by Sheila Paulson
See notes and disclaimer in part one.
Blair groaned and opened his eyes. Unlike the other three times he'd aroused in the night, this time there was light, dim, early morning light filtering in through the ruin of the floor overhead. Light led the way to freedom; he only had to follow it up, out of here, to safety. To Jim. He could see it clearly now, see the holes and gaps in it, the remaining pieces that could well come crashing down upon his head. Even higher overhead, the warehouse roof was full of holes. The place was probably condemned and, if not, it ought to be.
Blair started to sit up, then froze at the myriad of aches and pains that flashed through his chilled body. He'd stiffened up overnight, his muscles aching from the fall, from the cold that had kept him shivering no matter how much he struggled to keep warm. Every movement hurt, but not nearly as much as his wrist did. It was a blaze of fire at the slightest motion, swollen up to twice its normal size.
His ankle, on the other hand, while still tender, felt better than it had in the night. He must have only twisted it after all. Still slightly puffy, it would hold his weight if he didn't have to do a lot of running.
Blair opened his mouth to yell for help, then he closed it again. He didn't know the neighborhood well, but this area near the docks was pretty unsavory, and the people who hung out here were the type to prey on the helpless. Blair wasn't normally helpless, but neither was he in good condition. He could be snatched, robbed of the change in his pocket, and with his bad wrist, he wouldn't be able to fight off a cockroach, let alone a street thief. Better to find a way out of here himself.
From the soft quality of the light, it was just past dawn. Time for breakfast. Obligingly his stomach growled.
"Oh man, Jim," Blair said in conversational tones, "You're gonna brain me for a stunt like this. I'm gonna be so late for our fishing trip, you'll want to use me as bait."
What had Jim thought when he had failed to return home? That Blair was working late and caught up in it? That he'd run into Nancy Kellogg, the teaching fellow he'd had a couple of dates with lately, and gone home with her? He'd have no way of knowing Blair's car had been grabbed unless the carjacker had been picked up for speeding. And Jim knew it was too soon to file a missing persons' report unless there was evidence of foul play.
Jim? What would Jim have thought? He must be going nuts, worrying about Blair. The thought that there was someone out there who cared enough to worry warmed him inside. "I'm okay, Jim," he said aloud. "I'm just a little stuck here, man. I could sure use a hand."
His eyes raked the walls of his prison. Yes, just the one door that he could see. Maybe he could pick the lock now that he had some light to see by.
*Yeah, right, Blair. One-handed*? He looked over at the locked door with loathing and checked for his knife that held left beside him in the night to drive the rats away with. He'd try again if he didn't think of something better. But maybe there was an easier way, if people got in here....
No visible stairs, one locked door. But that didn't have to mean he was trapped. There might be a ladder....
Before he started running around looking, he made himself sit on the edge of the crate, his legs dangling over the edge, while he scanned the cellar. If there was a ladder, it was concealed in the welter of crates and garbage that were strewn across the basement of the warehouse. Homeless people had come here and probably would again. There was a burned out firepit not far away, the charred remains of slats of wood from the crates protruding from the ash at its center. One of the crates had a side propped open and filthy bedding lay there, abandoned by its owner at least temporarily. Probably full of fleas and ticks, though. There was no way to tell how long it had been abandoned.
But if people came and went, there must be a way out that didn't rely on the locked door. What was it? Blair revolved slowly, studying the room, the stacked crates, that rose in piles against the far wall. He must have sat there for ten minutes staring at the solution before it hit him, and then it hit him with the force of a board across the stomach.
The crates! They were stacked like a giant staircase. A relatively agile man could climb them one by one until he reached that small hole in the ceiling. From there it should be easy to wiggle out and reach the street.
The catch was the words 'relatively agile.' Blair's wrist would not be much help. He'd have to climb one-handed, being very careful of his injured foot for fear of weakening it further.
"Okay, Blair," he told himself aloud, "move it. You've got a major job to do."
Very carefully he wiggled down from the box he was sitting on--he couldn't reach the roof from this pile--and limped across the basement to the stack of crates, measuring them with his eyes. They appeared sturdy. All he'd need was another fall into the middle of all that mess. No one would ever find him if he wound up there.
Blair stood before the crates, taking most of his weight on his good foot, and a slow smile crept across his face. He knew Jim was trying to find him, that he'd be out there at first light. He'd show up here eventually, because Jim Ellison was one of the most stubborn men Blair had ever known. He wasn't a quitter; he never gave up. He'd find Blair.
But Blair didn't plan to sit here tamely waiting for his 'Blessed Protector' to show up. He knew he was all right, but Jim didn't. He wouldn't make his friend wait any longer than necessary to reassure him. This friendship thing was what it was all about, and that meant he had to contact Jim as quickly as possible to let him know it was all right.
Blair scrambled up onto the first box, his mouth tracing a determined line across his face.
Ellison awoke before dawn from a restless half-sleep, deep enough for nightmares, endless dreams of Blair in the car, the impact, his body flung about and broken, then the fire, Blair trapped, screaming for help while the flames engulfed him. Each dream started him awake, to darkness and silence, to a loft that was full of normal, urban noises outside the windows but empty and hollow inside because the one familiar heart didn't beat in the bedroom downstairs.
Jim knew he had to rest, to sleep, so he would have the strength to search for Blair in the morning, but each time he closed his eyes the dream was back, as vivid to him awake as it was in dreaming. That couldn't be the end of it, the violent, terrifying death, the final snuffing out Sandburg's life. Jim's chest was tight with misery at the thought, but when he tried to reach out, focusing his senses as tightly as possible to quest for the familiar heartbeat, he couldn't find it, could only find a resounding emptiness that went on and on and on...
Sleep must have ended the zone-out, because he came to awareness slowly, his mind still full of the dreams. *Damn it, Sandburg, where the hell are you?* he thought in unhappy frustration. When had Blair's company become essential for Jim's comfort and wellbeing? He'd known for a while now that it had, but he didn't let himself think about too much besides acknowledging that Blair was his friend. But this vast emptiness inside him went beyond friendship to a relationship he didn't even have a term for. *Ah, Chief*.... Sandburg had become a brother, far closer than Steven had ever been. How could he face a future without his Guide, his friend, his brother?
