstances."

Simon blinked, studying the anthropologist's pale complexion. Lash really had the kid spooked, and rightfully so. He swallowed, hoping to God the modified protective measures would be enough, but he knew all too well there was rarely a way to guarantee a person's safety, even when that person was stuck in a safehouse and guarded twenty-four seven.

~~~~~~~~~~

On his last official day at Rainer, Jim took his customary seat at the back of the class. In the weeks he'd spent shadowing Sandburg, he'd seen no sign of Lash. He stayed rigid in his seat, his senses focused, determined to make his final day count. If Lash was near, Jim would find him.

About an hour later, the class ended, and Jim watched the exiting students carefully. He stiffened when the Middle Eastern woman approached Blair. Jim extended his hearing and heard Sandburg's voice, apparently replying to a question about tribal practices. She turned and glanced up at him quickly, then looked back to Blair.

Jim rose from his seat. His window of opportunity was about to close. If he didn't catch Lash by the end of the day, Sandburg would be left exposed. He trotted down the stairs as the student headed for the door and, ignoring a curious glance from Sandburg, stopped the girl before she made it to the doorway.

"Excuse me, ma'am."

She turned and nodded at him. "Yes?"

Her voice was slightly deeper than average for a woman, but he couldn't tell by that one word whether it was Lash trying to disguise his voice. He reached into his jacket and flashed his badge. "I'm Detective Ellison of the Cascade PD. Can you remove your glasses and headdress?"

Her chin raised a fraction. "Why?"

Jim was becoming suspicious of her one-word answers. "I can't go into details, ma'am, but there's a suspect on campus who may be attempting to hide his identity. I need to see your face."

Blair walked up. "Jim?"

Jim shook his head curtly, keeping his gaze on the suspect. "Please, ma'am. Now."

Her brow crinkled, and she took a step back. "I wear this for religious purposes."

Jim listened to her voice carefully, but he couldn't determine whether it was Lash. "You can put it right back on."

"You're singling me out because I'm an Arab." Her eyes darted to Blair. "Mr. Sandburg, this isn't right. This is racial discrimination."

Blair turned to Jim. "Look, I don't think--"

Jim took another step closer to the woman, listening to her heart. It was pounding furiously. "Is there something you're trying to hide?"

She straightened and folded her arms. "I am not going to show you my face. In this country, don't you require a warrant?"

"We can discuss this downtown, if you like."

"Jim!" Blair stepped in front of Jim. "Come on, man. You know you've got no grounds." He looked at the student and smiled. "I'm sorry. He's just trying to protect my safety."

"I'm leaving now, unless you want to arrest me."

Jim stepped away from Sandburg and moved in front of the student, blocking her exit. "Ma'am, I really need to see your face. Just for a moment.'

She remained silent a moment, and Jim listened to her pounding heart. Finally, she nodded. Slowly, she removed her glasses, then the part of her headdress covering her face.

Jim sighed, his shoulders slumping. She definitely wasn't Lash. "I'm sorry, ma'am. Thank you." He stepped aside.

Her cheeks red and her eyes angry, she fixed her headdress and glasses and looked at Sandburg. "I'm reporting this to the Chancellor," she said, then disappeared into the hallway.

"Great." Blair sighed and glanced upward. "Just great, Jim."

"I'm sorry, but this is my last day. If I don't catch Lash now, he's going to have a lot more opportunity to make a move come tomorrow." He shook his head, reflecting on his mistake. "Besides, you've got to admit, it would've been a perfect cover."

Blair tilted his head. "But awfully conspicuous, don't you think?"

Jim shrugged. "Maybe, but he knows we're on the alert now, and since we both know his face, he's going to have to take extreme measures."

Blair sighed. "I know that, Jim, but this is a university campus. You have to be sensitive to race and gender issues." He lowered his voice. "Just don't go all Dirty Harry, okay?"

A smile cracked Jim's face, and he lifted an eyebrow. "Dirty Harry? Please, Chief. I'm much better looking than Eastwood."

Blair grunted. "You wish." With a shake of his head, he turned to the podium, gathered up his books and papers, stuffed them in his backpack, and headed for the door. "Come on, you can do your guard dog thing while I grab a cup of coffee."

~~~~~

Simon rubbed his forehead as he listened to the Chancellor rant. When she paused, he quickly interjected. "Yes, Chancellor, I'm aware of that. I apologize but--"

Again, she overrode him, and he sighed. He was getting too old for the job. When he found another opportunity, he said, "Detective Ellison was just doing his job. There's a serial killer on the loose. Surely you care about protecting your students.... I know.... Look, he wasn't acting as an agent of the university. I'll take full responsibility.... A lawsuit? Come on.... But.... I see." He sighed. "Yes, ma'am. Thank you."

He hung up the phone. That was his second call regarding Ellison's stunt at Rainier. He'd had the pleasure of talking to the Chief earlier. Apparently, the Chancellor had made a number of calls.

~~~~~~

Blair followed Jim into the bullpen. He dropped his pack at Jim's desk and rubbed his neck. It had been a long day that had turned sour when he got a call from the Chancellor about Jim's 'harassment' of a student. Apparently, the student's father had called and threatened a lawsuit.

Simon's door opened. His expression was dark, and he glared at Ellison. "You two in my office. Now." He turned and disappeared into the office.

"Uh-oh." Blair followed Jim.

"I'm guessing he got a call, too." Jim gestured for Blair to go in first, then followed and closed the door.

Blair took a seat next to Jim, facing the obviously unhappy captain.

"Okay, gentlemen, you managed to mess things up wonderfully." Simon leaned forward, his eyes on Jim. "As of now, you're barred from the university campus. You can follow Sandburg to work, but you're not allowed to step foot on the campus. Those are direct orders from the Chief of Police and, by the way, the Mayor. Your little incident this morning has caused quite a stir. The student's father is a modestly successful businessman, who happens to have a son that's an attorney. Chancellor Edwards got both a call and a fax from the attorney threatening a lawsuit unless an official apology was made in writing. Edwards has the university's legal team dealing with the situation. Of course, she promptly spent the day making my life a living hell by calling both the Chief of Police and the Mayor's office, and the Cascade PD also received a nice faxed letter from the attorney. Basically, the shit has hit the fan, and I'm redirecting the wind your way. Got it?"

Blair swallowed.

Jim nodded. "Yes, sir."

"You blew it, Jim, and I mean it -- You are to stay off Rainier's campus. Got it?"

"Yes, sir. I understand."

When Simon turned his gaze to Sandburg, Blair straightened, preparing himself for a tongue-lashing, though he really hadn't done anything wrong.

"Look, Sandburg," Simon said, his voice softer. "You're going to be more exposed now. Just...use common sense. Jim can follow you to the university and...I don't know...track you with his senses or something until you get into the office, right?"

Blair nodded. "Yes, he can."

"Just play it safe. Don't take any chances. Do you have a noon break?"

Blair nodded.

"Good." Simon leaned back. "Call Jim at noon, every day. If his cell's off, leave a message. Just give a check-in. Okay?"

"Yes, Simon."

"I mean it. Every day. If you don't check in, we'll assume the worst, got it? So don't get preoccupied by a pretty co-ed and forget."

Blair stiffened, his cheeks flushing. "I got it, Simon. There's a serial killer out there wanting to finish where he left off with me. Believe me, I'm not going to forget."

Simon nodded, looking slightly contrite. "All right. I'm just making sure." He waved a hand in the air. "Get out of here, both of you."

