INTO THE MOUTH OF HELL

BY: Lyn

FEEDBACK TO: townsend297@gmail.com

DISCLAIMER: The characters of The Sentinel belong to Di Meo and Bilson and Petfly at al. This fanfic has been written for my own and others’ enjoyment. No money has been paid and no copyright infringement is intended.

AUTHOR’S NOTES: A December themefic for Dawn, who requested – " I would like a traditional, canon-related story with emotional and physical h/c, where Blair is not a cop. I prefer stories that have Blair hurt with Jim comfort. The theme of this month is broad: Friendship (i.e., Jim and Blair's friendship). There can, of course, be tension and misunderstanding between the two but their friendship must be clear by the end of the story. The story does NOT have to be a stickler for canon, but I would like it to be relatively canon, meaning no AU's or crossovers and no Mary Sue's (but original characters are, of course, okay)."

Dawn, I hope this fits.

As usual, a huge debt of thanks goes to the world’s best beta reader, Nancy, aka Wolf.

Set after S2.

Dan Freeman picked up the TV remote and threw it at his brother, grinning nastily when it bounced off Joey’s head.

"Ow!" Joey reached up and rubbed at the stinging spot with one hand. He glared at his brother. "What the fuck did you do that for?"

"Turn that shit off," Dan answered, waving a hand at the screen.

"I’m watching the news," Joey replied, turning his attention back to the television set.

Dan hauled him up by his shirt collar and slammed him up against the wall, his scowling face thrust into Joey’s. "I said turn the fucking thing off," he snarled. "I’m sick to death of having that fucking cop Ellison shoved in my face." He threw Joey back into the wall once more and then abruptly turned away. "Always on there, daring me to take him on. Always laughing in my face."

Joey straightened and licked his lips nervously as he watched his older brother pace the small apartment. "You still going to see the shrink, Danny?"

Freeman rounded on him, his eyes blazing. "What’s it to you?" he growled. "And I’ve told you before, don’t call me Danny."

Joey held up a placating hand. "Sorry. Sorry. But have you?"

"You know I have," Dan answered sulkily. "You get to drop me off there every fucking week."

"You still taking your medication?" Joey sidled a little closer to his bedroom door as he spoke. "You know your probation conditions are that you gotta see the shrink every week and you gotta take your meds."

"You accusing me of not taking my meds?"

"No. No," Joey said. "I’m just asking."

"I don’t need meds," Dan said. "There’s nothing wrong with me. Is it my fault the world is full of assholes like Ellison and his wannabe hippie partner?" He looked at Joey and snagged him by the sleeve of his shirt before he could disappear into his bedroom. "You gonna rat on me, little brother?"

Joey shook his head. "No, ‘course not, Danny…Dan."

"Cops would be mighty pleased to get an anonymous phone call telling them where they can find the guy who’s been supplying the local high school kids with Ecstasy, especially since that girl died."

"Come on, Dan, you know that was an accident," Joey wheedled. "I was told it was herbal Ecstasy. I figured it was safe."

Dan reached up and ruffled his brother’s hair, smiling when the younger man flinched. "Good. Just so we know where we stand, little brother. Actually, I’m kind of glad we had this little conversation." He hauled Joey from his bedroom and pulled him close, wrapping an arm tightly around the other man’s throat. "I need your help on a project."

"What project?" Joey squeaked past the constriction.

"We’re going to wipe that smile off Detective Ellison’s face."

"How? What are you gonna do, Dan?"

Dan Freeman released Joey abruptly and wheeled around to stalk back to the TV screen. He reached out a finger and stroked it down the face of the young, pony-tailed man standing beside the Cascade detective as he was being interviewed. "He took away my rights. Let’s see how he likes having something of his taken away."

~o0o~

Blair Sandburg was tired, bone-achingly, mind-numbingly tired. And starving. He pushed himself back from his desk and massaged his temples. His eyes stung as though they’d been rubbed raw with sandpaper and he knew it was high time that he got a new prescription for his glasses. Time. He needed time to do that. He snorted derisively. Time and money. Neither of which he had in the foreseeable future. Stifling a yawn, he closed the last bluebook in front of him and picked up his backpack from the floor.

He stole a look at his watch as he closed and locked his office door and groaned. 2.30am. By the time he got home it would be 3 and he’d promised to go into the precinct with Jim in the morning. If he didn’t waste time on eating dinner or lunch or whatever meal he was catching up on, he’d be able to sneak in around four hours sleep.

The anthropologist mulled over the decision as he trekked out to his car. Food or sleep. It should have been a simple enough choice to make but his sleep-deprived brain seemed to be determined to turn it into a puzzle of Mensa proportions.

He was so caught up in his musings that he didn’t see the stranger until he glimpsed the movement from behind him in the car window and turned around in surprise. The blow to his jaw slammed him back into the door and he collapsed to the ground, unconscious before he could begin to form a cry for help.

Blair’s attacker stood for a moment, gazing down at the crumpled figure at his feet. He looked up as he heard running feet approaching.

"Jesus, did you have to hit him that hard?" the second man said. "Are you sure he’s all right?" He bent and pressed a finger to the unconscious man’s neck. The first man slapped it away, then slipped his hands under Blair’s arms, hoisting him partially upright.

"He’s fine," he grunted. "Help me get him in the car."

~o0o~

Jim Ellison awoke to an unnamed concern that teased at the back of his mind. Yawning widely, he sat up in bed and scrubbed a hand over his face.

Blair.

The name drifted into his thoughts and was gone again like quicksilver. Jim extended his hearing to the bedroom downstairs. Nothing. "Damn it, Sandburg," he grumbled. He glanced at his watch. 5am. "You’d better be at the station at 8am with your tail between your legs, Sandburg or I’m going to have your ass."

The detective threw himself back onto his pillows and studied the ceiling while he sorted through the thoughts currently crowding his head. He’d promised not to phone Sandburg if he was late coming home. The anthropologist had argued, and rightly so, that he was a grown man who was perfectly capable of making a phone call to let Jim know if he was staying out all night.

Jim sighed. Half the time, Blair forgot to phone, or he forgot to take his cell phone with him. Still, Jim conceded he was right. If Blair chose to stay up all night working in his office or partying with some pretty girl, then it was his life.

Still, the concern niggled at him. Six weeks ago, Blair had been drowned in a fountain at Rainier University by another sentinel. Alex Barnes had issued Jim a challenge sentinel to sentinel and Blair had been her pawn. In exchange for Blair’s help in controlling her senses, she had driven the two men apart, then drowned Blair when he was at his most vulnerable, alone and depressed after Jim, in a fit of primal rage had thrown him out of the loft.

Jim had managed to resuscitate his guide, with some timely intervention by Incacha, a long-dead Peruvian shaman and then the two men had called what was at first an uneasy truce.

