Author's Note: This story was betaed by Xasphie and Lyn; thank you gals!

Warnings? There's talk about torture, but all off-screen, and in the past. Nothing too squicky, I hope...

Shadows Fall

By Demeter

EMAIL: Demeter

1. The Story So Far

We never talk about the details of Sandburg's captivity.

He doesn't want to, and I, cowardly relieved about that, soon gave up trying. It's something that remains present in the back of my mind though, a persistently nagging inner voice that won't let me be. A responsibility. It isn't over yet.

On the outside, to a stranger, things have to look a lot better than they did before. As soon as he was back on his feet again, Blair hurried the process of finishing his dissertation that, again to my relief, wasn't the one on Sentinels, on me. I learned that he'd always pursued the closed-societies-thing as a kind of backup plan, which he considered necessary to put to action now.

Just like that.

The most important thing was, according to him, that we'd find a way that allowed us to keep working together. He was unsure whether I'd see the necessity, too, while I was secretly giddy with joy when I realized it was true, he wouldn't leave, not even after the things I'd thrown at him during the Alex disaster... but neither of us said it aloud. Figures, right?

Together with Simon, we worked something out, and now Blair has the status of an official, and paid, consultant to the PD. Which means we possibly have to lend him to another department sometime in the future, but for now, he's back with me.

He's had some counseling, but again, we don't talk about it.

Well, it sure isn't the perfect happy-ending it seems to outsiders.

Not that he isn't doing a great job. It's easy to see, and if anything, we're even more successful as a team, now that it's official. On the outside. However, you don't need to be a Sentinel to observe the changes; I see it in the looks of our colleagues, but particularly Simon and Connor, that they notice them, too. For once, he's way too quiet. Right, I used to complain about how he was talking too much, but this is... just not right.

The few weeks that we were separated under such dramatic circumstances, have left him aged, or so it seems to me. It's not anything too obvious, but in his eyes I read some of the things he can't say. They're the eyes of a man who has experienced terror beyond imagination.

I wish I could do anything to help him. The question is how, when we never even really could talk Alex through.

***

Simon had assigned me to an undercover job that would take a couple of weeks at the least. Much depended on it; the preparation alone had taken three months. At the same time, Dr. Stoddard made another offer to Blair, a three-week expedition to Turkey. The decision wasn't an easy one. If I encouraged him to go, maybe that would drive him away for good. Mind you, those days, we hadn't really solved the dissertation issue yet. Still, that kind of space could be just what we needed to get back on track again, to somehow overcome all the misunderstandings and start anew.

I told myself that even though I hated the thought of him going. On the other hand, if he was around, he'd insist in being part of the undercover job, not taking no for an answer. He'd weasel his way in some way, any way. I knew he was capable of that. When he showed up as the creative writing teacher at Starkville... let's say, I've failed him a lot, but I know better than to underestimate him.

This might sound a little paranoid, but with the nature of this investigation, I'd rather have him on another continent, safe from harm.

The man we were after, Edwin Sanders, was some kind of cross between Hector Carasco and Lazar, as dangerous as the two of them would have been together, with the money and the influence to buy politicians and let people disappear if he wished so. Until now, pretty untouchable. I would play the frustrated underrated cop who was eager to turn the tables on his fellow officers, applying for a job in the protection department, and given my insights into police work, this was an opportunity too good to miss. Even though I was going by my own name this time, it was Curtis coming alive once more.

And I knew that Blair was worried, that he was searching for a way to get in on this.

No fucking way.

"You still don't trust me," he accused, and the hurt puppy dog eyes weren't all show, I knew.

"That's not true." We were at the loft, having dinner together, and I couldn't suppress the thought that it would be the last time in quite a while we'd be doing this. I would miss him, and still it had been only a few weeks ago that I'd kicked him out.

An explanation doesn't give you excuses. "You... died."

He flinched at my words but didn't look away. I did. "I don't think I could take that again." Before the moment could become all too emotional and I had to question why my eyes were stinging suddenly, I tried a different angle. "Anyway, you'd be a fool to turn Stoddard down once more. It's only a few weeks."

"That is not the point! We have no way of knowing what residual influence of what happened in those pools is still there."

"So what do you suggest? A vacation?"

He made an exasperated face, then said, "Really, Jim, I need you to work with me here. I understand I can't be part of the operation. But - what if something happens with your senses and I'm way across the Atlantic? I'd rather not risk that."

"Is that what the vision meant?" I said, defiantly. "That we have to spend the rest of our lives together, joined at the hip?"

Blair had pushed his plate from him then and stood up from the table. "You know, I'm beginning to think that expedition is, like, a brilliant idea."