~~~~~

The next morning, Jim followed Blair to the university, stopping the truck in the parking lot as Blair pulled into a space as close as he could find to Hargrove. Despite the fact the kid wasn't supposed to be there past dark, Jim was pleased to see he nevertheless chose a spot beneath a light.

Jim pulled to the side, watching as Sandburg headed toward the Hall and gave a wave in his direction. He'd have to talk to Blair about that. Even though Jim was pretty sure that, if Lash was watching, he'd be sure to spot the truck, there was no use in pointing out the truck...just in case. Lash wouldn't make a move while Blair was under surveillance, so Jim wasn't expecting any trouble. Still, he extended his hearing, following Blair's footsteps up the stairs, into the building, and down the hall. He heard the office door open, then close, and smiled when he heard the soft click of the lock being engaged.

Good boy, Chief.

Jim waited a few more minutes, doing an auditory sweep of the office, as best he could. He focused on Sandburg's heartbeat but heard a few others in the background. They sounded more distant, so he was pretty sure they weren't in the office.

He listened as Blair checked his voice mail and ruffled through some papers. Then, with a sigh, he started the engine and, reluctantly, left the campus.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Blair booted up his computer and quickly checked his email. He responded to a few student inquiries, scheduled a couple of appointments during office hours, then glanced at his watch. Rising from his chair, he grabbed his backpack and headed to his morning lecture.

As he left the office, he glanced down the hallway, locked the door, and began a swift march to the classroom which was, unfortunately, in a neighboring building. He kept his ears open, listening for anyone who might be following too closely, and darted outside into the sunshine. He stopped a moment and turned around but saw no one other than a few students mingling a few feet away.

Breaking into a light jog, he headed for Mason Hall.

~~~~~~~~~~

Jim sat back in his chair and glanced at his watch. 11:58 a.m. He grabbed a pencil and tapped it against the top of his desk, then swiveled in his chair and checked his email. He glanced at his watch again. 12:01 p.m.

"Chief," he growled, under his breath. As if on cue, his cellphone rang, and he snatched it out of his pocket. "Ellison."

"It's me, checking in."

Jim sighed, the tension leaving his shoulders. "You notice anyone suspicious at all today?"

"No. It's been pretty smooth today, though the student -- Rahab's her name -- didn't seem to happy with me."

"I'm know I ruffled feathers, but...."

"Better safe than sorry, I know. I'll see you at 5:30."

"You want me to pick up something to eat on the way?"

"Nah. Why don't we order pizza tonight?"

Jim smiled. "I think I can handle that."

Blair chuckled. "I'll bet. Bye, Jim."

"Bye, and remember..."

"I know. I know. I won't take any chances. I'll stay in public places except when I'm in my locked office."

Jim took a breath. "Okay. See ya." He hung up and sighed, feeling like he'd aged a decade in the past day. He knew Lash was out there, somewhere, and despite what the Chief thought, the killer was probably still in Cascade, and he very likely had his sights on Blair Sandburg.

~~~~~~

Jim glanced at his watch. It was 5:05, and he started the truck's engine and pulled out of the police garage. He wasn't taking any chances. Although it was only a fifteen-minute drive to campus, traffic was always unpredictable, and he didn't want to leave Sandburg waiting.

He arrived at Rainer at 5:25 and double-parked at the curb in front of the doors. Ten minutes later, he spotted Blair coming out of Hargrove. The grad student's gaze swept the area, immediately spotting the truck, and Blair nodded an acknowledgment as he took off toward the parking lot.

Jim pressed on the accelerator, slowly tracking Blair. He watched as the kid got into the Corvair and closed the door. A moment later, the convertible pulled out of its parking space. Jim tailed his roommate all the way to the loft.

It was dark by the time he pulled into a spot a few spaces away from where Sandburg parked. He got out quickly, aware of the comforting weight of the gun in the small of his back, and hurried to Blair's side.

"So," Blair looked at him, "pepperoni."

"Half pepperoni, half supreme."

"Okay." With a brief, almost nervous grin, Blair pushed through the doors. "Well, it's one day down, many, many more to go."

Jim patted Blair on the back. "We just keep up this routine for as long as we can. It'll be okay." He hoped he wouldn't be proven wrong.

~~~~~~

"Jim..."

"I know, Simon." Jim sighed, sitting rigidly in the chair across from the captain. He glanced at the clock on the wall. Sandburg would be getting off from the university in about a half an hour.

"It's been nearly three months since Lash escaped."

Jim nodded. "I know," he repeated. There had been no indication, after the two initial incidents, that Lash was in Cascade. Jim hadn't seen the serial killer, and he'd been on the alert, his senses tuned to any signs that Lash was in the area. Although he wasn't ready to believe that Lash had left Cascade or was otherwise incapacitated, even he had to admit it was becoming increasingly impractical to continue living under such a high level of security.

If they were lucky, and Jim didn't count on that, Lash was dead. He had probably been living on the streets, scrounging for food and money, and Cascade's streets were not the safest place for homeless persons. There were too many muggers, dealers, and junkies on the loose at night, and although Lash himself was a dangerous man, there were other equally dangerous men wandering Cascade's streets after dark...and even during broad daylight.

Although no bodies had turned up in the morgue matching Lash's description, it wasn't uncommon for corpses to be dumped somewhere and turn up weeks, and even months, later.

"What do you think, Jim?" Simon's question pulled Jim out of his thoughts.

"I think he's still around, laying low. He's waiting until we let down our guard."

Simon nodded. "I won't argue with that, but still.... It's been three months. We can't keep this up forever."

Jim sighed and nodded tiredly. "I know," he repeated. He knew all too well. An idea formed in his mind. "Simon, can you give me one week off?"

The captain tilted his head. "Why?"

"If Lash is stalking Blair, then he knows when I'm around. He's had very little opportunity to go after Blair with the schedule we've implemented."

"You want to go incognito?"

Jim nodded. "I'll rent a car for a week and try to be inconspicuous.  Hopefully, if Lash is watching, he'll decide we've had to ease security, and he'll make his move. I'll be on him before he can lay a finger on Sandburg."

Simon nodded. "Okay, but use my car. I can switch with you for a week."

Jim nodded. "Thanks, Simon."

"I checked the schedule and spoke with some of the guys. With you out, the case load is going to be tight, and I can't spare any men. However, Joel knows Sandburg best out of all the guys here, except you and me. I spoke with him, and he offered to help break you and take watch."

Jim nodded slowly. "Maybe. Let me see how the week goes. I need my senses on this one, Captain, and unfortunately, Joel doesn't have them."

~~~~~~

Blair woke the next morning, bleary eyed and far too tired. The past few months had been hell, and he didn't know how much longer he could keep looking over his shoulder and locking himself away in his office. It was seriously cramping his social life. Of course, being dead would definitely put a damper on his social life....

Last night, Jim had told him about The Plan. They even had a code word and some high tech precautions, just in case. The Plan made sense, though it gave him a cold feeling in the bottom of his stomach. He didn't relish the prospect of being bait, but he knew there was no other way to catch Lash, and odds were, his acting as bait was a moot point. Lash was probably still out there, stalking him, waiting for his move. Jim's plan just helped push things along, and if Blair had to pick anyone to watch his back, it was Jim and his hypersenses.

