This is Della's Moonrigde story 2007. Thanks for letting me post it right away!! Beta'd by Xasphie. It should probably have a warning for quite a bit of violence, but only if you've never read a story of mine before. If you have, I think you know what you're in for ;-).

Also, I tried to write a TS story '24'ish style. Didn't really word out the way I intended it to, but here it is anyway...

Out of the Past

By Demeter

EMAIL: Demeter

If Jim Ellison had left the station five minutes earlier that evening, the turn of events would have been completely different. Or at least, that was the story he liked to tell himself.

But he had wanted to finish that one report, leave for the weekend with a cleaner desk - considerably - and for once prove his colleagues wrong who were starting rumors he only ever got his paperwork up to date when Sandburg was around.

So there was literally nowhere to run when Captain Banks peeked out of his office, looking for...

"Ellison! My office."

Oh. No. If only he'd left those five minutes earlier...

***

Blair had finished packing his bags half an hour ago and was now on the verge of worrying, since Jim hadn't shown up, or called since leaving for the precinct this afternoon. They had planned to get out on the road early to make the most of their prolonged weekend, and he was tempted to call the station, but didn't want to hear any wisecracks from their friends.

He couldn't suppress the nagging feeling though that was making his gut clench.

Paranoid, he told himself. Jim probably got delayed talking to one of the guys. No need to worry. Yet.

When the phone rang, he jumped, hurrying to answer it. "Jim?"

"No, it's Molly. I'm sorry, Blair, I need to ask you a favor."

Talk about bad timing...

But when she told him her car had broken down in the middle of nowhere, and that she was scared, it wasn't much of a dilemma. Blair decided he could call Jim on the way - now he even had a reason - and left to get Molly out of her predicament.

***

"His name is Mark Dale, and he's the prime suspect in our case. We believe that your assistance could be helpful apprehending him."

"How so?"

If it hadn't been for Simon's rising heartbeat, his own instincts had already been telling Jim that this wouldn't be pretty, long before the two visitors talked about the terrorist background of the man they were after. Their best guess was that he could be planning to set a lethal virus free in the water-supply system of Cascade, the city where he'd last been seen.

Agent Gilmore straightened up in her chair. "Because your name appeared in connection with someone who's supposedly helped him in moving his operation here. This man."

Jim took the picture she gave him, and inwardly cursed. Damn it. He'd hoped to never hear that name, let alone have anything to do with him again. It had been a brief undercover operation sometime last year. A couple of weeks, he'd just gone to work like everyday while in reality, he was moving in on the suspect. Those two critical weeks when he'd disappeared off the face of the earth, it was one hell of a coincidence, the same time Blair was away on an expedition with a fellow grad student and some enthusiastic Freshmen.

Right.

Of course, the whole thing had been a set-up; Blair wasn't supposed to know about it, and what was more important, he was out of the line of fire. Jim had insisted on that little detail, and it had been granted; too much had depended on his part. History tended to repeat itself.

"What makes you think he'll trust me again?" Because undoubtedly that's what the two agents were intending to happen, for him to get close to Alain Pascal.

"He has no reason not to," Gilmore's partner, a well-trained man in his early forties, answered. "As far as he knows, you never stopped working as a cop, just got away with what you did. He thinks you helped him out the last time, so we're sure he'll trust you."

The thought made Jim want to puke. Oh yes, he'd been good, and he still was. He could do it, for sure.

"What makes you think he's hooked up with Dale?"

"Dale's made a lot of calls to Pascal's residence lately. We managed to record parts of their conversation, and while we couldn't trace Dale - it seems like they've got some common interests." Agent Gilmore looked at Jim pointedly.

It wasn't much of a guess what she meant.

Pascal was a photographer of the sleazier sort, always one step away from the illegal side with the pictures he'd taken of underage teens, but the investigation had turned up even more dirt, with more than one of his employees having contacts to producers of porn that involved children. Something Pascal had always claimed he didn't take part in, but obviously knew about.

In the end, a large porn ring had been broken apart, but Pascal had gotten away with a slap on the wrist, because he'd given the investigators many names of bigger fish.

"So Pascal's taking his chances supplying Dale with illegal footage?"

"Looks that way. Detective, I think it's clear that time is running out on us here. Dale's been talking about 'opening the gates of hell' sometime tomorrow night. We have information on Pascal's usual hang-outs, and we need you to start tonight."

"I understand," Jim said.

***

Molly stood by the road, shivering, arms wrapped around her middle, the image of misery. Blair parked the Volvo and got out, hugging his ex-girlfriend as a greeting.

"I'm so sorry." She looked close to tears. "I didn't know who else to call, and I was kind of freaking out..."

"It's okay. Are you hurt?"

She shook her head. "Stupid car just stopped, I was lucky there wasn't anyone behind me. Now I just really want to go home, deal with everything else tomorrow."

Blair agreed to that. He'd tried to call Jim on the way here, but had only got the voicemail, and he wanted to drop by the station after he'd taken Molly to her apartment, find out what was going on.

***

Jim had left a message on the answering machine, cooking up some lame excuse why the weekend had to be called off. No way in hell would he ever discuss Pascal with Blair; he couldn't even think of the two men at the same time.

All the dirt, all those horrible images he'd had to face, it had been worth it in the end, because about two dozen men had been arrested and brought to trial. Men who hardly deserved the attribute 'human' in Jim's book, because what they'd done to those children made you want to revert the justice system to the means it had - and made use of - in the Middle Ages.

There was no point in wallowing about the past, though, as he was sitting here in this joint, the same stale beer in front of him for a while now, waiting for Pascal to show up.

In fact, a lot of the tension was leaving him now; Jim had more than a fleeting hope that Pascal's association with the terrorist Dale would really be the photographer's downfall this time. And if that was the case, Jim wanted to be there. He'd always felt kind of responsible, guilty about the deal Pascal had made - with his help, and he would have never managed to infiltrate the circle of pornographers as deep as he had - this could be his second chance to redeem it and have Pascal go down for good.

If only he could reach Blair and tell him to get the hell out of Cascade.

***

"So, how have you been?"

Small talk was a bit awkward, in fact Blair hadn't heard from Molly since they'd broken up and he'd gotten back together with Sam.

She shrugged. "Okay. Lots of work. You know how it is."

"Yeah. I hear you're going on a dig in France this summer. You must be very excited about it." Molly was about to pursue her Ph.D. in Archeology - her second doctorate, her first attained in Anthropology, and Blair couldn't help but being a little jealous at the thought. //You're long overdue, aren't you?//

She smiled at that. "Yeah, it's a great opportunity. I never told you, but I've got some roots over there; my mother's family is French. Who knows, maybe I won't even come back..."

He wanted to say something about how that would be a pity, but then those headlights appeared out of nowhere, up front, blinding him. Blair's car started to skid dangerously towards the edge of the road as he fought to keep control.

"Watch it!" Molly's voice sounded frantic as he struggled to keep the car under control, while steering it out of the way, so it wouldn't collide with the oncoming vehicle.

"I am!" Blair had managed to hit the brakes without spinning out, and thought with some relief that they were going to be safe, when suddenly Molly grabbed the steering wheel, yanking it sharply to the left. "What the hell are you doing?"

Her only answer was a scream, and everything happened very fast when the car skidded off the road, into a ditch, and overturned. A sharp pain sliced up his left leg, then he banged his head against something, and the world went black.

***

"Long time, no see. What brings you here, JJ?"

Contrary to what Gilmore and her partner might say, Jim was well aware of the fact that Pascal was very cautious; he had to be since he wasn't an idiot; Jim showing up just when he was about to earn a few million dollars collaborating with a terrorist, was one hell of a coincidence.

He gave the other man a nonchalant shrug. "Same as you." He pointed at his beer bottle. "Trying out the old hang-outs. Catching up. I didn't expect *you* to still be around."

"For nostalgic reasons, mostly." Pascal seemed to relax some, as he leaned back in his chair. "So what's police work like these days? Still lucrative, huh?"

"Depends. You got anything better to offer?"

The photographer studied him for a moment. "Not sure about that. Always had the feeling our ideas of a good time were quite different."

//You bet they are. And this time you won't get away so easily, I promise you that.//

"Indeed. But since you're asking, yeah, I could use a little extra. I'm serious, Pascal. If you hear about anything big, I could imagine doing business with you again. Things have changed. I don't really plan on being a cop forever."

"That sounds interesting," Pascal admitted. "If I hear something, I'll call you."

"Don't forget."

***

The good news: neither of them was unable to move. That was about it. Molly's voice sounded frightened, but otherwise quite stable, and when Blair opened his eyes, he realized that the car was still on its roof. He couldn't decide which hurt worse, his head or his leg which he hoped wasn't broken.

"Blair? I think I can open the door on my side. Do you hear me?"

"Yes. Are you okay?" he pressed out between clenched teeth. Shit, he wouldn't be able to avoid a trip to the hospital.

"I think so, a little banged up, but otherwise..." A screeching sound that hurt his ears, and then she sighed in relief. "Thank God, I think we can get out of here now."

Easing himself around the steering column, he managed to crawl out of the car; hissing when his injured leg was jostled and the pain shot through him. His hands met damp, grassy ground. Molly offered him support.

"Thanks." There wasn't much to see in the darkness, but all of a sudden, headlights appeared.

Blair was still wondering how they had ever ended up down this ditch, when Molly pointed at the car above them. "Look. It's the car we almost hit. The driver came back."

"Yeah." He'd meant to ask her something, but the pain was growing continuously, making it hard to concentrate.

"You okay down there?" a man's voice called.

"Yeah," Molly answered for them both. "Mostly, that is. We still need to go to the hospital, I guess. Could you give us a ride?"

The man had a flashlight he held for the two of them to finally get out of the ditch and back up on the road. "No problem," he said. "Just hop in."

The short walk to the car felt like torture, and finally having made it to the backseat, Blair was trembling with the effort, his breath labored as he tried to cope with the pain. For once, he had no objections to going to the hospital - he'd get a good pain shot there, and that was really all that counted at the moment. Molly slid inside next to him, briefly taking his hand. "I'm sorry," she said, and Blair wanted to tell her that the accident wasn't her fault, of course not, but even that seemed to cost too much energy now, so he just squeezed her hand back, glad neither of them had been injured any worse.

***

Jim had been following Pascal with his hearing when the man went outside to make a call on his cell phone - which wasn't all that hard, because Pascal's obtrusive aftershave added another bit of information - not to mention the use of another sense, which kept Jim from zoning.

For a moment, he had the selfish wish that Blair could be with him because his Guide's presence would make everything much easier; then he shook his head. Nothing had changed, of course. He still considered keeping a continent in between a safe distance where Sandburg and this man were concerned.

Frowning, Jim wondered why Blair hadn't picked up the phone, and was still unreachable on his cell, for that matter. He'd take the risk and ask Simon to find out what had happened.

In a moment.

"I think I know someone who can help us."

The voice on the other end of the line didn't sound very convinced. "I strongly object to bringing someone in from the outside at this point in our mission."

"Ah, come on, Mark. I know this guy. He's a dirty cop. Even saved my ass a couple of years back."

"A cop, you say? Nice. I still don't like it."

"Why don't I bring him there to talk, and you decide then?"

"Not yet."

"So do you have... the stuff in your house yet?"

Mark Dale barked a dry laugh. "You're crazy? I see you in an hour. And bring your friend; I want to take a good look at him anyway. What's the name?"

***

Blair had been close to nodding off despite the pain, but the sight outside the window made him sit up straight with a wince. It was still dark outside, but the scenery, what he could make out of it anyway, didn't look right.

"This isn't the way to the city," he said, alarmed. "Molly, didn't you tell him that?"

Molly looked at him, her expression indecipherable. "Blair, I need you to stay calm now, okay?"

"What's going on?"

"I can't tell you yet. I promise you, everything is going to be all right."

"All right? Molly, you tell me this instant or--"

"Or what?" the driver interrupted him, a smug grin on his face. When Blair turned to Molly again, his eyes widened in shocked surprise.

"Just shut up now, will you?" she said, training the gun on him in a steady hand.

***

"Nice," Jim commented as Pascal led him through the hall of his Victorian style villa. The man was obviously making money - and wanting more, the way it always was. Through the window Jim could see into the floodlit garden where some men were carrying huge canisters of water.

Pascal followed his gaze, waiting for Jim to comment, which he didn't.

"Glad you like it. I even have a new studio now, and every girl who sees the inside has a passport saying she's eighteen." He laughed at that, and it was clear what he was meaning to say. At least half of those IDs would be fakes, and Pascal, of course, didn't care.

"You want to see it?"

"Yeah, why not?"

They walked down the stairs to the studio, while Jim memorized the set-up of the building, something that could come at handy later on. He only took a brief look at Pascal's newest projects, thinking with satisfaction that the man wouldn't get away this time. His association with Dale would be his downfall - once and for all.

When his cell phone rang, Pascal excused himself, but Jim recognized the same voice as before.

"He's here now," Pascal said.

Everything according to the plan.

Now he only had to find a way to contact Simon.

***

This was a nightmare; it had to be. Blair knew Molly. They had shared notes from their classes, talked long nights about their future plans and dreams, made love. It was impossible.

"What the hell is going on?"

She didn't answer him.

"Hell, this is stupid. Whatever you're up to, I don't care, just let me out of here, and I'll forget I ever saw you this evening, whatever. Just let me go, or you're going to get yourself into real trouble."

