by Sheila Paulson
See notes and disclaimer in part one.
"It's a mess," one of the search party said to Jim as he waved his badge to explain his presence. "I think we lost a few when the bomb went off. They've been trying to get people out of the main elevators."
Jim's heart sank. If Blair had freed himself, he might have been on one of the elevators. "I don't think everybody would have had time to get down," he said. "We might have a couple elevators stuck between floors."
"Most of them are at this level, but there are four missing. We've got people on it, but the stairwells are both trashed. It will take hours to work our way up the ones that lead into the tower."
"What about the ballroom?"
"Everyone was out of there, and the kitchens and staff areas were all vacated, at least we think they were. We had police working the elevators; there wasn't time to finish a sweep of all the floors before it went off. I think they reached as high as nine before the explosion."
Which meant Blair was probably higher. Jim considered it. The ground floor levels were covered; there wasn't room for him to join the rescue party around the blocked elevator, and he couldn't get up the stairs. But if he went around to the rear of the hotel, worked his way onto the roof of the protruding area that housed kitchens and storage rooms, he might be able to climb the outside of the building. He'd only have to go up a floor or two before he passed the rubble in the stairwells. There were offices on the second floor there; he'd seen them this afternoon during the questioning. If he could reach the roof, he'd be level with the third floor.
He eased out again past a hysterical woman restrained by two officers. "My baby, my baby," she sobbed, fighting the man with the strength lent by desperation and adrenaline.
"We'll find her, Ma'am," one of the officers reassured her. "We've got rescue parties working now. We can't let anyone in who isn't trained. You won't help your daughter if you're injured yourself."
"I have to find her," she insisted, struggling in their grip. Evidently she'd been at the gala; she was clad in a light blue gown, now torn and dusty.
Jim couldn't help her, but he could search for the child while he searched for Blair.
"She's only ten," the woman cried. "You have to find her."
He moved on, past a triage area with a number of victims stretched out on pallets, some unconscious, some awake and in pain. Paramedics moved up and down the rows, directing ambulance crews to take away the most seriously wounded first.
There was no sign of Fred Street or Cheryl Ransome anywhere in the crowd, now restrained beyond barriers, mingling with the press. The two kidnappers would be long gone, but Simon knew who they were. He'd send a warning to the airport. This bombing hadn't been their fault. They could wait. And if anything had happened to Blair, Jim would personally find them and make certain they got what was coming to them.
Chaos reigned behind the hotel, too. Fire crews battled a small fire, but they had it nearly under control. Jim circled around past them, eyeing the lower wing of the hotel. It was two stories high as he'd remembered. Above it soared the tower, dark save for the faint glow of emergency lighting and the spotlights played upon it, its shape still proud in the darkness. There were broken windows on the third floor, a few on the fourth. Above that, there was no visible damage, and the general structure seemed stable. One of the Feds had said the architect himself was present and had claimed the Plaza tower would stand, though would need major rebuilding. The bomb had been meant for the ballroom, and part of that room extended out away from the tower. It was possible a few of the lower floors might cave in, or at least parts of them. But the hotel would stand up long enough for the rescue efforts. It had better. Jim was going in and that was final.
He shinnied up a drainpipe to scramble onto the roof. Jagged holes had been torn in its surface and most of the roof had fallen in, but he stuck to the edge and worked his way over to the tower, avoiding fallen rubble and testing each step before he trusted his full weight to it. It wasn't hard to knock away the remaining glass of one of the guest rooms and climb into its frame. He found himself in a place that looked like it had been through the Blitz. Between the window and the door, there was no floor, just a narrow, slanting rim around the edge of the room. The bed had fallen into the hole and hung suspended on the debris below, its headboard jutting up toward the ceiling.
No go. The third floor was probably too badly damaged for safe admittance. Jim backed out again, and used the window itself for leverage to climb a floor higher. The building was brick, so he was able to find slight hand- and foot-holds between the bricks until he could grasp the overhead window and pull himself up. His injured arm twinged painfully at the effort and he knew he'd started it bleeding again, but he pulled himself over the edge, all but falling into the room. Concentrating the way Blair had taught him, he tuned down the pain to a level he could ignore.
Judging from the condition of the one below, he didn't trust the floor, but worked his way around the edge of the room, testing his footing each time he moved, to the hall doorway amid broken glass from a mirror and lamp, and through a tangle of clothes from a spilled suitcase. The bed was empty and the hall door was ajar, either buckled in the blast or left wide by the deserting guest.
He shed Simon's jacket; it didn't fit right, and would only get in his way. Reaching the door he stood looking up and down the shadowy hall. Slowly settling dust motes traced patterns in the beams from the emergency lighting, making them appear solid, alive.
"Sandburg!" he yelled, holding his breath to listen for an answer, concentrating his hearing at its full strength, but only echoes replied.
A tremor disturbed the floor beneath his feet and he edged into the hallway, glancing in both directions. Part of the ceiling had come down on his left; he'd have preferred to use the front stairway, further from the blast, but he didn't think he could get through the damage there, so he edged his way in the opposite direction, opening the door to the rear stairwell. Rubble partly blocked the way below him, but the stairs above were mostly clear, though the first few were uneven and tilted unpleasantly downward. Testing the railing for safety, Jim started up. He'd check each floor. Maybe he should check each room. Blair might be confined, locked in a bathroom, still drugged. They wouldn't leave him free to yell the place down, even if he were still unconscious. *God, imagine what it must be like, trapped in a building with a bomb going off. It would be like the elevator all over again.*
Retracing his steps, Jim examined every room he could get into on the fourth floor, focusing his hearing to the edge of zoning out. He could detect all sorts of things, uneasy groans and creaks in the structure of the building, distant sirens, jackhammers, yells from down below, the beat of an approaching helicopter's rotor. But there was nothing to indicate a living person in any fourth floor room.
Up to five, then, to repeat the process. Nothing. Damn it. "Sandburg, where are you?" he pleaded, concentrating his attention on the ceiling overhead. There was a link between them, an untested, unexplored link, but one as real as anything he could reach out and touch. Closing his eyes, he imagined it as a cord running from his body, trying to see what direction it led. It rose right through the ceiling, guiding him higher.
"Hang in there, Sandburg," he said, and opened the stairwell door.
