Wordlessly, as pretty much seemed their wont lately, they slogged across the underground parking lot, weary and sore, wanting only for this day to end. It had been an endless week of meticulous investigation, relentless pressure, night after night of stakeouts and precious little sleep. Their case had culminated just over an hour before with a brutal chase along filthy, stinking back alleys, but they'd got the bastard who had been torturing and murdering children for kicks. Now, all they wanted to do was complete the interrogation, write up the report so the psycho wouldn't make bail, and go home.
Though there weren't many cops in the parking garage under the headquarters of the Cascade Police Department, the few who were present all stopped and stared silently, the tension palpable, as the partners passed. Grown accustomed to being treated as a pariah, Sandburg was grateful for the silence, having overheard enough conversations, or been told more than often enough straight to his face with brutal bluntness what other cops thought about him and his partnership with Ellison. Sighing, he kept his eyes averted and wished he didn't care. He'd made it through the abbreviated courses at the Academy to get his badge three months before, weathering the resentment that he was so 'special' that he warranted fast-tracking, and the very natural disgust his fellow cadets and their instructors had for him. He was a liar, after all. A fraud. Or so they had every right to believe.
But if Blair had thought the treatment he'd been given at the Academy was bad, it had been a picnic in the park compared to what he'd been experiencing since he'd immediately exchanged the badge for the gold shield of a detective. No one outside of Major Crimes and the most senior ranks of the department knew why any rookie would be granted such privileged and unprecedented consideration and promotion. Sure, everybody knew he'd been a doctoral student from Rainer and a tagalong observer in the MCU for about four years, but so what? As far as the rest of the Force was concerned, he'd written a fraudulent paper that was now 'explained away' as a draft novel that was misunderstood and misrepresented, costing him his personal credibility and his academic career.
Whatever the rationale, it still sounded like he'd lied and tried to pass off fraudulent material before being caught and expelled from the University. So none of the other cops could figure out why the PD owed him a job, let alone an enviable position in the elite Major Crimes Unit as the partner of the annual, 'Cop of the Year', Jim Ellison. So far as most were concerned, he was a wimpy nerd and cheat, who had no business bearing a coveted gold shield. Many felt as if they'd been personally betrayed by Sandburg, as they'd come to like him in the past several years, even to trust him and his off-beat ideas; they felt he'd let them down, even made them look foolish. A few made no bones about their assumptions that he must be 'doing' Banks, as well as Ellison, to manipulate his way into their good graces and blind them into doing him outrageous favours. Collectively, they despised him, and he knew it; had no doubt whatsoever about it. And there didn't look to be any change in their attitudes any time soon.
Sighing again, he raked his hair behind his ears and tried to keep his head up and his back straight. He might not be able to hear the muttered comments after they'd passed, but he knew from the set of Jim's jaw and shoulders, not to mention the thunderous look on the older man's face, that his partner heard it all. It had gotten old long ago, and now was just a constant erosion of the respect Jim had enjoyed for the past several years. In fairness, Blair knew his partner wasn't angry at what was being said and thought on his own behalf, but it had to hurt just the same. Ellison had earned his reputation the hard way and it was disgusting that his integrity could be so easily and wantonly challenged.
Knowing Jim as well as he did, Blair was certain that guilt was eating at his partner, not that Ellison would admit it, let alone talk about it. But Jim was an intensely honourable man - so, of course he felt guilty for letting lies stand and allowing an innocent man, a man who was his partner in every sense of the word, to be branded with the caustic antipathy. Ellison could care less if people thought he and Blair were boffing like bunnies. It was the truth, after all, and not openly admitting it seemed yet another lie to him, of omission rather than commission, but a lie nonetheless. They had been lovers for some time... or had been until the last few months, but they had decided from the beginning to keep their intimate relationship quiet in deference to the culture and regs that wouldn't countenance partners being well... partners.
The strain of the diss-aster, as they both now thought of those hellish days, the obfuscations and misdirection since, along with the rabid hostility of their peers, was taking its toll. Increasingly, they were at odds with one another, snapping or retreating into surly silence. The current source of contention was that Jim was royally pissed off that Blair 'wasn't doing his job' anymore - the old job of being the Guide who watched his back and took his direction most of the time. Now a fully-fledged cop in his own right, Sandburg didn't stay in the truck or remain behind Ellison for protection - he was most often on the other side of a building, covering an exit, or they were chasing perps in dead opposite directions. Rubbing the back of his neck, Blair found that he couldn't really disagree with his partner's disgust with how things had worked out. He might be doing his job as a cop just fine, to fend off the gimlet eye of Internal Affairs who were constantly on the lookout for an excuse to boot him off the Force - but he wasn't doing his job as his Sentinel's Guide, the job he had to do, or Jim couldn't function to peak capacity. Hell, function? Jim had zoned twice in the past week alone, and they were just lucky it hadn't cost serious injury or worse.
Sandburg was sure that his being a cop instead of guide was, eventually, going to get Jim killed. That terrifying certainty scared him sick, but he didn't know what to do about it. If he played the old role of guide and stuck by Jim's side to watch his partner's back, it would be no time at all before he was found derelict in his duties for failure to observe proper procedure and do his job as a cop competently. He'd be given his walking papers and then would have no right to be anywhere near Jim. Being a cop posed its challenges, but at least it gave him the right to be Ellison's partner, to help and support Jim as best he could in their current circumstances.
They were caught in a Catch-22, and neither could see any way out of the dysfunctional and dangerous situation. Blair's head pounded with his perpetual tension headache and his gut bubbled with bile and nausea as he punched the elevator button. It was fucking hopeless and he was completely out of ideas about how to make anything better anymore. Jim had wanted to go public, and probably still did. Simon, more circumspect, had wanted to conduct a 'whisper campaign' within the PD, to at least take some of the heat and distrust off Sandburg, but Blair wouldn't allow it. Too many people would know - and too many people would talk. It was only natural to share such a secret with others who were 'trusted'... until it wasn't a secret anymore.
Sandburg honestly and emphatically believed that it would be deadly for Jim to reveal his enhanced senses because, with that revelation, the knowledge of his vulnerabilities would also be up for grabs. He would be at constant risk of hoodlums who knew how to disable him - and of other forces, powers, that would seek to compel him to use his senses for disreputable purposes, under the guise of patriotism, or whatever. And those were the best-case scenarios. The worst involved the abducting of anyone close to him to force him to use his senses for criminal purposes, either at home or in some godforsaken place anywhere on the face of the earth. Consequently, Blair had resolutely and adamantly refused to even consider any kind of sharing of the truth beyond those who absolutely had to know, like the Commissioner, the Chief and the DA, and their closest colleagues in MCU. So far as Sandburg was concerned, he had cleaned up the mess of the unintentional outing and there was no going back.
But despite everyone's best intentions, it was all crumbling around them. Their credibility at work was eroded by the distrust and speculations about Sandburg's values and morals. He shook his head wryly as they waited for the elevator; nobody questioned Simon's or Jim's 'morals', just assumed he'd seduced and corrupted them. Like that was something anyone could do. His lips thinned in anger that others thought so little of his partner and superior as to imagine that they were so easily led around by the nose... or cock, as the case might be. He had never known two more honourable men. And, his relationship with Jim at every level, whether as friends, partners, Sentinel and Guide, as well as lovers, was corroding, the acid of grief and self-recrimination, guilt and helpless anger eating away at their foundations. Love might still lurk in their hearts and souls, but there was precious little affection anymore. And that hurt. Hurt worse than anything else; hurt so bad Blair wasn't sure how much more of the pain either of them could take.
When the elevator finally arrived, Jim looked at his watch impatiently and asked wearily, "You hungry?"
He wasn't, but Ellison looked wasted and needed something to fuel his fading energy. Jim's senses took more out of him than most people could even begin to imagine and, when his reserves were low, he had trouble managing them and concentrating on details. He also tended to become irascible with the inevitable headache and discomfort. "I could probably eat," Blair obfuscated with an agreeable smile. He supposed he could, more likely should, eat as well, however much the idea of food nauseated him. "Why don't I run out to the deli on the corner, while you get started bringing Simon up to speed? We can finish the interrogation and reports after we've eaten."
Jim hesitated briefly but then smiled tiredly. "Good idea, Sandburg. The sooner we're done, the sooner we can go home." He reached into his pocket for his wallet, but Sandburg waved him off.
"I've got it covered," Blair affirmed as he stepped off the elevator on the ground floor. "See you in a few minutes."
"Thanks, Chief," Ellison replied as the doors slid shut.
Jim made his way to his desk, fielding the congratulations of his colleagues as he passed their desks on the successful conclusion of a difficult and heart-wrenching case. Hanging up his coat, he headed immediately to his boss's office and rapped lightly on the open door before entering.
Banks looked up and waved him on in. "I heard you made the bust," he said with an approving nod. "Good work."
"Thank you, sir," Jim sighed wearily as he sank into a chair. "If you have time, I'll fill you in on the details. The uniforms are booking the creep now and the interrogation shouldn't take long; we've got him cold. Once the reports are filed, Sandburg and I would like to head home."
"You've earned a short day," Simon nodded agreeably as he looked toward the bullpen. "Where is your shadow, anyway?"
"He just went to pick up a couple of sandwiches. Shouldn't be long."
Leaning back in his chair, Banks absently fiddled with an unlit cigar, debating whether to express his concern about how increasingly wiped out his best team seemed to be, but he decided it could wait. Jim was pallid with exhaustion and clearly not up to that kind of conversation. Swivelling around to the coffeepot, he poured them both a mug. Handing one across the desk to Ellison, he said evenly, "Okay, Detective, tell me what you've got."
Blair ambled out of the deli, the clear sack of sandwiches and two cans of Coke in one hand, and threaded his way around the other pedestrians, heading down the block toward Police Headquarters. He'd just passed an alley and was about to lope across the busy street, when someone stepped in front of him and stopped, blocking his path. He looked up reflexively, intending to just move around the oblivious pedestrian - only to freeze in shocked cognitive dissonance as he tried to assimilate recognition with the knowledge that this guy had been locked away for life. Startled, he began to back away, but found his arms grabbed from behind in a hard, powerful grip. His instinct for self-preservation and recent Academy training overcame shock and, in self-defence, he lashed out with his feet, clipping the arrogant, dangerous, man in front, driving him back, while he elbowed the behemoth behind him hard, simultaneously snapping his head back into his assailant's chin. Sandburg heard a grunt and the grip on him loosened momentarily, and he tried to wrench away.
Afraid, trying not to panic, Sandburg yelled, "Police! Officer needs assistance!" as he reached for his weapon and looked wildly around the street, hoping other cops would hear him and help. Momentarily, he was distracted by a surge of gratitude when he spotted a patrol car across the street and made eye contact; so his guard was down when the first man came back at him, slamming him over the head with the butt of a revolver, stunning him. When Sandburg slumped in the other man's grip, his assailant jogged around the front of a black van parked at the entrance to the alley. As Blair was being hauled by the bigger man into the dark, noisome shadows of the narrow aperture between the buildings, he caught a glimpse of the officer at the wheel of the patrol car laughing as he drove away.
"Hey, isn't that Sandburg?" Mallory asked as he looked up and around at a sharp shout for help, and saw the newest detective in MCU being dragged into an alley across the street.
Simpson craned his head around to look out the patrol car window. "Yep, I do think it is," he said with a laconic chuckle as he started up the cruiser and pulled away from the curb.
"What? Where're you going?" his partner demanded. "He looked like he could use some help."
Shrugging as he merged with traffic and accelerated, Simpson said with a mean, ugly, tone, "He's a cop, right? Big, fancy detective? Let the little cocksucker help himself. I couldn't care less if that guy beats the snot out of him."
Mallory looked back and saw a black van turn into the alley, but was too far away to make out the plates. When Simpson spun the wheel and they rounded a corner, Mallory turned back in his seat, feeling queasy. The kid might be a cheat and a fraud - but he was still a cop, and they should have helped him.
But it was too late now. Clenching his jaw, he squelched the sight of Sandburg's wide, stricken gaze as the younger man had looked up and seen them pull away. So, he'd get a little roughed up. Wouldn't kill him. He'd be okay. Besides, there were other cops around; someone else must've heard his yell for assistance. And whoever had been driving that van would've scared the perps off. Yeah, Sandburg would be fine.
Blair couldn't fucking believe it when his fellow officers drove off, leaving him to his own resources, but he had little time to deal with the furious shock of betrayal. Desperately afraid, Sandburg fought hard for his freedom. But the huge man slammed him into a brick wall and then punched him in the gut, winding him and leaving him dizzy with pain. Something soft was pressed against his face and he tried not to breathe in the thick, cloying stench of chloroform, but a fist ploughed into his kidneys and he gasped, still struggling helplessly.
The fumes were overwhelming... and moments later, he slumped into unconsciousness.
Six stories above the busy street, Jim took a grateful sip of Simon's latest special brew, and launched into a summary of their evidence and witnesses, finishing up about twenty minutes later with a description of capturing the perp in the act of attempting to abduct another child. It was a good bust, clean, the evidence solid. As Ellison wrapped up his account, both men seemed to realize the passage of time, and the detective looked toward the distant elevators with a perplexed frown.
"Must've been a line-up at the deli," Banks observed mildly. "Go ahead and get started on the interrogation and reports. Tell Sandburg I'm pleased. You did real good work."
Nodding, Jim stood and checked his watch as he returned to his desk. It was nearly twenty minutes since Blair had headed to the corner shop, usually a ten-minute errand at most. Shaking his head, hungry and irritated, he sat down and turned on his computer to open the case file. He didn't want to start the interrogation until his partner was back and they'd both gotten some food into their stomachs. But, when another ten minutes passed with no sign of Sandburg, Ellison began to get twitchy. Blair had probably stopped to chat with someone... only, Jim reminded himself, his partner hadn't been all that talkative or sociable for months now. Mostly, Blair kept his head down and did his work. Chewing on his inner lip, Jim stood and shrugged on his jacket impatiently. Whatever the reason, he was damned hungry and would go see what was taking so long. A little fresh air wouldn't hurt his headache any, either.
Five minutes later, he found out from the woman behind the deli counter that Blair had been there quite some time before. Thanking her, feeling the first hint of alarm, Jim headed back out to the street and wondered where the hell his partner had gone. Slowly, he prowled his way back along the sidewalk, heedless of the pedestrians that buffeted him in their hurry to be somewhere else. When he got to the small side alley, he paused and sniffed, suddenly alert. Not much, but he was sure he was picking up a trace of chloroform. Scowling, he headed into the dark, narrow, refuse-filled passage... and found a discarded bag of sandwiches and soda near fresh scuffmarks on the dirty pavement that indicated some sort of struggle had happened there recently. Worse, he could still smell lingering traces of sweat - and fear - and when he squatted down, he found drying droplets of blood.
For a moment, gaping at the small smear of blood on his fingers, he froze, not willing to believe what he was seeing and smelling. His chest tightened as a hollow feeling of cold dread filled his belly. But, then he surged to his feet, striding to the street to look distractedly back and forth as, with a trembling hand, he pulled out his cell phone and called Banks.
"Simon," he said tightly when the line was answered, "I think Sandburg's been snatched."
"What?" Banks exclaimed. "Where? Why?"
"When he didn't show up, I tracked him to the deli. He left there over half an hour ago. I found a bag of sandwiches, scuff marks and blood in the alley between the shops, across the street and about two doors down from the PD. I can still smell traces of chloroform." He paused and then grated with fearful frustration, "As to why anyone would take him, I haven't got a fucking clue."
"I'll be right over with a crime team," Simon replied briskly. "We'll find him, Jim. Someone had to see something. For God's sake, that's practically on our doorstep!"
"Yeah," Jim snapped, well aware of that fact as he looked at Cascade Police Headquarters and the steady stream of police officers entering and exiting the building. "I know."
Within minutes, every detective in Major Crimes was roaming up and down the street, interrogating store and restaurant owners and their customers. The only lead they got was from an old homeless wino on the corner who thought he saw a pair of nasty looking dudes accost a long-haired kid, one of them hustling the smaller man into the alley; oh, and maybe a dark van had driven in after them.
"Why didn't you report it?" Rafe demanded angrily. "The police station is right there!" he added, pointing to the building across the street.
"If'n the cops don' care 'bout somethin' goin' down unner their noses, why'm I gonna give a shit?" the grizzled, emaciated man sniffed back, weaving blearily.
Sighing, Rafe asked if he could describe any of the individuals better. "Well, lemme see," the reluctant witness mumbled, as he held out his hand and rubbed his fingers together. Grimacing, the detective handed over ten dollars. "The kid, like I says, had curly brown hair, sorta about here," he gestured just above his shoulders. Rafe nodded. Blair had cut his hair for the Academy, but it had begun to grow back. "An' he was wearin' a black leather jacket."
"What about the men who attacked him?" Rafe pushed. Looking up, he spotted Jim and Simon coming out of a nearby store and waved them over.
"There were two of 'em, one a real big sucker, I 'member that," the geezer wheezed, filling the air around him with the sour stench of stale wine. "Tough lookin' but dressed rich, not scruffy." He shrugged. "Didn't notice much else. Jus' the van followin' 'em." He began to shuffle off, and then paused. "Oh, yeah, an' the kid, he looked supprised, ya know, an' then kinda scared, like he knew who they were. Blue eyes," he mumbled distractedly. "Yeah, I 'member. He had the biggest blue eyes an' he went white aller a sudden."
Rafe took his name and some particulars on where they might be able to locate the indigent if they needed to talk to him again, and let him go. When Simon and Jim loped up, he told them bluntly, "Looks like somebody grabbed Blair, all right. Dark van, couple of muscle men, one of them huge, apparently; well dressed. That's it. Oh, and Sandburg might have recognized them."
"Shit," Simon swore as he looked up and down the busy street and over toward the police station.
Following his gaze, Rafe added soberly, "The witness, John Dunne, says he thinks some cops noticed and didn't do a damned thing."
"You can't be serious!" Banks exclaimed, rounding on the young detective, anger clouding his features. "No cop is going to stand around and watch someone be assaulted and snatched! Especially not one of our own!"
Rafe's eyes dropped and he avoided looking at Ellison, shrugging as he muttered, "Just the old guy's impression, sir."
Jim had heard the wino's comments and his heart had clenched at the description the old codger had given of Blair. Wondering who it could have been that Sandburg would have been afraid of, he didn't immediately notice that his boss had turned to him.
"JIM!" Banks repeated with no little irritation. "Pay attention, here. You got any ideas who might have done this? Any cases it could be related to?"
Ellison looked sick as he shook his head. "Not a clue," he ground out as he looked helplessly up and down the thoroughfare.
"Well, we better get a clue and damned quick," Banks growled as he waved at them to follow him across the street.
Blair shivered and then moaned softly as he slowly regained consciousness. His arms ached and a headache pounded fiercely... God, he felt sick. His arms and head were killing him, and he was so cold. Bleary, blinking, he squinted against the brightness of the overhead light, trying to focus. With a burst of shocked clarity, he realized he was completely naked and was hanging by his arms, the balls and toes of his feet barely touching the floor. Wincing, he looked up and saw that his wrists were cuffed and linked by a chain to a hook driven into the grimy ceiling. What the hell? Shivering again, more from fear now than cold, he forced himself to take deep, slow breaths as he struggled to make sense of what was going on; but he couldn't remember what had happened, and had no idea of where he was or why.
Swallowing against another surge of nausea and atavistic fear, gritting his teeth against the pain, he looked around at the barren cement, windowless walls, swivelling slowly and awkwardly to take in the massive reinforced steel door behind him. The only other irregular feature in the dismal sameness of his environment was the camera high in one corner. Unconsciously, he started to chew on the inside of his mouth and winced, tasting coppery blood from his split lip.
"Think!" he commanded himself, fighting back mindless panic. Pressing his eyes closed to shut out the terrifying reality of his circumstances, he frowned as he struggled to sort out the shards of fractured memories and sensations.
Finally, with a muted groan, he remembered.
And felt decidedly worse.
Two uniforms had clearly seen him struggling with his assailants - and he'd seen them look the other way. They'd not just missed what was going on - they knew him as well as he knew them. Simpson and Mallory. They'd deliberately left him to his fate. Hell, Simpson had been laughing. Bitterly, he shook his head, wishing he could be surprised, but he'd been scared for a while now that backup might not be forthcoming when he and Jim needed it. There was just too damned much resentment and hostility directed toward him. Ah well, he thought, bleakly trying to find something good in his currently very bad situation, at least only one of them had been betrayed by their 'fraternity'.
The one the rest of them had no fucking use for.
But, God... it hurt to know they couldn't care less that he was in trouble. It was one thing to be called names, another to be deliberately deserted when it was clear that an assault was in progress. The virulence of their utter contempt was like a knife, twisting in his gut. He wanted to be angry. It was their job to help, dammit! But the vast sorrow of being so cruelly and intentionally forsaken was too pervasive, too wretched for anger. His throat thickened and he felt breathless at the casual hatred. He'd thought he'd become used to it, almost inured to the animosity, but the wilful abandonment was as devastating as anything he'd ever experienced; it was sure no comfort to know that he'd brought the antipathy of the other cops upon himself, however noble or important the reasons - and devastating to realize that, because of the virulent hatred, he might well die in this cold, grey cell.
However, even worse than contemplating the betrayal and his own potentially imminent demise, was the memory of who had accosted him so coolly on the street outside the PD. Sandburg was very afraid that he'd been taken as a hostage to be used against Jim, to compel Ellison to some heinous crime. God, as if he hadn't screwed up his partner's life enough in the last, what? Year? Jim had done his damnedest to keep 'letting it go', to keeping supporting him - not that Ellison hadn't pulled a few whoppers himself; but his behaviours were explainable, understandable, and not always within the realm of his control. Jim's senses... it always came back to his senses and, well, Blair didn't want to go there, didn't want to remember some of the absolute worst moments of his life. He was tired, so very tired, of all the reasons why nothing was working any more. 'Get a grip, Sandburg,' he castigated himself as he gazed at the dirty walls, 'none of that is particularly important right now, is it?'
Once again, he studied the restraints and the concrete cell, forcing himself to consider his situation with as much clinical detachment as he could muster. Clearly, this was a bid to intimidate him. And perhaps to compel Jim's cooperation, maybe by sending Ellison a video clip of him hanging like a slab of meat. Clutching at that possibility as the single means of communication he might have with his partner, very softly he began murmuring, over and over, "Don't know where I am, but I'm okay. Scared but okay. Just looks bad. No matter what, Jim - don't give Lee Brackett what he wants."
Brave words, but he couldn't help shivering with primal dread. His dry throat grew raspy with the effort of repeating a message that might or might not be on the clip eventually sent to Jim to force his cooperation. Blair was in big trouble and he knew it. Brackett was utterly ruthless and this opening gambit was not reassuring. Not that Brackett would be planning to kill him right away - if that was the case, he'd already be dead. But... he thought it unlikely that he'd survive whatever the rogue CIA agent had in mind for him. Sighing, swallowing the bile that burned in the back of his throat, he grimly postulated that he'd have plenty of time, too much probably, to reflect on how very much he regretted so many things, most particularly the loss of a lifetime spent by Jim's side. If his inevitable appointment with death was scheduled to be held in this dismal cell, the Reaper wasn't likely to swing his scythe quickly and mercifully - more probably slowly and very painfully.
Fighting back another flare of panic, nauseated and dizzy, Blair wondered with bleak despair if he'd have the courage to bear, with anything even remotely resembling dignity, whatever Brackett had in mind for him. Darkness danced on the edge of his vision as the vertigo from his concussion worsened, until he finally gave way to unconsciousness.
Ellison sat at his desk, trying to shake off the shock of Sandburg's abduction. It had happened so damned suddenly and was so very inexplicable; there was no reason for anyone to have taken his partner. In the absence of anything to go on immediately, Simon had ordered him to finish up his last case, and it had taken every shred of discipline he had to wrest his mind from Sandburg's disappearance, and get through the necessary interrogation of the 'kiddie killer', as the media had dubbed their perp. But he'd grimly forced himself to finish the necessary paperwork on their bust; nothing fancy but enough to make sure the monster couldn't make bail. It was his job and, besides, Blair would be furious if Jim failed to do all in his power to keep that murderer safely locked away from hurting other kids.
Meanwhile, Rhonda had been busy, pulling out case files - anything with upcoming court dates or with old enemies who might carry a grudge, whether they were currently incarcerated or not. He looked up as she dropped a stack of folders on his desk, grateful to have something to sink his teeth into, something to do, to work on getting Blair back. Her expression of worried anxiety was tightly contained as she nodded at him and then made the rounds of the office, sharing out the rest of the pertinent files with his colleagues. They'd all made finding Blair their top priority; dividing the work would make it go a lot faster with all of them scanning the documents and following up on any potential leads.
But... Jim wondered if there was anything in any of the mountains of paper that would provide them with the necessary lead and, feeling fear clench in his chest, he sorely doubted it.
How the hell had the kid been taken right outside Police Headquarters? How could an assault and abduction occur with not a single cop witnessing the crime? It was very nearly inconceivable, but Jim could not, would not, entertain the notion that other cops would not go to Sandburg's aid if they saw him struggling or in trouble. Sure, there'd been resentment and speculation when Blair had gotten his badge, but those were just words, not malicious acts of criminal negligence.
For a moment, Ellison's shocked mind stalled as he considered what 'words' could do; could mean. Published words had turned his life upside down and laid the secret of his senses bare for the world to see, leaving him helpless and blind with anger. Spoken words had made the world believe that Sandburg was a liar and a fraud. Unspoken words had let that belief stand, however wrong it was. Jim had figured the ill feeling around the precinct would eventually dissipate when people came to trust Blair again and he once more became a fixture; unusual, but accepted. Surely to God his failure to clear Sandburg's good name hadn't led to other cops turning away when the kid was in trouble, to leave him to whatever the Fates decreed? No. He wouldn't believe that. Couldn't. He'd done what he could to stand by his partner without occasioning more talk and speculation; had protected Blair as well as he knew how from the consequences of Sandburg's press conference. When he'd wanted to admit publicly to his senses, Sandburg had railed against the idea, so Jim had backed down and accepted Blair's sacrifice on his behalf, though it stuck in his craw and made him sick to think Blair's single big lie was so widely accepted as the truth. But how could he ever live with it if his best friend and partner - his lover - was in trouble now because he'd allowed the lie to stand? Jim scrubbed his hands over his face and shook his head. No. Cops wouldn't abandon a colleague in trouble. Regardless of their personal feelings, cops backed one another up. Nobody had seen what was going down or they would have helped. Maybe he just couldn't face the truth - maybe he was a fool - but he had to believe that.
Sighing, he forced his mind back onto the issue at hand and tried to make sense of what had occurred. Was the abduction a random act, not really targeted at Sandburg personally, just the bad luck of being in the wrong place at the wrong time? If that was the case, then they had no real hope of any kind, no way of finding him; not short of getting the whole city looking for him. Nausea curled in Jim's gut as he wondered how many people would really care about the life of a rookie detective who had so recently been infamous as a self-proclaimed liar and cheat. How many cops would honestly give finding Blair their best shot? But, once again, his mind flinched at those fearsome thoughts.
God, he hated it, all of it - the lies and deception, the cost Sandburg had been paying for months now. The rumours and speculation, the nasty, ugly comments that some didn't even bother to mute. Bad enough his partner had sacrificed his reputation and personal credibility, not to mention his career, fame and a considerable fortune - would the cover-up now cost Blair his life? No... please, God. No. The enormity of the thought that he might never see Sandburg again, never touch him, or be touched, never hear his laugher or see that light in his eyes, never again hold his lover, never go to sleep with Blair in his arms or wake beside him each morning had Jim desperately fighting back the panic and a sense of desolation so vast and pervasive it was like a black hole sucking him down. He couldn't lose it, couldn't afford to be wasted by emotions; not now, not when Sandburg needed him to perform at his best.
Wearily, Jim shook his head. When they'd parted at the elevator, it had been the first time he'd let Sandburg go off on his own since Blair had graduated from the Academy, because he just couldn't stand the thought of his partner having to face all the crap on his own. The strain of it all had taken a toll on both of them, a heavy one - they might spend virtually every breathing moment together, but they sure hadn't been talking much, and touching less, for weeks now. Going for a couple of sandwiches had seemed so innocuous, so... safe. And he'd been so tired; he just hadn't had the energy to shadow Blair to the corner and back for such a few, short minutes. The first damned time in months that he hadn't kept Sandburg on his sensory radar screen... and the kid got snatched.
Frowning, suspicious of coincidences, Jim wondered if that meant it really was random or if, maybe, someone had been tailing them, watching for an opportunity for days, even weeks. If so, that argued a very deliberate act and someone both patient and very, very good at avoiding detection. Not that that scenario made him feel any better. Such meticulous effort only meant it might be that much harder to find his partner.
Rubbing his mouth, he shook his head again. It was all speculation. He needed to get his act together and find something a lot more tangible. Sighing, he reached for the first file and got to work, trying to find a lead, any lead.
Blair had no idea how much time had passed. There were no reference points and he knew he'd lost consciousness for indeterminate periods from the residual effects of the anaesthetic, and the blows he'd taken before they'd managed to subdue him. The overhead fluorescent light buzzed and blinked annoyingly, but that was the only sound he could hear beyond his own breathing and occasionally muffled moans or cursing when his arms, torso or legs cramped. No one had appeared through the heavy steel door behind him. Hunger gnawed at his gut, a ravening, grinding cramp, and he was thirsty, very thirsty, his lips and mouth desert dry. The headache had only gotten worse, leaving him feeling increasingly nauseated.
