Jim glanced at his watch as he stepped out of the elevator. Nearly ten pm - it had been a hellishly long day, followed by an aborted stakeout. At least, though, the suspect had been apprehended red-handed – it’s just that he’d been apprehended at the other location they’d had under surveillance, leaving Jim to watch an empty warehouse alone in the truck, until Simon had called a halt to his unproductive vigil.
Jim sighed as he turned the key in the lock and entered his apartment. Dull didn’t cover it. It was times like this, he mused, as he switched on the kitchen light and shrugged off his jacket, that he missed having Sandburg at his side, entertaining him with tall tales and pulling random anecdotes out of that weird brain of his. The memory of many such situations made Jim smile; although a little wistfully, given the fact that his partner wasn’t here. Yeah, he definitely missed Sandburg - in more ways than one. No one would be happier than him to see Blair return home.
And, because of promises that had been made, Jim knew that Blair would return home, even if it was only to draw a definitive line under their working relationship before moving on to other things. But even if that happened, it would not be the end of their friendship – of that, Jim was very sure. The days when Jim had questioned Blair’s loyalty had ended the moment he’d seen his partner throw himself on the pyre which had incinerated his life’s work. Now, Jim finally got it. And his only regret was that he hadn’t seen earlier what had been right in front of his eyes all along.
Jim definitely didn’t begrudge the kid the need to get out of town for a while. He understood that Sandburg had big decisions to make about his future – they both did. If backpacking around Peru for a few months was going to help him get everything that happened into perspective, then so be it.
Jim was just heading into the living room for a bit of downtime in front of the TV, when the phone rang. Returning to the kitchen, he answered it. “Ellison,” he said, hoping fervently that Simon hadn’t found a reason to call him back in.
The unexpected voice on the other end of the phone startled Jim into a huge grin. “Hey, Chief!” He affected a mild tone of affront. “You never write. You never call. Anyone would think you’d left the country.” He shifted the phone to his other ear. “So, how is the jungle, Sandburg? Is it surviving without me, huh?”
It suddenly registered that there was no answering humor in the other man’s voice. “Chief? You okay?”
The pause went on too long. Then, Sandburg breathed, “No.” The word was almost a sob.
“Blair?” Jim gentled his tone. “Where are you?”
“I don’t know.” The desperation in Blair’s voice coiled like smoke through the earpiece, choking Jim with sudden fear for his friend. “It’s dark, somewhere in the country, man. I’m calling from a phone booth at… at an old gas station. It’s all boarded up.”
“Are you still in Peru?” Even as he spoke, Jim realized that the call lacked the usual signs of long distance. The tone was too clear and loud, the modulation unmarred by the buzzes and clicks which characterized trans-continental calls.
Sandburg’s tone, however, was anything but clear – his voice was scratchy with stress. “I never got on the plane, man. I don’t know what happened – I woke up somewhere, it was dark and… oh god…”
Deeply worried – Sandburg had been gone for nearly three weeks – Jim asked urgently, “Blair, are you hurt?” With his other hand, he reached for his cell phone, which he’d left lying on the counter.
Ragged breathing followed, as if Sandburg was trying to master himself. “Yeah,” he said faintly.
Jim dialed rapidly on the other phone as he spoke. “How bad?”
The certainty in Blair’s voice calmed some of Jim’s immediate worry. Changing tack, he asked, “What happened, Chief? Where have you been?”
“It was a house. There were three guys. Oh man….” An automated voice intruded, heralding the end of the call. “I don’t have any more coins,” Blair said despairingly.
Jim’s cell phone was answered. “Banks.”
“Hey, Chief, put the receiver down and stay by the phone, okay? It’s all right - I’ll call you right back,” Jim told Blair. As the line went dead, he spoke into his cell. “Simon, this is urgent. I need a trace on this number.” Pressing redial on his house phone, Jim reeled off the number to Simon as it showed on the display.
“What’s going on, Jim?”
“Blair’s in trouble.”
That required no further explanation. “On it,” Simon acknowledged, before putting down the phone.
Jim tossed away the cell as the other phone was answered after one ring. “Blair?” he said quickly. “It’s me. How’re you doing?”
“I’m okay.” He clearly wasn’t but, to Jim’s everlasting pride, he was keeping it together.
Jim kept his voice calm and matter-of-fact. “Blair, where are the guys now? The ones in the house?”
“I don’t know!” Panic surfaced. “I managed to sneak out, man, and I walked for miles, and I don’t think they know I’m gone, but oh god, man, you gotta help me-”
“Sandburg!” Jim cut him off. “Calm down, okay? Now, I’ve got Simon tracing your location, and as soon as we know where you are, help will be on the way, all right? I’ll be on the way. You just hang in there.”
Deep breaths. “Okay.”
Trying to keep Sandburg calm, as well as get as much information as he could, Jim asked, “Okay, you said you’re at a deserted gas station. Does it have a name?”
“No.” Blair paused. “There’s some lettering but it’s uh, too faded. And it’s dark, man. I can’t see it from here.”
“Okay, never mind. Tell me about the location. What’s it like?”
“Trees. Forest. Both sides of the road.”
“Good, that’s good. You’re doing great, Chief. Now, the house you were in. How far away is it from where you are now? Did you hear or see an address? Can you describe the route you took to get there?”