Because it hurt too much to lie and think about it, he forced himself out of bed and padded silently downstairs to the bathroom where he let the shower run cold to wake him up completely. He didn't want to use up the hot water. Out there in the darkness, Blair might be hurt, lost, afraid....cold. Jim didn't even want to *think* about the night's temperature drop, the chill he'd felt as he stood at the wreck site.
Jim shivered and shut off the water. Enough wasting time. He had to start the search for his Guide.
It was hard to shave without meeting his desolate eyes in the mirror but he did it.
When he emerged from the bathroom he could hear Simon in the kitchen but he went upstairs to dress without speaking. When he came down again, Banks emerged from the kitchen holding out a cup of steaming coffee. "I wish you could have slept longer, Jim."
"Not with the nightmares I was having," Jim said involuntarily as he accepted the cup and could have bitten his tongue for mentioning them.
But Simon only said, "I'll bet," and went into the kitchen again, calling over his shoulder, "I'll fill your thermos and you can take it with you."
*For Sandburg*, Jim thought and was warmed by the offer especially since he knew Simon didn't believe Blair was alive. He curled his fingers around the coffee cup's warmth. "Thanks."
"It's not quite light yet, Jim. I think you should wait until the sun is up."
"It's coming up," Jim said with a gesture at the windows. "By the time I reach the university it'll be brighter."
The telephone rang.
Both men froze, staring at it as if it were a snake in their path, then Jim snatched it up. "Sandburg?"
"Taggart," said a familiar voice. "Sorry, Jim."
Crushing down his unreasonable disappointment, Jim said, "News, Joel?"
"Not much. The blood type was the same, but that doesn't mean anything. Blair's got a common type."
Jim winced. He'd been so sure the blood type would be wrong, that he'd have the proof right away. The forensics stuff would be sure to take longer and he knew no one would even start on the wallet until this morning.
Taggart continued. "It's just, I heard what happened last night, and there's talk already. I just wanted you to know that, no matter what happened, I don't believe for one second the kid robbed that woman. Some of us came in early and we're going to be looking at possible suspects who meet the Blair's general description. We'll find out who it really was. Brown's here, and he says to tell you he knows Hairboy couldn't have done it."
Gratitude for the support made Jim's eyes sting. What the hell was the matter with him; he was turning into an emotional old woman or something. "Thanks, man," he said and heard an element of the fervent gratitude Blair would have displayed in his voice.
"I figure you're going to hunt for him this morning, so I called early in hopes of catching you before you left. Is Captain Banks there?"
"Yeah, here he is." Jim passed the phone over then turned away, pinching the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger for a second before he took a swallow of the coffee. It burned all the way down. Good. It would wake him up, let him tune in to Sandburg.
Banks talked to Taggart for awhile, evidently agreeing with the plans Taggart and Brown had made to find a possible identity for the man in Blair's car. He only mentioned the blood type once, and that without meeting Jim's eyes. Jim listened, wondering if he'd be able to recognize the body if he went to the Morgue. Simon had insisted not. "Hell, I wouldn't know my own father like that...." But if Jim had no luck this morning....Simon had been right; that was not how he wanted to remember Sandburg. All that eager joy in living, that bright enthusiasm stopped so horribly? No, he wouldn't believe it. Even if he couldn't find Sandburg's heartbeat out of a million others, that didn't mean he was dead. It couldn't have just ended, not like this.
Simon hung up the phone. "Jim, I have to run home, change my clothes, go in to work. I'll try to coordinate everything from my end. Take your cell phone with you. Check in with me, okay?"
"I've got it," Jim said, patting it through his clothes. He paused, took a final sip of the coffee, then went for the thermos and a stack of blankets. "I'll start at the university and trace the route he must have taken to get to the overpass. That'll give me the best chance of crossing his path."
Simon paused and looked back at him sternly, his eyes worried. "Jim, I'd feel better if you took somebody with you. I don't want you zoning out."
"I won't," Jim promised grimly. "I'm going to focus on his heartbeat. I know the sound of it, I'd know it in a crowd. I don't have to zone out to find that." Who could he take? Simon was the only other person who knew about his Sentinel abilities, who understood the zone-out factor. Besides he could do the heartbeat without losing it. If Blair was conscious, he'd probably be talking to Jim, knowing Jim would hear him. He'd let the sound of Blair's voice come through, too. But he could do that without a total zone-out. Losing himself in his senses wouldn't help Sandburg.
"Did you get enough sleep to handle this?" Banks persisted.
"I got all I'm getting. That's the bottom line, Simon." He started for the door.
"Find him, Jim," Simon urged behind him. "And if you do..."
Jim hesitated, waiting.
"Tell the kid I.... hell, tell him I even missed him."
Jim's mouth curled into a faint smile. "Thanks, Simon. You do know he'll never let you live it down?"
"I can put up with that if I have to. Go on."
Needing no further encouragement, Jim went.
"Careful, Blair. Test the weight. Make sure it doesn't tip," Sandburg told himself sternly as he felt for a purchase on the next crate. The stack was not as sturdy as he'd like, and it was hard to climb one- handed. He couldn't use his wrist; he thought maybe a small bone was broken.
He'd found a couple of narrow boards and broke them by standing on one end and pulling up with his good hand until they snapped. Tying them into place around his wrist was an exercise in masochism that nearly made him black out twice. Without anything practical to fasten the makeshift splint he'd settled for a roll of duct tape he found in the jacket pocket, wrapping it around the splint at both ends. He could move his fingers but they hurt and he knew if he had to grab for support with that hand it would probably make him pass out.
So far, he'd done all right. He was halfway to the floor above. What's more, he was on the right track because there were scuffmarks and even a few dried, muddy footprints on the box tops. People came here. They might not be the kind of people Blair wanted to find him, but even a wino might be good now. For the change in his pocket, a wino might help him up to the street. He'd hold back enough for the nearest pay phone....
The box tilted wildly under his feet, and with a cry, he jumped unsteadily backward, landing on the box he'd just left. Pain stabbed through his right ankle, nearly pitching him over the edge, but he caught himself with his good hand, shaking with reaction. He'd been trying to pretend heights didn't bother him the whole way, but the near miss made him break out in a cold sweat. Sitting down abruptly, he drew up his knees against his chest and wrapped his good arm around them, resting his forehead down against his knees while reaction set in.