Movement on the fifth floor was quick and flurrying, a dark shape darting into an open room as he appeared. "Sandburg," he called, realizing Blair might well take shelter at any motion, expecting a return of the kidnappers.
No answer. But he could feel a presence, hear the harsh rasp of panicked breathing.
Jim drew his gun, holding it before him in both hands as he started down the passage toward the sound.
"Police! Come out peacefully!" Could it be Fred himself? An ally of Clayton's?
Suddenly a running figure broke from the room nearest the other stairwell and plunged through its open door before he could get off more than a quick warning shot that imbedded itself in the ceiling. It was a man and he held a bulky bundle that was probably a pillowcase full of objects that rattled and made it swing heavily against his side as he fled.
Jim raced after him, breaking off as he heard a panicked yell, suddenly descending as the man fell. It broke off with a horrible, gurgling scream and a sickening thud.
Edging into the stairwell, Jim saw the steps below him plunging into darkness; the emergency lighting was out below him. A dark shape bulked in the shadows, and Jim edged his way down to it carefully, then drew back, sickened by the sight of the evident looter, caught, impaled on a jagged branch of railing that he'd landed on when the stairs just stopped beneath him and he fell. The white bag with his loot had vanished into the darkness below.
Not even a hardened cop could find that a pretty sight. Jim gulped and worked his way up to the fifth floor again. The looter might have seen Sandburg, but he'd never be able to say so now.
Jim couldn't help the looter, but he could help Sandburg. He still had floors to search, and he meant to search every one.
He worked his way along the fifth floor, pausing before each door to listen for the familiar and reassuring sound of his partner's heartbeat. Nothing. Choosing the stairwell away from the fallen man, he started the climb up to six, stopping abruptly as he felt a distinct sense of presence behind him. *Sandburg.*
As he stepped onto the fifth floor again, holding his breath to listen, he heard a scream, fairly close at hand, though too faint to be heard by anyone without enhanced hearing. It was female and young, and it was echoed by a warning shout. Jim knew that voice. He would have known it anywhere, especially since it was reinforced by an awareness of Blair through his Sentinel senses, as strong as a red flag in his face. "Sandburg," he said under his breath. "Thank god." And started running for the other stairwell. *Thank god you're alive, Chief. Now just stay that way until I get to you.* Then, to his horror, he heard a crash and rumble in the opposite stairwell, right where he'd heard the cries.
Blair and Kirstin had worked their way down to the seventh floor when they reached the end of the emergency lighting. Below them lurked a vast, churning darkness, thick with dust and echoed with noise. Jim would have been able to sort it out but Blair couldn't, though from the vibration, he suspected jackhammers had a part in it. He thought the stairway might be blocked, but it wasn't possible to tell.
Suddenly they heard motion below them, a shot. Thinking of the looter Kirstin had seen, he pulled her off the stairwell into the seventh floor, shushing her squeal of complaint. As they moved a horrible scream echoed through the stairwell, cutting off abruptly. Blair shuddered as he held the little girl. He had no doubt of the unknown person's fate.
Footsteps entered the stairwell, moved downward, retreated. Blair held his breath, breathing, "Shh. Quiet." He didn't know what was going on down there, but that cry had been enough to make him decide to avoid drawing attention to himself. Somebody had been shooting. A looter? A cop? *Jim?* But who had been shot? Blair tried to gather them both into a cone of silence, hoping no one would climb higher to investigate. He didn't *think* there was still a danger; somehow he felt safe, but Kirstin was afraid. He'd have to wait, listen, see what happened. He wanted to yell for Jim but he couldn't risk it, not while he had the child to protect.
The footsteps retraced their path, and Blair held his breath, waiting to see if they would climb to seven. Instead they returned to the floor below and the stairwell door banged shut. Blair and Kirstin released their breaths in a unanimous whoosh.
"Somebody...fell," the girl said in a small voice. "And died. Didn't he?"
"I think so. Did you hear the shot?"
She nodded, her head bobbing up and down against his chest. "Can we go back up?"
"No, we'll have to go down," he decided. "Whoever did that went away; he didn't go down the stairs. We'll have to sneak past the fifth floor really fast. Can you do that?"
Her hand slid into his trustingly. "Okay."
"Good," he said, edging into the stairwell and squinting down into the darkness. "Slow. We're going to have to go slow. And walk quietly. We don't want to make any noise."
"Down *there*? It's *dark*."
"I know it is, but we can't stay in here. Somebody's running around with a gun. It might be a cop; everything might be fine, but we don't *know* that. So we have to hurry."
"Couldn't we break a window and yell for help? They could send up a fire truck ladder to us."
"We will, but I want to check this out and see if we can get a couple of floors lower." He didn't want to do any shouting right now, but he didn't want to frighten her either. That horrible cry as the man fell had unsettled him. "I don't know how long those ladders are and we're still kinda high."
"You go first," she insisted, her steps lagging.
"Okay." It took real guts to step down into the darkness. Jim had said he was brave, but it required every shred of courage he possessed to keep on going. Testing out the railing proved it was solid enough to hold him, but he lowered his weight cautiously onto each step, gesturing Kirstin to stay behind him. As they worked their way down into the darkness, shapes loomed at them, emerging from the gloom, a black outline, shadowy against the darkness, ominously rounded. The body of the man who had fallen? It didn't look right, somehow. Kirstin shied against his back.
"I don't like it."
Blair agreed with her completely. He didn't like it either, not when one more step revealed a sharp and glossy object emerging from the huddled shape. Then Kirstin screamed, her arms closing around his waist, hitting him accidentally in the stomach with her bear, and in the same instant he saw what it was. The stairs below them had buckled and the railing had torn away from the wall, thrust upward into the landing by the force of the blast. The black shape was the dead man they'd expected, he'd fallen directly onto the spear of railing and what Blair and Kirstin had seen was its jutting shape protruding from his back.
"Yaaaa!" he yelled. "Don't look, Kirstin. Go back. We'll have to try the other stairs." He led her up a few steps toward the sixth floor landing, and she came willingly, tugging at him to make him move faster. They stopped just below the sixth floor.
"That man's *dead*," she wailed, forgetting any need for secrecy in her terror. "Is my mom dead, too?"
"No, they would have made her go outside," Blair assured her.
"She wouldn't *leave* me here. I know she wouldn't."