Molly smirked at that, but the driver hit the brakes all of a sudden. "Make this guy shut up, or I will!"

"Come on, Greg..." she said, now a hint of uncertainty in her voice while Blair mentally reviewed his chances of getting away. It was dark outside, maybe there was a chance if he opened the door right now...

"What are you telling him my name for, bitch?" The man turned around, his own weapon drawn. "I told you, no names, didn't I?"

"I'm sorry, I--"

"Shut up!" he yelled, raising the gun again.

Thoughts of escaping from the car forgotten, Blair raised his hands, uncomfortably reminded of those horrible hours spent in the company of Iris and her crazed boyfriend. "Cool down, man, will you?" His voice was shaking from more than the pain.

The man's finger tightened on the trigger, a grin spreading on his face.

***

"Well, JJ, you're lucky. I might just have something for you."

Pascal had made another call, enough time for Jim to take a look around, but so far he hadn't found anything to prove that the man was doing business with Dale. However, more than enough proof that he was back in business again. No doubt he'd be going down this time, but at the moment, there was no point in anticipating.

Getting close to Dale was all that mattered.

"Really. That was quick. What's it about?"

Pascal grinned. "My employer is quite impressed with your army and Covert Ops background. I'm sure it's a piece of cake for you to help somebody disappear."

Jim shrugged, though he was cursing inwardly. This way, he wasn't likely to meet Dale as soon as he had hoped.

"I'm sorry I can't really tell you much, but I'm not exaggerating when I tell you that after tonight, you'll have to lay low for a while, and it would be healthier not to do that in Cascade. We need a diversion, and you are perfect for that job."

"A diversion from what?"

"Ah, not so quick!" Alain Pascal raised his index finger admonishingly.

Outwardly listening impassively, Jim was already contemplating what exactly he wanted to do with him once Cascade was safe again. "I don't like to do a job when I'm kept out of the loop. Maybe I should take a rain check on this," he hazarded.

"It's your call, JJ, but we really could use your help. You know how it goes: you prove that we can trust you, you get to hear more. Sorry, I'm not the only one calling the shots here."

"That I guessed," Jim remarked sarcastically. "So, who's going to disappear?"

"You know the man. A real nuisance, you'd agree."

He handed the picture to Jim.

//Damn it.//

***

"We're here, boss," the driver spoke into the cell phone. "Worked like a charm."

The wrought-iron gate hidden in the depths of the forest opened slowly, and the car passed it, now on a long driveway.

Ironically, Molly breathed a sigh of relief once the gate had closed behind them again.

Blair was relieved, too. To some extent, at least. He had reason to be; at least he was still alive, whatever was awaiting him next. After the crisis situation, he'd decided the cleverest thing was probably to stop talking, lay low as long as he could; but the thoughts wouldn't stop.

He still couldn't believe that Molly was a criminal. More like somebody had forced her to take part in this insane plan, and maybe he'd have a chance to talk to her alone, convince her...

//Yeah, like you succeeded with Iris.//

It took them almost fifteen minutes to reach the Victorian villa. The driver parked, then got out of the car, Molly next, the gun in her hand.

"Come on, Blair. Just do as we say, and nothing will happen to you. I promise."

Secretly, Blair wondered whatever her promise was worth, but he didn't say it out loud, just got out of the car as well, hands raised, grimacing against the tearing pain in his leg.

He didn't get to see much of the villa, as he was lead directly to stairs that lead down to a lower part of the building.

At the base of the stairs, he tried again, "Molly," he whispered to her. "Whatever the reason is for this, I'm sure Jim and I can help you. You only have to--"

She laughed a little at that. "Do me a favor and help yourself, Blair. Just shut up."

***

"How do I know the department's not blowing up on me while I'm doing the job?" Jim asked coolly, not letting it show that this 'assignment' would cause a lot more trouble than it would help any with the case. The details of it troubled him, but he'd managed to listen to Pascal's calm dictation with an air of nonchalance.

"Why do you think it's about anything that's going to happen in the department?"

There was no suspicion in Pascal's voice, just surprise and a bit of admiration. Jim had seen it before, and just like that other time, it was making him plain sick.

"If I wanted to do something big, I'd cripple those institutions first. Police, fire department... make them fall over their feet, distract them, and then get to work, when they don't have the time and manpower to stop it."

Pascal nodded appreciatively. "I can assure you, you'll be getting out of there just fine. Just don't take a drink from the faucet," he said, laughing at his own pun.

Jim laughed a little, too. Dale wasn't an amateur. If he found out that Pascal was dropping hints like this, the photographer would be out of commission much sooner than he'd thought. "Don't think I'll have the time for that after having killed Chief Warren. You make sure I get out of Washington before things get real tight, and we have a deal."

"Great. It's always a pleasure to work with you, JJ. We need the job to be done in three hours at the latest, but I don't think that's going to be a problem for you."

***

When the driver stopped in front of a certain door, Molly blanched, and Blair was totally sure he did not want to find out what was behind that door.

"Why here?" she demanded. "I thought we just keep him in the house, ask a few questions later. I'm sure he doesn't know anything about this stuff, so why..."

"Shut up, bitch!"

"Why don't you shut up?" she shouted back at him while he opened the door with a key. "Stop it, Greg, I'm not taking anymore shit from you, I'll--"

Once inside the room, her words were rudely interrupted as the man she called Greg pulled the trigger of his gun once - but due to the silencer, there was only a seemingly innocuous plopping sound.

Molly's eyes widened in disbelief as she clutched her chest, blood soaking through her fingers, and then she simply fell to the ground.

"Oh God." She wasn't dead. She couldn't be dead. Blair dropped down beside her, ignoring his own injury, putting pressure on her wound, unable to process what he rationally already knew. There had to be something he could do. Anything so he didn't have to believe that the guy had just shot her point blank.

"Get up!" Greg yelled at him. "Over here!"

"She needs a doctor! She could still make it, please--"

His pleas fell on deaf ears, though. "Do it, or I'll shoot you too."

Blair obeyed, slumping down into the only chair in the room, an uncomfortable metal seat bolted to the floor, his own pain almost forgotten in the light of this catastrophic turn of events - and then he really took a look at what was on the table, for the first time realizing what it was most likely meant for.

His heart skipped a beat with the realization.

***

"Simon, it's me, I've got to ask you a favor," Jim said without preamble. "Of course, he had a lot more to say, but this was priority, at least where he was concerned. "Send someone to pick up Sandburg and get him out of Cascade. I don't care what you have to tell him."

"You haven't talked to him yet?" Simon sounded surprised.

"Couldn't reach him. If necessary, put out an APB, I'm sure he'll forgive me eventually."

"Wait a minute, Jim--"

"Just do it," Jim returned curtly, not caring for the moment who he was talking to. There was no time for niceties. "And by the way, Pascal's got a job for me indeed. So, Simon, you ever had the urge to kill your boss? Well, that is my job now."

***

Heading down the driveway from Pascal's villa, Jim thought for a moment he had to be hallucinating. //Look what all that thinking about Sandburg is doing to you.// There was no way he could hear Blair's heartbeat around here, just his paranoia acting up.

Simon was of course never amused about being bossed around, but he had promised to send someone to the loft and make sure that Blair was safe. Feeling a bit more relaxed at that thought, Jim hit the accelerator. Three hours weren't really a lot of time to commit the perfect murder.

Chief Warren was being informed this minute, and they'd meet to work out a strategy that would be believable to Dale and Pascal.

He'd need a weapon, and a doctor who would sign off on a death certificate for a man who was still alive. Then, get to Dale and make sure the virus wouldn't be released.

***

By now, the throbbing in his leg was merciless. It was swollen around the ankle, jeans and shoe painfully tight already. It wasn't enough to distract Blair from the memory of Molly being shot right in front of his eyes, dying agonizing minutes later.

Or the sight that was now in front of him, for that matter.

The contraption in itself wouldn't have looked all that dangerous if it wasn't for the set-up of the room, a bare light-bulb dangling from the ceiling, the metal chair, a wooden one, and the table with this thing on it that was looking like a vice.

Brother Marcus had one of those in his workshop, too - but that one didn't have blood on it.

Made you wonder what exactly had been happening in here. Not that Blair was so wild to find out, and once again he wondered what the hell these people wanted from him. At least Jim had to have noticed by now that he was missing; the thought was vaguely consoling.

***

The loft was empty when the two Major Crimes detectives entered it with the spare key Simon Banks had given them.

"I'd better write Sandy a note just in case he returns before we find him," Megan Connor suggested.

"Good idea," Brian Rafe agreed. "Should we take a look around, too?"

Megan, who had already started writing on a legal pad, gave him a surprised look. "Not that I know... But you could call Simon and tell him no one's here. He wanted to know because of the APB." She frowned. "I hope Sandy's okay."

He picked up his cell phone, but looked over her shoulder while she was scribbling the note.

"He's supposed to meet Jim at a hotel in Seattle?"

Megan shrugged. "I'm just the messenger here, don't ask me." She finished the note while Rafe was on the phone with the captain, and then both of them left the loft.

***

Chief Warren and his wife were expected at a dinner banquet tonight. The moment they stepped out of the restaurant, he'd be gunned down by a sniper, DOA at the scene.

That was how it had to look to Dale and his associates in the end. They had to be damn careful, because Dale was sure to have informants at the banquet as well as at the hospital.

An agent would play a doctor at the banquet, who'd declare the police chief dead, while another one would deal with the media coverage.

Jim had chosen a spot on the other side of the street; he knew, there was only one choice. One shot, and he'd have to hit the small pouch containing the fake blood that Chief Warren was wearing over the Kevlar vest, all of it concealed under his dress shirt and jacket.

When the couple came out of the restaurant, he took aim calmly and pulled the trigger. Chaos erupted immediately, screams, frantic activity, but he didn't stay to witness it. All in all, Jim had needed less than two hours to complete the job; and he hoped it would be earning him some favors with the terrorist.

So far, everything according to the plan.

***

Forced to sit up straight by his restraints, Blair didn't have much of a choice as to what was in his field of vision -- Molly's body to the left, the vice right in front of him, a window secured with steel bars to the right. Probably the best alternative, although it wasn't any more reassuring.

He still couldn't understand how fast it all had happened - but recalling the moments that had led to his imprisonment, Blair couldn't ignore any longer that Molly must have been involved in large parts of the planning, whatever these guys were up to. She had helped prepare the trap.

Not that it was something anybody deserved to die for, though it didn't answer the question of why he was here in the first place.

Well, Jim had always been in time so far -- this would be no exception, right?

He leaned back in the chair, closing his eyes, the cold metal against his back making him shiver. A little sooner wouldn't hurt.

***

Jim had waited to see Chief Warren collapse on the bottom stair of the building before leaving his spot. He had left Pascal's and been given a meeting point where he'd be picked up by a driver of Dale's, get paid, and maybe get involved some more.

The Major Crimes staff would wrap up the scene, and he trusted them to do it all right.

Now, the game started for real.

***

The man entering the room now didn't look like the one who was in charge either. When it had happened, Blair couldn't say, but somewhere along the line he had become experienced with criminals who had a hunger for power, identifying those who were the ones everyone else had to answer to. They had a certain posture, an attitude about them, like Kincaid, for example. It said, 'I don't have to play by anybody's rules, because I make my own. Take that or die.'

Blair shuddered. He had no intention of objecting to anybody's megalomania today. He just wanted out of here; and then maybe still go on that camping trip with Jim, out of the state, preferably. Pretend the nightmare had never happened.

The merciless throbbing in his leg told him otherwise, though, and still he had no idea why Molly had chosen to involve him in this mess. No one had talked to him so far. It didn't look so good for him... he couldn't really say if his leg was broken, but in any case it hurt like hell, and Blair wasn't sure if he'd be able to put weight on it, given the chance. Not that there was any at the moment.

This whole set-up had been so carefully planned - could it be this was some scheme to blackmail Jim? If there wasn't any connection to his work with the PD, Blair was totally lost as to the reason. He watched as the man walked around in the room, seemed to check the windows, here and there, and finally the contraption on the table.

He didn't address Blair in any way, in fact simply ignored him. Compared to Greg's behavior, that was certainly a blessing; he'd already seen what these people were capable of. He also didn't make any move to remove Molly's body from the room as he left.

Alone again, Blair breathed a sigh of relief, laying his head back against the cool surface of the back of the chair. All right, Jim. I'll do my best to stay alive. *Hurry.*

***

There was no sign of Blair yet. Although Jim knew that at this point any distraction might simply kill him, he couldn't help but worry.

If only he'd managed to warn him - it was understood; if they didn't manage to stop Dale in time, the extent of the disaster would be immeasurable, so that was a thought he couldn't allow himself anyway. Knowing Blair was safe in Seattle would have helped a lot.

In the distance, he could see the car of the driver Dale had sent to pick him up. There was time yet.

***

"Hey! Will somebody tell me what the hell is going on here?"

No one bothered.

Greg had come back together with two unknown men, one of which wore an expensive business suit. So he got to see the man in charge finally, though Blair doubted that this was a good development. He couldn't imagine what the man would want from him. And no matter whether he had it or not, they didn't look like they'd leave witnesses behind.

They'd killed Molly. It was obvious that these people didn't take well to objections.