“It took me, like, ages to get here, man. But I’m, uh... I couldn’t go too fast, so it may be… what? A couple of miles away? There were no signs, nothing to tell me where it is. But it’s, uh, it’s down a track through the trees, off the main road this gas station is on. It’s big, man. Huge. A mansion. Broken down. Big iron gates at the entrance near the road. I think they were just holing out there, you know?”
“Tell me about them. Old? Young? Did you see their faces?”
“Yeah, I saw them.” Jim heard Blair swallow. “They let me see them. They were gonna kill me.”
At that moment, Jim’s cell phone rang. “Hang on, Blair,” Jim directed. Then he answered it. “Ellison.”
“Jim, he’s calling from a phone booth on the road between Abbotsville and Clearwater, about twenty miles north of Cascade. It’s at…”
“An abandoned gas station, yeah, I know. Simon, he was abducted – held for god knows how long. He’s injured, but he says not badly. He got away, but the guys who had him could be on his tail. We need cops and EMTs out there right now.” Jim had no question in his mind that Simon would head straight out himself after calling in the troops. “I’ll meet you there.”
“God, Jim.” Simon’s horror was plain. “I’ll get right on it.”
Simon disconnected, and Jim turned right back to Sandburg. “Blair, we’ve identified your location. You’re only a few miles away, Chief, just north of the city. We’re coming to get you now. Okay?”
A muffled sob. “Okay.”
“Chief, I have to hang up the phone now, so I can come get you. I’ll call you back on the cell immediately, all right? You stay right there.”
Jim disconnected. Before the line even went dead, he was already punching the number of the phone booth into his cell, as he hurried out of the door.
“You still with me Chief?” Jim had the phone wedged between his shoulder and his ear as he drove.
“Yeah.” Blair sounded exhausted and shaky.
“Chief, I’m only about five miles now from where you are. You hang in there, okay?”
“Yeah.” There was a pause, then, “Oh god, oh, man…” Blair’s terror was obvious. “There’s a car coming. I think they found me, man, I think they’re here…”
“Blair!” There was no answer. On the other end of the phone, Jim could hear engines approaching – the sound which had spooked Blair – as well as sirens. “Chief, it’s okay! It’s Simon – he left the same time I did. It’s help, Blair!” There was no answer. “Blair?”
But Blair had clearly fled. Jim hit the steering wheel with his palm. “Damn it!” Frustrated, and willing the last couple of miles to go faster, he stepped on the gas.
The empty phone booth was surrounded by flashing lights; the strobes of the emergency vehicles plus, among the trees bordering the road, the sweeping flashlights of the search team that Simon had wasted no time in mobilizing. At a glance, Jim could see that more or less all of Major Crime had turned out, fresh from the bust they’d all been involved in tonight, all of them determined to answer Sandburg’s distress call. Their faces were grim, their actions resolute.
Jim was both touched and heartened to see that evidence of his colleagues’ willingness to help, despite the rough time some of them had given Blair when the dissertation had first been leaked. But essentially, Jim knew, they still regarded Blair as ‘their’ observer, whether or not he ever came back to them to take up the offer to join their ranks as a cop. The guts he’d shown during that fiasco had impressed many of his detractors, because if there was one thing cops admired, it was seeing someone stand up and take responsibility for their actions, no matter the consequences. And Blair had done that in spades. Not, of course, that Blair was guilty of what he’d taken the rap for. If his co-workers respected Blair now, Jim couldn’t help but wonder what they’d think of him if they knew the truth.
As for him, he knew what Blair had done for him. He’d never, ever, forget it.
Nodding grimly at Simon and the others, as well as the EMTs who drove up at that moment in a blare of sirens, Jim looked around, seeking clues to Sandburg’s whereabouts. He had only one goal in mind – to find Blair, and get him to safety, so he could deal with the scumbags who had hurt him.
Opening his senses wide, he had no difficulty locating the man he sought. The stenches of recent close captivity – sweat, fear, bodily waste – clung close to the shivering form hiding in the forest. The pervasive odor of blood – both dried and fresh – stood testament to the fact that Blair was hurt. But it was the muted whisper, uttered in a broken undertone, which truly twisted his heart – “Jim, Jim. Please be Jim. Please be Jim…”
Urgently directing Simon to call off the searchers and stay put for the moment, Jim headed into the trees, forging an unerring path toward Sandburg. “It’s me, Chief,” he called as he approached. “It’s me. Easy…” Blair hadn’t, in fact, gone far, so Jim gentled his tone accordingly when he quickly drew near. “Blair, come on, look at me,” he urged, crouching in front of the pitiful hunched figure he found. “It’s okay.”
Blair was a mess. He was barefoot and shirtless, shivering, and covered in filth and blood. His hair was matted, and his face – which lifted toward Jim’s voice – was bearded and battered. “Jim?” he whispered hoarsely, the hope in his voice pitiful.
“Yeah, yeah, it’s me.” Jim reached out, and Sandburg flinched as Jim touched his clammy skin. “Easy. I’m right here.”
“Oh god.” Sandburg fell toward him, and Jim dialed down his sense of smell as he drew his partner into his arms. “Oh god, oh god.” Hands clutched tightly to Jim’s shirt, desperately clinging.