But reaction was a luxury he couldn't afford. He was in pain, probably slightly hypothermic and from the tightness in his chest he was at best coming down with a nasty cold. At worst, it could be pneumonia. He knew Jim would find him eventually. Jim would never give up. But Blair couldn't wait.
"Come on, Blair," he encouraged himself. "Are you gonna sit here like a baby until Jim comes to the rescue? You're gonna stand up and climb up out of here. Make him proud of you. That's what you're gonna do. Stand up. That's right. On your feet."
He groaned as he climbed. The night's stiffness was mostly gone, but the fall had pulled a muscle in his back that made him bite back a blurted cry of pain. He didn't think it was serious, but it didn't help.
"Oh, man, is there anything else that can go wrong here?" he asked the cosmos.
The cosmos chose not to answer.
"Okay, so I'm on my own? Well, let me tell you, I'm not. My buddy is hotfooting his way here even as we speak." He levered himself carefully onto the wobbly crate, careful to balance his weight as close to its center as possible. It quivered but didn't tip. Progress.
Even better, the crate on top of it was supported by two bigger ones on either side and it felt sturdy. Blair pushed off, wiggled onto it, and heaved a sigh of relief. It was firm beneath his feet. And there was only one more crate to go before he reached the hole that led up to a hopefully-sturdy stretch of floor above. Once he was there he could get out of the warehouse and head right for the nearest phone.
"See what I mean," he told the cosmos. "All it takes is determination. Wait'll I tell Jim I've set a new record for crate climbing. Maybe we should call the Guinness Book of World Records here. Best one-handed assault on a crate peak."
"You always talk to yourself after too much sterno, pal?"
The unexpected voice made him jump, and he lifted his eyes to find an old wino staring down at him from the ground floor, so stereotypical with his gaunt frame, his grizzled beard, and grimy trenchcoat that Blair was half certain he'd conjured him up out of a need for rescue.
"Can I have a hand out of here?" he asked. "I've sprained my wrist."
"I noticed that. Sure, sonny. Bet you have the price of a bottle for me, too."
"You got it," Blair said. "I don't have a lot on me, but once I make a phone call, the rest's yours--and I'll come back with a bottle of your choice tomorrow. Fair enough?"
"You didn't mess with my stash?" the old guy demanded suspiciously.
"Man, I never saw it. It was dark when I landed down there and I didn't search the place except to find a way out. Your stash is fine."
"Then gimme your hand and I'll pull you out. I'm a tough old bird, see if I'm not." His horny hand stretched out, clasped Blair's uninjured one, and gave a good, hard jerk. He hadn't been exaggerating much. Blair had to push off with his feet, but when he was up, he realized part of the man's ability was his size. He was six feet five in his stocking feet and once he'd been built like a linebacker. Some of the fading muscles still lingered. He steadied Blair, dusted him off, and nodded, proud of a chance to do the right thing. "You look like something the cat dragged in, sonny," he said. "What did you do to your wrist?"
"Whatever it is, it's sore as blazes," Blair said.
"I like the tape. You're one of those think-on-your-feet kinda guys, huh? Kinda guy comes out on top, even when the whole world's dumping on ya. Wish I coulda done that meself."
"Do you know where there's a phone?" Blair asked. "My buddy's gonna go nuts trying to find me."
The old man studied at him with rheumy blue eyes. "And you're a lucky son of a bitch, too, you got a buddy cares what happens to you. Phone's around the corner, once we wiggle out this window. Rest'a the floor won't hold your weight, so careful. Out the window here, sonny."
Climbing out the window wasn't much fun because he had to use his injured hand occasionally, and he'd already learned that was a no-no. The old guy steadied him. He was a good-hearted wino. Climbing out himself, he glanced up and down the narrow alley where they stood. "Good. Old Jake isn't hanging around. Old Jake's trouble. Come on, this way."
Casting a glance over his shoulder to make sure the mystical 'old Jake' wasn't lurking, Blair followed him to the phone.
Jim pulled into the parking lot where Blair usually parked and, finding it fairly empty so early in the day, steered the truck into an end spot and shut off the engine. Students, all of them young and carefree, left their cars and hurried toward the campus, arms laden with books. Jim scowled at them impartially then moved over to the back fence of the woman's yard, the one who had been robbed. He should probably go to see her, but it wasn't much past seven in the morning. Instead he pushed between the row of pines and stood just inside her back yard, closing his eyes and questing for Blair with hearing, sight, and sound. He picked up nothing at all.
But the thought of Blair's voice gave him an idea. If he didn't have any luck, he could take a tape recorder over to her house, play her enough of Blair talking through one of his test sessions that she'd be able to say the man who had robbed her wasn't Blair. She'd know, when she heard the tape, that the voices were different. She'd have to.
Jim didn't believe for an instant that Blair had robbed her. In fact he was grateful for the robbery, because if the man in the car had been a masked gunman, then he hadn't been Blair Sandburg.
Except Simon had said no gun had been found in the car.
"Damn it," Jim said aloud, and pulled out his cell phone, punching in a call to Simon at the station.
"Ellison. What about the robber's gun? That woman said he had a gun."
"Either it was thrown out in the crash and we haven't found it or he ditched it," Simon replied. "Now that it's light, we've got men over there, checking out the area."
"Is she sure about the gun?" Jim persisted. He wanted that gun to exist. He wanted it to exist with every fiber of his being. As long as there was a gun, it meant the man who died wasn't Sandburg.
"Jim, she's positive. She said it was a Beretta 9 mm. She says it was just like one her husband used to have."
The hard knot inside Jim relaxed, but not completely, because a Beretta 9 mm could make a lethal hole in a person. Just because the burglar hadn't wanted to hurt Mrs. Craven didn't mean he wouldn't hurt Blair. He might have had a soft spot for women or didn't want to fire where he might be heard. Still, the man in the car had been in possession of the money. It couldn't be Sandburg. If Jim was ever sure of anyone it was Sandburg. He'd never trusted anyone as thoroughly in his entire life, not the cops at Major Crimes, not even Simon, or his former partner Jack. Sandburg might bug the heck out of him occasionally, but he was completely honest.
And somewhere out there, he was waiting for Jim to come and find him. Ellison broke the connection and stowed the cell phone in his pocket again, then he wandered back to his car and up and down the rows in the parking lot. Nothing. It was much too long after the fact for him to smell things like Blair's aftershave, or even the smelly exhaust of his car. If he were lying under a clump of bushes nearby, Jim would have found him. But he wasn't.