It was only in recent days that Jim had noticed some of the familiar comfortable banter returning to their conversations. The cost of Alex’s attack had been high though. The drowning had scarred Blair’s lungs and he suffered recurrent bouts of bronchitis and pneumonia. He had, in fact finished a course of antibiotics just two days before and still seemed tired and spent from the illness.

Now wide-awake, Jim sat up and threw the covers off. If he was already awake, he decided to make the most of it and head into the precinct early. He could get a head start on his reports, have the meeting with Sandburg and Simon and maybe swing a half-day off. If Blair was free, they could catch a movie or something. With that decided, Jim wrapped his robe around him and headed for the shower.

~o0o~

Blair shifted slightly on the cold, hard floor and arched up as agony ripped through his lower back and ricocheted down into his legs, stealing his breath. Distantly, his mind registered a soothing touch stroke down his cheek and he leaned into it gratefully, savoring the cool sensation against his fevered skin.

"Jim?" His voice sounded rusty and hoarse to his ears and he struggled to open his eyes but they remained stubbornly closed.

"Shh," a voice beside him said. "You don’t want to make him angry again. You’ll see Jim soon."

Suddenly, the hand was roughly torn away and Blair whimpered unashamedly at its loss, feeling disoriented without it there to ground him. Harsh, angry voices filled the air around him but he could no longer decipher the words, and he drifted away on a cloud of pain and fevered heat, allowing his dreams to take him to Jim.

~o0o~

Freeman glared at his brother from where he was standing over the unconscious, blindfolded anthropologist. "Get him ready. We’re getting rid of him tonight."

Joey’s eyes widened in fear. "You said you weren’t going to kill him, just mess him up a little. He’s hurt real bad, Dan. If he doesn’t get medical help soon, he’ll die."

"Then it’ll save me a bullet," Freeman said. He kicked maliciously at Sandburg’s back, grinning when he elicited a low groan. "Get him ready."

~o0o~

Simon Banks walked into the bullpen and greeted the detective seated at the desk. "Jim. You’re here bright and early."

"Yeah." The detective pushed his seat back and looked up. "I couldn’t sleep, so I figured I’d come in and finish off these reports. Any chance I could swing a half day?"

"I don’t see why not," Simon answered agreeably. "Come on in and try some of this new coffee. We’ll get this meeting out of the way and you can take off…" He stopped mid-stride to his office and looked around the almost deserted bullpen. "Where’s Sandburg?"

Jim stood and followed Simon. "I was just about to phone him. He didn’t come home last night."

Simon snorted. "Why doesn’t that surprise me. The kid’s got more energy than sense." The captain stopped and studied Jim’s worried face. "Problem?"

"I don’t know. It’s not like Sandburg not to show for a meeting," Jim answered. "Regardless of his social life, he takes his work seriously. If he said he’d be here at 8 for a meeting, he’d be here." He wheeled and went back to his desk and picked up the phone. "Would you mind, sir? It’ll only take me a minute."

Simon nodded. "I’ll put the coffee on. Sandburg might need it when he gets here."

~o0o~

Blair swatted feebly at the cool plastic that rested against his ear, emitting an annoying buzzing that caused his head to ache. Slowly the fog cleared from his confused mind and he could hear the tinny sound of a voice.

"Sandburg? It’s Jim. Where the hell are you?"

Blair blinked blearily up into a pair of brown eyes that were crinkled in amusement and a cruel mouth turned up in a sneer. Freeman! Blair gasped and tried to skitter away from the vision above him but every small movement caused pain to slice through his body. "Freeman? Wh-where’s Jim?"

Freeman smiled and held up Blair’s cell phone. "Right here. Say hello to your buddy."

Blair reached up a shaky hand to snatch the phone and Freeman let him take it. Trembling, Blair put the phone to his ear, watching Freeman carefully as he spoke. "Jim?"

"Sandburg! Where the hell are you? We had this meeting scheduled for 8 and you said you could make it…"

"Jim, please." Blair squeezed his eyes shut against the heartache of hearing Jim’s voice so close and knowing that something terrible was about to happen. He opened them again and gazed quickly around the small room he was in, hoping to find some clue as to where he was. The room was bare, however, save for the bed on which he lay and a dresser positioned under a window that was covered by heavy curtains.

"Sandburg? Blair? What’s wrong? Where are you?" Blair could hear the panic beginning to tinge Jim’s voice now and he couldn’t hold back his sob of fear. Suddenly, the phone was torn from his grasp and he wailed at its loss.

Freeman turned away and walked from the room, pulling the door shut behind him. Even as Blair launched himself from the bed and fumbled frantically for the handle, he heard the snick as the lock was engaged. Blair screamed in fear and frustration and began to hammer at the door with both his fists until they were both numb and swollen and his voice was but a hoarse whisper. Finally his exhaustion and injuries overwhelmed him and he slid to the floor to lie in an insensible heap, his unseeing eyes open and staring at the closed door.

~o0o~

"Blair? Blair!" Dan Freeman smiled nastily at the panicked voice that emanated from Sandburg’s cell phone. Waiting a few more seconds, he pressed the receiver to his ear and spoke. "Ellison? You should have used your call time to say goodbye to your buddy."

"Who is this? Where’s Sandburg?"

"You don’t remember me? I’m deeply offended, detective. I’ve been watching you, Ellison. Always on TV, in the news, showing off. Well, this is one time you lose, detective. You’re never gonna see your little boyfriend again."

"Freeman? Is that you? What do you want?" Jim’s voice was calm now, calm and low and dangerous.

Freeman laughed loudly. "Want? I’ve got what I wanted, Ellison. See ya." He closed the phone with a sharp snap and tossed the phone to Joey, who was seated on the couch watching his brother with wide, fear-filled eyes. "Get rid of the phone and the rest of his stuff. We’re leaving in half an hour."

"Where?"

Dan Freeman pulled a beer from the refrigerator and twisted off the top, tossing it onto the pile of refuse already littering the counter. "You’ll find out when we get there, little brother. Get me some of that Ecstasy shit I know you’ve still got in your room. Don’t want Sandburg waking up on the way and causing a fuss."

Joey hesitated for a moment, then seeing Dan’s eyes narrow in anger, he pushed the cell phone into his jacket pocket and went to his bedroom.

~o0o~

"Simon!" The captain hurried out of his office at Jim’s panicked summons and stopped in shock as Jim turned a pale face toward him. "Freeman’s got Sandburg."

"Who?"

"Dan Freeman, that crazy I arrested a while back. The manure in the loft?"

"What the hell does he want with Sandburg?"

Jim shook his head and sat down at his computer. "Revenge against me, apparently. I’m going to pull Freeman’s records. Find out what he’s been up to."

Simon nodded and headed back to his office. "I’ll put an APB out on Sandburg and Freeman. Jim?" He waited until the detective looked at him. "Are you sure he’s got the kid? He might just be yanking your chain. The guy’s got some sort of serious mental disorder happening."