Jim won't let anything happen to me, he told himself. The moment Lash makes his movie, Jim'll be all over him. I won't have to do anything but squirm like a worm on a hook. He swallowed at his fishing analogy. The worm always ended up dead, unconsoled by the fact that the fish had been captured.

"You look like hell, Chief." Jim padded out of the bathroom, his hair wet and a towel wrapped around his waist. He ruffled Blair's hair as he passed. "Coffee's ready. You want me to toast a bagel for you?"

Blair nodded. "Yeah, thanks." He ducked into the bathroom, enjoying the warm steam left over from Jim's shower. He looked at the foggy mirror and wiped a clear spot with the palm of his hand, then studied his pale complexion. Bags hung beneath his wrinkle-framed eyes. He looked old and tired. He felt old and tired.

Maybe, if he was lucky, Day One of The Plan would be the last day of this little cat-and-mouse game. He prayed to whatever deity was listening that Lash would make his move, Jim would catch him, and tomorrow Blair could wake up with peace of mind and, finally, get his life back to normal.

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

Jim fidgeted in the sedan's seat. He and Sandburg had set up an electronic monitoring device in Blair's office, and Jim had been listening to it all morning, using his enhanced senses as a backup. It was becoming quite tiresome, and a pressure built behind his eyes, signaling an oncoming headache.

He tilted his head back against the head rest and sighed. He'd been staking out Sandburg for days, and so far, he'd seen no sign of the serial killer. If Lash was around, either he was taking his time, or he'd spotted Jim despite the fact that Jim was parking blocks away, relying on his senses to monitor Blair, and using Simon's car. A baseball cap and sunglasses served to hide at least some of his face, but Jim didn't think Lash would get close enough to recognize him. Despite the killer's talent for disguise, Jim was on the alert. No matter what Lash was wearing, Jim would ID him in a heartbeat.

He hoped.

Grabbing his cell phone, Jim dialed Blair's office. The anthropologist picked up on the second ring. "Sandburg's office."

"It's me, Jim. How are things?" He played it cool, just in case Lash was somehow listening in to the conversation.

"All right. You?"

"Fine. When are you off today?"

"My journal club gets out at four forty-five and I'm clear after that. Hey, do you want to get some dinner? We could try that new Chinese place."

Jim nodded. "Sure. The one on third?"

"Yeah, I can't remember the name, though."

"I know it. So..." He sighed. There really wasn't anything more to say. He'd just felt the need to touch base with Sandburg a little more personally than by standing watch blocks away. "I'll see you then."

"Bye, Jim." There was a flicker of nervousness in those words, then the call ended.

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

Jim straightened when he saw Blair wander out of Hargrove Hall, his long curls rustling in the wind and his backpack slung over his shoulder. He gave a slight wave in Jim's direction, then turned and headed toward the parking lot.

Damnit, Chief. We discussed this... Jim chided the young man silently. Waving wasn't exactly keeping a low profile.

Glancing at the clock, which read 4:35 pm, Jim started the engine, his stomach anticipating dinner, and rolled the car toward the parking lot. He was happy to see Sandburg early for once.

Jim followed Sandburg visually, watching as the young man hovered over the Corvair, fumbling with the keys. Blair suddenly stiffened, peering through the glass of the car, then staggered back, shaking his head.

Shit! Jim gunned the engine and turned the car into the parking lot, stopping less than two feet from the Corvair. He flung his door open, his hand on his gun, and hurried to Sandurg's side. "What is it?" Had the bastard, Lash, left a 'surprise' in Blair's car? God, he hoped not....

"It's awful, Jim!"

Jim stiffened, recognizing the man a second too late, his hand reaching for his gun, but something hard jabbed into him. His gut erupted with bright, hot agony, and a knee hit him squarely in the groin. He toppled forward, his hand barely wrapped around the handle of his weapon when something hard crashed into the back of his skull, sending him into oblivion.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Blair trotted down the steps of Hargrove and glanced down the street, huddled in his wool jacket against the chilly Cascade air. He thought he could just make out Simon's sedan in the distance, but it was really too far to tell for sure. He turned and headed toward the parking lot, reaching one hand behind him to pull his keys from the pack's front pocket.

As he reached the Corvair, he glanced again down the street, suppressing a relieved sigh when he saw Simon's sedan rolling gently toward the parking lot, keeping a discreet distance. He could barely make out Jim behind the wheel, the rim of the baseball cap a mere shadow behind the glass.

Sometimes, he really wished he had sentinel senses.

Slipping his key into the car door lock, he paused when he saw the sedan turn into the parking lot and drive toward him. Opening his door, he tossed the backpack into the passenger seat and turned to face the car, leaning down to peer into the sedan's driver side window.

"Hey, J--"

His body slammed backward as the car door swung outward, and the base of his head collided with some part of the Corvair. Liquid splashed hard into his face, setting his eyes on fire. He screamed, clawing at his eyes. A  hand grabbed him, pulling him forward, and he kicked blindly, futilely. Then a hard object smashed into the side of his head, and he felt himself spinning and falling, nausea rolling through him as he fought unconsciousness.

Fingers grabbed his hair and forced his head back, then more fingers dug into his jaw. He tried to turn away, but everything was spinning and his muscles weren't working right. Liquid rushed into his mouth. He swallowed on reflex, dizzy, nearly throwing the substance back up. The pain in his eyes was unbearable, but slowly, it faded, and he felt himself going limp, fluttering at the edge of darkness.

~~~~~~~~~

"Captain!" Brown rushed into Simon's office, not even bothering to knock.

Simon looked up sharply, his gut twisting when he saw the stark fear in Brown's eyes.

"Two 911 calls have come in from Rainier," Brown reported, almost breathless.  "They reported a kidnapping."

Oh, no. Simon shot out of his chair, grabbed his jacket, and flew out the door.

~~~~~~~~~

Jim was rocking, and he had the brief impression he was on a boat before his senses slowly came online, and he heard the muted rumble of a car engine.

Memory returned, and he forced himself from giving in to the groan that huddled at the back of his throat. His head pounded, and hot pain snaked into his gut. A wet stickiness coated the front of his body, extending all the way down his thighs, and the scent of blood stung his nostrils.

His heart slammed into overdrive and, slowly, he cracked his eyes open. He saw two seats in front of him, and caught a glimpse of Lash's eyes in the rearview mirror ahead. Jim realized he was in the back seat of Simon's sedan. He lowered his gaze, seeing the alarming amount of blood on both his clothes and the sedan's upholstery.

His head felt light, as though it would float away at the slightest breeze. His vision blurred in and out, and he blinked, trying to make the fuzzy images clear.

He heard a groan, and his eyes darted to the passenger seat. He only saw legs beneath the dashboard, but he could guess the identity of the occupant.

Christ, Blair. I'm sorry. He'd let the kid down, big time. The plan had been too risky, and now it looked like they wouldn't live to regret it.

He tried to move his arms, but realized they were fastened securely behind his back, probably with his own cuffs. His legs were also immobile. Not wanting to risk Lash discovering him awake, Jim closed his eyes and forced himself to lie very still.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Blair groaned as his head smacked gently against something hard. He opened his eyes, becoming aware of a distant burning, and saw a blurry landscape of dark colors. A soft rocking told him he was in motion.

"Now, now, none of that," a voice said, its chilling familiarity sending his heart pounding.