“It’s okay. It’s over, Blair. I’ve got you,” Jim murmured. Behind him, he heard approaching footfalls – Simon. Calling over his shoulder, he said, “Simon, he’s hurt. Get the EMTs over here, will you?”
He heard Simon bark an order to one of the others to do exactly that. Then the beam of Simon’s flashlight splayed over them. “Dear god,” Simon breathed. In the next moment, the beam flickered away, the telltale rustle of fabric indicating that Simon was removing his coat. Blair started as it was placed gently around his shivering shoulders, pressing closer to Jim.
Simon placed a big, gentle hand on Sandburg’s back. “Good to see you, Blair,” he murmured. Then he lifted pained eyes to Jim, his pupils huge in the darkness. There was no need for him to use words to express his dismay.
A flurry of noise and activity interrupted their shocked tableau. Light from half a dozen flashlights lit the dark space Blair had hidden in, and the task began of persuading Bair to let go of his rescuer and allow himself to be placed on a gurney. Blair cooperated – after a fashion. It seemed that rescue, after so long without hope, had fractured something within him, and only Jim’s constant presence and soft-spoken reassurance seemed to give him the courage to permit the touch of others.
Once he was lying down and had been moved into the light which streamed from the back of the ambulance, the extent of Blair’s injuries became more obvious. He was gaunt, as though he’d been starved, and the marks of systematic, sustained abuse covered his bare torso, arms and face. His feet were cut to ribbons – evidence of his mad, barefoot dash from the place he’d been held. He was shivering with cold and fear, his skin icy to the touch.
As the EMTs covered Blair with blankets and prepared to transport him, Jim took his partner’s distraught face between his palms. Leaning close, and looking into Blair’s eyes intently, he said, “Chief, I have to go get them. I have to go get them now.”
Blair’s eyes watered. “Jim, please…” he said brokenly.
“Chief.” Jim kept his tone soft, but he was not going to budge an inch on this. As he spoke, his thumbs brushed gently at the tears which leaked out to dribble over Blair’s temples. “I have to do this. I have to. But I won’t let you go alone.” He glanced up, toward Joel who was watching them with an expression of immense sorrow. “Joel?” Jim said.
Joel was instantly there.
Jim glanced back down at Blair, then up to the big presence by his side. “Go with Blair, huh? He needs someone he trusts to be with him right now.”
Joel nodded grimly. “I’ll be glad to,” he agreed.
Jim fixed his gaze back on Blair, still holding his face between his hands. “I’m gonna go get them,” he said. “And then I’m gonna come back to be with you. Okay?”
After a moment, Blair nodded. “Okay,” he agreed, his voice cracking. “Okay, man.”
Jim smiled. Then, not caring who saw, he leaned down and kissed Blair gently on the forehead. “Hang in there, tough guy.”
Blair snorted, the sound halfway between a sob and a surprised laugh. “Not feeling so tough right now,” he admitted.
“You’re alive.” The assertion was uncompromising. “You got away. You kept your head. You did good, Blair.”
Jim held onto Blair for a moment longer, his eyes and Blair’s locked in silent communication, as he willed his partner to dig into the vast reserves of strength Jim just knew he possessed. He wasn’t disappointed. Blair breathed deeply, forced himself to relax. His hand, which had once more latched onto Jim’s shirt in a death-grip, loosened and fell away. Jim nodded his approval, his pride in Sandburg’s resilience.
Then he let go, and stepped back.
Instantly, Joel took his place, taking Blair’s hand in his own.
As Blair was lifted into the ambulance, with Joel steadfast by his side, he called out once more. “Jim! Jim, be careful, okay? They’re… they’re insane, man. I can’t… I don’t… I don’t want you to be-”
“Hey, don’t worry about me, Chief,” Jim told him firmly. He locked gazes again with his partner. “I’ll be with you soon. Okay?” He glanced at Joel. “Stay with him,” he said.
Joel nodded his grim assent. “I won’t leave him for a second,” he promised. “Go get the bastards, Jim.”
The doors closed between them and, a moment later, the ambulance roared off toward Cascade.
Jim watched until it disappeared, then turned to his colleagues. Simon, Rafe, Henri, Megan and the rest of the squad who’d come rushing out here were watching him expectantly. “I kept Blair talking on the phone on the way over here,” he told them. “He told me where he was held, gave me descriptions of the people who took him. Gave me directions - it’s no more than a couple of miles from here. When he busted out of the basement they’d locked him in, they were upstairs listening to loud music, probably drinking. There’s a good chance they haven’t even realized he’s gone yet.” He smiled coldly. “Needless to say, if that’s the case, they won’t be expecting company.”
Identical looks of resolve were exchanged. Then Simon nodded. “Let’s go,” he said.
As Jim had predicted, Blair’s captors had no idea that their brutalized prisoner had escaped. Likewise, they were taken totally by surprise when nine pissed off cops burst in to disrupt their party, with retribution in mind.
The five kidnappers - three young men and two women - were apprehended without incident; unfortunately for Jim, who had dearly hoped they would resist arrest.
After the five were taken away back to Cascade, to languish in holding cells until they could be questioned, Jim preceded forensics down into the basement, to see where Blair had been held for the past three weeks. He was careful to use just those senses which would tell him what he wanted to know without disturbing anything. He needed to understand what Blair had been through, but also to be absolutely sure that enough uncompromised evidence could be collected to convict their prisoners without a shadow of a doubt.