At first, figuring Brackett was watching him, he'd protested vociferously, calling out, "This is getting old real fast, man. What the hell do you want?" As more time had passed, he'd tried being annoying to get some attention and a few answers - he'd rambled on about stupid, machismo terror tactics and how they'd originated in earliest times as cave men sought to establish authority and excite fear, being perfected over the millennia as tools evolved into more coercive tactics but were still, essentially, examples of pre-civilized behaviour only one step up from the basic reptilian brain. He'd whistled with bravado, trying for the nonchalance of a child determined not to admit to an atavistic fear of the boogyman. When none of that had worked, he tried to pretend he didn't care how long they ignored him and left him hanging in chilly, agonizing discomfort. Seriously bugged that he had no way of tracking the passage of time, he'd been going for the stoic look for what felt like hours - or maybe days. The sensory deprivation was disorienting... and frightening.
All he really knew for sure was that he'd been hanging there long enough to lose all feeling in his hands and arms, a slow agonizing slide through prickling numbness to searing cramps to finally, blessedly, nothing at all. Wilfully, he refused to think what the effects of long-term compromised circulation could mean relative to the onset of, oh, say, gangrene. Flinching from the thought of life with no hands, he told himself that it probably didn't matter because a dead man had little need for hands - and increasingly he was becoming resigned to the idea that he wasn't going to get out of this alive. Instead of preoccupying himself with such grim and foreboding thoughts, he focused instead on trying to maintain his balance to ease the strain on his arms and back, but he could barely touch the ground with the balls of his feet, and his back and legs were huge knots of agony.
And, humiliatingly, he'd been incarcerated long enough for him to lose control of his bodily functions, so that no matter how hard he'd strained to control himself, he had to endure the disgust and discomfort of waste dripping down his legs to pool at his feet, and the stench was beginning to get to him. Balancing in a pool of his own urine was no picnic either, but at least his toes were, temporarily at least, warmer than the rest of him.
Certainly, more than enough time had passed for him to begin wondering, with no little anxiety, if anyone would ever come or if he'd been abandoned here to die.
And long enough to wonder if that would be such a bad thing.
As he teetered on the edge of despair, his anger surged and he fought back the sense of incipient hopelessness. So what if his life resembled the noisome mess at his feet and had as much joy in it as these barren walls? He'd made his choices for the right reasons and wouldn't unmake them, however much he ached for all that was lost. Having grown heartily sick of contemplating the horrors of his incarceration, he turned his thoughts inward and his throat grew thick as he lost himself in wondering what he'd missed most in the past weeks of his life... hell, months. The friendship he and Jim had shared for so long - the adventure and easy intimacy of it, the warmth and the fun of it? Or the passion they had shared for the almost three years that was now dying a miserable death, the heat unsustainable in the wake of so much turmoil and loss? And guilt. And grief. And regret.
"Really cheering yourself up, here, Sandburg," he muttered with no little self-disgust. He had to get a grip and not play into the tactics being used against him to destroy his confidence... not that it was all that hard to undermine these days. Shit, he thought, again looking around at his prison seeking distraction from his dreary reflections, but there wasn't much to either stimulate his imagination toward happy thoughts or distract him from unhappy memories of his partner... let alone his immediate future. He closed his eyes and again let his thoughts drift inward, away from his inescapable reality.
God, however bad it had gotten, or how ultimately hopeless everything had become, he still loved Jim with all the passion of his mind and body, heart and soul. It had been so beautiful, for a while. So... perfect. Utterly, inexpressibly perfect.
With poignant recollection, Blair allowed himself to remember that first, magical moment when they'd tumbled over the edge of platonic, brotherly friendship into erotic love and recognized it for what it was. They'd just gotten home from the oil rig, and Ellison had been chewing him out for having been so stupid as to risk being blown to smithereens - and Blair had been arguing back just as vociferously that he wasn't the kind of coward to run off and leave others to die, just to save his own neck. Besides, he pressed, Ellison did 'stupid' stuff like that all the time, so what was the big deal, anyway?
'It's my job!' the detective had roared.
'It's not your job to risk your life every damned day of the week!' Blair had shot back. It scared him how often Jim risked his life - left him breathless with fear that someday Jim would be killed. But his partner was a cop, a sentinel. There was no changing that, only trying to find ways to live with the fear. 'Besides,' he'd offered, trying to cool down, 'it's my job, too, now, in a way. I'm your partner. Risks'R US, man, get used to it.'
But Ellison had shook his head and muttered, 'I can't.'
'Oh, yeah, right,' Sandburg had sighed, suddenly tired, reminded that really all he was to Jim was a lifeline of sorts, someone who helped make sense of the senses. 'At least not 'till you've got your senses under control.'
'This isn't about my damned senses!' Jim had raged back, furious.
'No? Then what is it about?' Blair had asked innocently enough, not expecting what his question would provoke, not expecting anything really. Jim had stood there, looking pole-axed, shaking his head - and then had grabbed him and kissed him within an inch of his life, until they were both weak and sobbing for breath. So sweet. So hungry with passion.
Even now, those memories brought a soft smile to Sandburg's face. They had stood, panting and gaping at one another, each surprised both by their own burgeoning need and the desire reflected in the other's eyes. Ah, God, Blair could hardly believe what he was seeing, feeling, but he knew that his world had changed forever and that awareness had filled him with inexpressible joy. Jim loved him - as he loved Jim. In moments, they had stripped and ripped clothing out of the way and were touching, first with wonder and then with demand. Kissing, nuzzling, each of them smelling and tasting, imprinting in a kind of frenzy. Jim's senses were wide open, leaving him utterly vulnerable and Blair had taken the lead, guiding them, determining the pace. He'd been surprised by his own fierce sense of possessiveness as he'd growled and nipped at Jim's shoulder as he'd taken him from behind, filling Ellison with his being, with his life force. "Mine," he'd stated emphatically. "You belong to me." Even in memory, Sandburg shook his head. He'd never felt so, been so, aggressively dominant with a lover before. But the dominance was linked to a sense of protectiveness so tender that it thickened his throat and filled his chest with an exquisite ache. It was then, in those moments, that he'd consciously claimed Jim as his Sentinel and had truly become Jim's Guide.
He'd lain on his back and Jim had taken him then, as they watched one another, their gazes locked together so that they could read one another's hearts and souls as they joined their bodies, again becoming one with a burst of incandescent joy. Who could have imagined that big tough cop would be so... gentle and attentive a lover? But, of course, with his senses, he would be; and not just with his senses, but with the tenderness of his battered and beleaguered soul. As Jim had climaxed inside his body, filling him with the heat of pulsing life, Blair had cried out, "I am yours! I belong to you!" as Jim had growled, "MINE!"
And it was the simple truth. From then on, he had belonged to Jim and had done all in his power to safeguard and cherish his Sentinel. For months, they hadn't been able to get enough of each other...
But, the first flush of passion hadn't lasted and, as the months became a year and a little more, Jim had become increasingly uncertain about how far and fast his personal boundaries and sense of independence had eroded. Their relationship was so entangled with his senses and his frustration with them - and how much he identified Blair with those senses. Though he'd tried so hard to be what Jim needed and wanted him to be, it wasn't working - was, in fact, failing miserably. Now that love was all mixed up with obligation and debt, however often Sandburg insisted that his partner didn't owe him a damned thing. Sadly, though, the upshot was that he had no illusions that Jim loved him any longer, not as Ellison once had. Not with a kind of wonder and amazement, certainly with no kind of joy like there had been in the beginning.
'Detach with love,' his mother had always advocated. Leave, before the fire of passion had banked to embers, let alone before all that was left were cold ashes. Leave before it hurt too badly to recover. Leave; move on. Keep moving. Seize the day. Live for the now.
Blair bowed his head and told himself that he might have left if he could've figured out how to do it without Jim feeling as if one more beloved person was abandoning him. And then he snorted and shook his head weakly, castigating himself for his dishonesty. The truth was, he couldn't imagine leaving Jim; couldn't imagine any kind of joy in life without Ellison's presence. Oh, sure, Jim could be irascible and there were times when Blair seriously wanted to deck the guy, kind of like getting the attention of a mule by using a two-by-four. But, damn, Jim tried so hard to do his best; he had such an inner core of integrity and compassion, and was so very vulnerable for all his vaunted toughness and independence. And Jim was sure never boring - he was fun to be around with a killer sense of humour, easy to be with. And when the loving was good between them, it was incredible, mind-blowing, a union of spirits and hearts as much as of bodies. Intense beyond anything Blair had ever known, and he couldn't imagine ever having another lover but Jim in his life. But even if their physical relationship died, they would still be friends and partners. He would always be Jim's Guide.
Bottomline, it all added up to the fact that Sandburg couldn't bear to think of the emptiness that life would be without James Joseph Ellison, which was ultimately, given the way he'd been raised as a free spirit, a very scary realization. He'd always been fiercely independent; had revelled in the joy and adventure, the mysteries of life, and the possibilities that hovered in the unknown future. Always... until he'd found his Sentinel... and the Sentinel had become the best friend he'd ever had... and, finally, Jim had become the centre of his life, his touchstone and foundation, his reason for being.
Now, in the core of himself, Blair felt he was bonded to Ellison, as if Jim was a part of the fabric of his being. It would be easier to cut off an arm or give up his sight than imagine walking away from Jim, believing he could still be whole. Let alone happy. Not that they'd been truly happy together for quite some time now, he thought with poignant irony. Not since... well, nearly a year. Before Alex, certainly, though it had gotten steadily worse since then.
Couldn't stay, couldn't go, didn't know what to do. Didn't know if there was anything to do besides keep trying...
Nevertheless, he was pretty sure he literally couldn't live without Jim in his life. God, he hoped Jim didn't need him just as badly. He felt really scared then. What if... what if they really couldn't live without one another? Was that part of what it meant to be bonded as sentinel and guide - if one died, the other soon followed? His breath caught in his chest and tears blurred his eyes as that worry caught hold and wouldn't let go. 'Please, God,' he prayed with desperate appeal then for Ellison as he hadn't prayed for himself, 'let Jim be okay. Please don't take him, too! God, I just want him to be happy. And safe. Please. Dear God, take care of him.'
A vicious cramp in his leg brought him slamming back to his current reality and he gritted his teeth as he fought back the sob in his throat, panting when it finally passed. Wearily, for the umpteenth time, Blair gazed around the cold, damp, cell and up at the camera's blinking red light, signalling that it was working and recording endless hours of nothing. Blowing out a long sigh, Sandburg wondered if all his ruminations and regrets were a waste of time and the little emotional energy he had left.
Could be he didn't have a future to worry about.
Could also be that the only thing left to him was to endure this torment.
Could very well be that all his love of Jim Ellison was good for now was to give him the strength of will and purpose to ensure he never betrayed his Sentinel again.
'Please, God,' he begged again in the silence of his mind. 'Take care of Jim.'
Finally, just as Sandburg thought he might be on the verge of really losing it in pain and frustration, the lock clicked on the massive door and it squeaked open, grating heavily on the concrete flooring. Footsteps echoed hollowly behind him as more than one person entered, but he refused to give whoever it was the gratification of twitching or squirming around to see who was there. Besides, he pretty much figured it was Brackett, and that sonofabitch could damn well walk around to face him. Or talk to his back. Sandburg didn't much care. Passive resistance was the only kind left to him.
Brackett came into view, a supercilious look of superiority on his face as he gazed at Sandburg's stony expression. "You've held up better than I expected," the rogue ex-CIA agent drawled. But then his lips thinned. "However, if I leave you hanging there much longer, you'll lose your hands and maybe your arms." His gaze shifting past Blair, he orderly brusquely, "Unlock the chains."
Arms that had been without feeling clenched in agony as someone behind him pulled on them to twist him a little and gain better access to the lock on the cuffs. Without warning, the support gave way and, his cramped legs unable to bear his weight, he collapsed. Grimacing as he landed hard in his own waste, he fought to control his aversion to everything that was happening and to not cry out as agony flooded through his veins and wracked his muscles. Gritting his teeth, he rode it out, refusing to look up at the rogue CIA agent looming over him.
"You used to talk a whole lot more," the criminal mused. "I kind of miss the babbling."
Sandburg snorted and then laughed shakily. "Sorry I'm not more amusing company," he jibed back hoarsely. "But, then, your hospitality sucks."
Brackett chuckled coldly. "Why do you think I've brought you here?"
"Cause you missed me and wanted me to hang around more?" Blair offered, refusing to play the intimidation game.
Brackett squatted down to grab Sandburg's hair brutally and yank his face up. "Joke all you want, Sandburg," he said with disconcerting calm. "I can take all the time I want to bring you to the point of answering my questions directly and with a minimum of fuss on your part. Whether we do this the easy way or the hard way is all up to you."
"Right," Sandburg drawled sarcastically, though he was startled. He hadn't thought Brackett needed anything more than to hold him hostage to gain Jim's cooperation. What did the ex-agent want from him? "You won't get many questions answered by an unconscious or dead man," he challenged, wondering if Brackett wanted some ideas about how to use Jim's senses against him. His curiousity was piqued, and he hoped for some chance to mislead his abductor into being captured by Ellison. Wondering if a few answers might give him some ammunition to fight with, he asked as pertly as his dry, husky throat would allow, "But, for the sake of conversation, what questions did you hope to have answered?"
"I need to know how to guide a sentinel," Brackett told him bluntly. "And you're going to tell me."
Blair blinked, astonished by the answer. "You're kidding right?" he bluffed, his eyes wide and candid. "I mean, I have some theoretical ideas, but you've already read them in my papers -"
Brackett backhanded him hard across the face and Blair grunted at the blow. "Let's not play games that are a waste of both of our time," he snapped. "I know what you are and I know you've been helping Ellison for years, despite that very noble little gesture of self-immolation a few months back."
"Why do you need to know?" Sandburg stalled, still seeking information to help him fight this battle of wills.
"Because I have a sentinel who is a mess, frankly, and I need to make her functional," Brackett smiled wolfishly.
Sandburg's expression flattened but he couldn't keep his eyes from narrowing with suspicious speculation. "Her?" he echoed, his mind racing, flinching at memories. Brackett couldn't seriously mean -
"Old friend of yours," Brackett chuckled humourlessly, cutting into Sandburg's thoughts.
Rolling his eyes, Blair shook his head in disbelief. If Brackett had something planned with Alex, he was barking up the wrong tree, for SO many reasons. "Good luck, man," he snorted disparagingly. "She's a fruitcake... well, more like vegetable, actually."
"Not anymore," the ex-agent told him with eerie satisfaction, and Sandburg tried not to shiver at Brackett's calm confidence. "She's lucid but still pretty fucked up. Useless, until I know what to do to control her."
"She's in a maximum security institution," Sandburg retorted.
"So was I."
Blair stared at him and then nodded slowly. "Yeah, you were," he murmured with a sick, sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach before looking away and shrugging as he shook his head. The idea of Brackett and Barnes teamed, as some kind of unholy duo, didn't even bear thinking about. Besides, anything that he could say about Barnes and how to focus her senses would give this psycho information that could be used against Jim, and would ultimately be a betrayal of his partner... something he would not do, no matter what.
"Forget it, man," he snapped flatly. "I won't help you learn a damned thing.'
"Think about it, kid," Brackett replied casually. "Think about how much pain you can endure. I'll be back."
They left him lying there, locking the door behind them.
And then, for the first time, they turned out the lights.
Blair stared into the pitch-black room, only the pulsing red light of the camera in the corner giving any relief to its oppressiveness, and he sagged in despair. Swallowing against the fear that churned in his belly, he fought the furious tears that he'd refused to shed in the light when the camera could record his every expression. Gritting his teeth against the burn in his arms and the cramping of his legs, he shoved away the hollow desperate hunger and the relentless thirst, and dragged himself to curl against a cold wall. It was staggering to think that he'd been Brackett's target all along and that the criminal had no interest in Jim, or at least, so he'd said. Exhausted, Sandburg stared into the darkness, fighting to quell the horror he felt, and the utter helplessness. Brackett wouldn't have sent any video clip to Jim, so Ellison had no idea who had him. There was no hope now, however futile it had been, that he might somehow be rescued. Jim had no way, no information to use, to track him.
He was well and truly on his own.
But... he wasn't powerless, dammit. He had information Brackett wanted. He might not survive what the future held in store for him but, then, chuckling mirthlessly, he reminded himself that no one gets out of life alive. So long as he didn't cave - so long as he held fast to his commitment to not betray Jim - then he might die, but Brackett wouldn't win. Not much of a victory, maybe, but the best he could hope and fight for.
Shivering, pitifully grateful to be free of the chains and able to lie down, he closed his eyes and deepened his breathing until he finally slipped into a restless sleep.
It had been twenty-four hours since Blair had been snatched. The APB Simon had put out produced nil results. An appeal for witnesses on the evening and morning local radio and television news had had no response. Nobody had seen anything. There'd been no ransom demand. No threat to not testify, or stop an investigation, or... or whatever - or else. Not a damned thing.
Nothing. Nothing. And more nothing.
Ellison cursed as he tossed another useless report onto the ever-growing stack of old records he'd been sifting through to try to figure out who had taken Sandburg and why. Frustration surged, fuelled by helpless anger and increasing fear, and Jim smashed his fist down on his desk.
"Easy, Jim," Joel soothed from the next desk, concern softening his dark eyes. "Losing it won't help us find Blair."
"Nothing seems to be helping us find him," Ellison grated, disgusted. He felt like a caged animal, needing to prowl, to work off the tension that had him wound tighter than a steel coil.
Taggart's lips thinned and he looked away, equally frustrated and afraid. None of them had been able to come up with any reason for Sandburg to have been taken. There was no personal revenge theme that held water; no pressure being brought to bear on the PD in general, or on Ellison in particular. Blair hadn't been a cop long enough, hadn't been instrumental on enough cases since getting his shield, for anyone to target him for revenge. And the old enemies, the ones who might have borne a grudge, were either safely dead or locked away for a good long time. Some lowlife like Kincaid might have followers on the outside that might take action on his behalf, but Blair wouldn't be the most likely, or only, target.
Sure, people disappeared all the time, but not normally into thin air. Even psychos had a pattern with respect to victim-type, time of day or night, and the mechanics of the abduction. But the crime didn't fit the known pattern of some suspected, if as yet unapprehended, maniac. There had been nothing reported in the weeks prior that resembled the abduction, not anywhere in the western US of A, which left the sickening prospect that the kid had been taken randomly by some new psycho for some unknown, but likely no good, purpose. In the absence of witnesses, without something to suggest a motive, there were no leads and nothing they could do. None of it made any kind of sense. They had squat, and every detective in MCU knew it. For all they knew, though no one would say so around Ellison, Sandburg could already be dead.
Joel sighed and bowed his head. God, he hoped they'd find the kid soon. Somehow. The more time that elapsed, the worse the odds of ever finding him became. And, if he wasn't already dead, then what was he suffering? Not usually a violent man, Taggart had the worst desire to lash out and smash something with his bare fists.
Simon came out of his office and looked around wearily. Squaring his shoulders, preparing for resistance, he called to his team, "Okay, that's it. We've been on this non-stop for more than twenty-four hours. Everyone - take a break. Go home and get some rest."
As expected, the room erupted as everyone argued why they couldn't stop, but Banks raised his hands, his expression stern as he commanded their attention. "I know you're all worried, and I am, too. But we won't do Sandburg any good if we're so tired we start missing clues or connections," he said with compassionate but firm forbearance. "If there was something to follow up on... but there isn't. Go on, all of you," he emphasized with a sharp look at Ellison. "Go home."
Disgusted with the order to 'go home', Jim hauled on his coat and wordlessly headed down to his truck. But he didn't drive back to the loft. Instead, he began cruising the streets, looking for his snitches and other known informers. After an hour, he spotted Sneaks scuttling down an alley, and took off after him. When he caught up, he grabbed the short, jittery man by the arm and pushed him against a grimy brick wall, as he demanded, "What's the word on Sandburg's disappearance?"
"Nothin' man," Sneaks snivelled with an expression of fearful earnestness at the murderous scowl on Ellison's face.
"Don't give me that shit," the detective growled. "Cop gets snatched right outside police headquarters? Everybody must be yapping about it."
"Oh, uh, well, sure, people are talkin'," the little man agreed with a nervous nod. "Wonderin', you know, who took 'im. But nobody knows nothin', or they ain't talkin', that's for sure. Man, I'd tell you if I knew anything. I like the kid. But... but it's gotta be out'a town muscle. Nobody has heard anythin' about anybody havin' a jones on for your partner, man. You gotta believe me!"
Ellison glared at his best informant, gauging the truth of the man's words and manner. The smaller man's heartbeat was racing, but that was probably fear. Finally, Jim nodded and stepped back. "Okay," he grated. "But you call me immediately if you get anything, you hear me? I'll pay for whatever information you can dig up that helps me find Sandburg."
"Sure, sure, I'll call," Sneaks gabbled as he eased away. "You can count on it." When he was certain Ellison wasn't just playing with him and was really letting him leave, he turned and hightailed it out the far end of the alley.
Jim watched him go and then stalked back to his truck. Out of town muscle? Maybe. But why? Livid with helpless frustration and rage, Ellison slammed his fist down on the dash. Why, dammit? Why? But fear curled in his gut and he clamped his jaw tight as he shook his head. 'Why' didn't matter nearly as much as 'where' - he knew as well as did any other cop that time was their, and Sandburg's, enemy. If they didn't find him soon, the odds increased that they never would. He rubbed the back of his stiff neck and then switched on the ignition.
Sandburg grunted as another brutal punch slammed into his gut. Gritting his teeth against the pain, he sobbed in breath, refusing to give way. They'd strung him up again, and this was Brackett's second attempt to determine how much abuse he could take, not that the ex-agent was beating him personally. No, for that he'd brought in his bullyboy, a huge bruiser of an apparently nameless brute who said nothing and followed orders with passionate fervour. Sandburg thought of him as 'Igor'. Blearily, barely conscious, he heard the door behind him open as someone came in.
"Is he ready to talk yet?" Brackett asked. Igor shrugged and shook his head as he moved out of Blair's line of sight. Groggily, Sandburg wondered if the man was mute and unable to speak.
"Uggnnhh," he groaned again as a massive fist suddenly drove into his kidneys so hard that he swung from the chain hooked into the ceiling as Brackett apparently left again, closing the door behind him. Agony burst up the corded muscles of his arms and through his battered body, and he had to bite his lip hard enough to draw blood to keep from crying out. Time had ceased to have any meaning in his windowless, cold, concrete cell. Sometimes the lights were on, sometimes off. Often, they left him alone for what seemed long periods, but other times they harried him, returning after only brief absences. They'd not given him anything to eat or drink, and he'd begun to consider that a mercy of sorts, given he'd have vomited anything in his stomach long ago. Besides, the immediate, sharp discomfort of gnawing hunger had already begun to fade, as it did when he fasted - maybe, he thought wryly with a slightly hysterical, if muted, sob, he could just consider this an extreme form of cleansing his system.
Yet another punch into his solar plexus drove the air from his lungs and the sharp, shooting pain was too much to simply absorb in his sorely weakened condition. He passed out, the only respite available to him.
Ellison had been driving around the city for hours, first down around the dockside warehouses and alleyways, and then through one decaying inner-city neighbourhood after another, looking, listening, sniffing, desperately seeking some sign of his partner's presence. He'd thought, moments before, that he'd caught something, a muted groan sharply cut off as if by a closing door. The odds of it being Sandburg, of it being more than a wino sleeping off a binge, were astronomical, but he had to hope. Over and over, he circled the same block of deserted and boarded up buildings that decades before had been affluent stores and shops, and even a bank - but there was nothing but the steady heartbeat of one individual in the old bank building... it wasn't Sandburg's heartbeat and he figured, with crashing disappointment, that he'd been right in the first place; it was just some homeless person seeking shelter from the cold streets.
As the hours went by, he was all too conscious that his control on his senses was slipping; they were spiking or disappearing with no warning, and the throb of his thundering headache was making him nauseous. Instead of focusing on the search, his thoughts kept slipping away to memories of Sandburg; some shamed him, others that normally made him smile were poignant now with his unspoken fear that he might never see the kid again. He ached inside whenever he thought with disgust about the tension between them the last few months. He'd been so sure that getting Blair a badge would be the answer to all their problems. It had seemed so obvious that once Sandburg was his permanent partner at work as well as at home, that everything would be fine.
But it hadn't been fine.
The pressures on Sandburg had been enormous and Jim knew he hadn't helped with his guilt and frustration. Shaking his head, trying to clear it to listen and look, he found that all he could think about was how much he wanted Blair back, wanted him safe, wanted him in his bed and in his life as his lover and best friend, partner and Guide. When was the last time they'd laughed or made love? When was the last time they'd even spoken to one another as friends? And whose fault had that been? Blair had to be all right - he had to find Sandburg before whoever had taken him killed him.
He knew he was already, probably, too late to prevent hurt. But he couldn't think about what Blair was suffering... it would drive him crazy. The kid was tough, stronger than most ever gave him credit for. Sandburg would hold on, would know it was only a matter of time before Jim found him. Blair wouldn't quit - wouldn't... wouldn't die, if he was given even the slimmest chance to survive.
Heartsick, Jim pulled over and pinched the bridge of his nose to stave off the burn of tears. He took a deep breath and then another, trying to calm his fears and focus on the need to think and search with a clear mind, not one that was haunted with guilt, recrimination, frustration and fear. But it was no use. All he could see was Blair's pale, exhausted visage and tentative, weary smile, as they'd split up at the elevator. The last time he'd seen the man who was the most important person in his life, the man he loved more dearly than life itself, and there'd been no intimacy between them, no words of affection, no lingering looks, and no friendly touches - just business as usual.
God, please, that couldn't have been the last time he'd ever see Sandburg. Please...
Forcing the overwhelming, disabling emotions away, his expression an impassive mask that hid his roiling emotions, Ellison swung back into the traffic and finally headed home. Simon was right. He'd be no good to Blair if he pushed so hard he lost the ability to reason.
But when he got home and walked into the loft for the first time since Blair had been taken, his shoulders slumped as he looked around, a lost, even frightened expression on his face. It felt so... empty without the warmth and vitality of Blair's presence. Ellison felt as if an essential piece of his body, of his soul, had been ruthlessly torn away, leaving a great, gaping hole. Anguished beyond words, Jim couldn't even begin to imagine climbing the stairs to face their bed. Restlessly, he pulled a beer from the fridge and prowled around the kitchen and living room, out onto the balcony and back again, around and around, like a panther trapped in a cage. Finally, back out on the balcony, he looked out over the city, his throat tight. "Where are you, Chief?" he whispered, anguished. "Where the hell are you?"
"Obviously, this isn't working," Brackett sighed, shaking his head. He wasn't sure whether to be furious, disgusted or somewhat in awe of the young cop's determined resistance. Blair's body was a mass of bruises, and he probably had at least one cracked rib; from the bloody waste dripping from his body, one, maybe both, of his kidneys had also seen better days. Chewing on his lip as he studied the apparently unconscious man hanging before him, he thought about his options and, shrugging, finally turned away to give orders to Igor. "If he hasn't talked after three days of your devoted attention, I doubt he's going to, and if we continue along this road, he'll be dead before I get what I need out of him. So... cut him down, give him water once a day and food every three days."
Blair kept his eyes half-closed, feigning insensibility, but it was all he could do to hold back the groan of relief to know the beatings were over and that he might finally be given water. As for food, he wasn't sure he could keep anything down.
Evidently unhappy that his best efforts had proven insufficient, Igor's face flushed with anger as he glared at his human punching bag. But he nodded, signifying he'd understood the orders.
"Good. I'm going to get the supplies I'll need to drug him into talking, and I'll bring Barnes back with me," the rogue agent continued as he strode toward the door. "I don't know how long I'll be gone but he damned well better be alive and able to talk when I get back. You got that?"
Grunting, Igor nodded again, his lips curling into a derisive snarl.
Sandburg couldn't hold back the shiver of apprehension when Brackett mentioned drugs, and he thought he'd be downright sick, though there was nothing in his stomach to heave up, when he heard Alex Barnes would soon be free. Catching the look on Igor's face, he realized the behemoth knew he was awake - and the cold hatred that flared in the big man's eyes chilled him to his soul. Closing his eyes to shut out the promise of more pain, he silently prayed that Brackett wouldn't be gone long... or, perhaps, just long enough to come back and find him dead. As the thoughts flickered in his pain-dulled mind, Blair found he really wasn't sure what he was praying for. He didn't want to die, certainly not slowly at the hands of the brute who evidently got off on tormenting him; but nor did he want to risk revealing anything that would betray Jim while under the influence of whatever truth serum Brackett planned to pump into his body. He'd like to pray that Jim would find him but... but he didn't think that was going to happen. His partner could do amazing things, had even worked the occasional miracle, but even Jim needed something to work with, and there was no trail to follow.