Grimly Ellison returned to his truck. He'd take the straightest route from here to the overpass. If he didn't sense anything along the way, he'd deviate from that route in both directions, and keep spreading out in wider and wider circles. If Blair was still in Cascade, he'd find him or know the reason why.
Focusing on the memory of Sandburg's heartbeat, he started to drive, as slowly as he dared in the rush hour traffic.
Simon was glad Jim had not come into the office. While most of the Major Crimes people who knew Blair didn't believe he'd robbed Geena Craven, there were one or two who weren't so sure and who were prepared to say so. Simon, who knew the presence of a gun in the robbery made it highly unlikely Sandburg had been involved in it in any way but accidentally, couldn't explain what had happened. Those who had accepted the kid as one of them which, to be honest, was most of the squad, defended him against those who didn't. Joel Taggart was particularly vociferous in insisting that Blair had not turned to a life of crime, ably seconded by Brown.
Jim called in asking about the gun, and Simon had to tell him it had not been found. He understood Jim's urgent need for there to be a gun; it not only cleared Blair, at least to his own personal satisfaction, it meant the man in the car had been someone else. Craven had been very sure about the weapon. Simon studied the report. She hadn't panicked and imagined it. Sandburg had handled a gun a few times but always with great reluctance. The thought of him going out to buy one and using it in a robbery was so far outside Simon's perception of the kid that he had to believe Ellison was right about it. Not that such a theory meant Blair was alive. If the robber had simply let him loose, Blair would have come home by now. Unless, of course, he'd been left bound like Craven had been. Or unless the thief's chivalry had only extended to women. Simon could imagine all too easily that Blair had been shot and dumped in the harbor. He'd even called out divers to investigate, although that was one thing he hadn't told Jim Ellison. Jim had far too much on his plate already.
If Sandburg had been bound and abandoned, Jim was his only chance. The man had hardly slept last night. Simon hadn't slept that well himself, and he'd been able to tell each time he awakened from a nasty dream that Ellison was either wide awake up there in the dark or in the process of a nightmare. His dreams had to be more vivid than Banks'. It had to be the Sentinel-Guide thing that had allowed them to grow so close, but whatever it was, it was tearing Jim apart now. Cops reacted that way when they lost partners, but Sandburg was more than a partner to Jim. He had become closer than kin.
"Damn it, I should have gone out there with him," Simon muttered under his breath. Jim could zone out, wind up in real trouble out there on his own.
He reached out his hand for the phone to call Jim back. It rang as he touched it.
"It's his wallet," the forensics man said. "Sandburg's. We picked up part of a name. Enough to verify it."
Simon's heart dropped into his feet. Damn it. Anything but that. He almost asked, 'Are you sure?' but that was stupid. He thanked the man and hung up. God. He hadn't wanted it to be Sandburg in the car. He'd even halfway believed it wasn't. But now....
God, he'd have to call Jim. He knew Jim would insist it was not proof, that the mythical robber could have stolen Blair's wallet, but they'd only found one wallet on the scene. Reluctantly he put his hand on the phone again. It rang again.
"Banks." He knew his voice was short, impatient.
The last voice he had ever expected to hear said with an edge of hoarseness and fatigue, "Simon, it's Blair."
"*Sandburg*?" He'd know the kid's voice anywhere, even like this. Relief pumped through his veins. " Where the hell have you been? We thought you were *dead*. Did you call Jim?" He was conscious of Taggart, summoned by his shout, bursting through the door of his office, closely trailed by Brown and one or two others."
"I got his answering machines there and at the loft. I couldn't reach him on his cell phone."
"He must be away from it. I talked to him about half an hour ago. He was going to try to run the route from the University to the crash site."
"Crash site? You thought I was *dead*? Simon, what's going on? Who thought I was dead? Not Jim?" Now the fatigue was drowned in worry. "I gotta call him right away, man. Only that was my last quarter and there's a guy standing here glaring at me because I've just spent the cost of a bottle for him."
"Where are you? I'll come and pick you up. I'll call Jim and have him come."
"Yeah, call him and let him know I'm alive. Wait a minute? What crash? My *car*? Is it *totaled*?"
Simon explained hastily about the fiery crash and the body that matched Blair's description. "Everything pointed to it being you," he concluded. "He had your blood type and I just found out he even had your wallet. Jim wouldn't buy it, but he was struggling awfully hard. I never saw him that distraught."
"Over me?" There was an edge of humility in the voice, although it was mostly overridden by his concern for Jim.
"Hell, yes, over you. We were all worried about you? Taggart and Brown are hanging over me right now. They've been defending you all along."
"Uh, Simon? Defending me?"
"The guy had $100,000 in stolen money on him; he robbed a house next to your parking lot at the university."
"You thought I was a *crook*?" Simon could almost see Blair's eyebrows lift in astonishment.
"No way, Sandburg. The guy used a gun."
There was a startled silence, then Sandburg said with absolute certainty, "Jim would know it wasn't me."
"He did. Even before we found out about the gun. Even if that guy had your wallet and your jacket and we found him with the money in your car. Jim knew it wasn't you."
"So where is he?"
"He's out there looking for you."
"You let him go *alone*?" Blair's voice shot up in alarm. "Oh, man, Simon, he'll go into a zone out so bad he could wreck the car. I'm gonna hang up and you can call him. I'm down on the waterfront, I spent the night in the basement of an old warehouse; just now managed to get out. I'm at the corner of Third and Beacon."
"Are you hurt?"
"Just minor stuff," Blair insisted. "I'm all right, Simon. I can wait. Call Jim and tell him. I'll wait here for him, okay?"
Simon smiled. Sandburg and Ellison were two of a kind when it came to worrying about each other. "Okay, but you hang in there, Sandburg. I don't want to have to tell Jim you got into any new trouble before he could show up."
"Okay," agreed Blair and hung up.
Simon looked up at the expectant faces, and smiled. "He's all right," he said. "We'll pick him up. The guy grabbed his car just like we thought, and dumped him in a warehouse, about half a mile from where we found the car. Okay, men, that means we want to find out who the guy really was, so see what you can dig up. I'd better call Ellison."
Grinning at each other, the men retreated and Simon punched in the number of Ellison's cell phone.