The next moment, the boss was in his face. "I'm sorry to tell you that we don't have much time, so either we do this nice and easy, or the hard way. What did you and Molly plan?"

"What we..." His mind was blank, and damn it, Blair knew that it was not a good thing. Right, like they weren't going to kill him anyway, no matter if he had that information they wanted, or not. The question was, how painfully.

"I'm sorry, too, man, because you got it all wrong. I broke up with Molly six weeks ago. If I had known what company she kept, I wouldn't have dated her at all," he said, raising his chin defiantly.

The other man chuckled. "You have guts, I like that in a man. The bad thing, for you, anyway, is that I really need to know where you and Molly hid the drugs. Well, we can't ask Molly. And I'm not above using a little persuasion to get it from you."

"If she ripped you off, she didn't tell me. I don't have anything to do with drugs, except that one time when I was offered peyote by the shaman of--" He broke off when he saw the other man's expression turn to bored. Sheherazade, he was not. "Okay, okay. I don't even know what you're talking about. Molly asked me to pick her up, because her car had broken down."

"Wrong. I asked her to bring you in for questioning."

At his signal, the two other men stepped forward. Blair struggled against their grip, sure that he knew what was about to come, but to no avail. They secured first his right hand then his left in the vice, leaving him in an uncomfortable, bent forward position.

"I suppose we'll start now," the man in the suit suggested. "You better be cooperative, Mr. Sandburg. I'm sure you know this has nothing to do with the virus we're going to set free come the morning - but still, you don't want to be in Cascade when that happens, so why don't you tell us all that that stupid girl shared with you?"

***

At least the message had been left at the loft. Anytime Blair returned, he would find it and hopefully not question it, just act. It was disconcerting; mentally Jim reviewed all the cases they had closed lately, wondering if a pissed off relative was trying to act out revenge... it wouldn't be the first time.

He couldn't afford to think about this now, though. Mark Dale was awaiting him. They had arrived. Not a surprise there, the surroundings were even more luxurious than Pascal's, but he doubted that it even belonged to Dale himself. Creeps like these tended to help each other out, all in the name of their sick ways.

***

"Hurts, doesn't it?"

It seemed too much of an effort, enhancing the pain, but Blair still managed to raise his head a fraction, his eyes widening in shock when he recognized the visitor. For a moment, he was unable to speak while the other sensations - the cold sweat all over his body, the cruel pain in his hands - were even more pronounced. He shuddered, the image of the visitor blurring before his eyes.

And becoming clear again. The man was well-dressed as always when Blair had seen him, in a dark suit, his gray hair and beard neatly trimmed. A successful Cascadian businessman doing business with a bunch of terrorists. He still hadn't come to terms with what they'd said about the virus. If all went according to their plan, the water supply for Cascade would be totally contaminated by this time tomorrow, and they were worried about some drugs? Maybe the pain had clouded his mind too much to get it. And maybe there was even an explanation as to why *he* was here, although he doubted it.

Blair found it was more than his nerves could take at the moment, and he could almost read the man's disgusted thoughts at the hot tears on his face.

"Mr. Ellison," Blair finally managed, barely keeping his voice from breaking again. "Why?"

Economy of words made sense when even talking hurt.

"What kind of answer do you expect, Mr. Sandburg?" Jim's Dad smiled, as he went on, "This'll disappoint you for sure. Money? Power? Isn't that what it's always about?"

"But people will die!"

"An unfortunate side effect, yes. It can't be helped."

"God. When Jim finds out you're involved in this mess, he will--"

"Oh, come on," William Ellison interrupted him exasperatedly, "don't even start. James can be so naive sometimes, I've often wondered how he managed to survive in his line of work."

Remembering how Jim had honestly made the attempt to make up with his father, how hopeful he'd been, the cold and painful disappointment struck deep with Blair. He could only guess what it would be like for Jim when he learned the truth.

"He's a good man. Unlike you."

Ellison senior stepped a little closer, regarding the device that seized Blair's hands in a painful clench with interest. "Reminds me of the medieval torture device, the thumbscrew. Very effective. Look, I know you're not dumb. I just hope you're smart enough to tell these guys all that you know about their plans - as long as there's still a chance you will be able to use those fingers again."

"Screw you."

"My, such a language from such an educated person. Then again, I guess it's not your education that turns Jimmy on so much, huh?"

He laid his hand lightly over the handle of the contraption.

Blair felt himself tense in apprehension, but he swore to himself he would not beg this man. "You still have no idea what our relationship is all about."

"You're right about that, and I don't want to. It was bad enough trying to hide my son's -- disability -- and seeing how you talked him into believing it was some great gift..." He shook his head in annoyance. "I'd feel sorry for anybody else in your place, but this is kind of poetic justice."

"You're mad. Madder than some of the serial killers I've seen."

They'd kill him anyway, without hesitation, when they'd deemed the time arrived, so why even bother trying to play low-key? At this point, Blair didn't have much hope anymore of being rescued. Chances were, the Major Crimes department was already on the terrorists' case, and they'd be trying to save Cascade from the virus first. Priorities.

"Maybe," Ellison acknowledged. "But I'm not the one about to have my hands crushed, and that definitely makes me the luckier one of us. Think about it, Mr. Sandburg - and maybe you'll even start talking. Do it for Jim, at least. I don't think he'd deal so well with the loss of you. Hard to understand as it is."

"But I don't know--"

The older man's expression turned hard. "Save it. We all know what you did, so stop trying to play hero. It doesn't suit you." He gave a nod to Greg. "You take a break. It's not like he's going anywhere. Let him consider the alternatives for a while."

After they'd left the room, Blair closed his eyes, concentrating on his breathing long enough so he could be sure he wouldn't satisfy his captors by just breaking down in desperate sobs. The temptation was there.

***

"I don't know. I don't know anything." It was almost like a chant, something hopeless and desolate in the attempt to distract himself from the hideous pain, but of course every time he said it, Greg twisted the screws a bit tighter.

"Not good enough," he said with a smirk, wiping his hands on his jeans. "Let's try again, and I'm telling you, if we haven't made any progress before Mark has arrived here, you'll get to know real pain." To add to the effect, he swung out his foot and kicked Blair in the leg, grinning smugly when his captive crumpled inwards with the pain, and had to fight for breath.

"Molly and I--" Blair struggled to string the words together. "We, we talked about her going to France in the summer..."

"Tell me each word that she said to you."

"She said... she --" Damn it, he could do this. He had to stay conscious. He wasn't going to give this bastard the pleasure of seeing him collapse. "She said she was going to see her Dad's family - no, her mother's. And she was going on a dig, I don't know exactly--"

"Don't give me that bull!" Greg had jumped up, slapping him hard, and the pain reverberated straight into his hands, making his body go stiff with the overload.

Slumping back in his restraints, Blair was ashamed to feel the tears running down his face; he was trying to say something, but just couldn't form the words.

Greg at him, frustrated with the lack of process. Then all of a sudden, he left the room.

***

Mark Dale's heartbeat was steady and calm. Jim had noticed the same phenomenon in sociopaths who were lacking any human empathy, so that they didn't actually feel anything when hurting people. Well, except maybe for the taste of power.

He'd met Dale's driver and Pascal at the scheduled venue, an old and abandoned arena that was supposed to be torn down this month; there they had gotten into another car. The driver had insisted that Jim was blindfolded during the drive, which he had accepted with a wry smile -- of course, the information his other senses gave him would be more than enough to determine the direction they were taking.

Now, he'd been admitted into Dale's office where the man himself congratulated him.

"The first part has been done successfully," Dale said, obviously pleased. "Those idiots don't get it, but that's far from being the only thing that's going to happen tonight."

"I figured that much. Listen, Pascal said you'd keep me in the loop after I did the job. It's obviously been done, so --"

"Of course. There's a plane ready from my private fleet that'll get you out of the city tonight, let's say, Seattle, and from there anywhere you want to go. I wasn't too sure, but Pascal says he trusts you - and his instincts can usually be trusted. Why don't we sit down for a moment?"

"Seattle sounds good for the moment."

Jim accepted, taking up a relaxed posture, as he knew that at that moment the police department was already being thoroughly searched. Just in case there were moles around, the official reason was a bomb threat, faked, of course.

Tonight it certainly wouldn't harm if every policewoman and -man in Cascade were on alert.

***

"Give it up for now," an exasperated voice said. "Mark says to concentrate on the plan. We need to be out of here in a few hours."

Greg swore. "That means we're going to take him with us?"

"Who knows," the other man spoke up again. "As long as Mark thinks he's worth something..."

Listening to the exchange was an almost unbearable effort, but as long as Blair tried, it was a welcome distraction from at least some of the sensations - the smell of blood, the way the bones in his hand were shifting against one an-- God, no, he was going to be sick again.

Before he went, Greg loosened the fastenings of the device some, the unexpected decrease in pressure bringing yet another wave of pain. It wasn't that which kept him from crying out, but simply the fact that his voice had gone so hoarse that a small whimper was all he could manage.

Greg laughed and patted his cheek. "We'll have some more fun later. Until then, you better think about revising your script."

***

"Jim, I need you to come in. There's some new information."

"No way, Simon." Jim shifted the phone in his hand, listening to Dale and Pascal who were fortunately carrying on with their conversation. "I think they trust me. If I leave now, I'll never find out how they're going to pollute the water system."

"Find something," Simon returned. "I need you here, and then you might want to pay a witness a visit."

"Could you tell me--"

"When you get here."

***

He wasn't tied up in the back of the van. Obviously, the goons didn't think he could move much, and Blair realized that wasn't so far from the truth. The pain in his leg had receded to a dull ache, but maybe it was just drowned out by the overwhelming agony his broken right hand caused. Broken in several places, that much was for sure.

They'd gone relatively easy on the left hand, maybe because of a lack of time to do more, or maybe because they thought for a right-handed person, their job was done sufficiently.

Breaking in a sweat at every pothole, his body stiffening at the renewed pain, Blair made a decision. It was risky, maybe deadly even, but if he didn't dare take the risk, they'd kill him for sure - the only question was, sooner or later?

There was only one chance.

When the van stopped at an intersection, Blair kicked open the doors and threw himself out of the vehicle, trying in vain to roll as he landed. The impact with the unyielding concrete made him scream out, but the taillights of the van thankfully disappeared into the distance. Blacking out, his last conscious thought was the hope that he wouldn't pay for his bravado by being run over.

***

"This... can't be. My God." Wishful thinking, that was all that is was now. It was so much worse than he could have ever imagined. Getting away from Dale and Pascal had been relatively easy; a family thing he had said, which seemed very ironic now.

No part-time villain seeking revenge for a brother or anything had come after Blair. These guys were the real thing. And their associate...

"That's why I didn't want to discuss this over the phone. I'm so sorry, Jim." Simon was sincere.

Seeing his own father on the videotape, signing a deal with Mark Dale who was about to bestow a catastrophe of unknown dimensions on Cascade, Jim had been faced with a variety of emotions, all of them useless now.

There was even one part of him, the memory of the boy who'd wanted nothing but for his Dad to be proud of him, to accept him for what he was -- who wanted to sit down and cry. Let somebody else do the fucking job; this was it, the end of the line, he just couldn't do it any more. That part didn't get any say, of course.

Because there was something that was even worse: Blair was being held by these people, and it wouldn't help him to get all sentimental about William Ellison's involvement in this mess.

But for sure, Jim would pay his father a visit - find out what he knew. Didn't really matter how.

***

It was a piece of cake to disable the security system. Using one of his credit cards Jim opened the veranda door, and making almost no sound at all, he slid into the room.

William Ellison was sitting in his desk chair, poring over some papers. Jim studied his father's back for a moment, remembering the content of the surveillance tapes.

//"I'm sure Sandburg knows something,"// he'd said.

The other man had nodded and advised a third then: //"Don't stop until you get it all. I don't care what you have to do."//

That moment, William spun around, his heart rate going through the roof at the sight of his son, but he tried to feign calmness. "Jim. Nice of you to drop by. I didn't expect you to have the night off with the news about those crazy threats."

//Why, Dad, are they in the press already? I don't think so.//

"That's why I'm here, well, partly, at least."

"You could have used the front door."

"Yeah, maybe." Jim moved closer slowly, aware of his father's racing heart - had he already noticed his slip of the tongue? "Say, Dad, have you seen Blair lately?"

"No," William denied instantly, the staccato beat of his heart and the faint smell of sweat giving him away clearly. He gave a jovial smile. "He doesn't usually come to visit me alone, you know. Why are you asking?"

Taking a seat in one of the leather chairs and leaning back to adopt a nonchalant pose, Jim smiled back.

"Did you know that the pattern of a person's heartbeat changes when they're lying? It's really interesting. That's how the polygraphs work. And my senses, too."

William chuckled, if a little uneasily. "Those things aren't admissible in court, are they? And please, I thought we'd put that subject behind us. You might have a strange talent, but you're not Superman."

"Dad, I want you to answer me one question." Jim leaned forward, his eyes focusing fiercely on his father who finally seemed a bit uncomfortable. "Where is he?"

It was a spur of the moment decision to stop playing around. He didn't want to get into this discussion with his father, as pointless and hurtful as all the others they'd had when he'd been much younger. Jim had made an honest attempt of trying to bridge the gap that opened up between them in those more than fifteen years of silence, but that didn't matter anymore. His father had done something unforgivable.