Jim shook his head, his features drawn and worried. "I heard Blair. The bastard let him answer the phone, then took it away."

"Was Sandburg all right?"

"I don’t know. He sounded confused, dazed, maybe drugged?" Jim scrubbed a hand through his hair and glared at the monitor. "Come on already! Ah, good. Got it."

~o0o~

Joey Freeman turned in the passenger seat and studied the unconscious young man behind him. Blair lay lengthwise along the bench seat on his back, his long, curly hair fanned out in disarray. His eyes were closed but they moved aimlessly behind his lids as though he was in the throes of a dream. His hands, tightly bound in front of him twitched spasmodically and occasionally, a disjointed mutter broke past the dry lips.

"He all right?" Dan Freeman indicated the anthropologist with a jerk of his head and kept his eyes on the road ahead.

"Don’t know," Joey said quietly. "He’s hallucinating. He was already sick, Dan, this could kill him."

Freeman shrugged as he turned the car onto a dirt track leading into the mountains. "Gonna be dead soon anyway."

Joey wrapped his arms about his suddenly chilled body. His fingers clenched around the edge of Blair’s cell phone, still concealed in his pocket and he turned to stare out the passenger window, trying to sort his chaotic thoughts.

~o0o~

Jim launched a vicious kick at the door to Joey Freeman’s apartment, watching in grim satisfaction as the door burst from its hinges and hung from the frame.

"You could have waited for the master key," Simon muttered as he swept past the detective.

"No time," Jim grunted, following his captain into the living room. The detective headed into the bedroom that led off the opposite side of the room and glanced around quickly. It was empty save for a single bed and a dresser under the window. Focusing his senses, Jim inhaled deeply, feeling a pang of worry as he scented his guide.

"Blair was here," Jim announced as he stepped back into the living room.

Simon turned to stare at him. "How do you know? Did you find something?"

Jim shook his head. "I can smell him in there. He’s hurt."

Simon nodded and looked around as Henri Brown ushered a short, portly man with greasy dark hair into the apartment. The smaller man looked aghast at the front door, then turned accusing eyes on Simon. "I hope you’re gonna pay for any damage, man. I can’t afford the repairs."

"This is Mr. Alfonso," Henri said, pushing the other man forward. "He’s the building manager."

"You’ll be fully reimbursed for any damage, Mr. Alfonso," Simon replied, shooting a glare at Jim, who simply shrugged and continued to prowl the apartment. "What can you tell us about Joey Freeman?"

"He’s a nice enough kid," the manager said. "But his brother? Man, there’s something wrong with that guy. He’s a real fruitcake. His eyes, they look straight through you. And he’s got a real crazy temper. Always flying off the handle and yelling and screaming. I got too many complaints from the other residents, so I told Joey he had to leave. They left early this morning. I saw them carrying stuff out to the car."

"Did you get a make, or a license plate?"

The manager shook his head. "What do I look like? The FBI? Joey minded his business. I minded mine." He grimaced at the steely glare from Jim. "It was a white sedan. Late model. That’s all I can tell you."

Simon stepped up and shook the man’s hand. "Thank you, Mr. Alfonso, we’ll be in touch." He turned back to Jim. "All right, I’ll update the APB on the car. What next?"

Jim shook his head, his eyes haunted. "I don’t know," he whispered.

~o0o~

Joey Freeman slipped his hands under Blair’s limp arms and pulled him carefully from the back seat of the car. He shushed the unconscious man softly when he moaned in his stupor as his feet hit the ground. Dan grinned and picked up Blair’s feet, then indicated the way with a jerk of his head.

"It’s just over here. The perfect little hideaway."

Joey swallowed and licked his lips nervously. "What are you going to do, Dan? Why don’t we just leave him on the side of the road? You don’t really want to kill anyone. You…"

"Don’t tell me what I want," Dan screamed, dropping Blair’s feet to the ground in his rage. His eyes narrowed dangerously. "I know what I want. You just remember what’ll happen to you if you don’t help me out, little brother." He bent and lifted Blair’s legs once more and led the way toward an abandoned equipment shaft.

"Oh no." Joey shook his head vigorously and pulled the unconscious anthropologist closer to him. "No, Danny, please. You’ll kill him, for sure."

"That’s the plan."

Joey shook his head again and reddened as he felt his bladder give way. "I can’t… I can’t." Dropping Blair’s upper body with a thump, Joey spun around and ran for the trees, his brother’s enraged bellow of anger echoing loudly in his ears.

Joey ran, heedless of the tiny, stinging cuts that marred his face from the whipping of the trees as he tore through them in his rush to escape. Finally, his energy spent, he fell headlong on the ground, then pulled himself up and dragged himself to the shelter of a large tree. Sobbing miserably, he wiped at the sweat and blood that dribbled down his face, then turned his face up gratefully as the first drops of rain began to fall. He clutched his arms tightly about his aching ribs and sucked in lungfuls of air and droplets of rain, willing his wildly pounding heart to slow.

The rain came heavier now, a soaking downpour that quickly chilled him to the bone. Joey reached into his jacket pocket and pulled Blair’s cell phone from his pocket. Still crying hysterically, he pulled up the phone’s memory and punched in Jim Ellison’s number.

~o0o~

Dan looked down at the crumpled figure on the ground at his feet. Sandburg appeared to be stirring now, soft mumbling coming from beneath the gag. Reaching down, Freeman pulled the gag and blindfold from the anthropologist’s face. Blair reached up a shaking hand to shield his eyes and turned his face into the dirt in an effort to escape the harshness of the sun’s rays. A large fat raindrop dropped onto the back of his neck and he shivered.

"Should get you out of the rain," Dan Freeman said conversationally as he dragged Blair the last few feet to the shaft. Bending down, he pulled Blair so that his body lay half over the edge and then tipped his feet up.

He waited a moment, wondering whether he would hear the impact of the young man’s body, then when no sound was forthcoming, he wiped his hands on his jeans and walked back to his car. He debated whether to search for Joey, then decided that the young man would come to his senses soon enough and come sniveling back, begging Dan to take him in. After all, he had nowhere else to go.

~o0o~

The terrifying sensation of freefall seemed to be the trigger that brought Blair suddenly back to consciousness. His hands flailed in a desperate attempt to grasp something that would slow or halt his fall. He screamed loudly but it seemed he had no voice and he wondered if he might die of fright before he hit the bottom.

Mercifully, his fear was short lasting, as he slammed hard onto a small ledge that jutted from the side of the equipment shaft. He landed with a bone-cracking thump that sent agony clawing up through his arm and shoulder and down through his hip. The impact tore his consciousness from him and he fled the pain willingly.