Blair blinked several times, feeling tears slide onto his cheeks and causing the burning sensation to erupt into an inferno. He groaned again, realizing there was something in his mouth, and when he tried to swallow, he felt a wad of something soft and almost gagged.

"Easy. Easy. We're almost there. Don't worry. It stings, but your eyes are fine."

Blair turned his head, realizing he was slouched sideways in the passenger seat of a car. He froze when he saw Jim's face through the gap between the seat and the door. His eyes went wide, and he shifted, fighting the overwhelming heaviness that seemed to cloak his body, until he saw the blood.

God, there was so much blood.

No. No. No.

"JJJ..." He tried to scream against the gag, but all he could manage was a weak mewl.

The gentle rocking stopped, and the sound of a car engine dying told Blair they had reached their destination.

Lash opened his car door, and a gust of cold, evening air swept into the car. Blair shivered, trying to move, but his arms and legs felt like they were cast in cement.

Lash slid out, then the far rear door opened. Blair watched, helpless, as Lash leaned in and grabbed Jim, sliding him out.

The detective gave a pained moan, but it didn't look like he was awake.

"NNNN!" Blair screamed against the gag, fighting the nausea that threatened to overwhelm him.

*Jim.* He couldn't let the guy take Jim. He had to do something. He tried again to move his hands and managed to lift one, but it seemed to fling chaotically out of his control.

After several failed attempts, by some miracle, he managed to grab the door latch and pull, but the door stayed firmly closed. More tears spilled onto his cheeks, and he watched, desperate, as Lash grabbed Jim's arm and prepared to lift the heavy detective over his shoulder.

Suddenly, Jim sprang to life, lunging forward and driving Lash backward. The two men crashed to the ground, and Blair raised his head, trying to see what was happening, but he couldn't.

Blair tried again to make his arm move, and he tilted his head back, eyeing the lock. He put all his effort into focusing on the lock and making his muscles work, and he almost sobbed when his fingers hit the lock. Then he batted the handle, and the door slammed outward.

He fell, crashing to the blacktop, his shoulders smacking into the ground. The back of his head bounced painfully off the pavement.

He smelled salt and realized they were near the docks. It was twilight, not quite night, but dark enough. He heard Lash muttering, his voice strained, then a splash.

Blair screamed again against the gag, kicking outward and managing to scramble away from the car. He looked around, frantic to find Jim, but all he saw was Lash swaggering back from the old pier.

"Now, now, none of that." Lash's eyes found him, and his brow crinkled disapprovingly.

Blair shook his head violently, denying any of this was happening. He had one hope, and tried to get his fingers to work enough to unfasten the strap of his watch.

Lash stopped and peered down at Blair, his hands on his hips. "I took care of your friend. Now," he smiled, "it's just you and me."

Bastard! Blair tried to scream, but again the gag muffled the sound. Finally getting the watch free, he scrambled back a few more feet, trying to put as much distance as possible between himself and the killer. Lash leaned down, and Blair flung a leg upward, but the killer sidestepped the blow and chuckled, shaking his head.

"Really, you must stop putting up such a fuss."

Blair saw a blur of motion, then the blow to his head sent him spiraling into helplessness.

~~~~~~~

Simon ran a hand over his face, then looked back at Sandburg's Corvair. The driver's door hung open, with the owner nowhere in sight, and a part of him hoped desperately this was all a dream.

A forensics team was combing the parking lot, searching for any clues as to what had happened, but it didn't take a leap of deductive reasoning to figure out that Lash had struck, and Jim and Blair were the psycho's latest victims.

Simon turned to Brown, who was talking in a low voice, his face grim, with one of the crime scene investigators. "Jim checked out some GPS equipment when he approached me about the plan. Let's hope it pays off." He whipped out his cell phone and dialed the high tech division of the Cascade PD.

~~~~~~~~

The water was numbingly cold, and Jim flailed like a dying fish as he attempted to keep his head above water with his hands and legs bound. He tried to ignore the pain in his gut, but the water around him was quickly turning red, and the little strength he'd manage to muster earlier was just about gone.

He stopped fighting, putting all his hope with the current, and went as still and relaxed as possible, filling his lungs to aid in keeping his body afloat.

Some time maddeningly later, Jim was close enough to the shore that he risked moving, undulating like a dolphin, his head dipping beneath the surface of the water. He held the air in his lungs until he couldn't stand it anymore, then tried desperately to push himself upward. He broke the surface for a second, but that was all he needed to expel the gas in his chest and take a renewed breath.

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

Blair woke to cold and darkness. He blinked, but he was only able to make out murky shapes in the blackness. For a moment, he lay there, confused and disoriented, feeling like he was spinning on a roller coaster ride, even though he was pretty sure he was stationary on a floor.

Then, it all came to him with sudden brutality. Jim! Oh, God. Ohgodohgodohgod. He remembered the blood, and hearing the splash, and he pictured Jim's body washing up on shore somewhere, pale and still.

And that meant there'd likely be no rescue for him, and soon it would be all over, and he wouldn't be scared or grieving...or anything else. He tried to take comfort in that thought.

A voice rose from the darkness, and Blair trembled. When he felt hands on him, he tried to lash out but found his hands and legs bound, not by chains this time, but by something firm yet pliant, rope or twine, probably.

"Oh, it's so good to see you awake, man."

Blair looked up into the shadowed face of his nightmare. He swallowed hard, trying to push back the swell of fear that threatened to overwhelm him, and did his best to look disapproving.

"You really are bad at this." Blair realized, as soon as he said the words, that the gag was gone. For that, he was grateful. He blinked as his eyesight adjusted to the darkness and studied the curly wig and familiar wool jacket the other man wore. "That doesn't even fit you."

"Shut up," Lash said, his voice remarkably casual. Then he leaned forward, and Blair tried unsuccessfully to pull back when he felt the tape cover his mouth. He shook his head, but Lash's hands pushed firmly, and soon the tape was secured over his lips, preventing him from making any further comments.

He opted to scream incoherently instead from the back of his throat.

