Warnings:  Some violence, language: PG-13
Spoilers:  Well, I don't think I spoiled anything, but I do make a reference to "Killers"
Acknowledgments:  "The Second Coming" by W. B. Yeats; "Frail" by Jars of Clay; "Dance Without Sleeping" by Melissa Etheridge; "The Snow Queen" by Hans Christian Andersen

Many thanks to Robyn for the medical information!  She managed to wade through my muddled descriptions and provide me with invaluable help.  Hey, shoulder or back, ankle or anus… what's the difference?  Hmm, guess that's why I don't have a medical degree.

This story is for Agnes Mage, the first to extend the hand of friendship.  Without her support, patience, and affectionate encouragement, this story would never have seen the light of day.  She is an artist of words, a sculptor of souls, and the most kindred of spirits.

Here it is, Chief: a single, everlasting firefly.
 
 

The Center Cannot Hold
 

Iris Wilde
 
 

      Turning and turning in the widening gyre
      The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
      Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
      Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
      The blood dimmed timed is loosed, and everywhere
      The ceremony of innocence is drowned…

   W. B. Yeats
 
 

~~~~~~~~~~**********~~~~~~~~~~

"…appears the Cascade Slasher has struck again.  Jill Stephenson was stabbed to death in her home late yesterday afternoon.  Stephenson, a 28-year-old wife and mother of one, was discovered by a neighbor who received a phone call from the elementary school her child attends.  Staff members there became alarmed when the young mother failed to pick up her daughter after school and contacted the neighbor, Marva St. John, who was listed as an emergency contact.  St. John went to the Stephenson home and discovered the door standing open.  She entered the residence and found Mrs. Stephenson's body on the kitchen floor.  Stephenson had been stabbed multiple times and was clothed only in a bloody blouse and stockings.  While police refuse to comment this early into the investigation, the similarities between this crime and the murders of Wayne Stillman and Jean Watson are undeniable.  All three victims were repeatedly stabbed, and…"

A single finger punched the remote's "power off" button, silencing the newswoman.  Jim didn't need to hear about the parallels between these three murders.  He had a front row seat.  He'd been the investigating officer on each scene.  Even now, if he closed his eyes, he could see the bodies, awash in blood, horribly, sadistically mutilated.  Stillman's hands, frozen in death, clutching at his own neck in an attempt to staunch the river of red pouring from his slashed throat.  Watson, mouth still agape from her final screams, her arms crisscrossed by deep, angry wounds, evidence of her failed attempts to defend herself.  And Jill Stephensone.  Perhaps it was because hers was the most recent death, or maybe it was due to the obvious violation of her body.  Whatever it was, Jim knew that Stephenson would haunt him for some time.

The sight of her blood-covered body had been almost more than Jim could stand.  She had been lying in the kitchen, the heart of the home, where hours before she'd fixed lunch for her beloved only child, where only that morning she may have given her husband a passionate kiss that held the promise of private pleasures. Her shoes had been found on opposite sides of the room, possibly kicked off in the struggle against her murderer.  Her slacks, ripped from waist to inseam, were found near her head and had apparently been used to muffle her cries.  Her bra had been cut at the straps and between the cups, and it had been used to tie her hands behind her back.  Her blouse barely remained on her body, its buttons scattered across the floor, a testimony to the violence her attacker had used to rip her shirt open.  It had been white, according to her husband, but the original color was lost forever.

Like the others, Jill Stephenson had bled to death.  Like the others, her attacker had tortured her, inflicting painful but non-fatal wounds before killing her.  Unlike the others, she had been raped.  To the killer it was just one more method of terrorizing his victim, but to Jim Ellison it was a chance to stop a madman.  The killer had left his mark, and in doing so had possibly sacrificed his anonymity.  If he had a record.  If his DNA was on file.

"If, if, if," Jim moaned, sitting forward on the sofa cushion and placing his head in his hands.  God, he was tired!  He hadn't arrived back at the loft until nearly 12:30 a.m., and though exhausted from the day's events, sleep had eluded him.  The murder, the investigation, the grieving family--it all swirled furiously around in his brain.  He had tossed and turned, rearranged the bedclothes, and flipped on the white noise generators, all to no avail.  He couldn't take his own advice and check his feelings at the door.  Not this time.

Jovial whistling in the hallway grabbed his attention, and a quick check revealed a familiar heartbeat: Sandburg.  Jim smiled inwardly.  At least this time his partner had been spared the gorier side of Jim's profession.  The young anthropologist and teaching fellow had been up to his deep blue eyeballs in final exams.  Blair had apologized for his absence, but Jim considered it a blessing.  With any luck, this case would be solved and Blair would never have to witness the destruction left in the wake of Cascade's latest psychopath.

The subject of his thoughts bounded into the loft, a Starbuck's sack in one hand, a newspaper in the other.  He waved the bag at Ellison as he proceeded to the kitchen.

"Hey, Jim.  Breakfast is served."  Blair reached into an overhead cabinet, retrieved two plates, and began to dole out the freshly baked treasures.  "Let's see, a whole grain muffin for moi, and for you, one poppyseed muffin and one enormous blueberry scone.  I swear, man, these people need to practice moderation. You could feed a family of four with one of these things."

Jim rose from the couch, stretched, then joined his friend in the kitchen.  "That's a man-sized portion, son," he corrected, using his best gruff cowboy voice.  He poured himself a cup of coffee.   "We he-man types don't do bite sized portions."

Blair snickered.  "I have the distinct feeling that scones were not high on the 'Cowboys' Favorite Foods' list."

"Sure they were…right after oysters and quiche."

"Yeah, and eaten only by men with lace trimmed saddles who wore silk chaps."

"Yessir, keeping the West safe for Martha Stewart."

"God bless America!"

The conversation ended as mouths were filled.  Jim eyes strayed to the newspaper, the headline, and finally the photo of Jill Stephenson.  He swallowed his bite of scone and willed it to stay down.  He wanted this bastard.

"Jim, man, you okay?"

His friend's voice drew him back, and he glanced over to find Blair's concerned eyes staring at him, the young man's hand resting upon his arm.  He attempted a smile and patted the Blair's hand.  "I'm fine, Chief.  Just zoning a bit on taste."

Jim realized immediately that his ruse had failed.  "It's this Slasher case, isn't it?"  Jim felt Blair's grip tighten.  "I'm sorry, Jim.  Maybe if I'd been with you, you'd have noticed something more at the crime scene."

"Sandburg, there's nothing to be sorry for.  There simply wasn't anything worth noticing.  We assume the guy wore gloves--no prints.  There was some oil and dirt on the floor that probably came from his shoes.  I think he either lives or works near Bayside Industrial Park.  There was the faint scent of after shave, some brand that is supposed to smell like the great outdoors, which it does if the outdoors happens to be nothing but rotting vegetation.  Beyond that, nothing, at least not until we get the findings back from the lab."  He noticed his partner's quizzical look and added tersely, "He raped the last victim.   We're hoping for a match from the…pubic hair…or the semen sample."

Jim watched as the blood visibly drained from the Blair's face.  The young man swallowed as if to rid his mouth of something distasteful.  "Still, maybe you're overlooking something.  If I…"

Jim placed his free hand over Blair's mouth.  "I've had enough of 'ifs' for now, Chief.  We'll get this guy."  Knowing that his partner's train of thought would continue on course, he decided to derail it.  "What's your day look like?"  Jim noticed the lifted eyebrows and removed his hand.  Success.

"I finished grading about 6:00, so I'm gonna head over to Rainier to post them."

It was Jim's turn to frown.  "Blair, it's only 7:00 now."

"And your point is…"

"You haven't slept, have you?"

Blair sighed heavily and shook his head.  "You know, sleep is, like, so overrated."  Blair raised his hand, interrupting Jim's before his opening mouth could issue a sound.  "It's Friday, Jim, and I have two weeks before the new term starts, so I can catch up on my sleep then."

Jim was unconvinced.  Blair's bouncing and flouncing like Tigger on speed might fool others, but he could easily spot the signs of wear and tear: the dark circles under ocean blue eyes, the raspy quality in his voice, the slump of his shoulders.  The kid was pushing it again, and Jim would have to call him on it.

"Blair…"

"I'll drive carefully, Officer," he said in his best mock-obedient voice, "and I'll come home right after posting and take my afternoon nap.  I'll even cook dinner tonight. How's that?"

Jim knew the tactic.  Placate mother-hen Ellison and avoid a lecture.  Fine, he'd play along.  Hell, he'd use it to his advantage.  "Stir-fry, with chicken.  And make enough for three.  I'll invite Simon.  He's missed you lately."

"Yeah, like a bad case of jock itch."  Blair hopped up from the table and carried his plate to the sink, a triumphant smile playing at the edges of his mouth. He washed his dish, set it in the drainer, then headed for the bathroom.

Jim hid his own smile.  Gloat all you want, kid.  I'm getting a great dinner…and tomorrow I'll corner you and make you listen to my lecture anyway.  Jim finished his scone, carried his dishes to the sink, then returned to the living room to complete the task he had been working on earlier, before the newscast.

The 9mm had been cleaned and oiled.  He loaded it, gave it the once-over, then started for the stairs.  Blair passed him, turning at the sight of the gun.

"That's new."

"Uh-huh."  Jim climbed the stairs, noting that Blair had opted to remain waiting at the foot.

"Something I should know about?"

Jim shook his head, then realized that Blair could no longer see him.  "No, I just wanted a handy spare here at the loft."

"A handy spare?"

Jim place the gun in the drawer of his nightstand, then leaned over the balcony.  "In case I'm disarmed by some nefarious bad guy type.  It's happened before."  He turned to make his way back to the first level.

"So I've noticed."

"I heard that."

"I'm sure you did.  Hey man, I cannot tell a lie."

Jim burst out laughing, nearly stumbling as he descended the stairs.  Blair's feigned look of innocence only made him laugh harder.  He finally caught his breath.  "I want to make sure that I have a back-up…just in case."

Blair raised both hands.  "No argument here.  Do whatever you feel is necessary to defend hearth and home."  Blair picked up his bookbag and walked toward the front door.

"Maybe a pit bull," Jim continued.

"As long as he's on a thick leash."

"Maybe I should put you on a leash,"

Blair stopped halfway through the open door and seemed to consider this.  "Feed me well, take me for long walks, and let me lie on the furniture and it's a deal."

Jim made shooing gestures. "Out of here, Rover, before I decide to have you neutered."

Blair hurried out the door, calling over his shoulder, "Not funny, Ellison."  The loft door swung shut with a resounding slam.  Jim smiled and shook his head, grateful that, at least for a brief time, his partner's presence had lifted his spirits.

~~~~~~~~~~***************~~~~~~~~~~

Jim popped his head through Simon's doorway.  "Hey, if you're not busy tonight, you're invited to dinner."

"Great."  Simon closed the file before him and moved it aside.  "Daryl's spending the weekend with his cousin, so I'm all by my lonesome."  He sighed, and Jim smiled at the wistful look on his captain's face.  "You know, the weekend just isn't the same without a teenager underfoot."

"Well, by all means then, come on over.  Sandburg isn't so far removed.  You can use him as a surrogate."

"Oh, yeah," Simon rubbed his hands together.  "'Clean your plate, Sandburg.'  'Wash the dishes, Sandburg.'  'Go to bed, Sandburg.'"  He winked slyly at Jim.  "I think I'm going to enjoy myself."

"And Blair will probably be just as obedient as Daryl, too."  Jim watched as Simon's happy glow faded to hopeless dismay.

"Oh."

Jim chuckled.  "Dinner's at 5:30, 'Daddy.'"  He heard the crackling of paper and wasn't surprised when the paper wad smacked him in the back of his head.

"Don't even start that, Ellison!"

~~~~~~~~~~***************~~~~~~~~~~

Blair shifted the shopping bag into the crook of his left arm, unlocked the loft door, and slipped inside.  "Okay, got chicken, got veggies…I can do this, no problem.  Blair Sandburg, master chef."

He placed the unwieldy sack on the kitchen counter and turned to close the door.  As he reached for it, the door swung inward, narrowly missing his hand.  He jerked back quickly, more than a little alarmed as an intruder stepped into the loft.  An intruder carrying a large knife.

"Mind if I come in?"  The stranger grinned, reminding Blair of a wolverine he'd once encountered in the woods of northern Michigan.  The grad student stepped back, hands at his side, casting furtive glances at the knife.  It obviously wasn't for slicing vegetables.

"Whatever, man."  Blair retreated until he ran into the kitchen island.   The man kicked the door shut.  His gaze never left Blair, nor Blair's him.  He was nearly Jim's height, solidly built, with shaggy blond hair that brushed across grey eyes.  Blair's brain hoped that when it was all over, he'd be alive to give a description, but his gut was telling him otherwise.  He struggled to control his respiration--breathe in, breath out, find the center--determined that the man before him would not discern the fear steadily building within him.

"Look, man, if you want something, just take it."

"Thank you," the man mocked, bowing, his arm sweeping in an exaggerated arc.  "How generous!"  He advanced on Blair.  "Let's start with the cash."

 Unable to move further backwards, Blair slid to his left, the hard edge of the island firmly against the small of his back.  "Well, that could be a problem."

"Oh, I got no problems."  The man held the knife up, admiring the blade, then looked back at Blair.  "You, on the other hand, have a serious problem."

Shit!  Blair pictured the layout of the loft in his mind, afraid to look away from the stranger, but desperate for a way out.  Possibilities, but no guarantees.  Stalling was an option--Jim was due home any minute.  Oh yeah, Jim, now would be a great time for one of your at-the-last-minute rescues.

"Hey, man, I don't think you want to do this."  God, Sandburg, that's weak!

The man stopped and lowered the hand that held the knife.  He looked into the space to Blair's left as though in thought, then nodded his head.  "You know, you're right .  I think I'll turn myself in, serve my time, and then make a new start.  Maybe open a flower shop or one of those expresso joints."  The wolverine smile reappeared.  "Of course, this will be after I do a Benihana number on you."

So calm and sincere was the man's voice that his sudden lunge caught Blair off guard.  He  sidestepped just in time to avoid the blade on its downward swing, then broke left and scurried around the corner of the island, the man at his heels.  He felt a sharp pressure against his left shoulder and nearly fell, twisting violently to his right and slamming into the dining room table.  He saw that the man had lost his grip on the knife, heard it clatter to the floor, and realized with sickening clarity that it had found its mark.

The pain began to awaken in his shoulder, and he felt the warm blood as it soaked his shirt.  He righted himself and dashed toward his room, hoping to escape through the secondary exit.  The other man abruptly blocked his path, and Blair stopped short, his only plan thwarted. His attacker took a couple of swaggering steps toward him, a lopsided grin plastered to his face.

"Where ya goin', kid?  The fun's just beginning."

Blair shivered.  The eyes peering beneath the wisps of blond hair were void of emotion.  As he backed away, he was aware of one basic truth: the madman before him had to be the Slasher.  He knew beyond all doubt that this man was responsible for the brutal slayings depicted on the nightly news, the grisly murders Jim was investigating.  This was the Slasher, and he was victim number four.  Would Jim return home to find his partner's lifeless body cooling in his own blood?

No!  Fight!  Survive!  Live!  Spurred by these thoughts, Blair went on the offensive, and with a primal yell he launched himself into the larger man's stomach.  The unexpected attack was a success, and the former aggressor struck the floor with a thunderous crash.  Blair pummeled the man's midsection with his fists, making it impossible for his would-be murderer to catch his breath.  He heard the man's pained grunts, felt the killer's attempts to dislodge him, but Blair continued mercilessly.  His knew his life depended on it.

A sudden roll, and Blair found himself against the floor, flailing wildly to avoid being pinned by his breathless but enraged attacker.  He squirmed from beneath, skittering away like a crab.  His strength was failing, and he watched in dismay as the other man spotted the knife under the table and sprang to retrieve it.  Blair struggled to his feet and managed to wobble to the foot of the stairs.  He knew that he'd never make it past the other man; he would easily cut him to shreds before Blair reached the back door.

Survival instincts kicked into overdrive, and his brain issued a single command: CLIMB!  Using the banister for leverage, Blair ascended the stairs, the throb in his shoulder surpassed only by his desire to live.

Hurry, Jim!  God, please hurry!  Below him he heard maniacal laughter.

"What?  You think that's gonna save you?"  Blair heard the slow, steady footfalls as they neared the stairs.  "You can run, but you can't hide."

Blair cleared the landing.  He was weakening, his mind and vision foggy, his own heartbeat pounding in his ears as he desperately sought some means of self-defense. A distant memory knocked at his brain, and he found himself at Jim's nightstand, reaching in, and feltf the cold metal against his own clammy palm.  He wavered, nearly fell, then regained his footing.  He tottered to the wall opposite the stairs, intending to make his final stand, but soon realized that standing was no longer an option.  He slid down the wall, knees bent near to his chest, the gun gripped in his right hand, cradled on his kneecaps.  A rhythmic plunk--plunk heralded the approach of the killer. Blair saw the man's form, silhouetted against the light pouring through the balcony doors, slowly rise above the landing.

The attacker paused momentarily, then shook his head.  "You think you're gonna do me, kid?"  Blair felt the man's eyes seizing up the situation, saw a hard glint settle within them.  The killer took a step closer.

Blair lifted the gun and aimed it as best he could.  "Don't come any closer."

The man hesitated, then took another step.

"I swear to God, I'll shoot!"

Step.

"Please man, just go!"

Step.

"NO!"

Step…

Blair saw his attacker falter, stagger, try to keep his balance, then fall backwards down the stairs.  He expected to hear the man's body as it impacted the stairs, but the sound of his own blood rushing through his body had been joined with an odd, muffled ringing, and his ears felt plugged.  He caught the scent of carbon, and noticed a bluish haze had descended in front of his eyes.  Reality slammed into his brain, and his body responded, shaking with vicious force.

He had pulled the trigger.

NONONONONONONONONONO!

His waning consciousness found shelter in a dark corner, far from the invading truth.  It sat there, well hidden, shutting out the world, wrapped in a comforter of disbelief.

Blair Sandburg collapsed within himself.