~o0o~

Jim Ellison sat in his car and stared unseeing through the windshield. Apart from the elusive scent of his guide at the apartment, they’d come up with no further clues to Blair’s whereabouts. Suddenly weary, Jim leaned his forehead on the steering wheel. "Come on, buddy," he whispered. "Tell me where you are."

His cell phone’s ringing tone jarred him from his thoughts and he pulled the instrument quickly from his pocket, answering it frantically when he recognized Blair’s number. "Sandburg? Is that you? Blair?" The words spoken on the other end of the phone had him out of the car and signaling madly to his captain in a second.

"My name is Joey Freeman." The voice was hoarse and shaky and Jim had to extend his hearing to catch all the words. "I know where Blair is."

"Where is he, Joey?" Jim asked as Simon ran up.

"It’s an old equipment shaft out in the park," Danny said and then his words dissolved into sobs and Jim’s world stood still. "Dan threw him down the shaft. He’s dead."

Simon stared at his detective for a moment. The color had suddenly drained from Jim’s face and he looked ready to collapse. He took the phone from Jim’s lax hand and pushed the detective back so that he was seated in his car. "Who is this?" he asked into the phone.

"He’s Freeman’s brother," Jim answered softly. "Freeman threw Blair down an equipment shaft in the National Park."

"Oh God," Simon breathed.

Suddenly, Jim’s jaw tensed and he pulled himself out of the car. "Get a location from him. We’ll have to find him fast."

"Jim." Simon put a staying hand on the detective’s arm. "Those shafts are pretty deep. You know that. Chances are…"

Jim shook his head and glared at the other man. "He’s not dead. I’d know if he was."

Simon surrendered the phone when Jim held his hand out for it. "Joey? Can you tell me where you are? We’re going to come and get you. It’ll be okay."

~o0o~

The return to consciousness was uncomfortable in the extreme and Blair wondered vaguely how he’d managed to fall asleep on the floor, and especially, why Jim hadn’t woken him up. His first movements brought pain coursing through his entire body and a sudden, frightening return to reality.

Shifting slightly so that he lay on his right side, Blair could see that he had landed on a narrow ledge, just a little wider than his body. His movement brought an ominous creaking from the platform beneath him and he stilled immediately, though he was certain that the vibration from his thundering heart would be enough to shatter the wood and send him plummeting downward. That thought gave life to an overwhelming urge and he cracked open his eyelids and stole a look. The sight tore a sob from his throat and he inched back so that he was one with the shaft wall, ignoring the agony of broken bones.

"Jim!"

~o0o~

Jim was ushered into a large office at Search and Rescue Headquarters where two men, both dressed in overalls were perusing a large wall map. Both men turned at Jim’s entrance and the older of the two, a tall, lanky man with unruly dark hair, flecked with gray, and smiling brown eyes, stuck out a hand. "I’m John Malone. This is Mike Perry."

"Detective Jim Ellison. Sandburg’s my partner."

Malone nodded and indicated the map. "You want to give us an idea of where we should start looking?"

Jim tapped the left-hand side of the paper. "Joey Freeman, the perp’s brother, was picked up here. He’s not sure which direction he came from. He says he got lost and has no idea how long he was running before he phoned me."

"Doesn’t give us much to go on. That whole area is peppered with abandoned mines and wells."

"That’s where I can help," Jim said. "Sandburg and I tracked a felon through the area a couple of years ago."

Malone nodded again. "The Quinn case. Took your captain hostage. I remember hearing about it from the guys who airlifted someone who was shot."

"That was Blair. He had a pretty rough time of it."

"Pretty hands on, this Sandburg, for a consultant." Malone was eyeing Jim speculatively.

Jim shrugged. "He’s a versatile guy."

Malone appeared to be satisfied with that. "You know the chances of finding your partner alive…You know that he could already be dead."

"He’s alive."

"Okay. I know how that goes." That said, Malone slapped Jim on the shoulder and headed for the door. "Let’s go find your partner."

Mike Perry smiled at Jim as they ran toward the waiting chopper. "Be grateful John’s heading this operation, detective. He’s the best there is. If your partner’s out there, John will find him. He was a top paramedic in LA until the fires there killed his partner. He nearly died himself, transferred to Seattle three years ago."

Looking now, Jim could see the faint burn scars that disappeared under the cuff of Malone’s left sleeve and the hint of more at the neck of his shirt. Somewhat mollified, Jim focused his thoughts on his missing partner. "Hang in there, Chief. I’m coming."

~o0o~

Blair’s shouting had achieved nothing other than giving him a raging thirst and robbing him of his voice and he lay silently now. He was beginning to feel drowsy despite the constant pain of his injuries and only an occasional spasm that grated the broken bones of his arm drew a moan from his throat. His thoughts seemed unwieldy and vague and his mind began to wander, memories taking on a kaleidoscopic feel as they merged with each other. Faces coalesced and wavered in his mind’s eye, only one remaining constant, even though the name seemed to have slipped from his fatigued brain.

He thought he heard sound from above and shifted slightly in order to look up. A fat raindrop splattered on his face and mixed with the tears and blood already there. He shivered as the rain began to fall steadily, quickly drenching his clothes and bringing with it a shower of rocks and dirt that coated his face and made him cough. The coughing fit brought unendurable pain from his chest and he fought to catch his breath. Finally, the agony brought blessed relief as he slipped into unconsciousness once more.

~o0o~

"There are mine shafts all through here," Jim said as he exited the helicopter behind John Malone. He stood still as his breath caught in his throat and vivid memories assailed him as he looked at the familiar landscape. A few miles to the east, a chopper had airlifted Blair after he sustained a bullet wound and concussion as they relentlessly tracked Dawson Quinn. The anthropologist had doggedly stayed at Jim’s side, even after collapsing from a head injury during the long trek. Jim was certain that his partner would not give up easily this time either.

The sentinel stood completely still for a moment, ostensibly to get his bearings, but in reality he was listening to his guide’s voice inside his head. "Focus. Extend your hearing, filter out and discard any unnecessary noises." Jim started as Malone tapped him on the shoulder.

"You okay?"

Jim nodded. "Yeah. Just trying to get an idea of which way they might have headed. Give me a minute."

John nodded and turned back to supervise the unloading of equipment. Jim centered himself again and extended his hearing. The rain was coming down more heavily now, making his task difficult as he struggled to dial his hearing up and at the same time, not be deafened by the sound of drops hitting the leaves of the trees and the scurrying of wildlife as it skittered in the undergrowth for shelter from the storm. Jim nodded his thanks and accepted a waterproof jacket from Mike Perry.

Malone stepped up beside him and began to load his pack with equipment from the chopper. "Lead the way, Jim. Let’s go take a look."

Jim headed off and immediately extended his hearing and sight once more. He knew he was risking a zone-out without Blair there to ground him but he knew that if he didn’t find Blair, it was a moot point anyway.