"No, not if she could help it. But they would have made her. They'd have sent men up to get you. But maybe they didn't have time to find you before it went off."
"Maybe that was who she sent," she said, pointing vaguely downward without risking a glance in that direction.
The stairs beneath them trembled, and the landing where they'd stood only moments before dropped straight down, echoing and beating against the rubble below, taking the dead man with it in its downward plunge. A great whoosh of dust billowed up around them.
"I hate this, I hate this," wailed Kirstin as Blair pushed her frantically higher. They reached the sixth floor and pulled the door open, dashing out just as the landing gave way on one side, pitching beneath Blair's feet. He tripped and went sprawling, landing hard, his queasy stomach screaming reproaches, but he scrambled up to cover Kirstin with his body as plaster dropped from the ceiling onto his head.
Kirstin screeched at the unexpected voice, but Blair's head shot up in triumph. He hadn't dared let himself think much about Jim, whether he'd left the hotel, whether he'd stayed too late making sure everyone else was out. But now that he heard the familiar voice and the sound of footsteps thudding toward him, relief nearly drowned him in an overwhelming flood. Jim was safe, he'd made it. They were a team again. He propelled himself to his feet with a whoop of triumph and lunged at his partner, who lunged back with the same urgent relief.
They collided in the middle of the hall, Blair flinging his arms around Jim's waist, while Ellison cried, "You made it. Thank god, you made it," before he wrapped his arms around Blair's shoulders and pulled him in tight. Content to stand there and bask in the relief of the reunion, neither man broke the pose for a long moment, drawing strength from each other as if Sentinel and Guide could replenish each other simply by their very existence.
"I didn't know if you'd gotten out," Blair said finally, pulling away just far enough to gaze up to Jim's face. "I didn't even let myself think about it, but it was there all the time, in my mind, that you'd have stayed till the last second, making sure everybody was out, looking for me."
"Come on, Sandburg, you knew I'd make it. You were the one we were worried about. We knew you were still here, but we didn't know which floor. I knew they'd drugged you. We found where it happened and I could smell the tranquilizer they used. Are you all right? You look a little rocky."
"Fine, just so long as I don't think about eating," Blair admitted. "God, Jim, I heard the P.A. announcement, and I was still tied up. I didn't think I'd get free, I thought the whole hotel would go." A shiver ran through his body at the memory.
Jim's arms still encircled him, and he felt a hand patting him reassuringly on the back in understanding. "I thought of that too. We stopped Clayton. He died laughing at us, saying we couldn't stop the bomb. But we got nearly everybody out." He drew a breath that wasn't as steady as he would have liked it to be. "After the first shock passed, I knew you were alive."
"You *knew*?" Blair blurted, eyeing Ellison in fascination. "You mean you could tell some Sentinel way?"
"I don't understand it, Chief, just that there was this certainty deep inside; I knew you were alive; the world would have been different if--if you hadn't made it. I just could tell, I knew I could have sensed it if you'd... you know."
"This is *great*," cried Blair enthusiastically, his spirits returning. "A mental link! Wow, just think. We're-- bonded."
"I wouldn't go that far," Jim replied with a grin that was half a grimace.
"Well, call it whatever you like, but I've gotta go through my material and see if there's anything like this reported. I wonder if it works both ways or if you have to be a Sentinel. I kept telling myself I'd know if--if anything had happened to you, but I felt so lousy I couldn't think straight." He cast a quick glance at Kirstin to make sure she wasn't following the sense of his words. "We'll have to study it, run tests. I can hardly wait." In spite of the fact he would have liked to stand there holding on a little longer, feeling safe and secure, and even though Jim showed no inclination he wanted to move either, Blair knew they had to. He released his hold and stood back. "Jim, this is Kirstin. Her mom was down at the party. She didn't hear the P.A. warning because she had her Walkman on. She's okay, but we need to get her out of here quick."
"We saw a dead man down there," Kirstin said, pointing at the collapsed stairwell. Her eyes were huge and shadowy. The memory would give her bad dreams if they let her dwell on it.
"Yeah, it was messy, Jim," Blair agreed. "We heard somebody check him out but we weren't sure. Was that you?"
"Yeah, it was. I fired a warming shot."
"We heard it. Nearly gave us a heart attack. I didn't dare take any risks with Kirstin, in case the bad guy won. But we're alive. Right, Kirstin? We're gonna be just fine." He knelt before her and took hold of her shoulders. "Come on, honey, we're a team here. Jim and I need you to help us get out of here. He's a cop, too."
That made her giggle. "Okay," she agreed. Kids were resilient. With encouragement, she'd bounce back.
"Too?" Jim mouthed, lifting an eyebrow.
Blair squeezed the girl's shoulders and stood up again. Gesturing at the stairwell behind him he said, "We can't get out that way. The stairs just caved in. How did you get in here anyway, Jim?"
"Climbed onto the kitchen roof and then up to the fourth floor right up the side of the building."
"Just like Spiderman," breathed Kirstin, gazing up at Jim with dawning hero worship.
"Don't you try it," Jim told her. "It was an emergency. We couldn't handle it otherwise. We won't go down that way. We'll get a fire truck to send us a ladder." He pulled out his cell phone and dialed, and then he was talking to Simon Banks. "I found him, he's fine, he even rescued a kid...." Blair heard pride and relief in Jim's voice and it warmed him through, chasing away the horror of being tied and helpless that had lingered deep in his bones. "Yeah, I know," Ellison continued into the phone. "He surprises me too."
Blair couldn't help smiling. He loved it when he impressed Simon.
"Tell him this should qualify me for hazard pay," he said, winning a lifted eyebrow from his partner.
Jim gave quick instructions, explaining where they were and what they needed, then he returned the phone to his pocket.
"What the hel--heck did you do to your arm?" Blair demanded, conscious of Kirstin listening to every word. It was bandaged from elbow to shoulder and red dotted the professional bandage at intervals. If Jim hadn't been on his feet, obviously well enough to climb up the side of a building and take on looters to come to his rescue, he'd have been a lot more worried than he was, though he didn't like the sight of that bandage.
"Clayton shot me," Jim said dismissively, whether to avoid upsetting the little girl or because it wasn't bad. It couldn't have been too serious or he wouldn't have worked his way into the hotel to search for Blair. Or would he? Suddenly Blair realized Jim would have come after him even if he could barely stagger, and he felt a surge of treacherous warmth shoot through him at the proof of how much he mattered to his partner. "It's only a graze," Ellison insisted. "I'm fine."
