"Then there are my true friends — the ones who, like a pair of fine shoes, never go out of style or out of favor, whose appeal and value just increase with wear and time. Physical distance does not separate us; time does not change the fundamental fact of our friendship; the wear and tear of life does not stop us; the sole still supports us; the colors and lines still gently bend around our contours and ridges."
— "Friends Are Like Old Shoes," by Donne Marganella, in "A Cup of Comfort for Friends," edited by Colleen Sell
The young man tossed fitfully in restless slumber, startling awake from the nightmares invading the shadowed oblivion of his damaged mind. Sleep-addled, cold and hungry, he staggered to his feet and sidled closer to a group of homeless men gathered around a drum filled with paltry scraps of wood and paper. Reaching out his hands to warm them by the meager heat, he was startled when one of the men, muttering a curse, lashed out at him, sending him stumbling to the ground.
The action of the one seemed to instill a frenzy of violence in the others, and the men fell upon the disheveled young man with fists and feet. He curled himself into a ball, his arms and legs pulling up to protect his vital organs. Despite the agony of the blows, he did not cry out, though tears leaked from beneath his clenched eyelids and dribbled down his dirty cheeks.
An angry shout from some way off halted the attack for at least a moment, and the young man used the respite to drag air into lungs that seemed to have forgotten how to expand. He recoiled as hands touched him, gripping him beneath his armpits and dragging him toward the shelter of a fire escape. Propped against the rusting metal rail, his head slumped to his chest as he panted and struggled not to throw up.
Unexpectedly gentle hands cupped his chin, lifting his head, and he looked into a kindly, wizened face. A grubby handkerchief was swiped across his cheek, then callused fingers examined the gash there more closely.
"You'll be all right," the old man said in a heavy, raspy wheeze. "More frightened than hurt, I'd wager." The young man's savior smiled, showing broken, yellowed teeth. "Name's Charlie. What's yours?" Receiving no reply, Charlie shrugged. "Fair enough." His wrinkled hand patted the top of the young man's head. "With hair like this, think I'm gonna call you Curly."
The boy, for he seemed scarcely more than that, simply stared up at Charlie, his wide blue eyes sad and full of tears.
Charlie wiped at the silent man's cheek as a tear overflowed and streaked downward, leaving a white swathe through the grime and bruises. "Now, now," he huffed brusquely. "None of that, Curly." Reaching down, he hoisted the man to his feet and turned him in the direction of the street. "Come on, I'll show you where we can get a meal… well, food anyway." He clapped his new friend heartily on the back, almost sending him to his knees. "Long as it cures the hunger, eh, Curly?"
Jim Ellison tried to stifle a yawn as he climbed from the cozy warmth of his truck and headed into the gray Cascade dawn. At least it wasn't raining…yet, though a quick glance upward at the gathering black clouds told him the storm that had been forecast the night before was already rolling in. He showed his badge to the uniformed officer guarding the crime scene, then ducked under the yellow tape, blinking rapidly as a fat, cold raindrop landed right in his eye.
Blair hated the rain, he mused, then snapped his thoughts back to the present with an angry grinding of his jaw. Where the hell had that come from? Shaking the morning cobwebs from his brain, he walked over and crouched next to the shroud-covered body lying by the market waste bin.
"Jim! You made good time."
A familiar touch pressed against his shoulder and he looked up into the dark eyes of his captain. "Hey, Simon. Not much traffic this time of the morning."
He glanced down at the body again, recognizing the familiar handiwork of the serial killer they'd been chasing for the past four months. He shook his head sadly as he carefully pulled away the old man's multi-layers of clothing and newspaper, padded against his skinny torso to keep out the cold. At least twenty stab wounds, he thought, trying to pull his sight back even as it expanded of its own volition to take in the frenzied, angry cuts, the red, red blood…
"When are they going to learn?" Simon's deep voice, sharp with impatience dragged him back and he wavered on his heels. "You all right, Jim?"
"Yeah." His voice sounded raspy in his ears and he coughed and cleared his throat, then tried again. "What can you do though?" He answered his own question. "We tell the homeless to find somewhere else to sleep because someone is stalking them, they stay away for a week or two then start drifting back. I guess it's their territory. They're at risk anywhere on the streets, vulnerable." His gaze swept over the old man's gnarled, arthritic hands, the fingertips purple and callused, shallow defense wounds evident on the right palm. "For some, it's probably a blessing to escape it completely."
"Yeah." Simon dropped down at his side, leaning in to speak close to his ear. "Coroner's waiting on the body as soon as you're done here. I doubt it'll be any different to the other three though." He paused and Jim watched his breath puffing out tendrils of steam in the icy air. "You want to give your senses a shot?"
Jim shrugged. "Can't hurt."
Simon appeared lost in thought for a moment, his brow creased, then he nodded. "Okay, just don't go too deep. I'm not -" He closed his eyes briefly then started again. "I'm not too good at pulling you out of the zone-outs," he said brusquely.
"You're improving," Jim replied as he hunched closer to the body and prepared to dial up his sight and smell.
"You're not," Simon countered. "You're having more zone-outs than I ever saw you have in the whole four years Sandburg was here."
Jim ignored the apologetic look that flittered across the captain's face at the mention of his partner's name. "It's starting to rain," he said as another cold drop slithered down the collar of his jacket, making him shiver. "We'll lose any evidence that's here if we don't hurry."
"Right." Simon took a deep breath, then hunkered down next to Jim, one hand extending to rest on Jim's shoulder, his dark face serious as he studied Jim intently.
Jim resisted the urge to laugh. Simon put more preparation than he did into the Sentinel stuff. Jim on the other hand, could care less if his senses overwhelmed him and spiraled him into the darkness. Perhaps that was why he took risks these days, pushing his sight and hearing beyond the limits he knew he could control. A kind of voluntary euthanasia. Nothing to come back to, anyway. He jerked as someone called Simon's name and the captain sighed and got to his feet.
"Give me a minute, Jim."
Jim nodded, rocking back and forth slightly. "Don't be long. This rain starts and we're going to lose everything."
Simon wagged an admonishing finger at him as he ducked under the tape. "Just don't try anything until I get back."
"Just hurry," Jim reiterated, giving the black sky another glance, willing the rain to hold off for ten minutes. His stomach grumbled reminding him he hadn't had time for breakfast before he left home.
He stood and moved away from the body, standing beneath the eaves of the supermarket building. Fumbling in his jacket pocket, he found a candy bar and had a vague memory of getting it from the break room on his way home the night before. By the time, he'd reached the apartment, he was struggling to keep his eyes open and he'd gone straight to bed. He pulled it from his pocket, hoping it hadn't melted through the package in the warmth of the truck.
Movement in the shadows grabbed his attention and he slid his gaze over to the end of the market building. The store was erected in a U-shape, the dark corners effectively blocking a passerby's view of anyone hiding there. It was probably where the murderer had hidden before the attack, watching while the old man rummaged through the market waste bins looking for scraps.
A stifled whimper, almost soundless floated to his ears and Jim realized he'd dialed up his senses automatically. Focusing on his sight now, he allowed the hunched figure huddled in the darkness to take shape. A witness, perhaps. With his sight expanding slowly, and wavering in and out, all Jim could make out was a slight figure dressed in soiled, stained jeans and a long ragged coat and not for the first time, he mourned the loss of his Guide to ground him.
Taking a step closer, he hunkered down, then remembering the candy bar in his hand, Jim held it out. The person pressed back against the bricks, the face turned away from Jim, so that all he could see clearly was a shock of matted hair.
"It's all right," Jim said softly. "Take it."
The head shook vehemently; skinny hands wrapped around an equally bony torso and the man began to rock. Jim waited, his leg muscles cramping from their enforced crouch and just as he was about to take a chance and move closer, the man turned his head and looked at him.
Blue, blue eyes, full of pain and sorrow. Jim tried to take a breath but his lungs seized up and then he was sucked back into a vortex of painful memories.
Six months previously:
Jim exited the elevator on the third floor of his apartment building, his limping steps quickening as he headed toward his front door. The small velvet box in his breast pocket seemed to grow heavier with each step closer and he raised a hand to trace the outline, pausing for a moment to gather his nervous thoughts.
He still didn't know the words to use to tell Blair that he loved him. He knew he'd loved Blair for a long time, as one did a partner, a brother, a savior, but it had taken Blair's drowning for Jim to realize that love had become more than fraternal; blossoming until Jim seemed to think about it every second of the day.