The rain had become a drenching downpour and the temperature had dropped considerably in the short time since they had set down. Jim focused on heartbeats and filtered and discarded the ones he knew were the rescue personnel and others that were too fast to be human. Then he caught it and he felt giddy with relief at the sound. They’d been searching an hour now but Jim had lost all track of time. He turned to the men behind him and pointed to the left. "Over here. Someone’s over here."

John Malone looked at him in surprise. "I can’t hear anyone," but Jim was already running through the brush. Malone shook his head and took off after the detective. He pulled up short when they came to a clearing and he could see a couple of blocked off mines on the far side.

The detective was leaning over the edge of a shaft that appeared to go straight down into the bowels of the earth and John Malone’s hopes took a downward spiral. He was shocked when the detective turned to him and said, "He’s down there. He’s on a ledge of some kind. We’ll have to hurry, he’s hurt and sick."

Without knowing why, John took the man at his word and laid his equipment on the ground, getting out what he needed. Pulling out a flashlight, he stepped over next to Jim and directed the strong beam downward. He could see a man lying several feet below them, silent and unmoving.

The ledge he’d landed on was narrow, one of the man’s arms dangled over the side, his legs extended beyond the edge. "I don’t want to startle him and have him move suddenly," he said to Jim. "See if you can rouse him."

"Blair? Are you with me? It’s Jim. Blair?"

There was no response from the man below and John’s concern deepened. Jim seemed to read his thoughts and spoke up. "He’s alive. Please don’t ask me how I know. I just do."

Again, John felt compelled to accept Jim’s word and he nodded, then turned to Mike Perry. "Let’s check this shaft out properly." He looked up at the storm-filled sky and wiped the rain from his face. "Conditions are going to get worse before they get better."

Both men started at the sound of the shaft mouth crumbling and the soft moan from below. Jim leaned back over the edge but the other man held him back. "Take it easy, detective. The rain has made the shaft unstable. The wrong move from us and we could bring the entire thing down on your friend."

He turned back to his team. "We’re going to need to shore the entrance up before anyone goes down there. Scout around, see what you can find."

He watched as Jim lay down on his belly and inched his way to the edge of the well. "Blair? It’s Jim."

"Jim?" Blair’s voice was hoarse and as he shifted, a further shower of dirt was dislodged. Blair raised one hand up to shield the back of his head and groaned. "Can you get me out of here, Jim? I don’t like it."

"We’re working on it, Chief," Jim replied. "You have to stay as still as you can. Okay?"

"’Kay. I’m tired."

"Try not to let him go to sleep," John said, crouching down at Jim’s side. "Chances are he’s got a head injury. Try to keep him talking."

Jim nodded. "Blair? Talk to me."

There was a short silence before Blair answered. "What about?"

"What about the research you’ve been doing this past week…"

"No!" Blair’s voice was forceful and he gasped in pain and began to cough. The spasm lasted a long time and Jim had to fight his urge to climb down into the shaft and bring Blair back up with him.

He continued to talk to his partner, directing him to breathe slowly, to stay calm, all the while his fingernails dug bloody troughs in the palms of his hands as he clenched them rigidly. Finally, the spasm was over and Blair lay panting heavily.

"Blair? How are you doing?"

"’m okay. Can’t talk about the research though, man."

Jim huffed out a sigh that was part relief and part frustration and rested his head on his arms. "Okay. How about you tell me how you’re feeling. Can you tell me what injuries you have?"

The pause was longer now and Jim extended his senses into the shaft in the hope of gaining more information. "Blair? Don’t go to sleep on me."

"Won’t. Just checking to see what works."

Jim smiled. If he could keep Blair’s mind on clinical observations, the young man might stay awake. Finally, Blair answered again, though his voice sounded weaker and Jim could detect a wheeze in his breath.

"My left arm is broken. My hip hurts. Must have landed on it." Jim saw him raise a hand to his face and touch the gash above his eye, wincing as he did so. "Is this still bleeding?"

Jim homed in on the battered features. "A little," he answered, his mouth going dry at the sight of Blair’s bruised, filthy face. "It’s almost stopped."

Blair nodded carefully. "That’s good. Hurts though. I’ve got a headache." He made a sudden move to get up and Jim held out a futile staying hand.

"No! Blair! You have to stay still." He watched more rocks and dirt shower the injured man, heard him cough weakly as dust covered his face.

"I want to go home now. Jim? Jim?" Blair’s voice rose in despair.

"I’m here, Chief." Jim turned to Malone. "How much longer?"

"An hour or so."

Jim watched the paramedic for a moment as he began to set up his rescue gear. "Let me go down to him."

John shook his head. "This is my specialty, Jim. I need to see him, find out what his injuries are and figure out the best way to get him back up without aggravating them."

"I’m his partner," Jim answered stubbornly.

"Then you’ll let me do my job, if you want him to stay your partner."

"Jim? Jim? Don’t go, please. Don’t leave."

Jim turned back to the shaft at the cry of distress. "I’m right here, buddy. I’m not going anywhere. We’re going to have you out of there soon but I need you to stay real still until we do. Okay?"

"’Kay. Jim? Did you get him? Freeman?"

"We’ll get him, Chief. Don’t worry about that."

"Okay."

The detective turned back to John Malone. "Get him up as quickly as you can. I don’t know how much longer I can keep him calm."

Malone rested one hand on Jim’s shoulder and patted it reassuringly. "You doing a great job so far. Just a little longer."

~o0o~

Jim looked up as Malone stepped up to the edge of the equipment shaft. He’d become oblivious to the activity around him for the past two hours as he’d concentrated fiercely on keeping Blair awake and free of panic.

A few times, the younger man had slid into confusion, unsure of where he was. His answers to Jim’s questions were becoming fewer and further apart as he slipped into shock, caused both by his injuries and the cold. The rain had finally stopped but the sky now darkened with the approach of night and Jim knew the chances of getting Blair out alive grew slimmer with each passing minute.

John Malone checked his line to see that it was tied off securely and secured his helmet. "I’m going to go down and see how he’s doing. I’ll let you know once I’m down there how we’re gonna bring him up."

Mike nodded and gathered the rest of the team together. The paramedic let himself carefully over the edge of the shaft and gave his second-in-command the thumbs up. "Let it out easy, Mike." He waited a moment as his movement and the rain loosened more dirt. Then he carefully began to lower himself down.

Blair was huddled on his side, long, wet curls covering his features. John reached out a hand and brushed the dirty hair from his face. Blair’s face was scraped and bruised, a deep gash ran the length of his eyebrow, though the bleeding had slowed to an ooze and he had another large bloody knot on his right temple.

The paramedic felt for a carotid pulse. He frowned when he noted the slow but bounding rate. He pulled a penlight from his pocket and peeled back Blair’s eyelid. The pupils were unequal and the response to light was sluggish in the right eye, causing the paramedic grave concerns. At the very least, the young man had a severe concussion and it was important that they get him to a hospital as quickly as possible.