Later, we apologized to each other, hurriedly, without really trying to get to the bottom of things, a pattern that had become disturbingly familiar by now.

***

Undercover work is tedious, demanding, more than anything else, as you can't ever afford to let your guard down, not for a minute, because it could get you killed. I managed, my senses mostly behaving and giving me the extra edge to hurry the process. About a month later, the big bust was happening, going down smoothly.

It was almost too good to be true. Bad guys behind bars, good guys going home - taking a long hot shower, then maybe have some dinner delivered, in that order. I knew Sandburg had returned from Turkey a few days ago, four, exactly and I was really looking forward to the reunion.

I'd like to say there was nothing out of the ordinary, nothing that could have warned me...but the night before, I had this dream. It was the jungle. The howling of a wolf. I was trying to locate the sound, failing all the time, because it seemed to echo through the scenery. Those fragments were enough to set my instincts on edge, and at the first opportunity to talk to Simon alone, I knew before he told me that something had happened.

His expression was so grave that I feared for the worst; I was all but yelling at him to tell me the truth.

"Not here. Let me drive you home and I'll tell you everything."

I couldn't bring myself to say the words out loud; I just stared at him. He understood anyway, almost flinching away from my gaze.

"Jesus, Jim. Not that. He'll be okay," Simon said firmly, and I didn't object anymore.

Anything else, we'd overcome.

Or so I had thought.

***

Looks can be deceiving. When I first saw him in that hospital room, a regular one, he looked quite peaceful to me, sleeping, still and heavily sedated. A bad fracture to his right leg, so they'd told me, but the surgery had gone well.

Only a few minor scrapes to his face that didn't even begin to tell the story of what he'd been through. All in all, taking in his appearance, I could have almost fooled myself with the idea that, after a few days here, I'd just take him home and we'd go on, business as usual. Almost.

I lean forward a little in the ever-uncomfortable piece of hospital furniture, reach out my hand until I can curl my fingers around his wrist, loosely, but needing the connection.

Holding on to what I'd almost lost forever, though it will be some time until I can face the horror that comes over me at that idea. For now, I have taken refuge in anger - not exactly a surprise there, is it? - having accused Simon of some things you shouldn't really say to your friend, let alone your superior.

It isn't because of some accident that Blair is here now, nothing that happened just the other day or something. No. All taken together, the nightmare had lasted a couple of weeks, starting shortly after I had left for the undercover assignment. It wasn't all that long before a special task force in Turkey had stormed the camp of the terrorists who were holding the members of the expedition hostage. There was only one survivor, as the other hostages had already been killed.

The captain had argued over the numbers of lives we had saved for sure now that Sanders was behind bars, with the damage the man already done, and that moment I wanted to strangle him for not having taken me out earlier.

Simon handled it pretty well, though I could tell that some of the things I'd said struck, just like I wanted them to. "And I tell you I don't care about anybody's fucking life when he was almost killed! God knows what they did to him, I could have..."

"That's enough, Jim! There was nothing, I repeat, *nothing* you could have done. It was out of our hands; the local authorities handled it, Joel and Megan went to bring him home. And if you're done with this little tantrum of yours, why don't you go and see Sandburg? I'm thinking, just maybe, that he needs you now."

Nerves raw, senses on the edge, I had taken it one step too far, "Joel and Megan, huh? You couldn't find the time in your busy schedule to go there?"

Simon just shook his head, nearly throwing me out of his office after he'd ordered Joel to drive me to the hospital. I know I'd been terribly unfair; an apology would be appropriate but later. I stormed out of the bullpen then, not ready to acknowledge the truth yet. It hadn't been an easy decision for him to just stay here, but with the big operation going down here in Cascade, his hands were tied.

Despite my protests, Joel insisted on driving, and taking one look at my shaking hands I silently, gruffly ascertained it was probably a good idea.

Then I got to see Blair, and I could think straight again.

We Sentinels are really easy to please. All it takes is one particular human heartbeat nearby.

"Thanks the Gods for Guides," I whispered, and that sounded silly, like a commercial or something, but Joel, who had just brought me another coffee, didn't laugh at all.

He still looks peaceful, no nightmares disturbing the drug-induced slumber. We'll save that for later, I guess. It wasn't like that when Megan and Joel flew down to Turkey to bring him home. I heard only bits and pieces about it, but their looks say so much more than their words, and words were enough to play the torturous movie in my head.

When he first woke up there, he was screaming and flailing violently, not quieting down when they restrained him. Fucking restrained him, a man who'd just survived almost two weeks of captivity. Torture. The thought makes me want to destroy something, take out this overwhelming rage, and damn, hopelessness, on anything, anyone, knowing how fruitless it would be.