Even when the mess with Sandburg's dissertation had threatened to tear them apart, mostly due to Jim's rabid fear of his sentinel abilities becoming public knowledge, the detective had still harbored a hope that his love for Blair could heal the rift. The problem was until now, he hadn't told Blair of his feelings. The chaos that ensued after Blair's false admission of fraud, and the chase for Zeller, culminating in serious injuries suffered by Simon and Conner and Jim himself had left them all gasping for breath. When it was all over, and they were all recovering, Jim had submerged himself in finding the solution that would prevent Blair from leaving. Jim also had to admit he was terrified that his declaration of love was going to send Blair running from him, faster than any serial killer or dissertation screw-up ever would.
He'd hoped the simple silver rings he'd bought would say the words for him. He'd had them engraved on the inner edge with a simple phrase in Quechua. 'One soul'. Now his courage and determination were deserting him, and he worried that Blair might see the gift of the rings as a gesture of conciliation and gratitude, instead of the commitment Jim wanted to convey. While Jim was certainly saddened and humbled by Blair's sacrifice, and wished desperately that he could go back and undo the whole sorry situation, the rings said for him what he found it to so difficult to say. 'I love you, Blair, passionately and with all my heart.'
Jim had thought over the past months that he'd detected an answering response from Blair to his own subtle gestures and words. Responses he hoped hinted at Blair's reciprocal feelings for him, but at the same time, he knew it was possible he was seeing what he wanted to see. It was also entirely likely that when Jim finally spoke those momentous words, his guide might simply up and head for the hills.
It was for that reason that he'd waited until Simon's badge offer had been made and Naomi was gone. This was not a moment to be broadcast to friends, family or work mates, Jim's nervousness over being outed notwithstanding. It was a personal, intensely private thing, that, whatever the outcome, could only be shared by them both.
He noticed his hand was shaking a little as he slid the key into the front door lock and turned the handle. The interior of the apartment was silent and dim, giving no indication that his partner was home.
"Sandburg? You here?"
Jim tossed his keys into the basket by the front door and picked up the mail sitting beside it. Riffling it through it aimlessly, he limped into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator, pulling out a beer.
Twisting the cap off, he took a long swallow, savoring the slightly bitter hops and relishing the coolness of the liquid. He smiled, remembering the astonished look on Blair's face when Simon had tossed the detective's shield to him that afternoon.
The traumatic events of the previous days had cut through them all like a knife. Worst of all, had been Blair's announcement to the world that he'd falsified his dissertation. Worse, because it could not be healed or fixed, unlike the bullet wounds they had suffered.
Blair had sacrificed his life's work, his career and his reputation in order to allow Jim to keep his. Simon's solution was not the ideal answer to the problem, but it was the only way Jim could figure to extend the olive branch to his partner, giving and receiving the forgiveness they both sought.
Blair had said he needed time to think things through and Simon had given him a week's grace. It had ended on a cheerful note with Blair vowing he would not cut his hair and Jim pulling his partner into an affectionate hug, offering to make his captain a 'Blair-skin rug.'
They'd moved the celebration to Simon's office but Blair had only stayed a few minutes before saying he had to drive Naomi to the airport so she could catch her flight back to San Francisco. Jim had offered to go with them but Blair had refused, saying he needed some time alone, to think. His heart suddenly pounding with nervousness over what he wanted to tell Blair when he returned, Jim had relented and watched mother and son leave after quick goodbyes and profuse thanks.
Now, Jim placed his beer bottle on the counter and took a slow, hesitant step toward Blair's room. With his legs and heart growing heavy with certainty, he pushed open Blair's door and then sagged against the doorframe in relief. Nothing had changed. Everything was where it should be. "Where the hell are you, Chief?"
It had been four hours since Blair had left for the airport, promising to pick up some takeout for dinner on the way home. Thoughts of freeway accidents and Blair's unreliable car came to mind and Jim changed direction halfway through the living room, turning toward the phone… and froze.
He forced himself to stride to the wall and snatch up the note taped to the phone before his bravado deserted him.
'I'm going home with Naomi for a while. I'm sorry. I need time.
Cursing, Jim limped back to Blair's room, seeing now what his eyes had refused to register before. Blair's backpack was missing, a handful of books gone from the desk, the pile of clothes that seemed to have taken up residence on his floor, a little smaller. Jim cast his memory back, retracing his steps into the apartment building, saw Blair's car there, parked out front and with a shout of denial, screwed up the offending note and stomped back into the kitchen. Slamming his foot down hard on the trash bin pedal, he tossed Blair's missive into the garbage.
As he spun around to race for the door, his leg gave out painfully beneath him, sending him crashing heavily to the floor.
"No! You ungrateful little shit!" Jim pounded the floor until his fists were red and swollen, his body, exhausted. A sudden, terrifying thought touched him, that the note Blair left behind might be all he had left to remember him with, and he staggered to his feet, stumbling to the kitchen and dropping to his knees in front of the bin. He scrabbled through the waste until he found Blair's note then took it to the dining room table and ran his hands over the paper until it was smoothed out.
"You need time? Okay," Jim whispered. "Just not too long, Chief. All right?"
There had followed sporadic, hesitant letters from Blair, each shorter than the one before as though the well were drying up, the door on their partnership, their friendship slowly closing. The choppy words were so unlike the ebullient Blair of old that Jim felt in a constant state of unbalance and uncertainty.
Finally Simon had said he could take a few days off and he phoned to tell Blair he was coming. Despite the cautious tone of the letters, Jim had hoped that his presence would somehow rekindle the spark of trust between them. Instead, Blair had sounded panicked, asking him, begging him not to come, saying he needed more time. Jim had flown out to San Francisco anyway.
Blair was gone. Terrified as she'd watched her son close in on himself and become a shadow of the man she knew, Naomi had begged him to get help, to talk to someone about what was bothering him. That and Jim's imminent arrival had seemed to be the catalysts that re-ignited the fear within him. Jim had issued an APB and Missing Persons bulletin and spent sleepless days and nights searching. After a week, he'd gone home to an empty loft and a life without his guide.
The sting of a slap across his face snapped Jim back to awareness and he sucked in a breath and collapsed onto his butt, feeling dampness seep into his jeans. Simon's concerned face swam into view.
"Jim? You back?"
Jim shook his head warily, closing his eyes briefly to wait out the expected dizziness. He extended a hand to Simon and allowed his captain to pull him to his feet before he swung his gaze around the immediate area. "I'm fine," he answered, lying blatantly. "Where's Blair?"
The disheveled young man hunched further into his hiding place and wolfed down the candy bar ravenously. As terrified as he was of the flashing lights, the loud voices and the silent, still body of his protector, Charlie, he'd felt a strange affinity for the tall man with the sad blue eyes.
Turning to his side in his confined space, he hugged himself, grimacing as his empty stomach protested the sugary sweetness of the chocolate and convulsed. Whimpering, he pulled himself up out of the splintered framework of the old warehouse and managed to make it to the yard before he lost his precious sustenance.
Looking around the still-darkened yards, the young man listened fearfully to the muted noises of the city - the swishing of tires on wet road, loud voices on the docks nearby as the workers arrived for the early morning shift. Above him the sudden deafening thumping of a helicopter startled him as it swung in low then headed out over the bay, its searchlight illuminating his ashen face for a brief moment.
He'd have to stay hidden. The bad things were back, gaining on him again. He could almost feel their hot breath on his neck, their icy fingers at his throat choking the air out of him. He dragged in a torturous breath as his lungs threatened to seize up and he bent again to dry retch so violently that the convulsion sent him to his knees.
He felt his face heat shamefully as he remembered Charlie's eyes turning toward him even as his attacker twisted the knife cruelly into his gut. Saw the plea for help in the old man's eyes and remembered cowering in fear, unable to venture forward to save his friend or even put voice to a cry for help.
Watching as Charlie's murderer stood, his head swiveling left to right, the young man froze as the killer seemed to zero in on him hiding in the shadows. There was a moment when time seemed to stand still then the man was gone, hurrying from the bloody scene into the night.
Curly waited until the running footsteps faded away before crawling from his hiding place and making his way hesitantly to his silent friend's side. Frightened and desolate, he shook the old man's shoulder, exhorting him with actions to wake up. Charlie's mouth gaped open in a rictus of agony, and his accusing eyes stared at the young man he'd taken under his protection. Desperate to relieve the old man's pain, yet knowing full well in his heart that it was useless, Curly pulled the sharp blade from the old man's body. He stared at the knife, its bloodied edge glittering from the glow of the lone security light on the back of the market.