He didn’t have to try too hard - it was more than clear, with little more than a cursory glance, exactly what had gone on in that hell-hole.
Having found what he came for, he turned and left the building, the expressionless face he presented to his colleagues speaking volumes.
Back in the truck, with Rafe and Henri left in charge of the crime scene, and Simon and Connor following in the captain’s car close behind, Jim stepped on the gas.
They had interrogations to conduct.
By the time Jim arrived at the hospital several hours later, Blair was asleep in the private room that Joel had apparently insisted on, his rest aided by sedatives and pain killers. Joel got up from his chair beside Blair’s bed and stretched until his shoulders popped, yawning, as Jim walked in to check on his partner.
Blair looked a whole lot better, despite the gauntness of his cheeks, the heavy growth of beard and the all too obvious evidence of sustained, brutal assault. Tenderly, Jim reached out a hand, and smoothed the now clean, but still tangled, hair away from Blair’s brow. The fact that he slept on, oblivious to the gesture, eased some of Jim’s worry. Blair understood he was safe now, Jim realized. Safe enough to sleep deeply, without being startled awake by a simple touch. That was an immensely reassuring thing, given what Jim now knew.
He was aware of Joel watching him quizzically and, not wanting to discuss anything where Blair might be disturbed by it, he cocked his head in wordless communication. Nodding in understanding, Joel followed him out into the corridor.
First, Jim needed to get an update on Blair’s condition. “How’s he doing?” he asked Joel.
Joel was clearly upset by the whole business. “He’s in pretty bad shape, Jim. Nothing too serious, just a lot of stuff adding up.” He swallowed, as if trying to smother strong emotion. “He was pretty upset when he was being treated, but he calmed down some, once he got settled in here.” Joel glanced back unhappily. “Poor kid.” Then he looked at Jim. “How long did they have him?” he asked.
“The whole three weeks that we thought he was in Peru.” As Jim spoke, Joel shook his head sadly, obviously not surprised by the answer. “We found Blair’s Volvo at the house they kept him in,” Jim added. “He was carjacked on the way to the airport.”
“They starved him, Jim,” Joel said, glancing back into the room Sandburg was lying in. “Didn’t even give him enough to drink. The docs have him on fluids, and a catheter to monitor his output.”
Jim nodded - that was in accord with what he’d discovered. “Did the doc tell you anything else?” he asked.
“Just what you can see, more or less.” Joel told him. “He’s covered in cuts, bruises, burns. The bastards tortured him. Over and over. Kept him in the dark, from what little he said. Took his clothes away, and didn’t even let him have a blanket to cover himself with.”
Jim sighed. “Yeah. I know.” He thought back to what he’d seen in the basement, and rage and despair surfaced once more. “They chained him like an animal, in a fucking cage. He could barely move in it.”
“Bastards,” Joel spat, more angry than Jim could ever remember seeing him. “Tell me you got them,” Joel demanded, fixing Jim with a hard stare.
“We got them. All of them.” Jim met him back look for look. “They were just a bunch of kids, Joel. Freshmen at Rainier - three boys, two girls. Seems one of the boys had a kidnap fantasy, and wanted to play it out – he’d ‘seen it in a film’. He talked the rest of them into helping him set it up. Blair was targeted at random – he was just in the wrong place, at the wrong time.”
“Anyway,” Jim went on, “once we got them in custody, they couldn’t wait to roll over on each other, or on the one guy in particular – a sociopathic asshole if ever I saw one. Name of Zach Torville. The others say they were scared of him.” Jim shook his head. “The age-old excuse, huh? They went along with brutalizing Sandburg, because they were ‘following orders’.”
Joel sighed heavily. “How far were they planning to take it, Jim? I mean, from what little Blair told me, they made no attempt to hide their identities.”
Jim shrugged. “After they got tired of tormenting him, Torville wanted to see how long it would take for Blair to die if they stopped feeding him. From what I found out, they stopped giving him food and water a couple of days ago. Blair only got out because one of the girls took pity on him. She gave him some water and a bowl of cereal, because he begged her for help. He used the handle of the spoon she gave him to pick the lock on the cage. Somehow he got the chains off, and managed to get out of the house without them realizing.”
“Jesus, Jim.” Deeply upset, Joel glanced back in toward where Blair lay. “He’s a brave kid. But this… how the hell is he going to come through this?”
“He will.” Jim’s tone brooked no argument. “He’s strong, Joel. You have no idea how strong.”
Joel gave him an odd look. “I think I do,” he said pointedly. “Anyone who’d publicly destroy his own good name to save a friend has to be pretty remarkable, in my book.”
Astonished at Joel’s statement, Jim could only stare.
Breaking into Jim’s astonished reverie, Joel clapped him on the shoulder. “I’m gonna head off for some sleep,” he said. “You okay to take it from here?”
Jim nodded. “You bet.”
Joel squeezed Jim’s shoulder before letting go. “See you in the morning, man. I’ll come by to see how he’s doing.”
As soon as Joel took off, Jim headed back into Blair’s room, to take up position by his partner’s side. He sighed, stretching, getting as comfortable as possible in the uncomfortable chair, preparing to stand sentry for the rest of the night.
He was, he had to admit, a little shocked that Joel had worked out the truth. But only a little - to his surprise, he had to admit that the prevailing emotion he was feeling was relief. It was really good to know that Blair had such a staunch supporter, who realized his true worth.