"Wow, you were really *shot*?" Kirstin edged closer, staring up at Jim with wide, awed eyes, undaunted by the concept, especially since Jim was on his feet and functional. Her hero worship was growing by leaps and bounds. "Boy, I never knew anybody who was shot before. This is really *great*."
"Hope you never do again, sweetheart," Blair told her fervently. "I hope I don't, either. It's not great; he was lucky." He gave Jim a worried look; sometimes Ellison ran on pure adrenaline. He'd been driven to search for Blair; having found him, the rush might end and he could collapse before their eyes.
"My mom would really like you both," Kirstin said as they started for the other stairwell. "She's divorced. Think about it."
Exchanging wary looks, Jim and Blair grimaced automatically.
"Why would she like us in particular?" asked Blair. "Because we rescued you?"
"Because she says men don't show their feelings enough. And you hugged."
Irrationally both men felt a surge of embarrassment, then Jim said quickly, "So do basketball players when they win the big game."
"Oh." She pondered that, accepting his words. "Okay. Can we *go* now? I want to find my mom."
"You bet," Jim said. "She's downstairs waiting. They had to hold her down to keep her from coming in after you. She's just fine. This way, Lady and Gentleman. Our chariot awaits."
The 'chariot' proved to be a fire truck with a long ladder, shooting up toward the window Jim had specified. Kirstin leaned out the window at Blair's side and proclaimed it fantastic. She climbed out into the fireman's waiting arms like she'd been practicing all her life, not one shred of fear on her face.
Blair and Jim exchanged a smile. "Quite a girlfriend you've got there, Sandburg," Jim teased.
"Better than Cheryl by a long way," Blair returned as the fireman helped the girl down the ladder. "She was behind it, kidnapping me. She and Fred Street. Maggie's gonna be devastated."
"We know. People are hunting for them," Jim assured him. "They won't get far."
"They only wanted money, nothing to do with the Summit. She broke into Maggie's office. She has a pair of men's shoes; I don't know why. Maybe an old boyfriend left them behind and she wore them. Hard to say."
"We know that, too. You okay, Chief?" He eyed him with concern. "Really okay? We know you were drugged. At least your eyes look clear."
At the foot of the ladder, Kirstin jumped down, into the waiting arms of a woman who must be her mother from the distant cries of joy that wafted up to them. Blair grinned at the sight then turned to Jim.
"I'm still a little queasy, but it's getting better. I didn't like it, but I'm okay." He remembered something. "Jim! I went up to the top floor to make sure my fa--Trajan was safe, but he wasn't there. Did he get out?"
"Yes, I saw him come out. And so did your grandmother. She helped me take out Clayton; you would have liked it. I was fighting with him, and I'd already been hit, so he had an edge--and she came up behind him and whacked him with her purse."
Blair crowed with approval. "I wish I could've seen it. Where did all this happen?"
"Uh...well, it was in the ladies' room."
Blair's laughter rang out across the night.
When the helpful fireman returned, Sandburg made Ellison go down the ladder first. "Yeah, go on. With that arm, I want to keep an eye on you," and met Jim's eyes levelly, expectantly.
Jim nodded. "Okay, partner," he said, accepting Blair's equality on the team without a second's hesitation, and let the fireman help him out the window. Blair smiled, watching, and felt he'd gotten a little of his own back for those moments when he'd been bound and helpless. He watched Jim make his careful way down the ladder then turn expectantly.
After everything Blair had been through tonight, he still didn't like the moment when the fireman reached out to help him onto the ladder. He hated heights. Maybe he could get down some other way. When he was just standing in the window it hadn't been so bad, but now--what if he missed his footing? What if he slipped between the ladder and the building? His stomach twisted at the very thought. But if he could survive a kidnapping, a drugging, and a major bombing he could survive this. Besides, Jim was waiting for him. *Okay, Blair. Grin and bear it.* But he wasn't remotely happy with the height below him as he scrambled down as fast as he could to join his friend.
The Plaza was a mess. By the time Blair and Jim rendezvoused with Simon in front of the building, most of the wounded had been taken away, and ambulances were returning to transport the less seriously injured and the newly freed to Cascade's hospitals, all of whom had called in extra staff to cope with the emergency. Jim saw the National Guard had arrived and had set up a barricade around the structure while others of their team worked inside to make sure everyone was free of the rubble.
"Six deaths that we know about," Simon said grimly as they joined him, his eyes full of shadows. "No, seven, counting that looter who fell down the stairwell. And we were right here on the spot. Us, the Feds, everybody. We *knew* Clayton meant to try something. Those people needn't have died." In his shirtsleeves, he shivered, but it wasn't the chill of the early November night air that bothered him.
Jim answered him quickly. "Come on, Simon. Think how much worse it would have been without the evacuation. You saved all those people. Think how many would have died in the ballroom without the warning. Those people are all alive, and they wouldn't have been if you hadn't been on top of everything."
"Nobody should have died," Simon insisted.
"No, nobody should have died," Jim agreed. "But we did our best. It could have been so much worse."
"I hate that," growled Simon, unresigned to even one loss.
Jim knew they couldn't second-guess themselves, they'd done their best. They should count the ones they'd saved instead. *But every policeman who believes in what he does grudges even one loss that shouldn't have happened.*
Blair eyed them both, understanding what they were feeling. He had good instincts and those deaths horrified him, too, but he wasn't a policeman, and maybe it gave him a sight edge of objectivity. Not much of one; his face was as grim as theirs. But then he spoke quickly.
"So why was Jennis in there whacking with her purse?"
It worked; Jim and Simon lightened up, and Jim described the battle with Clayton in the Ladies' Lounge. That reminded Simon of his injured arm, and he looked Jim up and down. "I hate to ask it, but what the hell did you do with my jacket?"
"It's up there in one of the rooms on the fourth floor." Jim gestured vaguely at the Plaza tower. "It didn't fit right. It got in the way."
"Do you know what a tuxedo costs?" Simon complained, favoring Jim with a quick glare.
Blair grinned as he'd realized both men were starting to unwind. "Gee, Jim, you don't think you should climb up the side of the building to rescue Simon's jacket?" he teased.