~~~~~~~~~~***************~~~~~~~~~~

Jim's truck crawled through rush hour traffic.  He strummed impatient fingers on the steering wheel, then forced himself to take a deep, calming breath.  His previous experience with road rage had served to make him more aware of the earliest signs of his increasing frustration level.  Besides, he mused, it wouldn't do to get home too early.  Sandburg will most likely be behind schedule.

Jim hadn't been fooled.  Odds were that Blair hadn't left the university grounds before 2 p.m.  His partner, so focused and single-minded about Jim and his sentinel abilities, was easily distracted when it came to his own life.  Probably spent the afternoon chasing that new TA…what's her name…Mindy?  Mandy?  Missy?

Jim exited the freeway, stopping at the light at the bottom of the ramp.  Glancing into his rearview mirror and using the advantage of sentinel sight, he could just make out Simon's car near the end of the long line of waiting motorists behind him.  Jim smiled, remembering their earlier conversation.

Jim admired his partner's youthfulness, but he wasn't always appreciative of its lesser qualities.  Blair's recklessness had been at the center of many a "discussion," and he questioned his partner's willingness to throw himself into situations for which he had no training.  He did his best to curb Blair's impulsiveness, but more often than not his efforts were in vain. He blamed most of it on his friend's unconventional childhood.  Naomi Sandburg had bounced from place to place, and from man to man.  She had taken the "love 'em and leave 'em" philosophy to heart, moving at a moment's notice, dragging her baby boy along for the ride.  The result was a young man who seemed as rootless as dandelion fluff.  Until…

Jim maneuvered his truck around a motorist trying to make a left turn from the right lane, glaring at the oblivious driver but maintaining his cool.  Once upon a time he wouldn't have been nearly as congenial.  He'd built so thick a fortress around his heart that not even the woman he'd promised to love until death could break though its walls.  He was the stone man.  Until…

Until he had opened his home to a young man in need of a place to live, and his heart to a lonely soul searching for purpose; until Blair had realized that that it was all about friendship and had decided to stay; until both had acknowledged that an unbreakable bond existed between them, a brotherhood borne of something stronger than blood.

Jim shook himself from his reverie, smiling. Great, Chief.  Now you've got me waxing poetic.  He once again concerned himself with the task of moving through traffic.  It took him an extra second to realize that his police radio had exploded to life.

"…units, shots fired, 800 block of Prospect.  Any available units, please respond."

Jim immediately switched on his lights and siren, startling the drivers around him.  He watched as they scrambled to clear a path, steeling himself against the desperation that urged him to drive over those who did not move fast enough to suit him.  He caught the flash of police lights in his rearview mirror and knew that Simon would be on his tail in a matter of seconds.  He trusted the captain to call in, and was rewarded by the man's booming voice as it blared across the radio.  His flank covered, Jim thought only of getting home, alternately recognizing and denying that Blair was at the center of this crisis.

~~~~~~~~~~***************~~~~~~~~~~

Jim hopped from his truck and pushed through the small crowd that had gathered in front of 852 Prospect.  He opened his hearing wide, then instantly regretted it as the captain bellowed at the gawkers, instructing them to seek shelter.  Sirens in the distance alerted Jim to the backup's impending arrival, so he focused solely on getting to his partner.  Bounding up the stairs two and three at a time, Jim once again relied on his phenomenal hearing.

There!  So familiar, that heartbeat.  It was thready, fast, but unmistakably Blair's.  Jim approached the door cautiously but could detect no evidence of anyone but his partner.  He lowered his hearing into the normal range, then hiked his sense of smell.  Some notable odor danced fleetingly across his brain.  He narrowed the input, nearly panicking when he identified it.

Blood.  Lots of blood.

It took every ounce of Jim's professional training not to fling the door open, to hell with the consequences.  Instead, he slowly turned the knob, cracked the door open a sliver, then widened the space further as he eased himself through.  He was vaguely aware that Simon was creeping up behind him.  Jim allowed his eyes to follow his nose.  Both came to rest on the very still, very dead body that lay in a crumpled heap at the bottom of the stairs.  The man's eyes were open, sightless.  Jim didn't need a coroner to tell him the cause of death: the two holes in his chest still oozed blood.

Jim knew with dread certainty who had killed the man.  He moved toward the stairway as if in a trance.  Oh God, Chief!  What happened?  He could hear that precious heartbeat; he could smell blood mixed with sweat.  He started up the stairs, numbness spreading with each step.

"Jim?"  Simon's whisper brought him to a halt in mid-step.  Jim breathed deeply, determined to maintain his composure.  Where's that damn "center" Sandburg's always harping about?

"It's okay, Simon.  He's alive.  He needs me."

"I'll call for an ambulance.  And a coroner."

Jim nodded, then took two more steps, his eyes clearing the landing.  The sight which greeted him broke his heart.

Blair sat facing the stairs, Jim's 9mm in his right hand, pointed the same direction.  His face was ashen, his body wracked by convulsive shivering.  Shock.  Blood streaked the wall above him, a red-black trail that disappeared behind his left shoulder.  His shirt and left sleeve were the same tell-tale shade of crimson.  His eyes…sweet Lord, his eyes…were pinpricks, staring, and within them Jim saw no light of recognition or acknowledgement of his presence.  Jim continued forward.

"Blair?"

Silence.

"Buddy, can you hear me?"

Silence.

"Chief, I need you to lower the gun."

A flicker.  Thank God!

"Come on, Chief.  Put it down on the floor."

Another flicker, and a finger tightened on the trigger.

"Blair," softer now, "I'm here.  I want to help you, but you've got to put the gun down."

A noticeable relaxing, then the hand began to droop.

"That's it, kiddo.  Put it on the floor.  I'm right here.  It's okay now."

Lower, lower still, then contact.  Jim crossed the distance between them in two steps, gingerly picked up the gun, and deposited it on the dresser.  He opened a drawer, grabbed a tee shirt, then returned to his partner, dropping to the floor beside him.

"I've got to see the damage, Chief." Jim heard the ambulance turn the corner.  "The paramedics will be here in a sec, but I don't want to wait."

Jim tugged Blair's shuddering frame forward, meeting no resistance.  He touched the wound with feather-light fingers.  Though it did not appear very deep, it had bled profusely, and Jim worried about internal damage.

"This is gonna hurt, buddy, but I've got to stop the bleeding."  Jim placed the shirt against the wound and pressed firmly.  He waited for some type of reaction, a groan, a gasp, a cry, but Blair remained silent.
 The stairs creaked as Simon made his way up to Jim's room.  The sentinel heard his captain's sharp intake of breath, felt the man's gaze upon his partner.  The need to shelter and protect flooded Jim's being, and he pulled Blair into his arms, clutching the pliant body against his chest, Blair's head beneath his chin.

"I'll get the paramedics."

Jim heard Simon retreat back down the stairs.  He'd thank him later.  For now, there was something more important to attend to.  Jim began to rock ever so slowly, offering a litany of comfort in hushed tones.

"I'm here, Chief.  I'm right here…"

~~~~~~~~~~***************~~~~~~~~~~

A wailing child.  A ticking clock.  A squeaking gurney.  The "ding" of an arriving elevator.  A ticking clock.  The slam of a filing cabinet.  "You've got mail!"  A woman blowing her nose.  The drone of a television.  A ticking clock.  Tick.  Tick.  Tick.

"Jim?"

Tick.  Tick.

"Ellison, answer me."

Tick.  Tick.

PAIN!

"Damn it!"  Jim bolted from the waiting room chair, glaring at his captain while rubbing his forearm.  "You pinched me!"

Simon shrugged.  "You were ignoring me."

"I was listening."

"You were starting to zone."

"No, I wasn't."

"You were staring into space with that vapid look on your face."

"I was thinking."

"You were drooling."

Jim patted the skin around his mouth.  He saw the smug smile on Simon's face and stilled his hand.  "Liar."  He dropped into his seat once more.

A rumbling chuckle erupted from  Simon's chest.  Jim felt a hand on his shoulder.  "He'll be okay, Jim.  The paramedics said his vitals were good."

"He'll recover, sir," Jim said, taking to his feet again, but with the tired movements of an old man.  He paced a moment, then halted, facing the wall.  He raised his hand to his forehead and rubbed, wishing he could erase the headache growing behind his eyes.  Hell, I wish I could erase the whole day…start it over…maybe drag the kid with me instead of…  "He'll recover," he repeated, "but I don't know if he'll ever be okay again."

Jim could feel Simon moving up behind him.  He paced again, moving away from any comfort his captain might offer.  Well intended, but not necessary.  He was fine.  So what if his heart had been ripped to shreds, the tattered pieces scattered about to be ground underfoot?  So what if his mind was filled with the images of his partner, staring vacantly, bleeding, gripping a gun--his gun--in his trembling hand?  So what if he couldn't get past the knowledge that his best friend, a gentle spirit with a heart of gold, had pulled the trigger, had fired the gun that…

He was fine.

~~~~~~~~~~***************~~~~~~~~~~

Detective James Ellison was not fine. Oh, he could avert his eyes, clench his jaw, and pace all he wanted.   Simon Banks had spent too many years reading people to be fooled by avoidance tactics.  His best detective--his friend--was on the edge, and the one person who could bring him back was lying on a gurney somewhere with a knife wound in his back.  Simon had to do something.

"Look, why don't I see if I can get some information from someone?  You stay put and…" he allowed his voice to trail off as a doctor, with what Simon could only call remarkable timing, came into the waiting area.  He stopped before the two men and offered his hand to Jim.

"Detective Ellison?"  Simon looked at Jim's face, and saw his jaw tighten momentarily before he took the proffered hand and shook it.  The doctor smiled.  An encouraging sign.

"I'm Doctor Scott."

"How is he?"

Ah, yes, Mr. Cut-the-Bullshit Ellison.  Well, who can blame him?  The doctor appeared to take it in stride, his smile widening.

"Mr. Sandburg will be fine.  Our biggest concern was blood loss, and that's been taken care of.  The wound itself was not life threatening."  The doctor glanced at his chart, then back to Jim.  "The knife entered the upper back and impacted with the scapula, or shoulder blade.  It pierced the trapezius muscle, but that's been repaired.  His scapula kept the knife from traveling too deeply into the body.  His movements will be restricted for awhile, but there was no permanent damage."

"When can he go home?"

"We'll keep him overnight, but he'll be free to leave in the morning.  His dressing should be changed as needed.  There will be a scar," the doctor smile metamorphosed into a wry grin, "but this can always be used to one's advantage when looking for sympathy from the opposite sex."

Simon snorted, then released the captive laugh as he saw Jim's jaw slacken, his lips spread into a knowing smile.  Simon extended his hand, grasping the doctor's and pumping it heartily.  "Doctor Scott, I take it you've met Sandburg before?"

"Um, well, not really," the doctor stammered, flushing, "but if you ask my wife she can tell you an interesting story about a scar I have on my right thigh."

Simon felt the tension relax considerably as the three shared a friendly moment.  When Jim spoke, Simon noticed the earlier gruffness had dissipated.

"I want to see him…please."

The doctor nodded.  "We'll be transferring him to a room soon.  I'll send someone for you once he's settled."

Simon watched as the doctor sauntered off down the hall.  He turned to speak to Jim and found that the detective had returned to his chair, his head cradled in his hands.  Simon stood beside him and placed his hand on Jim's back.

"You heard the doctor, Jim.  Sandburg will be okay.  He'll make a complete recovery.  It's over, Jim."

"No, Simon," Jim countered, his anguished voice tearing into Simon's heart, "it's just begun."

~~~~~~~~~~***************~~~~~~~~~~

Still.  It was an adjective Jim rarely applied to his partner.  Even in deepest concentration some part of the kid was usually in motion: a bouncing leg, a pen twirled between fingers, lips mouthing the words he read.  Blair Sandburg was pure energy encased in flesh and bone.

That was why Jim found his friend's current inactivity so difficult to accept.  It was unnerving and unnatural.
 He moved a chair from the corner, placed it beside Blair's bed, and sat.  The younger man seemed to be sleeping peacefully, but Jim would have preferred a conscious partner.  He needed to know that the kid was okay.  He wanted to hear his voice. Come on, buddy.  Tell me one of those stories about some weird mating ritual practiced by some tribe living on some island I've never heard of.  I'll really pay attention this time.  I promise.

Stop it! Jim chastised himself.  Sandburg needed rest and time to heal.  While he slept the pain was kept at bay.  While he slept he didn't have to remember.  He'd wake soon enough, and then…