Jim didn't answer.
His heart sinking, Simon let the phone ring and ring in case Jim had left it in the truck, but nothing happened. That could mean a zone-out, and if so, he was going to need Sandburg badly. Simon replaced the receiver and hurried toward the door. He'd better pick up the kid himself. And then the two of them could find Jim.
Blair sat perched on the stoop of an abandoned building, his burly savior from the cellar hovering beside him. Unable to delude himself that the man's solicitude had anything to do with Blair's wellbeing, he said, "When my friend comes, he'll give you enough money to buy a magnum of champagne."
"That'd be good," the wino said. He frowned. "I'd like that. But you know, sonny, not everybody on the street's out to get you. I'd'a done it without the bottle. I had a kid once. He'd be about your age now, maybe a few years older. I'd like to hope somebody would bail him out, if he needed it."
"Do you know where he is?"
"Oh, no, I can see it in your eyes. You're not gonna try to redeem me, sonny. I chose my path, and I've gotta live it out."
"Nobody says you can't decide to change," Blair began.
"If you're gonna preach, I'll take off right now."
Blair raised his hands to deny the impulse. "You helped me out, I'd just like to return the favor."
"I've had a belly full of do-gooders, sonny. You can't save the world. You're young enough to think, maybe you can, but let me tell you, a part of it's all anybody's good for. You've got a life, you've got a friend you're worried sick about even if you're the one who's hurt. That means he's worried sick about you. And that means you're lucky. As for me, I made my bed and now I gotta lie in it. You just be careful how you make yours. You're lucky enough to have a buddy who cares, you treat 'em right, that's all I say. Don't blow your chances." His eyes were dark with bitter memories but when he saw Blair watching him, he averted them. "One thing I know about is what happens when all that goes. I had friends once. I had a wife, a kid. It wasn't them made it screw up, it was me. So if you're married, you treat her right, and you do well by this buddy of yours. Much as I'd like your magnum of champagne, forget about it. Just promise you'll do right by your friend."
Blair stared at the street philosopher. "That's not much of a promise. I'd do that anyway," he insisted. "I never even knew what it was like to have a close friend until he came along. I had lots of casual friends but none of 'em that I'd...well, go to the wire for, you know. Or who'd do that for me."
"And this buddy's out looking for you?"
"Yeah, and he gets...well, I'm afraid he'll wind up in trouble if I'm not there to watch out for him."
The old man's eyes sparkled with suppressed amusement. "You're a magnet for it yourself, sonny. But you go with those instincts. Hang in there with your friend. Don't let him down because you were greedy for what you couldn't have or because it's a big bother. Because then, one day, you'll find yourself alone."
The thought of that scared Blair, but he shook his head. "No way, this is a...a lifetime commitment." He'd come to realize that the Sentinel- Guide bond wasn't one that could be shuffled aside when his research was finished. He didn't want it to be. What mattered was the friendship that had developed between him and Jim. He'd never known friendship could be soul-deep.
A blare of a horn announced the arrival of Simon Banks. At the sight of the approaching car, Blair's companion muttered something that might have been farewell and drifted away around the corner of the building. Maybe he knew Simon was a cop and wanted to avoid cops, maybe he was just antisocial. That didn't matter. What did was that Simon was here instead of Jim. Bounding to his feet, Blair threw himself at the car in alarm.
Simon jumped out of the vehicle the moment it came to a stop and circled it to grab Blair by the shoulders. Sheer relief was vivid on his face as he yanked Blair to him and gave him an impulsive hug as if Blair were as young as Daryl. Smothered for a second against the taller man's shirt front, Blair let out a squeak as the embrace jarred his arm.
Simon let go immediately and tried to assume a casual, I-just-happened- by expression, but Blair couldn't hold back a blazing grin. Simon had been worried about him. He might never admit it in words, but now Blair knew; Jim's boss actually liked him and here was the proof of it.
"What's the matter, Simon, miss me?" he asked wickedly.
Simon's hands were still tight on his shoulders. "Do you have any idea what you put everybody through, Sandburg?" he demanded gruffly. Blair wasn't worried. Simon was gruff because he was moved.
"You did!" Blair crowed. "You missed me. I love it. Man, this is great!" Then he sobered unable to sustain the mood.
"Did I just see Tom Harlan ducking around the corner?" demanded Simon.
"Used to be one of the sons of a local crime syndicate family. They say he half killed his best friend for sleeping with his wife, and no one has seen him again. But never mind that," he added, when Blair stared after his benefactor in dawning understanding. "What the hell happened to you?"
"I was carjacked," Blair replied. "Just minding my own business, trying to head for home early because Jim and I were supposed to go fishing today. He likes to start at the crack of dawn for things like that and he isn't sympathetic if I've been working late, either. Where is he, anyway?"
"I couldn't get an answer on the cell phone either."
They stared at each other, sharing a growing concern. "Oh, man, I knew it," groaned Blair. "He's looking for me and he zoned out. I know it. What if he zoned out when he was driving? He could be hurt. We've gotta find him, Simon."
"We will. Come on." He steered Sandburg to the car. "What did you do to your wrist?"
"Sprained or cracked or something. Never mind, it can wait."
"It can't wait, not if it's broken. I'll put out an APB on Jim, we'll let the force track him down."
Tired and worried as he was, Blair couldn't repress the image of Yoda closing his eyes and concentrating, making Jim appear before him. Oh, man, he needed rest. But first, he needed Jim.
"Why didn't you call last night?" Simon asked as he slid behind the wheel and started the car.
"He pushed me into that warehouse over there," Blair said, gesturing with his right hand. "There was a hole in the floor. I fell into the basement and if there were any stairs out, I couldn't find them in the dark." He explained his minor injuries, his attempt to climb the stack of crates, the helping hand from the wino. Tom Harlan? Maybe. Blair was sure he'd vanish now, he'd never be able to find the man to bring him his champagne. "Then I started calling Jim," he said. "I knew he'd freak. At first I thought he'd just be mad, but if that creep blew up my car and died in it, Jim had a rougher time than I did. Oh, man, Simon, this is bad. We need to find him."
"We will. But first, we'll have your wrist X-rayed. In the meantime, I'll call the station and put somebody on tracking him down. He might have left his cell phone in the truck or dropped it, or the batteries might be dead. He doesn't have to be zoned out."