Lash grinned. "That's better."

~~~~~~~~~~~

Simon almost jumped with joy as he pulled the phone away from his ear long enough to shout. "We have a GPS signal, folks!" He was already moving toward Brown's car. "Come on, H." Raising his voice, he shouted, "I want units at the old pier in the Westport district pronto, but tell them to keep a low profile!"

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

Jim rolled onto the shore. He lay there for several long moments, panting, watching as the sand near him slowly turned red. At least he seemed to be bleeding less heavily. He had already lost too much blood, he knew, but as a medic in the army, he'd seen men walk away from worse wounds. The fact that he was still alive and conscious gave him hope that the blade had missed his critical organs. 

Still, he needed medical attention, and soon. If he didn't stop bleeding, it wouldn't matter what the knife had missed -- he'd die just the same.

He took a few deep breaths, gritted his teeth, then rolled further away from the water. Night had fallen, and he blinked against the darkness, taking a moment to inspect his surroundings. He had washed up near the old pier, not very far from where Lash had dumped him. A cluster of old buildings stood as silhouettes in the blackness, and he hoped Lash had retreated to one of them. If so, he might just have a chance to find Blair before...it was too late.

Jim eyed the ropes around his ankles. The water and his struggles had stretched the material. He moved his legs, gritting his teeth against the pain of his stab wound, and tried to work the rope looser. As he struggled, he extended his hearing, searching for some sign that Blair was close. The roar of the waves, however, acted like a white noise barrier, and he huffed a breath in frustration, shaking his head angrily as he focused harder, trying to hear past the ocean noise.

When he heard the muffled screaming, his stomach twisted even as his heart fluttered with relief that Blair was till alive. Jim desperately jerked his legs more frantically until, finally, the rope gave.  He slipped one leg out, then the other, then flung the rope away.

"That's better," Jim heard Lash say.

He shot to his feet, staggering slightly, lightheaded from the loss of blood, and forced his legs to move. He stumbled forward, running as fast as he could without falling, and made it to the blacktop. He spotted Simon's discarded sedan a few feet away and hurried toward it, but on his way, a small object on the ground caught his eyes, and he diverted toward it.

It was Blair's GPS watch, and he smiled when he saw the blinking light that indicated an active signal. He hoped, by now, that Simon and the rest of Major Crime knew of their disappearance. If so, the cavalry was likely already on its way. If not....

Jim tugged futilely at the cuffs binding his arms behind him. The pain in his side flared, and for a moment, the world spun and bile touched the back of his throat. A sharp pain snaked from his tailbone up his spine, and when everything stopped spinning, he realized he was sitting on the ground.

He again focused his hearing, honing in on Lash's voice. He heard the killer's perverted attempts at trying to soothe Blair, his voice soft and melodic, telling Blair it would all be over soon, and he'd take a nice bath without any interruptions, since "Detective Ellison" wasn't going to interfere "this time."

Then, Jim listened to Blair's muffled sob. He closed his eyes briefly, took a breath, pushed the pain and lightheadedness to the background, and opened his eyes with a renewed determination.

He couldn't do anything until he got out of the cuffs. Forcing himself to his feet, he staggered to the sedan, praying that Lash had left the keys in the car.

~~~~~~~~~~~

"Now, now," Lash soothed, propping Blair against the wall and placing his cold palms on Blair's face. "None of that."

Blair shook his head, blinking as tears spilled onto his cheeks. He'd lost the little reserve of courage that had bolstered him earlier as soon as Lash confirmed Blair's worst fear. Jim was dead.

The psycho fuck in front of him had stabbed Jim and dumped his body in the ocean.

"Shhh. Shhh." Lash turned, and Blair trembled in relief as the killer's hands slid away.

"Just a little while longer." Lash moved to a counter against the wall. "This is almost...almost ready and th-then you're gonna take a nice bath."

Blair pushed away from the wall, using his bound hands and legs as best he could to put distance between himself and the killer. It was dark in the room, with only a couple of tiny candles casting faint flickers of light on the walls.

His eyes scanned the cluttered room, searching for a door, and when his gaze passed over a lump against the far wall, he froze. His eyes went wide, traveling over the human shape and finally coming to rest on the pale face, dark beard, and lifeless eyes.

Oh, no. No. No. He recognized the young man as John Rubie, a student in his class. Realization stole his breath.

Lash assumed the identity of his victims, which meant it was very likely the killer had been in his class, impersonating poor John, watching...but for how long?

"That's not going to help." Lash made a tsk, tsk noise with his tongue, and Blair rolled on his back, bringing his legs up.

He kicked, hitting flesh. He heard a grunt and saw the shadowy figure of Lash stagger back. Not wasting time, he leapt to his feet, staggering a bit, still woozy from the drug and the head injury, and tried his best to hop toward the door without falling on his face.

He made it halfway when Lash slammed into him from behind. He crashed forward, unable to break his fall, and his head cracked against the floor.

Everything went fuzzy, and his ears rang. He thought he felt himself being lifted, and his stomach seemed to fall into his throat. He wasn't sure whether his eyes were open or closed, but the darkness seemed to tilt and shift. He had the sensation of floating, and his head throbbed. The tape tore away suddenly, leaving the skin around his mouth stinging angrily.

He heard a voice, soft and soothing, then felt hands on his face. A face took shape in the darkness. He blinked, feeling hot tears rise, and his vision swam.

Fingers forced his mouth open, and bitter liquid slid over his tongue, splashing to the back of his throat. He coughed and tried to spit it out. He wasn't sure whether he succeeded, but more followed, and he choked on the liquid, unable to stop himself from swallowing.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~

 

The cuffs fell from Jim's wrists, and he rubbed at the reddened skin. His ears told him he was running out of time. He shot forward to grab the police radio, and his gut erupted with fire. He couldn't stop the scream that pushed from his throat, but he managed to clamp down on it as his thumb pressed the transmitter.

He relayed his position, asked for backup, and then dropped the radio. He did a quick visual scan of the car's interior, but didn't see his gun. Taking a sharp breath, he forced himself out of the car and onto his feet.

His sensitive hearing picked up the distant sirens. He had no idea if they were heading toward the warehouse, and he couldn't afford to wait. Lash was getting ready to kill Sandburg, and any delay could mean the kid's death.

He heard the sirens cut off abruptly, and he hoped that meant the cavalry was close and going silent to avoid alerting Lash. He tried not to ponder the possibility that the police vehicles had simply reached their destination...somewhere else.

Clutching his arm tightly to his side, his hand pressing against the oozing slash in his abdomen, he forced himself to run toward the building where his ears told him Lash had Sandburg.

He reached the entry doors and hesitated, tilting his head. The voices had stopped, but heavy, uneven footsteps beat on the floor inside, indicating a limp, and Jim was pretty sure the person doing the walking was on the first floor. From the heavy thuds, it sounded like the person carried a load.

Focusing his hearing even further, Jim picked up two heartbeats, one fast, the other far too slow. He breathed a sigh. Blair was still alive, but time was, indeed, running out.  

The footsteps drew closer, and Jim plastered himself to the wall next to the door, positioning himself so that, when the door opened, it would hide his presence. He waited, silent. The knob turned, and the door swung outward, blocking his view. The footsteps marched onward, and a figure emerged, limping as it passed the door, a body draped over his shoulders in an awkward fireman's carry.

Jim had only the element of surprise to his advantage, but any action he took would risk injuring Sandburg. Still, he couldn't let the opportunity escape. Moving forward, swiftly and silently, gritting his teeth against the pain and the dizziness that came from blood loss, he sent a fist forward, landing a blow squarely to Lash's right kidney.

The killer let out a strangled scream, staggering forward. His knees buckled, and Jim lunged, grabbing Blair's limp body and controlling the descent. He saw blood on the side of Blair's face, and he managed to get his arm beneath Blair's skull and save the young man from another head injury.

Jim saw movement out of the corner of his eye and rolled, barely missing a blow from Lash's foot. The world spun, and for too many seconds, he couldn't get his bearings. His entire torso throbbed. Bile rose, spilling into his mouth, and he spit it out. His ears picked up the quick patter of footsteps, heading his way, and he managed to stagger left. He sensed Lash pass, and as his head cleared, he saw the man coming toward him again, one hand held close to his side. Lash staggered, in obvious pain, but closing the distance surprisingly fast.

Jim had had enough. It. Ended. Now. Anger gave him strength, throbbing in his temple, and he let out a growl as he surged forward, tackling Lash and driving him to the ground. Lash kicked and screamed, landing a blow to Jim's midsection that sent his body numb with agony. A pained cry tore from Jim, and he rolled away, curling protectively forward, quivering, exhausted by the pain.

Lash came at him again, and Jim yielded to the pain, letting it give him the strength he needed to get through the next few moments. He swung his legs around, catching Lash off-guard. The killer crashed hard to the pavement.