Jim reached through the bed rail and took Blair's right hand in his own.  It felt far too cool for his liking.  He tugged at the blanket covering his sleeping partner, tucking it around him more securely.  Satisfied, he once again took Blair's hand into his own.  He closed his eyes and listened to the strong, steady heartbeat, the lifeline to his own sanity.

~~~~~~~~~~***************~~~~~~~~~~

He ran furiously, dashing across the street and into the building.  It was behind him, closing in.  He could hear it as it repeated itself over and over.

"You can run, but you can't hide."

He looked around frantically but saw nothing.  His heart pounded, threatening to explode within his chest as exhaustion and terror took their toll.  Still he pressed on.  He mounted the stairs, seeking the safety he knew existed in the loft.  Once there, he could call for help.  Jim would come.  Jim always came.

He topped the stairs and stumbled toward the door.  His shoulder was on fire, but he couldn't spare time to check it out.  It was closer.  He had to get inside.  Just a few more steps…yes!  He grabbed the doorknob with both hands, only to have them slip from it.  A moist warmth sabotaged his efforts.  He glanced down…and felt bile rise in his throat.

Blood covered his hands, dripped from his fingertips, pooled at his feet.  He screamed.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Jim's eyeslids popped open and were immediately drawn to Blair.  The heart that only minutes before had beaten with a soothing rhythm now raced wildly.  The hand cradled within his own flexed and twitched erratically.  Jim recognized the signs of a nightmare--he'd awakened Blair from them in the past.  He gently released the hand, rose to his feet, lowered the bed rail, and sat beside his stirring partner.  He took Blair's hand once more and placed his free hand at the smaller man's waist, hoping to ease him into consciousness.

"Blair?" Jim whispered.  "Chief, can you hear me?"  The heartbeat seemed to escalate to a crescendo.  "Come on, Chief," he urged, more insistent.  "You need to wake up, now.  It's okay, just focus on…"

A strangled scream exploded from Blair's throat, and Jim barely caught him as he erupted from the bed. He wrapped his arms tightly around the struggling form, holding tightly as placed his lips against Blair's ear speaking soft words of comfort and reassurance in an attempt to calm the young man's terror.  He rocked them both almost imperceptibly and lightly rubbed Blair's back, careful to avoid the wounded area.  Blair alternately struggled against Jim's arms while clinging desperately to his shirt, clutching it in his fists.  Jim lost track of time and place, his entire world reduced to the two of them at that moment.  His efforts were finally rewarded as the tensed form relaxed and leaned into the embrace.

"Jim?"

Jim's offered a silent prayer of gratitude at the sound of the breathless, slightly groggy voice, then suppressed the rough emotion in his own.  "I'm here, buddy."  He lowered Blair back to the bed, then pulled back to look into the familiar blue eyes.  Though heavy lidded, Jim doubted that they would close anytime soon: exhaustion was outnumbered by confusion, fear, and the indomitable Sandburg curiosity.

He brushed a stray curl away from Blair's cheek, then rested his palm where the hair had previously lain. "How're you doing?"

Blair shrugged, then winced.  "My shoulder hurts."

Jim nodded, knowing that his silence was only delaying the inevitable, but loathe to remind Blair of the day's terrible events.  He continued to gaze into his partner's eyes and knew the exact moment when the memories began to filter back into his muddled mind.  The confusion and curiosity faded, leaving only fear and its new partners, horror and regret.  When Blair spoke, Jim nearly resorted to sentinel hearing to pick up his words.

"Is he dead?"

Three tiny words, only one syllable each, yet they, along with their answer, had the power to change lives.  Jim opened his mouth to speak, but his voice failed him.  He could only respond by caressing the cheek beneath his hand with his thumb.  Blair's face paled.  Message received.

Jim prepared for an emotional outburst: cries of denial, screams of heartbreak, obscenities hurled in rage.  The last thing he expected was calm acceptance.

Blair simply nodded.  No tears, no self-recrimination, nothing.  Just a nod.

Jim found his voice again.  "Blair…"

"It's okay, Jim."

"Chief, I'm sorry."

"Me, too."  Jim heard the odd detachment in Blair's tone, a faraway lilt that sounded otherworldly.  He sensed that his friend was with him in body, but that his spirit had taken flight, settling somewhere distant and safe.

"We need to talk about this, Chief."  Jim had no desire to rehash the shooting, but he was afraid that if he didn't rein Blair in, the young man would drift so far away that he might never return.

"He followed me into the loft," Blair stated in a near monotone.  "He pulled a knife, he tried to kill me, I ran upstairs, I got the…he wouldn't stop…I shot."  Jim detected a break in Blair's voice, but his partner's face was an emotionless mask.

Jim tried to arrange his thoughts.  So much to say.  Where do I begin?  A noise in the hallway drew his attention.  Dr. Scott was making his rounds.  A quiet knock on the door announced his arrival.  Jim turned back to Blair.

"The doctor's here to check on you."  He gave the cheek a final pat then slid from the bed.  The door opened slightly and Dr. Scott peered around the edge.  He seemed pleased to discover his patient awake, and after a quick smile at Jim he addressed his patient.

"Hello, Mr. Sandburg. I'm Dr. Scott.  How are you feeling?"

"Better.  Can I go home now?"

The doctor raised an eyebrow and turned to Jim.  "Direct, isn't he?"

Jim's smothered a laugh.  "When he wants to be."  He stepped toward the door.  "I'm going to make myself scarce for a few minutes while you check him out."  He looked directly at Blair.  "I'll be back in a soon."  He walked out the door without waiting for any replies.

The lights in the hallway were a sharp contrast to the dimness of Blair's room, and Jim winced as his pupils adjusted automatically.  He rounded a corner and entered the public restroom.  It was empty, not surprising at this late hour, and for that Jim was grateful.  He splashed water on his face, rubbing his tired eyes and aching temples.

Without warning it all rushed to the surface and he spun away from the sink, splattering water onto the mirror.  He began to shake, a combination of anger, helplessness, and stress.

Damn it to hell!  How could this have happened?  Why did this happen?  Why him?  Jim pulled up in front of a stall door and saw the shadowy outline of his reflection.  He released the hours of pent-up rage in a single swing of his fist, slamming the door into the stall's dividing partition, dislodging it from one of its hinges.  The pain in his fist brought him to his senses, and he fell back a few steps.  He took a deep breath, trying to center himself, and forced himself to regain control.  As the emotions receded he felt his strength drain.  God, he was spent!

He returned to the sink and placed his hand under the cool water.  His knuckles were reddening and would undoubtedly bruise.  He dried his hands and face, took another deep breath, and walked back into the hallway.  He'd deal with his own feelings later.  Right now Blair needed him.

~~~~~~~~~~***************~~~~~~~~~~

Simon pushed open the door and hesitantly entered the room.  He stood by the entryway for a moment, taking in the scene before him.  Jim sat motionless at Blair's bedside, his hand encircling the younger man's wrist.  Both men's eyes were closed, but Simon knew from previous experience that Jim was not sleeping.  He hated to disturb this moment of tranquility, especially after such a traumatic day.  If he could just quietly squeeze back through the door…

"Simon?"

Damn. Tired blue eyes gazed at him expectantly.  "Hey, Jim."  He took his hand from the door and joined his detective by the bed, gaining a better view of Blair.  The kid was a bit pale, but he didn't look too bad, considering what he'd been through.  "How is he?"

Jim rubbed his forehead with his free hand, effectively covering his eyes.  It was a tactic with which Simon was familiar.  Jim used it to hide his emotions when they ran too close to the surface.  It was a technique rarely employed during Jim's earliest years with the police force, a time when his coworkers believed his emotional pool shallow, containing only anger and frustration.  They had discovered otherwise, and Jim had begun to rely on his guarding technique more frequently since the arrival of one Blair Sandburg in his life.  His new partner had a talent for engaging Jim's emotions--for better or worse-- and had helped the detective recover his nearly-lost humanity.  Simon had watched in amazement as Jim transformed from a hard-nosed loner who held even his closest friends at arm's length to the tolerant (for Jim), outgoing (for Jim), affectionate (for Jim) man that he was now.  But one risked much for taking another to heart, and Simon knew that Jim was paying the price for friendship.

Jim finally lowered his hand.  "He woke up earlier."

Simon nodded, waited for Jim to fill him in, then prodded when he failed to do so.  "Did he remember anything?"

"Everything."  The reply was a near whisper.  Simon exercised patience this time.  "He said the guy tried to kill him.  It was self-defense."

"We figured as much.  The official report won't be issued until the final tests are completed, but it appears that the guy was our Slasher."  Simon watched Jim's face for some kind of reaction.  The detective's jaw clenched and his weary eyes hardened.  "His name was Jay Meeks.  He's originally from Seattle, where he managed to acquire quite a reputation and a rap sheet. He's only been in Cascade for a couple of months.  He lives…lived with his older brother.  Both are ex-cons."  Simon rested his hand on Jim's shoulder.  "The investigating team will clear him, Jim," Simon continued.  "It was a righteous kill."

"There's nothing 'righteous' about this," Jim spat out.  "It's horrible, tragic.  Righteous doesn't even enter the picture."

"Jim, you know what they mean."

"I know, sir."  Jim's grasp on Blair's wrist tightened.  "He's going to have problems with this, Simon.  Hell, I'm having problems with it.  God, in our own home…with my gun!"  Jim released his hold on his partner and bolted from the chair.

Simon jumped aside, preventing a collision.  He'd seen this mood before and knew it was best to find a safe, neutral corner in which to await the return to calm.  Jim needed to pace, to rage, to vent.  Normally the man could squelch any emotions that tried to break through to the surface, diverting them into the concrete dam he'd constructed inside his heart.  But there were small cracks in the dam, fissures forced open by the determined efforts of a certain young anthropologist who had succeed where all others, including Jim's ex-wife, had failed.  And right now the dam was in danger of collapse as waves of anger, regret, and anxiety slammed against its restraining wall.

Simon observed Jim's every motion and change in facial expression.  Blue eyes burned, fists clenched, and lips thinned to a single line as he warred with his demons. His feet threatened to wear a path between the window and the wall.  Simon heard a deep intake of air…probably trying to find that "center" that Blair's always talking about…and then it was over as quickly as it began.  Jim stood by the window, staring off into the distance.  Simon wondered if what he saw was external or internal, a view or a memory.

"Did he ever tell you that I once tried to convince him to carry a gun?"

Simon was startled from his musings.  "When was this?"

"The night Danny Choi was killed.  I figured we be safer that way.  Additional back up, you know?"  Jim laughed, a sound that was anything but humorous.  "'No way, man.  I'm not goin' around packin'.'  He sounded like he'd just stepped out of an Eastwood movie."

"What happened?"

"I dropped it.  I wasn't entirely comfortable with it at first, but after awhile it was obvious that the kid could defend himself pretty well with his own arsenal: words."  Jim's eyes met Simon's, sharing knowledge and a smile.  Blair's gift for gab was legendary, and Simon had been on the receiving end of an all-out Sandburg assault on more than one occasion.  Simon watched as Jim's smile slowly retreated, leaving anguish in its wake.  "Well, I got my wish, didn't I?"

"Jim, no one wanted or expected this, least of all you.  I hate to sound cliched, but this really was 'one of those things,' some cosmic accident that shouldn't have happened, but did."

Jim nodded in reply.  Simon saw the fire in his blue eyes cool to a caressing warmth as they came to rest on the still form lying on the bed.  Jim returned to the chair and took Blair's hand into one of his own, tenderly stroking the sleeping man's forearm with the other.  The strained expression on Jim's face--tight lips, clenched jaw, and pensive eyes--guillotined further conversation, so Simon turned to leave.

At the door he paused.  "I'll call later to see how he's doing."  Jim did not respond, and Simon slipped out.  He placed his hand on the closing door, an unnecessary gesture to ensure its silent contact with the jamb.

To see how both of you are doing.

~~~~~~~~~~***************~~~~~~~~~~

If I was not so weak, if I was not so cold,
If I was not so scared of being broken, growing old,
I would be…I would be…frail.

Blair aimed the remote and muted the stereo system.  There was that noise again.  He glanced around, but everything was as it should be.  He waited a moment, listening.  Nothing.   He shrugged and pointed the remote.

"Why?"

Blair scrambled from the loveseat and whirled around.  The figure stood by the door, its features lost in the shadows.  "Wh--who are you?"

He heard a wet, bubbling cackle.  The figure stepped from the darkness, and Blair gasped at the sight of the familiar form.  The ragged hair, the grey eyes…the two bullet holes from which blood freely poured.  The dead man ran his hands over his chest, then held the bloody appendages out to Blair.

"Why'd you do it?  Why'd you kill me?"

Blair backed away, skirting the loveseat, then the sofa.  He couldn't take his eyes from the ghastly apparition.  This couldn't be happening!  He's dead!  This isn't real!

Real or not, the THING was getting closer.

Blair cleared the sofa.   If he could make it to his bedroom, he could shove something against the French doors.  Maybe he'd have enough time to get down the back stairs.

NOW!  Blair fled across the living room, not daring to look over his shoulder, and propelled himself into his bedroom.  He giggled, nearly hysterical with the thrill of possible success.  He flung the doors shut behind him. Grabbing the trunk at the foot of his bed, he heaved it against the door.  Yes!

He spun on his heel…and tumbled against the embodiment of his worst nightmare.  He put his hands out to keep from falling and ended up clutching the man's shirt.  He wrenched back, but not before the warm, sticky blood coated his hands.  Oh shit!  He stared, transfixed in horror.  The dead man's chest rattled as he laughed.  "You can run…"

In the distance, someone was screaming.

Blair awakened as his screams surrounded him, echoing off the loft's walls.  He clambered off the sofa, ignoring the burning twinge in his upper back.   Eyes darted left and right, seeking the phantom of his sleep, but he was alone. A quick glance at the door revealed no unwanted guests, bloody or otherwise.  Something clicked behind him, and his stomach stuck in his throat.  He turned, expecting the worst.  The stereo system, finishing its programmed selections, was powering down.

Blair raised his trembling hands to his face. "Just a dream, Sandburg," he said aloud, drawing comfort from the sound of his own voice.  "Get a grip."  He breathed deeply, in through his nostrils, out through his mouth.  Find the center.  Focus, and find the center.

It wasn't working.  His heart raced, his hands shook, and either Mrs. Gunderson across the hall had taken up the castanets, or his teeth were chattering to beat the band.  "Tea.  I need tea."

He padded across the floor to the kitchen, the slap of his feet further dispelling the oppressive silence.  He set the kettle on the stove with more force than necessary, soothed by the clang of metal.  He continued his preparations noisily, welcoming the various sounds like dear friends. He smacked at a couple of the pots hanging above the stove, and for a moment considered grabbing a spoon and performing an impromptu drum solo.  His eyes stared back at him from the shiny copper bottom of a saucepan.

Three days.  It had been three days since…Blair closed his eyes against the images only to see the face of his dream-monster.  He reopened his eyes, willing his mind to shut down, to function on automatic.  He didn't want to think or feel.  That would be the only way he'd make it--the only way he'd convince Jim he could make it.

He'd given his statement Saturday, before leaving the hospital, and Jim had brought him straight to the loft after his release.  His friend had been in full-blown Mother Ellison mode, fetching pillows and books and meals.  Blair's pain meds had left him in no condition to argue, though he'd firmly declined Jim's offer of assistance when he needed to answer the call of nature.  Even then, Blair had the sneaking suspicion that Jim had simply employed sentinel hearing, a type of audio hovering.

He didn't mind it really.  He understood Jim's need to reassure himself that his partner was indeed alive and well, and he had passively submitted as Jim changed his dressing and checked for infection.  It seemed to give him peace of mind, this simple task, and Blair wanted Jim at peace.  So he gladly endured the occasional "how are you feeling," the hand placed against his forehead, the reminders to take his medication, and--since Jim had returned to the station that morning--the frequent check-ins.  No, he wasn't bothered by Jim's attendance to his physical needs, but the older man's repeated attempts to discern his mental condition…that was another matter.

He was fine.  Wasn't he fine?  He wasn't sitting in a corner, keening like a banshee.  He wasn't trussed up in a straitjacket, slobbering and mumbling about conspiracies.  He wasn't catatonic, staring vacantly at the walls, unaware of the world surrounding him.  Okay, yes, he'd had a few nightmares, or daymares, or whatever the hell you called these forays into the deepest recesses of the mind, the same place where lived the closet monsters and bogeymen of one's childhood.  But bad dreams were to be expected.

Blair had learned to spot the signals.  From the corner of his eye he'd catch Jim with "that look" on his face: concerned eyes, their frosty color unable to mask the warmth of the friendship residing there, and the sweet, sad smile that silently spoke volumes of the heart within.  It was the look that always preceded, "Chief, I think we should talk about this."

There's nothing to talk about, Blair would say.  I'm fine.  Jim would try another tack, and Blair would try to change the topic.  Jim would persist, and Blair would refuse.  Finally, when Blair was so frustrated he could barely speak, Jim would relent, but Blair knew it was a temporary victory.  Jim Ellison would never give up, not when he felt his friend's well being was at stake.  Blair wished he could make Jim see that the battle was useless and needless.  He really was fine.

Steam set the kettle to rumbling, and Blair removed it from the stove.  He poured it into his cup and over the spoon infuser.  Lemon ginger, the perfect pick-me-up.  He'd drink his tea and restart the CD player...or maybe watch a little television...or maybe he'd do both.  They would fill in one another's lapses so he'd never have to worry about the quiet.  Maybe the noise would keep him awake this time, and in doing so, would keep IT away.  IT only appeared when he slept, though sometimes he could feel ITS presence while wide awake.

He removed the infuser, added a dollop of honey, stirred, then turned on the cold water faucet.  He added just enough to slightly cool the tea, sipping to check its temperature.  Perfect.

He was fine.  Everything was fine.

A hand gripped his right shoulder, freezing his blood, his muscles, his brain.  IT was behind him.
The cup slipped from his hand, and the sound of the exploding ceramic ripped through his consciousness, releasing him from his pseudo-stasis.  He tried to run but instead slipped in the splattered tea, fell against the counter, and slumped to the floor.

The figure loomed over him.  Hands reached for him, caught him, lifted him.  IT was moving its lips, saying something.

"You can run…"

"…come on, buddy.  Snap out of it.  God, Chief, I'm sorry."

Blair focused on the figure, the face, the eyes, the feel of the strong hands encompassing his arms.  "Jim?"  The eyes closed momentarily, and when they opened again Blair saw that relief had replaced fear.

"Yeah, it's me."  Jim helped him to stand on his own, but the hands remained on his arms.  "I stopped by to check on you, see if you needed anything.  I called to you when I walked in, but I guess you didn't hear me."  Jim removed his hands and took a step back.  "I'm sorry, Blair.  I didn't mean to scare you like that."

Blair looked down at the mess on the floor, effectively shielding his eyes.  Jim had seen too much already.  "I was just lost in thought, you know?"  He knelt down and began to pick up pieces of ceramic.  "I hope you weren't too attached to that mug."

A hand grasped his, stilling it.  "Leave it.  I'll take care of it."

Blair shook his head.  "It's okay, Jim.  I'll just get the larger pieces, then…"

"I'll take care of it, Chief.  Why don't you go over…"

"No!"  Blair closed his fingers around the few pieces he had collected and wrestled the fist from Jim's hand.  "I can clean up my own messes!"

"Blair…"

"I'll do it myself!"

"Damn it, Sandburg, give me your hand!"

Shocked motionless by Jim's sudden change in tone, Blair allowed his arm to be captured and the fingers pried open.  He heard Jim's intake of breath through his teeth and followed his track of vision to see its cause.

Blood.

On his hand.

Blair watched as Jim gently removed the pieces of the broken mug from his hand.  The moment his hand was empty, he rose to his feet and walked purposefully toward the bathroom.  He heard Jim's voice behind him but didn't bother to answer.  He shut the door behind him, locked it, dropped to his knees, and vomited the meager contents of his stomach into the toilet bowl.