After all, no matter his faith in his partner’s recuperative abilities, Jim firmly believed that, from now on, Blair would need all the support he could get.
Medical staff came and went throughout what remained of the night, monitoring Blair’s condition, making sure that no medical crisis was waiting in the wings. Jim watched them come and go, sometimes exchanging a soft word with them, sometimes observing silently as they checked blood pressure, temperature and fluid levels.
Close to morning, Blair’s restful sleep began to degrade, as pain and remembered fear ambushed his dreams. Leaning close, Jim whispered in his ear, hoping to divert the emerging nightmare and reestablish a sense of safety. “Hey, Blair. I’m here. You’re safe.”
It didn’t work. Blair’s eyes snapped open, and his arms flailed out, as if to ward off an attacker. “No!” he called out hoarsely, jerking bolt upright in the bed. “No! Get your hands off of me!”
Not attempting to touch, Jim got into Blair’s line of sight. “Chief,” he said firmly. “You’re okay! Look at me!”
Blair’s headlong fall into panic halted abruptly, leaving him sitting tense and breathing hard. But his eyes were clear and focused suddenly, meeting Jim’s intent gaze unflinchingly. “Jim?” he queried.
“Yeah.” Now, Jim could touch. He held out a hand, grabbed one of Blair’s. “It’s okay, Blair. You’re safe.”
“Did you get them?” Blair demanded. He’d gone from deep sleep to wide awake in an instant.
“All of them,” Jim confirmed.
“Oh god.” Blair glanced around. “I’m in the hospital,” he noted.
“Yeah.” Jim confirmed. “It’s over, Blair.”
“Over,” Blair repeated. “It’s over.” His hand in Jim’s returned the grip like a vice.
“Hey.” Jim kept his voice gentle. “How about you lie down, huh? Come on, buddy. Relax.”
“Relax.” Blair seemed intent on repeating Jim’s assurances. “Okay. Okay, I can do that.” He lay back cautiously, still holding tight to Jim’s hand, tension in every line of his body. His eyes, wide and intent, took in every corner of the room.
“Blair.” Jim’s quiet voice captured Blair’s nervous attention. “Breathe. Come on, take some deep breaths. You’re wound tighter than a spring.”
“Tell me this isn’t a dream,” Blair demanded, showing no signs of relaxing any time soon. “Because I had dreams like this. A lot of them.”
“It’s not a dream.” Jim changed tack completely, trying for humorous distraction. “Hey, Chief, you wanna hear a joke? Because I can tell you one so bad, there’s no way your subconscious could have dredged it up. That should prove you’re not dreaming, right?”
Blair looked disbelievingly at him, wincing a little, clearly in some pain. Under the thin hospital gown, the bulk of surgical dressings over much of his chest could be seen. “A joke?” he asked incredulously, shifting in discomfort.
“Yeah, a joke. You know, something funny.”
“Can’t you just… pinch me, or something?” Blair demanded.
“Nope. No pinching,” Jim declared. “A joke is all I got.”
“You’re nuts,” Blair told him. But a hesitant smile flickered across his features, making Jim breathe a little easier. “Okay,” he agreed. “Go for it.”
“Right then. Here goes.” Without further ado, Jim launched into the tale. “There’s this cop, out on traffic patrol, okay? And he sees a guy speeding. You with me, Chief?”
Blair snorted, still tense, but clearly bemused by Jim’s weird attempt at distraction. “Man,” he said, “it’s not rocket science so far. I think I got it.”
Jim flashed him a grin. “Right. Okay, so the cop pulls the guy over,” Jim carried on. “He asks for the usual stuff, name, license, all that jazz. Anyway, finally, he leans in the car window and says, ‘Sir, I couldn't help but notice your eyes are bloodshot. Have you been drinking?’” Jim cast a look at Blair. “Have you heard this before?” he demanded.
“I don’t think so.” Blair’s panicked expression had faded, replaced by a kind of stunned disbelief.
“Okay. I just want to point out before we get to it that, if you don’t know the punch line, then this can’t be a dream. You agree?”
“I’m beginning to think it might be a nightmare,” Blair muttered. “But go on, man. Get to the end of it.”
Jim grinned at him. Blair’s hand in his had slackened, his wariness less evident. “Okay,” Jim resumed. “So, the guy in the car is pretty pissed at the accusation. So he says,” Jim paused, fixing Blair with a pointed look. “This is the big finish, all right? You paying attention?”
“Just get on with it, man,” Blair said. The awful rigidity he’d displayed a moment ago was dissipating.
Jim chuckled. “Okay, here it comes. The guy leans closer, and looks the cop in the eye. ‘Officer,’ he says. ‘I couldn't help but notice your eyes are glazed. Have you been eating doughnuts?’"
There was a deafening silence. Then, “That’s it?” Blair demanded.
“Yeah.” Jim shrugged. “Have you heard it before?”
“No.” Blair shook his head. “I can pretty much say for certain that I never saw that coming.”
Jim grinned. “Doesn’t seem like something you’d make up in your sleep, now, does it?”
“Not unless I’m losing my mind, no.” Blair swallowed. “I… thought I might be, for a while. Back there.”