Muted voices sounded from the far end of the parking lot. Curly scrambled to his feet, and unthinking, shoved the knife into the pocket of his old coat. Panting in terror, he staggered back toward his hiding place and curled himself into a trembling ball, trying to calm his panicked breathing. Slowly, he began to rock, the gentle rhythm taking him to the safe place inside his mind.
The discovery of Charlie's body had brought the arrival of police cars and more people. The young man had pressed in closer to the bricks at his back and waited for his chance to escape. He had not meant to make a sound, but his ravenous stomach had betrayed him. He felt drawn to the man who held out the candy bar, instinctively knowing that this man would not hurt him, but coupled with that innate sense of trust came the disquieting thought that the same man was somehow connected to the confusing memories that assailed him.
'Run!' His mind screamed at him. 'The bad things are back!'
In his heart, he wanted nothing more than to go to the man who seemed so familiar, but his fear overrode everything else. When the man fell backwards, his eyes widening, a look of dazed bewilderment on his face, Blair snatched the candy bar from his unresisting fingers and fled.
It seemed as though he'd been running forever, though his mind refused to give up the secrets of why or from whom, offering only snatches of memories and faces, of shouted words and sadness. Each time he tried to grasp them in a desperate attempt to discover who he was, whom he belonged with, they flittered away like quicksilver.
Something had pulled him here, to his haven. With no conscious thought, when he'd sought shelter from life on the streets, he had unerringly come to the abandoned, burnt out warehouse and a feeling of familiarity and safety had washed over him. The building was nothing but a broken down frame, but there was comfort in knowing that somehow, he belonged here.
The young man lifted his head and gazed around. Though daylight was fast approaching, the air was still icy. Shivering, spent and chilled, he crawled back to his den and curled into a tight ball of self-comfort, rocking slowly, clutching at his aching belly until he drifted into a troubled sleep. In his dreams, he lived through Charlie's death a thousand times, saw clearly the face of the man who had tortured his friend and feared that the murderer had seen him too.
Waking in a cold sweat, he reached for the knife and fingered the blade, feeling the tacky residue of Charlie's blood. Dragging himself to his knees, he peered out of the matchstick ruins and saw it was daylight. The sun brightened the sky and warmed the chill in the air, though it did not chase it from his bones. Turning back, he gathered his paltry belongings together and began to stuff them carelessly into his backpack. He had to leave again. Even if his broken mind would supply the words to his silent tongue, he feared Charlie's killer would return to silence him permanently long before he had the chance or courage to speak of it.
He was almost to the gate when a stern voice ordered him to stop. A security guard stood some twelve feet away, one hand resting lightly on the handgun holstered at his side.
"What the heck are you doing here, kid? This is private property and the building's condemned."
His only thought to finally do something to help Charlie, the young man reached into his coat pocket and pulled out the knife, holding it out toward the security guard with a shaking hand. The guard jumped back with a loud curse and pulled his weapon from his holster. "Put the knife down," he ordered, leveling his weapon at the man before him, his own hand trembling wildly.
The young man shook his head in frustration and took a step closer, shaking the knife.
"Stay where you are," the guard ordered. The radio on his belt beeped and he looked down briefly, reaching to unclip it.
Taking advantage of the guard's inattention, Curly took off frantically toward the shelter of the warehouse, weaving drunkenly as gunfire erupted around him. Fire flashed through his arm, sending him to his knees, but he staggered back up and stumbled forward, diving behind the shelter of fallen timber and sheet rock. He collapsed behind the barrier, one hand clamped to the agonizing wound in his arm. Blood trickled between his fingers and dripped onto the ground, and he bit down on his lip to keep from crying out at the pain. Sirens sounded in the distance, drawing closer and Curly grasped the knife in a blood-slicked hand and pointed it toward the doorway.
"What do you mean, 'Where's Blair'?" Simon asked in astonishment.
Jim leaned against the door of his truck and gazed around the area, his keen eyes searching. "There was someone here, hiding in the shadows," he explained. "I thought it was a possible witness, but he seemed terrified. I tried to lure him out with a candy bar. When he turned his head and looked at me… Simon, it was Blair, I'm sure of it."
"Why wouldn't he have just come straight out when we got here," Simon replied. "It doesn't make sense."
"I don't know, but something happened to him in San Francisco. Naomi thought he was headed for an emotional breakdown." Jim shrugged, feeling totally at a loss to explain. "Maybe he headed back to Cascade looking for me. Whatever the reason, it was Blair and we have to find him."
"For more than one reason," Simon said. At Jim's puzzled look, he continued. "If he was here when the old man was murdered, he might be able to identify the murderer." He sighed as his cell phone beeped. "Hang on a minute." Flipping open the phone, he identified himself and turned his attention to the call.
Jim noticed a scruffily dressed old woman watching them furtively from the entrance to the parking lot. He pushed himself away from the car and walked toward her. "I'm going to ask around," he told Simon. "Someone's got to have seen Sandburg."
The old woman watched his approach warily and seemed about to flee. "Wait," Jim called to her, pulling his wallet from his pocket as he neared. "I just want to ask you a question."
"Don't know anything," the old woman said with a defiant tilt of her chin. "Didn't see nothin' either."
Jim pulled Blair's photo from the wallet and held it out to her. "I just want to know if you've seen this man around here."
The woman looked from the photo to Jim. "He in trouble?"
"No. He's my partner… my friend and I need to find him. Make sure he's okay."
The woman seemed to be weighing up his words. Finally, she nodded. "I seen him around. Keeps to himself mostly. Never spoke a word. He got roughed up some last night. Old Charlie, God rest his soul, took pity on him." She shook her head. "Charlie was always one for looking after the strays."
Jim felt hope surge. "Do you know where he is now?"
The old woman shook her head. "Ain't seen him since last night, but he's got a bed down at the old warehouses on Arlington. Didn't like to mix with the rest of us on the street."
"Thank you." Jim pulled a twenty-dollar bill from his wallet and held it out to the old woman.
She smiled, and accepted it hastily, then turned and hurried away.
The detective turned at Simon's summons. "I've got a lead on Blair, Simon."
The captain looked grim. "So have I," he said. "Come on, let's go. I'll fill you in on the way."
Jim was scrambling out of the car almost before Simon had pulled into the curb. He hurried through the wire gates surrounding the burned out warehouse, his keen eyes taking in the situation in a heartbeat.
"Sweet Jesus." Jim was only vaguely aware of Simon's horrified gasp. "Jim, is that…?"
"Blair." The name whispered out on a breath, the sound as sweet as honey on Jim's lips. His guide had come home. Jim's senses were singing. All five ranged out to catalogue his partner's condition: heartbeat pounding, breath whistling from fear-constricted lungs, skin sallow and clammy. Jim took a step forward, but paused when Blair's eyes flickered toward him and the young man took a shaky step backward, the knife in his hand raising uncertainly. "Simon, get everyone back."
"Jim, he's armed and… God, I can't believe it's Sandburg."
Jim spared his captain an imploring glance. "Please, sir. He's not dangerous, just terrified. Let me talk to him."
Banks gave him an appraising look, then nodded though his brow was still creased in a worried frown. "Just be careful. Even scared, there's no telling what he might do."
Jim was already walking forward, both hands held out from his sides, in an attempt to look as non-threatening as possible. "Blair? It's me, Jim." He choked on the final word and he swallowed convulsively, trying to dredge up some moisture in his dry mouth. Continuing to slowly move closer, Jim took in the bedraggled figure in front of him.
'Oh, God, Chief. What the hell happened to you?'
A tangled mat of hair hung down below Blair's shoulders, framing a gaunt pale face. Jim could detect dark bruising coloring one cheek beneath several days' beard growth, and a cut on Blair's left cheek was caked with dried blood. He wore an old gray coat that hung almost to his ankles, with a dark wet bloodstain evident on one arm, a faded blue sweatshirt and denim jeans that hung at half-mast on skeletal hips. He clutched a bloodied knife in one trembling hand and his whole body shook as though he was afflicted with palsy. He smelled of sweat and urine, vomit and blood, and Jim wrenched down his sense of smell to just above zero before he gagged on the sickening combination of odors.