~~~~~~~~~~***************~~~~~~~~~~

Jim stared at the closed door, his brain churning as it tried to apply some sort of logic to the events of the previous moments.  He wanted nothing more than to go to Blair, to help in what ever capacity possible, to get his partner to open up to him.  But he had promised himself that he would not force Blair into a corner on this one, and the sound of the lock catching sent an unmistakable message: no admittance.

If it came down to the Blair's safety, he knew the bathroom door was a removable obstacle.  A key, a screwdriver, or even a well-placed kick, and the two-inch-thick slab of wood that stood between him and his friend would be gone.  But how could he break down an invisible door?  How could he gain entrance to a heart locked behind so formidable a barrier?

As the retching sounds ceased, Jim tentatively approached the bathroom.  He stood listening, waiting for some signal.  Finally, he could wait no longer.  "Chief?  Are you okay?"

Jim heard the rustle of cloth as Blair moved, followed by the flush of the toilet.  "I'm fine, Jim.  I'll be out in a minute."

Jim sighed and rested his head against the door.  Don't do this, Chief.  Talk to me.  Let me help.   From behind the door came typical noises: a faucet turned, running water, the swooshing of liquid swirling between teeth.  No more words.

Jim returned to the kitchen.  He felt old and tired.  He looked at the ceramic bits littering the floor.

Broken apart.

Shattered beyond repair.

He looked back toward the bathroom door, still closed, and offered a silent prayer of denial.

~~~~~~~~~~***************~~~~~~~~~~

Danny Meeks slumped at his kitchen table, a bottle of warm beer in one hand and a photograph in the other.  He took a swig, swished the bitter liquid around in his mouth, and swallowed.  He'd never really developed a liking for beer but drank from habit and the pleasant buzz it produced.  He wanted that buzz, needed it to survive the next few minutes.

He finished the beer then reached across the table, grabbed his phone, and dialed from memory.  He almost hoped there would be no answer but knew from experience that she, at least, would be there.

"Hello?"

"Mom, it's Danny."  He could hear her breathe across the miles, a raspy sound, pregnant with expectation.  "They'll release Jay's body sometime tomorrow."

Breathing.

"I'll make sure he gets home, Mom."

Breathing.

"Have you contacted someone about…the arrangements?"

Breathing.

"You know, the funeral home and--"

"Your father is seeing to it now."  Her voice sounded cool and clipped.

"Well, call when you know something."

"Aren't you coming with him?"  Ah, there was that sharp, reproachful tone he'd been expecting.  Death, taxes, and Mom.

"No, Mom.  I've got things to take care of."

"Of course you do."

"I'll see you soon."

Breathing.

"Bye, Mom."

Click.

He dropped the phone back to the table.  Nothing ever changed.  He could hear the accusation in her voice, the verbal equivalent of a finger poking him in the chest.

This is your fault.

Of course it was.  He was the older brother.  He'd been the first to commit a crime, the first to get arrested, the first to go to prison.  He'd been the first, and baby brother Jay had followed his example.

His eyes were drawn to the photograph in his hand.  An earlier time.  A happier time.  It had been taken at the lake, after hours of fishing, swimming, canoeing, and a thousand other things that young boys do to fill their endless summer days.  They stood in front of the cabin, smiling, their arms across each other's shoulders, waiting patiently for the person behind the camera…Mom? Dad?…to center it just perfectly.

That was the Before time.

Before he'd boosted his first car.  Before he'd held up a convenience store at gunpoint.  Before he'd spent seven years of his life inside a 12x12 cell.  Before he'd realized that you could bypass death and go directly to hell.

He'd survived, though, and had sworn never again to risk his freedom.  Nothing was worth life behind bars.

Until now.

He was the big brother, the protector, the caretaker.  Jay had been his responsibility.  Now Jay was gone, and he was left with nothing but a blind desire to restore balance.

Okay, Jay had done some dumb, no, monumentally stupid things.  He shouldn't have robbed all of those homes back in Seattle, he should have been more careful dealing to his clients, and he shouldn't have raped that college girl…no, wait…they hadn't proven it was rape, so that one didn't count.  They'd finally caught Jay, he'd done his time, and he had been trying to make a new start.  Really.

Danny ran his fingers through his sandy hair.  He heard the Malones next door, arguing over some petty issue again.  What was it now?  The garbage?  The dishes? Dinner?  It wasn't fair.  Jay was dead, lying on a freezing sheet of metal in a dark morgue drawer, and life went on as normal for the Malones, for the other neighbors, and for the man who killed his brother.

He rose from his chair and walked to the living room.  The newspaper lay on the coffee table, the headlines boldly mocking him: "Slasher Stopped."  A picture of Jay, a five-year-old mug shot, had been included with the story.  Not far below it was another picture, one of a smiling, long-haired man.  The name beneath it read "Sandburg."

Yes, he had things to take care of.

~~~~~~~~~~***************~~~~~~~~~~

"I don't think this is a good idea, Chief."  Jim shifted the truck into park so he could turn in his seat, giving his partner yet another Sentinel once-over.  Heart rate--normal; appearance--rather gaunt, with dark circles under dull, listless eyes; scent--no sign of infection from the wound.  Blair's argument that he was well enough to sit at his desk at the university and peruse textbooks or write notes was solid, but that didn't mean Jim had to readily concede.  A long-suffering sigh from the object of his evaluation reminded him that stubbornness was a trait he and his friend shared.

"I'll be fine, Jim.  I just want to update some lecture notes for next term.  I promise not to lift anything heavier than a pen."

"What about your book bag?"

Another sigh, colored with a hint of amused tolerance.  "I'll carry it in my right arm.  It's pretty light right now, anyway.  Just a notebook, a couple of disks--"

"And your cell phone?"

"…and my cell phone."  Blair rolled his eyes and shook his head, but Jim refused to be put off.  He knew his protective nature was beginning to wear on the kid, but he'd been unable to shake that palpable, ominous feeling that something lay on the horizon, a contingent yet unfactored.  Physically, the young man was making progress, but Jim worried about the injuries he couldn't see, and Blair still refused to speak about the "incident."  Jim's resolve not to force the issue was crumbling, unable to withstand his need to protect and care for that which he held dearest.

"Okay," Jim yielded, "but I'll be back to get you for lunch."

"Sounds good.  We can head back to the station after that."

Jim nodded cautiously.  "If you're still feeling up to it."

"Jim, I'm--"

"Fine.  Yeah, that's what you keep telling me, but the final decision is mine."  Jim put his hand up, staving off any further protests.  He inwardly grinned as Blair clamped his jaw shut, teeth audibly clicking.  Yes, he can be taught!

Jim watched as Blair carefully climbed out of the truck, favoring his left shoulder and upper back.  He shut the pickup's door, smiled tightly and waved goodbye, then turned toward Hargrove.   Jim tuned his hearing toward his receding partner and stifled a laugh.

"'…final decision is mine,' he says, like he's some dictatorial wicked stepfather.  Hell, Jim, why don't you just wipe my nose for me while you're at it?  And don't think for one moment that I don't know that you're listening, big guy.  You are so predictable, man."  Blair stopped in his tracks, slowly pivoted, smiled back at Jim, and flipped him off.

Jim's laughter bubbled to the surface.  He waved back at Blair then pulled into traffic.  Maybe the kid would be okay, after all.

~~~~~~~~~~***************~~~~~~~~~~

Simon raised his head at the slight volume increase in the bullpen's usual din.  Jim had arrived, and fellow officers were gravitating toward him.  Simon didn't need sentinel hearing to know the topic of their conversation: Sandburg.  It was the usual--how is he, when will he be back.  The anthropologist had taken root within many a heart, and so common was his presence at the station that he was conspicuous only by his absence.

Simon rose from his chair to stand in the doorway of his office, waiting for the hubbub to subside.  He was not looking forward to this.  Nope, not one bit.

Catching Jim's attention, he waved him over.  He stepped aside to allow Jim entry, then shut the office door, a silent order to the other officers: do not disturb.

"Have a seat Jim.  I'll only take a moment."  He offered Jim coffee, not surprised by the latter's refusal.  He knew that Jim disliked this hazelnut blend, but he wanted to ease into this, and coffee was as good a stall tactic as any.  Oh well, bad news deferred was still bad news.

"How's the kid?"  Simon sat perched on the edge of his desk, hoping to keep the atmosphere intimate and safe while at the same time providing himself with an excellent view of Ellison's face, a stress gauge if ever there was one.  He seemed relaxed enough.  Maybe…

"He's doing pretty well.  I just dropped him off at the university.  He wanted to catch up on some paperwork."

There!  So quick, so subtle, that it was easily missed, but Simon was schooled in the art of Ellison mood detection.  A wrinkling of the forehead, a minute tightening of the jaw muscles.  Fleeting, but not invisible to the trained eye.

Simon sipped his coffee, holding the bittersweet warmth in his mouth momentarily before swallowing leisurely.  Caffeinated courage.

"When can we expect to see him?"

"I'm picking him up for lunch, then I'll bring him back here if he isn't too tired."  Wrinkle.  Tighten.

Simon nodded.  "Good.  I've got a roomful of people out there," he motioned toward the bullpen, "that would love to see him."  He watched Jim's jaw slacken as a smile stole across his face.  Simon, stood, walked around his desk, and sat in his chair.  It was time to be Captain Banks.  "And there's someone he needs to see, Jim.  I've made an appointment with Dr. Livesay for tomorrow morning."

To Simon's complete surprise, Jim nodded.  Would it be that easy?

"It'll do him some good, sir."  Jim rested his elbows on the chair's arms, laced his fingers and rested his chin upon them.  "He's been having some…problems."

"What kind of problems?"

Jim rubbed his hands over his face, and in that instant Simon saw naked vulnerability.  "He's not sleeping.  He's been having nightmares, but he won't talk to me about them.  He won't talk to me about any of it."

Simon raised an eyebrow.  "The king of  'can we talk' has clammed up?"

Another nod.

"And you let him get away with it?" Whoa!  Nice reaction!  Simon found himself impaled by two ice blue spears disguised as eyes.

"Excuse me?"  The steel in Jim's voice would have the average man cowering, but Simon was used to it.  Still, it was uncommon to be on the receiving end, and while as Jim's superior officer he was safe, as his friend he was on shaky ground.  Damn the torpedoes…

"Your usual method of dealing with an uncommunicative Sandburg is to back him into a corner, figuratively and sometimes literally, until he spills his guts.  I'm surprised you're brushing this off."

"I'm not brushing it off, Simon."  Jim sprang from his chair and stalked to the window, staring out at the city, his back to Simon.  He folded his arms across his chest as if to protect his heart.

In a way, I guess he is.  Aloud Simon said, "You can't protect him from this, Jim."

"He's on the edge.  I don't want to push him over."

"Avoiding it won't make it go away.  He killed a man," Simon raised both hands defensively as Jim turned and fixed his infamous stare upon him, "and he's going to have to learn to live with it."  Jim redirected his glare back to the view from the window.  Simon stood slowly.  He joined Jim at the window, his gaze directed not at the metal and glass monuments to human ingenuity that stood beyond the window, but at the flesh and blood monument to purest friendship standing beside him.  "I wish to God it hadn't happened, Jim, but it did.  He has to accept that, and so do you."

Jim's sigh, laden with the agony and anger of helplessness, tore at Simon's heart.  "I know, Simon.  I just don't want to hurt him.  I'm afraid I'll make it worse than it is."

"You take care of the heart, then, and leave the mind to the professionals.  Okay?"

Jim smiled, and Simon was glad to see his friend's eyes directing warmth in his direction.  "Sounds like a plan.  I've heard good things about Dr. Livesay.  I'm sure she'll be able to help him."

Simon returned the smile, freezing it to his face as he dropped the other shoe.  "I'm glad you think so.  You have an appointment with her in fifteen minutes."

Jim reared back from Simon, and the spears returned with reinforcements.  "What?!  With all due respect, sir, why the hell do I need to see a shrink?"

Simon held his ground.  "Because your partner was attacked and nearly killed," he shot back, counting off on his fingers.  "Because your partner killed a man.  Because I know for a fact that you're feeling guilty about what happened.  Because, whether you believe me or not, you need this as much as he does."

"I didn't shoot Meeks."

"And it's eating you up inside, isn't it?"

"I'm fine!" Jim bellowed

"Funny, Blair keeps saying the same thing, doesn't he?  Only you don't believe him any more than I believe you!" Two can play this yelling game.

"He's the one that needs help, not me!"

"'Physician, heal thyself'!"

"Sir," Jim's lowered his voice to a calm, controlled level, "are you ordering me to go?"

Simon paused, took a deep breath, and considered.  He was within his rights to do so, but he wanted this to be Jim's choice.  He decided to play his ace.  "If you won't do it for yourself, then do it for Blair."  Jim's retort seemed to catch in his throat. Gotcha!  Simon pushed on, deciding his low blow was justified to achieve the desired outcome.  "The kid needs you, Jim, but he needs you whole.  Talk to Livesay, and get your act together.  Maybe she can help you help the kid."

Simon knew the battle was over before the last word left his lips.  Where Blair was concerned, Jim Ellison would move heaven and earth and pass through hell.  An hour with the departmental psychologist was a small price to pay.

"All right," Jim surrendered.  The ice in his eyes disappeared, melted by the fires of hope.  "Maybe you're right.  Maybe she can give me some tips on how to handle Sandburg."

Simon clapped him on the back, leaving his hand in place to guide him toward the door.  "I've been giving you tips for a couple of years, but you always ignore them."

A smile ghosted Jim's lips.  "I doubt Livesay's advice will include handcuffing him to my desk or using an electronic dog collar to keep track of him."

Simon shrugged  "She doesn't know him like I do."  He looked at his wrist, then pointed out the door.  "You've got ten minutes."

Jim hesitated at the doorway.  "Simon, I…thank you."

Simon patted Jim's back.  "Let's get through this.  That will be thanks enough."  He saw a sliver of optimism reflected in Jim's eyes and returned it.  He watched his best detective and friend pass through the bullpen and head toward the elevator.

Please, let us get through this.

~~~~~~~~~~***************~~~~~~~~~~

Jim fixed his eyes upon the dark grey squiggles that decorated the carpet beneath him.  They seemed to move, like little worms maneuvering for space, he noticed with detached interest, squirming… twisting…writhing…he jerked his eyes away, sabotaging the near-zone out.  Memo to brain: avoid the carpet.

He gazed at the woman behind the desk.  Dr. Livesay--correction, Marie ("Please, Detective, call me Marie.")--was a definite improvement over the carpet.  He smiled as she added to her notes, her hand and pen performing a graceful waltz across the paper.  She finished and returned her attention to him, matching his smile with one of her own.  Bless Simon Banks!

"So, Jim, when you say you're 'fine' and 'handling it pretty well,' what do you mean, exactly?"

Then again…Jim shifted in his chair, which was suddenly about as comfortable as his high school gym's bleachers.  "I mean what I said.  I'm okay.  I'm not happy with what happened, but I'll learn to deal with it."

"In what way are you unhappy?"

Jim sighed, exasperated.  "I'm unhappy that my partner had to shoot another human being.  I'm unhappy that I didn't get there in time to prevent it."  Marie nodded her head but said nothing.  She seemed to be waiting for him to continue, but he was at a loss.  What did she want him to say?  That he wished to God he'd arrived at the loft in time to pull the trigger himself?  That he'd sell his soul to turn back the clock if he thought he could change the course of events?  That the single most important person in his life, the brother of his soul, was giving Humpty Dumpty a run for his money and Jim, sans the king's horses and men, was fighting a losing battle to hold the pieces together?  That at times the guilt was so crushing that it threatened to…the guilt…the guilt…guilt.  He felt the dawning of his knowledge rise within, and he knew the correct response: all of the above.

"I feel…guilty about it," he stated firmly, unaffected by Marie's knowing smile.  He knew his own heart, and it required no validation from a secondary party.  "I wish that I'd gotten home in time to stop it, or to shoot the bastard myself."  He paused, breathed in, and tried to center his emotions.  He realized the tone of his voice revealed much, but he refused to relinquish control.  "I know what I want is impossible, though, so I'll have to settle for Plan B."