As he began to run practiced hands over Blair’s body, the man moaned softly and shifted against the touch. "Easy now, easy," John said. He rested one hand lightly on the injured man’s shoulder as a deterrent against movement but Blair batted weakly at him and struggled against the restraint. "Jim?"

Blair’s agitated movement caused an ominous creaking of the ledge and then a large shower of dirt and debris cascaded down on them from above. John swung his harness in as close as he dared to the young man and hunched protectively over him, flinching as a large chunk of rock bounced painfully off his shoulder. He tried not to think about the fact that he was swinging in space over a very long drop to the bottom. His earpiece crackled and then popped from his ear and John caught it reflexively and plugged it back in.

"Mike? Do you read me?"

"Loud and clear, John. How does he look?"

"He’s semi-conscious and he’s got a head injury. Apart from that, he’s got a fractured left proximal radius and ulna and a possible dislocated left hip, maybe a fractured pelvis." He was silent for a moment, weighing up how to break the news to the detective waiting above. "We’re going to have some problems pulling him up from here, Mike. He’s in no condition to help himself, but the shaft is beginning to crumble badly." He leaned over Blair once more as dirt tumbled down on them again. "I don’t know how long it’ll be before the whole thing collapses."

"What are you going to do?" It was the detective’s voice, surprising him as John didn’t think Jim had a radio on.

"I’m going to get you to send down a collar and some splints and a harness. I want to rig him up in a harness just in case this ledge gives out. Then I think we’re just going to have to risk it and pull him up."

"Okay. Heads up. Here comes the gear." Jim lowered the pack of gear down into the well.

~o0o~

"Jim? Can we go home now?" The croaking request came softly as John finished readying his patient for the ascent.

"Sure. Real soon. Just hang in there a little longer."

One dirt encrusted eye opened and studied him thoughtfully. "You’re not Jim."

"Nothing wrong with your eyes, anyway," John said cheerfully. "John Malone. How are you doing, Blair?"

"Not so good," Blair whispered.

"Ready to go for a ride?" John asked as he secured the final lines around Blair’s chest.

Blair shook his head.

"Your partner’s waiting top-side for you."

Blair blew out a shaky breath and nodded. John grinned and patted his shoulder. "Get us out of here, Mike."

The journey up was rapid and frightening as the men’s combined weight caused the top of the well to begin to collapse even as they were ascending. Finally, John felt hands steady them and they were dragged over the side and onto the ground. Rolling quickly to his feet, he shrugged out of his harness and knelt at the young man’s side.

Blair’s face was white beneath the mud and dirt. He shivered uncontrollably in the evening air and John accepted the emergency blanket from Mike and wrapped it around the young man. Jim Ellison knelt on the opposite side and helped to lift his partner onto the larger backboard, ready for the trip back to the waiting chopper. He looked up as John positioned an oxygen mask over Blair’s mouth and nose.

"Thank you."

John nodded and turned his attention back to his patient. "Blair? You with us?"

Blue eyes dulled by pain and exhaustion opened slowly and gazed around the assembled group. His eyes came to rest on Ellison and one grimy hand snaked out from the confines of the blanket to grip Jim’s. "You okay?" he whispered.

Jim nodded. "I am now."

Blair flinched as John slid a large bore IV needle into the back of his hand and turned accusing eyes on the paramedic. "I don’t like needles."

John chuckled. "Me either, buddy. Me either."

"S’pose you’re gonna put me in a chopper too."

"Yep."

"Shit."

John grinned at Jim and gave him the thumbs up. "He’s feisty, isn’t he, for a little guy?"

Jim nodded as each man took a corner of the stretcher and lifted it, carrying it toward the waiting chopper. "You don’t know the half of it."

They’d loaded Blair in and Jim was hurriedly helping to stow the gear when he caught the flash of something as it caught the waning sun’s reflection. Straightening up, he focused his attention on the nearby foothills that rose above the mines. "Shit!"

"Ellison?" He turned back at Malone’s voice. "We’re ready. Let’s go."

Jim hesitated, torn between his duty and his concern. One quick look at Blair’s pale features beneath the oxygen mask was enough to convince him. "Go," he shouted. "I’ve spotted Freeman. Radio for some backup. He’s in the foothills right above us."

"It’ll be dark soon. You’re not going to be able to track him at night."

Jim nodded his head. "I’m ex-Special Forces, I know what I’m doing."

John regarded him for a moment longer. "You need some help? I could leave one of my men with you."

Jim shook his head. "Just someone else to worry about. I’ll be fine. You just get my partner to the hospital."

"You got it." John motioned to the chopper pilot.

Jim watched Freeman watch him and saw the man stand up and hurriedly pack his binoculars away before scurrying into the bushes. The detective smiled grimly and headed up the slope toward his quarry. "Time for a little cat and mouse. Let’s see how you like a taste of your own medicine."

~o0o~

The grass was slick under his feet and Jim slipped backward a few times as he made his way up the steep slope toward Freeman. He grimaced as his foot sank into soft mud and the cold sludge oozed into his shoe. It was raining again, not as heavily as before, but a constant drizzle that made the going arduous and slow. He slid once more and cursed as his ankle went over on its side, sending a burning shaft of pain through his foot.

Keeping his head down, watching his feet, Jim extended his senses beyond him, hearing Freeman’s panting breaths and panicked heartbeat as he stumbled up the hill, attempting to outrun his pursuer. Jim allowed himself another smile. They were on the sentinel’s playing field now and he was getting closer with each step as Freeman began to tire.

He could hear Freeman just ahead of him now, where the hilltop flattened out to a panoramic plateau. Moving carefully, mindful of making any noise that might alert the other man to his presence, Jim skirted around the large boulders that sat atop the crest and approached his quarry silently from behind.

A shadow or movement alerted Freeman at the last moment and he whirled around rapidly to face Jim, his face paling at the sight of the detective leveling his weapon at him. "Freeze, Freeman. Put your hands up in the air slowly."

Freeman was already shaking his head vehemently as Jim spoke. "Not going to do it, Ellison. I’m not going to let you beat me."

Jim took another step closer. "I told you not to move, Freeman," he threatened. "I’d just as soon shoot you now, but my boss would be pissed with the paperwork, so I suggest you do what I asked."

"I got you where it hurts, Ellison," the other gloated as he took a single step back. "I killed your little hippy partner."

Jim shook his head. "Sandburg is going to be okay. They just choppered him out."

"He’s going to die."

Jim blinked against the sudden vision of Blair’s pale, dead face at the fountain and Freeman attacked in that moment. Jim’s finger tightened on the trigger even as the other man jumped toward him, feeling the weapon buck in his hand as it discharged and hearing Freeman’s gasp of pain or surprise or both as the bullet found its target. Then both men were falling back as Freeman’s weight slammed into Jim and carried them both over the edge of the hill.