"Blair?" Jim was only a few feet away now, but he stopped immediately when Blair lifted terrified eyes to his and seemed about to skitter away. The detective held out a hand that shook almost as much as Blair's did. "It's me, Jim. Don't you know who I am?"
A small, hesitant nod was followed immediately by a more emphatic shake of the head, and Jim pushed down the lump of despair that rose from his chest and threatened to choke him. He had to force the next question out, afraid of seeing Blair's response. "Do you trust me?"
This time there was no hesitation. Blair nodded and held the knife out to Jim. Peripherally, Jim heard the snick of a weapon being armed and then the frantic whispered commands from Banks telling everyone to hold their fire. Jim managed a relieved smile that felt more like a grimace on his lips. Carefully he stretched out his hand and closed it around Blair's cold one, gently taking the weapon from the other man's unresisting grasp. His ears picked up a sudden slowing in Blair's heart rate and he took the few remaining steps forward as Blair's eyes rolled up and he collapsed soundlessly into Jim's waiting arms.
Taking Blair's limp weight with him, Jim dropped to the ground and drew the unconscious man closer to him, gently cradling the lolling head against his chest. He moved one hand until it rested splay-fingered over Blair's heart and concentrated on the steady, though slow beat, and the regular susurration of his guide's breathing. The activity around him faded to become mere background noise as he focused on Blair's vital signs and silently encouraged his partner to hold on.
To the passerby, Jim's stance seemed casual enough, but Simon could see, in the tilt of Jim's head, the clenching jaw and the slightly vague expression in the blue eyes that the sentinel was listening in on Blair's examination in the trauma room across the hall.
Simon shook his head, then scrubbed both hands over it as though by doing so, he could banish the earlier image of Blair from his mind. The half-starved, dirty body, the long hair - Sandburg's pride - filthy and matted, and most frightening of all, the hollow, vacant gaze from dulled eyes that were shadowed by fear and pain. It was almost impossible to believe that the silent disheveled man wielding a bloodied knife and the exuberant, quick-witted, intelligent police observer that Simon had come to respect were one and the same.
His attention snapped to Jim when the detective straightened and crossed the hallway in a couple of long strides, determinedly pushing open the trauma room door, despite Simon's plea that he wait. As the door opened, Simon heard the reason for Jim's distress. A low, keening wail was coming from the room, the eerie, heart-wrenching sound accompanied by a rhythmic clanging of metal. Simon stood and hurried after his detective.
"Get them off him!" Jim roared.
Simon stepped into the room in time to grab Jim by one arm and pull him to a halt. He stared at the sight in front of him. Sandburg looked like a crazed madman. He had been shackled to the examination table, and his frantic efforts to free his hand were tearing at the bruised flesh of his wrist. He appeared not to notice the pain as he continued to pull on the restraint, his wailing growing louder with each passing second. A uniformed officer stood by the bed, holding the distraught man down by pressing on his shoulders. The sheet that had covered Blair's naked body had slipped to the floor, but the young man appeared not to notice his exposed state as he screamed and fought to escape. A doctor and two nurses stood at the head of the bed, looking somewhat bewildered by the sight in front of them. The doctor held a loaded syringe in one hand as he looked uncertainly from Jim to Simon.
"What's going on here?" Simon shot the uniformed officer on guard an icy glare. He released Jim, allowing the detective to cross to Blair's side.
The officer watched with unease as Jim pulled out his handcuff key, released Blair, and then stepped away from the bed. "Orders, sir, from Homicide. The man's a murder suspect. They want him kept restrained."
"Does he look like he's capable of hurting anyone?" Jim shot back. He wasted no further time on the other cop, turning back to Blair and trying to soothe the terrified man. "Shh, Chief. It's all right. Just stop struggling and I'll have you out of those in no time."
"Wait outside, Officer Newman," Banks ordered the uniform. He didn't wait to see if he was obeyed but hurried to Jim's side and took the keys from his hand. "You see if you can hold him still while I get these unlocked."
Jim gave him a grateful look, then gently took Blair's hand in one of his own, before cradling the thrashing forearm in a firm hold. "Easy, Blair, easy," Jim crooned. "Simon will have them off in just a second."
The task accomplished, Simon stepped back and turned to the doctor. "How's he doing?"
The doctor had to speak up over Sandburg's still-distressed cries. He looked over at Jim who had hitched himself up onto the bed and was attempting to get Blair to lay back down with little success. The anthropologist still seemed determined to get away, though his rapidly dwindling strength was against him. "I'd like to give him a sedative," the doctor said. "He's not doing himself any good being as frightened as he is, and I need to get an IV into him."
Simon nodded and watched while the doctor cautiously approached Blair and swiftly injected the contents of the syringe into Blair's upper thigh. Sandburg flinched at the momentary pain and scrambled further up the bed, with Jim following him, still whispering reassurances.
The door flew open and Simon saw Lieutenant O'Hara from Homicide in the doorway. "I gave orders he was to remain cuffed," O'Hara said, glaring at Banks.
"He's not strong enough to go anywhere, O'Hara," Simon growled. "Surely you can see that."
The beefy man scowled at Simon then let his disapproving gaze swing to Jim and Blair. "He's a suspect. He stays cuffed."
"We have some padded restraints that would be better suited," the doctor said, looking up from putting together an IV set. "He has a bullet wound in his arm, and I won't risk further damage."
"Thank you." Simon shot Jim a warning glance as the detective opened his mouth to protest.
With a soft sigh that hinted heavily at exasperation, Jim turned his attention back to his partner. Blair's panicked cries had finally died down. The emaciated young man lay flat on the bed now, his drooping eyelids struggling to stay open as he eyed the other occupants of the room with undisguised fear. Jim reached down and picked up the fallen bed sheet, tucking it carefully around Blair's thin frame. He stood beside the bed, stroking one big hand across Blair's brow, his other hand firmly clenching one of Blair's, his eyes haunted and full of unshed tears.
"Can he be released into my custody?" O'Hara asked the doctor as soon as they were all ushered out of the trauma room and into a small waiting area.
Jim shot the detective a murderous glare. "He's sick and injured, O'Hara. You're not taking him anywhere."
"I'm going to agree with Detective Ellison on that," Doctor Reeves said. He consulted his notes briefly. "Mr. Sandburg is dehydrated and malnourished. The bullet wound in his arm is minor, though I want to keep a check on it to prevent infection." He looked up at Jim. "My major worry is his mental state. He's disoriented and aphasic, meaning he's appears to be unable to speak. I'm not going to hazard a guess at the cause, I'd rather have a psychiatrist see him."
"When?" Jim asked.
"Right now, while he's still sedated and calm," Reeves replied. "I'm having him admitted to the psychiatric ward for evaluation."
"Psychiatric?" Jim shook his head. "He's just scared. He -"
"Jim." Simon rested his hand lightly on Jim's shoulder. "Let the doctor finish. Even you can see there's something terribly wrong with Blair. He doesn't remember you or me."
Jim crossed his arms over his chest and gave Doctor Reeves a defiant stare. "Fine."
"I want him in a secured room," O'Hara put in, matching Jim's glare with one of his own. "The man's a murder suspect and I'm charging him as such. He's to remain cuffed and I want a guard in the room with him at all times."
"I'll be staying with him," Jim growled. "You keep your men away from him, O'Hara."
"Not your decision, Ellison," O'Hara remarked. "Or your captain's. If you get in the way of this investigation, I'll take it to the Chief and have you taken off the case."
"This is a joint investigation," Simon reminded him. "Homicide asked for our help on this."
"And now we've got the guy, you don't want him brought to justice," O'Hara said.
"Sandburg's no murderer," Jim repeated. He turned to Simon. "Come on, sir, this is Blair."
"I want to believe that as much as you, Jim," Simon replied, his eyes troubled. "But he had the murder weapon in his hand, he was known to the victims -"
"He's been in San Francisco with his mother," Jim interrupted.
"And we don't know how long he's been back in Cascade," Simon said with finality.
"I'll call Naomi, find out when he left."
Banks nodded. "Good, you do that. In the meantime, I'm going to have to go with Lieutenant O'Hara's requests." The look he gave the Homicide cop showed it was a decision he wasn't happy with. Turning his gaze on Doctor Reeves, he continued, "Do you have any idea when or if he'll get his memory back?"
Reeves shook his head. "The psychiatrist might be able to give you a more concise answer, Captain. All I can say is that perhaps, once Blair feels safe, his memory might return. Then again, if past events were what caused his breakdown in the first place, he might never remember."