Jim eyed them both and said with great simplicity, "No."
Simon turned to watch the crowd. Its movement was purposeful, rescue personnel moving intently and professionally about its business. Uniformed police and fatigue-clad guardsmen restrained the line of reporters and the curious. Overhead a police chopper lifted from the roof of the building while a news helicopter came as close as it dared to shoot footage of the destruction.
That reminded Blair of his new relatives. "Jim, I want to go track down Jennis and Trajan. Any idea where they are?"
"No, but I'll come with you to find them," he said, fending off Simon who made a pointed comment about his arm. "Never mind my arm. I'll crash when we're finished here and sleep in tomorrow. Come on, Chief, let's go find your...family." He hesitated on the last word, uncertain of Blair's reaction. But Sandburg nodded, his body language wary, but unoffended at his partner's choice of words.
They found Maggie first. She had a blanket around her shoulders and was sitting huddled on the hood of a black Trans-Am that had seen better days. A huge chunk of debris had come down squarely on the middle of its roof, bowing the car in so that hood and trunk rose like the prow and stern of a ship. Maggie perched against the unbroken windshield, her arms wrapped around her knees. There was dirt on one cheek and her hair was tousled as though she'd been raking her hands through it in misery. When she saw Sandburg, she threw aside the blanket and ran to fling her arms around his neck.
"Oh, god, Blair, I'm sorry."
"It's okay, Maggie. It's okay," he soothed, gathering her in to comfort her. "It's not your fault. *I'm* sorry about Fred."
"I knew he...played around," she admitted into his hair. "But I pretended I didn't because he always came back to me. God help me, I loved him, I always took him back. Maybe I have no shame. But this..." She shook her head. "It's gone, Blair, just like that. I don't...care about him any longer. I can't feel anything for him now. I can't love a man who would..." Her voice trailed off and she wept, burying her face in Blair's neck, his hair covering her cheek.
Sandburg glanced up uncomfortably and caught Jim's eye, not in a plea for rescue but in a helpless unity with men everywhere when confronted with a crying woman. Awkwardly he raised a hand and patted her shoulders. "It's okay, Maggie," he said. "It's okay." And even though it wasn't okay and, for her, wouldn't be okay again, she took comfort from his words, even a form of absolution.
When she controlled herself, she clung a moment longer then freed him, accepting her fate. "I know you have to find him," she said to Jim, looking past Blair. "And her too." Spite rang in her voice at the mention of Cheryl. "The only thing I'm glad of is...that none of my people wanted to destroy the Summit. It's...not much to be glad of, is it?"
"No. It's what you've always fought for. You'll be okay, Maggie," Blair told her. "You're strong enough to take it. I know it seems impossible now, but you'll be okay."
She nodded, not as sure as he was, but willing to hope for that moment at the far end of the tunnel. "I won't keep you," she said. "I only stayed to make sure you were all right. Fred doesn't...didn't mean to hurt you. It's a midlife crisis..." Hearing her defense, she shook her head so abruptly her hair bounced and danced. "I'm sorry. There's no justification for kidnaping you."
Blair reassured her again and they moved on. "God, I hate that, Jim," he said when they were out of earshot. "Maggie doesn't deserve this. I hope she doesn't give in and take him back, not when I remember him and Cheryl..." His face reddening, he stopped so abruptly Jim realized what he meant without much effort.
"While they had you right there?" he asked in disbelief.
"They...went into the bathroom." Blair shuddered in remembrance. "I know that doesn't sound like it should bug me, but it does, kinda."
"You bet it does, Chief," Jim said, ready to understand. "They had you tied up. Nobody likes being vulnerable, even in front of people like them. But look at you. Not only did you free yourself, you rescued that little girl. I saw her mom earlier," he said, remembering the reunion that had greeted him at the bottom of the ladder. "She was having hysterics, trying to get into the hotel. It never occurred to her Kirstin wouldn't be safe in a hotel room with the door locked."
"That's a tough kid," Blair said, remembering Kirstin with approval. "I'm glad she found her mom." Kirstin was a sign of his victory over what the kidnappers had done to him. If he never saw her again, he would always remember her and be glad.
Speaking of relatives, they spotted the Wade limo ahead of them, and Blair stiffened, coming to an abrupt halt. "Give me a few minutes, Jim," he said.
"You got it, Chief. Want backup?"
"I better talk to them on my own, but--don't go away, okay?"
Jim nodded understandingly. "Go for it."
The limo door opened as Blair approached, and Trajan emerged, shaky on his feet but in control of himself, if incongruous in an elegant dressing gown. He waved away Doug Stephanowski, who had acquired a bandage around his head in the course of the evening, and gestured off two of the bright young men. His face full of purpose, he came toward Blair, who hurried to meet him.
"I went up to find you," he greeted his father. "They had me on seventeen, so I went up to the penthouse to make sure you were out, but you were already gone. I'm glad you made it out." He meant it, he realized. He still might resent Trajan and probably always would, but he'd worried about him. Conscious of Jim standing a short distance away waiting, he found the courage to say so.
Trajan's face filled with guilt and he bowed his head as if he lacked the strength to face his son. "I'm sorry, Blair. I had no right to do any of this to you. You'd never have been kidnaped if not for me. Thank god you're all right."
"It wasn't so bad," Blair said, although he was sure Trajan knew he was lying through his teeth. He didn't know what he thought of having his man for a father, but he didn't want to upset him when he was so shaken.
"It should never have happened. That it did was my fault, entirely my fault. If there's anything I can do..."
Blair shrugged. "I'm okay."
"I have to tell you something, something I should have told you at the university."
Blair felt his stomach clench. He wasn't sure how he knew it, but suddenly he realized he hadn't heard all the bad news yet. This wouldn't be easy. "Tell me what?"
"I lied to my mother," Trajan said flatly. "I was very careful not to lie to you; everything I told you about my time with Naomi was true. But the one thing I never claimed to you was that you were my son. Blair, I'm not your father. Naomi was already pregnant when we met. She'd just found out; she wasn't very far along, less than two months, I think. It made no difference to me, none at all. I still wanted her. I didn't tell Mother she was pregnant. She would have become apoplectic at the very idea that I was in a relationship with a woman carrying another man's child."