And who knew Connor would know the Turkish language well enough to join forces with a doctor, some Dr. Ergül who proved to be very helpful and understanding and much more capable of treating a kidnap victim than the orderlies who'd made that bad mistake.

Megan's shaken by the whole experience. Of course she puts on a brave front, but she can't fool me. Not because I'm a Sentinel. It's because she's too much like me. I can read in the interactions between her and Joel that they share something that can't be simply passed on by telling, summarizing.

And there's a voice inside me that screams, it should have been me instead of them, I should have been there. Blair is my best friend, my Guide, and where was I when he needed me most? Earning a few more feathers in my cap, no doubt having earned the cop-of-the-year crap for just another year as well. Superhero cop, yeah, right.

There's a hot wetness on my face, and I wipe it away harshly, angrily, disgusted at this bout of self-pity. It's only the gentle vibration of Sandburg's pulse under my finger that keeps me from crossing that thin line to losing it again, keeping me in the here and now.

"I'm here now," I say to the still figure in the bed. "You just concentrate on getting better, and I'll be all you need."

***

Dr. Delaney, a tall woman in her late forties, with salt-and-pepper hair in a stylish short cut and serene blue eyes, had me informed about his injuries in detail, and my mind easily filled in the gaps as to their origin. Cuts and burns. //Knifes and electroshock.// I certainly appeared quite calm sitting in her office while we discussed the facts, clenching my hands into tight fists under the table.

She explained that the staff in Turkey had already done a great job fighting the fever and infection that had occurred, and if all went well, I should be able to take him home within a few days.

That was good news at least. I made another clumsy attempt at asking her a direct question, failing, but she had understood anyway and told me no signs had been found that indicated sexual assault, not any that could have been proven by the time of hospitalization anyway. Still, I was infinitely relieved at that, though I wouldn't have been too surprised; it was a way bastards like the ones who held the scientists hostages exerted power. Pain was one aspect, humiliation another; eventually you wouldn't be able to tell where one ended and the other began. Images of Garrett Kincaid flashed in my mind, then Lash. I shuddered, which induced Dr. Delaney to put a mug with hot coffee in front of me. Freshly brewed; I could have kissed her.

It was this unlimited curiosity, the way he communicated joy of living, unfiltered and authentic that made Blair so enticing for many people, but that light didn't just attract the well-meaning ones. I needed to feel that I was protecting him - even if I had done a shitty job here recently - and I saw that in others, too, Simon for example. Joel, Megan, you name 'em.

Others, like Lash, were attracted by the bright shining soul that was Blair Sandburg as well. 'Who Am I Now?' Not to protect, but to submit. To consume it.

I hadn't been there, but when Joel talked about the greedy looks Kincaid had given Blair that day in the bullpen, I wanted to pay the jerk a visit in his cell, and if that had been possible, I'm not sure if he'd survived it.

It's not like Sandburg can't hold his own. He went through a terrible ordeal, and came out of it alive, the sole survivor.

I guess that makes us even--

I hadn't even noticed when Delaney had tactfully left me alone in her office, exactly that moment when I needed a minute to mourn this fact. I wept. It had to be done now. Later, I would have to be strong for him.

***

2. Home

The elevator's out of order. It's not like either of us is honestly surprised. I look at Blair for a long moment, and he's shaking his head, no. "Come on, Jim. I've walked with crutches before, I can do it. Just don't let me fall down the stairs."

"Yeah, right, your humor's adorable."

"I know," he just says, smiling.

Our endurance, his and mine both, lasts for one flight and a half. The progress is slow; he is hurting, but stubborn. The latter, I see as a good sign. Other than that, his heart is racing, his legs trembling; a thin sheen of sweat covering his pale face.

"That's enough," I declare. I have no intention of spending all evening in the staircase, and I tell him so. "Just don't get used to it, this'll be the last time I carried you over the threshold."

"I'm glad," he grumbles as he's studying the floor intently, his face flushing with embarrassment. "Isn't that just a guy's dream."

I'm shaking my head, smiling at his antics that Sandburg is missing because he still won't look at me. Time to get this over with. As I heft him up, I'm shocked; of course I know he's lost weight, but to actually feel it this way is another story, regardless the weight of his leg cast. "We have got to work on your diet," I say, trying to let it come across lightly, but I know he knows what I'm thinking.

Really, we don't handle drama very well.

"Damn. I see a whole nightmare of Wonderburger Specials coming up," he quips, knowing also that I'd smack him across the head, lovingly, right now if I didn't have my hands full.

To make the day complete, our neighbor Mrs. Claris from 309 comes along the hallway, smiling broadly. She's a sixty-year-old widow, a nice enough woman. Problem is, she thinks we're the mother of all happy-endings, and I can only hope she won't make any likewise comment, please, not today.