"Isn't there anything we can do to help him?" Jim asked.
"Talk to Doctor Freeman after he's examined Mr. Sandburg," Reeves replied. He scratched his nose, looking thoughtful. "If you have any items, photos and such, that would be unthreatening to Blair, perhaps reminiscences of happy times, it could help to jog his memory. A word of warning though," he added, "it could also go the other way, and worsen his condition. We're on shaky ground here. There's still a great deal we don't know about the brain, all we can really do for now is medicate and observe him."
"Can I see him?" Jim asked.
"He's going to be moved upstairs shortly," the doctor replied. "It'll take them a while to admit him, and then Doctor Freeman will need to examine him. Why don't you come back in a couple of hours?"
Jim shook his head firmly. "I'm not leaving him here alone."
"I want to be notified as soon as the psychiatrist is finished with him," O'Hara cut in. "I want to process his charges as soon as possible."
Simon forcibly restrained Jim when the detective growled and took a step toward O'Hara. "Take it easy, Jim. You can wait here until the doctors are done, then stay with Blair through the arrest procedure, all right?"
Jim shrugged his arm from Simon's grip. "There's something I need to do first. I have to go back to the loft. Can you stay here, make sure no one goes near Blair until I get back?"
"Of course," Simon replied, but he looked puzzled. "What are you going to do?"
Jim gave him a small smile. "Blair came back to Cascade, Simon. It's the first step. He's lost. I'm going to help him find his way home." With the focus of something positive to do, Jim felt his hopes returning. Not giving O'Hara a second glance, he hurried down the corridor. He hated leaving Blair at all at a time like this, but if there was any chance he could nudge Blair's memory, he'd take it.
He was surprised to see Joel Taggert and Megan Conner coming through the entrance doors toward him.
"Jim?" Conner placed her hand on his arm and looked up at him, her eyelashes wet with tears. "Is it really him? Is it Sandy?"
Jim gave her a small smile. "Yeah, it's him. What are you two doing here?"
"How could we stay away?" Joel asked with a gentle smile of his own. "Blair's family. Everyone wanted to come but Megan and I were the only ones about to finish our shifts. We just all needed to know for sure." He looked toward the trauma rooms. "I guess this isn't a good time for us to see him."
"Not now," Jim replied, touched by the concern from his work colleagues. "Soon, though, I hope. He's sick, a little confused." He gestured at the exit doors. "I have to go back to the loft, get some things. I don't want to leave him for too long."
"Not after all this time," Megan said sympathetically, nodding in understanding. "You just keep us updated, Jim."
"And let us know when he's up for visitors," Joel added. "Tell him we've missed him."
"I will," Jim assured them. He patted Joel's shoulder, then in a move that surprised both of them, pulled Conner into a hug. "I'll tell Blair you came."
Arriving back at the hospital, Jim shifted the box in his arms to a one-handed grip and punched the elevator button for the fifth floor. He checked in at the desk for Blair's room number and hurried up the corridor. A plain-clothes detective stood and eyed him stonily as Jim pushed open the door, but Jim simply flashed his badge and stepped around him, then stopped in shock.
"What the hell?"
The nurse standing at Blair's bedside turned quickly, her face startled by the intrusion. A hand went to her mouth then she took a deep breath and smiled. "You must be Detective Ellison. We were told to expect you."
She walked over to Jim and placed a hand on his arm. "He's sleeping. The doctor ordered some medication that will make him very drowsy. He has an IV to rehydrate him and his arm's in a sling because of the bullet wound." She paused for a moment, looking uncomfortable. "He's shackled to the bed by his ankle. The doctor thought it best…"
"What happened to his hair?"
The nurse gave him an apologetic look. "Head lice. We had to treat it, and there was no way we were going to get a toothcomb through his hair. I'm afraid we had to shave it." She gave Jim's arm a conciliatory pat. "It will grow back, and it will probably be easier for him while he's in such a fragile state."
Jim nodded silently, then turned to glare at the guard at the door. "You can wait outside, Detective."
"Lieutenant O'Hara -"
"Can take it up with me," Jim interrupted. "He's not going anywhere and nobody's questioning him without me or his lawyer present, is that clear?"
The detective nodded and left the room, one hand already pulling his cell phone from his pocket.
"Excuse me." The nurse followed him out. "You can't use your phone in the hospital."
Jim tuned them out, his attention solely on the silent occupant of the bed. Walking shakily to the bedside, Jim ran a trembling hand over the stubble that covered Blair's fever-hot skull. "Oh, Chief," he whispered, sinking heavily into a chair beside the bed. "Look what they've done to you."
Blair's eyes blinked open drowsily at Jim's words, instantly widening with fear. He scooted toward the opposite side of the bed, his escape hampered by the restraint on his ankle. A low moan came from his throat, the sound rasping and raw.
"Shh, it's okay, Blair. It's me. It's Jim." Jim let his hand shift back to Blair's head, stroking a gentle, soothing caress. After long moments, Blair began to relax and lean into Jim's touch. Finally, he lay back against the pillows, his eyes heavy-lidded and red-rimmed with fatigue but his gaze remained firmly fixed on Ellison.
When he thought Blair was settled, Jim reached down and pulled an item from the box at his feet. "I'm really hoping I'm not doing the wrong thing here, Chief. The doctor said it might help; might hurt. I'm desperate enough to try." Carefully he set the birds' nest on the bed, pleased to see Blair's gaze drop to look at it. "I have no idea why you kept all this stuff, Chief. I remember telling you to get rid of it all. You just shoved it under your bed, and said it might be important one day. I had no idea how right you were." Slowly, in a soft, barely there voice, Jim began to talk, one hand still stroking the soft fuzz on Blair's head, the other, resting lightly on Blair's arm, his senses alert to any change in Blair's vitals that would clue him in to how the history lesson was being taken.
"I met you when you came to the hospital where I was having some tests done for a…" Jim paused a moment, wondering how much Blair could take in. "… For a problem I was having." He continued on, covering the search for the Switchman that had led to Blair insisting they return to the site of Jim's lone stakeout, where his senses had first come back on-line. "I made you climb this tree to get something out of the birds' nest." His eyes crinkled in amusement, remembering Blair's words. "You told me you weren't in the mood for getting your head ventilated by a pissed-off magpie. You did it, anyway, and I found out later that you have a serious phobia about heights. I guess it was then that I realized just how much your project meant to you." He leaned in closer, staring Blair in the eyes. "Do you remember that, Chief? Remember climbing that tree?"
Blair stared back at him silently, unmoving.
Defeated, Jim sat back, watching as Blair's eyes drifted closed. "Okay," he said, squeezing the sleeping man's hand gently. "You rest. We'll try again later."
They'd been trying for four days now with little result. Jim's eyes felt gritty, his back ached and he felt shaky from little food and too much caffeine. O'Hara was pushing for a trial, if there was no improvement by the end of the week, and because Blair's physical injuries were improving, Blair's doctor could find no further reason to keep him in the hospital. Blair was scheduled to be transferred to Conover Mental Institution on Saturday. The thought made Jim shudder. Blair had spent a brief time in Conover, posing as a mental patient in the hopes of gleaning information on a serial killer housed there. Though Blair had been confident enough initially, Jim would never forget the stark fear on his partner's face when Chapel, the murderer, had cornered him while he tried to phone for help.
Jim had also been trying desperately to contact Naomi, but with little result. A friend in San Francisco told Jim that Naomi had been understandably distraught by Blair's disappearance and left, saying only that she'd be in touch. He hadn't heard from her for two months, but promised to contact Jim as soon as he did. Jim wondered if it was a genetic Sandburg trait to take off when things got tough. Admittedly, Blair had stuck out worse situations than the dissertation mess, and even when Jim had suggested, a few years ago, that he quit his ride-along and return to teaching full-time at Rainier, Blair had refused, saying it would be like jumping off the roller-coaster and onto the merry-go-round. So, why then had he run this time? If he didn't want to take the shield Simon had offered him, he'd only had to say so. Only Blair could supply the answer to the puzzle, if and when his memory returned.
There had been small steps forward in the past few days. Blair was allowing Jim to help him eat now, though he turned his nose up at the Ensure liquid nutrients the doctor had insisted on. Jim asked the nurses to bring eggs, boiled and scrambled, chicken soup and icecream. Blair still had not spoken a word but he seemed to hang on every one of Jim's, his hand occasionally creeping out to touch whatever small treasure Jim had brought in for that day's memory lesson. He'd even smiled a little when Jim had plopped Blair's silly fur hat on his own head, with Jim laughing himself as he remembered the night on stakeout when Blair had first pulled it out of his backpack.