"Jimmy, don't be ridiculous. I don't know where your friend is. Now, if you could excuse me, I've still got a lot of work to do..."

Without hesitation or second thought, Jim drew his weapon, directing it at his father with a steady hand. "I'm asking you again, Dad--" the audible click of the safety being released echoed in the stillness of the room. "Where is Blair?"

***

"Oh my God! Can you hear me? Mister? What the hell happened to you?"

//That's a very good question indeed.//

With great effort, Blair managed to open his eyes to find a young woman with a shocked face crouched over him. "Don't move," she said, her hand gently pushing his shoulders back down as Blair made the mistake of trying to sit up. "I'm going to call an ambulance."

The sounds of the ambulance arriving minutes after she made the call, had never sounded so good to him.

"I'm Kim, by the way," she said, easing her jacket underneath Blair's head. "This is a crazy night," she continued, brushing a strand of dark curls out of his face. "Did you hear that the Police Chief was shot and killed a couple of hours ago?"

Normally, Blair would have been shocked to hear this, and probably he still was, but at the moment, he just couldn't muster enough energy for the emotion. Breathing seemed to be causing him enough difficulties, pain seeping into every part of his body.

She seemed to understand that any small talk was beyond him at the moment, and patted his shoulder gently. "They're almost here," she said. "Hang in there."

***

William Ellison jumped when the bullet embedded itself into the wooden top of his desk and sent splinters hurtling towards him.

"Are you crazy?" he shouted.

"No more than you. Making deals with a bunch of lousy terrorists, Dad, what the hell were you thinking?"

His father sank into the chair again, looking much older all of a sudden. "Believe it or not, I was doing this to protect you." Ignoring Jim's snort, he went on, "I don't know where they took Sandburg. When his name came into consideration, all I knew was that there'd be a chance to free you of him. To let you lead a normal life again."

"A normal--" Jim shook his head in disbelief, as he lowered his weapon. "Now I know you have really lost it." He picked up his cell phone and began to dial.

"Who are you calling?" William asked nervously.

"My colleagues. They're going to bring you in for questioning; what did you think?"

"Does your family mean nothing to you?"

The bitter tone would have reached Jim a while ago, struck a chord, even, but at the moment, all he could feel was disgust. "Blair is more family to me than you have ever been," he said coldly. "Just pray that we find him alive."

***

The lure of fresh white sheets and pain medication was strong... yet, Blair knew that there was something he had to do. Jim. He had to call Jim who would probably be worried sick by now.

If he had any time, that is; distantly he remembered the woman, Kim, telling him about the murder of Chief Warren. God, did anybody even know about the virus by now? The doctor who had admitted him had looked very worried, too, saying he'd call the police, but that it might take them a while to arrive.

It was with a moment of panic that Blair realized that he had, of course, no I.D. on him, let alone a cell phone to call Jim. Right. As soon as they had talked, he could relax. Certainly the bad guys wouldn't return and come for him here in the hospital? He really had to inform Simon and the others about the things he'd seen and heard.

Kim had come to see him after he'd been settled into the hospital room, and she was nice enough to lend him her cell phone, a tiny pink metallic thing that seemed too much too handle in his current state, his damaged hands limited in their movements.

She punched in the numbers for him, retreating from the room politely.

Rhonda was on the phone. The sound of a familiar voice was almost too much, and he took a deep breath to calm himself. No time for a breakdown yet.

"Hello, who is this?"

"Rhonda, it's Blair. I need to talk to Jim or Simon." He'd tried the station first, taking his chances. If Jim wasn't there, at least someone there would be able to tell him how to reach him. //Please, just be there.// He really wanted to hear his friend's voice now.

"Blair!" Rhonda exclaimed. "Where are you? Everyone's been worried about you, and I guess you don't know yet about--"

"Chief Warren, yes. It's terrible, but there's more. Is Jim or Simon there?"

"Hang on," she said. "They're not here at the moment, but Jim told Megan and Brian to leave a message for you at the loft. Brian is here."

Blair almost cursed in disappointment, but hey, that was better than nothing. Talking to Rhonda, and then Rafe, meant his escape had been for real.

"Blair, can you write something down?" Rafe asked an instant later.

"Man, I can't! I'm in a hospital. At Cascade General. Can you tell me where I can reach Jim? It's important."

"Sorry, not at the moment," the detective said. "He's out on an assignment, and trying to reach him would be too dangerous. If you don't mind, I'll come. Jim wants you to go to Seattle, to meet him there."

"Seattle? You must be kidding. I've got a broken mangled hand, the other's not looking much better, and a broken ankle; I don't think I'll be going anywhere. Anyway, there's this terrorist, he's gotten hold of a virus and--"

"We know that already," Rafe said. "I'll be there in ten minutes."

***

"He didn't sound so good," Rhonda said worriedly. "Don't you think Jim would change his mind about meeting in Seattle if he knew that Blair is injured? I don't like this."

Brian Rafe sighed. "Neither do I, but it's what he said, to get Blair to that address in Seattle under any circumstance. I'm going."

"Good. I'm going to call Captain Banks, then."

"You don't have to do that," he said quickly. "I'll call him on the way."

"All right. In that case, I'm going to fetch that file you wanted from Records now. See you later."

"Yeah, see you."

As Rhonda stepped out into the hallway, she shook her head. Everybody seemed to be beside themselves tonight, which was no surprise. She was scared, too, but she also had confidence that the catastrophe would be averted in the end. Maybe just as well that Blair would be leaving Cascade for now.

That instant, she felt like somebody was watching her. Shivering, she was about to turn around, when she felt the touch, and a hard push.

Rhonda had barely time to scream as she fell. Unable to catch herself, the pain hit her full force, her fall only stopped after one flight of stairs. She didn't feel the hand that touched her neck, or the bleeding wound on her head.

***

"I hear your father was arrested tonight, Jim."

They were back in the house in the woods, and it had proven to be a good idea to use parts that were for real for his story. He'd made sure they hadn't caught him meeting Simon, but deliberately let them follow him the moment he left his father's estate. Jim barked a laugh.

"I guess it runs in the family, huh? Don't worry, Dale, I won't get myself caught like my old man did. I'm not that stupid. That, and I hope the offer of using that private jet of yours is still standing."

"It is," Dale confirmed. "Let's say I'm glad you proved to have better timing with the Chief than you had with William."

No secret anymore why a wanted terrorist was calling his father by his first name... He shrugged. "He must have made some mistake. It's a good thing we haven't talked in a while; my colleagues won't even think about asking me about it." Outwardly all cool, Jim was nevertheless nervous. This wasn't just about the undercover job any longer. He'd do all he could to save Cascade from the insanity of these men, but with Blair in their hands, the stakes had gotten a lot higher. He shuddered at the idea of him and a man like Alain Pascal crossing paths.

"So all's well," Dale raised his glass with the whisky he had poured for both of them a few minutes ago. "To perfect plans."

//Too bad I'm here to find the flaw in yours...//

"So, while everyone's running around trying to find out who killed the boss... I'm curious. When I'm in Seattle spending your money, where will you start with the contamination?"

Dale grinned. "That's the beauty of it. Even I don't know for sure."

***

Blair hadn't imagined he would *ever* argue against leaving the hospital, but tonight, he did. "Frankly, I'd prefer if Jim could come here when he's finished with the job." He didn't like it that his friend was not reachable at all, it wasn't like he could do anything about it now. "We were going on a camping trip, but I guess that's off now for several reasons. Brian, say, does the assignment have anything to do with the murder of Chief Warren?"

Rafe looked uncomfortable for a moment. "Jim can tell you himself when you catch up with him. I'm sorry, Blair, but he gave us specific instructions about where that would take place, and you must come to Seattle with me."

"What if I ca--, um, don't want to? You going to arrest me?"

"Something like that," Rafe confirmed. He opened the room's door, and Blair saw the wheelchair standing there. For some reason he couldn't quite fathom, he shuddered at the sight. Maybe it was just that he really had had enough for tonight.

"I talked to the doctor, Blair." Rafe's tone softened. "I know you're in pain, but he said he could give you something to help you sleep on the way. Come on," Blair could hear the determination in the detective's voice. "Jim really needs you in Seattle. You know he wouldn't *ask* for it if it wasn't important!"

"I know." He stared down at the bandaging on his right hand, and the hue of colors painting his left. "All right then."

***

"What does that mean, 'you don't know'?" Jim asked, blind-sided for an instant because his senses told him that Dale was telling the truth. Damn it! Where would he even start now?

"Jim," Dale said mildly. "How did you know to ask Pascal for a job, tonight of all nights?"

It was important not to make any mistakes here. If Dale thought he was lying, that would be his death sentence.

Jim kept the fake relaxed stance as he picked up his glass again. "First of all, your name means nothing to me. An informant of mine said Pascal had a partner, and that they were up to something big. The guy owes me - and I've come to collect." It wasn't even a lie.

Mark Dale raised his glass as well to take a long swig. "Sounds good to me, Jim. Look, as you already know, the vials with the virus are hooked on to timers. They are in several places in the city, ten to be precise. I've had a computer genius work out the details, and all I know is that when I hit the button, it will start somewhere. It'll be like a chain reaction depending on that first vial that's going to be broken. On the other hand, if the command isn't given, there's a backup plan. It will be done manually."

"That's clever." Jim's mind was reeling with this new information. How could they ever have a chance of preventing the release of the virus in time? They needed the guy who had written the computer program, but when they had it, they'd still have to find all the vials before they could be opened by Dale's other minions. "So where would you put them? Just curious. I don't plan on being around when those things go off."

"You better not," Dale agreed. "You are asking many questions."

"As I said. I'm curious."

"Well, I don't think--"

He broke of as the door opened, and Pascal came in. "I just got a call," he said meaningfully. "Idiots lost the package, but it's been retrieved. They're on the way."

Jim watched the exchange with interest. To secure the virus would be priority, but he'd bet that there'd be a string of other crimes they would be able to tie them to in the cleaning-up process of this night.

***

Resolutely, Megan Connor blinked back tears as the ambulance drove away, shuddering at the smears of blood on her hands. She'd just wash them and go back to work, like everybody else. No one even had time in this crazy night to accompany poor Rhonda to the hospital. They hadn't heard anything from Jim in a while, and that couldn't be good news - and Sandy was still missing. She hadn't seen Rafe since they'd returned from the loft, and now she'd have to interrogate Jim's father who had been dealing with the bloody terrorists who planned to blow Cascade to hell.

Fear wasn't something she could afford tonight, but she was aware of it lingering on the edge of her mind.

***

The doctor hadn't been happy with the impromptu discharge. Blair hadn't been happy with it either, but Rafe had explained in calm, considerate words so that he had nearly convinced them both.

So they were on the way once again. The pain medication was slowly taking off the edge, leaving him on the verge of drifting off, and still Blair wondered why Rafe hadn't just once asked what had happened to him: the cuts on his face from making contact with the road; the heavily strapped leg; the severely damaged hands. When he'd tried to explain about the terrorists who were about to set the virus free, the detective had only brushed him off to say the other colleagues of Major Crimes were taking care of that.

"No, wait a minute. It's not that undercover assignment Jim is doing at the moment, is it?"

The realization cut through the soft haze the drug was slowly starting to create, leaving his heart pounding. "That's why he wanted me out of Cascade, right? Whatever happens tonight, he'll be right in the middle of it."

Rafe kept staring straight ahead at the road in front of them. "I'm sorry, Blair," he said

***.

"I want to talk to my lawyer now," William Ellison said exasperatedly. He'd overcome the shock of having been arrested pretty quickly, as it seemed. "Where's Jimmy, anyway?"

Megan sighed. It seemed that Jim's father wasn't much accustomed to women in positions of authority either. "I'm sorry, but I can't tell you about Jim at the moment. You can call your lawyer all you want, Mr. Ellison, but we still need some answers for you. The city's going to burn with this virus in only a few more hours, forgive us if that's got priority now."

"Does your boss know you're violating police procedure, Inspector?"

Behind the two-way mirror, Megan was quite sure Simon would be rolling his eyes at the moment.

"We have proof, Mr. Ellison. We got you on a video with two of Dale's minions, where you're discussing the abduction of Mr. Sandburg. Even your lawyer won't be able to make that go away. You can help yourself a lot, though, by coming clean. Right now, you're gambling with your son's life."

"Well, this is what you and your boss have done everyday for the past couple of years, letting this hippie-boy ride with him."

"That's not for you to decide. So tell me, have those criminals been long-standing business partners, or is this only recently?"

William Ellison gave her a contemptuous look. "Miss," he said, making it sound like a slur which it probably was, "that virus will be the least of your problems by the end of the day. Those people have bigger plans, and you ought to wonder why it was one of yours who approached me about it."

"What do you mean, 'one of yours'?" Megan hadn't missed the hint at yet another crime going on, but it was those words that made her heart speed up. He couldn't mean...

"It was a Detective Brown who introduced me to everyone," Jim's father said.

***

"Will you be okay for a moment? I just need to make a phone call."

Rafe sounded somewhat grim, and Blair wondered if he wasn't all too happy with his assignment. Not that he cared much at the moment.

"No problem, just go ahead."

Now that the meds were kicking in, Blair found himself more and more worried about Jim. This wasn't just any other undercover assignment - dangerous, they were all, but tonight there was more at stake than ever before.

If the virus was released, there was no hope... and maybe even Seattle wouldn't be far enough.