He heard the big door close behind him and knew he was now alone for an unspecified period of time with his torturer. Unable to stifle a cry of pain as Igor roughly unlocked the chains, dropping him hard to the cement floor, he wondered if this was how prisoners had felt in the dungeons of long abandoned castles; helpless, hopeless, terrified; not wanting to die but unable to imagine living with relentless, endless agony and deprivation.
The bolt of blinding pain that ricocheted through his body when Igor kicked him mercifully blotted out all thought as consciousness fled.
"It's been three days, Jim," Simon observed, his voice thin with strain as he studied his best detective. Grey-faced, sleeplessness and fear etched in deep lines around his eyes and mouth, Ellison looked wasted. "We've gone through every file, chased down every snitch, explored every possibility we can think of, and there's nothing left we can do. I'm sorry, truly sorry - but I've got to get the team working on other cases. Blair's... well, I think we have to accept -"
"Don't say it," Jim cut in, hoarsely, lifting a hand as if to ward off a blow. "Just... don't say it, okay?"
Banks sighed and leaned back in his chair, his face creased in a frown of sorrowful exhaustion. Ellison was far from the only one who hadn't slept much in the last three days.
Jim got up to pace to the window and look out over the city. "I know... I know that logically there's not much hope but..." He had to pause as his voice cracked, betraying the ragged state of his emotions. Swallowing, he continued hollowly, "But I can't give up. I have to believe he's alive and that we'll find him or..."
Jim shook his head. How could he even begin to explain what Blair meant to him or how impossibly wretched and untenable life without Sandburg would be? No one knew or could even begin to understand what they had, what they shared... all that they were. Swallowing, Ellison regretted that now; felt as if he'd somehow denied Blair in fundamental ways for too many years. No more. If he got the kid back, there'd be no more secrets, no more hiding all that they were to one another. Shaking his head, he sighed, "I just have to get him back."
"So, what are you saying?" Simon asked wearily, simply for clarification, as he pretty much knew what to expect. "You want an indefinite leave of absence to keep looking until, well, until you can accept that there's nothing any of us can do?"
"Yeah," Jim replied on a soft gust of breath. He bowed his head for a moment before turning to face his boss and good friend. "I understand your position, Simon. I know you have no choice but to get on with other cases," he said, his voice raspy and despairing. "But I can't give up. There has to be something more I can do. He's out there, suffering God knows what. I have to find him."
Nodding, Banks gazed at him compassionately. "I hope you do find him, Jim. I really do," he rumbled. "But if you don't and you need, well, anything, just let me know. Okay?"
"Thanks, Simon," Ellison replied tightly as he opened the office door, but he couldn't quite make eye contact. He didn't want Banks to see that, if he couldn't find Blair, or if he found Sandburg too late to save the kid's life, there wasn't anything anyone would be able do to help him deal with the soul-destroying magnitude of that inconceivable loss.
Once he reached his truck in the underground lot, Jim sat for a long time, staring into infinity as he contemplated the problem. He had to make people want to find Sandburg - had to get as many people as possible and all the cops looking, searching, and watching for any clue, anything that might help find the kid. And not just in Cascade, because it was all too likely that Blair had been taken somewhere outside the city. His jaw clenched and he swallowed hard, knowing what it would cost him, but he couldn't see any other way to generate the respect and sympathy that Sandburg deserved and that would create the national publicity he needed to help him find his partner. Nodding to himself, he switched on the ignition and pulled out of the parking garage.
The lean, aesthetic man in his sixties peered at Ellison with a discerning and astute gaze. "Are you sure you want to do this?" Dr. Eli Stoddard asked dryly. "Once begun, there will be no turning back."
"I'm sure," Jim affirmed, his throat tight. "What do we need to do?"
Stoddard's gaze dropped to the document on his desk that Ellison had given him the day before. His long, thin fingers delicately touched the title page, 'The Sentinel by Blair Sandburg', as if it was a precious artefact. Sighing, he thought about how his long-time and much-beloved student had laboured over this paper, setting out so beautifully and completely the truth of Blair's persistent vision of the existence of sentinels in the modern age; he wished with all his heart that the man across the desk could have seen his way to acknowledging his reality before tragedy had struck. It had hurt Eli badly when Blair had decided to deny his work and label himself a fraud; hurt even more to remain silent while his brilliant and so ethical protege had been maligned and expelled. Hurt most of all to think Blair now might well be dead; such a waste; a terrible, irreplaceable waste of a fine, even brilliant mind, and a man who had been a joy to know and a treasure in his life.
"Dr. Stoddard?" Jim spoke into the lengthy silence.
"Hmm? Oh, yes, well, the committee will have to approve Blair's work in his... absence," Eli replied distantly. "And the Chancellor will have to agree to award his PhD - you may have to meet with the others to convince them of the validity of this work."
"Whatever is required," Ellison hastened to agree. "When will the published work be available for others to read?"
Shrugging, Stoddard looked out the window at the fountain and the sea beyond. "A month, maybe more. The University moves on its own timetable."
"A month?" Jim exclaimed, dismayed. "But - I need it as soon as possible! That's too long. I mean, it's all I've got to generate interest and help in finding Sandburg."
Anger flashed in the older man's eyes as he turned his gaze back to the detective - the sentinel - he'd been avoiding having to look at. His voice was cold, as uncompromising as steel, as he replied, "Perhaps, if you'd been willing to be honest about this work sooner, you'd have the book in hand now instead of having to wait for it. But, then, perhaps if that had been the case, Blair wouldn't be missing and most probably dead now."
Flinching at the words, Jim turned his face away. Swallowing, he rasped, "I can't blame you for your anger. Nothing you can say or think can condemn me more than I've already condemned myself for my foolishness."
The anguish in the younger man's voice made Eli feel ashamed. "I'm sorry," he murmured. "I'm wrong to hold you accountable and so are you. Blair... well, Blair loved you. He denied this work to protect you, as was appropriate in a professional context. He wouldn't want you to be feeling guilty now."
Frowning thoughtfully, Ellison looked at the old professor as he said, "You knew his work was truthful, didn't you? Even after the press conference."
"Yes, of course," Eli replied impatiently, as if the question was absurd and shouldn't have had to be asked. "I'm his senior advisor and, I hope, a long time friend. His very real excitement at having found you could not have been a sham. And, well, Blair was too ethical to ever falsify research. He'd never told me your name, and I dare say he intended to edit this document before submitting it formally for review, to continue to safeguard your secret. But I'd guessed your identity years ago, soon after Blair had found you, and I was certain after he moved into your apartment." Once again, his gaze drifted toward the window and he smiled in poignant memory. "He couldn't stop talking about you - not the 'sentinel' - you, his friend, the courageous detective, the very fine man. He admired you so very much. Respected you." Eli's voice cracked as he shifted uncomfortably in his ancient leather chair. "I was... jealous of you, I suppose. I had wanted Blair to follow in my footsteps, not join a police department. But... but he only wanted to devote his life to you."
Jim's lips tightened and thinned as he bowed his head, and he had to fight the lump that had arisen in his throat. "He deserved better of me," he mumbled, his voice tight with pain.
"Yes, I think he did," Eli agreed sombrely. "However, I'm biased in my opinion, in that I held Blair in exceedingly high esteem. But Blair himself always seemed not only grateful to know you, but astonished by his good fortune in having gained your friendship. I doubt he'd think you should be making this public or putting yourself at risk for his sake."
"Don't talk about him like he's dead," Jim said then, plaintively aggressive, unable to bear any more past tense references to his partner. "He has to still be alive."
"I sincerely hope you're right, Detective Ellison," Stoddard replied soberly. Looking again at the manuscript, he went on, "I'll get this published as quickly as I can. If he is still alive, then there's no time to be wasted in finding him."
"Thank you, Dr. Stoddard," Jim said as he stood to take his leave. "Just let me know when you need me to meet with the necessary people."
When Blair woke to the now familiar, total darkness, he lay perfectly still for a long moment, appreciating the odd comfort of the lack of light as it meant he was alone and, for a brief while at least, didn't have to absorb more pain. He drew in slow breaths to gather his strength against the agony that ravaged his body, and then moved gingerly to crawl to his favourite wall. On the way, he touched a plastic bottle and a small, triangular package that crinkled and smushed when he put his weight on it inadvertently. Trembling with hope, he drew the bottle closer and shoved himself into a half sprawling, half sitting position, gasping at the shards of pain that coursed through his aching, protesting body. Fumbling with numb, prickling fingers, he unscrewed the cap, relieved beyond words to find the seal unbroken and hoping nothing had been injected through the plastic. It sloshed like water, had the weight of water and, when he lifted it reverently to his lips, found it was glorious water, and it was even still cool.
Heaven. Pure heaven.
Though so parched with thirst his lips had begun to crack and he desperately wanted to gulp it down, he forced himself to take small sips and then wait to see if his stomach was as incredibly grateful as his throat. Once he'd consumed about a quarter of the liquid, as nearly as he could tell from the diminishing weight of the bottle, he very carefully screwed the cap back on tightly. Holding it close to his bruised and battered chest, he gathered up the sandwich and continued on his slow, lurching crawl to the wall, where he curled, panting and exhausted.
Letting the pain wash through and over him, no longer fighting it but only endeavouring to endure, forcing himself to long, slow breaths in an effort to seek some semblance of calm and serenity in the face of his hellish existence, he wondered if he dared hope that Igor was actually going to leave him alone and just follow orders. Lying there in the darkness, getting water on a daily basis and food every once in a while, would be wondrously peaceful. Maybe the pain would even, eventually, go away. He'd gotten so used to the perpetual chill of the room that it scarcely registered anymore, except when his shivering aggravated his strained and battered muscles. Sighing, he stared sightlessly into his perpetual night and found himself wondering how Jim was doing.
God, it had to be driving Ellison crazy to not know where he was or if he was alive or dead. Even if things hadn't been good between them, they were still friends - they still loved one another. Would Jim ever find out what had happened to him? Closing his eyes, slumping on the concrete, Blair didn't know which would be hardest for his partner - to know he was dead, because dead he'd surely be by the time his body was left to be discovered, or to always wonder what had happened to him. He honestly didn't want Jim to know that he'd been beaten so brutally; it would hurt his partner to know that, hurt him very badly. But if Jim at least knew it was over and he couldn't be tortured any more, maybe his beloved could get on with the mourning and healing... get on with his life. But then, Jim was a pretty pragmatic guy, so maybe he would accept that he just wouldn't ever know what had happened, would assume Blair was dead and move on.
Maybe, the hateful little voice in Sandburg's mind goaded, he'll be relieved to be on his own again. 'Maybe nobody is even still looking for you and they've all gotten on with their lives.' Maybe the only one who would ever spare his memory a thought from time to time was his mother. It wasn't like anyone really needed him in their lives.
'Well, that's all very demoralizing,' he castigated the little voice. 'Brackett really doesn't need your help in wearing me down, you know? Jim loves me and I know he's out there doing his best to find me. Go away. Leave me alone.' Shoving himself back up, deciding that even if the ugly little voice was right, and he was the only person in the world who cared if he lived or died, Sandburg decided he did care and he would fight to hold onto some shred of decency and humanity as long as he could. Grimly, he opened the precious bottle of water, drank a little more of it, and then splashed it sparingly, but repeatedly, until it was gone, on his lower body, cleaning himself of his own filth as best he could. His wet skin dimpled and rippled with shivers as he laid himself back down and closed his eyes. Maybe he'd feel like eating the next time he woke up.
'I know Jim loves me,' he told himself again, feeling his throat tighten with the ache inside. The hardest part of all that was happening was his intellectual belief that he'd never see Jim again, never share a joke or walk along the harbour. Never go fishing again... never hold him again. Never make tender love to him again or be held in his turn, be loved as he'd never been loved before, not just physically but with an all-encompassing reality of being. Jim needed him, as he'd never been needed before, and wanted to share a life with him. They belonged together - were incomplete apart. His heart, his very soul had to believe that there was still some hope that he'd survive, however miraculous that might be; had to believe that it wasn't all over... or he'd go mad. Letting his heart lead his mind into happier, much warmer memories of the best times he'd spent with Jim, imagining his hand was his lover's caressing his body, he gentled himself into sleep.
"Jim, are you sure about this?" Simon asked, astonished and completely nonplussed at the unexpected and probably useless sacrifice Ellison was making.
"I have to do this, Simon," Jim replied resolutely. "Don't you see? It's all we've got left. The only thing that might possibly help us find him!"
Banks shook his head as he looked away and grimaced, wretchedly unwilling to put his thoughts into words, but he had no choice. "Jim," he began compassionately, "it's been nearly a week. You know as well as I do that Blair's probably already dead."
"I can't believe that," Jim gritted as he turned away to face the windows. "I... I can't. Because if... well, then, it's all over, everything."
"Hey, c'mon," Simon exclaimed, alarmed now. "I know it would hurt, be hard. But life goes on. You know what it'll be like if you go public. The media will be all over you again! You might not be able to do your job if it keeps up - and you might be giving it all up for nothing."
Ellison shook his head. "Not for 'nothing'. I can't explain it, Simon," he finally replied, his voice husky with his effort to maintain control. "I need him, like I need air. I should have done this a long time ago," he added softly. Sighing, he shrugged and turned back to face his boss, finding refuge in the facts of what was happening, the action he was taking to get his partner back. "Alive or dead, Blair deserves to have his work and achievements acknowledged. I'll contact a publicist and acquire a publisher, and I'll make personal appearances on national talk shows. I'm only waiting for the University to award Sandburg's doctorate and print the first run of books to give the whole incredible reality some official credence. I'm meeting with the committee tomorrow and Stoddard is confident the dissertation will be accepted. I just wanted you to know before it all goes public."
Blowing a sigh, Banks nodded, resigned to the inevitable. "It's your decision. I'll help and support you any way I can, you know that."
"Yeah, I do," Jim replied with a crooked smile. "You're a good friend. Thanks."
After meeting with the dissertation committee, feeling like a dog that had performed elaborate tricks and was now hoping for acceptance and reward, Ellison wearily headed home. He closed and locked the door behind him, then looked bleakly around the loft. He was beginning to seriously loathe the empty silence and, though he was usually indifferent to ambient temperature, the place felt chilled. Shaking his head, knowing it wasn't the air in the room that left him feeling cold inside, he wearily climbed up to his bedroom and stripped off his clothing. It had been three days since he'd first met with Eli Stoddard, seven since Blair had gone missing - a week of endless enquiries and searches and meandering drives as he cruised the city and the nearby countryside; a week with little sleep and less food. Whenever he tried to eat, his gut clenched in revolt; and when he tried to sleep, he found himself instead wandering the apartment, searching out the fading presence of Blair in the loft, the diminishing scent of his lover on the furniture, the sheets and pillows and on the clothing hanging in Sandburg's closet downstairs. More often than not, he crashed on the couch rather than face the loneliness of their bed.
He'd only known this depth of despair once before... at the fountain, when Blair had been lying dead at his feet. He'd gone a little crazy in those moments - more than a little. If he hadn't gotten the kid back, he wasn't sure what he would have done. Well, that wasn't quite true. He would have hunted Barnes down and killed her, certainly - there would have been no confusing, inexplicable and disgusting lust between them, however much Sandburg tried to explain it was a kind of cosmic drive for sentinels to mate. No. He would have annihilated Barnes for having taken Blair from him. And then he would have blown his own brains out in penance and hideous despair because, while Barnes might have been the instrument of Blair's death, Jim knew he'd been the reason. He'd kicked Blair out of their home; he'd been the one to say he couldn't handle their relationship any longer and had driven his partner away, leaving Sandburg alone and vulnerable. He still didn't understand his own behaviours, nearly a year ago now. How could he have done such a thing? How could he reject and push away the one person who made his life make sense? The person who had taught him what it meant to love? Blair was... light to him. Life. Everything.
He crawled into the bed and clenched Blair's pillow close, burying his nose in its softness. Inhaling deeply, he could still smell the essence of his lover, best friend, partner and Guide. But it was a poor substitute for holding the strength and warmth of the living, breathing, and so very vital man in his arms. Every muscle in his body clenched as he tried to again fight back the emotions that had threatened to overtake and unman him for the past week. God, he missed Sandburg with an anguished ache so deep and profound that it defied description. It just filled him, all the time, like a rock of ice in his belly, burning and yet frozen, heavy, and like bands of steel around his chest, making it hard to breathe and crushing his heart. Did Blair know how much he was needed? Loved? Wanted? So desperately that Jim would give all he had and all he was to have him back safe?
The rigid muscles started to tremble, little shivers of misery that rippled over and through his body as he burrowed into the pillow. Ellison knew everyone thought Sandburg was already dead... maybe even hoped he was dead and not suffering hideous abuse. Fear and frustration welled then, making him pant in his effort to not vomit. He couldn't hope Blair was dead, honestly couldn't cope with the emptiness of that cruel possibility; but no more could he bear to think of that gentle, good man suffering. It was eating Jim alive, the not knowing, the not being able to do anything, the fear and helplessness, the bone-deep sorrow and despair. Blair would know, right? Must know Jim hadn't given up; that he was still and always would try to find him? Blair knew, had to know, how much he was loved.
But the tears burned then as the tremors turned to shudders that wracked Jim's body, and a sob forced its way up from his closed throat. How was the kid to know? They'd scarcely spoken, let alone touched, for weeks before he'd disappeared. Jim had thought they'd have a lifetime to get past the hurt and grief and guilt that wafted like spectres between them; a lifetime of love and laughter, of warmth and desire and companionship. Another sob broke loose, sounding more like a stifled growl as Ellison berated himself for his stiff, cold, defensiveness in the face of the monumental gift Blair had given him. Gifts, plural. Blair had given up his career. Tossed away his personal credibility. Had pinned on a badge and strapped on a weapon, when that had to go against his lover's fundamental beliefs and principles. Had listened to all the crap without dishing out a word in his own defence. Had accepted the disgust and distrust of his fellow officers with stoic forbearance. And his reward for all that? A partner too ashamed at remaining silent, who held him at arms-length and seemed only barely tolerant of his presence, a lover too wracked by guilt and grief at the magnitude of the freely given gifts, to accept them.
"I'm sorry, Chief," Jim wept into the pillow, his rasping whisper muffled so that even he could barely hear his own voice. "I... I don't know what else to do, Blair," he gasped, then, pain filling his chest as the tears leaked from beneath his tightly closed lashes. "Jesus, babe, please... please know I love you. Please be alive. Dear God... please come back to me."
Blair squinted against the sudden, sharp light that welled into his cell when Igor arrived with another bottle of water. The silent hulk ambled insolently into the chilly chamber, a gun held loosely in his other hand, as if only too aware that the wasted man before him would be no physical threat. Coming to loom over Sandburg, he negligently dropped the water bottle to bounce off his prisoner's body, but this time he didn't turn away and leave immediately. Blair averted his eyes, as if by not seeing the bully, he could pretend the man didn't exist; but the hackles on the back of his neck rose and he looked up and froze at the expression of wanton lust on the big man's face. Oh, God, not that. Please, not that. Though sickened by the cruel smile playing around Igor's thick lips, Sandburg hardened his own gaze in defiance and his body stiffened reflexively, preparing to fight as hard as he could, however pathetically that might be.
A low chuckle, cold and malicious, rumbled from the big man's belly as his hot gaze found Sandburg's. "You're mine, little one," he growled, his voice rough with want. "Think on that."
And then he turned and sauntered away, drawing the heavy, vaulted door closed behind him and leaving Blair again in a darkness that seemed icier than it had only moments before. Swallowing hard, Sandburg blinked and blew out a long breath. "So, Igor has a voice," he muttered to himself. "Could have lived the rest of my life quite happily never knowing that," he added with a desperate attempt at wry humour, clutching the slightly hysterical laughter that bubbled in his chest close, as a flimsy shield against the new horror that grew in his gut.
Summoning up as much stoicism as he could muster, he uncapped the water bottle and drank deeply. The two days of rest he'd enjoyed since the first bottle had been dropped off had left him feeling less battered, and the day before, he'd even managed to choke down most of the stale sandwich. His instinct for survival kept insisting he had to nourish his body to help himself stay alive - but his head wasn't sure that would be such a good thing. His head seemed to think he might well be praying for death before the peace of it was granted to him.
For the first time, Blair began to think that maybe his head was right. He shuddered as he thought about what Igor evidently had in mind for this sojourn of time that they'd be sharing without Brackett's ironic, admittedly criminal, but at least sane control. He sternly told himself that rape, however dreadful, wasn't a reflection on the victim - but then he wondered if he shouldn't have fought harder to get away when he realized what Igor had in mind. Shit, as if beaten, battered, and weakened by deprivation, he'd have even made it to the door. But he should have tried - and he resolved to fight with all he had the next time Igor came into the cell. Otherwise, how could he ever face Jim again? As much as he knew Jim loved him - how could he ever admit that he'd just let it happen? And if the worst happened? If he died resisting...
'Get a grip, Sandburg,' he chided himself mercilessly, though it was a struggle to think at all coherently. Distracted by pain, light-headed with hunger and the effects of the beatings, terrified, it was a struggle to think at all and not give way to blind panic. Ruthlessly, he forced himself to draw in slow, deep breaths and to access the intellectual voice of his mind - the one that analysed dispassionately, even with brutal truth. 'It's either going to happen or you're going to get yourself killed resisting. One or the other - those are the choices.'
But the cold, objective truth was appalling. He felt so pitifully helpless, so incapable and unready to invite death and yet... how could he not?
Tears burned his eyes and he had to fight the sob that welled in his chest as he curled around his nakedness. He knew Igor was probably watching the tape, listening, hoping to hear the wretched sounds of his despair and he'd be damned if he'd give the monster the satisfaction of hearing him weep. But - he couldn't win this one. No matter how hard he fought. If he died, he'd never see Jim again, and that realization ripped him apart. And if he was raped by that... animal? How could his relationship with Jim, already rocky, ever be restored to what it had once been? How could he ever bear to impose himself on Jim again, expecting love in return, physical, sexual love, after Igor had been inside of him? It was obscene. Swallowing hard, staring into the darkness, Blair decided that death was the only real option left to him - it would be more merciful to both himself and Jim. Hideous, devastating... but merciful, given the alternative.
When he began to feel dizzier than usual not long after, and realized the water had been drugged, Blair swore with vociferous bitterness until his words became incoherent and muzzy. The choice, as horrible as it was and as soul-wrenching to make, had been stripped from him; he'd have no chance to goad Igor into killing him! Sonofabitch! He couldn't even die right! He was going to have to endure a violation so profound that it would change who he was, destroy all that was good in his life.
"Shit," he ground out as he fumbled to cap the bottle, to save what was left of the contaminated water. He'd want it to clean himself up... afterwards. Or he'd lose all sense of his humanity. All sense of self and every last vestige of the tatters of personal dignity he'd striven to maintain despite the deprivation and torture, and the relentless hopelessness of his situation. And he truly would go mad.
'I'm sorry, Jim,' he mourned piteously in the depths of his soul. 'I hope you never know...'
And then the darkness inside his head spiralled in and took him, leaving him utterly defenceless and unable to resist when Igor next shoved the heavy door open.
Jim tossed the keys into the basket on the table by the door and shrugged out of his coat, hanging it on the hook absentmindedly as he thought about the last few hours with his father and Stephen. They had been concerned about his decision to admit to his senses publicly, but not because of any embarrassment that might cause them - which had surprised him. He hadn't expected them to be more concerned about what the exposure would do to him, in terms of dealing with aggressive media hounds and of the risks it might add to his already dangerous job. They had also offered whatever support they could give - and were both clearly sorrowed by Sandburg's disappearance. Jim suspected they, like the guys at work, believed Blair was already dead, but at least they hadn't said so out loud. God, he was tired of everyone giving up hope, as if it could be that simple to move on - that easy to imagine never seeing Sandburg again.
As he went to the fridge to pull out a beer, he wondered why he hadn't heard anything from Naomi - and he figured she had to be out of the country to have not seen or heard any of the news reports about Blair's disappearance. Maybe once he went public and the news was picked up nationally, probably even internationally, she would call. He hated to have her find out that way that her son had been abducted, but he had no clue of where in the world she might be. If she didn't call after he started making public appearances on television, then it could only be because she was in a remote place with some guru who didn't bother keeping up with the news. Whatever. There wasn't much he could do about it. At some point, she'd call and he'd have to deal with her fear and grief. Blair would want him to take care of her.
Standing on the balcony as dusk settled over the city, Jim took a swallow of beer and winced at the stab of pain in his head. The headache had become a relentless throbbing varied only by shafts of blinding agony. He grimaced, wrinkling his nose, as his sense of smell also spiked, sharpening the noisome odours of the street and nearby alleys.
Swallowing against a surge of nausea, he closed his eyes and struggled to get a lock on the dials, but they seemed fuzzy and slipped in his mental grip. "Dammit," he swore as he sought Blair's voice in his mind and tried to remember the feel of Sandburg's touch on his arm or back. His control on his senses was fragmenting and he wasn't sure how much longer the hard-learned discipline Blair had taught him would be enough to keep them in some bearable state.
He wilfully dredged up Sandburg's soothing tones, and followed old instructions to breathe deeply and slowly, to let the muscles in his shoulders and back, and finally his jaw, relax. Imagining those low, loving murmurs, he reached again for the dials and this time they responded, and he sighed in relief.
Sniffing, he scrubbed at his cheeks as he lifted wet lashes and looked again at the deepening night sky. "Can you hear me, Chief?" he asked, his voice low and husky, cracking. "Like I can still hear you?" Searching the stars, he whispered, "Can you hear my heart calling your name? Does your soul still hear mine?"
Blearily, Blair's heart sank when he realized he was again strung up by his arms to the hook in the ceiling and he had to squint against the blinding light after so many hours locked in darkness. But his eyes widened in alarm when he saw the new addition to his Spartan accommodations. A sturdy wooden table, not large, but it looked heavy. His gut roiled when he saw the leather cuffs that had been nailed to two corners and the opposite legs... four restraints, one for each of his limbs. He swallowed hard, wondering where Igor was and flinched when his unspoken question was answered as a calloused hand stroked his ass.
He felt hot breath on the nape of his neck and something hard poking at him - it didn't take much imagination to know Igor was experiencing a heightened state of arousal. God, how he wanted to kick back, to fight, but he couldn't get his legs to move, the dregs of the drug in his system leaving him conscious, but helpless. He closed his eyes and wanted to just endure, to give no sign of how truly revolting it was to be felt up by the sadist behind him, but his body again betrayed him, and he trembled in loathing.
Igor laughed with vast enjoyment and then stepped back. Blair wasn't exactly sure what to expect, and the sudden crack of air and burning lash that cut through the skin of his back startled him into a shout of pain. But he clamped his jaw tight against the searing snap when the whip fell a second time, lancing across his buttocks, drawing blood. Again, and again, the lash slashed into his skin and muscle, cutting to bone, until blood dripped down his legs and pooled on the floor beneath him, and he couldn't hold back the whimper of protest in his throat. Tears of agony streaked his pallid face and the sweat of shock dripped from his brow and body, salty and stinging, bringing its own torment as it dribbled into the open wounds.
He lost count of the number of times Igor laced into him, went past caring and only prayed it would end or that the darkness dancing on the edge of his vision and buzzing in his ears would swallow him whole. Finally, finally, it ended but too soon - for he had not yet lost consciousness. Igor stalked around him and he looked away from the other man's nakedness, not wanting to see the speckles of his blood decorating that overly muscled body... certainly not wanting to see the massive erection that signified Igor's joyful lust in abusing him. But Igor pressed close, so that the rock hard cock jabbed into his belly and rubbed foully against him as the brute reached up to undo the chains.
Boneless with agony, barely conscious, Blair slumped toward the ground but Igor caught him this time and hauled him to the table, shoving him facedown upon its rough, scarred surface. Dimly, Blair felt his arms being dragged up, one after the other, his wrists locked tightly in the leather cuffs, and then his legs were spread wide, as his ankles were equally imprisoned, leaving his blood-streaked butt hanging over the edge.
"Mine," the behemoth breathed as he ran hot hands over Blair's body and smeared the blood, as if it were paint. "All mine," he moaned with lust as he gripped Sandburg's buttocks with bruising fingers and opened the cheeks wide. Sandburg's gut heaved in revulsion but there was nothing but sour bile in his belly to burn the back of his throat as he gagged. Blair closed his eyes and clenched his jaw as his hands fisted. 'Jim,' he called into the raging silence of his mind. 'Oh, Jim... God, I love you. I'm sorry, man... so sorry... I - "
Igor shoved fully into him with no warning or preparation; lubricated only with his blood, the huge cock ripping and relentless as it drove into the core of his being. The agony of it unendurable, Blair screamed in mingled rage and hurt as he turned his face to the table and braced his forehead against it. And then Igor was pounding into him, harder and faster, so that his hips were ground into the hard edge of the table, his own limp penis painfully jammed repeatedly into the wood. The pain spiralled and grew from his ass and loins into his belly and then into his chest and throat so that he couldn't only grunt in duress, but had to give way to another scream, and yet another, his voice now hoarse with anguished horror...
...and then blessedly, at long, long last, the darkness swept him away.
"What the hell is taking so goddamned long to get this book published?" Ellison raged at the Chancellor, having pushed his way past the guard-dog secretary in the outer office.