The fifth day brought a breakthrough of sorts. It appeared the serial killer had struck again. The mutilated body of a homeless woman was found not far from the supermarket where Blair's friend had been discovered.
Simon spent several hours butting heads with O'Hara's superior and after a muttered promise to return after he'd checked out the scene, O'Hara had agreed to hold off on Blair's arraignment.
Jim let himself into Blair's room and ushered the ever-present police guard out into the corridor. Blair was awake and watched cautiously when he approached the bed.
"Hey, Chief, how you doing today?" Jim lifted a hand and stroked it down Blair's cheek, waiting for the usual flinch, but surprisingly, there was none. Blair merely looked down expectantly at the bag in Jim's hand.
Jim sat down in the chair and scrubbed a hand over his face. He lifted the nursing chart from the cabinet and glanced at it briefly before setting it back down. There was nothing new there. "Here's the thing. I've gone through every bit of stuff in that box of yours and nothing's helped. I've got something in here to show you, but I'm really scared it might be the wrong thing to bring you right now." Leaning closer, he caught Blair's gaze with his own. "I don't know what to do any more, Blair. Won't you say something for me?"
Jim held his breath as Blair's mouth opened, then he deflated as Blair turned away, a silent tear dribbling down one cheek. Reaching up, Jim brushed the moisture away. "Don't cry, Chief. It's okay."
Hands shaking a little, Jim pulled a large folder from the bag on the floor. A noise at the door disturbed him and Jim dropped the book and turned. Simon Banks stood in the doorway, a worried frown on his face. Standing, Jim patted Blair's shoulder and went to speak to his superior.
"Anything?" Simon asked.
Jim sighed. "Not really, no. He trusts me more, and every now and then I've thought he was about to… but no."
Simon's sigh sounded as desolate as Jim's did. "Why don't I try?"
"I don't think that's a good idea, Simon. I'm the only one he trusts…"
"We have to get something soon, Jim," Simon growled, though he muted the volume of his voice in order not to frighten Blair. "O'Hara's talking copycat on the last murder."
"Why is he so determined to pin this on Sandburg?" Jim asked, rubbing at the bridge of his nose. "It doesn't make sense. He hardly knows Sandburg."
Simon shrugged. "You know damn well Sandburg wasn't everybody's cup of tea, Jim. Then again, Homicide's getting heat from upstairs on this case, maybe he just wants a quick collar."
"On an innocent man," Jim ground out.
Simon leaned in, looking the detective in the eyes. "You don't know that."
"Yes, I do!" Jim countered. "Sandburg wouldn't… It's not in him, sir."
"Then give me something to work with! Anything!" Simon stepped around Jim. "Let me talk to him."
Jim caught the captain's arm, halting his forward movement. "I don't think you should."
Simon spun back, his face a mask of determination. "I'm the captain here, Ellison. You don't tell me what to do." He glared at Jim's hand until it dropped back to the detective's side. Satisfied, Simon crossed to Blair's bedside. When he spoke, his voice was gentle. "Hey, Sandburg… Blair. I don't know if you remember me or not. I'm Simon Banks, captain of Major Crime and Jim's… and your friend."
Blair remained mute, his gaze flickering uncertainly from Simon to Jim, his body tensed as though ready to flee.
Simon sat down in the chair by the bed. "We've got a bad situation here, Blair. Really bad. Neither Jim nor I believe you're responsible for Charlie's death… or anyone else's."
At the mention of the old man's name, Blair turned his face away from them, his chin quivering, and his Adam's apple bobbing convulsively. Jim fisted his hands at his sides, ignoring the small pain as his nails dug into his palms, fighting the urge to go to Blair and pull him into his arms to protect him from all the crap the world had thrown at him.
"Blair." Simon slowly reached out one large hand and enfolded Blair's within it. "The man who killed Charlie murdered someone else last night."
Blair turned to face Simon, his entire body beginning to shake violently, his head shaking a vehement negative.
"Yes." Simon's voice raised a notch, his tone firm and unforgiving. "And unless you can help us, tell us what you saw, he'll go on killing."
Blair looked up at Jim, his eyes wide and pleading.
Jim nodded. "It's true, Chief."
Blair lifted a hand, waving at them, a definitive gesture that told them to leave. Jim stepped closer, about to argue but Blair's face closed up, brooking no debate. Feeling defeated and totally at a loss, Jim followed Simon from the room. He turned at the door.
"I'm just outside, if you need me," he said.
Blair had already turned away, staring out the window, his posture stiff and unyielding.
Blair waited until he heard the door close behind the two men then huddled under his covers and, curling himself into a ball, began to rock. Hot tears dampened the pillow beneath his cheek as fractured memories assailed him, recollections of pain, grief and love.
Finally, he stilled his movements and sat up in the bed, grimacing as the padded shackle on his ankle reminded him of his limits. He reached out to the bedside cabinet and pulled the nursing chart and pencil onto the bed. Resting the pad on his upraised knees, Blair turned the page over and with a hand still shaking slightly, began to draw. The lines flowed from the pencil more easily than words from his mouth, and he found himself beginning to relax into the cathartic exercise. He didn't look up when the door opened, still immersed in his sketch, but he knew it was Jim. A few more brief strokes and he dropped the pencil onto the bed and lay back, exhausted but calm.
"Blair? What have you got there, Chief?" Jim asked.
Blair picked up the paper and held it out, delivering his nightmare man into Jim's hands. Jim smiled gently at him, then leaned forward and dropped a kiss onto his forehead. "Thank you," he said, his voice sounding rough and wavering a little.
Blair pointed to the bag still on the floor at Jim's feet.
"This might not be the right time," Jim said, shaking his head.
Blair stared at him and pointed again.
Sighing, Jim bent and retrieved the folder. He held it against his chest for a moment as he began to speak. "This was your life. My life." He shook his head and started again. "This was our life. You sacrificed everything within these pages and all that you'd dreamed of for me, and I let you down. Then to really rub salt into your wounds, I accused you of betraying me. All the time, I knew it wasn't true, but I was so damn concerned for myself, for my image that I allowed you to destroy everything you had worked so hard for." He stopped to take a breath and when he spoke again, his voice was laced with self-loathing. "And as a conciliatory gesture, as my grateful thanks, I let Simon offer you a job I already knew you wouldn't be able to do." He lay the folder on the bed between them, facing it toward Blair so he could read the title.
Genetics, Mythology and Ontology Of Our Tribal Protectors
by Blair Sandburg.'
"I told you that you were the best cop I knew, and I wasn't lying when I said that. I still think you'd make a great cop, the best, but it's not who you are. By forcing that choice on you, I lost you." He leaned forward, resting his arms on the coverlet and laid his head on them. "I thought I'd lost you forever, maybe I still have."
Blair reached out and rested his hand on Jim's head, rubbing gently, his chest tightening with shared pain for all they had both suffered and lost. "Not… lost. Found." His voice sounded strange to his ears, weak and shaky, rusty from disuse. He had to think the words before they would form on his tongue, but Jim looked up and smiled as though he was a sweet-voiced angel.
"You're back?" Jim asked, stroking his hand down Blair's arm.
Blair shrugged. "Not… all. Some gone. Maybe… forever." He felt sadness at that admission and the look on Jim's face showed he shared that sorrow. "Couldn't… talk… before. Wanted to." He cast his eyes downward, looking ashamed. "Too… scared."
"Not your fault, Chief. You had good reason. Give it time," Jim said, squeezing Blair's hand. "We've got plenty of time."
They sat together in silence for another hour before Jim could tear himself away. Blair had offered no explanations for his leaving, and Jim was hesitant yet to push. It was enough for now that his partner was beginning to recover his memories, and Jim had to admit he was terrified that the wrong word could trigger a spiral downward.
He had work to do though. First, he needed to speak to Blair's doctor, and talk to him about reestablishing therapy for Blair, now that his speech had returned. Then he had to head to the station and get Blair's sketch circulated. A troubling thought struck him.
"Blair? Is there any chance this man could have seen you when he… attacked Charlie?"
Blair's eyes widened; a brief look of stark fear flashing across his face. He looked away. "Bad things," he whispered. "Don't know. I think… maybe."