“You’re not.” Categoric, final. “But you definitely lack a sense of humor, Chief. I expected a laugh, at least. Guess my delivery was off, huh?”
“Jim, man,” Blair chuckled weakly. “Just… don’t quit your day job, all right?”
“All right,” Jim agreed, smiling. Then he got down to business. “I’d better get the nurse in to check you over. Then,” Jim glanced at his watch, “It’s nearly time for breakfast. I can hear them putting the trays together a couple of floors down.”
Blair nodded. He was still tense, but the sharp edge of panic had been blunted, banished by the banal, the humdrum and the totally bizarre. “Guess I could eat,” he admitted, his rumbling stomach adding emphasis.
Jim smiled in satisfaction as he pressed the call button, and moved in to adjust Blair’s pillows and make him more comfortable. There would be time to deal with emotional fallout later. Right now, in the immediate aftermath, establishing a sense of normality and safety was the top priority.
Then they could take it from there.
When the attending physician visited Blair later that morning, she recommended that he remain in the hospital for at least another twenty-four hours so they could continue to monitor him, mainly because of the dehydration he’d suffered. In addition to that he was offered a psychiatric consultation, which he accepted. “I guess that’s a good idea,” he told the doctor, wariness evident in the creases around his eyes. She left with promises that a visit would be arranged for some time later that day.
Blair didn’t, for once, balk at the pills he was prescribed to take at regular intervals – two different types of antibiotics, to help stave off the infection which had become well established in a number of his wounds. After being tortured by the kids who’d abducted him he had been denied the means to tend himself, as well as confined in disgustingly filthy, unsanitary conditions. And, to Jim’s utter disgust, he learned from Blair that the stale urine which had been on his friend’s body when he was found had not all been his.
That fact was yet one more reason that Jim fantasized about having just five minutes alone with Zach Torville. It was to his great regret that Simon had ordered Connor to conduct Torville’s interrogation, rather than him.
Now that Blair was awake, aware and reasonably coherent, it was time for him to give a statement. His testimony would be an important part of the case against the five teenagers, especially Torville, who was the only one of the five who had protested his innocence. Torville’s refusal to confess to his actions meant that the case would inevitably go to trial. The other four had been charged with a variety of offences, up to and including kidnapping, false imprisonment and assault. Torville faced the same charges, with the addition of attempted murder. And Jim was determined to make absolutely sure that all the charges would stick.
Jim recorded Blair’s statement himself, using equipment that Joel had brought, at his request, to the hospital earlier. He already knew better than his colleagues what Blair had been through, thanks to the fact that he’d interviewed two of Blair’s abductors, as well as cataloged the crime scene using his senses. Now, Blair filled in the blanks. And much of what he said filled Jim with a rage so intense it was a huge effort of will not to rush back to where the prisoners were confined to let it loose.
Jim made an effort to keep his reaction under wraps, however. The last thing Blair needed, as he was forced to relive the horror he’d been through, was for Jim to lose control in any way. So instead, he kept it professional, asking the questions he needed to ask, prompting where necessary, pushing when he had to.
The fact that he reached for and held on to Blair’s hand during a particularly harrowing part of the account, and kept hold of it thereafter, was nobody’s business but their own.
Blair went through the experience stoically, understanding that what he said now would be vitally important later when the case came to trial. He delivered a harrowing tale of torture, humiliation and terror at the hands of his abductors, faltering now and then, but rallying every time, his hand firmly grasping Jim’s like a lifeline.
Finally, after the worst was past, Blair talked about his escape. “Brandy came downstairs, crying. Sneaked into the basement. She’s not like the others, Jim. I hope you weren’t too hard on her, man. She was scared the whole time.”
As far as Jim was concerned, none of them had any excuse for what they’d done - but now wasn’t the time to say so. “What happened next?” he asked.
“Well, I was feeling pretty bad. I was, uh, I guess I sorta lost it. I said stuff – I was scared, I was gonna die if she wouldn’t help me, stuff like that. She left, but I must have gotten through to her, because a little while afterward, she came back. Gave me a bottle of water – man, I was never so happy to get something to drink! And pushed a bowl of cereal through the gap under the door.
“Anyway, she said she had to get back upstairs, before Zach realized where she’d gone. She left me alone, so I ate the food, drank the water. I felt a little better after that, and I guess I just… I looked at the spoon, and saw that the end of the handle was pretty narrow. And I got the idea to try to pick the lock with it.” He shrugged. “I knew I had nothing to lose. If I stayed there any longer, man, there was no way I was gonna make it.”
Jim squeezed Blair’s hand. “Pretty ingenious, MacGyver.”
A smile flickered over Blair’s haunted features; a fleeting look of pleasure at the praise. “Thanks.”
“So, what happened next?”
“The lock on the cage was easy to jimmy open, once I had something to do it with. I broke the spoon, but I managed to get out. I still had a chain round my neck – they used it as kind of a leash, fastened on with a padlock, but I decided I could live with that, if I could only get out of there.”
“What did you do then?”
“Well, one of the guys – Paul – had left some of his clothes down in the basement. He and the other girl, Terri,” Blair seemed embarrassed, stumbling over his words. “They, uh, they liked to have sex there.”
“In front of you?”