He'd wanted the acknowledgement that the paper was worth a PhD, knowing at some level that that would be important to Sandburg, but he'd never dreamed it would take so long to get the book through the University. Stoddard had been as good as his word and had pushed the dissertation through Committee in a matter of days. It should only have been a formality after that, so Jim hadn't sought out his own publisher, which would take as long or longer by the time they'd read it and did the mindless edit routine. Blair had been a part of Rainier for more than ten years. He'd loved it - and Ellison had been foolish enough to expect that the authorities would be glad to move forward quickly, as the publication would reflect well on the institution. It had seemed to be his best bet - but he'd badly underestimated the antipathy the Chancellor held for Sandburg. As the days had mounted into weeks, he'd been sick and disgusted with himself for once again failing Blair - for not having paid enough attention months ago to know he'd have problems with her now.
Giving him a baleful look, Edwards' lips tightened in anger. "How dare you force your way into my office like some berserker?" she demanded, her voice sharp, cutting.
"Oh, I'll dare a whole lot more than this, lady," he snarled back, eyes flashing. "It's been two weeks since the committee approved his dissertation! He's won his doctorate, dammit, and you have no right to refuse it!"
"The man's dead," she sneered coldly, dismissing his sense of urgency out of hand. "What can it matter?"
The sudden icy fury in Ellison's eyes as he growled low in his throat was a terrible thing to see, and she paled, knowing she'd pushed too hard, too far.
"You hate him, don't you," Jim seethed. "For making you look like a fool. For being a class act when you were being a wilful bitch. Well, you listen up and listen good. If you don't publish that book, I will. With it or without it, I'm going to hit every talk show in this country in the next couple of weeks, and I'll make it goddamned clear just what happened months ago and why. And I will sue your ass for denying his earned doctorate and for wilfully and maliciously failing to aid in the efforts to find him, for starters, and then see what else I can come up with, like unlawful dismissal when you fired him without grounds."
"You have no right to publish his work posthumously," she sputtered. "It belongs to the University."
"I have every right," Ellison grated coldly. "I have his Power of Attorney and I can do whatever I want with his possessions, including his dissertation." Taking a deep breath, reaching for the control not to throttle the woman, he snapped, "And he's NOT dead."
"So, now that you don't have to share the wealth of his hard work, you're prepared to go public," she lashed back. "You're a fool."
"And you're finished," Jim shouted as he slammed out. But the secretary once again risked life and limb to stand in his way. He might have pushed past if not for the tears he saw sparkling in her eyes, so when she lifted a hand to stop him from stomping out, he paused, rigid with fury. "What?" he demanded.
"You're right, she is a bitch," the young woman murmured, her voice catching and breaking. Waving to a box in the corner, she added, "There are copies of Blair's published dissertation and a copy of his doctorate in the box. It was awarded a week ago and she just didn't want to make it public. Take them. I... I really hope you find him and that he's all right."
"You know Sandburg?" Jim asked, his voice husky and low.
"Yes. He's a good man," she whispered as she turned away.
"Yeah, yeah, the best," Ellison sighed as he crossed the office to pick up the bound books.
Sniffing, she swiped at her wet cheeks and then looked up at him. "You can tell your publicist that the document is available from Rainier Press. How many copies do you want me to order printed in advance?"
Uncertain, Jim realized he had no idea. Numbly, he shook his head and shrugged.
"I'll order twenty thousand," she suggested as she sat down and reached for the phone. "The world is going to want to read about a real live Sentinel, so we'll be flooded with the demand. It's going to be a best seller, so you'll want to have a regular publisher take it on, so that the profits can go to Blair's es... to Blair." She quickly wrote something on a slip of paper and handed it to him. "Here's the name of a publicist that many of our faculty use to arrange personal appearances, and the name and number of a publisher that specializes in academic works."
"Thank you," Ellison grated, his voice hoarse. "I appreciate your help."
'Why can't I just die?' Sandburg wailed miserably in the chaos of his mind, overwhelmed with grim despair as Igor roughly pulled out of his body before brutally thrusting back inside.
He'd tried to kill himself, however passively given the lack of other options - had refused to either drink or eat, hoping to die of dehydration. But the sadist had forced water down his throat, and practically choked him with liquids advertised for their nutritional value. Igor had growled to himself, more than to his victim, that there was no way in hell that he was going to let the little bugger die - Brackett would kill him if he came back and found Sandburg dead.
"I wish," Blair had mumbled, earning a hard slap across the face. Funny how something that might have rocked him once seemed little more than a flea's sting, he'd thought dully. But he'd come to know worse, much worse, than a smack on the face.
Vaguely, he mused hazily about the really bad karma he must have stored up in a previous life, to be suffering this now. Life had narrowed down to darkness and pain, light and agony, whipping and rape, over and over and over until it all blurred together and there was only the fond wish for death. He didn't know how long Brackett had been gone, only knew that it felt like forever, the wretched, horrific sameness of his life disorienting blurs between bouts of unconsciousness.
He'd long lost the power or strength to scream - had lost the dignity to try to hold the screams back longer ago still. He felt like a piece of offal, a slab of bleeding, gutted meat, and only wished he could be as inanimate and unaware. For his awareness of the brutal indignities and wanton abuse, his unending terrible pain, only served to remind him that he'd once been a human being who had had hopes, had known joy, had loved and been loved... but no more. Often, he reflected with bitter recrimination about the one moment he might have had to win his death - the moment when Igor had stood over him, gloating with lust - if he'd struggled then, had gathered up the pitiful vestiges of a strength he hadn't had and fuelled it with the determination to die fighting, he might have provoked the brute into shooting him down, or simply beating him to death.
But he hadn't fought - had been conserving his strength, trying to live, still daring somewhere in the depths of his soul to hope for some reprieve, some miraculous rescue. He'd been a fool. Stupid. Unconscionably stupid. All the rest that had followed was no more than he'd deserved for not having had the courage to force his own murder. And now he was nothing. Less than nothing. A lump of still breathing meat, of no use to anyone but Igor to vent his insane rage and lust.
He no longer hoped for rescue, only death and an anonymous grave. He never wanted anyone to know what had happened to him. Prayed now that he wouldn't be rescued and have to face the disgust and pity... or his own self-contempt.
He couldn't even bear to think of Jim anymore. There was no comfort to be found in imagining his lover's embrace when Igor was thrusting into him - he'd never know tender love again. Never be worthy to give it or receive it. He was too filthy. Too used. Ruined.
Igor was stroking him again, as the monster always did when he was finishing sating his need and searing Sandburg with his seed, just before vacating his body - a bizarre ritual of smearing blood over Sandburg's limbs and through his hair, painting his face. Possessive. Wanton. Gloating.
Blair closed his eyes and wearily wished for that final darkness, desiring death with all that he was and could have wept, if he'd had the strength, that it was still out of reach, flirting on the edges of his desperately wounded soul, apparently oblivious to his pain and need for release. He must have been very evil, indeed, once upon a time, to have to suffer this living hell.
Sandburg didn't notice when the door was shoved open, but he heard the furious exclamation of disgust as if from a great distance. There was a loud explosion, and he felt Igor's weight fall upon him, crushing him once more, before slipping out of him and off his back, or being pulled away. Fingers fumbled at his throat and pulled at his eyelids, and he heard a man mutter, "He's still alive."
Blinking, he tried to place the voice, as if it mattered. And then he heard her voice, brittle with hatred, and he sagged into the table, wishing it would swallow him as a fear he hadn't thought he was still able to feel ravaged his gut.
They wanted to know how to control the senses... and would drug him to find out. 'Why aren't I dead?' he raged in his soul, afraid, so terribly afraid that he had nothing left with which to resist the serum they would pump into his body. Tears of exhaustion and utter despair leaked from beneath his tightly closed eyelids to streak the blood and grime on his face.
He couldn't... wouldn't betray Jim.
Someway, somehow, he had to find some measure of strength somewhere within his broken spirit and his wasted body, some last spark of determined resistance. Had to endure a little longer...
God, he wished with all his heart that he were already dead.
The phone rang just as Jim was zipping up his garment bag full of two suits and sundry shirts, jeans, skivvies, socks and toiletries.
"Yeah," he grunted into the cell phone, distracted as he grabbed up the case and headed downstairs.
"Jim?" Banks' voice came down the line.
"Oh, hi, Simon," Ellison replied briskly but with slightly more warmth, as he dropped the bag by the kitchen island and reached for the itinerary of his stops around the country. "I'm just on my way out. The cab should be here any minute."
There was a weighty pause as Banks debated once more challenging Ellison's decision to go public, given that the effort was no doubt pointless and wasted. But, he knew equally well that Jim had to do this, had to try. "I would have driven you," he rumbled finally.
"Yeah, I know, but you're busy," Jim sighed as he raked his hand over his head, appreciating the fact that his boss seemed to have given up his fight against this plan. Ellison knew Banks and everyone else believed Sandburg was dead and buried in some nameless grave, and he really didn't want to have to fight the logic of that belief any more. All he had left was desperate, probably deluded hope, but he had to hold tight to it or he'd lose what little he had left of his mind. "You got the copy of my schedule and hotels that I emailed you, right? And you've got my cell number, obviously, I guess," he went on as he shoved the folded papers into his jacket pocket. "So you can reach me if you hear anything?"
"Yes, I've got all the information, Jim," Simon sighed. "Look... good luck. I really hope this works."
His throat tight, Ellison nodded unconsciously. "Yeah, me too," he managed to murmur. Because if it didn't work, then there was nothing else left he could try. It had been three long weeks since Blair had been taken outside the police headquarters; twenty-one agonizing days of searching and despairing of ever finding him again. "Look, I've got to go. My flight for New York City leaves in a couple of hours."
They terminated the call, and then Jim hefted the bag over his shoulder. Locking the door, he headed for the stairwell. He had a meeting with the publisher the next morning and then his first talk show appearance in the afternoon.
Blair woke on a narrow, hard cot, his naked body covered by an itchy blanket and he wondered where he was. A stranger, middle-aged and greying, thin with trembling hands, was taking his pulse and blinked at him owlishly when the man realized he was awake, sort of. Turning aside, sniffling, the man said with a whiskey-rough voice, "He's awake, though I can't say for how long. I've bound up his back and wrapped his ribs, but the wounds are infected; he clearly has internal injuries and a concussion. He needs to be in a hospital."
"That's not your concern," Brackett replied coldly as he handed the stranger a wad of money. "Your job was to patch him up - now get out."
The older man's shoulders sagged in defeat and he nodded as he took the money, grimacing as if it were thirty pieces of very dirty silver. And then he shuffled to the doorway and was gone.
Sandburg frowned, trying to make sense of the world around him. He was still in the old vault - he wasn't sure anymore how he'd figured out that it was a bank that he'd been hidden in. The cell stank of blood and excrement and death and he turned his face away from the light, to the cement wall.
But hands grabbed him and shook him ruthlessly, forcing him to look up into the face of the woman who had murdered him, her classically beautiful features twisted now with pain and rage. "Help me," she grated as she shook him again. "You know what to do - to make the pain go away. You have to help me."
Weak, barely conscious, he stared up at her for a long moment, and then shook his head. She backhanded him furiously and his head banged against the wall, stunning him with shocking pain and he moaned softly. Her slender, strong fingers and thumbs found his throat and she began to squeeze as she shrieked at him, "I'll kill you!"
But then she was pulled away, and he was left gasping for air. Brackett was shouting at her to stop before she did kill him, and to calm down or he'd tie her up.
"I already killed him once," she snarled. "He won't stay dead. You'll see," she mocked, insanity in her voice, "you can't kill him. He keeps coming back."
"Crazy bitch," Brackett sighed and punched her hard, catching her suddenly slack body before she hit the floor. Giving Blair a sardonic look, he said with wry humour, "You see why I need your help."
"Eat shit and die," Sandburg rasped before again turning his face away. "And take her with you."
Chuckling, the ex-CIA agent shook his head. "You've got more spunk that a barrelful of monkeys, Sandburg," he allowed. "You just don't know when to give up. But the game's over."
His eyes narrowed at the heavy threat in the words and Blair belatedly remembered that Brackett had gone for drugs as well as for Barnes. He shuddered and tried to marshal his strength, only to discover his arms and legs were bound to the cot. Growling in frustration, he pressed his eyes closed, as if he could will his body somewhere else, or in some way change his hopeless reality. And then he moaned softly, scarcely a breath of sound, as he felt the needle pricking his skin.
Accompanied by his publicist, Nathan Phelps, Jim strode down the street and around the block from his hotel on Madison Avenue to the publishing house on Fifth, for a breakfast meeting that Nate had sent up, squeezing the time into a senior executive's busy schedule. Ellison was keyed up, knowing he needed to make this meeting work to get the show on the road, but also facing his first public outing as a self-professed 'sentinel'. Glancing at Phelps, the agent recommended by Edwards' secretary, he thought the man didn't fit any of his preconceived notions of what a 'publicist' looked or acted like. Bespectacled, a flop of unruly dark hair on his brow, he looked very 'bookish' - but then, he hyped books and authors. Though his manner was contained and quiet, he'd worked miracles in the two days since Jim had made contact with him. Not only had this early morning meeting been arranged, but Ellison was also scheduled to appear on two, very high profile, nationally syndicated talk shows later in the day - all expenses paid, not that Jim cared a whit about the money, but Nate had told him in no uncertain terms that the producers didn't take guests who paid their own way seriously. The publisher was located in a seventy-story building, and they took the express elevator to the top, after being cleared by the special security that guarded access to the corporate heights. Upstairs in the plush office, the carpet so deep it felt like a cloud, they sat around a burnished conference table with views over Manhattan from the floor to ceiling wall of windows.
"Explain the urgency of getting this work published and why we should be interested," Reginald Mackie said bluntly as he lifted his fine porcelain mug of coffee. A busy man, he had all of about ten minutes to devote to this meeting and he was still unsure of how they'd managed to convince his executive assistant that it was necessary to meet at such an ungodly hour as eight AM.
Clearing his throat, Jim took a breath and launched into the remarks he'd spent the night ruminating over, to be certain he made it all crystal clear and compelling. "You may recall an incident with Berkshire Publishing just over six months ago about a document, which they had acquired inappropriately, that revealed the incidence of sentinels in modern society and the excitement about excerpts they published without authority." When Mackie nodded and shrugged, Jim continued, "That document is the one I've just placed on the table before you. It was written by my partner, Blair Sandburg, and has recently earned him a PhD from Rainier University. I am the sentinel the document examines in some depth."
Mackie's brows rose as he reached for the bound text from the Rainier University publishers. "The document was discredited at the time," he recalled as he looked back at Jim.
"Yes. Blair took the drastic step of denying his own work to protect my identity and privacy, and to enable me to get on with my work as a Detective in Cascade, Washington. At the time, we were working on a case involving a particularly deadly assassin and the media frenzy was getting in the way of my job."
"What, exactly, is a sentinel?" the publisher asked, honestly curious and not a little intrigued by the drama of the situation Ellison described.
"Someone with five heightened senses," Ellison replied succinctly. "For example, the staff in the outer office are currently discussing their hope that we leave something of our breakfast, for them to enjoy."
Machie's gaze strayed to the thick, solid oak door that left the conference room virtually soundproof. Rising, he went to the door and called his assistant to him. "Becky," he asked, "this may sound strange, but I need to know exactly what you've all just been discussing. Please, don't be embarrassed - just tell me. It's important and I'll explain later."
She blushed and looked away as others quickly put their heads down and got busy with the files on their desks. "Well, sir, we were saying we hoped there might be some leftovers..."
"Thank you," he replied briskly, having heard enough, and closed the door again as he turned back to Ellison, one brow cocked in speculation. "What else can you do?"
Jim stood to move away from the table and gazed out the window. "Do you have any binoculars handy?"
Moving to a cabinet, the executive pulled out an elegant instrument. Following Ellison's gesture to join him at the window, Mackie listened and focused the binoculars at the distant docks. "Pick out something, some writing, that you can only see with the binoculars and then give me a general idea of where you're looking."
When the curious man said he was looking at the containers on a large, red-hulled freighter in the bay, Jim turned and looked out. "The freighter's name is Sacha's Mule. The writing on the crates is Cyrillic, so I can't read the words. However, just past the crates, near the stairway to the bridge, is a notice listing the duty roster."
"My God," Mackie breathed in astonishment as he lowered the magnifying lenses.
Jim, continuing to look out the window, said quietly, "Your toothpaste is Colgate Total, mint flavoured." Turning to sniff slightly as he gazed at the executive's suit, he added, "You were hugged this morning by a woman wearing a floral scent, something not too sweet but lingering." Turning back to the coffee machine, he observed, "You like a trace of cardamom in your coffee. Not much, but it balances the sweeter French Vanilla."
Returning to his seat, Ellison concluded by making his pitch, his voice tightly controlled, "The idea of sentinels in society occasioned a media frenzy not long ago. Berkshire Publishing offered Sandburg three million dollars for the right to publish his work. I have his Power of Attorney and can act on his behalf, but would rather not do business with them given their unscrupulous behaviour in the past. Blair has been abducted and we have no leads on where he was taken, who took him, or why. I'm hoping that extensive, widespread publicity will help me generate interest in his perilous situation so that citizens will keep a lookout for information that might prove helpful in his rescue. I will be offering a substantial award for useful information. Later today, I'm appearing on Oprah Winfrey and tonight on the Letterman show. Tomorrow, I have fifteen minutes on America A.M. I'll be flying out to the west coast to do The Tonight Show in a couple days, with stops along the way for other talk shows in-between. The demand for this book will be high and fast. Can your firm meet the need?"
Returning to his seat at the table, Mackie drew a small pad of paper toward him, and reached into the inside pocket of his jacket for his designer pen. He wrote a series of numbers on the paper, mostly a long string of zeros and pushed it toward Ellison. "If that number is of interest, I can have the contract drawn up for signature and the print runs would begin immediately thereafter."
Jim glanced at the offer, nodded and stood as he held out his hand. "It's a pleasure doing business with you, Mr. Mackie."
"To dream the imposs... possible dream," Blair warbled, his voice thin and hoarse, an eerie, haunted smile on his battered, emaciated face, "to fight the unbeatable foe, to bear with un... unbearable s-s-sorrow... to r-run where the b-b-brave dare not go..."
"Christ, I thought you said that stuff would work," Barnes snarled, her fingers pressed to her temples as she grimaced against the pounding in her skull, while Sandburg kept singing in a drunken mumble, "To right the unrightable wrong, to love p-pure and chaste from afar, to strive w-when your arms are t- too weary, to r-reach the unreachable stars..."
"His mind is just rambling; he doesn't know what he's doing or where he is," Brackett replied calmly as he forced Sandburg's eyelids open more widely to check the dilated pupils.
"This is m-my qu-quest, to f-follow that star, no matter how h-hopeless, no matter how f-far; to fight for the right, without question or p-pause, to be willing to walk into hell for a heavenly c-cause..."
Shaking his head, his lips thinned with annoyance and no little suspicion that Sandburg's drugged rambling wasn't as happenstance as he'd suggested to Barnes, but fully deliberate to fight the effects of the drug, he filled another syringe and injected more of the serum into his victim's system.
"And I know, if I'll only be t-true to my glorious qu-quest, that my heart will lie peaceful and c-calm, when I'm laid to m-my rest..."
Sandburg's voice began to slur and become increasingly indistinct. "An' the worl' will b-be better f-for this, tha' one man, scorn' and cover' wi' sc-scars, still strove w-with his las' ounce've c-courage, t' reach the... unreachable... st-stars..."
But his attention finally wandered too far, the world blurring and becoming indistinct as he muttered incoherently, restless, anxious.
"Blair," Brackett tried again, feigning urgency as he continued. "Jim's in trouble and he needs help or he'll die. Tell me how to help him, Blair. Tell me what to do to help him control and focus his senses before it's too late!"
"Jim's in trouble?" he echoed hoarsely, his eyes wide with alarm. "W-wha hap'ned?"
"His senses got overwhelmed. He's a sentinel. You know that. You're his Guide. He needs your help, Blair. Needs it now. He's just outside. Call to him. He'll hear you. Tell him what to do! Quickly! He's in pain, terrible pain."
Blair's head turned slowly toward the door and he blinked, shook his head weakly as if trying to clear his vision. "Jim?" he quavered. Desperately, he tried to get up, but his limbs were bound to the cot and he thrashed, frustrated, angry, and afraid. Swallowing against his parched throat, he blinked again, his mouth working as if he was speaking but he made no sound that Brackett could hear.
The ex-agent looked up at Barnes. "Can you hear what he's saying?"
Squinting with concentration, she ground out tightly, "He's calling for Ellison, begging Ellison to help him, saying he's sorry... sorry."
A sob broke from Blair's throat and a tear leaked from his eye to run down the side of his face into his filthy hair. "Y-ya see?" he husked painfully, his voice breaking in misery. "Not his guide. No good... no good. Can't t-tell you what to d-do to help him. Useless. Always useless. H-he's better off without m-me. You h-help him. Maybe he'll hear y-you."
"You have to give him more," Barnes shouted, nearly frenzied by her out-of-control senses and her livid frustration.
"If I do, I'll kill him and that'll get us nowhere," Brackett sighed. He gazed at Barnes dispassionately, reminding himself of why he was doing this and of the ultimate value of putting up with her insanity. "We'll try again in a few hours."
They left the cell and, shortly after, the lights were again turned off.
Blair stared into the darkness, sobbing in breath, trying desperately to clear his head of the drug but he felt as if he were floating, not part of his body but tethered so that he couldn't completely escape it. Nausea cramped in his hollow belly and again he thrashed hopelessly against the restraints. Sagging back, exhausted, his consciousness fuzzy, he dragged in another breath... and became aware of the pervasive stench in the cell. Gagging, he realized he recognized it - the rot of a dead body.
Confused, he couldn't at first make sense of it.
And then he remembered Igor.
Being pulled off his body.
Igor was in the darkness with him.
He laughed then, in relief and a sudden burst of joy that shocked him into startled silence. Joy? For the death of another being, however loathsome? But he couldn't deny it, couldn't pretend he didn't feel it.
"Oh God," he whispered hoarsely, tears streaming down his face, aghast at what he'd become; a monster who reveled in the death of another. Panting, choking back the sobs, he understood with blinding clarity that he was going mad. And then he smiled again as if with a kind of relief. If he were mad, then... then he was free, in a way. "Going... going... gone," he chanted to himself giddily, verging on hysteria.
Brackett couldn't get anything out of a raving lunatic.
Laughing weakly, he wondered if he was yet mad enough to pull it off, or if maybe all of it, all the torture and deprivation, all the abuse and humiliation and sorrow and grief and regret and... maybe he'd gone mad a long time ago and this was only an elaborate hallucination. Maybe he'd never come out of that tent in Clayton Falls and this was all a fever dream, a kind of pre-death torment, for having learned that Jim was getting tired of having him around.
Maybe he was still in the fountain at Rainier, floating somewhere between life and death, his mind concocting an elaborate illusion to cope with the anguish that Jim had had enough of him, didn't want him around anymore and had kicked him out of the loft and out of Ellison's life. Didn't trust him. But he wouldn't ever betray his lover, his best friend. He'd die first.
Why didn't Jim know that?
Or maybe he had died...
...and this was hell.
For the next several days and evenings, Ellison appeared on one talk show after another from one end of the country to the other, until they all began to blur in his mind. He felt like a traveling freak show, pausing briefly at whistle stops along the way, unable to get enough rest or solitude between stark moments of performing like a trained dog - sniffing out clues about the hosts or the audiences, spotting something unusual and nearly invisible, hearing distant conversations in a cacophony of sound, identifying various substances while blind-folded. The heat and glare of the bright lights left him with a searing headache, the noise of live audiences and loud music made him feel slightly nauseated. His senses were playing hell with him, but he gritted his teeth and carried on.
He loathed it, every single moment of it.
Still, despite his revulsion for it all, he held not a single regret about what he was doing. It was for Blair and it had to work; had to lead him to his partner before it was too late, or he'd lose all meaning in his life. And, at first, he dared hope it really would work. The newspapers and television news crews went wild for the first few days, as his and Sandburg's photos were spread over every front page and channel from one coast to the other. He couldn't move outside his hotel rooms without being swamped by hordes of reporters with their cameras and ubiquitous microphones, yelling out at him, blinding him with flashes, until he wanted to scream and retreat to some dark corner to nurse the ever-present pain, both physical and psychic.
But... despite how dreadful the relentless attention had been, he was devastated when the hype died off in a matter of days. Other photos were strewn over newssheets, and the evening news regaled the populace with other dire or odd occurrences. Before long, only the talk shows kept the conversation about Blair, his work and the danger he was in, alive in people's minds. Despair and dismal regret haunted Jim then. If he'd simply had the courage to face the madness for a mere few days so many months ago, the interest would have petered out and he'd've been left alone - and Blair would never have had to give up so much, suffer so much, on his behalf. He'd been a fool. His pride and defensiveness had cost far more than it had ever been worth. Even before Sandburg had been taken, his reactions and behaviours had already driven a hard, wide wedge between them. In his room at night, in moments waiting in airport lounges, he found himself remembering how weary and drawn Blair had looked for so very long now. No spark or laughter. No gentle teasing or riotous observations on the ridiculous. No endless chatter about amusing little-known details of one culture or another, or wry commentary about their own. Touches only when required for Blair to ground him - no longer casual, as easy as breathing, certainly no longer intimate, let alone passionate. So much pain and loss because he hadn't been able to countenance what was, after all, only a few days of infamy and public notoriety.
The sameness of the interviews ground him down. The questions were predictable and mundane, scarcely scratching the surface of the brilliance of Blair's work or its import for potentially hundreds of thousands of people around the world, who suffered from enhanced senses and didn't know how to deal with them. But the hardest part, the questions or casual observations that tore at his soul and left him sick with fear, were those that assumed his lover was dead. He countered them, always, with brisk denial that anyone could know that, consoling himself with the softer description of 'missing'. God... 'missing' was right. In every sense of the word. He missed Sandburg with an ache and grief so profound that he was left breathless and ever on the verge of losing control of his emotions. Some more daring interviewers gave him knowing looks as they emphasized that Blair was his 'partner'. He scornfully met the insinuations head on, telling all who cared that Blair had been his partner for years, backing him up, helping him to learn, making his unusual skills less mysterious and unpredictable and guiding him so that his unruly senses became tools he could rely upon in his work.
But for all his many appearances, too many to remember or count, and despite the fact that the book was a sell-out nationally, even internationally, and was already being touted for literary awards, there'd not been a single lead as a result. Standing alone by the window in his room, staring out over the lights of yet another big city, Jim crossed his arms tightly, hugging himself as he tried to beat back despair and fear. It wasn't working. Dear God, he wasn't any closer to finding Blair than he'd been nearly a month before, on the day his lover had been taken by persons unknown. How long before it was too long and there could be no vestige of hope left? How long before he had to accept that Blair, who had always been so alive, so vibrant, so warm and loving, was... gone.
Nausea clenched in his gut as a sob rose into his throat and tears blinded his eyes. "I can't..." he stuttered, huskily. "I can't do this without you, babe. Forgive me, Chief, but... it just doesn't matter without you. Nothing matters and everything hurts. I don't... don't want to give up hope, but I'm scared, kid. So scared. I know you'd want me to get on with life, to go on doing the best I can, but without you... I don't want to. I have to be with you, Blair. I have to find you. If not here, on this earth - then I have to go wherever you are. You understand that, right? You won't hate me when I show up 'too soon'? I... I don't know how much longer I can keep going, babe. I'm really losing it here, you know?" Swallowing, he pinched the bridge of his nose and swiped the tracks of tears from his cheeks. Sniffing, he straightened his shoulders and took a deep breath. "I've got another week of interviews lined up, Chief. After that..." His voice broke and he sighed as shook his head and searched the distant stars. "I need you, babe. I need you so bad."
"Shit," Mallory cursed as he flicked off the television and yet another of what seemed an endless number of Ellison's appearances on talk shows, blanking out the vision of Blair Sandburg's face. It was all over the PD, how they'd all been wrong and Sandburg was some kind of real hero for what he'd sacrificed for his partner - and that Ellison, miracle man that he was, couldn't do what he did without Sandburg. Every one was saying, over and over and fucking over, how it was a damned shame that no one had seen the kid get taken, no one had stopped the tragedy before it had hardly begun.
He gulped down the burning whiskey and shuddered. His fault, his and Simpson's that the kid was missing and was more than likely long dead. If they'd just done their jobs, none of this would have happened. "Ain't that right, Simpson?" he rhetorically asked his lout of a partner, not expecting any answer. Simpson had never been able to admit they'd been wrong. Had always maintained that the little freak had only gotten what he deserved, whatever that might have been. And he'd come to realize that Simpson was dangerous, that he'd set himself up as judge and jury, and abused his authority and his badge. Had finally come to understand that Simpson wasn't ever going to change - and that Sandburg wasn't the only one in their fraternity, or on the streets, that Simpson wouldn't do his job to protect.
It was scary how much he'd grown to be like Simpson over the years. Very scary. And that knowledge sickened him.
Closing his eyes, he leaned his head back against the chair, once again fighting the nausea that roiled in his belly. All those months, the kid had been protecting Ellison, taking nothing but crap. God, what kind of courage did that take?
More than he had, that was for damned sure, as his fingers caressed the sleek weapon in his right hand. He'd been too willing to go along with Simpson's venomous hatred of the kid, so he'd looked the other way. And then, too shit scared that someone would find out that they'd deliberately driven away, to report what he'd seen of the men accosting Sandburg, lest it cost him his badge and pension. Besides, at the time, Simpson had still been insisting the young detective was a liar and deserved whatever he got - that Sandburg wasn't worthy of the badge he carried.