Blair stared at him, frozen, unable to move or speak. He opened his mouth but no words emerged. There weren't words. He hadn't wanted this father, but from the abrupt tightening in his stomach he realized he'd wanted a father, even an unsatisfactory one. He'd told Jim it hadn't mattered when there had been no chance of learning his father's identity, and he'd believed it. But for almost two days he'd had an actual father of his own, even if he was an unsatisfactory one, and losing him hurt. "Why..." he began, at a complete loss. He knew Jim had started listening; it almost felt like mental feedback that told him such things, a feeling too subliminal to explain. He held out a hand, not to stop Jim from monitoring the conversation, but to keep him from coming closer before it was resolved. Jim nodded.
"I couldn't stand it any longer," Trajan replied. "I'd listened to her for years, blaming my brother for dying, faulting Melanie for taking refuge in the convent, though to be fair, I think Melanie does believe; she wasn't running away from Mother, but toward God. It left me no one to share the heat with, though. I didn't have the strength to hold out, and I knew if I tossed her a bone to distract her, she'd give me peace. Besides, I owed Naomi for the good times. I wasn't sure if we could ever find her, or you, but I thought if we did, maybe some good would come of it, money or..." He fell silent as Blair's face tightened. "She's got me thinking the same way she does, that money matters more than people, and I'm sorry. I took the easy way out again, the way I've always done. When I saw you yesterday and you were so horrified and wouldn't accept me, I knew I'd been wrong, but I didn't have the nerve to tell you to your face. I was very careful never once to claim to your face that I was your father. You assumed I had, especially since Mother had already told you that you were my son."
"What made you...change your mind?"
"My god, the kidnaping. I caused that. If you weren't a Wade, no one would have hurt you. I don't know you, but I see a lot of your mother in you, and I still love her. I would have loved you by extension; you're her son, and that was enough. I wouldn't have hurt her, or her child, not deliberately. I knew Naomi could stand up to Mother, but what I didn't realize was that Mother wouldn't bother with Naomi. She'd go straight to you. And the word would get out. I've just told her the truth." He shuddered at the memory of that encounter, traces of it visible in his shadowed eyes. "She knows I lied, that you're not a Wade. I've made you safe from her. I know you must hate me for what I put you through, but all I can say is that I'm sorry."
"Sorry?" Blair echoed in outraged disbelief. "That's *it*? You come waltzing into my life and upset everything? You make me doubt where I belong and who I am, and you set me up to take your fall, and all you can say is you're *sorry*?" He couldn't believe it. And it hurt. It tore at his already-lacerated senses, making him feel drained and empty. Behind him, Jim made an involuntary motion that Blair saw out of the corner of his eye, but he held his ground.
"There's nothing else I can do," Trajan admitted wearily. "If there were, I'd do it. But the best gift I can give you is to remove the Wades from your life, and you know it."
"Fine," said Blair in a very tense voice and turned away abruptly. He had been all over the world, in many cultures most Americans had scarcely heard of, and he couldn't imagine one of those cultures that would know how to deal with an occasion like this. He just couldn't take it. Instead he turned and walked toward Jim, conscious of Trajan's eyes burning a hole in his back. Just before he reached Jim, he stopped, pivoted. Trajan hadn't moved so much as a muscle.
"Thanks for telling me," Blair said. It was all he had to give, but he gave it freely.
Trajan's face lightened just a fraction, enough to show his spirit still lived inside his wasted body. He lifted a hand; a farewell, a benediction, Blair didn't know which. He didn't even know if he cared. Then, shoulders slumping, he turned, alone as he had always been, and trudged to the car. The door opened to admit him.
Blair couldn't bear to watch him any longer. Instead he whirled quickly and found Ellison standing directly in front of him, waiting. Stomping down the urge to fling himself upon Jim and howl like a baby, he said, "You heard?"
"Yeah. I'm sorry, Chief."
"I'm...well, I'm not sorry to lose all that responsibility," Blair said. "But..."
"But family's important, even the wrong family," Jim responded understandingly.
Sandburg nodded. He reached up wearily and raked his hair back from his face. "Damn it, Jim, you can't just turn emotions on and off like that. I didn't--I never could respect him, not until now, and I wanted to hate him for letting Naomi down, but when I thought he was really my father, a part of me...wanted to love him. Especially since he needed love so badly." Ordinarily he would have been embarrassed as hell to discuss such feelings with anyone, but this was Jim, and the moment was far from a normal one.
Jim didn't let him down. "I'm glad you thanked him. I was proud of you for doing that, Chief. I could see it helped him."
"It...helped me, too, Jim. It would have been so easy just to walk away without even a backward look. Only I couldn't."
"I know. It isn't in you to be so petty." Jim dropped his hands on Blair's shoulders and squeezed comfortingly. "You'd have hated yourself if you hadn't given him what you did."
"Yeah." He was silent a long time, and Jim waited, letting him collect his thoughts. Then he said, "I guess I just wanted what everybody else has. Naomi was always the greatest mother in the world, but every guy wants his dad to take him to ball games and play catch with him, and give him advice before his first date. I didn't realize how much I--I craved family until I had a ready-made one thrust at me. Even if it wasn't the best family going, Jennis had class, and even old Traje did the right thing in the end."
"They did, didn't they? And remember, Trajan had the good sense to love your mother."
Blair smiled, then he reached up and grasped Jim's wrists, squeezing them fondly. People moved around them and past them in a scene of organized chaos, sirens wailed, voices called, jackhammers rattled, but they felt isolated from all that, held in a shield of silence. Blair spoke what he was thinking without hesitation. "You know, Jim, there are a lot of different families. I've seen tribes where the children belong to the entire tribe, not just the birth parents. I've seen matriarchal societies, and patriarchal societies, nuclear families, single- parent families, but when you come right down to it, there are only two different kinds of families that matter."
"What two kinds, Chief?" Jim asked, cocking his head and waiting expectantly.
"The one you're born into," Blair explained. "The one you have no choice about; it might be good or bad, but you're stuck with it. Everybody has that kind."
"And what's the other kind?"
"The kind you find for yourself," Blair said, gazing up at his partner, his Sentinel, his friend. "The kind you choose. It doesn't matter how you choose that family; whether you get married, or live with someone, or bond with friends. A family you choose is special." He dropped his eyes, awkward with the sentiment he was feeling but no less determined to speak it. "Thanks, Jim, for giving me that kind of family," he finished in a low voice.