“Yeah.” Blair changed the subject, clearly uncomfortable. “Anyway, it turned out that I was pretty lucky. Paul had the key to the chain they’d put on me, and it was in the pocket of the jeans he’d left down there. I found it, and used it to unlock the chain, then put the jeans on. I guess I wasn’t thinking too clearly – I could have put on a shirt too, right? But I just wanted to get out of there, man, before they caught me. I didn’t think I’d get another chance, and I didn’t want to waste it worrying about clothes. There was a window – really small, but I managed to climb up and squeeze through it. Then I headed out as fast as I could.”
“You were barefoot,” Jim pointed out.
“Yeah. Well, I didn’t think about shoes either. Stupid, huh?”
“Not at all. You had no idea how big of a head start you’d get.”
“No, I didn’t.” Blair shuddered. “I don’t know what I’d have done if they’d have caught me.”
“They didn’t,” Jim said soothingly. “It’s over, Chief.”
“Anyway, so then what? You ran, found the gas station and the phone. Is that it?”
“Yeah.” Blair winced, flexing his legs. “I didn’t even feel my feet getting cut. I just went as fast as I could, hoping all the time that I could find a road, someone to help me, a phone, anything. I couldn’t go too fast, though – my muscles were all cramped, and I was feeling really shaky. It seemed to take ages before I reached the road. Then, god. I couldn’t believe it when I saw the phone. I was terrified it would be out of order, but man, when I heard the dial tone, it was the best thing. The best thing ever.” Blair passed, reliving the wonder of that moment. “I knew then,” he said, “that I had a chance.”
“Blair,” Jim pointed out, “one thing puzzles me. You could have reversed the charges when you called me, or called 911 for free, but you didn’t.”
“I just… I guess I was kinda out of it. I found a quarter in the pocket of Paul’s jeans, and just used it. I never even thought about calling 911, or anything. I was… uh.” Bair looked a little embarrassed. “I guess I just really wanted to talk to you.”
There was silence for a moment, infused with significance. Then Jim switched off the tape machine. “We’re done,” he said. “Good job, Chief.”
Blair nodded. He looked exhausted.
“Hey,” Jim said. “I’ve gotta get this back to be typed up. Megan’s waiting outside - she said she’d come in and sit with you for a while. Is that okay?”
“You know,” Blair said haltingly. “It’s okay, Jim. You don’t need to, uh, to stay with me, or get Megan to babysit me or anything.”
“Maybe I want to, Chief. Maybe she does. It’s no big deal.” Jim shrugged. “If you want to be alone, that’s no problem either – all you have to do is say.”
The pause was long enough for Jim to understand that being alone was not, really, what Blair wanted or needed right now. Blair looked at him shyly. “Okay,” he said. “I guess I’d like to see her.”
“Good.” Jim stood up. He gave Blair’s hand a last squeeze before letting go. “She’s waiting outside. I’ll go get her. You take it easy, okay? I’ll be back later.”
“Okay.” Blair yawned. “I… I may be asleep by then, man.”
“No problem. Get some rest – you’ve earned it.”
Jim nodded to Megan on the way out, indicating at a glance that she should go in. And as he left the hospital, he was reassured that his partner was in good hands.
Blair was released from the care of the hospital a little less than twenty-four hours later. In the interim, Zach Torville had been persuaded that it was in his best interests to change his plea to guilty, thus relieving Blair of the stress of giving evidence in a trial at some point down the line.
Jim smiled in satisfaction at the memory, and blessed Simon for allowing him to get close to Torville after all, on the pretext of clarifying Blair’s allegations. Even the boy’s lawyer being present hadn’t prevented Jim from making it very clear who was the real bad ass, and who was simply the sick little fantasist.
Faced with Jim’s unmistakable air of menace, the kid had been all wide-eyed innocence, declaring in a hurt tone that he couldn't even begin to understand what he'd done to deserve this kind of treatment. He’d flatly denied that he’d had anything to do with Blair’s abduction and torture; had not, in fact, even gone down into the basement. He’d just been visiting with the other kids, his friends from school, who were squatting in what had a reputation as a haunted house, not knowing about the dark secret they were keeping hidden under his feet.
But when confronted once again with the overwhelming mass of evidence against him – the testimony of the other kids and Blair, as well as the utterly damning forensic evidence – Torville’s lawyer had requested a brief time alone with his client. And, after a short interval, Torville had reluctantly – and tearfully - agreed to plead guilty, although the lawyer insisted that he undergo a psychiatric evaluation as a condition of doing so.
Jim didn’t particularly care about that – no matter what, the guy would be put away for a long time. If treatment in a secure facility rather than time in a prison meant he would be less likely to hurt anyone else like he’d hurt Blair, then all to the better. And his crocodile tears elicited no pity – they just left Jim feeling sickened, and wondering just how many times this sick little shit had made Blair cry in pain and fear.
Since he’d returned home, Blair had hobbled around the loft painfully, his abraded feet making it difficult for him to get about easily. He’d shaved off his beard growth, and worked at removing the tangles from his hair, which frizzed with squeaky-clean static around his head until he grouchily confined it in a ponytail.
Jim didn’t hover, or cosset. Instead, he made an effort to behave normally and give Blair space, allowing him to progress at his own speed, understanding that Sandburg needed to gain back his self-confidence and a feeling of security. And no matter how much he wanted to, Jim couldn’t give him those things – Blair had to work at regaining them for himself, or he’d never truly find the strength to move on from what had happened to him.