Jim rolled, landing on top of Lash, and more easily than he would've thought possible, took the man's head in his hands and twisted hard. The neck crunched, and Lash went limp.

Jim fell sideways, landing like a rag doll on the pavement. His hearing spiked, and for a few seconds, everything sounded loud, magnified. The roar of the ocean echoed in his ears, relentless in its intensity. The sound of his own breathing thundered in the night. Voices rose from the air, hissing clipped orders and speaking in code. A heartbeat, slow and erratic, beat like a weak drummer.

Somewhere, far off, he heard Simon, and he knew the cavalry had, finally, arrived. Jim rolled onto his back, turning his head to eye Blair's still figure. The kid's heartbeat was still slow, and Jim rolled again until he made it onto his hands and knees. He managed to crawl forward, stopping just short of collapsing next to his partner.

Blair's eyelids hung low, allowing a glimpse of dark blue. He lay on his back, his arms bound behind him. His chest rose and fell in a slow, shallow rhythm. His face, far too pale, was lax, with his jaw hung slightly open. Saliva dribbled down his chin, snaking to his neck.

Remembering Carolyn's explanation that Lash's drug of choice, Chloral Hydrate, paralyzed its victims but allowed them to remain aware, Jim placed his hands gently on either side of Blair's face and hovered within what he assumed was the young man's field of vision.

A low, faint keening rose, and it took Jim a moment to realize the awful sound was coming from Blair. He swallowed hard and leaned closer, fighting his exhaustion and the pull of oblivion as he held himself inches from Blair's face. "Hey, Chief," he said, breathless, his voice barely a whisper. "It's over. He's dead. Backup's here. It's all over, all over."

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Blair faded in and out. He was lying on something cold and hard. His head throbbed. He tried to move, but he couldn't feel his body, and he had no idea if the commands he was sending to it had any effect.

His eyelids hung low, obscuring his vision, but everything was dark and blurry, anyway. He thought he caught movement out of the corner of his eye, and his brain screamed at his body to move. The ocean roared nearby, taunting him with what was to come. Lash would drown him in it, just like he'd drowned Jim, and he couldn't even put up a fight.

He felt hands on him, and knew it was time. He tried to move, to scream, to do something, but his body refused to work. He thought he heard a sound, and a faint vibration in his throat told him it probably came from him. The hands remained, pressing warmth on either side of his face, and a blurry shape swam into view.

A voice reached his ears, familiar and soothing. "It's over. He's dead."

Blair blinked. The voice sounded like Jim, but it couldn't be. Jim was dead. Lash had dumped his body in the ocean. There'd been so much blood....

"Backup's  here. It's all over, all over."

The blurry shape shifted into focus for a second, revealing pained blue eyes against a pale face.

Jim's face.

"Shhh," the voice continued, and Blair thought it must be a dream. A nice, wonderful dream. "Easy, now. It's all right. You're okay." Then Jim's face dropped out of view, and a warm, solid weight descended on Blair's chest. The hands slipped away and Blair tried to look down, but again his body refused his commands, so he lay there with the cold ground beneath him and a solid warmth on top until the night came alive with red and blue lights, and voices and footsteps swarmed around him.

He saw Simon's face, his dark eyes wide and misty, then hands were on him, pulling the warmth away, and he shivered.

He heard Jim again, his voice weaker than Blair could ever remember hearing it, telling someone to get a blanket. Then the lights and noises faded, and Blair gave himself over to the comfort of nothingness.

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

"Christ." Simon ran a shaky hand over his face. He closed his eyes briefly, momentarily blocking out the nightmarish image in front of him. Jim lay on top of Blair, his blood oozing over the young man and spilling onto the sidewalk.

When he opened his eyes again, he saw the paramedics clustered around the pair, taking care to secure Jim's neck and back before moving him off the younger man. Blair lay still, his eyelids hanging low and his face pale. His chest rose and fell so shallowly that, at first, Simon hadn't even been sure the kid was breathing.

Blair looked rough. Blood oozed down one side of his face, and his hands and legs were bound with his arms trapped behind him.

A small circle formed around the pair, with the EMTs having enough room to do their work. Lash's body was already on a stretcher, covered, and Simon couldn't deny the relief he felt knowing the killer would never hurt anyone else again.

Finally, Jim and Blair were placed on stretchers and loaded into separate ambulances. Simon pulled his jacket tightly around him, threw a silent, anguished look at Brown next to him, and headed toward the car.

~~~~~~~~

Jim woke to sirens and the sensation of quick deceleration. Walls seemed to press in, too close, and strange voices flitted around him. He blinked and lifted his head, and recognition dawned slowly.

He was inside an ambulance. The rear doors opened, and it was then that his ears, still ringing from the wail of the now-dead sirens, picked up the screaming.

Blair.

Jim tried to sit up, too quickly, and pain shot through him. Restraints held him down, and he blinked at the straps securing him to the stretcher.

"Get this off me!" He growled, eyeing the unfamiliar face of the nearest EMT, a young man with red hair and pale blue eyes.

"Detective..."

"Get it off me, damnit. Now."

"You need to lie still, you've got a stab wound."

"Jim." Simon's voice intruded, and Jim lifted his head to see the captain standing at the rear of the ambulance. "Let them do their jobs."

"Blair," he gasped. "Tell them..."

"I know. I know." Simon looked ten years older than his age at that moment, with deep lines etched in his forehead. "He's disoriented, confused, scared. They'll take care of him."

"He's got that crap in his system, he may not realize... Just," Jim fell back against the tiny pillow, out of breath.

"All right. All right. I'm going. Just lay still and let them get that wound fixed up."

Jim listened to the quick patter of Simon's footsteps, then the walls of the ambulance seemed to move, and the stretcher lowered to the ground. He looked around, lifting his head, and saw Simon running alongside another stretcher as it was rushed through the ER doors. Blair lay on it, struggling against the restraints, but the cluster of medical workers blocked his face from Jim's view.

His ears, however, picked up the muddled, confused screams and incoherent pleas from the young man, and he closed his eyes, tired, and tried to reassure himself that it was all just temporary. The doctors and nurses would take care of Blair, and that damn drug would get out of his system, and then they'd both go home to a nice, quiet loft.

~~~~~~~~~~

The stretcher came to a halt, and the hospital workers quickly cut off Sandburg's shirt, leaving the restraints in place.  Simon leaned forward, jerking away from a hand that tried to pull him back, and placed a palm on Sandburg's sweaty forehead, glancing briefly at the nurse on the other side of Sandburg as she fastened a blood pressure cuff around the young man's arm. The kid was losing it, his eyes wild but glassy, his pupils mere pinpricks. He struggled weakly against the restraints, tears leaking from his eyes, muttering about Jim and throwing curses into the air.

"Sandburg... Blair!" Simon leaned closer to the young man, eyeing the blood alongside his face that indicated a head wound. As if the kid didn't have enough to deal with from the drug.... "Take it easy, kid. Jim's okay. You're okay. You hear me?"

For a moment, Blair's pained ramblings died, and he blinked at Simon with wet, confused eyes. "S-Ssssmon?" He slurred the word, his head dropping back to the pillow.

"Yeah, it's me, son. You're in a hospital. Do you understand?"

Blair's brow creased. "Hospppital?" He took a few short, rapid breaths, then shook his head and closed his eyes. "Jim's dead."