Rafe spoke into his cell phone in hushed tones, pacing outside the car. He seemed to be getting angry with the course of the conversation. It reminded Blair uncomfortably of when, about two hours ago, Greg had unleashed his anger on him, tightening the screws every time the answer was a wrong one. He shivered unwittingly, drawn back into the images, until he was gasping for air, black spots dancing in front of his eyes.

"Hell, Blair, get a grip now, will you? You'll see Jim soon."

"That was... him on the phone?" //Breathe, damn it.//

"No. But it will all be over soon." Rafe smiled. "Trust me."

***

Jim had found a moment to pass on the news, even if it wasn't all that much, to Simon. There was still no sign of Blair; he had extended his hearing as far as he'd dared, but Sandburg wasn't anywhere on this estate.

He could, however, make out the programmer who was on the phone with Pascal, saying that at the current time, the reservoir was a likely starting point. He said some other things that Jim didn't really understand but filed away mentally anyway, since he was sure Serena Chang would be able to make sense of them.

It was only weird that Dale and Pascal had been starting to mention a certain drug in private conservations they held when Jim, who had been welcomed to stay until the jet arrived to bring him to Seattle, wasn't in the room.

What kind of drug could be so important that the threat to a whole city, and the murder of a police Chief, would be used as a distraction?

***

"Come on, guys. You know me!" Henri Brown stared at his co-workers in disbelief. "You don't think I have anything to do with-- this is crazy!" he exclaimed, shaking his head.

William Ellison had claimed that he'd only ever spoken on the phone and via email with his contact, and that he'd been given his badge number for security reasons. It matched Brown's.

Simon Banks wondered if this night could get any worse, with what little chance they had to stop the terrorists, two impatient Feds on his heels, and Jim undercover in this mess. Rhonda's accident. Not to mention that these people had Sandburg, and had been supported by Ellison's father.

Now one of his own, a man he trusted, should be involved, too? He didn't want to believe it.

But if it hadn't been Brown functioning as contact between the older Ellison and the terrorists, there was only one possibility that was just as bad: Someone had set him up.

He was aware of Megan Connor's gaze on him.

"I'm sorry. I'm going to have to arrest you."

"What the hell--? When those people blow up Cascade, I'm going to be sitting in a holding cell? Captain, you know that I have a family!" Now despair was leaking through the anger. "Can I tell them at least?"

Agent Gilmore cut in quickly, "I'm sorry, but none of this can go outside. You know as well as we do that there'd be a panic in the city."

"I don't care about the fucking city panicking," Henri shot back. "I want my family safe. Simon - what if Daryl was living in Cascade? Wouldn't you try to get him out *first*?"

There was a tense silence before Simon said, "First of all, we'll make sure that this virus is never released. If we can disable the one near the reservoir, then we have a chance." A special unit was already on the way. There was some hope at least, and he could have done without this further complication.

Brown was right, and Simon was damn grateful that his son wasn't in Cascade at the moment. Tonight, the father would have to take a backseat to the police captain. Too much depended on him.

***

Blair realized he had nodded off, when he woke abruptly. Rafe had hit the brakes, and again, reminded of the accident and all that had followed, he could feel the cold sweat spread on his body.

The flickers of images made a gruesome kaleidoscope in his head, voices, talk about the virus, a drug, Greg, Molly dying and... Jim's father? Oh damn it.

"BriandidItellyouthat--"

No. It couldn't be. The terror he'd lived through this night was now taking its toll on him; there was absolutely no way that Rafe, who was standing outside the car now, illuminated by the headlights, was talking to -- Greg? Oh God. The moment passed, and Blair knew it wasn't a hallucination, and just as suddenly, he realized that Rafe most likely wasn't unaware.

He had to get away, and soon.

Slowly, he used his left hand to open the door on his side, trying not to make any sound. Then he slid out of the seat, praying that the two men wouldn't notice yet. His leg was still swollen, and there was no way he could actually run.

But he'd crawl if it meant getting away from this place.

***

The news on Rhonda wasn't good. She had only woken briefly once since her fall, and wasn't able to make herself coherent. Something... she'd been meaning to say, the doctor had thought, but no communication was possible, and she had quickly faded out again.

In the meantime, the first vial with the virus had been found at the reservoir, and Serena and her team were feverishly working on finding the system that would allow them to find the other ones.

***

"Damn. He couldn't have gotten far," Blair heard Rafe curse. He leaned against the tree trunk, wiping the sweat from his face tiredly. No, he wasn't really far enough away from the guy he'd thought of as a friend, and who was turning out to be a crooked cop; from the damned terrorists; from Cascade.

And he couldn't go any further, because the effect of those damn pain meds was fading.

"Hey, Blair," Rafe called, and Blair could swear he was grinning. "Do you want us to call Dale and tell him that he guy he trusts is in reality the cop sent undercover to apprehend him?"

Would he really do that? What a stupid question that was. Of course he would. Blair took a look at his bandaged hands, the gauze now dirty, stained. Continuously, every breath was starting to hurt again.

If he went back, they were going to kill him.

If he didn't, they were going to kill Jim.

He forced back a desperate sob, and then slowly, made his painful way back to where he'd come from.

***

With his next call, Jim was able to give names of men who had been chosen to set off the virus manually if the first plan failed. Not all of them, but he was hopeful that his colleagues would find further hints once they were able to interrogate them.

He still hadn't found out more about the drug, though. For some weird reason, they seemed to think that Blair possessed a sample of it, and had been given it by Molly.

Jim barely remembered her; she'd been at the loft only once or twice briefly. He felt sorry for Blair being betrayed once more by a girlfriend with a criminal mind, but it definitely wasn't the main problem now.

They needed a breakthrough, because he couldn't very well hang out with Dale until he decided to hit the button, so to speak.

Pascal returned, a smug, satisfied smile on his face. "Guess what, the package has just arrived. From what I hear from our contact, the police have arrested the scapegoat, and the virus is still top of their concerns. Isn't it a beautiful life?" He grinned. "JJ, I thought you might help us out with Molly's contact. Greg has already broken his hand for him, but he still wouldn't talk to us. We might need to get a little... personal, and you were always good with that."

The door opened, and for a moment, Jim didn't know if he should be more shocked about the state Blair was in, barely able to stand upright, or that the man holding him up by his collar was Brian Rafe.

***

It was early morning when Kim realized that her cell phone was missing; probably Blair had unintentionally taken it with him when the cop had arrived and rushed him out of the hospital. She shook her head to herself. The poor guy should have definitely stayed where he was. They hadn't exchanged any address or contact information, so she decided to drop by the police department before work and leave her address so Blair would be able to return the phone when he was back.

***

Just when he thought this night couldn't get any worse... He knew, damn it, that it was all show, but after all that had happened tonight, Blair thought the image of Jim, drinking whisky with the guy in the suit, was really the last straw.

"Who's this?" Jim sounded irritable. A virtual stranger, and probably, at that moment, he was. Not that Blair wasn't grateful, but he also wondered why Rafe hadn't blown Jim's cover. Yet? Or maybe had he actually bought the story that Jim was on these people's side? Hard to say which was scarier.

"Oh, this is the guy who's going to be worth even more to us than we initially thought," Dale explained. "Unfortunately, he escaped for a while, and we don't know yet who he has contacted. Anyway, I can't believe he hasn't been thoroughly searched yet. James, why don't you do it now?"

Just for an instant, Blair thought he had seen Jim flinch; react to this impossible request in any way. Then Jim's face was impassive, and he asked, "What are you hoping to find?"

"Molly claimed that he had the sample." Dale's face turned hard. "And I want it. So give it a go, and if you don't find anything, we can always go back to *interviewing* him."

"You are so wrong. I never had anything of what you--"

In an instant, Dale was up from the armchair where he had sat, slapping Blair and effectively knocking him onto the floor. The fact that Jim hadn't even blinked hurt even worse than anything else.

***

"Was this about money? Come on, you need to come clean here. I'm sure we can help you."

"But there's nothing to tell! I don't know where he got the damned badge number."

Simon Banks felt a pang of shame when he realized that the man across from him, one of his best detectives, was close to tears.

So it was a welcome interruption when Connor came bursting into the room, a young blonde woman on her heels. She looked fairly intimidated.

"Captain," Megan said breathlessly, "I'm sorry, but this is important. Kim here might be able to help us find San-- Blair."

***

"I'm not carrying any drugs, and I don't know anything about them." Blair was staring back at them defiantly. Jim thought that if he didn't know him, he'd be tempted not to believe him. His heartbeat was all over the place - but the reason was not so much the accusation, but what would follow. "Hell, you guys haven't had enough for tonight?"

Jim knew that he had no choice, and he hated it, but that didn't change the fact.

Pascal laughed. "Come on, JJ. It isn't like you've not done this before, right?"

With a nonchalant shrug, Jim stepped forward. "All right, Chief, let's get this over with."

"Get your hands off me!" Blair's anger was raw and desperate. And it wouldn't get him anywhere. Foolishly, Jim had hoped that the use of the nickname would create some atmosphere between them in which this absurd situation would become more bearable, but he'd been dead wrong.

//Sorry//, he could only say in his mind as Blair tried to squirm out of his grip, and he had to tighten his hold to the point of leaving bruises. "Stop struggling, damn it!"

There was a mirror on the far left wall, and from the corner of his eye, he could see Dale smirk. And Brian Rafe, the bastard, he was enjoying himself, too. Fortunately, he was clearly under the impression that Jim was here under his own steam, and was part of the plot. Making it look like he was prepared to harm Sandburg, would be ever so helpful.

Blair, however, seemed shell-shocked, as if the reality of what was going to happen was only just registering with him. He was trembling. "No," he said incredulously. "Fuck, no."

Jim could sympathize. It was humiliating to be on the receiving end of a strip search. And often enough, that was the whole point of it. He suspected Dale and Pascal of the same intention. As for Rafe, his agenda remained unclear at this moment. "Turn around," he said, sharply enough for the words to be understood as a command.

For a moment, he feared Blair would roll his eyes at him, but he didn't.

"Good." Frisking was easy, and over much too soon. It wasn't something the men in the room, watching intently, would be satisfied with. They'd jump at every opportunity to exert power.

//And what about you?//

He pushed the uncomfortable stray thought aside, carrying on with his task. The skin he revealed felt warm to the touch, but he couldn't say if it was from embarrassment or a possible infection acting up in Blair's hopelessly overtaxed body.

The smell of unshed tears was disconcerting. Because, Jim knew, no matter how many times he'd apologize, or how perfectly well Blair understood that complying to the terrorists was their only option for now, something between them would still be broken.

Carefully, he removed the shirt without even touching the bandages that weren't their pristine white anymore. The tee was next, and then Blair went completely still as Jim's hands went to loosen his belt.

"Please," he said. "Don't."

"Sorry, kid. These gentlemen want answers. And they're going to get them."

"You bastard."

The slur made Jim's undercover persona slip for an instant. They were so close to ending it all, but they couldn't afford any any mistake now. He wondered about this mysterious drug the men thought Blair possessed. If it was that important to them that they created the whole mayhem about Chief Warren and the virus around it, it had to be of enormous value.

But he'd also seen the files from the crisis intervention team, had memorized the figures of possible deaths should the virus be released. It was unacceptable. He kept his mind focused firmly on the warnings of the team members, the ghastly images they had shown of the effect of the virus.

Not his tribe.

Pascal had been right, of course, he had performed strip-searches before, and he could do it quickly and efficiently without making a fuss - which he did. Emotions would have to wait. Apologies would have to wait. And still, Jim couldn't fool himself, because here and now made all the difference.

Blair had been enduring the rest of it silently, but there was no mistaking the tension in his body.

"Now." Dale and Pascal shared a grin, before the photographer said. "Didn't you forget something?"

Jim turned around to face the terrorists and the man who was his colleague, or maybe no longer. "That's it," he said, not needing to feign anger. "Anything else, you'd hardly find with a manual search. Unless you've got all the medication and stuff you need to really make sure, I suggest we end it right here. If he's as clever as you think he is, he wouldn't store it in Cascade anyway, let alone in his body. Of course, that's not to say he didn't find a way to leave it wherever he got himself bandaged."

Pascal gave him a knowing look and then just smiled. "I see, JJ. Three hours before the virus released, that's plenty of time. We're going to get us all we need, and why don't you spend some quality time with him meanwhile... I'm beginning to think here's the reason why you never cared much for the sexy girls I had to offer."

"Think what you want," Jim returned curtly. "I'll see if I can get him to talk without an audience."

Dale nodded. "Take any of the rooms upstairs. Just remember your flight is going in exactly 85 minutes."

Jim gave him a wry smile. "Don't worry, I'll make sure I won't miss it."

All during the exchange, he'd kept his hands on Blair, not so much to show off power as it might have looked like to Dale, Pascal and Rafe, but to make sure the younger man didn't collapse. His breathing and heartbeat sounded alarming.

***

When they were alone in the two-room suite, Jim went to identify and disable the surveillance equipment. It had absolute priority, he'd told himself, and even if it was true, maybe it also had to do with the fact that he was avoiding looking Blair in the eye.

There were several comfortable-looking armchairs in the first room, but Blair had simply settled for sitting up against a wall, his eyes still somewhat glazed, his legs unable to hold him up any longer. He hadn't said a word yet.