"Chief..." Jim said, just as awkward, but the one word held all the understanding--and agreement--he couldn't find the words to speak. He knew what Blair was trying to say, knew how hard it had been to say it, and he appreciated it all the more because he returned the feeling. The fingers tightened on his shoulders, shook him lightly, with affection. "I know," he said. "That's what I feel, too."
"Damn it, Jim, are you still here?" Simon exploded from just behind him. Sandburg and Ellison automatically took two steps apart and turned in perfect unison to stare at him, startled out of their private moment as Banks recalled them to the present. "Sandburg, take him home and make sure he goes to bed. I don't want him keeling over and hampering the rescue workers."
"You got it, Simon," Blair said with a ready grin. "And I'll make sure he sleeps in, in the morning, too, if I have to sit on him."
"It nearly is morning," Simon said. He gestured up at the damaged hotel. "I hope to god I never have another night like this one."
"I'll go along with that," Jim agreed. Draping his good arm around Blair's shoulders, he steered his Guide toward the truck.
Doug Stephanowski materialized out of the crowd. "Ellison? Got a minute?"
Jim turned, Blair with him, and the looked up at the bodyguard. Suddenly Blair remembered this man knew all about Jim's Sentinel abilities, and he tensed, waiting.
Jim nodded. "You okay?"
"I'll live. We can compare headaches if you like."
"Tell me," Jim agreed.
Doug collected himself. "Just one thing. I know what you are, and you know I know. But you saved the old lady. If she asks me about your abilities, I'm gonna lie through my teeth. She doesn't need to know--and I owe you. Fair enough?"
"More than fair," Jim agreed. "Thanks." He offered his hand and Stephanowski shook I.
"I know how tough it is with just the hearing," Doug said. "Good luck with it. Now I gotta run. Go home. You look like you're about to fall over."
"He's right, Jim," Blair said as the bodyguard returned to the Wade limo. "You do look like you're about to fall over."
"If your best friend can't tell you..." Jim said with a crooked grin. He slung his arm around Blair's shoulders once more. "Let's go home."
Blair made it as far as his bed and fell face down upon it fully dressed, asleep almost before he stopped moving. Jim watched him for a minute, silently guarding his Guide. Then he lifted Blair's feet onto the bed, removed his shoes, turned him over, and spread a blanket over him. Blair didn't awaken during the entire process. Smiling faintly, Jim dragged himself away and trudged up the stairs to his own bed where he collapsed the minute his shoes were off. He didn't stir all night.
When he awoke, it was to the smell of coffee and the sound of Blair's voice. Jim rolled over, groaned as every muscle in his body and his wounded arm protested the movement, and concentrated his hearing. No one was answering; Blair was on the phone. Naomi. Blair said quietly, "It's just, he said he was my dad. I knew you wouldn't lie to me, but then I thought, the Wades were so self-righteous, and so much part of the establishment. You might have done it to protect me.... I know. Yeah, I'm glad you called. We straightened it all out, but it gave me a few bad moments.... I know. I was lucky Jim was here. I'm gonna tell him you said that." He laughed, sounding much more at ease than the had the day before. He was silent, listening, then he said, "Thanks, Mom."
Realizing that part was all right, Jim headed for the shower, grateful to discover Blair had actually left him some hot water. He undid the bandage on his arm and examined his injury. It was starting to heal; no trace of infection even though it was sore as blazes. He washed carefully, then taped a couple of gauze pads over it, glad it was his left arm, if he had to have it at all.
By the time he was dressed and downstairs again, he expected Blair to be off the phone, but he found Sandburg still talking. "Yeah, I know," he was saying. "It's rough on Maggie, but it wouldn't do any good to drop it. Yeah, I'll press charges." Spotting Jim, he covered the mouthpiece with his hand. "It's Simon. They caught Fred and Cheryl. They found them at Fred's veterinary clinic packing his RV, getting ready to head north to Canada."
"Let me talk to him," Jim took the phone and asked Simon a few questions. Eight people had died at the hotel bombing, three of them in one of the elevators, two people on the stairs plus the looter, and one kitchen worker who had not been quick enough to depart and one FBI agent who had been working to make sure the floors were deserted. None of the dead were actual delegates to the Summit. And Jennis Wade had arranged to hold the Summit after all, starting the following day in Cascade's East High School gymnasium. Ellison wasn't remotely surprised that she had done it.
When he hung up, he saw Sandburg holding out a cup of coffee to him, and he took it and buried his face in it, swallowing and sighing with relief as the caffeine kicked in. "What time is it anyway?"
"Around noon," Blair said. "I woke up a couple of hours ago, and just hung out in bed for awhile. Nice not to have to get up. Then I checked the answering machine and there was a message from Naomi, so I called her back." He hesitated, then he went on as if he meant to keep no secrets. "She said Trajan was definitely not my father, and I think she was a little hurt I'd believed him, though when I reminded her of Jennis, she forgave me. She said if Traje had really been my father and he'd split, she would have moved heaven and earth to keep any of the Wades from finding out."
"I don't blame her. Talk about a lifestyle conflict," Jim remarked. "It nearly makes you and me seem like Siamese twins."
"Even if I leave dirty socks in the bathroom and you're a neatness freak?" Blair asked with a grin, although he and Jim were compatible in the ways that counted--and not one of their differences really mattered in the long run.
"Yeah, because that's surface. Our gaps are all crossable. With Naomi and the Wades, it was a whole different situation. Values, ethics, and it was worse because it was the sixties and the gap between the establishment and anti-establishment was so wide." He hesitated. "You okay with it, Sandburg?"
"Yeah. At least I can let myself think that somewhere out there is this perfect father without a single vice except the good ones, and he'd have been around in a minute if he'd known about me." He imagined the ideal fantasy, then shrugged it away. He was fine without it.
"Oh well, if you want somebody to yell at you and act like the authority figure, try bugging Simon for a day or two. Drive him nuts and he'll come down on you with both feet. I think he classes you as not much older than Daryl."
"Thanks a lot, Jim. I really appreciate that."
Jennis Wade made one final appearance in Blair's life before she returned to her career of wealth and power, gliding elegantly into the precinct and commandeering Simon's office to talk to her almost-grandson as if she were there by divine right. Sandburg saw Simon's expression of long-suffering patience as he gestured resignedly at Blair to join her in the inner sanctum. Sandburg winked wickedly before he followed the older woman in and closed the door.