"No. No, he's not." A hand grabbed Simon's arm, and he straightened, throwing a glare at the offender. He stopped short with surprise, however, when he saw a petite woman, no taller than five feet with pale hair and fair skin, look up at him, her expression sympathetic but her eyes firm.

"Sir, you need to leave, now." She tugged at him. "Please, let us work."

"All right," Simon conceded, his shoulders slumping as he looked back at Blair. "I'm going to go now, Sandburg. I'll stay close. Jim's here in the hospital with you. Do you understand?"

He wasn't sure if the kid even heard him. Blair's eyelids now hung at half-mast, still leaking tears, and he lay still and quiet.

"His blood pressure just took a dive!" someone shouted, and Simon was pushed further back, watching helplessly at the chaos in front of him as the medical staff worked frantically to stabilize the young man on the stretcher.

~~~~~~~~~~~

The next time Jim woke up, he was alone in a hospital room bathed in soft, morning light that filtered in through a window. A monitor beeped steadily next to him. He lifted his head, and his eyes followed the line of the IV up to the bag.

It took him a second to remember what had happened, but when he did, his heart thudded, and he searched around for the call button. Finding it next to the bed, he pressed it three times, quickly, then sat up, grunting at the tug just to the right of his navel, and leaned over the railing, finding and pressing the lever to lower the barrier.

He swung his legs over the side of the bed and, carefully, lifted the thin hospital gown to inspect his abdomen. A large bandage covered the wound, and he prodded it gently with his fingers.

All things considered, he was in remarkably little pain. Slowly, he lowered himself from the bed, keeping one hand on the mattress as he tested the steadiness of his legs. He didn't seem in danger of taking a header to the floor, so, straightening his shoulders, he grabbed the back of his gown, making sure it stayed closed, and wrapped his other hand around the IV pole, then padded toward the door.

It opened before he reached it, and a young, plump nurse walked in, her eyes going wide with surprise when she spotted him. "Sir, you can't be up!"

Jim stopped, releasing his hold on the pole, and met the woman's gaze. "I can, actually. I need to see Blair Sandburg. Is he still here?"

She shook her head. "Sir, I can't give out..."

"I know he was brought here. I was brought with him. Look, get the AMA forms. I'm signing myself out of here."

"Sir, I'll have to ask you to get back into bed."

"I'll have to ask you to get the AMA forms, and your supervisor." He lifted the hand that held the IV catheter, removed the tape securing it, and carefully pulled the line out, then held his thumb over the small wound to stop the bleeding.

"Sir!"

Jim smiled at her. "Now, please."

The woman frowned, then nodded, turning and running from the room. Jim listened as she called for a Doctor Myosan. Making his way back to the bed, Jim leaned against the mattress and waited. A few minutes later, the door opened and an older man with graying temples and glasses walked in, a clipboard in his hand.

"Detective Ellison," the man nodded in greeting, "I'm Doctor Myosan. I hear you want to sign yourself out?"

"Yes, sir, and I need to see Blair Sandburg. He was brought in with me."

"He's resting."

Jim's eyes went to the window. It was day outside. Almost noon, it looked like. "It's visiting hours, right?"

The doctor sighed. "Detective, you're a lucky man. The knife missed all your organs, but you lost a lot of blood."

"I know, and now I need lots of rest and plenty of fluids, but barring any unforeseen complications such as unexpected infections, I'm in no danger. Right?" He tilted his head. "I was a medic in the army. I've been through the drill before. Now," he held out a hand, "give me the papers to sign, and let me get dressed and see my partner. Please. If you know what happened, then you know I really need to see him, and based on what I heard when I was brought in, I think he really needs to see me, too."

Doctor Myosan nodded. "All right. I'll have the nurse bring you the forms along with a change of clothes your captain brought in earlier."

"Thank you, Doctor."

~~~~~~~~

Jim walked into Blair's hospital room, moving carefully to avoid pulling at the stitches in his gut. He wasn't surprised to see Simon slumped in a chair, dozing. Closing the door behind him, Jim walked up to his captain and laid a hand on the older man's shoulder.

"Huh?" Simon straightened, twisting his head to look up at Jim. His eyes widened, and he shot to his feet. "Jim! What are you doing up?"

"I checked myself out." Jim walked to the edge of the bed and stared down at Blair's pale face. The young man's breathing was shallow, and the heart monitor next to the bed beeped with a slow but steady rhythm.

"He got an overdose of the stuff," Simon explained. "They pumped his stomach, but a lot of it was already absorbed by the time he got here. His blood pressure crashed, and they were worried about him going into a coma." Simon released a long, tired-sounding breath. "He's stable now. They just moved him out of ICU."

"So, he's just sleeping, right?" Jim asked, keeping his eyes fixed on Sandburg.

"Yeah. He woke up a little bit ago, but I don't think he really knew where he was. He could barely keep his eyes open, and he went right back to sleep.... Here." A sliding noise made Jim turn his head, and he saw the chair behind him. "Sit, Jim," Simon ordered.

"Thanks, sir." Carefully, Jim lowered himself to the seat and leaned back. "What about his head?"

"A concussion, they think. They seemed more concerned about the drug overdose than anything. He'll be all right, Jim. Don't worry."

"I can't help it." He shook his head. "This was my fault. I let Lash get the drop on me. Even expecting him to try something, I let him get to me...and to Sandburg."

"He's crazy, Jim, not stupid. Was, anyway. Don't beat yourself up over this." Simon's hand came down on Jim's shoulder. "You want some coffee?"

"Yeah. Thanks." Jim watched Simon leave, then turned his attention back to the bed, hoping its occupant woke up soon.

~~~~~~~~~

Blair woke to a steady, annoying beeping. The sharp smell of cleaning solution stung his nose. A slight chill in the air made him shiver, and he tried to move his hands, wondering if his blanket had slipped off during the night, but his arms felt much too heavy.

He opened his eyelids, though they, too, seemed heavy, and frowned at the unfamiliar surroundings. He wasn't in his room. Where...?

Memory returned to him suddenly, stealing his breath.

Jim. John. They were dead. That bastard had killed them both.

But why was he still alive? His frown deepened, and he closed his eyes, trying to grasp the elusive images that fluttered at the edges of his memory. He remembered dreaming he heard Jim's voice. Then Simon was there, talking to him, telling him he was in a hospital.

That was all he remembered. Somehow, Simon had found him.

Of course! The GPS watch! Blair swallowed hard, tears filling his eyes and leaking from beneath his closed lids. Damnit. The cavalry had come, in time for him, but too late for Jim.

"Blair?"

Blair stopped breathing. He knew that voice.

"Come on, Chief." A touch on his cheek wiped away a tear. "It's okay. Open your eyes for me, buddy."

Blair obeyed, his chest tight, and sucked in a breath at the tear-blurred image in front of him. "J-Jim?"

The image smiled. "Yeah. How are you feeling?"

"How....? I thought.... There was so much blood. I heard the splash." He blinked, spilling more tears onto his cheeks.

"It was barely a flesh wound. I made it to shore, found the keys in Simon's car, got out of the cuffs, and," he shrugged, "I caught him coming out. Simon and the guys showed up a little later." Jim sat on the edge of the bed, wincing slightly. His face was serious. "Lash is dead. This time, he's not going to be making a miraculous recovery."

Blair still couldn't believe it. A part of him wondered if he was dreaming. "You're okay?"

"Yeah, Junior." Jim's palm cradled Blair's cheek, then gave a gentle pat. "And so are you."

"Oh, God, thank you." His vision got blurry again, and he didn't bother trying to wipe away the tears that flowed freely. "I...I...." He lunged upward, feeling a painful twinge in his left side that he ignored in favor of wrapping his arms around Jim's solid flesh. He heard the older man grunt and, too late, remembered the stab wound. He pulled back in horror, wincing as the pain flared in his side. "Oh God, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, I--"

"It's okay." Jim grinned. "I've cut myself worse shaving." He shifted on the bed, then reached out an arm and draped it across Blair's shoulder. "Honest."

Blair nodded, finally wiping at his cheeks. He sniffled and leaned against Jim. "Liar. I saw the blood."

"Stab wounds bleed a lot. I'm fine."

"I want to go home."

"How are you feeling?"

"Tired. Shaky. My head hurts. But otherwise, okay."

Jim tightened his hold on Blair. "I saw you wince. What else hurts?"

Blair sighed. "My ribs. Left side."

Jim pulled back. "You should lie back down."

Blair opened his mouth to argue, but he found himself complying. Whatever energy he'd mustered seemed to be leaving him, and his body once again felt far too heavy.

"Simon didn't mention anything about your ribs."

Blair felt Jim's hands on him, lifting his gown. He batted a hand at the older man's arm. "Hey. Privacy, please.

Jim stopped, pulling back. "I just want to take a look." He waited, and finally Blair nodded.