"But he might be," Blair insisted. "Come on, Simon, the hospital can wait."
"Where would you start?" Banks asked. "I'll drive you around myself, once you've seen the doctor in the E.R. Hell, I'm worried about him, too."
"But you don't understand, Simon. I've seen a major zone-out. He just gets lost in there, so deep he can't come out on his own. If he's behind the wheel of a car when that happens, he could wind up...just like the guy who boosted my car."
They were held up at a stoplight and Simon glanced his way. "Sandburg. Blair. Listen to me. Jim's too smart to let that happen. You know he is. He said he'd focus on your heartbeat, that it was instinctive and he wouldn't have to get close to a zone-out to do it."
"Yeah, but he could still go over the edge. I hate this, man." He looked around in wild frustration.
"Jim had a feeling you were in trouble," Simon said. "Even before he knew about the crash. You don't have anything that works both ways, do you?"
Blair's eyes widened. "I wish we did. I never picked up anything psychic between us. Sometimes people do get premonitions, but it isn't a two way street. I think I'd know if he was in trouble, but...." He shook his head. "I don't know, Simon. I don't know what to do."
"Then we'll get you fixed up and go from there. He might get back to his phone and call us in the meantime."
But Simon's cell phone didn't ring all the rest of the way to the hospital.
Jim pulled the truck over to the side of the road, listening. He was nearly to the site of the wreck and he hadn't picked up anything within a six block radius. At least he hoped he could reach that far with everything else filtered out. Sandburg had taught him to focus on one particular sound or stimulus, and he'd been so careful all the way over here, open for the sound of Blair's heartbeat. He had to concentrate hard because he didn't dare zone out in traffic; he had to find Blair but he couldn't accept the thought of endangering an innocent pedestrian or a passenger in another car because he hadn't been able to control his abilities. So he'd stopped frequently, pulling over to the curb and shutting off the truck to focus. If he went in too deep, he wouldn't endanger anyone else. But there was nothing, no trace of Blair.
Once, just before he reached the accident site, he thought he felt a faint touch of Blair's heartbeat but then it faded away before he could be sure. He focused more tightly and sought after it, but it was no good. It was gone again.
Maybe he'd driven past it. He pulled an illegal u-turn to the accompaniment of squeals of brakes and blare of horns all around him and went slowly back a block, two. Nothing. Maybe he'd just touched on someone who was similar to Sandburg.
Or maybe he'd come close to the place where Sandburg was imprisoned or tied--in time to feel the final beating of his heart? Jim's own heart squeezed painfully in his chest. He didn't believe that. He wouldn't believe that, not for a second. He'd know. He might not have all the answers in this Sentinel routine, but he was positive of that. If the world didn't contain Blair Sandburg any longer, nothing would be the same. That couldn't happen without awareness. Could it?
"I know you're out there, Chief," Jim breathed as he turned the truck and headed toward the crash site. "And I won't stop until I find you."
"What did they say?" Simon asked when Blair emerged into the waiting room an hour and a half later.
"They say there are two cracked bones in here," Sandburg replied, displaying his wrist that now had a new brace around it, not unlike those worn by people with carpal tunnel syndrome. "I have to wear this all the time except when I'm in the shower. I'm okay, though. No concussion or anything and my ankle's not bad. They taped it up but just for support for a few days. And I've got a cold, but it's not pneumonia- -they don't even mind if I use my own herbal remedies for it, so it can't be bad. And no concussion. My back's a little achy from almost pitching off those crates, but nothing I can do about that but live with it till it heals. I'm cleared. Let's go find Jim." He started urgently toward the door.
"Yes, we'll find Jim, but I'm going to take you home first, clean you up," Simon decided. "You look like something the cat dragged in--more than usual, that is. They give you any medication for pain?"
"Yeah, but I've got my own herbs that'll be better. I'll mix something up later that'll let me sleep tonight. Don't worry about it."
"You sure these mysterious 'herbs' are legal?"
Blair couldn't help grinning but he said, "Every one of 'em, Simon. But never mind that. We've gotta let Jim know I'm okay."
"Sandburg, I've put an APB out. Anybody sees him, they'll pull him over, tell him you're fine. Same thing if he shows up at the site of the crash. If we drive around we'll keep missing him, but he might check in at the loft. You have a shower and a shave, and while you're cleaning up, I'll fix you a big breakfast. *Then*, if we still haven't heard anything, we'll go looking for him. Come on." He steered Blair toward the doorway.
Blair hesitated then started moving. He wanted to rush out and track Jim down immediately. It didn't seem right to seek personal comfort when Jim was missing and might be pulled over on a back street where no one would find him, zoned out. But he also knew he was near to his own zone-out, stressed, fatigued, sleepy, hungry, and grungy. Besides, there was a chance Jim would check in at the loft from time to time.
"Okay, but if he hasn't called in or showed up by the time I have a really quick breakfast, we're going out to find him. I mean it, Simon. He's out there thinking I might be dead. I hate that, man." He and Simon started across the parking lot to Banks' car. "I know how I'd feel if it were reversed. I wouldn't want *anybody* to go through that, let alone Jim. You hear me?"
Simon nodded. "Jim's my friend too, Sandburg. You tell me where to go to find him and we'll go there first."
Blair's shoulders sagged. "Okay," he said wearily. "Home first. But a fast shower and a meal you can throw together while I'm in the bathroom and I can take it with me in the car."
Simon hesitated as he took out his keys. "Deal."
Suddenly Blair laughed with an edge of hysteria. "I don't have my keys. He took my keys, Simon. No keys, no wallet, no ID, nothing. We can't go to the loft. How can I get in?"
Simon's hand came down on his shoulder. "We'll get you duplicates. And I have a key to the loft. Jim gave it to me long before he met you, in case I ever needed to get in. It's all right. You're tired and stressed. We'll take care of all that. You'll see." His voice gentled down as he opened the passenger side door as if he could tell that Blair was suffering from delayed reaction. "You'll be fine once Jim's home," he said as he helped settle Blair in the car. "You'll see."
"Thanks, Simon," Blair said fervently. "I owe you."
"Let's take you home."