"It's good I've seen you two," she greets us. "Just so you know, you won't have to worry about groceries. Detective, your boss was here, wanted to take care of it, but I told that boy to leave it all to me, I've got the time while he's got to catch some criminals, and I know what you guys usually buy. Oh, and it's good you're both back," Mrs. Claris says seriously, and I thank her.

I thought Blair was too out of it to follow her, but the choked sound, a barely repressed laughter, tells me otherwise.

"*That boy*?"

***

3. At work

Our first case after Blair has gotten a clear bill of health is a kidnapping which requires for us to work with the assistance of two FBI agents. Fortunately, Annette Myers and Bernard Hanks are nothing like the ones we met before, though I am not sure how much that says in comparison to Mulroney or the first impression I got of Drennan... Myers and Hanks, however, want the case to be solved in the first place. They haven't even questioned Blair's status as my partner, which has initially won them some points with me.

The victim is the son of a very wealthy Cascade businessman, and so far, the case pretty much follows its own logic. There was a ransom which demanded one million dollars brought to a location to be announced later, by Fielding senior, and him alone.

All in all, it doesn't look like a pro's agenda. That can work in our own favor, as long as they don't panic. There is more than one kidnapper. I identified at least three different brands of after shave at the scene, a parking lot behind a tennis club.

Right now, we're at Fielding's house, waiting for the details of the money transfer.

Our temporary co-workers are outside on the porch, Myers on the phone with their boss. I resist the temptation to eavesdrop and direct my attention back to my partner. He's tired, we both are, but there's more to it, the lines of pain in his face are easily visible for me. He turns away from my scrutiny, pressing his hands against his temples.

I know without asking. One of those headaches again. They didn't start right away, not until a few days ago, almost three months after he was back home.

"This is so fucking unfair," he says now, quietly as though not to aggravate the pain. "I remember most of it anyway. It's not like this shit helps block anything."

Which makes me wonder, what else might be there, but I don't say it out loud, instead I leave my place by the window where I'd been watching the FBI agents, come to stand behind him, and slowly, very carefully, place my hands on his shoulders. It's okay, now, he doesn't flinch from my touch anymore, even with a vaguely unexpected gesture like this.

"Let me try something," I say after checking that Myers is still talking on the phone. I take his hands away from his head and replace them with mine, starting a light massage. Sometimes, I have to admit, I like having these senses. A lot. Of course I can't banish the fact he should be probably at home and resting instead of this, but it helps.

"Thank you," he sighs. "You've just made it much more likely that I'll survive to the end of this day."

I can't think of any smart retort, and it makes me kind of grateful that Hanks and Myers return before the moment can get any more sentimental.

***

We get the call and this time, the kidnappers tell us the location where Mr. Fielding is supposed to meet them. In our small group, we can't stifle a wry grin when the man names an address in the warehouse district. Where else? It's the bad guys' favorite. Until now, it's been pretty much cut and dry. With the careful use of my senses and the Feds' high tech surveillance equipment, I think we're all set.

Three heartbeats from within the building, which makes me frown. Either the kidnappers aren't all there, or... Using smell instead, I meet with the familiar brands of aftershave I'd catalogued at the scene, and... I start coughing; the smell is probably bad to the men inside the building, but to me, it feels overpowering.

"Hey, easy. What is it?"

I hold up my hand, partly because I want to listen in to be sure, partly because I don't want to have to tell him that there is a dead body in the house. And yes, the other men are calmly talking to one another, awaiting the older Fielding to bring the money for the son they already murdered.

I alert Myers and her partner.

***

We managed to bring all of them down, but there were some details about the arrest that had me worried. They didn't sit well with Simon, either.

"What the hell were you thinking?" he shouted. If it hadn't been so damn tragic, I would have been relieved I wasn't the one on the receiving end for a change. The captain was as mad as I'd ever seen him, and certainly he'd never been that mad at Sandburg. He had reason to, even if I silently sympathized with my partner's actions.

Blair hadn't known Fielding personally or anything, but the way the young man had been treated by his kidnappers, beaten up, abused, killed in the end, had him way pissed off. That was understandable, wasn't it? Still...

"Come on," I said. I just couldn't help it, even though I knew my partner was perfectly capable of defending himself.

"Did I talk to you, Detective?" Simon glared at me while Blair replied, "Arresting a killer. I think. Excuse me, I don't really get what the problem is here."

//Uh-oh.//

"The problem is," Simon's voice was deadly calm now, and I feared for the worst, suspension or anything, as he continued, "that our perp had to be treated by a medic before he could be taken into custody. Care to explain that, Sandburg?"