They rolled in a tangled heap of arms and legs, Jim’s hands scrabbling desperately to find something to halt their descent. Then he felt his leg slam brutally into something hard and unyielding and red-hot agony knifed through his extremities to explode upwards through his skull, taking his consciousness with it.

~o0o~

The voice was becoming insistent, prodding him inexorably toward wakefulness and Blair swatted at the air, in the vain hope that it might go away. Another hand engulfed his own and laid it down on his chest, pinning it there gently.

"Oh, no you don’t, buddy. Come on, Blair. Open your eyes."

He opened one gritty eye reluctantly, tensing as something tightened around his arm. "It’s okay," the voice said. "Just checking your blood pressure."

"Jim?" Blair’s voice sounded alien to his ears, dry and weak.

"Jim’s not here right now."

Those words made him open both eyes and he fought to push himself up, collapsing backward when a surge of dizziness threatened to toss him back into unconsciousness.

"Not so fast, buddy."

He relaxed back into the mattress and positioned one arm strategically over his eyes to blot out the light that caused his head to pound. He felt weak and enormously weary. "Where’s Jim?"

"He’ll be here soon. He went after Freeman."

The voice sounded troubled and Blair felt a cold lump of fear form in his stomach at the tone. Shifting his arm and steeling himself against the brightness that sent daggers of pain into his skull, he squinted at the man who stood over him, scrawling something onto a chart. "Who are you?"

"I’m John Malone. Do you remember me from before, in the shaft?"

Blair began to shake his head, then regretted it. "No, sorry. Why isn’t Jim here?"

John frowned at the question, then lowered himself to sit on the edge of the bed. "Jim’s gone after Freeman, the man who attacked you. I’m sure he’ll be here soon. Your captain, Simon Banks has gone out there with some backup. Do you remember what happened to you?"

Blair thought a moment, then licked his dry lips. "I’m thirsty."

"You can have something to drink in a little while, when they’re sure you can keep it down."

"Why are you here?"

John shrugged and smiled. "I promised your partner that I’d take care of you. Everyone else is pretty busy right now. There was a four car pile-up on the interstate, so I offered to sit with you until a nurse is free."

A distant throbbing registered and Blair lifted up his arm, surprised at the heaviness of the appendage. He stared in puzzlement at the blue plaster that encased his arm from the fingers to just above his elbow, then lifted the other one to compare it, confused to find only a light gauze bandage concealing tubing that was inserted into the back of his hand.

He looked up at the other man and attempted to speak past the sudden roaring in his ears. "Where’s Jim?" He felt an ominous rolling of his stomach and managed to turn to his side with a low moan at the pain it caused. "Gonna be sick."

A cold metal bowl was placed beneath his mouth and Blair could feel someone gently rubbing his back as his stomach contracted. Painful heaving racked his body for long moments and then he flinched as a blinding white light exploded against the backs of his eyeballs. All of his muscles seemed to seize up in a massive cramp and then the roaring in his ears became a crescendo that merged with the fireworks in his head and he moaned past tightly clenched teeth at the agony it brought. Still vomiting, he began to choke as the convulsion compromised his airway and blackness rushed in to replace the fiery electrical activity in his brain.

~o0o~

John Malone reacted with practiced movements as Blair’s body stiffened and then began to shake. The paramedic let go of the emesis bowl, uncaring as the contents splattered across the floor. Quickly, he positioned Blair’s convulsing body on its side and punched at the call button before simultaneously reaching for the suction and oxygen.

~o0o~

Jim Ellison woke to a heavy weight on his chest and a frigid rain on his face. He rapidly became aware of a terrible pain and grating bones in his left leg as he attempted to shift against the object that pinned him to the ground. His arms and legs were cold and wet and he began to shiver violently almost immediately.

Blinking rapidly against the water that dripped into his eyes, Jim tried again to lift leaden, numb arms to push away whatever was keeping him immobile. His energy was quickly depleted and he sank back down to the muddy ground, panting heavily.

Looking down toward his chest, he stilled, then turned his head and threw up weakly as he came face to face with the mutilated, very dead body of Dan Freeman. The dead man was lying on top of Jim, almost blanketing his body, his wide, sightless eyes staring at the sentinel, as accusing in death as they had been in life.

Making a monumental effort that caused white-hot agony to shred up his leg, Jim rolled himself sideways, then back and drew in a deep, shuddering sigh of relief as Freeman’s body toppled off him to lie in a shallow puddle beside him. Now that he was free of the weight, Jim was able to lift his head and take a look at his surroundings. He was lying about halfway down the side of a steep hill. Broken bushes and trampled undergrowth above him indicated their path down the side and looking down, Jim could see that to try and make his way to the base, injured as he was would be an impossible task.

Dawn was just beginning to turn the sky a faded pink and he wondered idly whether that promised more rain or sunshine, but his addled brain refused to take up the challenge.

Damned one way or the other, Jim decided sleepily. He’d either freeze or bake to death if he didn’t get help soon and neither were attractive options. Perhaps a nap would refresh his thoughts, but then he shook himself roughly from his deepening stupor. Probably hypothermic. If he slept now, he might never get back to Cascade.

Hey!" He grunted as his shout triggered an overpowering urge to cough and then groaned at the resulting pain that erupted from his badly bruised ribs and chest muscles. Gritting his teeth, he took a deeper breath and tried again. "Can anyone hear me? I’m up here. Hey!"

He didn’t stop until his voice was but a hoarse whisper and the pain in his chest was an unrelenting agony, matched only by the vicious throbbing of his leg. Dropping his head back to the soggy ground, Jim watched despairingly as menacing black clouds skittered across the sky, chasing away the sun. Icy raindrops mixed with the tears of frustration and blood on his face and he closed his eyes against the wind that whipped up around him, showering him with dirt and debris.

He let himself drift, seeing Blair sitting on the sofa in the loft, writing industriously on a pad of paper in front of a roaring fire. Jim strode over and held his hands out to the welcoming warmth, rubbing his hands briskly together before accepting the steaming mug of hot chocolate from his partner with a nod of his head and a smile of gratitude. As Jim turned his back to the fire, he saw that Blair was no longer smiling. He lay on the floor, his face white and bloated, dirty fountain water streaming from his matted curls.

"No!" Jim stiffened and fought to escape the distressing image but he seemed weighed down, his body numb. Then there was a soothing stroking on his forehead and Jim opened his eyes and smiled wearily at Incacha.

"Your guide needs you by his side, Enqueri."

"Help me get back to him."

Incacha shook his head. "You must fight to stay strong enough for you both. The shaman is weak, his spirit broken by man’s inhumanity to man. He needs you to prove to him that life is worth fighting for."