Blair stood under the beating shower, letting the hot water wash away the grime and fatigue, his eyes closed, his thoughts repeating themselves like a mantra. *Come home, Jim. Come home, Jim. Just come home.*
"Damn it." Jim Ellison pulled the truck over to the side of the street and shut it off. *I'm not getting anywhere. Where is he? He has to be here somewhere.*
Certain his Guide had not committed the burglary at the Craven house, Jim had to believe the man with the money couldn't be Blair. He'd seen Blair heading for his car, maybe unlocking the door, and jumped him. But he hadn't left him there; he'd taken him along for the ride and dropped him off on the way.
Jim didn't even want to consider the obvious solution, that he'd driven down to the docks and tossed his victim into the harbor. He'd stood down there gazing at the dark water for nearly half an hour, trying to detect a sense of Blair, but there had been nothing. Yet he couldn't believe his friend was dead. There was a feeling inside him that told him Sandburg was still in the world. He didn't understand all his Sentinel abilities and he didn't know if his awareness of his Guide actually was a Sentinel function and not simply an extension of the closest friendship he'd ever experienced. Or if it was wishful thinking.
There had been no word from Simon, and he kept telling himself no news was good news. But he wasn't sure he believed it.
"Where the hell are you, Sandburg?" he demanded.
He was beat; it was nearly impossible to focus his senses. Each small failure added to the weight on his shoulders. Maybe he ought to go home, put his feet up for half an hour, have a cup of coffee and a sandwich, replenish his energy before he resumed the search. Blair would insist on that. He'd run some tests when Jim was very tired and announced that his abilities often blurred at such a time. One sense might function clearly, another fail him entirely. He'd gone off on one of his cockamamie theories that the primitive Sentinels had often been forced to stand guard when they were at the limits of their strength and could narrow their focus down to whatever was the most needed at the time and maybe even go onto automatic. Jim could focus in a small, intense way, but his range was way down.
Yeah, home. He'd have a couple of cups of scalding hot coffee and some of that weird stuff Blair called energy food, and in half an hour he'd be back on the streets. His guide was watching over him just like he always did. Blair called Jim his Blessed Protector, but Jim had known for a long time that Blair was his. Sandburg probably didn't realize how he'd not only saved Jim's life a lot more than he realized but he'd saved his sanity. Without Blair's quick mind and his adaptability to new situations, Jim might well have gone down under the weight of his senses, zoned out in a crisis and made himself a sitting duck. Blair had saved him on the oil rig, but he saved him daily in small ways. Jim started up the truck and headed for the loft. Once moving, he took out his cell phone. He'd call in, tell Simon what he was up to.
The batteries were dead.
Jim stared at the phone in disgust, wondering if he'd missed an important call. Now he'd have to head to the loft and the phone there, see if he had any messages, check with Simon. He'd replace the battery before he started out again. *Stupid, Ellison*, he told himself. *That was just plain dumb.*
He was almost too weary to pull himself up the stairs to the loft. The soothing reassurance of Blair's heartbeat led the way, luring him higher automatically. It wasn't until he was on the top step that it dawned on him what he was actually hearing, so natural was the sound. How many times had he climbed these steps hearing Blair's heartbeat all the way up, knowing his partner was home before him? Now he stopped there, a hand on the wall for balance, and listened.
He was narrowed in on the one sound, and it was there. It was real, it was alive. *Oh, god.*
He jammed the key in the lock and flung open the door. The smell of frying bacon and eggs assailed his nostrils, but he dismissed that as unimportant just as he dismissed the presence in the kitchen, recognizing it as Simon without having to think about it. "*Sandburg*!" he cried.
Blair erupted from the bathroom, barefoot, his shirt still unbuttoned, his hair damp from the shower. There was a brace around his left wrist, a scraped place on his right cheekbone, a bruise on his forehead, and a gauze bandage on his right ankle. But he was alive, miraculously alive, blessedly alive, safe, and home. The sight of him turned Jim's world right side up again.
Jim lunged for him as if he'd been fired from a rocket, grabbing the smaller man by the shoulders. "Where the *hell* have you *been*?" he cried, shaking Blair lightly. Then, before Sandburg could answer, he pulled him tight against his chest and held onto him as if he'd never let go. He could feel Blair's heartbeat as well as hear it, and the sound and sensation soothed away all the agony of the last fifteen hours in the reassurance that his friend was alive and safe. "God, Blair, you scare me like this again and I'll kill you," he murmured, bending his head against the wet hair, the smell of Blair's herbal shampoo in his nostrils.
Blair wrapped his arms around Jim and was content to stand under the rib-crushing onslaught without demur. "I couldn't get out," he said. "I tried, Jim. I got out as soon as I could, but you weren't answering your cell phone. I'm sorry. I'm really sorry, man."
"Sorry?" he drew back far enough to look down into the exhausted, elated face that was lifted up to his. "You've got no cause to be sorry, Chief. It wasn't you. I knew something was wrong and I didn't even go out to find out what it was."
Blair's eyes widened. "You *knew* I was in trouble?"
"I knew something was wrong, and I knew it was about you, but then Simon showed up and told me you were dead." His voice was flat as he said those words.
"Jim, you didn't *believe* it?" Sandburg stared at him, horrified.
"I didn't want to, and I had a gut feeling that kept telling me you were alive." He pulled Blair in and embraced him again. "God, you scared me, Chief. If anything had happened to you...."
Blair held on tight, torn between elation at such a display of affection from his usually-undemonstrative friend and worry because Jim's eyes were still shadowed and even glittered just this side of relieved tears. Oh, man, Jim must have had it bad. "I'm fine, Jim. Really. It wasn't me in the car." He could see Simon over Jim's shoulder, hovering in the kitchen doorway, an smile of tolerant indulgence on his face that disappeared as soon as he realized Blair had seen it. God, even Simon had hugged him. He wasn't sure he wanted to risk returning to the precinct at this rate; he'd be crushed alive. Maybe it was a cop thing.
Or maybe it was just the reassurance that they cared and Jim's need to know he was safe. Blair pressed his forehead down against Jim's shoulder and reached up to run his hand over the back of the bigger man's neck. "It's okay, Jim," he soothed, strength flooding through him. "It's okay now. I'm all right, man. It's over." Jim was almost *crying* over his return. He wouldn't have made his friend live through such a nightmare for anything, but the realization warmed him, too, making up for the cold night, the fear of rats, the pain in his wrist. None of that mattered now. He was safe, he was home, and Jim was going to be okay. Jim had cared this much. "It's all right."