Predictable: "He was resisting arrest."

"That so?"

The question's directed at me now, and I hurried to explain I wasn't really there at the time. Great, now they were both pissed at me, having expected me to be partial to their respective versions.

"He's the one behind the plan, he kidnapped Jeffrey Fielding and killed him *before* he called for the details of the ransom. Sir, I'm still not getting what your point is." The flat tone was so unlike Blair, he sounded almost bored. As much as I despised this scene, I kind of understood Simon. It wasn't like Sandburg to act out anger that way. It's familiar though, something I can relate to, and I'm surely the last person that could judge him... but I was worried, too. He acted too much like the guy who, in Simon's opinion, had needed Jack Pendergrast to get him straightened out.

"I think IA will want to take a look at this."

"Fine with me."

Simon looked like he wanted to say some more, but he just shook his head in exasperation.

"Finish up with your report, and when it's done, I want you both to take the rest of the day off. And as to your earlier question, Sandburg, no, you're not on suspension. Yet."

***

4. Knowledge

There is no warning prior to his question, and even if its impact can't be denied, I think I have been waiting for something like this. A couple of days later, after work, dinner and a little TV, Blair asks, "Have you ever tortured someone?"

It is the end of the silence, I realize, as this question seemingly comes out of the blue, but not. The tension that's been building up had been leading to this moment, inevitably. And he wants, needs, the truth from me, not some sugar-coated version.

As I study him, I consider my options. I think he would catch me lying if I tried. Ironic. I can tune into his heartbeat as easily as other people switch on the radio, which no doubt gives me an edge in this department. Blair doesn't need Sentinel senses. He knows me too well, and so there's no easy way out of this.

Apart from the fact it's classified, of course, I don't want to talk about this. I'm afraid it will irrevocably change our relationship. That he won't turn to me anymore.

"Jim, please." He looks at me intently, and I'm tempted to loose myself in his wide-eyed blue gaze just to escape the intensity of his attention for a moment. Just how the hell does he do this?

//Neo-hippie witch doctor punk.//

//Shaman.//

"I did," I say, almost flinching at my own words, expecting him to do the same, but Blair seems to have expected this answer, relatively calm, his heartbeat slightly elevated, but not within an alarming range.

Just in case you were wonder, there really is a balance of power in our relationship. On a good day, I can reach him on a level that no friend, or therapist, or even a lover could. That's just the way it is, part of the Sentinel deal or not, but in any case, a practical fact. I can make him feel safe, or at least I could, and it's important for me to know that, considering the things I need from him, my Guide, on a daily basis.

His unconditional trust scares me sometimes, but what scares me much more is the possibility that this conversation will shatter the delicate truce we have accomplished.

I realize what I've just said and wonder if there's any kind of explanation that Sandburg will accept. Probably not. "It wasn't for fun," I add, trying not to sound defensive. "It was only once, and there was no alternative." Was there?

"I don't want any names or places, I realize you can't do that. But, please, tell me what happened. Only the bare bones so I can get a picture."

"You don't want to do go there." Without even noticing, I have lowered my voice to a mere whisper. I don't want to do this.

"I need to," he pleads, giving me that look. My partner is tougher than many think, certainly tough enough to hang out with me. He doesn't like to ask for help any more than I do, actually. This expression I have only seen a few other times on him, for once, when he asked me to get those chains off him that Lash had used to tie him up.

And I can certainly distinguish it from the times when he thinks the puppy dog eyes will get him everywhere.

"Why?"

"Because I can't stop wondering," he whispers back, both of us ridiculously acting like someone could be listening in on us.

The horror must have shown on my face because he hastens to clarify; "I am not afraid of you. I just want to understand. So far I only know my side of it."

There's no accusation in Sandburg's voice. But what he's getting at, I'm not sure I can help him here. Maybe he will be afraid when we're through with this.

"It wasn't so different from the thing with Brackett. People's lives were at stake, a lot of them. That man knew all the answers to avert a catastrophe, and everybody was under a lot of pressure." I can't believe I'm doing it. One step further, and this could actually get me straight into court, even as vague and cliché-laden as this sounds.

"How did you do it?"

I look away for a moment, to collect the images from somewhere deep in my memory, one by one, trying to think of a way to present them in a way that's rational. It is there, but the man in the scene seems a stranger to me. Carrying out orders in the name of national security, backed by the higher-ups. It wasn't about thinking whether I liked it or not. It was him or thousands of others. What good will it do now?

"Do you have to know?"

Something like anger flashes in his expressive face, for a split-second, then it's gone. "I still don't think you understand me. I'm not looking for someone to place the blame, believe me, I know who's to blame here." Blair turns away the moment his voice cracks. "I wish I couldn't remember their faces so clearly."