Okay, Jim had to admit, he wasn’t completely hands-off. He stayed home from work, for a start, taking some of the vacation time he had accrued so that he could be there during Blair’s initial recovery. And he spent a considerable time in the kitchen, preparing food that he knew Blair liked, and taking great delight in shoveling as much of it down his half-starved partner’s neck as he could manage.
There were times, too, sometimes when they were sitting together watching TV, or reading in the peace and quiet of the loft, when Blair’s face would take on a look of remembered horror, his eyes focusing inward on some frightening memory. And if Jim was anywhere close to him at the time, well, who could blame him for reaching out?
During one such incident, as Jim held Blair tight during a flashback that had left him white and shaking, Blair said despairingly, “I’m sorry, man. I… I can’t keep on doing this. I’ve gotta get over it, right?” They were standing in front of the balcony doors, the darkness of nightfall beyond the windows heralding the part of the day that Blair usually appeared to feel the most vulnerable.
Jim squeezed him tight, before moving back to hold Blair at arm’s length. “You know better than that,” he chided, looking into Blair’s pale face earnestly. “This thing,” he said, his gaze compelling Blair’s attention, “it’s just like any other injury. Like a war wound. You just need time to heal. That’s all.”
Blair laughed humorlessly. “Like losing a limb, huh?”
“No. Bad analogy,” Jim told him firmly. “You haven’t lost anything, Blair. You’re hurt, yeah. You’ll have a whole lot of new scars when you heal. But you will heal.”
Blair was coming out of the flashback now, no longer shaking, getting his equilibrium back. Until the next time, of course. He took a deep breath, and Jim allowed his hands to fall away, letting his partner stand alone.
Unbroken; just a little fractured around the edges.
“That’s kinda what my shrink said, too,” Blair admitted, acknowledging the truth in Jim’s words.
Jim shrugged. “And what does your own psychology experience tell you, Doctor Freud?”
“That you’re right,” Blair said. “That he is.” He smiled, a little bashfully. “It’s embarrassing when it happens, though,” he said. “I mean, me freaking out all over you like this.”
“That’s what partners do for each other, Chief.” Jim grinned. “I could do without the drool on my shirt, but otherwise it’s all good.”
Blair snorted a laugh. “I do not drool.”
Jim smiled back at him, and moved away into the kitchen. “You just keep telling yourself that,” he said enigmatically.
A little while later, ensconced on the couch and equipped with drinks - beer for Jim, and a mug of tea for Blair - Blair asked haltingly, “Is that what we still are? Partners? Because I’ve still not decided what to do with my life, man. I still have no idea if I really want to be a cop.” He shook his head. “I’m not sure that’s still an option, anyway. I probably wouldn’t get through the psych testing. Not right now, anyway.”
Jim took a sip of his beer, then placed it down on the table in front of the couch. “It’s not as if you’ve managed to get a real chance to think about your future yet, Chief. That’s why you were supposed to take that trip to Peru – to think about your options. Instead, you’ve been too busy staying alive.”
Blair shuddered, putting his own drink down beside Jim’s. “Yeah.”
Jim reached out, and took Blair’s hand. He’d been doing that so often in the aftermath of Blair’s ordeal, that both he and Blair now accepted it as normal, his partner’s fingers curling around Jim’s naturally in response.
“I think,” Jim said, his hand squeezing Blair’s, “that no matter what happens, Chief, we’re in it together. Right now, you just need time to get your breath. And when you’re ready to get back to work, whether you decide to be a cop, or an anthropologist, or a circus performer in a skimpy outfit, juggling fiery clubs on the back of a unicycle, well, you have my support.”
Blair chuckled. “Can you see me in gold lame and sequins, man?” he asked.
Jim shuddered. “I’d rather not, Chief. But whatever floats your boat. And,” he added, “when the fashion police come after you, you can trust me to be there to watch your back.”
“My hero.” Blair turned shining eyes toward him. “Seriously.”
Jim held up a hand. “Whoa. Stop right there, Sandburg,” he protested. “I’ve had more than enough of my mush quota for the night. And anyway, I’m trusting you to do the same for me, when the guys from the PD see me dressed as your big-breasted assistant, in high heels and a wig.”
“Oh, man!” Blair snickered uncontrollably at that image for a little while, much to Jim’s delight. It was great to see that evidence of Blair’s good humor, despite everything he’d been through.
And laughter, Jim believed, really was the best medicine.
Then Blair sobered a little, his eyes still bright with mirth and, maybe, something else. “I guess saying thank you is out of the question, then?” he said. “Because I gotta tell you, Jim, you’ve been amazing. I don’t know how I’d have gotten through this without you. And when they had me, it was knowing that you were out there, knowing that you’d care, and that you’d kick their asses if you knew what they were doing to me that kept me going. Sometimes it was all I could think about.”
“Like I said, Chief,” Jim said simply. “Partners.” He shrugged. “You’d do the same for me.”
Blair smiled. “In a heartbeat.”
Reaching out, Jim picked up his beer. Beside him, still holding Jim’s hand, Blair mirrored the action, lifting his mug from the table. Wordlessly, they clinked them together, unconsciously mirroring a similar affirmation, made two years before. Both of them knowing in their hearts that they could handle whatever the future held, just as long as they faced it together.
Welcome home, partner.