"Which is?"

"Helping Blair though this."  The words sounded deceptively simple, he thought, but it was his sole purpose in life at this moment.  "To help him accept what happened.  To help him find himself again.  To help him move on."  Marie's eyes never left his own, but he wasn't intimidated by their scrutiny.  The admission strengthened his resolve.

"That's a worthy mission, but don't neglect yourself in this equation.  Don't become so focused on your partner's pain that you ignore your own."

"Blair's pain is my pain."

Marie shook her head.  "You're separate entities, Jim.  I understand that you want to help him, but self-sacrifice won't benefit either of you."

Jim bit back his retort.  It would serve no purpose; she didn't understand it, and he couldn't explain it.  How could he describe the bond between Blair and himself to this woman?  It was intangible, inexplicable, and as essential to his life as the blood flowing through his body.

"Okay," he said noncommittally, "but what can I do to help him?"

"Be there for him, but don't force the issue.  He must come to grips with this on his own terms."  She glanced at her appointment book.  "I'll be speaking with him tomorrow morning.  That will give me a chance to evaluate his current emotional state."  Marie--correction, Doctor Livesay-- smiled again, but Jim found no comfort in it.  A voice inside commanded him to follow his instincts, to fix what was damaged, to take the steps necessary to restore his guide's well being.  Yet he reined in, determined to give the doctor a chance--one chance--to accomplish as much her way.

He checked his watch surreptitiously, relieved to discover that his time was up.  As if on cue, the doctor's timer emitted a tinny ding and she closed her notebook.

Don't worry, Jim.  We'll find a way to help Blair."

Jim stood and reached across the desk to shake the doctor's hand.  He tried unsuccessfully to draw from her optimism.  It was no use; he knew what would happen.  Blair would discuss the superficial, convince the good doctor, and probably himself, that he was handling everything as well as could be expected.  They'd talk at great length about his feelings, Blair would point out that meditation kept him centered, and Dr. Livesay would be duly impressed and commend him on his method of processing his stress.  And when all was said and done, when the fog of self-deception cleared and stark reality was visible once again, Blair would be no better off.

Jim left the office, worry gnawing a hole in his stomach, and the voice within his head growing louder.

~~~~~~~~~~***************~~~~~~~~~~

Blair closed his office door and all but fell into the chair behind his desk.  God, he was tired!  He hadn't expected so many people to be i"n the neighborhood," yet it seemed that every single faculty member, and more than a few students, had dropped in to see him.  He'd smiled, assured them he was fine, agreed that the world was indeed becoming a crazy place, and modestly denied that he was a hero.  A lull in the procession had provided him the opportunity to grab a cup of tea from the faculty lounge, where an observant Dr. Noori had noticed his poorly masked exhaustion.  She had clicked her tongue and announced that she would take care of everything.  When the next curious well-wisher entered the building, Dr. Noori's assistant told him in no uncertain terms that yes, Blair Sandburg was in, but he would be in a meeting for the rest of the morning and could not be disturbed.  Bless that woman!

Blair rested his elbows on the desk and began to massage his temples, willing himself to relax.  He wanted to look his best when Jim arrived.  Well, as best as he could under the circumstances.  If he looked half as bad as he felt, Jim would shuttle him directly to the loft and forbid him to leave for a week.

He didn't want that.  He didn't want to be in the loft, alone, where it had happened, where his mind betrayed him at every turn, where the ghost of the past waited patiently. Stop it!  Stop being melodramatic.  It's just stress.

He dropped his head down to the desk, resting it on his right arm, while he began a slow massage of his injured shoulder with his left hand.  It was healing nicely, thanks to Jim's constant attention.  Before long it would be 100%, with only a small, barely noticeable scar.  His badge of courage.  Courage?  Hah!  You lucked out, Sandburg.  Pure, simple, dumb luck.  It doesn't take courage to fight like a cornered rat.

The throbbing in his temples increased, and he lifted his head to rub them again.  He tried to focus his mind, to center his psyche, to imagine a scene of tranquility and beauty, but all he could see was the shadow rising above the landing, the figure approaching him; all he could hear was the harsh laughter, the heavy footfalls, the blast--

There should have been another way!  There must have been another way!  Why did I pull the trigger?

Why didn't I fire a warning shot?  Why didn't I shoot Meeks in the leg?  Why did I kill him?

"Why'd you do it, kid?"

Blair felt the hair on his neck rise.  No!  Not here!  He forced himself to lift his eyes, to look at the colorless visage of Jay Meeks, his skin now as grey as his eyes.

"You coulda just shot me in the leg, man.  Why'd you have to go and kill me, man?"

Blair felt as though he was levitating, for he left the chair under no will of his own.  He backed against the wall, horrified by the ghoulish sight before him, but unable to tear his eyes from it.  He opened his mouth, shocked when distinguishable sounds passed through his lips.   "This isn't happening.  You're not real.  You're…you're…"

"Dead?" the apparition assisted.  "You should know.  You killed me."  It smiled, grey lips stretched tight, and gurgled as it began to laugh.

Blair forced himself to take a deep breath.  Find the center.  He pushed himself away from the wall, determined to walk out the door, to leave his madness behind.  One step, another, another--the creature remained in place--another, another--he was directly beside him--

Another--Blair saw movement, felt the hand on his arm--

And awakened with a start.  Shit!  That dream again.  He ran his fingers through his hair, vaguely aware that it was sweat-soaked at the base.  He inhaled slowly in at attempt to halt the quick, shallow breaths that followed in the wake of his dream.  A random thought nagged at the back of his brain.  He was forgetting something.  He glanced at his watch.  Jim…lunch…oops!

He snatched up his bookbag with his left hand, flinching at the resulting twinge of pain, transferred it to his right arm, then jogged out the door, closing it behind him, and ignored the voice that called after him, the one that did not exist.

"You can run…"

~~~~~~~~~~***************~~~~~~~~~~

Jim pulled into the open space clearly marked with a yellow stripe.  He wasn't parking, he reasoned, not really.  If Blair was on time, he wouldn't even need to turn off the engine.  He extended his hearing, searching for the familiar rhythm, located it…then turned off the ignition and leapt from the truck, targeting the too-rapid beat.  He rounded the corner of the building and immediately found himself with an armful of Blair as his friend plowed into him.  The pounding heart raced impossibly faster as the bundle in his arms struggled desperately.

"Whoa, Chief, it's me.  Calm down."  He spoke softly so as not to further frighten his friend, but with enough force to be heard above Blair's violent gasps for breath.  The struggling ceased, and in the depths of Blair's haunted eyes Jim detected relieved recognition.  The younger man's face was pale, and his tense body trembled.  Without a word, Jim took Blair's bookbag in one hand and Blair's arm in the other, and propelled him toward the truck.  Neither spoke during the brief trip, nor did Blair resist.  Jim opened the passenger door and eased Blair into the seat, constantly monitoring his guide's vitals.  Moments passed.  The heart slowed, the respiration normalized, the tremors lessened.  Jim placed his hand on Blair's shoulder and waited patiently for yet another dismissive explanation from the king of obfuscation.

"It's nothing, okay?" he offered with a smile.  "I just overdid it a bit…didn't know I'd get so tired."

Jim took a deep breath, held it and counted to ten.  Blair was dodging again and they both knew it.  His instincts told him to take his friend some place quiet and isolated, a place where the entire world would be reduced to sentinel and guide, a place where he and Blair could confront their common demon, rip it from their souls, send it into oblivion, and thus allow the healing to begin.  But his conversation with Dr. Livesay made him hesitant.  Be there for him, she'd said, but don't force the issue.

His heart whispered contradictory advice.  The doctor didn't know Blair like he did, had no knowledge of the sentinel/guide bond, a union which transcended normal boundaries and broke all rules.  His brain, though, reasoned that there was logic to the doctor's words, and he agreed to yield—for now.  He would not, however, let Blair off easily.  He gently took his partner's chin in his hand, lifting it until he was guaranteed that eye contact was unavoidable.

"Save the bullshit, Chief," he said softly.  "When you're ready to talk, I'm here for you, but I want nothing less than the truth."  He gazed solemnly into Blair's eyes, peered directly into his soul, and saw a universe of pain, regret…and hope.  He moved his hand from chin to cheek, patted it lightly, then pulled away and shut the door.  He walked around the truck and climbed into the cab, started the engine, and pulled away from the curb, all the time doing his best to ignore the insistent voice that begged him to follow his heart's instructions.

~~~~~~~~~~***************~~~~~~~~~~

Blair sat flush against the passenger door, his temple resting on the cool glass of the window.  He stared through the glass, ignoring the image of his eyes reflected there.  He tried to focus on the view, but the cityscape blurred together, definition and resolution lost like a child's watercolor, swirling, blending, running…You can run…Blair squeezed his eyes shut against the panorama of the physical world, as well as the unbidden vision in his mind, hiding in the self-imposed darkness.  Breathe, find the center…the center…what damn center?!  The center of the universe?  The center of hell?  Nope, already there.

The contemporary theologians are wrong after all.  It isn't nothingness; that would be welcome.  No, it really is a lake of fire, and you burn and burn and burn and never die but burn forever.  But what's this?  In the midst of hell, an angelic voice?  Redemption for the eternally damned?  His burning soul floated on the soft cushion of his savior's words and he rode them into the light.

"…Livesay, the staff psychologist.  Your appointment is tomorrow morning."  Blair turned his face toward Jim, still clinging to the vox angelica.  The older man spared him a glance, and a gentle, almost apologetic smile graced his lips.  "It's a departmental requirement after…incidents like these.  You're officially an employee now, so its SOP."

"Okay."

"Okay?"

"Yeah, okay."  Blair listened, amused, as Jim took a quick breath, held it, then released it in an even quicker and nearly silent sigh.  He studied Jim's facial expressions, the raised eyebrow, slack jaw, slightly parted lips--the obvious signs of someone caught off his guard.  "You expected me to refuse."

Jim's nod mimicked his earlier sigh.  "On the drive over I considered every possible argument, practiced every possible counter-argument, and in general honed my persuasive skills to a fine edge."  Jim eyes flicked his direction.  "You stole my thunder, Chief."

Blair smiled and lifted a defiant chin.  "Gotta keep you old guys on your toes, man."

"Careful, Junior," Jim warned, wagging a finger, "or I'll cuff you to the door and make you listen to my speeches anyway.  All fourteen of them."

"Fourteen?!"

"Given your propensity for…um…creative avoidance, I wanted to be prepared."

"Great," Blair snorted, "James Ellison, the only Boy Scout with a merit badge in bullshit detection."

Jim laughed heartily, and Blair allowed himself to be swept along in the current of affection and friendship.  The tightness in his chest relaxed, warmth flooded his soul, and he grasped the center, clutching it desperately to his heart.  For now he was safe.

~~~~~~~~~~***************~~~~~~~~~~

Danny stared mutely at the piece of paper in his hand.  It had been so easy.  His home address, what he did on campus--all provided courtesy of the Cascade Tribune.  A quick call to the university had cleared up the office location question.  It was amazing how much information people offered freely to complete strangers.  Now it was only a matter of time and opportunity.

Danny allowed his eyes to travel to the newspaper cutting lying on the table beside him.  His throat constricted, the lump, present since the Cascade PD had arrived at his door and told him about Jay, choking him momentarily.  God, Jay-Jay, why'd you have to go and get yourself killed?  His attention was drawn to the second picture, The Man Who Shot His Brother, and he frowned.  He didn't look like the type to do it.  Oh, he had that hippie look, the hair that screamed "drug dealer" to the uninformed conservative (who'd be surprised by the number of respectable white collars in Armani suits that could simultaneously quote stock market prices and the going street value of a kilo of cocaine), the multiple-pierced ear that set him apart from the norm, the "look" that automatically classified him as slightly eccentric (maybe it was a bad photo).  But there was something about him, his eyes, his smile, his…something, that separated him from the act he had committed.  He wasn't a killer by nature.  He wasn't a killer, period.  Not like Jay…

Danny dropped into the chair beside the table and buried his head in his hands.  He felt deflated, empty, betrayed.  Why Jay?  Why'd you do it?  Why couldn't you just stay out of trouble?  Why'd you have to screw it up?  He couldn't lie to himself anymore.  He'd known Jay was at it again.  The odd hours, the outlandish excuses, the sullen looks and angry exchanges. "Damn it, Jay-Jay!  If you're dealin' again…"  Dealing?  No, he hadn't been dealing this time.  Shit, I wish he had!

Danny dropped his hands to the table, covering the article.  As if from a distance, he watched his fingers contract, snagging the edges of the paper, wrinkling, crinkling, then tearing and shredding.  His focused all of his pain, his anger, his guilt, his regret, upon the thin parchment until there was nothing left but tiny strips of black and white and shades of grey.  He pushed back from the table, ignoring the chair as it clattered onto the floor.

He had things to take care of.

~~~~~~~~~~***************~~~~~~~~~~

Jim gave Blair's vitals a final check before they exited the elevator.  His respiration was normal, but his heart rate was a bit fast.  The stress of returning to the station, no doubt.  Though Blair hadn't mentioned it, Jim had detected his slight discomfort when Jim offhandedly remarked during lunch that their friends and coworkers were looking forward to his return.  Blair had stopped chewing his food momentarily, and he seemed to have problems swallowing.  When he had realized that Jim was watching him intently, he'd plastered a wisp of a smile to his face and made some comment about it being "good to get back."  Jim had peered into Blair's eyes, however, past the façade and stage props, and had seen self-doubt and fear.  And it was this memory that compelled him to place a comforting hand on his friend's back as they stepped into the bullpen.

"Hairboy!"  Henri Brown spotted them and broke into a huge grin.  He lumbered over, wrapping Blair in the barest of bear hugs.  Ryf, Joel, and assorted others descended upon them as well, all with their unique welcoming rituals.  Jim removed his hand, but he remained within arm's reach of Blair, the beating of his partner's racing heart ever present in his ears.  Blair was smiling, trying his best to keep up with the barrage of questions while politely thanking the well wishers, but to Jim the strain was evident.  Blair was a deer caught in the headlights of rush hour traffic.

Joel placed an arm around Blair's shoulder and gave it a light squeeze.  "Good to see you, Blair."  He turned the dazed anthropologist toward Jim, a knowing look upon his face.  "Guess that pile of paperwork on Jim's desk won't stand a chance."

Joel's words and actions appeared casual, but Jim read between the lines and flashed him a smile of gratitude.  Joel must have realized that Blair was overwhelmed and had ended the onslaught by placing himself between Blair and the well-meaning crowd.  Jim watched as the others filtered away and took Blair's arm as Joel returned the young man to his keeping.

"There isn't that much," Jim corrected.  "I've stayed on top of it pretty well."  He looked at Blair, happily noting that he appeared more relaxed now.  "You'd've been proud, Chief," he said smugly.

"Uh, Jim," Joel tapped his arm and leaned forward, "While you were out Simon paid a little visit to your desk."

"Damn."

"Uh-huh."  Joel patted his arm sympathetically, then looked at Blair.  "It really is good to see you, kid."

"Thanks, Joel."

The captain nodded to both and excused himself, heading back to his desk.  Jim watched Joel's retreating back, then tugged at Blair's shirt.  "How're you doing?"

Blair shrugged.  "Okay.  I just wasn't ready for the stampede, you know?"

"Well, don't get too used to it, Mr. Popularity.  In a couple of days you'll be just another piece of furniture."

"Yeah," Blair grinned sheepishly.  "Honestly, though, I just want things to get back to normal."

"Ellison!  Sandburg!  My office!"

Jim rolled his eyes, grabbed Blair's arm and pulled him along to Simon's office.  "Careful what you wish for, Chief."

Simon stood by the door, shutting it behind them.  Jim directed Blair to a chair then seated himself beside him, while the captain leaned against his desk.  Almost the same position he took with me, Jim noted wryly.  Well, if Simon thought that Blair would be a hard sell, he was in for a shock.  Jim sat back in his chair, prepared to enjoy the show.

"First, let me say it's good to have you back, Blair," Simon began.  "If that little display out there didn't convince you that you were missed, nothing will."  The captain tilted his head forward, peering over his glasses.  "How are you feeling, son?"

"I'm fine."  Jim watched Simon's face, amazed at the man's stoic response to Blair's reply.  Of course, his sentinel senses revealed a reaction opposite to that which was visible.  Simon wasn't buying Blair's routine, either.

"How's the wound?"

"It's healing.  The doctor doesn't think there'll be much of a scar."

At least no physical scars.  Jim glanced at his partner.  But what about the scars that, even with Sentinel vision, can't be seen?  What about those, Chief?

"That's good to hear, Sandburg." Simon looked down at the floor briefly, then back at Blair.  His discomfort was obvious, and Jim considered ending the torture by broaching the dreaded subject.  He opened his mouth to speak, but it was Blair's voice that ended the silence.

"Jim told me about the psych evaluation, Simon."

"He did?" Jim met Simon's quizzical look and nodded.

"Yeah.  I told him it was okay."

"Really?  That's good."  Simon seemed pleased that the responsibility had shifted and smiled.  "Well, you're a lot easier to convince than your partner, that's for sure.  Thought Taggart and I were going to have to hog tie him, string him up on a pole, and carry him."

Jim felt Blair's piercing gaze long before he saw it.  "You didn't say anything about meeting with Dr. Livesay."

Jim shrugged.  "I didn't think I needed to.  It's just a procedural thing.  Anytime an officer's partner is attacked he has to get evaluated to see how he's handling it."

"Oh."

"Yeah."

"'kay."

"It's nice to see that your verbal skills are unaffected, gentleman."  Jim heard the amusement in Simon's voice.  The captain pointed toward the door.  "Now, if you don't mind, I have things to do, and I know there is a mountain of paperwork in your inbox, Jim, because I put it there."

"Thanks so much, sir."

"You're quite welcome."  Simon placed his hand lightly on Blair's uninjured shoulder.  "It really is good to have you back, son.  Take it easy, though."  He waved his hand in the direction of the bullpen while grinning wickedly.  "There's a room full of people out there that are eager to show you how much you've been missed.  Play the invalid and take advantage of them while you can."

Jim noticed that Blair seemed to be giving this advice some consideration.  He gently pushed past him as they returned to the bullpen.  "Just remember, Sandburg, you'll be working with these people long after you've recovered, and payback is hell."  He came to a dead stop in front of his desk, barely flinching when Blair bumped into him from behind.  He glanced down as the younger man peered around his shoulder and watched as Blair's eyebrows impersonated twin elevators.

"Whoa!  Simon wasn't kidding when he said 'mountain,' was he?"

Jim pinched the bridge of his nose.  "Coffee.  This is going to require a two cup minimum."  He nudged his partner's arm.  "You want me to get you some tea, or would you prefer to wait for one of those helpful people that Simon mentioned?  Perhaps someone of the female persuasion?"

Blair shook his head, blushing slightly.  "Nah, I'm good.  I'm gonna make a pit stop first, though."  He started toward the hallway, then called back over his shoulder.  "Don't start without me."

"Didn't plan to, Chief."