When our eyes meet again, his are bright, but the determination still shines in them. He won't let me off the hook anytime soon. He's *torturing* himself so bad over this, and I'll be damned if I didn't find out every possible reason here before giving him any more nightmare images to haunt him in his sleep. I reach out and, very slowly, in slow-motion almost, place my hand over his.

Blair doesn't pull away, but I feel the minute tremors; he's fighting the urge to do so.

"What would it help?" Looks like I'm pleading now.

His gaze flickers to our joined hands, then back to me. "A frame of reference? I know it's a lot to ask. I'm doing it anyway, Jim. Don't let me down here."

//I got to have a partner I can trust//, echoes in my mind. So that's only fair, right?

"I won't," I promise.

***

The man in the interrogation room wasn't on the list of Most Wanted murderers. He'd probably killed alright, and he obviously believed in the cause. He'd spit at the interrogators, saying he wasn't afraid to die, and that he wouldn't let his brothers down.

That man was also the best bet to find a lab where said buddies were keeping enough of a certain mutated virus, not unlike Ebola, to erase the population of a city three times the size of Cascade. Probably more.

And they were prepared to set it loose in about six hours.

"You're not afraid to die, that I already know," I told him. "Let's see how you handle pain."

***

Cuts and burns. //Knifes and electroshock.//

***

"Stop it! I'm telling you everything, but please, stop it!"

***

"You know," Blair says almost conversationally, "I never told you what the nightmares are about. It's drowning, but not in water. They stormed the camp in Turkey, you heard that, right? The others were already dead, there was so much blood, and then there was more, and when they got me out I was soaked in it, not all of it mine, and..."

"Blair." I want to make him stop, to not make this image any more vivid.

"...and when I start to dream, it's knee-deep, and someone's just holding me under. I taste it."

He ends the narrative abruptly, or I would have probably yelled at him to do so.

"You survived."

"Yeah. But it's always with me."

Frantically, I search for something to say, anything to end this near flashback. He's never talked about his ordeal in this much detail. Anything I say now, will have a particular weight, an impact that can't be taken back.

Of course, I'd like to ignore that I'm upset myself; he had to have been thinking about this a lot, the common ground of what I supposedly did in the past, and the things that happened to him. How can this knowledge not irreversibly change everything between us?

I'm not proud of those memories, but I saw the necessity in doing everything to extract the information from the perpetrator. There were other memories I could tell him about, about being on the other side, but it would sound too much like an excuse now.

"It gets better with time. I can promise you that."

Blair studies me for a moment as if to seek verification of my statement. That instant, I'm scared, and easily admit it to myself. Not because I've told him a lie. It is actually true what I've said, I know that for certain. My fear stems more from the possibility that he doesn't want me to be with him on that road anymore.

"Thanks for being honest with me," he says, getting up from the couch. "I really appreciate it - and I realize it's not easy for you either." Blair takes his jacket from the hook and shrugs into it.

"Where're you going?"

"Don't worry. I'll be back for dinner, and it's your night to cook, by the way."

And he's gone, leaving me with those memories I haven't faced in quite a while.

***

I'll have to get used to that; I'm not the only one who feels like they've seen it all when it comes to atrocities humans inflict on each other. Like a cruel streak of fate that has given him this knowledge, too.

It was this ultimate knowledge that had made me decide that Peru would be the last mission ever. We're both survivors, but there's still a difference. I'll have to tell him someday how much I admire him. Infinitely. Even with my training, I almost didn't make it back then.

It's really him who's the hero in this play.

***

It's already dark outside when I jerk awake from the sound of the phone. It's Blair, and he sounds miserable; instantly, I'm alert. And alarmed.

"Coul' you come'n get me?" he slurs into the phone.

I relax a little, realizing that he's obviously not in a life-threatening situation. We can deal later with the fact that this binge obviously has to do with our earlier conversation. Of course, I haven't cooked yet, so we could buy dinner on the way. If he's able to eat anything in his obviously drunken state, that is. "No problem, just tell me where you are."

"Don' know," Sandburg whispers, giving me a drunken giggle then.

Right.

"You don't know?" I can't think of anything more intelligent at the moment. In the background, the sounds of a bar are to be heard, so he's definitely not in any immediate danger, but this could become a problem anyway. "How come?"

"Jus' drove through town..."

"Okay, buddy, I'm coming to get you. Isn't there anyone you could ask what the name of this joint is?"