She looked different than she had two days before, and it was more than the savage bruise on her left cheek that she'd received defending Jim from Clayton in the Ladies' Room. In a way she seemed smaller, humbler, less intense, but the fire wasn't gone, only banked, waiting for the conference to start so she could be reborn like a phoenix from the ashes. Today Blair saw her private face, the personal one, and knew it was a compliment to him, a mark of respect.
"So Clayton's gone, and you can have your conference after all," he said quickly, determined to get in the first word.
"Gone, yes, but we still don't know who hired him. I shall accustom myself to being a target." She shrugged as if to push away the thought of risk; it wouldn't change her.
"You'll probably enjoy the challenge." Blair reached out and gently brushed the bruise with gentle fingers. "Thank you."
"For not being your grandmother?" she asked tartly.
"For saving my friend's life. Jim told me what happened; you gave him a chance to break free of Clayton when they were fighting. He said they ought to recruit you for the police. Like a secret weapon."
"He saved my life. It was a fair trade. Besides," she added astonishingly, "I'm told a Guide needs a Sentinel." She smiled at his discomfiture. "I know what he is, in spite of everyone's dissembling on the point, even my own bodyguard. But you needn't worry I'll do anything about it. There would be no point now, and no profit. And I owe you much for the disruption the Wades caused in your life."
"I'll go along with that," Blair said stiffly, though it had been too much for any forty-eight hour period. Believing Jim was glad of an excuse to get him out of his life had been hell, and the kidnaping didn't rank right up there in the list of experiences he'd volunteer for. Acquiring a father and having him snatched away again hadn't been easy, either. He felt like he'd been battered with clubs for days. If he didn't hold on, he'd explode in all directions and he didn't want to do that. Even if she deserved it. It would be easier to just walk out, but he couldn't do that either. The only way to deal with this woman was to keep his cool, stand his ground, and never give an inch.
"I've never learned to be fair," she said. "Standing up for my rights has always been more important. I did that with you, and I *am* sorry. I have come to respect you, Mr. Sandburg. Blair. I've come to wish you could have been my grandson. I know that you will give Naomi credit for your upbringing, and perhaps there is an element of truth in that. There's nothing of Trajan, fortunately for you."
"He found the strength to tell the truth," Blair reminded her.
"He said you understood."
"Well, maybe not understood, not really, but I could see where he was coming from. I don't hate him, tell him that. I'm angry. I'm really pissed off. That won't go away so fast. But I don't hate him."
"You were kidnaped because of your supposed connection with the Wades," Jennis reminded him. "Is there anything we can do to make up for that."
"If you dare offer me money--" he cried hotly, falling silent when she held up an arresting hand.
"Money's hardly to be despised, Blair. But I won't offer. It's small consolation for your experience, perhaps even demeaning to you to suggest such a compensation. I'm told you managed to rescue yourself and help a child on the way out. No less than I'd expect of you." She bestowed on him an approving smile. "I do wish you had been my grandson."
"In a way, I do too," admitted Blair, though he hadn't wanted any of the responsibilities and ties that went with the kinship. "It's better this way, but..."
"Yes." She gathered up her gloves and prepared to go, her business finished. Her expression was controlled, but suddenly her face softened. "You'll think me a foolish old woman, but I wish...just once I wish you could have called me 'grandmother'."
Blair ushered her to the door, and stopped there. With the opaque glass of Simon's door between them and the rest of the office, he put his hands on her shoulders, leaned forward, and kissed her lightly on the ravaged cheek. "Thanks for helping Jim--Grandmother."
Jennis Wade's eyes filled. She closed her slightly-arthritic fingers over his hands and squeezed. Then she gestured hastily at the door, and Blair opened it for her. Watching her forge her way across the bullpen like an icebreaker cutting through the North Sea, he couldn't help smiling. He had the most unique almost- grandmother in the world.
Turning to Jim, he saw his partner nod at him with the warmth of approval in his eyes.
Blair bent to retrieve his dirty socks from the bathroom floor, carried along on a tide of virtue as a result of the last few days. And then he stopped. Straightening up, he left them lying deliberately. For awhile there, he'd felt he *had* to be as tidy as Jim, to prove his worth, but at the moment, he had nothing to prove, not to Naomi, not to the Wades, not to Jim, not even to himself. There were a lot of memories he would be glad to leave behind him over this experience, but he'd come out of it stronger, surer of himself and of his place in the world. He was home, and it was more his home than it had ever been before. If a man couldn't leave his socks on the floor in his own home, then it wasn't home at all. And it was. No question.
Besides, it was time he gave Jim something to yell about.
Whistling cheerfully to himself, he tossed his towel down in the corner where it would be hardest to reach when the cleaning maniac struck, then he tiptoed out on purpose, knowing he couldn't sneak a thing, not when Jim was home. You couldn't pull anything on a Sentinel.
Ten minutes later, Jim ventured into the bathroom, prompted by Sandburg's ostentatiously stealthy exit. He spied Blair's socks on the floor, wadded up in a smelly little pile, discovered the towel in the corner behind the toilet. Turning on the tap, he felt the water run cold and knew Blair had used up the last of the hot water.
Automatically he tensed, prepared to explode with a world-class roar of annoyance, then he caught himself. They'd been through so much the last few days, it didn't feel right to pick on his partner. He'd give him a day or two of grace. It wouldn't kill Jim to take a shower later when the water was hot again. He'd picked up after Blair before and he probably would again. Yeah, this time he'd let it ride.
He stood there gazing down at the socks, and suddenly a smile spread across his face as he realized what they represented. The status quo. Life returned to normal. Proof that Blair belonged and knew it. Proof, even, that they were the second kind of family Blair had talked about. He felt a surge of contentment flow through him.
But there were limits. Grinning with sheer delight, Jim grabbed the socks between thumb and forefinger and flung open the door. "*Sandburg*!" he bellowed at the top of his lungs. "If you don't get your smelly socks out of this bathroom in the next ten seconds, I'm going to have to kill you."
"Only if you can catch me first," Blair retaliated with a whoop of pure joy. The smile didn't leave his face during the mad chase through the loft, even when Jim caught him, wrestled him to the sofa, and stuffed the socks down the front of his shirt.