Worthy? Hell. It was him and Simpson, and others he knew who had been on the street but had disappeared without responding to a fellow officer in trouble, a citizen for God's sake, who was being assaulted; it was all of them who were 'unworthy' of wearing their beloved badges.
Bitterly, he drank down the last of his whiskey and reflected with a certain wry dignity that he wouldn't be needing his precious pension after all. "Sorry, kid," he muttered drunkenly. "Damned sorry."
And then he lifted his service revolver and pulled the trigger.
Jack Kelso wheeled into his office and tiredly tossed his duffel bag into a corner. It had been a good holiday, long overdue, and going up to his cousin's cabin, well away from everything, had been challenging. No electricity, no phones - a test of his abilities to still manage on his own, a force against the world, despite the paralysis that kept him bound to the damned chair. But he couldn't deny he was glad to be back in civilization.
Turning on his computer, he grimaced at the backlog of the hundreds of emails that had built up in his absence. Absently, he flicked on the television in the corner, to listen with half an ear, as he scrolled through entry after entry.
But the sound of a familiar voice caught his attention, and he looked up, surprised to see Jim Ellison on the screen. Frowning, he turned up the volume and felt confused at first, then appalled, as he listened. Blair was missing? Had been abducted? What the hell... ? And Ellison was admitting for all the world to hear that he was a sentinel?
Sonofabitch. Go away for a few weeks and the whole world goes crazy!
He turned back to his computer screen, scrolling through the messages more rapidly until one and then another caught his eye - one of his old contacts, inside. His jaw tightened as he read the first, and then he swore softly as he read the second.
Reaching for his phone, he punched in the number for Captain Simon Banks, the only person he could think to call with Ellison out of town.
"What?" Banks roared into the phone. "You have got to be kidding me! Why weren't we informed?"
He listened impatiently while Kelso caustically explained the niceties of the federal propensity to keep secrets and cover up screw-ups.
"Yeah, yeah, I hear you," Simon muttered, knowing it wasn't the ex-agent who deserved his ire. The man was only the messenger, and hopefully the message would be the break they were looking for. "Thanks, Jack," he said before terminating the call. "I'll keep you posted."
Hanging up, he swallowed heavily, dearly wishing Kelso hadn't chosen that particular time to 'get away from it all', but appreciating that Jack had called as soon as he'd gotten back and realized there was trouble. Yelling for Joel, he lifted the phone again to punch in Jim's cell number.
"What is it, Simon?" the older man asked as he came into the doorway.
"Brackett has been loose for more than a month, and Barnes was sprung from her federal facility nearly a week ago by parties unknown," Banks growled. "I want their photographs spread over every newspaper and television news broadcast nationally, along with Sandburg's. This can't all be a coincidence."
Taggart paled but nodded as he wheeled away. Time enough to get the details later - for now, he had to get the news out and pray that not only would they find the kid still alive but in something approximating one piece.
"Jim," Simon said soberly into the phone. "You'd better sit down."
Hot. He felt so hot. And like he was floating in the darkness. Was he dead? Had his body finally decided to let go its tenacious hold? But it was so hot and he hurt so badly. Death wasn't like this. He remembered, sort of... death was... different. Weak, barely conscious, he struggled to remember what was happening, had happened. Had Brackett returned with more of the drug for another session of directed questions? Fuzzily, Blair didn't think so but couldn't be sure. Fear welled inside, driving him toward panic. Had he failed Jim? Had he given up the secrets all-unknowing? "No," he whimpered. "No, please, no..."
Light flared as the door was pushed open and he struggled to turn away, too weak to move. So he gave up trying and simply lay there, waiting, uncaring of what more they might do to him. Brackett appeared above him, looking blurry, indistinct. Blair frowned, trying to focus. What was he doing waving that book around?
"I've just spent the last couple of days reading this, Doctor Sandburg," Brackett said with an ironic, mocking tone. "Who knew it would be so easy to get your detailed text of prescriptive behaviours on how to guide a sentinel?"
"Wha'?" Sandburg mumbled, not understanding, appalled. Doctor? Book? Brackett wasn't making any sense.
Leaning forward, the rogue agent patted his cheek, and he weakly flinched away. "Time for us to be going, kid," he drawled.
"Shoot him," Alex insisted from the doorway, and Blair dearly hoped Brackett would do just that.
"Nah, no point. He won't last much longer and nobody's going to find his body down here. He'll moulder into dust or be buried when they finally knock this old heap down. C'mon. We've got a plane to catch."
And then the door was closed and he was left again to float in a fevered daze until he eventually died alone in the darkness.
Desperately, Sandburg struggled to understand. Manual? Had he broken down? Told Brackett what he'd wanted to know after all? Had he failed, despite everything he'd suffered and tried so hard to endure? Oh, God, God... what had he done?
"NOOOO," he screamed hoarsely into the darkness, ravaged by blind panic. "JIM! Oh, God, what have I done? I'm sorry... sorry... I tried, I swear I tried... ah, Jim... Jim..." he wept, muddled by fever, unable to stave off the agony that seared through his body with every sobbing breath. He'd failed. Betrayed his partner again...
Buried alive with a mouldering corpse, his body and spirit broken, his heart shattered, alone in the utter, wretched darkness of his self-loathing and contempt, he was blinded by pain and despair. Sandburg lost himself then; lost his last fitful grip on sanity and slipped over the edge... even the death he'd so desperately prayed for, longed for, would bring no relief.
He'd failed his Sentinel.
Betrayed his lover.
And this was hell.
The erstwhile physician stared up at the television screen above the bar, sniffing with reflexive monotony and knowing he'd need another fix soon. But the flashing pictures caught his attention and he squinted as he listened harder to hear the muted volume. Reward? He knew that man and the blond... and, well, shit, that was the kid he'd seen deep in the bowels of the old bank. Wouldn't have recognized him from his photograph, though; the man was so wasted now.
If he was even still alive.
Which, come to think of it, wasn't all that likely.
Rubbing his face, feeling the need for relief hard upon him, itching all over his body and twitchy with withdrawal, he wondered what his knowledge was worth. There'd been something about a reward for information. Nothing was said about the disappeared man having to be found alive. They just wanted to know where he was, dead or alive, right?
Unsteadily, he pushed himself off the barstool and lurched toward the back hallway and the pay phone on the wall.
Calling from his car while Joel drove, Simon said, "We've got a lead. Don't know how good it is, but we'll keep you posted. When will you be back in town?"
"What lead?" Jim exclaimed down the wire, his hope and dread equally palpable.
"Former doctor, now an alcoholic junkie, called in that he recognized the photos of Brackett and Barnes and thinks he treated Sandburg a few days ago," Banks muttered. "It might all be a drug-induced hallucination, Jim. Don't get your hopes up."
"I'm on my way to the airport, and should be back in about three hours," Ellison replied tightly. "What did he mean, 'treated' Sandburg? For what?"
"Let me see what we find, Jim," Simon sighed, closing his eyes against the images conjured up by the old man's story. "But, well, it sounded pretty bad."
There was a silence and then Ellison grated, "Take care of him, Simon."
"We're almost there. I'll call you in a little while, as soon as we know... well, I'll be in touch," Banks replied, terminating the call as they pulled up in front of the old, long-abandoned bank. Patrol cars already filled the street, their garish lights strobing the darkness.
"What've we got?" Simon demanded brusquely of a sergeant, as he climbed out of the car.
"The vault's locked and there's no way short of blasting to get it open," the cop reported succinctly.
Simon wheeled to Taggart, who called as he ducked back into the car for the radio, "I'm on it."
It was another half-hour before the ancient vault door was blown off its hinges and could be pulled out of the way. Then the stench from inside the darkened interior, from human waste and rotting flesh, that filled the air in the small corridor made the cops gag, and more than one had to bolt for the clean air of the street above.
Grabbing a flashlight from a patrolman, Banks covered his nose with a handkerchief. Dreading what he feared he was about to discover, he nevertheless resolutely strode into the darkness, the light playing around the grey, cement floor and walls, finding dried splatters of blood on the walls and pooled thickly on the ground under what looked like a meat hook screwed into the ceiling. He grimaced at the sight of a massive bloated corpse in one corner but turned away, conscious of his relief that the body wasn't Sandburg's. His flashlight continued to arc through the darkness until the beam landed on the emaciated body on the cot against the far wall. Lurching forward, his knees suddenly weak, Simon felt numb as he gazed at the ravaged, bearded, pallid face, the staring, unfocused eyes. Swallowing hard, his hand trembling, he reached out to feel for a pulse he had no expectation of finding.
And then whirled around, shouting urgently for an ambulance and blankets.
"Jesus Christ, Simon," Joel swore beside him, his voice thick with rage and grief. "What have they done to him?"
Banks shook his head as he flipped open his cell phone, but he couldn't get a signal within the deeply-buried, no doubt steel-lined vault - and he couldn't bring himself to leave the kid until professional help arrived. Kneeling on the cold, filthy floor, he ghosted a hand over Blair's fevered brow. "Hang on, Blair," he called softly, as he and Taggart began to undo the restraints on his arms and legs. "You're safe now. Just hang on, kid."
Someone found the electric switch outside and the vault was flooded with glaring, uncompromising light. The lips drawn in a rictus of grief, cracked with dryness, the grey, grimy face and body streaked with dried blood, the gashes and bruises, the torn, wasted flesh and filthy, blood-caked hair, were hideous to behold.
But worse was the look in Sandburg's eyes. As if he were staring into the depths of hell, but not appalled or afraid - only resigned; dull with the absence of any spark of life or hope.
It scared the hell out of Banks and Taggart.
By the time Sandburg was loaded into the back of the ambulance and Simon tried again to call Ellison, he got the automated message that the customer was unavailable and to leave a message. Figuring Jim was already on the plane, he only said briefly, "We've got him and he's alive. But... it's bad, Jim. Meet me at Cascade General."
He and Joel were about to follow the ambulance, when Brown ran out of the building and hailed him.
"Captain!" Henri called, waving at him urgently. "You'd better see what we found."
Following his men back inside to the basement and along the dim corridor to a large chamber near the old vault, he and Joel paused as they realized what they were seeing. Videotapes, dozens, maybe as many as a hundred, stacked on the floor around a recorder that was still running.
"Ah, shit," Simon cursed softly, closing his eyes, afraid he might finally lose it and become violently ill. The bastards had recorded it all. Sandburg's clothing was in a crumpled pile in a corner nearby and Rafe, standing from where he'd been kneeling by the garments, mutely held up Blair's badge and weapon, still in its holster.
"Pack it all up and bring it back to my office," Banks directed, his voice tight, wanting to make sure that no one who didn't absolutely have to see Sandburg's suffering got hold of the tapes. "Rafe, find out when Jim's flight is due in from San Francisco and meet him at the airport to drive him straight to the hospital. Joel and I will meet him there as soon as we can."
Dr. Dan Andrews regarded his patient with appalled compassion. A man in his late middle age, he'd become a physician while in the service of his country, and had seen men after combat injuries and those occasioned by being prisoners of a brutal enemy, but he'd never seen anything quite like the man lying before him now. Dr. Sandburg literally stank so badly of the brown smears of old blood that covered his body and clotted in his hair, as well as of his own waste and the peculiarly sour miasma of rotting flesh from infected wounds that the treatment room soon reeked and the staff had to don masks as some minimal barrier to keep from gagging. He was a mass of bruises, most yellow and fading, layered under others that were still vivid. His lips were cracked from severe dehydration, his skin papery and sallow and he was seriously emaciated from starvation. Though he seemed semiconscious and his pupils reacted normally to light stimulus, he didn't seem aware of what was going on around him, and did not respond to either his name or a pinch to determine his reflex to pain. The staff all donned thin plastic gloves as they began to work over him, taking his vital signs - blood pressure too low, respirations very shallow and rapid, pulse weak and thready. He was clearly in shock and, from the look of him, it was no wonder as it was only too obvious he'd been tortured overly a relatively prolonged period. Blood samples and swabs of the infected areas were taken, but Andrews didn't need to know the results to order a fast glucose/saline/potassium drip and two litres of blood as well as a wide-spectrum antibiotic.
The cursory tactile examination indicated swelling in Sandburg's abdomen over both the spleen and liver, and there was marked tenderness over several ribs that stood out in stark relief against his wasted body. The skin around both wrists and ankles was severely bruised and abraded, oozing. More blood streaked his legs and, when they rolled him, everyone in the examining room gasped, and one nurse gagged, at the sight of his back and buttocks. He'd been whipped, repeatedly, the deep cuts of the lashes superimposed over one another, some suppurating with infection, all red and angry in appearance; the scars would be terrible. However, of even more immediate concern were the ripped and torn tissues, some infected and some clotted and healing, in his rectum. The poor bastard had been raped, brutally and repeatedly. Andrews shook his head, his expression solemn, as he wondered if his patient would ever fully recover, physically or emotionally.
Taking a breath, Andrews stood back from the examining table. Turning to one of the nurses, he said briskly, "Lucy, get the cameras, Polaroid and digital; take pictures of his whole body, back and front, and print out copies. The police will need them. Then, get him cleaned up; as filthy as he is, risks of further infection are enormous and we can't take him into surgery like this. Keep him covered with warmed blankets. I need a full series of x-rays, skull, chest and abdomen. Also, run the full spectrum of tests for venereal disease. He's been here before - I know his name, but I'd never have recognized him. Get his old chart up from records - check for allergies and next of kin. Call to alert his regular physician that he'll be going into surgery later tonight, in case he or she wants to assist, and we'll need to consult on the surgeon in any case. Alert the OR that we'll be sending up an emergency case in," he looked up at the wall clock, "an hour, maybe a little more. No one came in with him, but I'll want to be advised as soon as the police arrive - they'll have plenty of questions." He looked again at Sandburg, pity darkening his eyes. "This man," he sighed, schooling his expression and voice to hide the revulsion and fury he felt that a fellow human being had been so degraded and abused, "has been through a living hell."
Jim had waited until the last minute before boarding his flight, desperately hoping that Simon would call him back. Blair was alive... but in bad shape. What did that mean? How bad? And did the failure to call him back immediately mean good news - or had Sandburg gone from 'bad' to worse? He was pale and rigidly tense with barely contained fear when he finally took his seat and strapped himself in. Glancing at his watch, he calculated how long it would be before he could see Blair again - see and touch him. His hands trembled and he had to clench his jaw to stave off the tears that threatened in response to his overwhelming feelings of relief, hope and terrible anxiety. What if the kid was hurt so badly that...
No. He wouldn't even think it. After all this time, Blair had hung on and he would be all right. It might take time, a lot of time, but that was okay. What mattered was that they'd have the time to heal and to make up for all the mistakes, all the hurt and misunderstandings. Blair was alive. Alive! Again he looked at his watch, wishing time would fly instead of crawl along at a snail's pace. He swallowed against his dry throat and tapped his fingers on the arm of the seat as he stared into space. Finally, the jet was pushed away from the gate and they lumbered out onto the runway. The engines roared and the plane lurched forward, trundling with ever-greater speed until it launched into the air.
Gnawing on the side of his thumb, sightlessly gazing out of the window at the darkening sky, Jim concentrated on breathing and holding his emotions at bay. 'Blair's alive,' he thought again, a mantra that he held onto during the two-hour journey. At one point, the enormity of that reality swept over him and he bowed his head, covering his eyes with one hand as tears leaked from underneath his lashes. 'I'm coming, babe,' his aching heart called into the void between them. 'I'm coming as fast as I can.'
When he was once again on solid ground, Jim flashed his badge as he requested to be de-planed first, and then he raced up and along the narrow corridor to the escalator down to the baggage area. His garment bag over his shoulder, he intended to head straight for the cabstand, but spotted Rafe waiting for him.
"How is he?" Jim demanded as soon as they were within speaking distance.
Lifting an arm to herd him toward the sliding doors to the car he'd left parked directly outside, the red bubble light pulsing garishly, Brian shook his head grimly. "He's been tortured, Jim," the younger man said, his throat tight with fury and grief. "He wasn't responsive when Simon found him. That's all I know. C'mon, let's get you to the hospital."
Jim's lips thinned as he chewed on his inner lip, unaware of the passing scenery as Rafe skilfully sped them through the heavy traffic, siren wailing. He felt as if his heart was about to burst, his lungs so tight he could hardly breathe. Tortured? Unresponsive? Shaking his head, his hands clenched into fists as he held himself tightly, every muscle rigid with the need to see his partner. To hold him.
Twenty minutes later, Rafe pulled up in front of the Emergency entrance and Ellison bolted from the vehicle. Inside, at the information desk, he demanded to know where to find Dr. Blair Sandburg. Rafe found him pacing with only barely controlled tension when he loped in a minute later - just before a tall, middle-aged man in a lab coat approached.
"Detective Ellison?" he queried, having been expecting the man identified in Sandburg's old chart as the next of kin. "I'm Dr. Dan Andrews. If you'll come with me, I'll bring you up to date on Dr. Sandburg's condition."
Rafe pulled out his cell to call his Captain as Jim followed the grim-faced physician to a small office behind the Emergency nurses' station.
Once they were settled, Dr. Andrews asked, "What have you been told so far?"
"Only that Blair is alive and badly hurt. Tortured," Jim grated, fear a cold lump in his belly.
Blowing out a breath, the doctor nodded. "Okay, here's where we stand," he began, keeping his tone calm and clinical. "Dr. Sandburg is currently in the Operating Room. X-rays revealed several damaged organs. One kidney has been compromised, his spleen is dangerously enlarged and his liver is also swollen. He has numerous cracked ribs, one of which sent splinters into his right lung, causing slow internal bleeding. He was brutally beaten, obviously regularly, while restrained. He'd also been viciously whipped, repeatedly, and may need skin grafts to his back and buttocks, depending on whether the infection in the wounds can be contained or not. The whippings and other injuries resulted in substantial blood loss over a period of time. He is grossly malnourished and dehydrated. There is evidence of a hairline skull fracture, but it appears weeks old. He was unresponsive to verbal or pain stimulus when he was brought in, though he seemed semi-conscious. And," the physician sighed as he shook his head with compassion, "your friend was obviously raped repeatedly. He was in shock when he arrived, with a high fever from the infections in his body. There is some danger of pneumonia. We've taken the appropriate tests for venereal disease but won't have all the results back for as much as two months. From his physical appearance, he was held bound in his own excrement, and he was smeared with his own blood. Given the extent of his trauma, and the length of time during which he was held in captivity, he is likely to be as, if not more, damaged psychologically as he is physically."
There was a light rap on the door, and then a nurse entered with a manila envelope. "Here are the photographs and the copies of the x-rays you requested, Doctor," she murmured with a glance at Ellison, recognizing him from the numerous news and talk show appearances.
"Thank you," Andrews replied as he took the thick package.
Once she'd closed the door again, Jim said huskily, "I'll take that as evidence for the official file."
The physician hesitated. "You're here as the next of kin," he observed quietly, "not the investigating officer. These are... very bad; very hard to look at for a stranger let alone a loved one. I'm not sure - "
But Ellison cut in, "I'll have access to the official file anyway. Look - I need to know what was done to him to know how to best support and help his recovery."
Dr. Andrews' gaze fell away for a moment, but then he nodded and slid the envelope across the desk toward Jim. Ellison stared at it for a long moment, his respirations sharp and shallow, pale as a ghost, looking dazed and devastated. Finally, he asked hoarsely, "Will he live?"
"His condition is critical at this time, but I am hopeful that, yes, he will," Andrews replied. "However, he will most probably be deeply depressed. I'm sorry, Detective, but many individuals who suffer so horribly are often very suicidal. He will need to be watched carefully and I've already consulted with his physician about the need for psychological treatment and support."
"When can I see him?" Jim asked then, his voice distant and hollow.
Glancing at his watch, Andrews pursed his lips as he thought about it. "He will likely be in surgery for another hour, maybe two. I'd say at least three hours before he's transferred to the Intensive Care Unit. If you wish, you can wait in the lounge upstairs until they come for you."
Nodding, numb with despair, overwhelmed by the magnitude of what Sandburg had suffered, Jim stood shakily and lifted the envelope from the desk. Watching him intently, Andrews asked compassionately, "Are you going to be all right, Detective? I know this is a shock."
"All right?" Jim echoed dully. He shook his head and fought the urge to either erupt in helpless rage or vomit in reaction. Swallowing the bile burning the back of his throat, he straightened his shoulders and looked at the doctor. "What matters right now is that he's alive. Thank you for your help in keeping him alive." Fingering the envelope, his gaze dropped away as he added, very quietly, "It's not, uh, common knowledge, but Blair and I are lovers as well as partners at work. I'll do everything in my power to help him heal." Sighing, he pinched the bridge of his nose before turning to go back to join Rafe. "I'll see that these photographs are given to the officer assigned the case."
"Do you wish privacy while you examine them?" Andrews offered.
"Uh, no," Ellison refused, still sounding remote with his effort to sustain control. "I, uh, I'm not ready to see them yet. Once I know... know he's physically okay, I mean, out of the OR and I've seen him, then I'll..."
"I understand," the physician murmured as he stood to open the door and followed the shell-shocked detective out into the hallway. Briefly, he laid a hand on Jim's shoulder, as he added, "I'm very sorry your partner has suffered so badly. But he must be a very strong man to have survived at all. Give him time. Give yourself time, too - and consider counselling to help you deal with your own natural reactions to all that's happened."
Brian stopped pacing when he saw Ellison returning and he shook his head sorrowfully at how beaten Jim appeared to be. Had to be hell to hear your partner had been tortured so brutally and for so long. "You okay?" he asked soberly.
"I'd like to kill the bastards with my bare hands," the older man growled, livid with fury and sick sorrow.
Rafe nodded. He felt the same way. "If it's any consolation, one of them is already dead," he replied tightly, his stomach curdling again at the memory of the stench. "Big sonofabitch. Shot in the back of the head; looked like four or five days ago, from the state of decomposition. Corpse was naked and left to rot in the cell with Blair."
Ellison's eyes flickered up to meet Rafe's steady gaze, grimacing unconsciously as he absorbed that and realized that it was one more atrocity that Sandburg had had to endure. His jaw clenched as he nodded and then turned toward the bank of elevators. "I guess it's going to be a few hours yet, before I can see him. You, uh, you don't have to stay."
Brian's expression softened as he shook his head. Gripping Ellison's shoulder, he murmured, "You're not the only one who's worried about Blair, Jim. He's one of us so, of course, I'll wait with you. And the Captain said he'll be here soon, too."
Heaving a sigh, sniffing back his emotions, Jim nodded stiffly and then led the way upstairs.
The waiting area just off the public elevators served both the Operating Theatres and the Intensive Care Unit, which occupied opposite ends of that wing. Jim slumped into a worn chair and tilted his head, automatically reaching out to find Blair's heartbeat, and he closed his eyes, pitifully grateful to be able to hear it again, however weak and irregular it seemed.
Rafe took a chair across from the older detective and watched Ellison closely, afraid the big man might zone. Every once in a while, he called softly, "Jim, you still with me here?" and was relieved each time his colleague nodded, though Ellison's attention clearly remained fixed on what was going on in the OR. Brian grimaced, not sure he'd want to be able to hear that well.
Gradually, as Sandburg's heart beat settled and strengthened, Jim dared to allow himself to relax marginally.
Simon and Joel arrived just over an hour later, looking haggard, neither of them quite able to meet Ellison's eyes when he glanced up at them before his attention again returned to monitoring Sandburg.
"Where's H?" Brian asked, tentatively - struck by the look of sick, futile rage that burned in the eyes and stiffened the postures of the older men.
"Someone had to watch the shop," Banks grunted bluntly, too raw to bother with subtlety. "Connor's with him." Neither detective had been happy to be left behind when both would have chosen to be at the hospital. "Any word yet?"
Rafe shook his head. "The doctor downstairs met with Jim, but I don't know what was said."
Banks gazed at Ellison and nodded soberly. Having seen Sandburg earlier and after what he'd just spent the last four hours watching, Simon could imagine the injuries, both visible and invisible, were no doubt severe. He glanced at Joel, who simply shook his head helplessly. Neither of them wanted to have to tell Jim what they'd seen - neither was even sure he could yet put it into words without either succumbing to blistering fury or being violently ill. A look of weary resignation flickered across Banks' face and he moved across the lounge to sink down in the chair beside Ellison. Glancing at the official-looking, flat package that Jim clenched tightly, he asked, "What's in the envelope?"
"Photos," Ellison grated. "And x-rays. For the case file."
"Have you looked at them yet?" Simon ventured carefully, wincing with the memories of how Blair had appeared when they'd found him.
Jim shook his head. "Need to see him first. Know he's alright."
"Jim," Banks said then, his voice shaking with restrained disgust, horror and compassion, "I don't know how to tell you this any other way than straight out. The bastards taped it all - every last damned minute of it. From what Joel and I saw in the last few hours, Sandburg is going to be a far cry from 'alright'."
Startled, Ellison met Simon's gaze and he quailed at what he saw. Looking away, he blinked and then swallowed. "I'll have to see them," he stated hoarsely. Not wanting to - not sure how he could bear to see Sandburg's suffering. But he had to know, if he was going to fully understand what Blair had endured. And he had to understand to help and support his partner's recovery.
"I'm not sure that's a good idea," Banks demurred. "It's... what they did to him..." But he couldn't find the words to describe the relentless horror of it all.
His face rigid with his own useless rage and pale with anxiety, Ellison simply insisted, "Once I've seen him, touched him. I'll go downtown. They in your office?"
"I'll go with you," Simon replied, resigned, as he closed his eyes against the thought of witnessing it all over again.
"You don't have to," Jim sighed. Understanding. He was able to guess a lot of what Banks and Taggart had evidently seen from what the doctor had told him.
Snorting, Banks rolled his shoulders and sat up a little straighter, assuming his mantle of authority. "I can't let you watch them alone," he replied quietly as he reached out to briefly grip Ellison's shoulder. "It's the worst thing I've ever seen, Jim. Like... like a medieval chamber of horrors. It's hard to believe the kid survived it. But he did. He got this far, one hell of a long way, on his own. Here on in, we'll all give him whatever we can, support him however possible, to get past it. You aren't alone, Jim. Neither of you."
"Why did they... does the tape..." Jim stammered, trying to make some kind of sense out of the nightmare.
"Brackett wanted to know how to guide a sentinel," Joel choked out.
"Barnes," Jim said flatly, with loathing; suddenly, it all made terrible sense. Why they'd gone after Sandburg and had only wanted the kid. Why they'd as suddenly abandoned him to die, the book now being available for anyone to read. Bowing his head again, Jim looked away.
Banks could feel the rigidity of the muscles under his hand and he realized that Ellison's stillness was a sham of relentless control. The man was an explosion waiting to happen.
"This wasn't your fault," Simon insisted, his voice pitched very low, utterly sincere - all too well aware that he had two men at risk, not only one. "Brackett wanted Blair to learn how to guide Barnes. It had nothing to do with you... and Sandburg didn't tell them a damned thing, not even when under the influence of drugs."
Jim's face blanked as he swallowed hard and shook his head. "Don't you see, Simon?" he husked hoarsely, bitterly. "It is my fault. He was protecting me. Again. Like always. Protecting my secrets. If I'd let it all go public months ago, Brackett wouldn't have to snatch Blair to get what he wanted. He could have just bought the damned book."
Banks looked up at Joel, who shrugged and nodded; it was the wretched truth, after all. He'd been heartsick when they'd found Sandburg and realized some of what had been done to the kid. But the tapes had pushed him over the edge into white hot, blind rage at what his friend had suffered for his partner's sake; sick brutal abuse, deprivation and beatings, whippings and rape and the assault of the drugs. Even before Jim had told them the truth months ago now, and then gone public in the last week, Taggart had had his doubts about the press conference and just whom it was who was telling all the lies. But he'd let it go, respecting Blair as a friend and Jim as a colleague, leaving it to them to make their own decisions about their own lives. But this - this was too damned much. None of it needed to have happened, none of it, if Ellison had just come clean in the first place. Joel felt the need to punish someone, the need to lash out, however futilely. "The kid wouldn't tell Brackett a damned thing," Joel growled accusingly, echoing Simon's earlier words, and then continued sharply, "Even when Brackett pumped him full of truth serum, he claimed he wasn't a 'guide'. Said he was no use to you, never had been - that you're better off without him. He was nearly sobbing at the time. Why would Blair believe that, Jim? What the hell have you done to make him believe that?"
Stung by the clear accusation in the usually calm and compassionate man's voice, Jim shook his head and turned away. "He was probably 'obfuscating', Joel; messing with their minds. He knows I need him. What I don't understand is why he didn't just tell them what they wanted to know. Dammit, my secret was never worth Blair being hurt! He knows that!" Jim all but shouted that last, not even realizing that he was only confirming what Joel had suspected all along; his evident desperation revealing all too clearly that he wasn't at all sure that Blair knew that.