Jim reached out and squeezed Blair's shoulder. "It's okay. You're safe here. I have to get this picture circulated, buddy. Will you be all right for a little while? You won't be alone, I'll make sure someone's outside till I get back."
Blair grabbed Jim's hand and looked about to protest, then he swallowed convulsively and nodded. "Want to get well for you, for us. Be fine."
Jim smiled at him. "Okay, I'll be as fast as I can." He leaned forward, pressing a gentle kiss to Blair's forehead, feeling no embarrassment at the gesture and was pleased to see a shy smile light up Blair's pale face. Grabbing his jacket from the back of the chair, he hurried from the room.
Joel and Simon approached as he made his way down the corridor. "What's up, Captain?"
"Just touching base," Simon replied.
Jim gave him a grin. "He's remembering, Simon. Not everything and his speech is a little slow but he's coming back."
Simon slapped Jim on the shoulder. "That's great news. Were you able to get anything from him about the murder?"
Jim held up the sketch. "He gave me this."
Joel studied the drawing. "That's pretty good. I didn't know Blair was an artist."
"Yeah. I want to get it down to the precinct and have it circulated. But… there's a chance the murderer saw Blair too."
"You think he'd come here?" Simon asked.
"I'm not prepared to take the chance," Jim said grimly.
"I'll sit with Blair until you get back, Jim," Joel offered. "That is, if you think he'll let me."
Jim hesitated but Simon pushed the idea. "Joel's been busting a gut to see the kid."
Jim nodded. "Let's go see how Blair feels about it."
Returning to the room, Jim paused with his hand on the door handle. "Just one thing, Joel. Don't be hurt if he doesn't remember you. His memories seem to be all over the place, fragments and such. At the moment, I think he's still figuring out who to trust."
Joel nodded. "It'll be fine. Maybe I could take the sketch back to the station and you could stay here with Blair."
"I want in on this," Jim said firmly. "And I want to make sure O'Hara drops the charges on Blair."
"Let's go in then."
Blair appeared to be sleeping when they first walked in but he opened his eyes and scooted up in the bed when he saw Jim was not alone.
"Hey there, Chief," Jim said walking up to the bed. "You remember Simon?"
Blair nodded. "From… before. I'm sorry… I should… know… you and I do, but… it's all… jumbled up." His voice was low and he spoke with a pause between the words as though he had to think of the correct one to use.
"That's fine, Sandburg," Simon said, the smile on his face negating the gruffness of his voice. "I'm just glad to hear you talking again. Good work on the sketch too."
Blair's attention had shifted to Joel. "You too," he said haltingly. "You're… were friend."
Joel's grin grew impossibly wider. "Hey, Blair," he said gently. "I'm Joel Taggert." He walked over to the bedside and picked up a deck of cards laying on the rollaway table. "You want to play a round of poker?"
Blair shook his head, his gaze shifting to Jim.
Joel shrugged nonchalantly. "That's fine. Probably for the best. You used to regularly empty my pockets for me." He lowered his large frame into the chair by the bed. "Maybe we'll just sit together and shoot the breeze."
Blair smiled a little at that and nodded.
Jim breathed a sigh of relief. If anyone could keep Blair calm, it would be Joel. "I'm going to go to the station with Simon, Chief. I'll be back before you know it."
"Get… get Charlie's… killer, Jim, please, before… he hurts… someone else," Blair said.
"I will," Jim vowed.
Blair shifted uncomfortably in the bed and gave Joel a sidelong glance. The burly detective appeared not to notice, engrossed in the magazine he held in his hands.
Blair cleared his throat. "Detective… Joel?"
Joel put the magazine down and looked at his charge. "Yeah, Blair?"
"Could you tell me… about us?" He waved a finger between the two of them. "I remember you… but I'm not sure why."
Joel looked a little uncomfortable. "I'm not sure if I'm supposed to. I don't know what the doctor said…"
"Screw… the doctor," Blair said, surprising himself with the sudden surge of vehemence. "I'm trying… to remember, but I need help… to put it all in the right place."
Joel grinned at him. "Well, that was certainly like the old Sandburg." He leaned back in the chair and crossed his arms over his chest. "All right. I used to be captain of the Bomb Squad."
Blair's eyes grew wide. "Bombs? What did that have to do with me>" He frowned. "I remember… an explosion. Jim was there."
Joel nodded. "You were living in a warehouse that had a drug lab right next door. The lab got blown up and so did your home."
"Where they found me? I don't know why I went back there, it just felt safe."
"Jim let you stay at his place." Joel chuckled. "He said it was just for a week, but we all saw through that."
"What do you mean?"
"Jim cares an awful lot about you, Blair. You've been his partner in every sense of the word, except on paper for four years now. Some of us thought…" He shook his head and waved the rest of his words away. "Doesn't matter. You helped me get over some fears I had."
Blair pushed himself up in the bed and studied Joel with interest. "I did? How?"
"You spun me a story about how you had beaten a phobia of your own and convinced me I could do it too."
"Did it work?" Blair asked.
"Like a dream," Joel replied.
"What you were about to say… just now…"
"Yes, it does," Blair replied. "To me."
Joel sighed deeply. "It wasn't because you were living with Jim," he began. "It was just that you two were so close, some of us wondered if you were maybe partners at home too."
There was a long moment of silence, as Blair appeared to mull over Joel's words. Then a flicker of surprise crossed his face, turning quickly to one of abject sorrow. A flush of red colored his cheeks, and he looked away, biting on his lower lip. "No, we weren't," Blair replied shakily.
"You remember that?"
"Just something I know." There was a long pause before he spoke again. "Tell me about the others you work with. Do I know them too?"
"What?" Jim asked. He had been aware of Simon's silent scrutiny during the drive back to the station. He leaned his head back against the wall of the elevator and closed his eyes.
"Just wondering if you're going to tell Sandburg how you really feel this time," Simon replied casually.
Jim's eyes popped open and he glared at the captain before his gaze slid away to study the polished metal of the control panel. "I don't know what you mean, sir," he said finally.
"Sure you do," Simon insisted. "Come on, Jim. I wondered, even before all the crap with Sandburg's dissertation, but when he disappeared, I knew. You're in love with him."
"Of course I love him," Jim argued. "He's my partner, my friend, my guide. We've been through a lot of shit together."
"And some good times too," Simon added. "So, are you going to tell him?"
Jim sighed. "Not yet. He's not ready for something like that." He stepped to the door as the elevator bell dinged. "He might never be. And I'm not sure it matters any more. He's back, he's starting to remember, and that's good enough for me."
"I hope so," Simon said, but he didn't sound convinced.
Four hours later, they got the call they'd been waiting for.
"We got the son of a bitch, Ellison," O'Hara crowed into the phone. "He was one of them! We took the sketch down to the streets, and the first vagrant we showed it to ID'ed him. Took us another two hours to track him down. The sick bastard had trophies. Those poor Joe's had nothing but he took a little something from every one of them. By the time we got him into the squad car, he was squawking like a baby. Said they were taking over his territory or some bullshit. Had to kill them before they took over."
"What about Sandburg?" Jim asked.
"Charges have been dropped," O'Hara replied. "Look, no hard feelings, all right? Your guy was in the right place at the right time. I was only doing my job."
"Yeah, right," Jim replied, sarcasm lacing his voice, though he knew O'Hara was right. Didn't mean he had to like it though, or O'Hara, for that matter. He hung up the phone and grabbed his jacket off the back of his chair. He was about to head out the door when the phone rang again. Muttering a curse, he picked it up and identified himself. "Ellison."
"Jim, it's Joel." Taggert's voice sounded tense.
"What's wrong, Joel? Tell Blair they got the murderer, the charges have been dropped."
"That's great news, Jim, but we've got a problem."
"Is Blair all right?" Jim asked, his heart beginning to hammer in his chest.
"He's fine, but… we were talking," Joel stammered. "He asked me about us working together and it got on to you two living together at the loft. He remembered something, Jim, but he won't tell me what it is. One minute, he seemed fine, the next he's jumping up and down, demanding to be allowed to leave."
"I'm on my way," Jim said, dread settling into his stomach like lead. "Don't let him go until I get there. Tell him the paperwork's not through on his charges yet, if you have to, but whatever you do, don't let him out of your sight."
"You got it," Joel replied.
Jim hung up the phone and ran for the elevator.