"Damn it, Sandburg, I don't know what I would have done if it had been in that car," Jim said gruffly, his voice hoarse with emotion. "Don't you ever pull anything like this again." He gave Blair a little shake. "I don't think I could get along without you."
Hearing Jim say those words made up for everything, the pain, the panic, the cold, the fear. Blair tightened his grip around Ellison and held on for as long as his Sentinel needed him to.
Jim finally loosened his grip and called himself to order, trying, although not very hard, to pretend he hadn't lost control for a minute there. Then he gave in and simply grinned, a little abashed but no less relieved, and Blair knew it was going to be all right.
The trip to the major crimes unit was as bad as Blair had feared it would be. Although Simon thought they should both take the day off and sleep, Jim said he needed to come in just to touch base, and Blair tagged along. He had the feeling Jim wouldn't go without him, at least not yet. He teased him about the cell phone batteries on the way, delighted when Jim grinned wickedly and started to list Blair's periodic screw-ups. Thank goodness. He didn't mind if Jim fussed a little-- actually he'd loved it--but he'd be glad when they recaptured their normal status quo. He was defending himself energetically when they reached the station.
Their arrival produced a real stir. At once the other cops converged on him. Joel Taggart enveloped him in another hug and ruffled his hair, Brown pumped his hand and slapped him on the back and half the squad gathered around to assure him they hadn't believed for a minute that the body in the car had been him. One or two of the others even edged up to apologize for suspecting him. Vindicated, welcomed into their midst, Blair couldn't hold back a one-thousand watt smile. Major Crimes had taken him into their closed society; he was one of them. He exchanged a look with Jim who nodded as if he could read Blair's mind. Even Simon beamed at him paternally. Blair suspected he would have to find a way to bug the captain within a day or two and drive him back to normal. It was only fair to the man.
A sudden silence fell with the arrival of a tall, elegant woman of thirty, on the arm of a man a few years her senior. They looked around the room, she nodded at Simon, and they approached him.
"Mr. and Mrs. Craven?" Simon went to meet them. "What can we do for you?"
"You can talk sense to my husband about keeping cash in the house," the woman said.
"Now, Geena, you know that's not why we're here," the man said. "I'm Jack Craven. My wife was robbed last night. We're here for the paperwork."
"My fellow victim," Blair said, edging up. "I'm Blair Sandburg. The guy grabbed my car right after he took your money."
"We heard about that," Geena said. "He kept insisting he didn't mean to kill me. I don't know who he was, but I really think I meant that. Did he tie you up, too?"
"He trapped me in the basement of a warehouse. I couldn't climb out till this morning."
"I can see why they were mixed up about who he was," Geena said consideringly, tilting her head as she regarded him. She appeared to be recovering nicely especially in the presence of her husband who must have flown back after she called him when she was freed. His arm was around her shoulders protectively. "You're about his height," she continued, "and you've got long hair too, though his was curled tighter, I think. And you're broader in the shoulders than he was and a lot better built."
Jim nudged Blair with his elbow. "Don't let it go to your head," he said in an undertone.
"When you've got it, you've got it," Blair replied, amused at Simon's grimace.
"Do they know who he was yet?" Jack Craven didn't sound particularly forgiving, even if the man who had robbed his wife was dead. He did look as tired as Blair and Jim did, though.
"We might never know," Simon explained. "Unless he's reported missing and fits the description. We just know he's not Blair."
"Of course not," Geena said. "The man who robbed me had a totally different voice too."
"I thought of that last night," Jim put in. "Taking a tape recording over so you could listen to Blair's voice and know it wasn't him."
"You never believed it, did you, Jim?" Simon asked.
"Not for a second. Sandburg might be a pain at times--" he flashed a smile at Blair to take any sting out of his words, not that there would have been any-- "but he's not a crook. And when it comes to guns..."
"Jim, why don't you and Sandburg call it a day," Simon urged as Brown came up to talk to the Cravens about Geena's statement. "You both look like you've been through the ringer."
That made Jim stop and consider Blair, from the brace on his wrist to the slight halt in his walk, and he conceded immediately, his Blessed Protector routine kicking in. "You've got it, Simon," he said, corralling Blair with an arm around his shoulders. "Come on, Chief, we're out of here. We're going home."
Ellison leaned back on the couch watched Blair as he ran on about something or other, more tests, it sounded like, his eyes feasting on the eager face of his Guide. In some ways it was easy to slip back into the old familiar patter but every now and then something Blair said or did pulled him up short and made him realize how lucky they both were. For awhile there he wouldn't have believed a moment like this one was possible. To be able to sit here with no stress, no pressure, no fear, and listen to Blair rattling on at ninety miles an hour was a gift, one he meant to treasure. He was sure Blair would bug him again, use up all the hot water, leave his dirty clothes strewn around, forget to put the milk back in the refrigerator, but he could live with that. He wasn't sure he could have lived with the alternative.
"More tests?" he echoed, a hint of teasing in his voice. "Next thing I know you'll be wanting to hook me up to electrodes and measure my brain when I'm focusing."
Blair's eyes narrowed at once, and he eyed Ellison consideringly. "Well, actually Jim, I did set up a time share with one of the science labs. I was gonna tell you when we were fishing. This way I can actually measure what happens in your brain. We'll see if we can't induce a zone-out and then I'll have a lot better means of telling what actually happens and maybe find ways for you to focus without it. This is gonna be so cool."
"No way, Chief. You're not fastening me down like a guinea pig with electrodes all over me."
"But Jim--just think how great it will be. We need to understand it all, how you were sure I was alive when everything was against it. Monday night, that's when we'll have the use of the lab. There's a guy, medical student, he'll set it all up then he'll make himself scarce unless we need him."
"Unless we *need* him?" Jim demanded. "What the hell kind of tests..." And then he fell silent, and a slow, warm smile spread across his face. He couldn't deny the kid anything right now. "Okay, Sandburg. Just this once. But if anything goes wrong, if I come out of that glowing around the edges or if you fry my brain, then you're gonna clean up the loft ever day for a whole *year*."
Blair's face lit up both in triumph and in understanding of Jim's concession. The bond between Sentinel and Guide, between friend and friend, it was in full force right then. There were no secrets or need for them. They were a team, a partnership, they were brothers. "You've got a deal, man," he vowed. "You have got a deal."