Taggert snorted disparagingly. "Oh yeah? Brackett is a professional and he really worked the kid... after a more brutal monster had damned near killed him. Face it. Blair believed what he was saying. Made them believe it, too. So they finally decided they might as well leave him to rot - besides, by then, you'd gone public and Brackett apparently got a copy of the book and found out everything he needed anyway. They just wanted to know how to make that bitch, Barnes, functional to do who knows what, who cares where. But it's all pretty damned clear that so far as the kid is concerned, your welfare comes first, even when it wasn't you they were after. It wasn't even your life he was protecting, just your damn secrets."
Wearily, sick to his soul at what his partner had suffered, Jim protested, more to himself than to Joel, desperate to believe his own words. "Blair wouldn't, couldn't believe that. He knows better - he knows I wouldn't want him to suffer or... or die on my account."
"Sure he does, Jim. You just keeping telling yourself that and maybe you'll believe it," Taggart retorted, anger flashing in his eyes. "But the facts remain that he didn't tell them anything, despite... despite what they did to him. The facts are, he was pretty damned convincing about believing you haven't got much use for him."
Ellison scrubbed his face and strove to hold onto his fragile control. Joel was just angry; he understood that, shared it. But the words were like body blows - there was too much truth in them. "He's my partner, Joel. We've lived and worked together for more than four years, you know that. Nobody means as much to me as he does. He knows that."
"You've also kicked him out of his home - and told him you don't trust him, don't want him around, more than once in those four years. You think we're all blind, deaf and stupid? That we couldn't see how miserable he was for months before he was abducted? How you barely even spoke to one another? I'm not sure he's been at all clear where he stands with you."
"Joel," Banks growled. "That's enough."
Jim looked from Joel to Simon and then noticed Rafe had settled in the far corner, staying well out of the fray. How could any of them understand what went on between him and Sandburg? None of them even knew they had been lovers for years. Tired of the games, the lies, the denials, he didn't want to fight and couldn't figure out what the hell they were arguing about anyway. The past couldn't be undone. What mattered now, the only thing that mattered was that Blair was alive and what had been wrong between them could be fixed.
"Why'd you let him take so much crap, Jim?" Joel pressed, seriously wanting to know. "Why'd you let everyone in the department believe he was a liar and cheat? What the hell was so damned hard about admitting the truth?"
"Joel, I said that's enough," Banks snapped harshly. "You're angry and sick to your soul at what was done to the kid. So'm I. But Jim didn't do that - to the contrary, he has, in fact, done everything he could to find Sandburg since the day he disappeared. Hell, Jim's the only one of us who believed the kid was still alive - you know that as well as I do, and feel just as damned guilty about it. Tearing into one another isn't going to help Blair."
Joel was about to retort when the double doors leading out of the Operating Rooms hissed open and a woman in rumpled scrubs emerged, a mask dangling around her neck. Walking toward them, she pulled off her cap, revealing short-cropped, curly blond hair. "I'm Dr. Susan Saunders," she said. "And I've just finished operating on Blair Sandburg. I'm assuming you're waiting for news on his condition."
"Yes, Doctor," Simon replied swiftly as he stood with Jim. "I'm Captain Simon Banks, Blair's superior, and this is his partner, Detective Jim Ellison, and two of our colleagues, Captain Joel Taggart and Detective Brian Rafe. What can you tell us?"
Scrubbing at her sweat-dampened hair, she continued toward them and then sat down, waving them to seats around her. "He's not in great shape," she sighed, her lips thin and her eyes weary. "Dr. Sergio Cato and I worked on him together. In brief, we had to take out his spleen, but we were able to save his damaged kidney. The right lung has been repaired - I noted old scarring in his lungs, which may slow healing and pose the risk of pneumonia, but for now he's breathing all right on his own. The injuries to his back... well, there will be extensive scarring unless he decides on skin grafts in the future. He's also been placed on broad spectrum antibiotics to combat various infected wounds." Looking at them, reading their grim expressions, she carried on with a carefully clinical tone, "You are aware that he was sexually abused. There was significant deep tearing of muscle and skin, internally and externally, some of which was infected and some of which had begun to heal badly with serious scarring, and we had to abrade and repair all of that." Gazing at Ellison, knowing from her colleague in Emergency about the intimate, but apparently secret relationship the Detective shared with her patient, she added meaningfully, "It will take considerable time to heal and he will suffer a great deal of discomfort from those injuries."
Reading her eyes, Jim swallowed and looked away, nodding mutely to signal he'd understood.
Moving on, she told them, "He'll be in Recovery for about another hour and then will be transferred into ICU. I'll let the staff there know you're waiting to see him. I'm afraid the visit will necessarily be brief. Frankly, after that, I suggest you all go home. Dr. Sandburg needs his rest and so do all of you. He's going to need a great deal of support in the days and weeks to come."
When Jim was finally admitted into the inner sanctum, he didn't need the nurse to lead him to Blair. He could hear the beloved heartbeat and had been hard-pressed for hours to not lose himself in it - but he couldn't zone. Sandburg needed him. Needed him badly. However, even though he'd thought himself prepared, he gaped at the reality of his partner's severely debilitated and brutalized appearance, nearly staggering as his knees weakened. In that moment, all his closely held rage and almost uncontainable desire for revenge seemed pathetically self-indulgent and irrelevant. He couldn't repeat what had happened after the fountain, when he'd been driven by nearly mindless fury to find and subdue Barnes. Blair didn't need him to chase down Brackett and Barnes. This time, there was no question that his partner needed him here.
Slowly, Jim approached the bed, cataloguing each visible wound and gash, each bruise. Sandburg was lying curled on his side and supported by pillows to ease the pressure on his severely lacerated back. Blair's appearance was so changed by the thick growth of beard that he looked a stranger, and he was so emaciated as to be nearly unrecognizable, his translucent skin mottled by yellow and purple bruises and deathly pallor. His wrists were bound with gauze. Bandages swathed his chest, back and abdomen, and the skin of his body that wasn't covered with linen was brutally bruised, Jim's sight allowing him to clearly see the imprint of the fists that had done this. Gently, with trembling fingers, he brushed Blair's hair back from his brow, his nose wrinkling as he noted the astringent smell of a strange shampoo.
"Hey, babe," he murmured, his voice thick with grief and indescribable sorrow as he lovingly caressed Sandburg's cheek. Tenderness swamped him so that all he knew for sure was that he'd do anything to help Blair survive the atrocities he'd suffered.
Barely conscious, Sandburg responded to his voice and touch, turning his face into Jim's hand when Ellison cupped his cheek and bent to press his lips to Blair's brow. Blinking heavily, Blair looked up at him dazedly, his eyes not quite focused.
"You're safe now, Chief," Jim told him quietly, taking his hand and threading their fingers together. "They can't hurt you anymore."
Ellison's heart clenched as he saw the struggle in Sandburg's eyes to make sense of where he was and what was happening. "B-Brackett and... and Alex," he rasped, striving to be understood. "They're... they're loose 'nd t-together."
"I know," Jim replied soothingly. "Shh. Just rest."
Blair frowned and shook his head, shame flooding his huge eyes as he seemed to shrink into himself. "'m sorry," he whispered brokenly in a small stricken voice. "Tried... tried no' to tell 'em anything they din't already know, but... f-failed y-you."
"No, no - you've never failed me," Ellison exclaimed softly, his voice catching. "God, Chief, I'm just so damned glad to get you back. I love you, Blair. Love you so much." Sniffing, he blinked against the burn in his eyes, his voice low and tortured as he added, "I wish... I wish I could have found you sooner. That someone had seen something when you were taken."
"Did see..." Blair sighed, the pain of it in his eyes before his gaze fell away. "Drove away... l-left me."
"What?" Jim gaped; sickened by a truth he'd long suspected but hadn't been willing to believe. "Cops saw that you were in trouble and drove away?" he clarified, still not wanting to believe it, but rage was fierce in his voice and eyes. "Who?"
"Doesn't m-matter," Sandburg gasped as pain surged through his body, the effects of the anaesthetic wearing off. "All h-hate me. Was o'ny a matter of t-time. S'over..." His voice blurred into incoherent mumbles, stumbling, disjointed apologies that shattered Ellison's heart. "All... over."
"No, no," Jim objected again. "Easy, Blair, we'll work it out. Shh, babe. Please. Just rest."
Sandburg flicked a bleak look up at Jim, and the lost emptiness in his eyes chilled Ellison to the marrow. Blair's grip on his hand, weak as it had been, loosened as the younger man turned his face away, and closed his eyes. Small gestures, but filled with meaning that clawed at Jim's heart. He leaned down as he whispered urgently, "Don't pull away from me, Blair." Sandburg didn't respond and his eyes remained closed, as if he'd drifted back to sleep, but Ellison knew from his tight respirations and staccato heartbeat that the kid was still very awake. "I love you," Ellison vowed as he bent to kiss Blair's brow. "No matter what, don't ever doubt that."
A nurse padded into the treatment cubicle. "I'm sorry. You'll have to go now."
Wordlessly, Jim nodded. Despite everything, all the horror and his grief and guilt and fury, Ellison was also conscious of the undeniable bubble of joy and relief he felt deep inside. But his heart twisted with the anguish of knowing that his partner had suffered terribly and was still suffering. If he was going to help Blair recover fully, he needed to know what had been done to the younger man - he had to see the tapes as soon as possible. He bent down to again kiss Blair's brow, murmuring, "Rest now. I'll be back." And then he moved past the nurse, striding furiously out of the unit. Slamming through the double doors, he raged at the others, "Cops saw it go down, dammit! They drove off and left him to be assaulted!"
"What?" Simon exclaimed, surging to his feet. Rafe, who had heard as much from the wino weeks before looked down at the floor, and shook his head; Joel looked pole-axed, cursing as his fists clenched.
"He just told me, Simon - he knows he was betrayed and abandoned by colleagues who should have been the first to go to his aid. He believes... believes that it was inevitable that he'd be left hanging in the wind," Ellison growled. "I want to know who - "
"No more than I do, Detective," Banks cut in, sharply. "I'll take care of it, you hear me?"
"How is he?" Joel asked then, angry, wretched but more than anything else needing to know that Sandburg was holding his own.
Jim just shook his head. "I need to see those tapes."
"Ah, Jim, I don't know," Banks hesitated, a hand unconsciously straying to his stomach as nausea again roiled in his gut.
"Now, Simon, while he's drugged and will be asleep for hours. I won't let him suffer this alone when he's finally awake again."
Recognizing that arguing was futile, Simon led them to the elevators. On the way back to Headquarters, Banks called Connor and demanded that the dispatch and shift logs from the day and time of Sandburg's abduction be examined to determine which patrol cars had been in the vicinity. Sick anger mingled with brutal self-recrimination in Banks' gut as he snapped the phone closed and shoved it back into his pocket. He should have had the logs checked weeks ago, but he just hadn't wanted to believe... had blinded himself to the awful possibility that the assault and abduction could have been prevented by cops in the first place, if they hadn't abandoned Sandburg to his fate. Dammit. Those cops, whoever they were, were going down.
There were nearly a hundred tapes crammed into the box in the corner of Banks' office, all labelled by date and time, in a rough, nearly illegible hand. Ellison paled as he looked at them but Simon waved him to a seat and moved forward to pull several out from various time periods.
"I don't know why Brackett taped it all, but I suspect he was thinking he'd either need a record of the 'lessons' he hoped to get from Sandburg, or he was planning some future blackmail," the big man said as he slipped the first video from its cover. "I honestly don't think he planned everything that eventually happened to the kid. We haven't had time to screen them all, but a lot that we did look at appear more or less blank because they left him alone in the dark for a good part of the time."
He slid in the tape and clicked on the television and the player. "What isn't dark is very bad," he cautioned again, as he slumped into a chair beside Ellison.
The grainy, black and white image showed Sandburg hanging from a meat hook in the ceiling, naked and evidently unconscious. Simon fast-forwarded until they could see Blair begin to stir and look up at the camera, his lips parted, barely moving.
Jim cleared his throat. "He, uh, thought at that point that we'd be sent the tape. He's letting me know that Brackett took him and to not... not give Brackett what he wants, whatever it is. He's... he's telling me it looks worse than it is."
Banks shook his head and fast-forwarded again.
Ellison sat like a stone through the nearly five hours of abbreviated playback, only the swiftly pulsing muscle in his clenched jaw revealing the rigidity with which he clung to his control and held screaming emotions at bay. Before long, they had a clear idea of how many of the hours, days and weeks Sandburg had spent in abject darkness. They could see how little he'd been given to eat or drink, and they saw him grow weaker as time went on. Simon winced and looked away from the savage beatings, but Jim stared woodenly at the screen, absorbing it all. Ellison felt torn by conflicting emotions - part of him despaired that his partner had suffered so much without breaking down, but he was also proud of Blair's courage; part of him wished desperately that Sandburg had given up and talked, but he was afraid Brackett would have then simply killed him - and he was pitifully grateful that Blair was still alive. Though Simon would have scanned through all the black, lightless sections of the tapes, from time to time Jim had him slow them down, and he cocked his head, listening, hearing unconscious whispers and muted moans of pain. Blair had lived it - all he had to do was watch it, though he would have sold his soul to turn back time or to be granted the right to suffer in Sandburg's place.
Blair had been left in darkness for more than two full days after Brackett had gone. When the brutish keeper returned, now naked himself, to haul in the table and then to hook his drugged victim to the ceiling, Ellison flinched, but then he gritted his jaw again and kept watching. Whippings and beatings. Multiple brutal rapes. The sick ritual of smearing Blair's blood over his body and through his hair. More whippings. More wanton rape. Over and over, for days that became weeks of brief but violent periods of carnal abuse in the stark light, followed by relentless hours of darkness.
It was actually a relief to see Brackett and Barnes arrive - and there was a kind of vicarious pleasure in witnessing Brackett's fury when he summarily executed the monster even as he was still thrusting into Sandburg and 'playing' with Blair's blood; shooting him through the back of the head, so that his face was blasted into ghoulish fragments over Sandburg's body. His carcass was hauled off Blair and into the far corner where he'd been left to rot after his hands had been coldly chopped off and burned on the cement floor. The drug-addicted doctor appeared on the screen next, but he rendered only very minimal aid. They watched the whole interrogation after Brackett had injected Blair with sodium pentothal... heard Blair stall with the drunken singing, string Brackett one tale after another, and pretend to wander down aimless verbal pathways, but Jim knew his partner and knew what the kid was doing. Unlike Taggart, Ellison was very familiar with what was popularly called 'truth serum', and he knew people could resist its effects, could conceal truth or mislead if they were determined to do so. Blair had remained grimly resolved to protect him, even then, even after all that he had suffered. Unaware of the tear that streaked his cheek, Jim shook his head, in awe of the powerful force of Sandburg's will despite his sorely weakened and abused condition.
But hearing Blair's anguished scream and wretched apologies, after Brackett had told him he'd gotten what he needed, ripped Ellison's heart into shreds and he curled forward, his hands covering his face.
When Simon switched off the last tape, Jim sat for a long moment and then stood to reach for the metal wastebasket by Banks' desk, vomiting violently into it while his boss gripped his shoulder. When he finally got control of the dry heaving, and had sipped at the glass of water Banks passed him, rinsing his mouth and spitting some out before drinking, he moved to the windows and stared sightlessly out into the rainy, misty dawn. "Where are Brackett and Barnes?" he grated, his fists clenched so tightly the knuckles were bleached of blood. God, he wanted to tear them limb from limb.
"We don't know," Simon sighed. "A couple matching their description apparently flew out yesterday on a flight to Frankfurt on the way to Angola, but there's no way of knowing if it was really them. They could be anywhere, Jim, but we're guessing they've left the country."
Ellison nodded tightly. Swallowing convulsively, he told himself that being chained together, until either Barnes killed Brackett in a violent fit of insanity or he gunned her down in weary contempt and disgust, was probably the worst thing that could ever happen to either of them. Whatever; they didn't matter. Not right then, anyway. He had other priorities. "Do we know who was the... the accomplice Brackett shot?"
"We haven't ID'd him yet from the stills we made from the videotape footage. With no dental work or fingerprints to go on, we may never know. As you could see on the tapes, Brackett never used his name."
Ellison took a deep breath, blowing it out through his nose as he fought to control the anger that very nearly consumed him. He wanted to lash out in vengeance, needed to punish; but there was no one left to brutalize in their turn. He rolled his shoulders and stretched, trying to loosen his muscles to enable the fury to drain away. Blair needed tenderness from him, not the harshness of frustrated rage.
"I could hear Sandburg mumbling from time to time, but couldn't make out the words," Simon ventured, wondering if Jim would tell him what the kid had been saying.
Sighing, his expression haunted, Ellison crossed his arms, his gaze roaming the city. "Early on, he was hoping for a miraculous rescue, but he kept telling himself it wasn't ever going to happen," he replied, his tone carefully neutral. "Sometimes, he was... was reflecting on us, on what wasn't working right between us and why. Later, he was hoping nobody would ever know what had happened to him." Jim's voice caught and he paused. Bowing his head, his voice very low, he revealed, "Near the end, he was praying, begging God to let him die... and he believed himself to be going crazy."
"Ah, Jesus," Banks breathed, closing his eyes as he, too, bowed his head. "I'm so damned sorry, Jim. And just sick to know other cops saw it go down and didn't do a damned thing to help. I'll have their badges, I swear it."
"Yeah," Ellison muttered as he turned away from the window, his face pale and strained. The revenge of firing bad cops left him feeling chilled and empty; it wouldn't change the past or take away Sandburg's suffering or scars.
Brown tapped on the door and, at Banks' call to "Come", he entered, his nose wrinkling at the sour smell coming from the wastebasket, and he wondered again what was on those tapes that had had such visible and powerful impact on the three toughest cops in their shop. "Dispatch has only been able to positively confirm one patrol car in the area at the time we think Sandburg was taken," he reported and then added morosely, "... and I guess, they saw it go down all right."
"Care to be clearer about that, Brown?" Simon snapped, not in the mood for cryptic statements.
Grimacing, Henri shook his head. "Officers John Mallory and his partner, Greg Simpson, were found by Mallory's wife late last night when she got home from work. Simpson had a bullet hole between his eyes and Mallory had blown his own brains out."
Banks and Ellison gaped at him and then rolled their eyes, shaking their heads, sickened by more ugly death; their need to exact some kind of justice, however limited or inadequate to the outcome of the crime, doomed to be eternally frustrated.
"I don't want Sandburg to know," Jim grated. "Not until I figure out how to tell him. He's got enough to deal with, without feeling guilty that those bastards off'ed themselves out of guilt or remorse."
The other two men nodded in silent agreement. Moving past them, Ellison said, "I'm going back to the hospital. Let me know if anyone comes up with something on Brackett or Barnes."
But, he slowed as he passed Joel's desk on the way to the elevator and stopped to grip his friend's shoulder.
"I'm sorry, Jim," the older man sighed. "I was 'way out of line earlier."
Ellison shook his head and looked back toward Banks' office. "Joel," he replied, his voice tight with pain and fury, "After seeing those tapes, any friend of Sandburg's would feel the urge to kill." Looking down at Taggart, he added, "And you've always been a very good friend to him. Some things need to be said, however much they hurt."
"I'm your friend, too, Jim," Joel asserted soberly.
"I know you are," Ellison replied with a wry, crooked smile. "Better than I deserve sometimes."
When Jim walked back into Blair's glass cubicle and slipped around the curtain, he found a nurse changing the dressings on his partner's back, and he froze in horror at the reality of what he'd only seen in dispassionate black and white on the screen. Sandburg's skin was deeply scored with thin reddened and infected, suppurating wounds, like innumerable scarlet ribbons or bloody snakes, twined and twisted around his body. Though they would eventually heal, he'd bear the physical scars of his suffering for the rest of his life. Jim had to close his eyes and look away, needing to drag in a deep breath to steady his emotions, before he walked around the bed to where he could see Blair's face. Startled by his silent approach, the nurse told him he should wait outside, but he shook his head and otherwise ignored her. Sandburg's face was white and lined with pain, his lashes wet, though he'd not given way to tears. Jim's throat thickened as he reached out to grip Blair's shoulder reassuringly.
"Just breathe through it, Chief," he counselled gently, his voice low. "The pain doesn't last."
"No?" Blair challenged dully, his eyes flickering open to look quickly up at Ellison and then flinching away, but not before Jim was chilled by their distant hopeless emptiness. The pain extreme, Sandburg was unable to wholly suppress a grimace and soft moan as the nurse applied an antiseptic cream that stung hotly, and he turned his face more into the pillow, as if to try to hide, as she moved lower to clean the sutured torn skin and muscle.
Ellison laced his fingers through Sandburg's hair and rested his hand steadily upon Blair's skull, solid and intimate, strong and secure. "Takes time, but eventually, everything heals," he murmured. "If you let it."
"Ah, God, Jim," Blair gasped breathlessly, so softly Ellison barely heard him. "Hurts... hurts so bad..."
"I know, babe," Jim whispered back, ignoring the nurse, forgetting about her as he bent down to nuzzle Sandburg's sweat-dampened temple. "It was hell on earth. But you lived; you're hurt, but whole. You're not alone, not anymore. We'll get through this."
"That's it for now, Dr. Sandburg," she said briskly, if kindly. "I'll get something for the pain, so you can rest."
"Not... 'Doctor'," Blair protested, frowning at her confusion, her words provoking a distant, disjointed memory of Brackett calling him 'doctor', too, as he'd waved a book in the air. And that memory lanced shards of ice into his heart and ripped his soul open. God, what had he done? What the hell had he done? He felt violated, polluted; an empty, vile husk with nothing more to give and incapable of hope, but none of that came close to matching the visceral sense of self-loathing and absolute failure that permeated his being.
"But -" she was surprised that he denied his rightful designation. Why, all the papers and news programs had been full of the fact that he'd been awarded his doctorate on the basis of his brilliant work.
"Just get him something to make him more comfortable, okay?" Jim cut in, his expression warning her to silence. She looked at him uncertainly, but then shrugged and nodded as she gathered up the detritus of her treatments and told them she'd be back shortly.
Dimly, Blair heard Jim seeking to reassure him, but he didn't deserve caring and support. Didn't deserve love. He should be reviled and shunned. Hell, he should be dead; wished with every fibre of his being that he were dead. He couldn't be Jim's partner anymore, not after what had happened, not with everyone knowing he was garbage. Who would respect him, if they ever had? And he sure as hell couldn't be Jim's lover anymore. After what that monster had done, knowing Jim had just seen the evidence of his wounds, he couldn't imagine that Jim would ever want to touch him again in that way, and most assuredly not after he'd betrayed Jim so completely. God, why couldn't he have died - simple, clean, over; not raw and bleeding, inside as well as out.
Jim resumed stroking his fingers gently through Sandburg's hair, his caresses tender and warm. His eyes blurred and his chest ached with the pain he could feel radiating from his partner, and he had to bite on his lip to still its trembling. Sniffing, he took a breath and resorted to facts, clear and simple, unequivocal. "You were worked over by pros, Chief... they knew how to give maximum pain without irreparable damage. You probably feel beaten down and... well, exhausted. But your body will heal, babe. Faster than you might think, right now. Your, uh, back will scar, but it will heal, like the other cuts and bruises will heal. Mostly, you're just weak, from lack of food and water... and blood loss. But you will heal."
Blair remained still, silent; his face turned away, his breath short and sharp in his chest as he fought down sobs, his heart pounding like a bird fluttering violently against its cage. He knew Blair was listening to him, because his breathing and heart rate gradually slowed and steadied, but still the kid didn't move and wouldn't look at him. Jim scrubbed a hand over his face and pulled a chair close to the side of the bed. For a moment, he just gazed at Sandburg, at the bruises and welts, the bandages around his raw wrists matching those unseen under the sheet, around his ankles. Blair was unmoving, but not relaxed. He held himself rigidly, against the pain and, no doubt, the memories that must be scourging him still.
Ellison couldn't see auras, like Naomi always claimed she could, but he could sense the misery, could feel Sandburg withdrawing from him and everything, everyone, else. It wasn't the physical wounds that they needed to worry about, and he knew it. The deeper scars, those of being tortured and violated, of being left to hang in stark light or abandoned in cold darkness - of being betrayed by colleagues who should have been trustworthy. And other scars, those that Joel had scolded about - they were there, too, buried even more deeply but no less real. Jim felt overwhelmed by all that Blair had suffered and didn't have a clue how to begin helping his partner heal. Inside, he berated himself for never having learned to deal with painful emotions, having been too good at denying them and burying them, as if that would make them go away. But he knew that didn't work - in fact, only made the wounds worse, leaving them to fester and never heal. Though almost pathologically reticent about expressing deep emotion and revealing personal hurts, Jim was neither insensitive nor inarticulate when words were essential. Avoidance wasn't the same thing as inability.
Taking a breath, he swallowed and then reached to entwine his fingers around Sandburg's lax hand. "I know you're awake, Chief. And it's okay if you're not up to talking right now. Time enough for that later, when you're stronger. But... but we're going to have to talk. You know that. You can't keep all this bottled up tight inside. It'll tear you apart," he said huskily, fighting to keep his voice steady. "We'll get help, if we need to. Counsellors. We'll do whatever we need to do to heal."
When Blair still didn't respond in any way, Jim gazed at him bleakly. Finally, his voice very low, he said, "However many times you might have wished it all could end, and that you could... die... I want you to know that my prayers were answered. I wanted you back, more than anything in this life. I love you, Blair, and nothing will ever change that."
Sandburg visibly flinched as his breathing hitched and a shudder rippled through his emaciated body, as if he were suddenly chilled. He pulled his hand away from Ellison's grip. "Don't... touch me," he gasped, in desperate grief and guilt. "Go home," he added hoarsely, his face still half hidden by the pillow, his eyes still tightly closed. "Don't come back."
"Chief, I - "
"Go home," Blair rasped again, sounding as if it took all the strength he had.
Ellison bowed his head, but then nodded slowly. When he stood, he seemed bereft of vitality, stiff, like an old, old man. Either Sandburg could no longer bear anyone's touch, or he blamed Jim for what had happened to him and Ellison couldn't protest; he blamed himself. Either way though, for now, it was important that he respect Sandburg's right to define his own parameters and shape his environment as much as he could. "Alright," he sighed in defeat. "I'll go for now. But I will be back. I will always come back to you." With that, he bent to kiss Blair's temple and then turned to walk away.
He could smell the salt of Sandburg's unshed tears as he headed into the corridor and he paused, unsure what to do, whether to stay or leave. Instinctively, he knew Blair needed him, but he also respected Sandburg's desire for space and privacy to find some of his own balance. It was the husky whisper, so soft and broken, that decided him.
"Go away. Please, man... just go."
So he did, though it took every scrap of discipline he had to walk away.
When Ellison returned later that afternoon, he found Simon and Joel coming slowly out of the small cubicle. They were both frowning heavily, but not in anger. Rather, they appeared deeply concerned, with an air of helplessness and dread around them. When they saw Jim approaching, they straightened as they waited, regarding him with anxious eyes.
"What is it? Has something happened?" he asked uncertainly. He could hear Sandburg's breathing and heartbeat, and he seemed stable.
Joel shook his head and shrugged; Simon's lips thinned and twisted as he grimaced. "He's no better, maybe even worse, today," he finally replied with a heavy sigh. "Oh, not physically. Seems to be healing okay. You said he was talking last night and this morning, at least a little. But now? He's not 'present', just not responding at all. If I didn't know better, I'd say he's in a zone."
Ellison's head snapped around to peer into the small chamber. Sandburg was curled on his side, absolutely still, his eyes widely staring at the wall. "The, uh, doctor said he might be depressed," he offered, the mild words belying the twist of anxiety in his gut.
"Depressed?" Joel echoed, lifting his gaze to Jim's. 'Depressed' is sad, lost... a distancing of emotion. But Blair is... vacant. Empty. It's like the lights are on but nobody's home. This is... scary, Jim."
"It's just temporary, a kind of retreat to regroup," Ellison explained hastily, needing to believe the safe explanation for the unprecedented behaviour. "Makes sense, right? He went through hell and he needs time to process it. It's what Sandburg does."
His ire flaring, tired of Jim's capacity to deny any unpleasantness he didn't want to confront, scared shitless for Blair, Joel snorted contemptuously. "Get a grip, Ellison. Your partner isn't 'processing'; he's shutting down. Closing up shop. I guess after giving up everything he was, his dreams, his career, his credibility, his identity, and after being reviled, tortured and perversely brutalized, his body and his psyche raped, not to mention being left for dead with an already rotting corpse for company... maybe he is empty. Maybe he's hasn't got a damned thing left to sacrifice on his sentinel's altar."
"Joel," Banks' voice rumbled, cautioning.
"Dammit, Simon, why shouldn't it be said? Hell, I know Jim never consciously meant the kid any harm but, Jesus - look at him. He's a dead man who just hasn't stopped breathing yet! And it never had to have happened! If Jim had had half the respect for Blair's career that he expected Sandburg to have for ours, or stopped to think just once before reacting like a mortally wounded bull when stuff blows up - hell, all this sentinel shit would have been on the table months, maybe years ago and Blair wouldn't have had to... to be destroyed. Utterly destroyed!" Taggart's voice broke as his lip quivered; he shook his head helplessly and looked away, dragging in almost sobbing breaths in an effort to regain control. "I love that kid," he choked. "Nearly kills me to see him like this." Swiping at his eyes, he turned back to Ellison. "I'm sorry, Jim, but if you had stopped the madness months ago -"
"Don't you think I don't know that?" Jim exclaimed, shaking helplessly, near tears himself, awash in guilt. "But what am I supposed to do about it, Joel? I can't wave some magic wand and turn back time. I can't change what's been done or what happened, though I'd give my life to do it, if I could!"