"Sure!" he says, enthusiastically, as if this is a brilliant idea he hasn't thought of yet. Despite myself, I have to smile. The kid's definitely a cute drunk, even if the subject that led us here is far from that. And that's where it stops being funny. I have the suspicion we're not even halfway through with talking. Seems like he isn't handling this stuff as good as he'd thought-

-- as I had hoped.

"Wait a minute."

I listen to the conversation on the other side of the line, shaking my head, as Blair says to someone, "This is Jim. My *very* best friend. He wants to talk to you."

"Hello?" an unfamiliar voice speaks into the phone, the tone somewhere between annoyed and amused.

"Jim Ellison here. Could you tell me from where I can retrieve my friend?"

***

I wish he would have considered some other way than to go out and get drunk all by himself, lonely, burdened with all this new information on top of the load he's got to carry anyway. But he's called me, so I figure he still trusts me, and I'm glad about it.

It's what I depend on.

I find him inside the bar, still chatting with the bartender. When Blair notices me, he turns to me with a brilliant smile, his cheeks flushed. " 'S so good to see you."

"I can imagine."

The bartender, who's been on the phone with me, flashes me an indulgent grin.

"Come on, let's get home."

"There's no place like home," Blair tells the guy, very seriously, as he uses the table to push himself off of the chair, swaying dangerously as soon as he's on his feet. "Whoa."

"That's right. How much did you have?" I ask, rhetorically, because that would be higher maths to him right now. He smells like a whole brewery, in any case, and of smoke from the generally thick air in the bar.

I block those sensations out, though, putting an arm around his waist to help him stay upright, which is obviously not that easy. I take a moment to acknowledge all this, his body heat, the closeness. The thought that I'd almost lost him.

This kind of rescue will be one of the easier jobs in a protector's schedule.

What has to come after that, has me worried.

***

"Shit, Jim, I'm drunk." It sounds as if he's only just realized it. Doesn't look so good, either, in fact, Sandburg regards the truck with a rather skeptical look. I wonder what's so bad about a ride home, but when I take a look at his now pale complexion, I realize what's going on.

"Oh, no. You know, I love you, but that doesn't mean I'll let you puke all over Sweetheart's interior. There's a dumpster over there; do you need it?"

He scrunches up his face as if giving that question some thought. "I'm going to puke from that smell alone... oh, damn. Yes, I do need --"

It's a good thing that dumpster is only a few feet away.

***

5. At night

We make it home safely, sparing Sweetheart any indignities. We had to stop twice on the way though, because Blair wasn't on best terms with a moving vehicle, or rather, his stomach wasn't.

"Why did you do this?" I ask while preparing some tea that he'd said would help with the nausea. Personally, I think that the smell will probably set him off again - reminds me a bit of that dumpster - but he swore it was a tried remedy. Okay then.

He's sitting, slumped against the back of the couch, eyes closed. "I thought I could do it - talk about that crap and then leave it behind me. Seems I'm not that tough after all."

I bring the steaming mug to the coffee table, while turning down smell one more notch. "I'm sorry," is all I can think of.

"It's not your fault," Blair says tiredly, accepting the tea. "Thank you." He takes a sip cautiously, then grimaces. "Damn, that tastes like shit."

"Smells that way, too. Are you sure this is the right stuff?"

"Unfortunately, yes." He continues drinking, and I sit down beside him.

"Are we okay?"

I know it's something of a non-sequitur, but I just have to ask, and he understands anyway. Setting the cup aside, he looks at me intently. "It was true what I said, I don't blame you. Actually, I thought it'd give me a reason, but I'm not so sure now. You know I don't approve those means in any context, but I probably have no idea about the decisions you had to make then. That's one thing. The men that kidnapped us, they were still way different. They enjoyed what they were doing."

Suddenly I realize what it's all about, his questions, the getting drunk. It wasn't about me at all. I just sit and listen.

"The last day, before I was rescued, they had us all in one room in a row, against the wall, sitting on our knees. Then that man... he just shot them one by one. Abby, she was right next to me, I told you about her before... she was crying, and the next moment, her blood and brains were all over me...He came to me and held the gun against my head. He never pulled the trigger, just laughed at me."

Part of me wants to dig up that bastard and tear him to pieces for the inhumanities my friend, my Guide, had to suffer. I let that other instinct, the protector's one, come forward, just lean forward and embrace him.

"You made it through. He didn't."

"Yes, but at what price? You know, they threatened to kill us all the time."

He shudders, and I tighten my arms around him. "I don't doubt that it was horrible. But I'm glad you're here now. I wish I could have done something sooner."

After a moment of silence, he says, "Eli was a brave man," referring to his late mentor, the sadness in his voice hinting at just another horrific snapshot to come.

"So are you." I wonder what more is there, remembering my conversation with Dr. Delaney, but Blair surprises me again.