~~~~~~~~~~***************~~~~~~~~~~

Blair backed away from the urinal and zipped his jeans.  He tugged at his sweater, gave a satisfied nod, then walked over to the sink.  He caught his reflection in the mirror but quickly averted his eyes…the eyes of a murderer.

The door swung open and laughter filled the room.  He looked in the direction of the happy noise, grateful to have his thoughts distracted.  He acknowledged the two uniformed officers with a nod and mumbled greetings.  As they went about their business, he washed his hands and tried to remember the names of the men behind him.  Harmon and…uh, Prater?  No, that wasn't it.  Porter!  God, not even thirty years old and the mind's slipping already.  Of course, some things he could recall with horrifying clarity, like the feel of the trigger as pressure was applied, and the face of a man doomed to die…

Stop it!  Just shut the hell up!  He took a deep breath and sought the calm that had served him well earlier that afternoon, but the center slipped away.  Instead, a burning sensation on his hands brought him out of his own mind.  He yanked his hands from beneath the hot water, grabbed a paper towel, and began patting his hands dry.  He glanced back at the mirror, and nearly jumped out of his skin when he saw the two officers standing directly behind him.

"How're you doing, kid?" Porter smiled.  Blair relaxed a bit.  These two had never been anything but cordial in the past, and he knew the smile was genuine.  He smiled back.

"I'm okay."

"Glad to hear it."

"Thanks."  Blair started to excuse himself, but Porter continued.

"You did good, Sandburg."

"Pardon me?"

"A lot of guys didn't think you had it in you, but you handled yourself like a pro."

"Yeah," Harmon agreed, looking at him with something akin to respect.  "Taking that lunatic down the way you did shows real potential.  You've got guts, kid.  Don't let anyone tell you otherwise."

Blair fought to keep his faint smile in place as the Harmon patted his back approvingly before exiting the washroom with his partner.  The ensuing silence pressed against him, strangled him, until his breath came in short, painful gasps.  His eyes strayed to the mirror, and this time there was no release.  They tore into his soul, screamed accusations and dared him to deny the truth.  He felt his world shrink to encompass only himself and his two sapphire tormentors. You did good…you've got guts.

Blair whirled around, stumbled to the toilet, and vomited those guts into the basin.

~~~~~~~~~~***************~~~~~~~~~~

"Hey, Jim," Joel called as he past the detective's desk.  "Is Friday night poker on for this week?"

Jim shrugged.  "I don't know, Joel.  We'll see."  Jim saw understanding within the other's eyes.  HE knew that Blair would insist they push on as if nothing had changed, but Jim did not fancy an evening of uncomfortable silences broken by forced conversation.  And speaking of Blair…

"I'm headed that way," Joel offered, causing Jim to wonder at his apparent psychic ability.  He wondered if Blair was still in the washroom or if he had opted for tea after all.  He extended his hearing, compressing it into a single thread, winding past the variety of noises dancing around him, sending it forward, through the door, past Joel and down the hallway, where it bounced into voices emerging from his intended destination.

"Yeah, when I first saw Ellison with that kid, I figured, no way."

"I know.  Long hair, earrings, and come on, I know the department lowered the height requirements, but..."

"Hey, maybe we ought to invite him to the range sometime.  You know, sharpen his skills a bit."

Alarmed, the thread pushed on through the closing door.  The resulting auditory feed sent Jim bolting across the room and down the hallway, where he grabbed Joel's arm in passing.  "Give me a minute, Joel, and watch the doorway."

If the captain protested his words were lost as Jim focused on what lay beyond the door.  He eased it open, dialing down his sense of smell as it was assaulted by the sickening odors of vomit and bile.  He pinpointed his partner and strode to the far stall.  Blair sat in front of the commode, his back against the wall, arms encircling his knees, his face buried.  Jim crouched at his side, knowing before it began that he would get nowhere, that he'd once again be witness to the Sandburg Dance of Denial.

The voice scratched at the back of his eyeballs and howled in frustration.

~~~~~~~~~~***************~~~~~~~~~~

"Blair?"

Not now, Jim.  Give me time.  I really don't want to deal with this right now.  Blair felt a gentle hand at the juncture between his neck and shoulder.  The fingers rolled and pinched in a gently massage.

"Are you okay?"

No, not really.  See, I just stared a killer in the eyes, and I'm feeling a little sick right now.  Guess I'm weird that way.

"Talk to me, kiddo.  Tell me what I can do to help."

Go away, Jim, before the contamination spreads.

"Chief?"

Blair felt his resolve slip, then come crashing down around his heart.  He could no longer ignore his friend's pleas.  "Towel, please?"

Blair listened to Jim's movements as the older man proceed to fill his request, the sound of footsteps, the rustle of paper, the splash of water hitting the basin.  It soothed him, surrounded him with an odd type of white noise that kept dark thoughts outside his mind's gates.  He lifted his face, resting the back of his head against the wall, his eyes remaining closed as he once again tried to center himself.  He heard Jim crouch beside him and reached blindly for the towel, but instead his hand was captured within Jim's.  Before his muddled mind could process, he felt the cool, damp towel pressed lightly against his face.  He wanted to protest, felt that he should, but the sweet caress bid him be silent, and the rhythmic patting against his forehead, cheeks, and neck held him spellbound.  He surrendered to the older man's ministrations, drifting on a sea of serene oblivion until a familiar chuckle brought him to shore.

"You're falling asleep, Chief."

"Am not."

Another chuckle.  "Whatever you say."

With a supreme effort of will Blair opened his eyes to look into Jim's.  He saw affection, concern, relief…and something he could not place.  Jim placed the towel on the floor but did not release Blair's hand.  They stared at one another, and for a moment Blair felt their souls touch.  He wanted to reach out, to accept the unspoken offer of comfort, to shelter himself within his sentinel's embrace.  But then the
doors slammed shut, the drapes were pulled closed, and he retreated back into the dark recesses of his mind.

"…but you can't hide."  Blair closed his eyes again…find the center, hold on to the center…then opened them once more, this time avoiding Jim's eyes.  "The next time I start to order garlic chicken at Hong's, remind me of this afternoon.  It's just not as good second time around."  Blair felt Jim stiffen, but he refused to look at his friend.  Yeah, Jim, I know that you know I'm lying.  Just leave it alone, will you?  He waited for the fallout but instead felt the hand holding his briefly tighten, then release to tug at his forearm.

"Come on.  Get off the floor before your butt gets numb."

"Too late," Blair informed him as they rose to their feet.

Yet another chuckle, but it seemed strained this time.  "Let me get our coats and I'll take you home."

Blair's throat constricted, and he forced his eyes to meet Jim's once again.  "I'd rather stay, Jim."

"Sandburg, you just sacrificed your lunch to the porcelain god.  Don't you think you could use some down time?"

"Nah, I feel better.  I just needed to get it out of my system."

In the depths of Jim's ice blue eyes existed an awareness, the absolute knowledge that there was more than food that needed to be expelled from his system, but Blair held his ground and returned Jim's gaze with a steadfast stare.  The famous jaw of granite tensed several times before capitulation.

"Okay, fine," Jim finally muttered, shaking his head in direct opposition to his words.  "But if you start to look or feel worse, I'm packing your ass off to Cascade General."

"I'll be fine, Jim."  Blair saw a surge of that unknown element resurface in Jim's eyes, then the older man headed for the door, depositing the damp towel into the trash can.

"Wash up.  I've gotta tell Joel the coast is clear."

Blair watched his friend leave the room then approached the sink a final time.  He rinsed out his mouth, dried his hands and face, then exited.  He never once looked into the mirror.

~~~~~~~~~~***************~~~~~~~~~~

It was done.  No questions, no background check, just a simple business transaction.  It was amazing how money could loosen a law's interpretation.

The gun felt foreign, as if his hand was virgin to its presence.  Sure, it had been many years, but he hadn't expected it to feel so…different.  He'd held one before, the day he'd robbed the Mighty Mart.  Why did it feel so strange?

Because you've never actually shot anyone.  You've never put the barrel to a person's head and blown his brains out.  You're not the killer in the family.  Jay…

No!  Jay was his baby brother.  He hadn't known any better.  It was his fault that Jay had turned out the way he had.  He was the oldest.  He was supposed to set an example.

That's what his mom had told him, time and time again.  "Be good.  Jay-Jay's watching you."  But he hadn't been good, and Jay, always a tag-along child, had followed him straight into prison.

Danny loaded the shells into the gun.  It was a difficult task; his hands were shaking.  He cursed his nervousness as the last bullet slid into place.  He was doing the right thing.  Eye for and eye.  The guy had killed Jay.

The guy defended himself against a psycho.

No!

Yes!  Stop ignoring the truth!

It isn't the truth.  Jay was a good kid.  He had some problems.

Problems?  If you call stealing, maiming, and murdering "problems."  Remember Sammy?

He froze, mentally and physically immobile.  Sammy Henderson.  Poor Sammy.

Poor Sammy is right.  Remember what Jay did to the poor kid?  Remember the fear in his eyes, the sounds of his screams?  Remember the blood?  Remember how Jay laughed…and laughed…and laughed?  Remember?

His hands clenched around the cool metal.  He remembered.  He remembered Sammy, and Delores, and that little kid whose name he never learned, and Mrs. Scherer's puppies, and all the other instances when Jay had struck out at the defenseless.  Each had been a cry for help.  His parents had made excuses, and he had believed them.  He had failed Jay.

He wouldn't fail him again.

~~~~~~~~~~***************~~~~~~~~~~

Jim stopped the truck, grateful for once that he'd been caught by a traffic light.  He used the momentary inaction to venture a glance at Blair.  The young man's eyes gazed out the passenger window but were unfocused.  Whatever he saw was through the mind's eye, and by the expression on his face his were not happy thoughts.

Blair had become even more uncommunicative since the washroom incident.  He'd refused to discuss it and had forbidden Jim to question Porter or Harmon.  Jim neglected to tell him that he'd heard enough of the exchange between the two officers to form a pretty good idea, and he didn't bear either man any ill will.  He knew they were good cops and good men, and both had always been pleasant in their dealings with Blair.  No, whatever had occurred had been an innocent mistake, but that knowledge did nothing to lessen Jim's determination to uncover it.

Jim reached across and lightly slapped Blair's arm.  "Hey, buddy.  What do you say I drop you off at the loft, and you call Mario's and order dinner?  It should be ready by the time I get there."

Blair seemed reluctant to tear himself away from his thoughts, replying with a nod and a mumble.  Jim gave the truck some gas as the light changed, then with firm resolve pressed on.

"Want to talk about what happened earlier?"

"Huh?"

"In the men's room.  And don't blame the food," Jim held up a hand as if to push the excuse away.  "We've eaten at Hong's a dozen times with no problems."

Blair shrugged, but Jim noted the increased heart rate.  "There's nothing to talk about.  I tossed my cookies.  End of story.  It's not exactly news worthy of CNN, Jim."

"And that's all you're going to say about it?"  Jim felt tension spark in the body next to his, but he couldn't seem to stop pushing.  Dr. Livesay's words were becoming little more than a faint, annoying buzz in the back of his mind.

"There's nothing else to say, Jim.  Drop it."

"Fine.  Maybe you'll open up to Dr. Livesay."  Jim felt Blair turn toward him and looked over to meet his gaze.  A stubborn frown settled onto his guide's wan, tired face, and fire glowed behind his bloodshot eyes.  Well, he had his attention now.

"Maybe I will," the younger man uttered through clenched teeth.  "But whatever I say to her is private, so keep your overactive sentinel ears to yourself.  It's called doc--"

"--ter/patient confidentiality.  Yeah, I know."  Jim returned his attention to the road, weaving successfully through the maze of traffic to make his turn.  "But when I go to the doctor, you always want a verbatim report."

"Apples and oranges, Jim.  You're talking about a medical doctor, and I have to know everything that is said or done so I can help you."

"Ditto."

"No," Blair shook his head vigorously, frustration evident in his rising tone, "not ditto.  I'm talking about you as a sentinel."

"And I'm talking about you as my guide…and my friend."  Jim pulled up in front of 852 Prospect and put the truck into park.  He faced Blair.  "You say you have to know everything so you can help me to function at one hundred percent.  Well, the same holds true for me."  He watched Blair a silent battle, the Sandburg flight response in conflict with the Guide's instinctive need to remain at his Sentinel's side.  He compromised by remaining in the truck but staring at the floorboard.

Jim would have none of it.  He caught Blair's chin between his thumb and forefinger, lifting it until blue locked onto blue.  He lowered his voice, knowing that Blair would have to focus if he wanted to hear him, and his partner's curiosity would ensure his attentiveness.

"If something is wrong with me I have to trust you enough to share it with you so we can work it out.  That's your job as a guide, to assist and instruct.  My job is to protect, to make sure the 'tribe' is safe and secure.  And you," he gently shook Blair's chin, "are the single most important member of that tribe.  So when you're hurting, you have to trust me."

"I do trust you."  It was the barest of whispers, Sentinel-soft and dusted with purest honesty.

"Then why won't you talk to me, Chief?"

"Why didn't you tell me about your appointment with Livesay?"

Jim nodded and smiled sadly.  He released Blair's chin but his eyes never strayed.  "You want to know what we talked about?  Guilt.  We talked about guilt."

Blair frowned again and appeared confused.  "What do you mean?"

Jim rubbed his hand across his forehead, then dragged it through his hair.  "We discussed my role in all of this.  I told her that I felt guilty about the shooting."  He held up both hands to silence Blair's attempt to speak.  "Yeah, I know, there's nothing I could've done, but that doesn't mean that I still don't second guess myself.  What if I'd left the station just a few minutes earlier?  What if I'd asked you to come to the station instead of going home that day?  What if I'd done a thousand things differently?  Could I have changed the outcome?"

Blair's eyes shone with unshed tears, and Jim nearly wept in response.  Why could the kid react to Jim's pain yet keep his own locked up inside his heart?  It was obvious that he needed to vent the sorrow and horror and anger, yet he held back, either because he couldn't, or wouldn't, let his guard down.

Blair placed his hand on Jim's knee.  "God, Jim, I'm sorry.  I didn't realize.  You can't blame yourself for what happened, man.  It wasn't your fault."