The sharp voices, Joel's anger and Jim's hurt and confusion, roused Sandburg from his nearly catatonic state and he mumbled brokenly, "Stop... d-don't..."
Jim heard the pain-filled plea and held up his hand before either of the other men could say anything more. Hurrying into the small room, Jim bent to lay a gentle hand on his partner's brow. "Sh-h, it's okay, babe, it's okay. Just rest, Chief. All you need to do is rest and get better." He didn't notice Simon and Joel exchange a quick look at the endearment as they followed him in, but then as quickly shake it off.
But Blair could feel the hot emotions filling the air and his shatteringly blank gaze shifted to Jim's guilt-haunted eyes. Blinking heavily, summoning his strength and awareness of the world around him, he tried to focus on Ellison. "Not... your fault," he croaked brokenly. When Jim's grief-stricken gaze dropped away, he blinked again and then looked around the room, at Joel who looked like he'd been weeping, and then at Simon whose dark eyes were filled with compassion. "Tell J-Joel. N-not Jim's fault," Sandburg commanded raspily. When Banks nodded, understanding, Sandburg sank back into the pillows; his energy spent, his face was gaunt with exhaustion and pain as his lost gaze drifted back to stare sightlessly at the wall.
Once again Jim stroked his brow soothingly. "Go back to sleep, Chief. Everything's going to be fine."
Behind him, Simon had turned to Joel, both of them finding Ellison's poignant reassurances and Sandburg's frightening withdrawal too painful to watch. "Jim wanted to go public months ago," Banks sighed sorrowfully, fulfilling Sandburg's charge to him. "But Sandburg wouldn't permit it. Said it was too dangerous. It's why Jim has seemed so angry these last few months. He knew what kind of crap the kid was taking, but Blair wouldn't allow him to put an end to it."
"Ah, shit," Taggart murmured, his rage spent and only helpless grief filling him up so that his dark eyes again glazed with tears. He and Simon turned back to Jim who had squatted down by the bed in an effort to see into his partner's empty eyes. Ellison was whispering desperate endearments, tenderly touching Sandburg's face and shoulders... leaning forward to reverently kiss Blair's temple and the corner of his mouth.
For a moment, they stood stunned, listening as Jim declared his love to the younger man in words and tones that could no longer be misunderstood or mistaken, and watching him kiss Sandburg tenderly. But then both men sharply turned away, suddenly uncomfortable and embarrassed; surprised but feeling as though they shouldn't have been.
When Ellison turned back to them, he could see their discomfort and he sighed. Running a hand over his head to knead his neck, he shrugged as he looked from one to the other. "I can't pretend any more. He's hurt too bad and needs me to be everything I am to him. We've been lovers for years, since we got back from the oilrig. I'm sorry if it makes you uncomfortable, but I'm not sorry I love him."
Simon shrugged and shook his head. "I guess we should have figured it out. It's just that, well, you both have always seemed more interested in women."
Jim smiled wearily as he looked back down at his partner, and he was conscious that Blair was still listening to them, though he chose to remain withdrawn. A cop, Ellison knew the impact on victims of the kinds of trauma Blair had suffered - and he figured there was no time like the present for his lover to hear and know unequivocally that he wasn't alone. "Yeah, well, we were. Sandburg thinks it has something to do with the sentinel/guide bond. Me? I just know I need him more than I need air... and I never knew it was possible to love, the way I love him." He heard the younger man's heart skip and his breathing catch. Squeezing Sandburg's hand gently, he rubbed small circles with his thumb on his partner's skin until his beloved's eyes drifted closed and he knew Blair had finally slipped back to sleep.
The smile that had flitted over his lips at the fondness of his memories disappeared as Ellison gazed down at his partner with deeply troubled eyes. Joel was right. There was more wrong here than depression. Blair was slipping away - wilfully so. Jim's jaw tightened as he girded himself for the fight of his life - a different kind of battle from any he'd ever entered before. A battle fought not with weapons in duty or anger, but one fought with tender words and steadfast love.
For three days, the physicians and staff allowed Sandburg his silent retreat from the world. His body's need for nourishment and rehydration was so acute that they maintained the intravenous feeding as a matter of course. His injuries and wounds were such that they accepted he needed, more than anything, quiet and rest - and he had to avoid solid foods for at least a week, in any case, to allow his rectal area to heal.
But on the fourth day, at noon, a tray of liquids was brought to him; juices, broth, and water.
He didn't even look at it.
At supper, one of the nurses tried to cajole him into drinking a little, kindly but firmly encouraging him.
He didn't look at her, either.
The next morning, Dr. Cato dropped in on his rounds. The short, swarthy, eminently practical surgeon stood by the bed, vastly unimpressed with his patient's hunger strike, as he said bluntly, "You will either begin to consume nourishment voluntarily, or I'll resort to having a feeding tube put down your throat. So, will you eat?"
"Yes," Sandburg replied, his tone bitter and brittle as he stared at the wall, though he'd gone so long without decent food that the thought of eating now left him nauseous. And, vaguely, he'd thought that if he didn't eat, maybe he could just quietly slip away from the torment of his life. But he couldn't bear the thought of being manhandled again, not even for his own good. It was easier to acquiesce, to let them see what they wanted to see, so that they'd leave him alone.
He was a passive, untroublesome patient, who got up with silent forbearance to sit on the padded donut on the single chair in the cell while they made his bed, or to follow docilely when it was time for his sitz bath treatments. He asked for nothing. Accepted what they brought him. Drank enough to satisfy them.
During visiting hours, the members of MCU dropped by singly or in pairs, bearing hope and false cheer as they regaled him with updates on what was happening downtown and told him how much they missed him. But their voices petered out after a time, disconcerted by the absence of any acknowledgement or reaction. Oh, he was polite enough, looking up to greet them with those eerily vacant eyes, unless they could bear to look closely enough to see the anguished agony darkening his gaze. But that was it. He never spoke, and inevitably, his attention would soon drift away to stare again at the featureless wall. In the evenings, when the room was dim, if they turned on a light, he grimaced and tightly closed his eyes. It was the most reaction any of them got from him.
Jim, as next of kin, was allowed access at any time, so long as he didn't interfere with treatments. Having extended his leave of absence, he was free to be there almost continuously. For the first few days, when Blair flinched away at his touch, Ellison sat nearly as silent as his lover, not having a clue of what to say or do, feeling helpless and afraid. Repeatedly, into the silence, he'd offer the dearest, most sincere truths of his life. "I love you, Chief, more than life. Please... let me help you." "I wish it could have been me. I'd give anything to take this pain from you." "I'm sorry, babe, so sorry. This is my fault."
Most of the time, he got no reaction at all. Until he offered the choking apology, and then Blair would shake his head, slowly, deliberately. "No," he'd insist as if by rote, his tone dull and lifeless. "Not your fault."
On the fifth day in hospital, Sandburg was moved to a private room. He was able to move a little more easily, required less help to get out of bed. But he seemed to prefer lying still and silent on his side to sitting on the awkward donut. He ate the bland soft foods they brought and drank the copious amounts of liquids they insisted upon. He took the antibiotics and other medications, including a mood elevator and the prophylactic capsules designed to strengthen his system against the AIDS virus, in the event that the test eventually showed him to be HIV-positive.
Lost in his well of despair, Blair truly believed that it was possible for a spirit to will its body to die, if it was strong and single-minded enough. But life was tenacious and bodies didn't let go easily, not if they were basically healthy and healing was possible. He'd thought he'd wanted to die, but he had to reluctantly accept that he evidently hadn't, and still didn't, want that enough. He was conflicted, some part of him still clinging to life and the memories of when it had been good, and he thought himself a fool for his lack of commitment to just... let go.
He was pretty sure that he'd gone a little, probably more than a little, mad during his month of deprivation and abuse. When he was moved out of the ICU and given more license to see to his own personal care, he hobbled to the nearest shower, and had to practically be forced out of it by an attendant. Objectively, he knew he wasn't dirty, that the filth of his body wasn't still sticky on his legs; that blood didn't still cake his hair and that Igor's essence... well, there was the rub. Igor had been inside him, had come inside him, bled all over the open wounds on his back when Brackett had blasted the man's life away. Igor's essence was a part of his being, something he couldn't scrub away - something he was afraid to even ask the doctor if it would haunt him and maybe, yet, kill him.
There was no answer for that. The results of the AIDS test wouldn't come back for weeks.
Sometimes, as he stared at the wall, he imagined he could still smell Igor rotting in the corner, out of sight in the darkness, but never out of mind. And he remembered, with sick self-loathing, how some part of him had been so glad Igor was dead. Not simply relieved. Joyful. It was an ugly memory; an uglier emotion.
But, in his nightmares, Igor got his revenge for the petty satisfaction of his murder, and still whipped him, grunting with lust and excitement. Still ripped and pounded into him, possessing him, like some thing, something less than human, making them both less than human, and rendering them into sweating, bleeding, sentient meat. In his dreams, it was always either Igor tormenting him or Brackett waving that book around, sneering at him as he called him 'Doctor' and thanking him for all his help.
No wonder whenever he ate, it didn't stay down long, so eating seemed, well, a waste of time and energy. But he had to eat if he was going to get stronger.
If he was going to live.
Jim wanted him to live, and lost no opportunity to make that very clear, over and over. Jim said he was still loved and needed and wanted. But why? For what purpose? What was there left to love or remained to him to give?
Simon and Joel, Megan, H and Brian all tiptoed in and out on a regular basis, gentle with their voices and words, afraid to hurt by reminding him of the pain, as if the pain needed any reminding and wasn't ever-present, more real than anything else. Sometimes, he wondered where Naomi was, but he was mostly just relieved she wasn't there and maybe didn't have any idea what had happened to him. Hopefully, she'd never know it all.
And the therapist, the very pleasant, compassionate and oh, so empathetic Dr. Walsh? 'Way too empathetic about something he could scarcely know anything about. And, though Blair knew that wasn't fair, he just didn't care enough to be more than moderately polite - sure didn't feel compelled to open up his psyche and explain exactly why he'd been tortured within an inch of his life; and it would only worry the good psychologist to know Sandburg was beginning to suspect he'd not only brought it on himself but very likely deserved much of what happened as a kind a penance for having been an idiot.
He knew they were all worried that he wasn't talking, beyond the barest of acknowledgements. In their place, he'd be worried about him, too. But what was there to talk about? That other cops had hated him so much that they'd abandoned him to his fate and then killed themselves or each other in remorse? Jim didn't know he knew that, but Mrs. Mallory worked in the lab at Cascade General, and all the staff were talking about the 'tragedy', only belatedly remembering with awkward, sidelong looks at him, that he was at the bottom of the tragedy, the foundation it had been built upon. No, the others wouldn't want to talk about that.
Or about how, if he wasn't a cop, and he couldn't see how he could even pretend to be a cop any longer, he didn't really have a lot of other jobs to choose from, not in Cascade anyway. He could go away, his Masters degree had worth and could be parlayed into some job, somewhere, but... then he'd be leaving his home and Jim and... no, they wouldn't want to talk about the fact he pretty much had to leave town now. Hell, he didn't want to talk about it. Didn't want to face the truth of it.
So, what did that leave? Talking about what it was like to shiver in the dark, afraid of what was going to happen next? Or about what it felt like to be beaten and whipped and raped and... uh, no. He didn't want to go there. Wanted to shut the memories away. Pretend it had all been just a really long, very bad, dream.
And, one day, he found out that if he talked about how they'd managed against all the odds to find him, he would only come up against another wall, one Jim and the others had built. Certainly, nobody from MCU had told him what Jim had done, and Ellison sure wasn't talking about it. But too many staff kept calling him 'Doctor Sandburg'. While it had confused him at first, and gave him a queasy feeling when he remembered Brackett doing the same, he'd finally, in frustration, asked why they kept calling him that. So... an orderly had told him. Sandburg listened in dazed, disbelieving shock as the young man told him all about Jim's appearances across the country and how incredibly neat it was to know things like sentinels existed and how 'way cool' his book was, and that it was selling like hot cakes.
A 'thing' like a sentinel...
As if Jim weren't fully human.
'Way cool'... 'selling like hot cakes'.
Jim had stripped himself bare in front of the whole world.
Tears he'd refused to shed threatened to overwhelm him then. Blair had felt his betrayal to Brackett and Barnes had been the worst that could ever happen. He still didn't know if he'd given way, or if they'd simply bought his book - probably the latter; Brackett's inexplicable words and actions at the end made sense now. Sandburg ached profoundly, an endless sorrow, for what Jim had felt compelled to do because Jim was an honourable man. He wouldn't have felt he any choice but to go to such an extreme to generate leads on his missing partner's whereabouts. So, despite his profound desire for privacy and his deep fear of being seen as a freak, he'd gone as public as it was possible to go.
Which pretty much made a farce out of Blair's stubborn resistance to cave to Brackett or Igor, and left him feeling a fool for having suffered so much so needlessly. Here he was, in little bitty pieces, his psyche fractured and splintered, devoid of any shred of personal confidence or sense of dignity, knowing and despising himself for not just getting past it - and it had all been for nothing. Two cops had died because he didn't want anyone knowing about Jim's vulnerabilities, and the guilt they, or at least Mallory, had suffered when they'd learned the truth. His assault and abduction had been allowed, tolerated by those men, and probably others who dealt with their own guilt in the darkness - because he hadn't wanted Jim to go public months ago. His career was wasted, blown to bits by his own words, his own self-labelling as a fraud and liar to protect a secret that was now 'selling like hot cakes'. And Jim's privacy and safety had been sacrificed because he'd written the damned paper in the first place. He'd betrayed his students, let down his mentor and adviser and faculty members who had believed in him, to cleave true to Jim, to protect his Sentinel, whatever the cost. In the end, it was all for naught. All meaningless.
And, in the end, it all came down to the fact that it was all his own damned fault. All of it. His vanity in believing he'd known what was best had cost him his career, shrivelled Jim's spirit with guilt for having to live a lie, had led to the death of two otherwise probably good cops; and the fact that few had given a damn when he disappeared... it was his lies that had put him in that cement vault. It had been Jim's truths that had set him free. Truths that Jim had hoped would never be known, or not by many; truths that left Jim feeling like a freak and, worse, left him pitifully vulnerable in his work - might even cost his life. Truths that would never have come to light if Blair's lies hadn't driven Ellison to the extremes of public disclosure.
Yeah, right, that would be a really neat philosophical little discussion to bandy about with Rafe and Brown, to explore in depth with Taggart and Connor - to torment Simon and Jim. NOT. Bitterly, he shook his head. Seemed he'd gotten his PhD after all, and was likely going to be rich, to boot. Like it mattered anymore.
Or, oh yeah, they could always talk about Brackett and Barnes, speculate about where they were and what they were doing with Blair's handy little 'way cool' manual on the care and feeding of sentinels so that they could be as great as nature intended them to be. Really lots of conversational fodder there. Sigh.
So, Blair spent his first six days of recovery in the hospital lying curled in his bed or sitting silently, gazing sightlessly out the window, while the thoughts and emotions and recriminations whirled in his head and heart. He preferred to sit or feign sleep in a darkened room, but people kept opening the blinds or turning on lamps, unaware that the light scalded him and made him want to cringe and crawl away into the shadows. He wanted, quite simply, to die - but since that didn't seem to be happening of its own accord and he lacked the energy or courage to kill himself, he would settle for being invisible.
If only everyone would join in with his neurotic need to pretend he didn't really exist, everything would be fine. Really. If only...
If only. And that's when he had the hardest times fighting back the tears. If only he could do so many things over. If only he hadn't been born, or had died at the fountain, or Brackett had never escaped or Igor had killed him or ...
If only he thought that love could be enough to heal both Jim and himself, to meld together the pieces of their shattered lives...
If only... saddest damn words he knew.
"I don't know how to help him, Simon," Jim sighed dispiritedly as he slumped deeper into his favourite chair and shook his head. "He's scaring the shit out of me... it's been a week and the silence isn't getting any better, or the emptiness in his eyes when he looks at me."
"Not just at you," Banks rumbled as he took a sip of beer and leaned back against the sofa. "He looks at us all, at everything, in the same way. Like he's lost in a fog."
Jim nodded and bit his lip, thinking about that. If Sandburg wasn't talking, which was the way he routinely processed by getting things out, turning them over, examining them from every possible angle, inviting commentary and objective observations - maybe he was lost in a kind of fog inside his head, going round and round and not finding the way off the track, like a caged hamster eternally running on an endless wheel.
"How do you think we can best help, Jim?" Simon asked then. "Would it help to know we want him back downtown or only put more pressure on him?"
Shrugging, Jim replied, "I don't really have a clue, to tell you the truth. But, well, I keep thinking that we have to be real - I mean, hold up reality, for him to react to it. So, if you want him back..."
"Me? What about you?"
"Of course, I want him back as my partner," Jim snapped and then grimaced in apology. "Sorry," he muttered as he rubbed the back of his neck. "I need him, as well as want him, as my partner. Nothing has changed that."
"He'll have the chance to go back to the University now, though," Banks ruminated. "Now that he's got his doctorate and his book is such a best seller. Could probably write his own ticket." Shrewdly, he flicked a look at Ellison. "Have you told him about that yet?"
"No," Jim grunted. "Every time I start, I keep thinking that he'll be either pissed off or feel everything he suffered was pointless, or both." He took a swallow of beer, and then sighed. "I'll tell him once he's home."
"You mean, tomorrow?" Banks probed. "You can't put it off forever. All he has to do is walk into a bookstore - "
"I know," Ellison grated sharply, and then more softly. "I know."
They sat for a moment in sad silence, wishing they had a better idea of how to help Sandburg return to the person he'd been, exuberant, so alive - and both morosely wondering if they'd ever see that creature of light and laughter again.
Clearing his throat, Jim said with tentative awkwardness, "We've, uh, never discussed if the fact of Sandburg and my relationship changes things for our partnership at work."
"You mean, the fact that you're a Sentinel and he's your Guide?" Simon replied, deliberately obtuse.
"No, I mean about the fact that we love each other and we're - "
"A Sentinel and Guide," Banks intervened firmly. "It all comes back to that, Jim. You said Sandburg thinks your... partnership in all things is a part of that, an expression of who and what you are to one another. I figure he's right. And so far as I'm concerned, that's all there is to it. Splitting you up would be both stupid and criminally negligent. Together, you're an unbeatable team. Alone, without him, you're at risk; I understand that and accepted that a long time ago."
Jim swallowed, his expression tight as he struggled with his emotions of gratitude and friendship. "Thanks," he managed to choke out. "I... really appreciate that, Simon."
Banks waved off the gratitude, as uncomfortable as Jim was with blatant emotion, unless it was anger or belligerence or other expressions of manliness. He smiled a little at his silent irony, and then stood to go home. "I have every confidence that you and Sandburg will work things out," he announced with brave certainty. "Take whatever time you both need to do it - and let me or any of the others know if we can help."
Jim nodded as he rose to escort his good friend to the door, laying a fond hand on Simon's shoulder. "I'll keep you posted," he promised.
"You do that, Detective," Simon growled and then smiled softly. "It's going to be okay, Jim. You said a while ago that the two of you love each other. Well, that's the simple truth, isn't it? That love will get you through this. Just give it time and patience." Then he clapped Jim on the back and took his leave.
Jim leaned his shoulder against the closed door, deep in thought. He had to break through the wall, had to get them past this emotional wasteland.
The ride home was oppressively silent the next dark, dismal rainy afternoon, but Jim let it go, not wanting to force anything. When they got home to the loft, though, and Sandburg moved wordlessly toward his old room, Ellison couldn't just let him go. It was too... symbolic, somehow; too dangerous to their future.
"Your room's upstairs, Chief, if you want to lay down for a bit, maybe have a nap."
Blair stiffened, cut a quick look at the bedroom above and then switched direction to sit stiffly on the sofa.
Considering it a minor victory, or least a draw, Jim put the kettle on to boil, and then made a pot of Sandburg's favourite tea. He carried the pot and two mugs on a tray into the living room and set it on the coffee table. When he poured and handed Blair a mug, his partner took it with the barest nod of acknowledgement, something - Jim wasn't sure what - flickering in the depths of his eyes.
Ellison poured a mug for himself and deliberately sat down on the sofa, close but not quite touching.
"I'm glad to have you home, babe," he said quietly, as he blew on the hot liquid before sipping it.
Blair's eyes dropped, the lashes hiding his thoughts, but he nodded.
"You ever going to talk again?" Jim pressed, figuring it was best to be straight up and not dance around Sandburg as if he was fragile and might shatter. His partner was tougher than that, tougher maybe than he gave himself credit for, but Ellison knew that Blair might bend, but he'd never shatter. It was one of the things that awed him about his partner, that there were depths of steel and conviction, of courage and strength and integrity that so many others seemed to miss when they only saw the hair and the big blue eyes.
"I guess. Eventually," Sandburg muttered and then sipped at his tea.
"When might 'eventually' be, exactly?" Ellison prodded, wondering if he could push Blair into blowing up and maybe let some of the poisonous anger and hurt flood out of his battered soul.
Blair shrugged. "I'm not the only one who hasn't exactly been 'talking', as in conveying meaningful and relevant information," he grated tightly.
Jim's brows lifted in surprise. But then he looked away and shook his head, sighing, "I should have known you'd find out. Who told you?"
"One of the hospital staff, doesn't matter who exactly," Sandburg replied, his tone flat, but when he lifted his eyes, Jim could see anger flaring.
"I'm sorry; I meant to tell you myself," he said soberly. "You know why I had to do it, right?"
The fire of anger flickered out, replaced by the familiar dull emptiness. "Yeah," Blair whispered, turning away. "You've wanted to tell the truth for a long time now."
His eyes narrowing, puzzled by the tone, preferring the anger to the emptiness, Jim replied slowly, "What's going on inside that head of yours? What aren't you saying?"
Blair sighed heavily and raked his heavy mop of curls back off his face. "Like I said," he muttered, his eyes averted, "you wanted to clear it all up months ago. I was the one who wanted to persist with the lies. You were right and I was wrong. If I'd listened to you, instead of being an arrogant jerk, none of this would have happened. Your truth..." he paused to regain mastery of his voice, "your truth saved my life, I know that. But... but because of me, you've been forced to... to put yourself at risk."
"And your lies put you at risk?" Jim cut back, hard-pressed to keep from yelling. "That's crap, Chief, and you know it! Don't you?"
"Tell it to Mallory and Simpson," Sandburg snapped, anger again surging. But he wasn't sure anymore who he was angrier at: them for having turned away when he'd needed their help, or himself, for having been the reason for their deaths. "They believed my lies. Cost them their lives, didn't it?"
Ellison gaped at his partner and blinked as he grappled with the monumental load of guilt, however undeserved, the younger man had taken onto himself. "Is there anything you haven't heard about?" he asked, to buy himself time to figure out the exact right thing to do and say. "How the hell did you find out about - "
"Mrs. Mallory works at the hospital," Blair sighed, scrunching into himself. "Everybody felt really bad for her."
"And you blame yourself for all that?" Jim reflected, his voice hollow.
Sandburg just nodded slowly, as if his culpability was abundantly clear.
"When, exactly, did you notice that you'd taken leave of your senses, Chief?" Jim asked then, as if sincerely curious to know the answer. "Because you know that's crazy. They chose not to go to your assistance, when it was damned well their job to do so. And they, or at least Mallory, chose how to deal with his guilt about that. Their behaviours and choices are NOT your responsibility."
"I'm not sure," Blair replied thoughtfully. Flicking a look up at Ellison, he added, "Not about Mallory and Simpson - I know, intellectually, that you're right, even if emotionally I'm not there yet. But about the sanity thing. I'm not sure when I started to lose it."
Though the conversation was beginning to scare him, Jim encouraged, "Tell me when you think things started to slip."
"Well, that's what's so hard," Sandburg explained carefully, with more animation than he'd shown since he'd awakened in the hospital; Jim could see, when Blair looked up and held his gaze for the first time, that his partner's eyes were no longer dull, and his hands had finally decided to get into the conversation.
Oblivious of the way he was being studied, Blair continued slowly, "I spent a lot of time thinking about it, you know - in the darkness. Wasn't much else to do. Anyway, things haven't been working for a long time now and I haven't known how to fix it. So, I just kept spinning my wheels, knowing it wasn't working but still doing the same dysfunctional things. One definition of insanity is to keep doing things the same way, knowing they don't work, but hoping they still might. So, I think, maybe, I've been going a bit nuts for a while now."
The animation faded from his face and eyes as he again turned away, hands back on his lap like fallen birds, his voice dropping to little more than a whisper as he admitted, "But... I really lost it when Igor... when Igor treated me like meat." With painful honesty, he continued, "He was... coming inside me when... Brackett blew his brains all over me..."
But, his voice caught and he had to pant a little to sustain any semblance of control. He couldn't, couldn't tell Jim all of it. Couldn't admit to the blinding, raw, raucous joy he'd felt in those moments, and every time thereafter when he smelled Igor's rotting corpse. His persistent sense of jubilation was... disgusting. Less than human. Monstrous. Swallowing, he only said, "That's when, when I knew I'd lost myself and... and I really hoped no one would ever find me or know what had happened..."
"You hoped for that before he was dead, Chief," Jim said flatly, remembering the shattering words on the tape, hoarse whispers that had begged for death when that monster was raping him and later, in the darkness, hurting and alone. "I heard you, on the tapes. Heard what you said in the - "
"You saw the tapes?" Blair cut in sharply, shocked, aghast. Appalled. God, who else had witnessed the hideous details of his humiliation and abject destruction? He flushed and his muscles tensed. "I never wanted anyone, especially you, to know... to see... never wanted..." he babbled then, curling into himself. He felt violated all over again, helpless to determine his own fate, to even know what was going on that affected him so profoundly, in such personal ways. Dammit. Why couldn't everyone just leave him alone? Why did he have to deal with this? Why -
Cursing himself for having opened such a painful reality between them, too fast, too soon, Ellison suddenly reached out instinctively and pulled Sandburg toward him, into his arms, holding on tight when Blair resisted and tried to pull away. For long minutes, they both fought the emotions that rolled over and through them, and each other, one wanting to hold on, the other desperate to escape; gasping to breathe despite chests so tight they felt they were suffocating, blinking back the burn in their eyes to keep tears from falling.
Grunting in distress, Sandburg finally shouted, "Stop manhandling me! Goddammit, LET ME GO!"
Stunned to realize what he was doing, having let his need to hold Blair overcome his judgment, Ellison abruptly let go and pulled away. "I... I didn't mean..." he stammered.
But the rage, once kindled, rapidly became a wildfire. Blair pushed away from the sofa as he staggered to his feet to put space between himself and Jim. Shaking with fury, he panted as he looked around for some way to vent it. When he stumbled backward into the coffee table, he whirled and heaved it out of his way and then stood there, rigid with rage. "I've had it!" he growled, low in his throat. "This is over. We're over. Everything. Over."
"What?" Jim exclaimed as he sprang to his feet but carefully maintained his distance. "Chief, you can't mean that."
"Don't call me that!" Sandburg snapped. "I'm not 'Chief,' and I'm sure in hell not 'babe'. I'm not 'Junior' or 'Einstein' or even 'Blair'. Don't you get it? That guy doesn't exist any more. He's gone. He... he couldn't take it, you know? It was too much."
"Sandburg," Jim tried to reason, his throat dry as he studied the almost incandescent man ranting in front of him. "It's okay. You need to let the rage out. If you don't, it'll just fester..."
"Fester?" Blair echoed, and then laughed coldly. "Fester? Oh, man, you have no idea. I've gone 'way past 'fester'. I'm not even human anymore. Just meat. Meat that wishes that everyone would just leave it the fuck alone and let it stop breathing and finally get some peace! No, worse than that. You want to know what I am now? I am a monster, Jim; the fucking star of my very own snuff flick you and probably everyone else at MCU have seen in more detail than I did, and I was fucking there! A monster, who felt absolute, unbridled, shrieking JOY that Igor was blown away - and it seemed so incredibly fitting that it happened while he was ripping me apart; a monster who got incredible satisfaction from smelling Igor rot." Narrowing his eyes, he challenged, "I am SO not your 'Chief', anymore. Let him go, man. He is like so gone."
"I'm sorry," Jim choked out, appalled at what Sandburg had suffered, wishing there was a way to mitigate his pain. "I'm so damned sorry you had to live through all of that. That I couldn't protect you, or find you sooner," he blurted, his voice catching and breaking as his eyes glittered with unshed tears. "Jesus, Chief... I was so scared I'd lost you and wouldn't ever find you. I know you suffered all that to protect me. I don't know... know how to make it better. 'Cause you're so hurt. And I feel like a miserable bastard because all I can keep thinking and feeling is how glad I am that you're here and I got you back."