"I know I kinda overdid it already, but would it be alright if I sleep here for a while? I'm just thinking... maybe those dreams with the blood won't come back then." He sounds so very young saying this, and suddenly, it's easy, there is, in fact, only one answer to this. "No problem," I say, wishing it was actually in my power to keep those dreams away, too.

I turn the lights out and let the dark settle over us like a soft blanket; thoughts still chasing one another in my head. That I haven't actually apologized to Simon yet; that I still feel like I've been failing Blair, and my gratefulness for this second chance. "You're welcome," I whisper, even though he's asleep already.

***

It's not the end, though. All the conversational detours lead us back to the same thing, and this time, there's no more respite.

"I understand some of the language. I'm not fluent, but it's enough to get by, so - I knew exactly what he meant."

I knew this wasn't over yet.

His voice was still heavy from sleep, and maybe Blair had needed exactly that state to lower his boundaries and let me fully into the living nightmare he was exposed to. Those bastards made him watch when they killed the other hostages, one by one. That alone was something he probably wouldn't forget for the rest of his life. Learn to live with the memories, yes, but not forget. It had only been the climax in a time full of horror, and if that special unit hadn't acted when it did - I didn't want to think about it.

The group had been of mixed ethnic origin, no particular motivation except for the greed and the cruelty they all shared; they were after the treasure that had supposedly been found by the anthropologists, for the money, not because of any cultural value. Money for weapons of whatever kind. In order to learn the true location, all members of the team had been interrogated. Shocked with electrical current. Beaten up and cut.

One day, Blair related, one of them had locked up him and Stoddard together in one room, then held the gun to the older man's head.

"He said I'd have to chose who he was going to kill next, me or Eli. I hesitated. Hell, I was so scared I was almost pissing my pants, I couldn't get a single word out -- and then he shot Eli, saying - 'Your choice.'"

He was crying softly, as if that was all he could allow himself, and I just held him close, trying to convey through touch that I'd be there for him, no matter what other horrors would surface, and I didn't doubt there'd be more.

I wondered if Megan and Joel knew any of this.

"You didn't do anything wrong. God, if there's anyone who failed in this, it's me."

"You?" He looked up at me with honest surprise. "You weren't even there."

"But that's exactly the point!" I said, harshly enough to make him flinch. "I wasn't there. I should have done something. Anything." Too long, I had bottled up this certainty inside, not wanting to deal with it when Blair had endured so much.

He raked both hands through his hair, shaking his head. "No."

The anger in this single word surprised me even more.

"I'm tired, I think I'm getting sick again and I don't think I can deal with your guilt-tripping right now."

"Listen, I -"

"No, you listen! You are not responsible for everything that happens on this fucking planet. Certainly not for anything that happened in Turkey, so cut it out! Just in case you haven't noticed yet, if *you're* going to fall apart on *me* now, I can't handle it!"

I think I just stared at him. What had just happened?

"I can't handle it," he repeated, the tone of his voice pleading now. "I know you've been feeling guilty ever since you found out. It's irrational, can't you see that?"

I took a deep breath, struggling to find something to say. "I want you to be able to rely on me," I said, disgusted at myself at the way I was turning this around. What did I ever expect of him, to say 'you're still my hero?'

"I know I can. And I need that from you right now."

There was a moment of silence, foreshadowing, then I spoke, "I don't think it's irrational, because I've been there. I know what it feels like, knowing you won't get out of there in time."

I don't know why I've said it. Maybe to convey that I'm prepared, if he said that he's hating me for letting all this crap happen to him, I'd understand. Because I feel that same hate.

"Oh God, Jim." There was no actual surprise in his words, just sadness. "I was afraid something like this... you've got to know that I don't blame you. The only ones I blame --

"It's okay. I know."

And suddenly I really know, what this rage is made of, the one I've felt about everything and everyone ever since I'd been told what had happened to Blair. Blindly acting, it had all been a welcome distraction from my own memories surfacing. Both sides of it. But seeing what it had done to him, I had always known there'd be a time when I couldn't hide anymore.

"I started to remember when my senses began to act up."

"And there I was babbling about what a gift this was," Blair says sadly.

"It is. If it wasn't for them, I would have never met you." Because you made it all bearable. But I don't say this aloud, certain he knows. Then. And now.

"I'm sure glad it did happen. Besides having somebody to understand this shit, or even the Sentinel thing, you *are* a great friend." His smile is genuine, without the pain in it for the first time in a long time.

What can I say to this? "Takes one to know one, Chief."

Probably, we both have a long way to go from here, but if it's true that you have to go through the shadows to see the light, tonight must be our silver lining.

The End