It was a matter of minutes to find all the bugs and destroy them, and to the last one, Jim said, "I'm sorry, Dale, as I said, I'd rather do this without an audience. Might work better."

He'd been so focused on this task that he hadn't heard the opening and closing of the door, the presence of another person in the suite. The muffled cry in the other room was a clear indication though, and when Jim was back there in an instant, he was just in time to grab a startled Rafe by his collar and pull him back. "What the hell are you up to?" he hissed.

A merely rhetorical question, when looking at Blair's rumpled clothes, the expression of pain and betrayal on his face.

Rafe took his time straightening his clothes, and gave him a smirk. "Joining in on the quality time? Look, Jim, you might not like it, but you're both kind of depending on me now. On me not telling that JJ's been on the wrong side all the time, isn't that right? Come on, everybody in Major Crimes knows what your *partnership* is all about. You let me in on the fun, and I get both of you out of here alive."

"You're insane." The worst thing was, with what had just happened, Jim could tell that Blair didn't entirely trust him to prevent the worst.

"Maybe. So is Dale, but it seems like he's still holding a city hostage tonight, quite an accomplishment, I'd say. What's it gonna be, Jim? Let me have a bite, or are you willing to sacrifice yourself and the entire city for--"

"Shut up!"

Rafe shrugged. "Your choice. What do you think is going to happen once the guys have their equipment set up? Pascal does have stuff like this; he uses it in his *movies*. You can't always be the hero."

He was quite right; Jim knew that. And there was no way he'd let this get out of hand any more, but he could feel Blair's distrust, the sharp tang of his fear almost enough to distract him. Jim had been right. Something had been damaged the moment he'd stripped his friend naked in front of the eyes of those criminals who had tortured him already - one of them their co-worker.

There wasn't any easy way out of this.

"So what did they pay you? Or were you in on it all along?"

Rafe laughed at that, an ugly sound jarring his nerves, giving him all the answer he needed. The only thing on Jim's mind at that moment was calculation. With the help of the information available already, Simon, Gilmore and their teams should be able to avoid the worst already. One of the men in the room with him was expendable.

And it wasn't Blair, even though he might have come to think that.

***

"So. When did you talk to Mr. Sandburg?"

Simon forced himself to speak calmly to the young woman who already seemed slightly freaked by the detectives' reaction to her simple request to take her phone number and give it to Blair when he returned. She had no way of knowing, of course, that they had been searching for him all night, too.

"I went to the hospital with him," Kim explained. "I think he got in a fight or something because he was injured, and I called an ambulance. Afterwards, I called the station for him on my cell, and he spoke to a Rhonda."

Megan looked away for a moment. Her eyes were bright when she said, "This is important, Kim. Can you remember anything about the conversation?"

Kim looked unsure. "We need your help," Megan kept prompting her. "Rhonda is my boss's secretary, and she had an accident shortly after she talked to Mr. Sandburg, so we can't ask her."

"Well... um, okay. I went outside, but I heard some bits anyway. He wanted to talk to Jim, but he wasn't there. There was a guy who came to get him, a Detective... Ralph?"

Simon shared an alarmed look with Connor. If Rafe had picked up Blair, why wouldn't he let anybody know? And of course, *he* knew Henri Brown's badge number. It would have been easy for him to impersonate his partner over the phone.

"Damn it," Megan said quietly. "That was close."

"Yes. I only hope Jim calls in soon. Chances are they are closer than they think. And in the meantime, we need to find the remaining vials." The last words were almost whispered. No need to make anyone panic.

***

"Too bad. I guess I'm going to have to chat with Mark, then."

Jim pulled him back from the door, a move that had obviously been expected, because Rafe launched into a fight immediately. Maybe he had been counting on this development, wanting to provoke it, because his moves were not the ones of a man who played around. Jim got a few punches in, but then, in a heartbeat, Rafe pulled something from the pocket of his shirt. There was a soft hiss. Jim reeled back, his eyes stinging madly all of a sudden, putting the other man at an advantage, as his own vision kept blurring.

There was the unmistakable sound of a weapon's safety catch being released, and Jim fumbled blindly for something that could be used as a weapon, cursing himself for letting Rafe blindside him - and then there was a thud.

When his vision cleared, he saw a rather shocked Blair standing over Rafe with the vase clutched in his hands, trembling. The bandage covering his right hand was soaked in blood, and he was obviously in a lot of pain.

"Thanks, Chief. Perfect timing."

There was no answer, no movement. Jim gently pried the vase from Blair's hands and tossed it aside. Then he grasped his shoulders firmly. "Come on, don't let me down here. We *are* going to get out of here alive, trust me."

Finally, Blair met his gaze, but there was only resignation in his eyes, of a kind that made Jim shudder inwardly. No hope.

"Yeah, maybe. But not anytime soon, right?"

"Serena has figured out that computer program. They must have found most of the vials by now."

Blair nodded in vague understanding. "And what about the other thing, that drug they think I have? Do you even know what they want to do with it?"

"Not yet, I'm... come on, Chief, I'm sorry. I had no choice."

Blair's eyes were bright with the pain he struggled not to show. "Right," he said angrily. "And just how far are you prepared to go tonight? Because let me tell you, I've had it. I can't take this anym--"

He stopped cold at the sound of a knock on the door.

"Come on in," Jim said, not caring about the fact that whoever that was would find Rafe's unconscious body. He had his cover story ready, and everything else, sadly, would have to wait.

Dale indeed looked startled. "What the hell is going on here?"

"He was attacking the guy... and let me tell you, I prefer a living hostage to a traitor," Jim answered coolly. "You got a problem with that?"

"Not necessarily," Dale said. "And how did you find out he was the mole? We had suspected this, but couldn't tie him to anything."

Jim laughed; very aware that the sound made Blair cringe. "Guess how. I think he hasn't told you he works in the same unit I used to be in until today. The rest of it, you've got to ask him."

Dale grinned at that. "Nice, thanks for that. Maybe we'll even have time for that later. Now I'm going to check if Pascal has everything ready for our... guest. We need to hurry up a little, the police will probably soon learn that they're meant to be sidetracked with the virus threat. See you."

"Yes." He waited until Dale had left them again, then turned to Blair. "Guess it's time to call in the reinforcements. The programmer is upstairs, getting slightly drunk, and Pascal is in the cellar. We need to get you out of here."

"How are you going to explain it?" Behind Blair's question was another, and that one struck. It said, 'do you even mean it?'.

"Dale has offered me a free flight to Seattle. I'm taking you along."

"But you're not going?"

"I need to check in with Simon; if they have found the vials, we can arrest these clowns; we've got enough on them now. Don't worry, Chief, I won't let them touch you."

He could tell that Blair wasn't very convinced. Wanting to say something that would change his friend's opinion, not knowing what those magic words would be, Jim opened his cell phone and dialed quickly.

***

"Give me a few minutes. He thought I didn't know these passwords, but I once saw him use them accidentally." Henri Brown shuddered. "I guess he suspected I'd seen something, or he wouldn't have set me up like this."

Behind his back, Simon shared a worried look with Connor. Obviously, Brown was in denial about his former partner, and in his situation, who could blame him? Had Rafe known exactly what information Brown had on him, he wouldn't probably be here to tell the story.

He, they all would have to deal with the situation later - the case would have to be closed first, and then they would be able to take care of personal issues.

Simon took a moment to worry about Rhonda, to hope that Jim and Blair would be all right wherever they were at the moment - and to allow the pride in his subordinates. Everybody was scared, if not for themselves, then about loved ones who were still in Cascade.

There was a tense silence for a moment, then a window opened on the screen showing several rows of figures.

"Bingo," Henri said grimly, and then, at the same time, the call came in that would inform them of the status of the vials' retrieval.

***

"They are going to torture him! Man, you can't let that happen. I know he's done some serious shit, but we just can't--"

"Stop it now, okay? He knew all that before."

Blair had gone from brooding silence to the near frantic attempt to save some shreds of rightness - somewhere, deep inside under the several layers of his undercover persona, Jim could sympathize.

Rafe, however, wasn't the priority. Serena's team had to have found the system behind the vials by now, and they should have gotten out of here, but Jim knew just as well he couldn't leave without uncovering the secret of the mysterious drug - it was why Dale had played the whole scheme tonight, the alleged murder of Chief Warren to cover up the alleged and certainly planned release of a deadly virus to - what?

"I don't get you," Blair said angrily, and it was clearly only a cover, too, because the fear and pain came across just as much. "Where is this going to end tonight? Or should I say, how far are you willing to let it go?"

"It's going to go as far as it has to, to get Dale and his buddies a life sentence, or better." He'd wanted to say more, but then he heard footsteps returning.

"Too bad," Pascal, the slime, said. "We'll miss quite a show."

"Well, yeah," Dale answered, "you can have that later. For now, we've got to prepare for the meeting. Timing's perfect - James is going to leave Cascade in less than an hour, and Greg will be here with the sample from the bitch's apartment soon."

"Too bad Greg shot her. She would have made a nice test subject."

Dale laughed. "Yeah, but we've got an even better one. Let's make sure that James doesn't get the idea to take the guy with him. He's quite Mr. Hatim's type."

"Come back here right *now*, okay? I swear I'm in no condition to deal with this shit now, so if you want to zone, you're... Jim."

Jim needed a moment to realize he was still clutching the door handle in a white-knuckled grip.

If he had got it right, and there was hardly the chance that he hadn't, their problems had just become bigger. It couldn't be a coincidence; it had to be 'the' Hatim.

35 minutes to go 'til the plane departed. He wanted Blair out of here in five.

***

Megan Conner leaned against the cool glass of the two-way mirror for a moment, taking a deep breath. She knew she was trembling, but it would pass; in a few minutes, she would go back and make William Ellison give up the rest of the information, because, her instincts were telling her all the time, that he was still keeping something from her.

Just a moment outside the room to compose herself.

The team had been successful; all vials had been found. She was aware that the threat wasn't completely gone, but this was a big step closer to the goal.

William Ellison didn't know any of this yet, and she wasn't planning to tell him anytime soon.

Determination renewed, Megan went back into the room.

***

"We never had any time for what I'd planned when we went into that room," Jim said pleasantly, making Blair cringe. "You don't have any use for him now that you've got your sample, right? Why don't I take him along for the ride? I'll clean up after myself, no problem for you."

The scary stranger was upfront again, and it didn't matter how many times he told himself it was all necessary...

His face still heated with shame, remembering the moments down in the spacious living room. That was even worse than trying to imagine what was going on with Rafe now, as shitty as that might be.

He wanted to cover his ears to the words, wanted them not to reach him, but it was a lost cause. Probably, he just couldn't think clearly anymore.

"Well, James, I'm afraid I'm not so sure about that... I've got a meeting coming up, and I could use him there."

"Well, it was worth a try," Jim said with a shrug; not acknowledging the disbelief that Blair knew had to be showing on his face. He wanted to yell, to just stop playing this charade, but of course that would be pointless. They'd only kill him sooner... they? The sudden fear felt like the touch of a cold hand down his spine.

No, he couldn't think-- Jim would do his best to save the world. But not at any cost, right?

"So, Mark," Jim went on, appearing too comfortable. "Before I go, will you tell me what kind of project is so important you had to create all this trouble in Cascade?"

Dale checked his watch and grinned. "Why don't we leave the little troublemaker with Greg and have that talk while I see you out? There's a car waiting for you to take, you to the hangar."

Jim didn't even blink as he got up in a fluid motion. "Sounds like an idea," he said.

***

The activity in the bullpen had just risen to a higher pitch, Simon observed. Henri's work had uncovered an address; it sounded very much like the description Jim had given earlier when relating what details of the drive he'd been able to determine while blindfolded.

But Agent Gilmore hadn't gone on the phone with her boss until Jim, in his last call, had mentioned the name Hatim. The man shouldn't be in the country, let alone Cascade.

And if this was really about some drug he was interested in, it was bound to be particularly nasty.

Jim had sounded very worried with his last call, and he certainly had reason to be. At that other time, he had gone to great lengths to make sure Blair wasn't even in the country while investigating Alain Pascal. With Hatim, the connection between Dale and Pascal now made sense, because the man's business was prostitution, trafficking and white-slavery on a larger scale - enough money involved it was worth the cost of sending the FBI and the Cascade police department on a wild goose chase.

Simon thought that the moment he'd made sure that everyone of his department had come out of this alive, he'd call Daryl.

No news on Rhonda yet.

Megan Connor had managed to get William Ellison to corroborate the information about Dale's whereabouts; she'd join the team who was about to go there and close down the place -- hopefully with Hatim present.

***

Blair didn't really care about the smug grin Greg gave him; he was still too occupied with being shell-shocked about the past few moments; Jim leaving just like this. //I won't let them touch you.// It seemed like an eternity ago.

Did he really still think he could turn this thing around? Because that must have been on Jim's mind; no way he would have left Blair behind otherwise, right?

It was too much of an effort trying to put the pieces together when the physical pain was returning full force. Not a chance in hell he'd get any good painkillers soon, but at least Dale had ordered no further torture. You had to be grateful for small favors, right?

***

No blindfold this time; of course they still thought he had killed the Chief; so Dale and his cronies had no reason not to believe Jim had any other intentions other than leaving Cascade behind. It had been a quiet arrangement between him, Simon, the Chief, his wife, and the two corroborating agents.

He'd wait until he was alone with the driver, then make his move and be back in the compound in no time.