Relieved to find an empty elevator, Jim punched the button for the fifth floor and gingerly extended his hearing, trying to filter out the hospital's extraneous noises. It was not something he did easily since Blair's disappearance. The zone-outs and sensory spikes had become more common without Blair to guide him. This time, as so often in the past, Jim seemed to zero in on Blair's voice effortlessly.
"You can't… make me stay… if I don't want to." Blair's voice sounded fraught with tension, his breathing slightly labored.
"Come on, Blair. Jim's on his way," Taggert replied in a reasoning tone. "Just wait till he gets here and you can talk to him."
"You said the charges were dropped?" Blair asked.
"Well, yeah, but there's still paperwork to be done."
"You can send it to me. Am I free to go?" Jim heard Blair say.
"Physically, you're pretty much recovered." Jim recognized Blair's doctor's voice. "But you've had a severe emotional breakdown, Mr. Sandburg. You still need extended therapy and emotional support…"
"I'll find a therapist," Blair replied testily. "I've been in therapy half my life." Jim quirked an eyebrow at the familiar phrase and mentally hurried the elevator to its destination. When the doors finally creaked open, Jim shot out of the car and ran for Blair's room.
"Why are you in such a hurry to go?" he heard Joel ask. "Just wait till Jim…"
"I need to find somewhere to live," Blair answered as Jim pushed open the door.
"You have a home, Blair, at the loft," Jim said softly.
All eyes tracked toward him as he stepped into the room. Jim nodded his thanks to Joel and the doctor, then looked at Blair. His partner was as white as a sheet. He stood beside the bed with a hospital dressing gown wrapped tightly around him, a pair of musty-smelling track pants askew on his bony hips, held up by one thin hand. Jim's nose twitched at the smell. He'd packed all of Blair's things away in a box when he'd returned from San Francisco, unwilling to accept that Blair was gone for good, but not wanting the constant reminder of his absence. When Blair had been found, he'd pulled some clothes from one of the boxes and brought them into the hospital, assuming that his partner would be returning home with him. He'd even spent a night at the loft, putting Blair's masks and books back where they belonged.
"Could you leave us alone for a few minutes?" Jim asked.
Joel gave Blair's shoulder a sympathetic pat before following the doctor to the door. "I've got to get back to the station. You take it easy, Blair."
Blair didn't reply, turning to walk to the window, his back to Jim.
"I spoke to your mom, Blair. She's flying back today. She'll be back in Cascade sometime tomorrow."
Blair nodded. "I've missed her."
"You want to tell me what's going on, Chief?" Jim asked.
"Nothing," Blair replied, his voice flat, but Jim could hear his heartbeat racing.
"Joel says you remembered something and then suddenly decided you had to leave. Why are you running away again?"
Blair's body tensed. "It was nothing. I'm just sick of being here."
Jim walked up behind him and placed his hands on Blair's shoulders. He could feel them shaking beneath his touch. "So, we'll talk to the doctor, get a few appointments with a therapist set up, and go home."
"To the loft."
"Home," Jim reiterated.
"I'm not sure…" Blair whispered. "What if I can't stay there?"
Jim felt his heart lurch with sadness at the question. He took a deep breath and pushed his own needs and wants away. "Stay for a few days, get some decent food into you, then if you want to leave, I'll help you find a place."
Blair turned and looked at him, tears welling in his eyes. "A job," he said, his voice cracking. "I'll have to find a job."
Jim nodded. "When you're better, we'll work something out. Just… come home for now, okay?"
"Okay." The word was barely whispered but Jim felt hope returning. Once Blair was home in familiar surroundings, maybe everything would fall into place and they could go on from there. He would be content now to have Blair back in his life, lover or not.
The first night back in the loft had been a subdued affair. Blair had wandered around when they'd first arrived, examining things, picking up books and artifacts, touching photos and masks, making an occasional quiet comment when he recognized something. Jim had cooked a simple meal of steak and salad, then watched Blair flop tiredly onto the couch.
Jim picked up the remote and settled beside him, turning on the TV. "There's a basketball game on, if you're interested," he offered.
"Anything's fine," Blair replied around a yawn.
Jim found the correct station and relaxed back into the cushions. No more then twenty minutes later, Blair shifted and muttered something incomprehensible. His head dropped to his chest and Jim cupped the curly skull, settling Blair against him, reveling in the nearness of his guide. He was loath to go upstairs to bed, still nervous that he might come down and find Blair gone. Carefully, he slid sideways, taking Blair's limp form with him and pillowing the smaller body against his own. Soon, Blair's even breathing and regular heartbeat sent Jim drifting toward sleep. It was the first peaceful rest he'd had in months.
Jim woke with a start when his slowly awakening thoughts told him Blair's welcome weight was gone. He sat, blinking the drowsiness from his eyes and gazed around the living room. He relaxed when he saw Blair standing outside on the balcony, leaning against the balustrade.
Standing, Jim stretched and worked the kinks from his neck. He walked out to join his partner, moving slowly so as not to startle the other man. He took a position beside Blair and smiled at him. "I must have been more tired than I realized. I didn't hear you get up."
"It's a beautiful morning," Blair replied. He turned to face Jim and closed his eyes briefly, then opened them again. "When were you going to tell me?" he asked.
Jim was perplexed. "Tell you what?"
In reply, Blair held out his right hand and uncurled his fingers, revealing the twin rings nestling in his palm.
Oh God. Jim reached out a finger and touched the polished silver circles, then stroked it gently across Blair's palm. "The day you left with Naomi."
"How long?" Blair's voice sounded choked.
Jim knew what he was asking. "Since I got you back at the fountain." He looked into Blair's eyes. "I couldn't bring myself to say the words. Never have been good at the emotional stuff. I bought the rings, hoped they'd say the words for me. When you left…" He shrugged. "You didn't have to leave, you know? If you didn't want the badge, you just had to say so. We could have worked something else out."
"I didn't leave because of the badge," Blair replied.
Jim scrubbed a hand through his hair in frustration. "Then why? I thought after everything was sorted out that we were fine again."
"We were," Blair said. He turned away again and stared out at the lightening sky. "After the drowning, I realized how much you meant to me. How much I needed to be in your life. I wanted to tell you… but I was worried that you'd be disgusted. I figured it was better to be here with you as your friend, your partner than not at all. After I called the press conference and we talked at the hospital, you told me I was your best friend. I realized then that it wasn't enough for me, and if I told you how I really felt, you'd never want to see me again."
Jim rested his hands on Blair's shoulders and drew him back against his chest. Blair stiffened for a moment then relaxed into his hold. "Why did you take off when I said I was coming to San Francisco?"
"Because I didn't think I could not tell you. Everything was closing in on me. I felt drained, worn out. Naomi was bugging me to get help, and I knew the only thing I needed was to be here with you. If you rejected me, I didn't think I could go on. It started swallowing me up, the fear and guilt, the pain of not being with you. I could feel myself losing touch, but I couldn't do a damn thing about it."
Jim bent his head and kissed Blair's bare neck. "We're a couple of fools, aren't we?"
Blair gave a shaky sigh. "Yeah. Everything was coming back piecemeal, you know? Then Joel said something about people wondering if we were an item, and I remembered everything. I panicked."
"You still planning on running?"
Blair shook his head. "Not since I found these." He pushed the rings into Jim's hand, turning to wrap his arms around Jim, his head against Jim's chest.
Jim reached for Blair's hand and lifted his fingers, bestowing a kiss to the fingertips before sliding Blair's ring into place. Placing the other ring in Blair's hand, he smiled as Blair copied his actions then linked their fingers together. Blair lifted his head and smiled and Jim covered the lush lips with his own, his hands reaching to brush over Blair's shorn locks. Blair's mouth opened beneath his and Jim let his tongue explore, tasting his lover for the first time, every sense peaking to new awareness. Pulling back, he took Blair's hand and led him into the apartment, then up the stairs to his bedroom. "Grow your hair back, Chief, please."
Blair grinned at him. "Never cutting it again, man."
They lay together, sated and drowsy. Their first lovemaking had been tender but hesitant; each wanting to give their all to the other, but unsure how much to take. Jim rolled over and wrapped his arms around Blair's chest, linking their hands together, the rings knocking gently against each other, bringing their joined hands up to rest over Blair's heart.
“Jim?” Blair asked, sounding half-asleep. “What does the inscription on the rings say?”
Jim pressed a kiss to Blair’s shoulder. “It’s Quechua for one soul.”
"One soul," Blair replied thoughtfully. “That’s perfect.”