Jim covered Blair's hand with his own.  "Exactly."  He watched as the word sank home and prayed that it would find purchase somewhere in his friend's tormented soul.  He would back down for now and give Blair time to think.  "Look, you go on up and call our order in.  I should be back in half an hour."  He squeezed the captive hand before releasing it.  "We'll talk later."

Jim watched as Blair processed.  There was neither argument nor agreement.  A good sign.  He waited until Blair had entered the building before driving away, his burden a bit lighter than before.

~~~~~~~~~~***************~~~~~~~~~~

"I would scratch out all the images
If I had the chance
Don't ask me what I'm thinking
Can't you see I only want to
Dance without sleeping
I'll dance without fear
 Dance without senses
No message I hear
Dance without sleeping
I'll dance till I'm numb
 Dance till I think I can overcome"

Blair leaned back against the sofa arm and flipped through the TV channels.  Nothing.  Nothing.  Nothing.  He paused at the Weather Channel, but the forecast was gibberish, jumbled letters and nonsense words.

He was more tired than he'd realized.  He tried to remember his last night of good sleep, then, failing that, he widened his search to include naps.  No, not much there either.  No wonder he couldn't read the words on the screen.  He stretched, considered getting up to set the table, then nixed the idea.  He'd wait until Jim got back.

The thought was barely finished when he heard the doorknob rattle.  Dinner!

"I hope you asked for extra breadsticks," he said as he climbed to his feet, "'cause you're not getting mine this--"

He hadn't thought IT could look any worse, but time was evidently not a constant on ITS ghoulish plane of existence.  The mouth had drawn back, exposing teeth and gums.  The flesh had begun to decompose around the nose and cheeks, and ITS eyes were sunken deep within their sockets.  The skin was grey, not the blue-grey of a Cascadian winter sky, but an ashy, dirty grey.

Still, Jay Meeks walked as if unaware he was a rotting corpse.

"I don't want your food, kid."  ITS voice was raspy, gravelly.  IT extended one slender arm, slick, black blood glistening on ITS hand.  "I want you."

Blair could not move.  His brain screamed at him, begged, pleaded, but his body refused, cemented to the spot like a park statue.

"I want you to come with me."  IT stepped closer, grey eyes peering from a grey face reflecting a hellish hunger.  "I want you to see what it's like.  I want you to take my place.  I want you."

IT grabbed his arm, icy talons digging into his skin, and at that moment Blair found his voice.  He screamed, his throat feeling as if it was splitting in two as the vocal chords strained to produce the sounds of pure animal terror.  He beat at the deathhand, pulling, tugging, scratching, clawing, but still he was dragged along, the grip intensifying, hurting.  Meeks grasped him with both hands now, shaking him, laughing, his fetid breath smothering Blair as they approached the yawning mouth of Hell.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

"Blair!  Damn it, wake up!"

Blair's struggles ceased abruptly as the light of recognition appeared in his eyes.  Beneath his hands, Jim could feel Blair's body trembling, muscles twitching as the adrenaline sought to expend itself.  He loosened his grip on Blair's shoulders to run his hands up and down the smaller man's forearms, calming, reassuring.  Blair's fists, which moments before had pounded defensively against Jim's chest, now clutched bundled handfuls of his shirt as if clinging for dear life.  Jim slid one hand to his friend's back, rubbing a soothing circle between his shoulder blades, patiently waiting for Blair to regain some semblance of control.  Finally, the pained gasps slowed and the frantic heartbeat lowered to an acceptable pace.

"What the hell was that?"  Jim whispered, lest the vibration of his voice shatter Blair's fragile control.  Blair leaned forward and rested his head against Jim's broad chest.

"I-I'm ok-kay," he stammered, belying his own words.  "It was just a dream."

Jim's blood pressure spiked, but he tried to keep his voice level.  "Just a dream, Chief?  Like Everest is just a mountain?"  He felt Blair squirm away and released him.  He moved back a few inches to give Blair some room, not surprised when the young man swung his feet to the floor and stood.  Blair walked to the kitchen, but Jim stayed on his heels, dogging his every step.  He saw Blair spot their dinner, still in its plastic sack, and swallow convulsively.  In his mind Jim could hear Dr. Livesay's voice grow weaker as another voice, that of his sentinel instincts, asserted itself.  He knew he was helpless to resist.

Blair washed his hands at the sink, and Jim stood directly behind him, grazing the periphery of his personal space.  He could almost see the kid's brain shifting gears, formulating yet another evasive technique.

"Did you remember the breadsticks?"

"Blair…"

"I'm not sharing, man.  Last time I got one, and you had, what, four?  Five?"  Blair looked up at Jim wearing a forced smile that wilted at the sight of Jim's steely expression.

"This has to stop, Chief."

Blair shrugged, his feigned innocence serving only to make Jim more determined.  "I don't know what you mean, Jim."

"The dreams.  The days and nights without sleep.  The denial.  The--"

Blair started to push past him.  "I don't want to talk about this right now, if ever."

The other voice, the part of Jim that for days had clamored for attention, collected all of its resources, and with a feral yell tore through the self-imposed reserve that curtained his brain.  Jim Ellison, methodical, disciplined officer of the law was knocked aside as Jim Ellison, Sentinel and Blessed Protector, emerged victorious.  His arm shot out, catching Blair around the waist, holding him against his side and halting his escape.  He leaned in and spoke against Blair's ear.

"We.  Talk.  Now."

Blair glanced at the arm, then back at Jim, then again at the arm, apparently shocked by the sudden aggressive behavior.  His inactivity was short-lived, though.  He braced his hands against Jim's arm and tried to shove it away.  Jim found the attempt almost comical and tightened his grip.  Blair's struggles stopped, clearly aware that his efforts were futile.

"Let go, Jim," he said, his voice dangerously calm.

"We talk now."

"Damn it, Jim!  I don't want to talk.  Now let go!"

"After we talk."

"There's nothing to say."  Blair smacked at the arm encircling his waist, then relaxed against Jim's body.  "Jim, really.  I'm okay," he assured.  "It was just a bad dream.  No biggie.  It's normal."

"There was nothing normal about that dream, Blair.  You wouldn't wake up."  Jim fought to keep the remnants of his earlier panic from slipping through, but his voice rose, the harsh edge of fear making it rough to his own ears.  "I couldn't wake you up.  Your heart was beating so fast I thought it was going to explode, and you couldn't catch your breath.  You were thrashing around so much that I could barely hold onto you.  So, go ahead, Darwin, and tell me again about how fine you are!"

Silence hung between them, but Blair's body had stiffened with every word Jim had uttered.  Now he was volcanic, rumbling and shaking, nearing eruption.  Jim recognized the imminent explosion, and this time when Blair pulled against his arm, he let him go free.  Blair stumbled a few steps, then spun around to face Jim, fury in his every movement.

"You want to know how I am?  Huh?  Do you really want to know how I am?  I can't close my eyes, because every time I do I see that damn son of a bitch coming at me!  He's around every corner, in every shadow, in every face I see on the street!  He's here in the loft, at the univeristy, at the station!  Everywhere I go, he's there!  And do you know why?  'Cause he's in my mind, Jim!"  Blair struck the side of his head with his fist again and again, punctuating his words with the blows.  "He's-in-my-brain-and I can't-get-rid of him, and there's no one to blame but me because I put him there, because I fucking killed him!" Blair whirled, and with an agonized cry he raked his arms across the kitchen island, knocking everything in his path onto the floor. Completely blinded by his rage, he swung his arms around as if battling invisible demons, lost within his own wretchedness and anguish.

Seeking to protect his guide from injury, Jim dodged the flailing arms and grabbed Blair from behind.  With one arm around his partner's waist and the other around his chest, he lifted Blair from the floor.  The effect was all that he'd prayed it would be.  Disoriented by the loss of footing, Blair faltered just long enough for Jim to wrap him tightly in his arms.  The smaller body twisted and writhed with amazing strength and agility, but Jim's hold remained solid.  He placed his mouth near his young friend's ear and spoke soft words of peace and security through the mass of soft curls that brushed his nose and lips.

"Blair?  It's okay, buddy.  I'm here.  I'm right here.  You're safe.  Just relax, Chief.  I've got you."  He repeated himself over and over until, thoroughly spent, Blair dropped like a rag doll in his embrace.  Jim backed up to lean against the counter, positioning Blair's limp form to rest more firmly against him, turning him so that head was pillowed on heart.

The muffled sounds of traffic floated through the patio doors; the mingled aromas of tortellini in pesto, vegetarian lasagna, and garlic breadsticks wafted up from the kitchen floor; the debris left scattered in the wake of a moment's rage surrounded them; the pressure of the counter's edge was a strip of dull discomfort across his back; yet one by one Jim dismissed them from his awareness, focusing solely upon that which his arms contained.  Each heartbeat, each moist breath, the scents of sweat, citrus, and salve, and the soft, warm bundle from which they all originated—his senses drank their fill, tasting, testing, growing accustomed, until sated with pleasant familiarity.  He was content to wait.

A few moments or a million years later, the body encompassed within his arms stirred.

"Sorry."

"For what?"

"For losing it."

"You didn't lose anything, Chief."

"Right.  And I didn't just paint the floor with our supper."

"We'll salvage it."

"Oh, yeah," Blair nodded against his chest.  "We'll just grab our forks, sit in the middle of the floor, and
chow down."

"Hey, I've said before that I like it so clean in here that we can eat off the floor.  Guess we'll find out how thoroughly you mopped it last week, won't we?"  He heard Blair snicker softly, then they lapsed once again into silence.  There was no effort to pull away, and he was not inclined to let go.  Not yet.  Not when so much hung between them.

"Kay."

"Hmm?  Okay what?"

"Not 'okay.' Kay."

"Who's that?  Another TA you've been eyeballing?"

He wasn't surprised to feel the painless slap against his chest and smiled in response.  His guide was slowly but surely coming back to him.

"Kay is the name of a character in a story by Hans Christian Andersen, The Snow Queen.  Do you remember it?"

"Vaguely.  Why?"

The silence descended once more, but Jim was patient, likening it to a special gift from which the paper must be slowly, painstakingly removed to prevent damage.

"In the story, Kay gets a sliver of glass in his eye that works its way to his heart.  He changes.  His emotions get a bit whacked out."

"Whacked out?"

"He doesn't feel.  It's like he's all frozen up inside."

Jim lowered his voice to a caressing whisper.  "Is that what's happening with you?"  More silence, but where Blair's voice was hesitant to respond, his body proceeded fearlessly.  The same hand that had playfully smacked Jim only moments before clutched at the soft cotton sweater beneath it, the fingers braiding themselves into the loose weave.  "Tell me," Jim encouraged.

"I feel like I've got my own little Snow Queen sitting in the middle of my chest."  Blair took a deep breath, and within it Jim could detect the buried emotions that his friend so desperately wished to uncover.  "I should feel…something.  I killed a man.  He's dead.  He's never coming back.  I did that to him."

"Blair--"

"Let me finish."  Another deep breath.  "You know how I feel about guns and violence and killing.  I realize that it's part of your job, and I can deal with that.  But I've always believed that I could not, under any circumstances, kill another human being.  Now I know better.  I've done it."  The hand tightened against his chest, and Jim knew that his partner's next words would be the long awaited confession, the center of the problem.  "I should feel something, shouldn't I?  I should be crying or something, wallowing in the depths of despair, so to speak.  I mean, I've just tossed one of my most basic beliefs right out the window, man.  Why can't I mourn the loss?"

Now it was Jim's turn to falter verbally.  He thought for a moment, permitting his heart and mind to agree upon the chosen message, then entrusted his lips to impart it wisely.  "Maybe it isn't that you don't feel anything, but that you feel so much, that you're so overloaded with feelings, that you just can't express them."  He waited for the words to sink in, noting with satisfaction the quickening heartbeat, the barest change in respiration.  You're good, Ellison.  "It's like, if you put an uncovered pot of water on a hot burner, it boils dry.  If you put the lid on loosely, only little bursts of steam are released every so often, and if you secure the lid too tightly, you've created a pressure cooker that's bound to explode."

Blair's quiet laughter sent a flood of warmth through his body.  "What's wrong, Jim?  Couldn't come up with a good sports analogy?"

"Well, considering our current location, it seemed appropriate."

"What am I, anyway?  A pressure cooker?  Um, I did kinda explode just now.  All over the floor."

"Nah, you were just venting.  If you were a pressure cooker we'd be eating off the walls, not the floor."

"So, are you saying my lid's a little loose?"  The smile, though not visible from Jim's vantagepoint, was evident in the spoken words.

"Yep. You've let off a little steam here and there, but there's still a lot going on beneath that lid."

"So, what's a hot pot like me supposed to do?"  Jim heard the sincere plea masked behind the oddly humorous question.

"Turn the heat down a bit," Jim replied.  "Maybe if you accept your reactions as normal, you'll cut yourself some slack."  He pushed Blair slightly away from him, preferring to look him straight in the eyes.  No more hiding.  "You can't dictate how something is going to affect you, Chief, or how you'll respond to it.  Give yourself a break, buddy.  You'll get through this."  He placed his hand on Blair's shoulder.  "We'll get through this."

Relief.  Gratitude.  Love.  All shone through his guide's brilliant blue eyes, emanating from the core of his very soul.  An old-fashioned Sandburg smile graced his lips, and Jim returned it with a version of his own.

"Yeah, we will."  Blair loosened his grip on Jim's shirt, but his hand, palm flat, remained resting against the sentinel's chest.  Jim stood still, stretching the moment for all it was worth.  Blair was the first to break it, glancing at the floor and shaking his head.

"So, maybe we should order a pizza."

Jim shrugged.  "I think enough of it is salvageable to make a pretty decent meal.  We'll just have to share."

"I can do sharing."  He patted Jim's chest.  "I've had plenty of practice with the breadsticks."

Jim laughed.  "Maybe we can deal.  You know, you can have extra pasta in exchange for half a breadstick."

They knelt, retrieving the edibles along with everything else, bartering with one another for what was left of their meal.

Jim's inward smile matched that which his adorned his face.  The voice, ever present since the shooting, had been replaced by a peaceful purring.

~~~~~~~~~~***************~~~~~~~~~~

He watched as the man walked briskly toward the parking lot.  He had thought that seeing him, being near him, would strengthen his resolve, make his task easier.  No such luck.  The kid seemed so young, so full of life.

Not like Jay.  Not like the limp, cold corpse he had arranged to have delivered to the to a Seattle mortuary.

His prey passed within feet of him, but he made no move to intercept.  It was too open here, too public.  The young man climbed into an old Volvo, started it, and drove away.  He took his time crossing to his own vehicle.  He wasn't worried about losing the man.

He knew where he lived.

~~~~~~~~~~***************~~~~~~~~~~

"So, how'd it go?"

Jim shook his head, smiling.  "Simon, haven't you heard of doctor/patient confidentiality?"

"Yeah, right," the captain snorted.  "You want to try to convince me that nothing was said after the kid's appointment with Dr. Livesay?  I came back from my meeting with the mayor to find the two of you holed up here, in my office.  What was that about?"

"Sorry," Jim said with mock repentance.  "We didn't think you'd mind.  We'll never do it again, sir."

Simon growled.  "Ellison, spill it."

Jim raised his hands in surrender. "Okay.  Blair had a good discussion with Livesay.  He mentioned a few specifics, but what it boils down to is that he's doing pretty well, considering."

He accepted the cup of coffee Simon held before him, and waited expectantly.  The look on Simon's face could only mean that he'd picked up on something, but wasn't sure what to make of it.

"He was different this morning.  Both of you were."

"How so?"

"It's hard to put my finger on it.  The kid seemed more…relaxed, and you were downright pleasant."

"I'm always pleasant, Simon."

"If you say so, Jim.  So, what happened?  I assume you decided to take matters into your own hands?"

Jim sipped his coffee and nodded.  "We managed to have a little discussion of our own last night."

Simon brightened at this announcement.  "Great!  So, things are okay, then?"

"No," Jim admitted, "but they're better."  He waited until Simon had taken the chair across from him to continue.  Seated in this manner, they could drop the professional demeanor and instead fall back onto the easy friendship they shared.  "He's still got some issues to deal with, some demons to confront.  At some point it's all going to come to a head, but I think he'll be okay."

Jim was pleased to see Simon nod in agreement.  "Sandburg's strong.  It may be rough, but he'll make it.  He--"

A knock at the door interrupted the flow of words.  Jim turned in his seat as Henri Brown poked his head into the office.

"Um, guys, we may have a problem."  Jim looked at Simon as the captain rose from his chair while waving Brown into the room.

"What is it?"

Brown walked to the table in the center of the room and placed a file on it.  "Well, you know we've been doing surveillance on that pawn shop over on 16th and Weston."

Jim opened the file and began to flip through the pages and photos within.  "Pierson's Pawn.  The one we suspect may be doing a little business on the side?"

"Yeah," Brown rushed ahead to continue, obviously agitated by some piece of information that Jim had yet to discover in the extensive file.  "Well, we've got photos of some of the deals going down.  Nothing major.  No mass sales, no semi-automatics or anything like that, just the occasional handgun."

"Sounds like a solid case," Simon said, looking over Jim's shoulder.  "What's the problem?"

"The problem isn't with Pierson.  It's one of his customers."  He pulled a photo from the stack and placed it before the two men.  Jim studied it.  Something familiar, yet he didn't think he'd ever met the man.

"Who is he?"

"Danny Meeks."

"Shit!" Jim leapt from the chair, overturning it in the process, and grabbed Simon's phone.  He punched in the number, then waited breathlessly.  Please be there.  Please pick up.  The phone rang four times, followed by a series of clicks.  He waited for the message to run its course, barely catching Brown's words as he filled in the details for Simon.

"…served time for armed robbery back in Seattle.  He's been clean for twelve years.  Not even a parking ticket.  Then Blair…the guy's brother gets shot, and a few days later he's seen buying a gun."

"Sandburg," Jim called into the receiver, "if you're there, pick up.  It's an emergency."  He waited only a few seconds before slamming the handset back onto its cradle.  "Brown, keep trying to get a hold of him.  If you do, tell him to lock the doors and wait until I get there."  Jim darted through the doorway, barely catching Simon's own urgent instructions.

"Call any available unit, but tell them to wait until we get there unless they believe the situation is threatening.  Put out an APB on Danny Meeks.  And patch all communications through to Ellison."

Jim bypassed the elevator and headed straight for the stairs.  He used the railing for balance as he descended the stairs in what nearly amounted to a controlled fall.  He heard Simon only one floor above, and knew the captain would catch up by the time he reached the truck.  He exploded through the door to the garage, and raced across the hard cement, all the while his heart trying to deny what his brain recognized as fact.

 It was happening again.