It was one of the hardest things to do, leaving Blair with that bastard Greg, but there was no way they could have just run... There was too much at stake; it had been too dangerous, and after all, Hatim was to be considered.

There was a chance to get all of them off the streets, and Jim wouldn't waste it.

If they failed, Hatim would leave with the sample of a drug which could produce various symptoms of amnesia, with effects lasting much longer than the likes of Rohypnol or GHB. Poison in the hands of those who bought it, and if Hatim had taken the trouble of traveling to the U.S., there had to be many of them.

***

Blair could tell that Greg, for all his attitude, was tired, too. Figures; it had been almost 24 hours since this madness had started... he had the gun beside him on the table. If only he would fall asleep...

But then again, that wouldn't happen. The man was a killer, but he wasn't all that high up in the food chain, and he'd be aware of the fact that any slip would kill him. Dale certainly would, if he let their prisoner escape one more time.

Still, he had to watch; look out for every possible chance.

Because Blair was well aware of the fact that he was on his own now.

***

It was ridiculously easy to get back to the gate; the guard, of course, knew that the man in the driver's uniform wasn't the one he had expected - he didn't have a chance to report in, though.

Jim knew that Hatim had to be in the building by now, and that the arresting team was probably moving in.

The thing left for him to do was to get Blair outside before all hell broke loose.

***

"Could you get me some water?" The pathetic tone wasn't show at all.

Greg snorted; that, Blair could have predicted. "Please. It's not like I'd be able to go anywhere, and I'm really getting sick again. I'm sure your Mr. Hatim would so not appreciate it."

He could tell that the other man was, under his big, bad attitude, a bit unsure. Blair shuddered, thinking that there had to be a lot to depend on Hatim, if everyone was that worked up about his arrival - if he was important enough to threaten Cascade with a terrorist attack.

"Don't try any shit," Greg warned, getting up. "Mr. Hatim won't care about a bullet hole in your body as long as we keep you alive."

*Nice.*

Even a tiny movement seemed to be asking too much, but this was not the time for weakness.

Greg returned only a few seconds later with a plastic bottle, not a glass as Blair had hoped, but then again, this would have to do, too. He had curled up on the couch, the true image of misery.

Waiting for Greg to lean closer, every muscle tensing, he struck out; the small object he'd snatched from the table proving to be the effective weapon Blair had hoped it would be.

Greg reeled back with a yelp, clutching his upper cheek and eye, blood seeping though his fingers. It was enough of a chance for Blair to get his hands on the man's weapon, aiming it at him, if not very steadily, as he had to use his left hand.

"Idiot! You'll never get out of here alive!"

"Try me. Now get out of my way."

"Or else? You'll shoot me? I don't think so, punk. You're shaking."

It was true. Not so much from fear, though; Blair was far beyond that - he was also amazed that what he'd read about some years ago had actually worked. You could cause a person a serious wound with something as seemingly harmless as a sugar cube. It wasn't exactly common knowledge that you could cause a deep cut with it.

Jim would be so proud of him.

Pushing aside any thoughts of Jim, Blair slowly backed away, closer to the door.

"Yeah, so? Might be that my aim will be a little off. I'd probably get you in the nuts."

Greg was still laughing, an eerie sight with that blood trailing down his face, but he stopped when a shot rang out, clutching his hand in painful surprise.

//Don't look. Don't think... about what you've just done. Or going to do.// "Stay where you are!"

Blair reached behind himself to open the door, when the sound of voices was to be heard.

Greg grinned smugly. "They're already here. You ain't going nowhere."

***

Getting back into the building was a piece of cake, actually. Jim paused, cursing inwardly when the voices became clear.

Dale was laughing. "Greg, you're such an idiot. Got yourself shot by a guy who can barely move? And Mr. Sandburg, why don't you quit the antics now. You have no chance getting off the estate alive. Lay down the gun now."

At that, Jim allowed himself a grim smile. They had underestimated Blair - never a good idea, Even in the state he was in, Blair had managed to disarm Greg and take a shot at him. As it seemed though, they had cornered him now; time to move.

Another shot rang out, and then he was inside the room, aiming at Dale first, before the men ever had a chance to notice he was in the room.

Hatim had his arm around Blair's throat, pointing his weapon at his captive's head.

"You are amusing, Captain," he said. Not surprisingly, he remembered Jim, too. "Dale's men have this place under control. Even if you take me out, you'd never get out of here, especially not with him."

"I came in, didn't I?"

Jim allowed a self-satisfied smile to cross his face. "Give up, Hatim. The police are already here. Seems like those men didn't do a good job controlling the place."

The other man tightened his arm, staring at Jim angrily. "Don't you think I've got some good arguments on my side? There's a plane waiting for me, and this young man will be coming with me."

Jim could 'hear' the pain it cost Blair to breathe. He reached beyond to listen to the voices of Megan and Simon and other personnel from Major Crimes. Gilmore and some other Feds were also around.

They were close. No need to take a foolish risk now.

He watched Hatim closely, looking for any trembling of the hand that held the gun. At that moment, Blair kicked the man's shin with what strength he still had, making Hatim loosen his grip some, and when he raised his hand to pull the trigger, Jim shot to kill first.

***

"You'll be okay, Chief."

When Megan entered the room, her heart lurched in fear; her first thought that Jim was caught up in a delusion. Blair didn't look fine at all, but the blood and brains splattered on the side of his face didn't belong to him, and his chest was heaving with labored breaths, so he was very much alive.

She took a deep breath, fighting a surge of sickness at the sight; Jim seemed oblivious as he crouched beside Blair, brushing a matted strand of hair back from his face and smearing the blood further.

Behind her, Simon snapped orders to get in the paramedics. He, too, stopped cold when he entered the room. They had arrested Pascal among the first ones; Hatim and Dale were in here with another man, and from what she could determine, they were all dead.

Megan shivered involuntarily.

Then again, Cascade would be safe now; as the men behind the scheme to let a lethal virus loose, as well as bring a yet mysterious and dangerous new drug onto the market had been caught. The good had won, right?

She thought of Rhonda, and it must have shown on her face, because Simon threw her a concerned glance. Megan straightened her shoulders. "I'm fine," she said, anticipating the question, then cast another look at Jim and Blair who both seemed oblivious to their surroundings, for different reasons.

***

When they drove to the hospital after following the paramedics, the daylight was just beginning to steal stealing away, the reminder that twenty-four hours had almost come and gone.

During the drive, Megan informed him about what had happened at the station. "I think Rafe pushed her down the stairs. Damn it, we never even once suspected him."

"That's right, we didn't."

They'd go check on Rhonda, and Blair, of course, but it was quite obvious that he'd have to stay for a couple of days at least... the injuries sustained in the staged car accident would have been treated quickly, but it would take a while before they could even think about operating on his hands.

The thought of going home alone to the loft tonight was strangely comforting - because Jim knew that a lot of questions had arisen between them since yesterday, questions that would require an answer, but thankfully not tonight.

He just needed the quietude for a while.

***

Blair would have never thought it, but he actually felt relieved when the door closed after Jim and Megan, and he was on his own again. Decisions... would have to be made somewhere along the line; something that had become very clear in the light of today's and yesterday's events, but here and now was a small respite.

In which he even didn't want to think about whether the doctor had been telling the truth about being able to repair the damage to his hands, or about what the future would look like now... he'd begged the doctor for something to sleep, another highly unusual thing, but sleep seemed such a wonderful prospect right now that literally nothing else mattered.

Escape - if only for a while.

After hearing only small parts of the story, the doctor had agreed that Blair had earned it.

***

They all but stumbled into the loft that afternoon. Blair felt himself torn between the impulse to just go straight into his room and lie down, for he was still so very tired - or run. Not that he was yet able to run very fast, but the impulse was clearly there.

It was only made stronger when he saw parts of fishing equipment still standing in the corner of the living room. Those reminders of a time before everything went to hell seemed to mock him.

Jim had been following his gaze, shrugging self-consciously. "Sorry about that. Between the hours at the PD and the hospital, I didn't do much here."

"I said you didn't need to stay." The words came out sharper than Blair had intended for them, and he could see Jim flinch, but couldn't muster much sympathy at the moment. Indeed, he'd said it. Besides, he was willing to bet that going right back to work had been Jim's idea, not Simon's.

"Okay. Why don't you sit down first?"

Blair found himself spell-bound by those reminders - remainders - of what had been supposed to be a leisurely weekend. He was drawn into the memory of waiting for Jim, wondering whether to call him, when Molly called. It had all gone downhill from there...

With sudden determination, he walked into his room, emptying his duffel bag on the bed and pulling fresh clothes from the wardrobe.

"Chief, what are you doing?" Jim asked, leaning against the doorframe. He sounded just as tired.

Blair's movements went from hurried to frantic, as he stuffed clothes into the bag, clumsily, as he couldn't use his right hand, and the left one didn't hurt any less. "What does it look like? Man, I feel like I can't breathe. I need to... to be alone."

Jim didn't protest right away. Then he said, "This is not a good moment. Why don't you give it some time?"

Blair had finished packing and straightened with a wince. "Time for what, Jim? Until we can pretend nothing ever happened and go on, business as usual? I don't think so. Sorry."

"Where are you going?"

"Don't you worry, I won't be sleeping on the streets."

"Come on, Chief, don't do this now--" But Jim stepped aside immediately, Blair had to credit him for that, probably perceiving the rise in Blair's heartbeat before he did himself, before it registered with his brain that Jim could easily make him feel crowded.

"I'll be in touch," he said, then let the door fall close behind him.

Why was it suddenly easier to breathe?

***

Simon Banks hung up the phone, thinking of all the things he hadn't told Daryl, suddenly grateful that his son had relented and was now willing to pursue his college education before going to the academy. Not that he could talk him out of the idea completely, much as he might wish after a night like this. He wouldn't try, not really, was just aware of the wish, the logical motivation to keep loved ones out of danger.

Much like it was with Jim and Sandburg, only that their relationship was a tad more complicated than between father and son.

Walking back into the living room, he took a look at the clock on the wall, realizing he should have probably started dinner, but didn't feel very inclined to. Sitting on the couch, he wondered what the members of his unit were doing this moment, something he didn't do all that often, because with his work hours he had to draw a clear boundary as to where his job ended and his home began.

That day, however, hadn't been just about work.

With the climate they were living in these days, it was likely that there'd be more of them, bigger, more dangerous threats.

The doorbell startled him out of his dire thoughts, and he went to answer it.

Simon would have never guessed who his visitor was. "What are you doing here?"

"Can I come in?" Blair asked, wearily, like someone who'd come to the end of his rope. Not much of a surprise, given what he'd been through in a little less than 24 hours.

"Sure you can. Come on. Why aren't you in the hospital?"

Sandburg took a rueful look at his freshly bandaged right hand. The other one still bore the traces of his ordeal in colorful bruises. "They won't operate before the swelling goes down. Man, being right-handed never sucked this much."

"I can imagine." There were a lot more questions on Simon's mind, but he refrained from asking them. If Jim hadn't known about this, he would have called already., right? They were adults, able to clear things between them. Or not. Inwardly sighing, Simon thought that sometimes his job wasn't all too different from being a father to a teen.

Then again, after this case he knew that Jim and Blair would have to resolve some serious issues; it was quite clear from the statements he'd read.

"The guest room's yours," he said. "You're just in time; I was going to order some dinner. My treat - but Sandburg, don't you dare tell anyone."

Blair's grateful smile at that, he decided, was a reassuring start.

***

They had dinner together, companionable small-talk, until Blair dropped the bombshell.

"I didn't just come seeking asylum," he said. "I wanted to talk to you. I'm going to quit."

"You're - what? Oh, come on, Blair, give it some more time before you make a decision like this. What about your dissertation?"

Blair shrugged. "I could always change the topic; in fact I should have done this long ago. Jim and I have become much too... involved."

At Simon's startled look, he began to laugh, heartfelt. "Not that kind of involved! I've got tons of material by now. Still, you don't normally go living with your reseach subject - become friends with them." There was a hint of regret in his words. "Not sure if all of that is still true, but anyway."

"You talked to Jim about this?"

"No."

It sounded defiant, and Simon thought he was beginning to see what the problem was. "I'll be the first one to agree that that night was rough, but--"

"Look, I've been thinking about all those times you said I'm not a cop. Guess what, I came to the conclusion it's true."

"You may not be a cop, but I already told you that we value your contributions. That hasn't changed."

"Thank you, but... it's probably time to face the facts. Some things that happened..." Blair looked away as he spoke. "Don't get me wrong here. I know that Jim just did his job, and it didn't have anything to do with me, or our friendship. Still, I can't get over it, and that should tell me something." He laughed bitterly. "Not cut out for that kind of job, remember? That's why you should always listen to your mother."

"Now, come on. You're just out of the hospital, and you'll still have the surgery. Don't make decisions while you're shell-shocked, just as everybody else is."

"I should have made this decision a while ago," Blair said somberly.

***

Jim leaned wearily against the vending machine. He was kind of grateful his version of how those three men, Hatim, Dale and Greg had come to die, had been accepted, because if he was honest, those moments were rather blurred.

Of course they had been armed. Of course they wouldn't have hesitated to kill Blair and him, given the chance, so in the end, the Feds and Internal Affairs would go with it. They were all still sorting out the information, encrypted data, lists of buyers for the mysterious drug.