"Don’t go." The dreamscape faded from Jim’s muddled mind and he closed his eyes in sorrow. Then, he rolled painfully to his side and reached out one hand to clutch at the straggling bush above him. Hand over hand, agonizing inch by inch, Jim began his torturous trek upward, dragging his broken leg behind him.

~o0o~

Jim lashed out angrily at the hands that seemed determined to keep him from his goal. "No! I have to get back to Blair." Furiously, he shook off the grip that held him still and reached out to grasp another branch to pull himself upward.

"Jim!" The familiar voice made him pause. "It’s Simon, Jim. Just relax and let me help you. I’ll take you to Blair."

Jim collapsed to the muddy ground, weak with relief. Carefully, he cracked open bleary eyes and fixed his gaze on the troubled dark face above him. "Simon. How’s Blair?"

"Doing okay when I left. Just stay still, we’ll have you out of here in no time." The captain shook his head as he took in the battered, exhausted condition of the detective. "How the hell did you manage to climb up here?"

Jim shifted his head to the side and let his gaze drift down the side of the hill. He could see Freeman’s unmoving body lying where he’d left him. He smiled tiredly and tapped a grimy finger to his temple. "Determination, Captain."

He winced as his injured leg was jostled and splinted and a backboard was pushed beneath him, then sighed as an emergency blanket was thrown over him. "Don’t know if I could have gotten any further though. I’m tired," Jim whispered as his eyes drifted shut. "Can you take over now, please, sir?"

~o0o~

Seated in a wheelchair with one casted leg stretched out in front of him, Jim idly stroked the back of Blair’s hand. In the long hours that he’d been chasing Freeman, Blair’s condition had taken a sudden nosedive. He’d suffered a seizure brought on by bleeding inside his skull. The doctors had operated, drilling a small burr hole to evacuate the clot and relieve the pressure.

Shifting himself in a vain attempt to find a more comfortable position, Jim took a moment to study his unconscious partner. The young man’s complexion was gray, his skin dry and hot, a legacy of the chest infection that had flared once more in the damp confines of the well.

Blair was hooked up to numerous machines, the most ominous being the ventilator that pushed air into his congested lungs. Jim’s hands clenched tightly as his gaze took in the battered features of his partner’s face and the dark scattering of bruises caused by Freeman’s angry fists. His arm was encased in a plaster that matched the one on Jim’s leg and his lower body was held immobile in a frame designed to support his previously dislocated hip.

The heavy, unsettled feeling that had taken up residence in Jim’s gut dissipated the moment he had been wheeled into Blair’s room. The doctors were confident that Blair would recover from his injuries and illness. They urged Jim to be patient when he’d pushed them aside mere hours after arriving at the hospital himself, vociferously demanding that he be allowed to see his partner. Blair needed to rest, they’d said and when his body was recovered enough from his ordeal, he would wake up.

Jim had another theory. After the trauma Blair had suffered at Freeman’s hands so soon after the attack by Alex Barnes, his guide needed to know that it was safe to come back. So, with that in mind, his own pain held at bay by a judicious dose of morphine and the turning down of his pain dial, Jim got comfortable. Taking Blair’s hand back into his own, the detective began to talk.

~o0o~

"I don’t think I ever told you I was sorry for what happened with Alex," Jim began. "Not just for what she did to you, but for everything that I did. From accusing you of keeping secrets from me, too stubborn to admit that if I’d listened to you that first night, maybe none of the rest would have happened. I kicked you out and left you exposed and vulnerable and just about blamed you for your own death. Then I betrayed you and went to her in Sierra Verde."

Jim ran a finger over his dry lips, grimacing as though he could still taste her there. He sighed when there was no response to the baring of his soul from the man in the bed, then stilled his movements and sat forward abruptly, cursing the platform on the wheelchair that kept him from getting close enough to his guide.

Leaning forward, a slow smile graced Jim’s lips and he felt his spirits lift. Blair’s eyes were partially open, though there seemed to be no awareness in the blue orbs. As Jim watched, the anthropologist frowned slightly and swallowed convulsively against the tube in his throat. Jim squeezed Blair’s hand gently. "That’s it, Chief. You’re safe now. Come back."

Two hours later, Jim was wheeled from Blair’s room, his protests hushed tersely by his captain. "Will you calm down, Ellison," the big man ordered grumpily. "The doctor said you can go back in a half- hour. They just need to check him out and clean him up a little, take that tube out of his throat." Simon shuddered a little. "I, for one, do not need to see that but I do need some coffee. And you," he raised a silencing hand as Jim opened his mouth to speak, "promised you’d let the doctor take another look at your leg and check that thick skull of yours. No arguments, detective. Half an hour. Doctor, coffee and food in that order."

Jim groaned, then nodded. He gripped the wheels on the chair, causing it to stop and looked back at the neurosurgeon. "Page me if there’s any change before I get back. Anything." The doctor nodded and smiled, then turned his attention back to his patient.

By the time Jim returned Blair was resting comfortably in a clean hospital gown, the ventilator replaced by an oxygen mask and a small oximeter pulsing a faint red glow on the tip of one finger. His complexion was still pale, but the unhealthy gray tinge was gone, his bruised cheeks pinker.

Jim resumed his place at Blair’s side and picking up a still lax hand, took up the conversation where he’d left it. "I’m back, Chief. Where was I?" He thought for a moment, then began. "We seem okay now, and I know you’ve told me that everything’s fine between us but I don’t think it will ever be like it was before until I can clear the air. Until I can tell you I’m sorry."

Jim tensed as he realized that Blair’s eyes were open now, and he appeared to be focused fiercely on Jim’s words. The detective reached forward and brushed a lock of hair from Blair’s eyes. "You awake, Chief?"

He waited with pent-up breath for a moment, only relaxing when Blair’s mouth curved upward into a gentle smile. "Jim." The word was feather-soft but to Jim, it was as loud as a shout. He watched as Blair’s eyes closed again and his breathing evened into sleep.

Jim continued talking. If he’d come this far, he could finish the journey, meet his partner halfway, and perhaps guide Blair home for a change. Jim smiled, enjoying the mental imagery.

"You need to let yourself off the hook for what you see as your own betrayal by helping Alex, Chief. You did what you’ve always done. It’s innate in you, your desire to help your fellow man in any way you can. You offered her what you offered me three years ago. It’s not your fault that she chose to abuse your trust or that I did. It wasn’t your fault. I’m so sorry, Blair."

"You’re forgiven, Jim." The voice was rusty and muffled, but the tone was coherent and sincere. Blair opened sleepy eyes once more and pulled the mask aside with a shaky hand. "Now all you need to do is forgive yourself."

Jim smiled down at his partner and reached for the call button before positioning the mask back over Blair’s nose and mouth. "Small steps, Sandburg. I’ll try to forgive, but one thing I can promise you is that I’ll never forget."

 

FIN.

- November 22nd, 2001.

Back to story archive