~~~~~~~~~~***************~~~~~~~~~~

It was happening again.

That it could happen again was nearly unthinkable.  That the second man would so closely resemble the first was unfathomable.  His first thought, when the man had pushed him from behind and kicked the door shut, was that it was another dream. Wakey-wakey, Sandburg.  It's just another dream.  Hey, things are improving!  He doesn't look so disgusting this time.  Come to think of it, he doesn't look much like his former self at all.  A little older, a tad thinner, oh, and imagine that!  His eyes are green this time!

That had been the giveaway.  The eyes were as green as the sea and very much alive, as was the man pointing the gun at him.  Blair had slowly lifted his arms into the air, the feeling of deja vu overpowering his consciousness.  He swayed as the first man superimposed himself upon the second, and the entire horrific episode began to replay through his mind: the fierce struggle, the desperate climb to Jim's room, the gun, his finger on the trigger, the deafening pops as each round was fired, the jerk of the man's body as each bullet struck home, the sickening thud of that same body striking the stairs and slamming onto the floor below.

In the distance he heard a voice call to him.  It was not The Voice, the one that promised safety and warmth, the one that would put his soul to rest and banish the darkness, but he forced himself to follow it anyway. He blinked, and found himself staring into the familiar face of a stranger.

"Whatever you want, man, just take it.  Take it, and get out."  His voice quavered, the fear a thing he could not hide, but he didn't care.  He couldn't do this again.  "Just get what you want and leave.  I never saw you."

The other man did not move, but stared at him as though he was a sample under a microscope.  Blair stared back, waiting for some signal that he had either passed or failed the inspection, prepared to accept the consequences so long as he did not have to repeat his performance from the previous week.  He felt the tremors coursing through his body and figured that the other man had noticed them as well. Yes, I'm scared shitless.  Happy?  Now let's get on with whatever it is that you intend to do, because I am so sick of this page in the book.

Blair nearly collapsed when the man shook his head and lowered the gun.  The tremors became a serious case of the shakes, and he reached out and grasped the counter to steady himself.  When the man spoke, he flinched at the sudden noise.

"You had no idea what you were doing, did you?"

Blair saw the man's lips move, heard him speak, but could make no sense of the words.  "What?"

"When you killed Jay.  You had no idea what you were doing."

Blair shuddered, rebelling against the intrusive memories that continued to batter the walls he had erected over the past five days.  He opened his mouth to speak, and was dismayed with the results.

"I shot him."  Hell, Sandburg, why don't you just ask the man to put a bullet through your brain and be done with it?  He waited for the man to react, but the stranger simply nodded.

"I know."

Blair decided to try again.  "I didn't want to.  He came in.  H-he had a knife.  He s-stabbed me."  The words were slippery things, sliding away before he could get his tongue wrapped around them.  "I d-d-didn't want to.  H-he…he…I didn't…I'm sorry."

The man turned from Blair and walked into the living room, stopping only when he reached the balcony doors.  Blair continued to stare at him, his brain sluggishly processing the glorious realization that he would probably live to see another day.  His feet moved forward, and he went along for the ride.  He bumped into the love seat and decided that was as good a place to stand as any.

The man traced the windowpane of the balcony door with his finger.  "He wasn't always like that.  Not really.  When we were younger, just kids, Jay was okay.  The other stuff didn't start until he was older."

The sad tone of the man's voice tugged at Blair.  "What happened."

The man shrugged.  "It was little things at first.  A fight here and there.  Then it got worse.  He liked to cause pain.  It started with animals, then he hurt a few people."  The man faced Blair.  "We should have stopped him, should have got him some help, but my parents…" his voice trailed off.

"I'm sorry," Blair said again.

The man looked at him with the same intensity he'd shown earlier.  "Maybe you shouldn't be.  He'd have killed you.  He'd have made you suffer, then he'd have killed you."

"Still, I'm sorry."  Blair eyes stung, and his head ached.  "I'm sorry I shot him."  His voice dropped to a whisper.  "I'm sorry I killed him."

"I can see that."  The man glanced down at the gun in his hand.  "I came here to kill you, but I think we both know that's not gonna happen."  He raised his eyes to meet Blair's.  "You got a phone around here?"

"Yeah."

"Good."  The man sighed as if relieved of a great burden.  "I want you to call the police."

"Why?"

"I want you to turn me in."

Blair blanched.  He hadn't expected that.  "You haven't done anything."

"I'm a convicted felon who bought a gun.  I forced my way in here.  I aimed this gun at you.  Seems to me I've broken a few laws."

Blair stepped forward, all fear evaporating.  "You can just walk out of here, man.  Nothing happened."

"I have to do it."

"No, you don't."

"Yeah, I do.  Don't you see?  It's the only way to make things right again.  It's the only way."

"No.  Just give me the gun.  Nobody has to know anything.  I won't say a word."  The phone picked that moment to ring, but Blair ignored it.

"No.  I have to do this."

"But—"

A loud crash wiped the rest of his sentence out of existence, and the universe fractured into a thousand pieces.

~~~~~~~~~~***************~~~~~~~~~~

"He'll be okay, Jim."

Seven.  Simon had said the same thing seven times now.  Jim's frantic brain couldn't help but wonder if the words were for his benefit or if speaking them somehow reassured Simon himself.  It didn't matter.  He refused to consider the alternative.

He put the truck through its paces, zooming in and out of traffic, dodging a car here, a moving van there, mentally damning those motorists slow to recognize his flashing lights and their significance.  He veered to the right, turned onto Prospect, and floored the gas pedal.  He narrowly missed a black and white unit that pulled out from a side street, swerving around it and bouncing off the curb.  He brought the truck to a screeching halt, immediately jumping out of the cab and rushing for the door.

God, it was all so familiar.  Not again!  He extended his hearing, picking up the voices of Blair and another man.  He waved to Simon, signaling that Blair was not alone in the loft, then started up the stairs.  He tuned into the conversation once again.

"You can just walk out of here, man.  Nothing happened."

"I have to do it."

"No, you don't."

Oh God!  Jim turned to Simon as the captain approached from his right.  "Meeks is in there with Blair."

"Okay, you take the low road, and I'll aim high."

Jim nodded.  "On three."

"Yeah, I do.  Don't you see?  It's the only way to make things right again.  It's the only way."

"One."

"No.  Just give me the gun.  Nobody has to know anything.  I won't say a word."

Jim winced, a loud trilling sound filling his head.  Phone.  "Two."  Jim silently turned the knob, thrilled to discover it unlocked.  He prepared to ease through, but the next sentence sent a chill down his spine.  No time left for peaceful solutions.

"No.  I have to do this."

"Three!"

"But--"

Jim kicked the door open and ran in simultaneously, dropping into a crouch and taking perfect aim.  He heard Simon behind and above.  There was no way they could miss.

Until Blair jumped between them and their target.

"Wait!"

"Sandburg!" Simon bellowed, "Get the hell out of the way!"

"No!"

"Blair, get down, damn it!"

"No!" Blair screamed back at them.  "No more killing!  No more!"

Jim took his eyes from Danny Meeks, trusting Simon to keep him covered.  He turned his attention to his partner, and gasped soundlessly.  Blair's eyes were bright with tears, his body tensed yet visibly shaking.  He was as close to the edge as Jim had ever seen him, and sentinel instincts demanded that he take action.

"Blair," he said softly, "it's okay."

"No more killing."

"No one's going to kill anyone, Chief."  Jim put his gun into his holster, then unbuckled it and set it on the floor.

"Jim," Simon warned.

"It's okay, sir."  He spared a glance at Meeks, then at Simon.  "The situation is controlled."  He stood and took a step toward Blair.  "It's okay, buddy.  It's over."

Blair's eyes never left his face.  "No more."

Jim took a few more steps, bringing him next to his friend.  "No more," he agreed.  He reached for Blair, pulling him to him.  The smaller man leaned into the embrace, resting his head against Jim's chest while maintaining a small distance.  Jim noticed the hesitancy and respected its message: not yet.

"I wasn't going to shoot him."  The quiet statement drew Jim's attention to the man standing a mere five feet away.

"That's for a court to decide."  Simon kept his gun on the man until he had claimed and secured his weapon.  He pulled a set of cuffs from his pocket.  "Turn around."

Blair stirred against Jim, pushing away to stand on his own.  "No."

"What?"  Simon looked at Blair as if he hadn't heard him.

"Please, Simon, just let him go."

Jim dialed down his hearing as the three other men in the loft began speaking at once:  Simon spluttering about stressed out observers who thought they could bend the law at will, Blair protesting Meeks's innocence, and Meeks doing his best to get arrested.  Jim finally joined in with a shout that brought welcome silence.

"Shut up!"  All eyes upon him, he proceeded to wade through the jumbled mess to see if he could bring it all to a satisfactory conclusion.  "Blair, Meeks is a convicted felon who purchased a gun in direct violation of the law."

"He wasn't going to hurt me, Jim."

Deciding to try another route, Jim addressed Meeks.  "What were you planning to do when Captain Banks and I arrived?"

"I told the kid to call the cops so he could turn me in."

Beside him, Blair nodded in confirmation.  "It's true, Jim.  He wasn't going to shoot me."

Jim smiled at Simon.  "It's your call, sir."

Simon's jaw was firmly set.  "He broke the law."

"I'm not going to press charges," Blair challenged.

"It doesn't matter, Sandburg," Simon said, turning to Meeks.  "We have a photo of you buying a gun
illegally from a pawnshop owner."

Meeks nodded.  "I did that."  He glanced at Blair.  "It's okay, kid.  This was my own doing."

"Simon, please," Jim could hear Blair's reserve cracking, his voice thick with gathering emotion.  "There has to be something you can do."

Jim saw the effect Blair's plea had upon the captain and offered a lifeline.  "Meeks, would you be willing to testify against Pierson?"

The man raised his eyebrows, then nodded.  "Sure."

Jim read Simon's face, then spoke on his behalf.  "We can't make any promises, but maybe we can work a deal."  Jim took the ensuing silence as a sign that all sides were in agreement.

Simon finished cuffing Meeks, then started to lead him from the loft.  Meeks slowed as he passed by Blair.

"Listen kid, if you never remember anything else in your life, remember this: Jay had problems long before he met you.  I should've done something years ago, but…"  A look of infinite sadness crossed his face.  "It wasn't your fault."

Blair nodded imperceptibly, but Jim nearly shouted with joy at that small acknowledgement.  He escorted Simon and Danny Meeks to the door, then went into the kitchen to prepare some tea for his harried partner.  He watched Blair discreetly, trying to gauge his partner's frame of mind.

Blair looked distracted, lost, as if he wasn't sure what his next move should be.  He wandered away from Jim, stood by the balcony doors and gazed through them momentarily, then meandered about the room a bit, finally settling onto the sofa.

Jim finished the tea and carried it into the living room.  He snagged a coaster and placed it beneath the cup, setting both on the coffee table.  He joined Blair on the sofa and knew with sudden clarity that the tea would go untouched.

"Blair?"

"I didn't mean to kill him."

"I know, buddy."

"I kept thinking that maybe it wasn't real.  Maybe it hadn't happened.  But it did."

"Yeah, it did."

"I wish I could go back."

"What would you do differently?"

"I don't know.  Something.  I should have aimed for his leg."

Jim caught Blair's chin with his forefinger, waiting for the blue eyes to focus on his own.  "No, you shouldn't have.  Contrary to popular belief, when police officers take down criminals, they don't aim for arms or legs.  The chance of missing the target is too great.  We're trained to aim for the largest part of the target, the trunk of the body.  The center mass."  He saw Blair's eyes begin to fill.  "If you'd aimed at an arm or a leg, Meeks probably would have gotten to you.  He would've killed you, Chief."  He pushed on, banishing that vision from his mind.  "I'm sorry that you had to go through this, Blair, but I'm not sorry that you're the one who lived.  I know how precious life--all life--is to you, but yours for his would not have been a fair trade.  You deserved to live, Chief."

Blair's eyes begged of Jim what the sentinel knew his voice could not, and he drew the young man against him.  He wrapped his left arm around Blair, anchoring the smaller body to his own.  He crooked his right arm and buried his fingers within his partner's chestnut curls, massaging the back of his neck.  After a moment, he caught the scent of salt, followed by the unmistakable wet "plop" of a single tear as it fell onto his sleeve.  It was joined by another, then another.  Seconds later, the dam burst, and Blair's body shook convulsively, wracked by anguished sobs that it could no longer contain.

Jim tightened his embrace but said nothing.  This was not the time for words.  Instead, the communication was physical.  He lowered his head, placed a whisper-soft kiss against the tousled hair, then rested his cheek upon the same spot.  He breathed deeply, noting every minute detail: the citrusy smell that clung to Blair's hair; the medicinal odor of the antibiotic salve used on his wound; the musky essence that was Blair himself; and that unnamed scent, a mixture of sweat and tears emerging from the body as it sought to physically shed the agony within, a scent which Jim could only label "sorrow."

Jim recognized the mourning, Blair's Book of Lamentations.  His guide mourned for Jay Meeks, a lost soul with no more second chances.  He mourned for Danny Meeks, living with his own life's regrets and imagined failures.  And he mourned for a moment lost to time, an instinctive action that he believed, quite wrongly, had damned his soul and made him less than he was.

Jim made a solemn, silent promise that he would move heaven and earth to wipe the third item from Blair's list.  He knew that his partner would never forget, that it would forever plague his conscience, but he would not allow it to darken Blair's view of life.  He, Jim Ellison, Blessed Protector to one gentle-natured anthropologist and guide, would repair what damage he could.  A bone, once broken, would always bear evidence of the fracture, but by the mending it became stronger.  He would be the cast, surrounding his friend, protecting and supporting.

Gradually the ragged sobs eased, then disappeared.  Blair's heart rate and respiration slowed as a slumber borne of total exhaustion claimed him.  Jim waited a few moments, then lifted Blair's legs onto the sofa.  He shifted his own body to rest against the arm of the sofa, then rolled Blair slightly so that the smaller man was nestled partially in the valley between Jim's body and the sofa back.  The remainder of his slender form draped across Jim, his head pillowed on the wide expanse of the sentinel's chest.

Jim snagged the afghan from the back of the sofa and tucked it around them both.  It would not be the most comfortable rest he'd ever had, but it would be worth a kink in his neck and a tingly arm if Blair could just enjoy a couple of hours of true sleep. He carded his hand though Blair's locks, smiling as his friend burrowed against him in response.

He felt calm, hopeful, and centered, and he willed his sleeping partner to feel the same.  Later, when Blair awoke, they'd talk some more.  Maybe they'd go camping, some place isolated and serene, a healing place of mountains and trees and streams.  Blair would like that, he was certain.

For now, however, Jim was content to hold, and comfort, and stand vigil.

~~~~~~~~~~finis~~~~~~~~~~

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