~~~~~~~~~

It wasn't until the evening that the doctor agreed to release Sandburg. Jim watched as Blair's fingers worked the buttons on his shirt. Although the drug was pretty much out of Blair's system, the kid still had some residual issues. A bandage hung on one side of his temple, and he had a nice collection of black and blue marks on his left side. Jim's jaw clenched as he remembered running his hands over the hot, bruised flesh.

He'd asked about the injury, but Blair couldn't tell him exactly when he'd sustained it. The doctor had examined the area, but they didn't even bother taking X-rays. Apparently, it didn't matter to the treatment whether Blair had bruised ribs. The doctor told him they no longer wrapped fractured ribs, so all he would prescribe was rest and painkillers.

"You ready?"

Blair nodded, easing himself off the bed. Jim moved to Sandburg's side, wrapping a hand around his arm and carefully guiding him to the waiting wheelchair.

A nurse came in, taking the handles of the chair. He followed alongside until they reached the hospital doors. He took a deep breath when he saw the cluster of reporters waiting outside.

"Great." Blair eased himself out of the chair and threw a shaky smile at the nurse. "Thanks."

"Take care of yourself, Mr. Sandburg. We'd prefer not to see you back here anytime soon." She smiled and winked at him, then turned with the chair and headed off.

Jim wrapped an arm around his partner. Blair could walk, but he had to move carefully due to his injuries. Jim decided to act as a buffer against the crowd of reporters. He cradled his free arm close, protecting his wound, and pushed through the automatic doors. Lights flashed and voices rose, firing questions at them. Jim shook his head, growled a "back off" and pushed ahead, elbowing his way through the crowd. Someone bumped into him, and he grunted as pain sparked in his gut.

Sandburg slipped away from him, lunging at the offender, a young male reporter thrusting his microphone ahead of him like a sword. "Back off, man! He's injured. What the hell's wrong with you?"

"Easy, Chief." Jim reached forward, pulling his partner back. He frowned as he noted the lines of pain framing Blair's eyes and studied the careful way Blair held an arm close to his left side.

"Ease off, folks!" Simon's deep, booming voice intruded. Jim felt a hand on his arm, guiding him, and the crowd parted. He was ushered into the back seat of Simon's sedan with Blair next to him. The door slammed closed, and he watched as Simon ran around to the driver's side, slid in, and started the engine, peeling away from the hospital.

"How are you two?" the captain asked, glancing back at them in the rearview mirror.

Jim met the reflection of Simon's gaze. "Okay, sir. Thanks."

Blair nodded as he sank back, going limp in the seat. "I'm good. Tired, but all things considering, I can't complain." He tilted his head back and closed his eyes. "I just really want to go home."

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

The loft was dark and quiet when they got home. Blair followed Jim inside, stopping a moment in the doorway to study the place. A sense of deja vu washed over him. The last time he'd escaped death at Lash's hands, he'd come home to a trashed loft. This time, the place was clean and untouched. No furniture lay overturned.

"Hey." A hand came down on his shoulder, and he looked up into Jim's concerned face. "You okay?"

He nodded, swallowing the lump in his throat.

"Liar." Jim offered a soft smile, then once again wrapped an arm around Blair and guided him to the couch. "Sit."

Blair complied, easing himself onto the cushion and resting his head against the back of the sofa. "You should rest, too, Jim."

"I will."

"Now. You've got stitches in you. Seriously, man, you shouldn't be moving around so much."

Jim released a heavy breath and sat down next to Blair. "You hungry?"

Blair shook his head. "No. My stomach's still not feeling right." He lifted his head to look at Jim. "We can order something if you want, though. Or I can make soup." Blair moved forward to push himself off the couch, but Jim grabbed his arm.

"Stay put, Chief. I'm fine."

Blair nodded and melted back against the couch. "We make quite a pair."

"Yeah."

Blair swallowed. Despite their injuries, he and Jim were the lucky ones. "He killed one of my students.... John Rubie."

"I know. They found the body."

Blair's brow creased. "Shouldn't we be downtown giving statements, or something?"

"Simon's going to come over later."

"Oh." Blair closed his eyes. "He was a good student." His voice was barely a whisper. "He died because of me."

"No, " Jim said, and Blair felt a firm grip on the back of his neck. "He died because Lash killed him."

Blair shook his head and took a deep, shaky breath. "He was stalking me. We set up that whole sting, knowing he was around. We didn't warn anyone. We should've told them."

Jim sighed, and Blair felt the grip on the back of his neck ease. "I'm sorry about that. I thought it was the best way to catch him."

Blair finally opened his eyes and looked over at Jim. The sentinel was staring straight ahead, his eyes hard and distant. "This wasn't your fault, Jim."

"I let him get to me. I let him get to your student. I let him get to you."

"You did the best you could. You can't predict the future, man."

Jim finally turned to look at him. "No, but I should've seen it coming."

Blair shook his head. "Don't, Jim. Just...He's not going to hurt anyone again. It's over. Nothing we say or do now can bring John back." He shrugged. "I just..." He squeezed his eyes closed, the image of the student's pale face and blank eyes haunting him. "I wish Lash had died the first time. I never thought I'd wish anyone dead, but I wish he had died back there, in the warehouse, after you'd shot him." He took a deep breath and shook his head again. "No, actually, I wish he'd never even been born."

Jim's hand dropped to Blair's shoulder. "Are you going to be okay?"

Blair leaned forward and rubbed a hand over his face. "Eventually." He opened his eyes and swiveled his head to look at Jim. "In all this, I forgot to thank you."

Jim frowned and shook his head. "This time, you've got nothing to thank me for, Chief."

"You saved my life again."

"I was watching you. He should never have gotten that far."

"He stabbed you, and you still pulled yourself out of the water and got there in time to save me." Blair managed a pained, lopsided smile. "I guess you're taking this Blessed Protector thing seriously."

Jim reached up and gently patted Blair's cheek. "You'd better believe it."

~~~~~~~~~

The End.


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