Still, he couldn't help thinking that it had been there and then that Blair had decided he couldn't live at the loft any longer, after seeing a side of his roommate that he had successfully tried to pretend it wasn't there.

There hadn't been any choice once he'd been in the game.

The danger was averted. Cascade was not infected with a deadly virus like it could have been.

He'd done his job. Still, somehow, Jim wished that he and Blair had already been on the road the moment Gilmore and her partner had walked into the bullpen.

One wish had come true though - Alain Pascal would go down, hard. The footage of underage girls and boys at his house would have broken his neck, figuratively speaking, even if his association with Dale hadn't.

***

"Jim. Go home. You've done more than your share."

Jim looked up from his cold coffee, giving him a wry smile. He looked tired. Hell, they all were.

There were some issues surrounding this case, though, that could not be solved by a good night's sleep. The same ones that plagued his temporary roommate.

"Sir, I think I better take you up on the offer, before you change your mind."

"You do that. Listen, I'm going to meet Amy for dinner tonight. Why don't you use that opportunity."

Simon could easily read all the things that Jim didn't say. //That's none of your business.// //Do you even think he'd talk to me?//

"Go," he just said.

***

"Jim. Hi," Blair said hesitantly.

"Hey, Chief. Simon said you could maybe use a hand with dinner."

"Oh, I don't know about that. I'm getting pretty good with using my left hand - but come on in."

Then silence, stifling the words once again as he followed Blair into Simon's spacious kitchen. But Jim had come with a mission, and he was determined to make this a start at least. They both knew that this arrangement with Simon couldn't last forever. And Blair would have the surgery on his right hand soon, so he'd need some help after that. Right?

"Look, I know how you feel about--"

"No," Blair interrupted him sharply. "I don't think you know that." He sighed. "You can't. One moment we're planning a vacation, the next my life turns a freaking action TV show on me! This was like - I don't know, something way out. A part of me still thinks it couldn't have been real, and another one is just scared shitless for the moment when I'll have to acknowledge that it was!"

"I know." Hell, he did. Jim had yet to inform Steven that their father had been part of a terrorist conspiracy.

Blair regarded him thoughtfully for what seemed a long time, as the silence fell again. Then he said, "I'm going to finish my dissertation, as soon as I'm able to use both of my hands again. What I learned out of all this - I'm not a cop."

"Chief." He was aware of disbelief coloring his voice. "You're not going to bail on me, right?"

"Don't you think I already did?"

"What the hell are you talking about?" The irritation showed in his voice, and that had been Jim's intention.

"You know it damn well, I wasn't much of a help out there."

"That's bullshit, Chief, and *you* know it. A woman you trusted helped kidnap you. They murdered her, and tortured you. You did pretty damn good, surviving."

Blair simply shrugged at that, obviously not ready to acknowledge his part. "I'm sorry about your Dad."

That was one subject Jim had wanted to avoid. He hadn't even wanted to see his father who was currently in Federal custody, as he didn't want more of that stupid conversation they'd had that night. Even more stupid than the things that Blair was suggesting now...

"Yeah, thanks. So... when are you coming home?"

Ironic, Jim thought, that it seemed to be harder to ask that question, in some way, than go undercover with a bunch of terrorists. For quite some time, he hadn't admitted to himself how much depended on the answer.

"I'm not sure yet," Blair said honestly, and they both knew what he hadn't said, 'not sure if ever.'

The rest of the evening was spent in an awkward ambience. Simon would not be pleased.

***

The next appointment at the hospital, a date for the surgery was set, and before Blair left the building, he went to see Rhonda, who still hadn't woken from her coma. He stood at the window for a while, looking at her still form, wondering how close he'd come to ending up in that same bed.

What a mean twist of fate when the same person you worked around each day, trusted, turned out to be a killer...

No, it wasn't like he could really know what it was like. Jim had done the job that had been expected of him, right? It still all felt rather unreal, from the moment they'd been in Greg's car, him and Molly, and it turned out that the accident hadn't been such a coincidence anyway.

There were no gaps in his memory except for brief moments when the sheer pain had been too much; the department shrink he'd talked to had said that it was a good thing, but at the moment, Blair would have preferred a little amnesia... for those moments and everything that came after it.

***

Megan cast a thoughtful look at Simon Banks' office, where the blinds were drawn; Brown was inside with the captain. She still shuddered at the thought of a co-worker involved in this mess, and another wrongly accused.

In her early days, when she'd been lonely sometimes and had not yet realized that he was all surface, Megan had agreed when Rafe had asked her on a date.

She'd never forget the look he had given her when he was led away in handcuffs; smirking.

She didn't know if she'd ever forgive herself - for sleeping with the enemy.

***

So Blair hadn't said when he'd come home, but he had agreed to let Jim drive him to the hospital. He was early, so, decision made on the spur of the moment, he drove by his father's house, parked, got outside of this car.

And started, when he saw light in one of the windows; voices. One of them was his father's.

Like that other time, he made it into the house easily. This time, though, William Ellison wasn't surprised. "Jim," he said. "Come on in. It's time we talked."

"What the hell are you doing here?" Hand on his weapon, Jim was ready to draw it.

"Assisting in a Federal investigation," Agent Gilmore gave the answer.

***

"I'm afraid there's a lot we didn't know about each other," William Ellison said somewhat ruefully.

Jim still felt like his head was spinning. "How?" It was hard to believe. When his father had claimed to want to 'save' him from Blair's influence, when he'd called the senses a disability, that had nothing to do with an investigation.

"Well." William absently fingered the spot on his desk where a bullet had embedded itself only a few days ago.

Jim didn't really feel any remorse.

"Dale had approached me about business; he was looking for an investor, and his bogus project seemed rather interesting... of course, the FBI contacted me shortly after that. I've done other jobs like that before, so there was not really a question whether I was in or not."

After a pause, he added, "I didn't know Mr. Sandburg was involved, too, then."

"But when you found out, you didn't seem to care much, did you?"

His father didn't rise to the bait, though. "You know better than any of us what would have happened if we had tipped these guys off early. It would have been a disaster."

"You were certainly good enough, weren't you? They asked you for your opinion. And you practically told them it was okay to torture him for information *you knew* Blair never had in the first place!"

William winced at the volume to which Jim's voice had risen, but he recovered quickly. "You want honesty, Jim, I've got no problem with that now, and don't try to tell me you don't know how it is. This was a matter of national security. You do your job and hope for the best. And when it's one life against millions of others, you make your choice."

For an instant, Jim could only stare at his father.

"And yes, I always thought he was a bad influence for you."

Jim shook his head, attempting a laugh, but it came out all wrong. "Bad influence? How old do you think I am?"

"It has nothing to do with age. Do you think I didn't know what was going on right from the moment I saw you two together for the first time? I never--"

"Shut up." It was the only thing Jim could say. "You don't know anything about me, and you know what? I'm sorry I ever tried. Bye, Dad, and good luck with the job."

He didn't slam the door. Jim didn't need to. From the look on his father's face, he could tell that William had gotten the message.

***

Jim looked tired, Blair reflected, as he gingerly sat in the passenger's seat of the truck. Slowly, his body was starting to feel like it was belonging to him again, though he wasn't so sure when all the psychological ramifications would be solved, for either of them.

"Hey, maybe we should still go on that fishing trip. I could do with a few days outside of the city."

"Me, too." Jim sounded rather cautious, though, as if he didn't quite trust Blair's words.

Blair sighed. "Hell, we are going to sort this out some day, right? I want to. It's just that I needed to get this right first," he held up his hands, the right one still heavily bandaged. "When they're through with the operation, I'll know my options."

Embarrassing, but the memory still made him shake; and it was all there in a heartbeat, his utter disbelief when the screws started to move with a nerve-jarring noise...

"It's going to be all right, Chief. Don't worry too much."

And maybe he shouldn't, when all those bigger catastrophes could have been averted, and they had come out of this alive. Of course, Jim knew what he was talking about, and he had taken Blair's hand into his and used his sense of touch to gently feel for the damage. He hadn't tried to pretend - it wasn't a routine thing, but the surgeons at Cascade General were skilled.

Still, he was suddenly getting inexplicably nervous. Ridiculous. Nothing bad would happen to him. The bad things had already happened, no kidding.

The communication between them was still somewhat strained, but when Jim laid a hand on his arm for a brief moment, and it felt... like before, when touch was just reassuring, not crowding, it was a beginning.

And he still had to go through that surgery.

"You'll be fine," Jim said again. "And I'd love to do that fishing trip. Simon owes us some days off."

***

Megan's knees nearly sagged with relief when the news finally came. Rhonda had finally woken from her coma. She had only been awake for a short time, but it seemed like she was aware of her surroundings; panicked at first until the doctor had assured her that no bomb had exploded.

All else could wait.

Assessing Megan's state correctly, the doctor had told her to come into her office and given her a cup of coffee. "It's been long days for all of us," she said, and Megan nodded, gratefully accepting the steaming cup.

Dr. Childs shook her head, as she laid the newspaper on her desk aside to make room for their cups. "Honestly, I wish I won't be seeing you or any of your colleagues here for a while."

"I'll pass that on." Megan smiled, though to her embarrassment, she felt her eyes growing bright with the emotional overload of the past few days wanting to seek an outlet. She'd better get going and come back later when she had herself under control again. "Thanks for the coffee, Dr. Childs."

***

Simon Banks feared for the worst when he saw Jim sitting at his desk, frowning at something on his monitor.

"Any word on Sandburg?"

When Jim turned away from the computer, Simon was stunned about the brilliant smile on his detective's face. "Good news all the way, Simon. They're optimistic he can gain full mobility again. Rhonda will be okay, too. We've been damn lucky."

"That's right. What are you still doing here, then?"

"Cleaning up some stuff." Jim shrugged. "I swear, as it is, Sandburg would still be faster with this stuff than I am now. Anyway... about that vacation we never got to take..."

***

Luckily, Simon had quickly agreed to a few days off, not right now, but a little later, when Blair would have recovered enough to enjoy the outdoors again. That old joke about the paperwork, and how Blair did it so much better, had set off uncomfortable memories about *that moment*, when he'd been about to leave the precinct and had been called back to do an almost impossible job...

Then again, it was done now. Pascal had gone to jail. Part of him still wished that the carnage at Dale's house could have been avoided, but with Hatim holding the knife to Blair's throat, the other two men backing him up, it was hard to see how.

They hadn't come back to a perfect, *perfectly safe* world.

They were just lucky that the world as they knew it still existed, somehow.

***

Epilogue

It was covered as 'Poker Night', but of course there was so much more to it, the first time after the terrorist threat. Rhonda had joined them briefly; her husband would come and get her soon, but of course she needed to be here, feel the companionship with her co-workers who had, like her, put their lives on the line that night for the people of Cascade.

Rafe's seat remained empty that night.

There was still a lot of regret between Brown and Simon, though each of them knew they had acted correctly, and there had been no other way. It would take a while to get things back to what they were like.

//And isn't that true for each of us?// Earlier, Jim and Blair had decided that they wouldn't stay very long either, as they were planning to get on the road early tomorrow, like *that day*. Now that their relationship was approaching what was passing as 'normal' for them anyway, the physical reminders of the 24 hours from hell receding, Blair found himself thinking of Molly more often. Despite of what she had done, he was still searching for an adequate way to grieve for her.

Jim hadn't talked much about his Dad, saying that it was time he paid credit to who his real family was. Blair felt his cheeks warm at the memory, knowing what he was saying with that.

It was sad, sure, but it wasn't like Jim hadn't tried. So they were back to the close-knit circle of people they trusted, their friends, and each other.

Not such a bad thing, was it?

The doorbell rang, and Megan, who was the host this evening, went to let Rhonda's husband in. The couple left shortly after that.

Jim and Blair took this as a cue to say their own goodbyes.

Jim seemed to be hesitating in the barely lit hallway, maybe wanting to say something that would be more comfortable to say when he knew Blair couldn't see his expression as well, but then the moment passed, and he simply said, "let's get home."

***

"You know, while you were tying things up at the station, I've been finishing my dissertation." Blair sounded a little breathless on the last words.

"Really? Wow." A stupid reaction maybe, but it brought forth all the issues they hadn't solved yet with a bang. Reason enough to be at a loss for words, right?

"Yes, really. And I talked to Simon about it. He's confident that once I'm through with the defense, there might be room for a permanent position at the PD. Jim? Did you hear what I just said?" he continued when there was no answer.

Jim felt the silly grin spread on his face, the weight he'd been carrying around with himself the past few days finally lifting. "That's great news, Chief." The truth was, he'd never thought Blair would be much interested in continuing his work with the CPD after his dissertation was done, especially not with what had happened lately.

"I think it is. I wasn't so sure if you still wanted me as your backup, after--"

"Hey, don't be silly. I'd have understood if you had packed your things and got the hell out of Dodge after all this shit. So..."

Blair shook his head. "Sorry, man, You won't get rid of me that easily."

"That's the best thing I've heard in a while."

They both moved at the same time, in an embrace that hadn't felt this natural in what seemed a long time.

Later that night, still too wired too sleep, Jim anticipated how Blair would grumble about getting up early in a few hours, and Jim would tease him about it; how they'd go on with their daily lives, because Blair wouldn't be going after all. The bantering, the job, their friendship - trust - creating a bit of normalcy in a crazy world.

It worked for him.

The End.