"Yeah, well, get a grip," Sandburg sneered, though there seemed more pain, more anguish than sarcasm in his tone and eyes. "I hate to ruin your day, but you didn't get 'me' back. They killed him, man. Tore him apart bit by bit. The cops who... who left him to be assaulted. One of them was laughing, Jim, as they drove away. Laughing." He shook his head. "The beatings. The... disorientation. Making him grateful for a lousy bottle of water or the chance to lie down on damp, cold concrete. The fear, when it went on and on... that he'd betray you. That he wouldn't die in time to remain true to his commitment to you." Turning his back on Ellison, wandering to the balcony door, he went on, "The... the failure to try to escape; that was a mortal blow when he realized he was too much a coward to force Igor to kill him - because he sure in hell had no hope of actually getting away. The whippings... but they seemed just, a penance for his cowardice; for all the mistakes he'd made every step of the way for so fucking long. The rapes, though, they were hard. He hated them, hated Igor... was really glad when Igor was dead. But, uh, I told you that, didn't I. He was so close, you know... so close to dying but his damned body wouldn't let go! Still won't let go! He didn't know if he could get through the drugs... shit, he was so scared of betraying you. So scared."
Blair's voice dropped off, and Jim dared to move closer, but he didn't touch, didn't speak. Just kept listening with aching despair for how much Sandburg had suffered.
"He, uh, thought he'd beaten Brackett," Blair mused softly, staring up at the sky. "He was so sure he hadn't given anything away. And man, that was hard, you know? And he was so weak, so hurting and tired... he really thought that maybe he'd finally be allowed to die. But Brackett came back and waved some damned book around, called him 'Doctor', and thanked him for making it all so clear, for giving him everything Brackett and Barnes needed."
Sandburg's voice broke on a sob. "That's... that's when he really... stopped being," Blair whispered, pitying the poor, hapless, broken creature, desperately trying to disassociate himself from the wretched, anguished pain of it all. "Because, after he'd tried so damned hard, he'd betrayed the best man he'd ever known, after all. He'd... he'd failed his best friend and his Sentinel in the most fundamental and profound of ways. And... his heart broke, you know? 'Cause he really, really loved you, man. He would have died for you. But they wouldn't let him die. Just stuck him in hell and now he'll always be in hell. And his damned body still won't die!"
Shaking his head, chuckling bitterly, he raked his fingers through his hair. "And the joke of it is, he doesn't even know anymore if he betrayed you, or if you were forced to reveal yourself, 'cause you're a good man, and you'd sacrifice anything to save your partner, even if, even if he wasn't much of a partner anymore. You did it for nothing, Jim. That's the real tragedy. 'Cause he was already gone. You gave it all up for an empty shell."
Sniffing, impatiently swiping tears he didn't have time for from his cheeks, Sandburg growled, "I hate them, all of them. The cops who left him high and dry. Brackett. Barnes. Igor. Hate them. Blair wouldn't have hated them. He would've pitied them maybe; been scared of them. But he wouldn't hate. He didn't really know how. At the end, he hated himself, though. He'd learned how to do that."
When his voice finally dropped away into silence, Jim moved a step closer. "Chief? Sandburg? I don't know what you need - don't know if I can help you. Maybe we should go back to the hospital. You're starting to scare me here, kid."
"Is that right?" Blair murmured, sounding regretful. "Scaring you, huh? I fucking terrify myself. But then, you were always braver than I ever could be." Suddenly weary, he slumped down on the floor in the corner, wincing and then shifting to put his weight onto one hip. "Go ahead. Call the boys in the white suits to take me away to a rubber room," he sighed as he tightly crossed his arms and bowed his head. "It's probably where I belong."
Squatting down to study his partner's face, Jim wasn't at first sure if he was maybe seeing things that he so desperately wanted to see, but had definitely not expected. Blair's eyes were clear, aware, but unutterably sad. And when he returned Jim's gaze, the emptiness was gone and so was the heat of the rage. Anger still lurked but not the frenzied fury. Cocking his head a little, Ellison asked tentatively, "Help me out here, Chief. Are you as crazy as you just sounded, or was all that third person stuff a metaphor for effect?"
Blair's lips twitched in a humourless half-smile that was there and then gone. "I'm pretty crazy, Jim," he replied, but his voice was steadier. "I'm not as... disassociated as I just made it sound, but I'm not who I used to be, either. I don't think I can ever be who I was again. I... I find it hard to remember, to talk about, what happened. I really wish... really wish..." his voice drifted off as an expression of such poignant sorrow crossed his face that Jim ached for him. Shaking his head, he whispered, his voice catching, "I don't even know what to wish for anymore, you know? It's all just such a mess and has been for so long. I'm tired, Jim. I'm just so... tired."
"Why don't you go upstairs to lie down for a while?" Ellison suggested, straightening to his full height and then offering a hand to help Blair to his feet.
But the younger man shrank back, and bowed his head as he hunched his shoulders. "I... I can't go up there, Jim," he replied, his voice thin with strain. "I... can't. Not yet; maybe not ever."
"Whatever you need, Chief," Ellison replied gently. "How about your old room?"
Sandburg nodded and then let Jim help him to his feet. "I'm sorry, man," he said quietly.
"You have absolutely nothing to be sorry for, Blair," Jim replied. "I mean that, Chief. You've been hurt beyond anything imaginable, and it will take time to put all the pieces back together. But you didn't do anything wrong." Swallowing, his voice hoarse, he added, "You didn't give Brackett a thing, Sandburg. You... you protected me to the end. You have a right to your anger, so don't apologize for it, okay? And you have every right to hate those bastards. God knows, I do. That's only human, Chief. But... but give us time, Blair. Give us a chance to make it right between us. I... you're my best friend and my partner, as well as my lover. We'll find a way to work this out."
Sandburg didn't look at him as he turned away and headed to his old room, but then he paused and shook his head. Looking back at Ellison, his expression wan, his voice hollow, he reflected bleakly, "Makes me wonder why... why..."
"Why what, Chief?" Jim asked, puzzled but concerned by the haunted look in Sandburg's eyes before Blair's gaze again fell away and he bowed his head, slumping in defeat.
"Why'd I bother, Jim? I mean, everything... the whole more than six months, the press conference... everything. It was all for nothing, wasn't it? Nothing I did, or tried to do, matters a damn now." Shrugging helplessly, he turned away - and didn't see the stricken look on his Sentinel's face.
For the next two days, they both did their best to pretend to be 'normal'. No heavy discussions. Just... normal. They made breakfast, read, watched television, had soup for lunch, played cards, ordered in dinner. Not that either of them had much appetite. They were both trying hard to distance the rawness of their emotions and, exhausted, each knew they both needed respite and rest. Jim took some encouragement from the fact that Blair finally shaved off the beard that he'd been hiding behind and that made him look like a stranger. But Blair was restless, irritable, and the haunted, distracted look in his eyes the few times he met Jim's gaze wasn't getting any better, though the bruises had faded and he seemed stronger.
"What do you need?" Ellison asked quietly at breakfast on the third day after Sandburg had come home from the hospital.
"Huh?" Blair muttered, distracted. "Need?" The question seemed to catch his attention, and he frowned, thinking about it. "It's all like some nightmare that won't go away. I just... can't seem to get past it," he murmured as he raked his hair back from his face. "I don't even know where I was, you know? I woke up hanging from the ceiling in a cement cell and that's all I knew - and I was unconscious when they took me to the hospital. I can't isolate it. Point to it and say, it happened there and it was truly terrible but it is over. Sometimes I'm scared that this is the dream, and I'll wake up back there again. I used to dream about being here, with you... all the time, in fact. It was... it was all that kept me going."
Jim listened intently and nodded, as he kept a lock on his own emotions. He could understand that feeling of disassociation. "Would it help or make things worse to see where you were held?" he asked.
Startled, Sandburg looked up at his partner. "I could do that?" Reflecting on the idea, he nodded. "I think that might help, yeah, thanks."
So Ellison called Banks and got the address in one of the dilapidated, mostly derelict neighbourhoods, thinking it vaguely familiar. Soon after, they headed out of the loft and down to the truck. Blair was pale and seemed uncertain about going outside, but he straightened his shoulders as he followed Ellison to the parking lot, climbed in and buckled up. As they got closer to their destination, Jim stiffened, his head tilting slightly to one side as he tried to isolate the errant thought that was nagging at him. But it was only when they pulled up in front of the bank that he recognized the place and he froze in hideous memory, realizing all that it meant, and then he trembled with raw emotion.
Feeling as if he had just gone ten rounds with Godzilla, Jim's features slackened with sick shock as he recalled the night that he'd been out searching aimlessly, only a little more than twenty-four hours after Blair had been taken, and he'd heard a distant groan. Bile burned in the back of his throat and he panted for breath, his face turned away from Sandburg's as he fought for control. He'd circled this block, this bank, countless times... he'd been here - and then had driven away. Dear God - he could have stopped it then, before his partner had been beaten mercilessly and... and raped for weeks before having to fight the truth serum and then being left for dead.
"Hey, Jim," Blair asked, concern in his voice. "You okay, man?"
What could he say? It really was all his fault, his failure. Everything Sandburg had suffered, was still suffering. But Blair didn't need to deal with his guilt and wretched self-disgust that his damned senses weren't good enough to have rescued the one person Jim would have willingly sold his soul to save. The kid was about to face down his demons and his partner needed his total support. "Yeah," he choked out, then opened the door, his knees nearly buckling when his feet hit the pavement. He dragged in a deep breath and stiffened his spine, resolved to hide his anguish. Nobody meant more to him than Blair - he had to get through this, face the place where his Guide had been brutalized, knowing he had been there, had been so close - flickers of memory, fragments of the videotape he'd watched in Simon's office seared his mind as he stiffly led the way toward the entrance of the abandoned building.
Neither man said anything as they ducked under the yellow tape at the entrance, but Ellison was acutely aware of his partner's thundering heartbeat and the slight tremble of Sandburg's hands. His eyes burned and a lump formed in his throat at the sheer courage it took for Blair to be here, to be doing this. Focusing on Sandburg, Jim forced his own turbulent thoughts and emotions away to be dealt with later, when he was alone. Though he could see well enough in the dim interior of the building, Jim had brought a flashlight and he turned it on to help Sandburg make his way easily. Down in the basement, he walked unerringly to the old vault, his sense of smell telling him only too clearly where it was. The place still reeked of excrement, blood and death. His gut churned as he handed the light to Sandburg, so that Blair could take his time examining the den of horror in which he'd been held.
Sandburg grimly took the implement and, moving to the open doorway, he swung the light around the room. "My wrists were chained to that," he murmured, holding the light on the hook in the ceiling in the centre of the dark cell. "Slept over there," he indicated as the far wall was illuminated. "Igor's body was in that corner. When I was strong enough, I used that corner as a latrine," he added, his tone flat as the light found the near, right corner - he didn't like to remember the humiliation of those times when he was strung up to the ceiling or unconscious or just too damned weak be move that far. God, he'd loathed being fouled with his own waste.
Jim leaned against the doorframe as Sandburg stepped tentatively inside and then stood perfectly still as he again looked the small cell over. "It's just a place," Blair said quietly, but firmly. "There's no inherent evil here. It has no power over me. It's just an ugly, filthy, stinking room."
Forcing himself to move inside, Jim stood behind him to supportively grip Blair's shoulder and might have argued the point, if he could have found the words. The vault stank of all that had been done to Sandburg, the stench still heavy in the air - the stains of blood and waste marring the barren floor. The table Blair had been strapped onto was shoved into a corner, and the filthy cot where he'd lain, believing he would die alone, was pushed next to it. This hellhole was where his partner had suffered torture and the unspeakable rape of his body and mind... and where he had resisted all that had been done to him, and had refused to meet their demands, though it had nearly broken him physically, emotionally, mentally and maybe even spiritually - all to protect his precious sentinel.
Jim could have wept but he had to be strong - it was the least he could do, now that it was too late to be of any real use. Blair had said he'd suffered for nothing because Jim had touted his secret senses all over the damned country. But he needn't have suffered any of it, if Ellison had been worthy of the protection Sandburg had offered so unstintingly. God damn it all to hell! If only he'd gotten out of the truck and searched the place that night. If...
But he hadn't. He'd utterly and absolutely failed Sandburg when he'd been most needed. Nausea again cramped in his gut, and he had to blink hard to clear the tears that still threatened. "I'm sorry," he moaned softly, the words so completely inadequate, so useless. He desperately wanted, even needed, to pull Blair into his arms but he felt as if he'd lost all right to his partner's comfort. How could he ever confess this to Sandburg - how could Blair ever forgive him?
Not understanding, Blair just nodded. "I know," he murmured and then shrugged sadly. "What happened to Brackett and Barnes?" he asked then, for the first time, his tone flat and tight. "Have they been found?"
"No," Jim grated, struggling to bring himself under control. The last thing Blair needed was to have him fall apart here and now.
Sandburg shook his head as he took one last look at the place of his torment. "She's a basket case and he doesn't have much patience. They'll likely end up killing each other," he speculated tiredly. "I'd guess that he'll have enough of her unpredictable behaviour and just shoot her, if she doesn't rip him apart in frustration first." Sighing, he turned back toward the door. "I've seen enough, Jim. Let's go home."
They were silent during the journey, each man lost in his thoughts. When they got back to the loft, Blair headed to his room, saying he needed to process it all, and maybe do some meditation to find a way to let go of the horrible memories. He was so fed up with feeling so damned tired all the time. Sometimes angry, sometimes numb, sometimes scared - but always tired. But, after an hour of lying on his bed, he gave up the effort to make sense of it all. He couldn't settle - his anger and sense of violation was still too great to quietly meditate over. So he padded quietly back out to the living room to maybe watch television, but he paused and frowned when he saw Jim hunched over, one arm crossed tightly over his chest while his other hand covered his face. Ellison's shoulders and back were so rigid with brittle control that he was shaking in terrible silence.
"Ah, man," Sandburg sighed, his heart aching as he moved to sit on the sofa beside Jim and pulled the older man into his arms, holding Ellison in a tight sideways hug. "Hey, buddy... don't feel so bad."
"My f-fault," Jim grated, cringing away from him. "All of it. I should have... should have..."
"Jim, you did everything you could," Sandburg soothed as he rubbed his partner's shoulder. He'd wondered when it would all crash in on Ellison; it was Jim's nature to protect, but for almost four long weeks, he hadn't known his Guide's fate - and he'd exposed himself in the most fundamental of ways to generate information to help him find his partner. Though he'd been nothing but supportive, Blair, perhaps more than anyone else ever could, knew the anguish Jim would have felt when he'd seen those tapes - and visiting that hideous vault today had to have been almost as hard on him as it had been for Blair himself.
When Ellison remained rigidly tight, not actively pulling away physically but seeming to shrink into himself as he struggled for control, Sandburg stroked his back and then leaned his forehead on Jim's shoulder. "C'mon, man," he cajoled softly, "give yourself a break. It wasn't your fault."
But Jim shook his head sharply. His body curled forward and he crossed his arms tightly, as if holding in great pain; his shoulders and head bowed, he finally confessed brokenly, his voice little more than a hoarse rasp, "You don't understand. I... I was there, outside, a day after you were taken. I thought I heard something and circled around that block, I don't know how many times. But there was nothing more. Why couldn't I sense you were there? Why didn't I go and check? I... you... my fault. I should have... if..."
His words choked off with despair and self-disgust, and he shuddered violently with guilt and grief.
"What are you saying?" Sandburg gasped, straightening in shock as he tried to make sense of the garbled words. Jim had been there? A month ago?
"I'm saying I failed you!" Ellison snarled, furious with himself, unable to look at Sandburg. "If I'd focused better... I don't know. I should have been able to find you."
For a moment, Blair sat rigidly, staring at Jim's back. So close. His partner had been so close. His fingers curled into fists and he had to fight the urge to pound Ellison with his futile fury and outrage. So much pain and horror. So unnecessary... so pointless. But, as he lifted one fist to strike out, he looked, really looked at Jim and saw that, despite the effort to contain his emotions, his partner was utterly devastated - and was even expecting to be vilified. Because Jim honestly believed he deserved to be despised and reviled for his inability to protect and his failure to rescue his partner - his Guide.
But... it wasn't Jim's fault. He'd done all he could, and it was clear how truly badly he was feeling for not having been able to do more. Tears filled Blair's eyes and his lips trembled. "Don't," he whispered, pleading. "Jim, please, don't let this tear us apart."
Ellison covered his face with his hands, fighting the tears that burned in his eyes, and he moaned sorrowfully, "I'm so sorry, Blair. I'm just so damned sorry I let all those terrible things happen to you."
"Ah, man," Sandburg sighed, swallowing his own grief and pain. He blew out a long breath, wiped the wet tracks from his face and pushed his hair behind his ears. His Sentinel was suffering and he couldn't bear it; couldn't let it go on. Shifting to perch on the coffee table in front of Ellison, he gripped Jim's shoulders. "Listen to me," he commanded, his voice low but firm. "The walls of that vault were at least three feet thick and it's underground. The steel door was a foot thick. You're not Superman. You couldn't have heard me or sensed me by smell through those kinds of barriers. What happened isn't your fault, Jim. Do you hear me? It's not your fault."
Sniffing, Jim couldn't look up and he scrubbed at his eyes. "I... dammit," he muttered, furious with himself. "You don't need this. It's just... it is all my fault, Chief. Not just that night, as sickening as it is to know I was that close and screwed up. But that it happened at all. And I don't know how to make it better. You... you tried so hard to do your best - not just in that torture chamber but always, especially in the last year. Gave up so much. Took so damned much crap, from me and everyone else. And... and when you needed me, I wasn't there for you. I couldn't find you. And now... I don't know what to do, Blair. I don't know how to take your pain away. I wish to God I did. But I don't. You should hate me. I don't understand why you don't hate me..."
As the words tumbled from Ellison's lips, hardly articulate, broken and anguished, Sandburg leaned forward to hold his partner tightly, as he tried to soothe and ease Jim's grief and pain. "No, no," he murmured softly, his voice unconsciously lowering and smoothing into his 'guide' tones. "It's okay, Jim. It wasn't your fault. I don't hate you. Hell - the one truth, the only truth of my life that I'm absolutely sure of right now is that I love you more than anything."
Jim sniffed, wiped a hand over his face and then lifted his reddened eyes to finally look at Sandburg, who was watching him intently, making sure he was okay, and he only felt more ashamed for being a burden rather than the strength Blair needed to lean on.
"Guess I could ask you when you started taking leave of your sanity, huh," Blair mocked gently, as he caressed Ellison's cheek. "'Cause you know none of this was your doing or your responsibility to either prevent or fix."
Jim huffed a humourless laugh and pulled Blair closer as he rested his chin on the younger man's head. "Well, you see, that's where you're wrong, Chief," he rumbled, only half kidding, reassured when Sandburg didn't immediately pull away from his embrace. "It's always my fault and my responsibility." He chuckled when Sandburg punched him lightly for his nonsense, but then he carried on more soberly, "It's my senses that got us into all this and my reluctance to own up to what I am that tied you in knots trying to protect me. And what they did to you... I'm not worth what you sacrificed, Blair, what you endured to protect me."
Sandburg tightened his grip, unconsciously protective and reassuring. "You are worth all that I did. To me, you are. And your senses are a miracle, man. They brought us together," he murmured. "But you shouldn't've ever had to be in the position of having to reveal them. Your privacy is your right. And you're in danger now."
"Maybe, I don't know. I've been thinking about it a lot," Jim mused wearily as he stroked his lover's back gently, reassured by Sandburg's affirmations but very mindful of the still healing wounds, tactile reminders of what Blair had suffered to protect him. "I do know, without doubt, my privacy isn't worth a damn if it comes at the cost of your life. And, well, once I finally wrapped my head around going public, I got to thinking that sentinels were no secret in the jungle, years ago. Everyone knew who they were, their roles, their strengths and weaknesses..."
"Yeah, but we're not in the jungle anymore, Jim," Blair countered quietly.
"Actually, I think we are. Just a different kind of jungle, Chief," Ellison asserted, and then continued thoughtfully. "You've always been afraid of me being at risk if too many people knew... and that was what drove you to your decisions and actions. Because you care about me. Love me. Want to protect me. But, I've been afraid to be open in case people think I'm some kind of freak... and that's wrong. For years now, you've tried to tell me how wrong that is. You said a long time ago that I'm driven by fear, and I guess you're right. I am. Fear of failure. Fear of losing people I care about. Fear of being thought a fool."
"Fears are normal, Jim," Sandburg said with firm kindness, reaffirming what he'd tried to explain months before. "It's how you deal with fear that makes the difference. You don't give into it... you go out and get the bad guys."
"Ah, that's the easy stuff, babe," Jim sighed. "I'm better than most of them. In better shape. Have better skills. I'm brighter than most of the criminal element. So long as I don't get cocky and take stupid chances, those risks aren't big ones." He paused, gathering his thoughts and then continued, "It's the personal fears that give me grief. I'm scared now, Chief."
Frowning, Blair pulled back to look up him. "Scared of what?" he asked, concern darkening his eyes.
Jim swallowed hard and then said steadily, "Scared you're so hurt that I might still lose you. Scared I won't be good enough, smart enough or... or articulate enough, to help you heal. Scared that... that I was such a fool for so long, so caught in my own anger at what you were suffering on my behalf that I screwed everything up between us. I need you, Chief... out in that jungle and here... here where it's just us."
For a long moment, Sandburg searched Ellison's gaze and he felt the love he found there as if it were a physical force that washed over and through him. Jim was so open, so vulnerable and yet so like a rock that was there for him, to lean on and depend upon. Blair's gaze fell away as he grappled with his muddled emotions, and he didn't know what to say, where to begin. His fragile strength and ability to support Jim faltered, leaving a poignant look of uncertainty on Sandburg's face as he ventured, "I don't know if I can give you what you need, Jim. I'm sorry. I understand that you're scared, but we can't both fall apart here, man. And, uh, well..." he hesitated as his head bowed and he swallowed to moisten a throat suddenly dry with embarrassment as he admitted his need for support, "I'm really pretty shaky, you know? You couldn't help me before, when I was, well... but I really need you right now, Jim. I don't know how to deal with all this on my own."
"Ah, Chief," Ellison vowed as he drew Sandburg back into his embrace, gently shifting the younger man from the table onto the couch beside him. "I swear to you, I'm here for you. I'll help all I can. Anything. Whatever you need."
With a shuddering sigh, Blair leaned into Jim's strength and closed his eyes, allowing himself to let go for the first time since he'd awakened in the hospital. He'd spent a long, terrible month holding it all inside, building walls to contain his emotions, to stay strong... and now, finally, he began to let those walls fall. Tears came then - hot, searing tears and raw emotions that he'd been trying so hard to suppress, or deal with on his own and alone - flowing out of his heart and soul in what felt like an endless river he was suddenly powerless to stop. Slowly, silently but steadily, he let go of some of the physical and emotional pain that plagued him; anger, that he'd been tortured and raped, held helpless to resist the abuse; fear, that he might never really recover - might yet die, if he'd been infected by Igor. And, finally, grief that this might tear him and Jim apart, might cost everything he valued and held most dear.
"I've got you, babe," Jim murmured as he held his partner close and stroked Sandburg's head and back. "Let it out, Blair... let me help."
When the river of tears finally dried up, Sandburg sniffed and wiped his face, and then pulled a little away, but didn't protest when Jim kept an arm around his shoulders. He took a deep, cleansing breath and then another. He didn't know if he'd ever feel whole again or be the man Jim loved and relied upon - but he did know he could never go back to the way things had been just before he'd been abducted. If they couldn't get past the problems and issues that had existed before he'd been taken by Brackett, then they'd never be able to deal with what had happened since. Sniffing again, afraid to risk Jim's disappointment but needing to be honest, he licked his lips, and then admitted quietly, "I don't think I can be a cop anymore, Jim."
"Okay," Ellison acknowledged, keeping his tone bland, curious but not challenging as he sought clarification. "Because other cops left you high and dry?"
"No," Blair replied, shaking his head, "at least, not entirely." Lifting his hands and letting them fall, a physical gesture of hopelessness, he continued, "I realized while I was hanging around Brackett's vault that it wasn't working. I can't be your Guide, watching your back, being with you to help with your senses, if I'm chasing a perp in the other direction." Sighing, he added, as he leaned his head on Jim's shoulder, "I really don't think I can go back there, man. I mean... most of 'em'll think I've been playing games with them, living a lie deliberately to deceive them, so they won't ever be able to trust me, not really - and, well, I don't think I can face so many people knowing what was done... in that cell."
Jim's jaw tightened; it made him furious to think Blair would have to put up with any more crap from anybody. But he schooled himself to patience and forced himself to take the points one at a time. "Okay, I think you're right about the cop thing - I didn't think it was working all that well, either. Right idea, wrong solution. We need to get you into a civilian consultant position or something that acknowledges the role you play. That'll be easier now that I've let the truth be known. And about that. If you were lying to them, so was I. We both thought for the right reasons. But that's changed. Neither of us has to live a lie anymore."
Blair's jaw tightened, but he remained silent, stiff under Jim's embrace.
"And, yeah, I guess quite a few people will know what happened," Ellison acknowledged. "Cops at the scene; the ambulance people and emergency workers. Most are pretty discreet, but some will talk. But... how do I say this? I know it's uncomfortable to have people know you were sexually assaulted. But that's not a reflection on you, Chief. All anyone sees when they look at you is a guy with incredible strength and resilience who has survived against the odds. That's a victory story, Blair. A hero's story."
Sandburg snorted. "Hero? Right. I don't think so, man. Most of the tribe downtown think I look for that kind of action."
Jim gazed down at Blair's bowed head and wished he could deny that it mattered what other people thought. But it did matter. What people thought was why Sandburg had been left hanging in the wind. Suddenly, weariness and anger swept over him, that his lover, his Guide and partner, his best friend, could be judged with such harsh blindness. Condemned because he was 'different'. "Then, maybe I should resign," he said flatly. "If you can't work there anymore, then neither can I."
"Where did that come from?" Sandburg protested, as he looked up, startled. "You're a cop, man. That's who you are. And this is your city!"
"Our city, Chief, 'ours'... or we move on together," Ellison asserted. When Blair rolled his eyes, he hastened on, "Look, if you wanted to toss it all in and give up being my Guide, and go back to teaching fulltime at the University because you could now, if that's what you wanted, then, well, I guess I'd have to accept that. But you're not saying you don't want to be my Guide and partner - you're saying you don't think you can do it anymore because of the jerks downtown. I'm done with that, Chief. I'm done with putting up with the crap of what people say about you. They know I can hear them now and I'm not going to let it slide anymore. You deserve better, and you're damn well going to get the respect you're owed, or I can find something else to do. Simon, the rest of our team - they all want you back. And I think the number of honest to God assholes that we have in the ranks is really fairly limited. Most cops will look at you and know that you were only doing your best to protect your partner - and that's something they can all understand. But if you can't get past the roadblock of believing otherwise, then, well, fine. You've suffered too much already and I won't have you suffer anything more if I can prevent it. We'll move on, to a place where you will feel comfortable. But, know this, Chief, and believe it: wherever we go from here, whatever we do, it'll be together."
Blair shook his head as he struggled with the emotions that still held him in their grasp. "I just feel like it was all so pointless and meaningless," he asserted, desperation echoing in his voice. "Everything I tried to do. Everything I did do ... for what? It's like the last six or seven months have been an absolute waste of time and energy. Fruitless and stupid. I tried so hard to protect you, when you never needed that." His lips tightened as he raked his fingers through his hair, pushing the curls behind his ears as he grated, "I feel like such a fool."
"Because I blurted it all over the nation and put your work on every bookshelf in the country?"
"Yeah, I guess."
"And you said you knew why I did that."
"Uh huh. Cause you hate living with lies and you've wanted to come clean for months, and you felt forced, because it was the only way to get enough publicity - "
"No, that's not why," Jim said bluntly. When Blair looked up in surprise, Ellison qualified his statement. "Not exactly why. I didn't feel 'forced', as in 'had no choice'. It was my best shot at finding you, and I'm damned glad that it actually worked. I did it because, without you, nothing makes any kind of sense and nothing else much matters a damn." He looked away and shrugged, uncomfortable, as he admitted, "I know it flies in the face of everything you did for me, gave me... suffered for me. But I'd rather lose my privacy and have the whole world think I belong in a zoo or freak show, than lose you. No contest, Chief. None. I'm sorry that it makes you feel so bad, like everything you did was pointless, because I don't think of it that way. You gave me gifts of such... treasures. Your career. Your credibility. Your life. Because you love me. Well, I love you, too. More than... than anything. I did it because I love you, Sandburg, pure and simple."
When Blair didn't say anything, just sat there so still with his head bowed, Jim sighed and scrubbed his eyes with one hand before pinching the bridge of his nose. "I don't know," he muttered. "I feel like we're caught in some kind of Catch-22, Junior. If I hadn't acted, you'd be dead. But, my act makes you feel as if yours were wrong, and so you feel... as if you and your life have been somehow pointless. I don't agree, but I don't know how to say it any better, any clearer."
"Maybe you've said it just fine, Jim," Sandburg replied softly. When he lifted his head, Ellison saw the thoughtful frown, not the aching emptiness he was afraid of. "What you're saying is, at different points in time, we were both doing our best, for the right reasons... fundamentally out of love. But, times change and so do needs... and so different actions are required. That it's not about right or wrong, but about why."
Jim blinked, and then nodded. "Yeah. Sounds smarter when you say it, but yeah, basically."
Blair nodded, his gaze going out of focus as he worked it all through in his head. "Okay," he finally sighed. "That really helps. Thanks."
Ellison cocked his head as he studied the younger man, his eyes narrowing. Sandburg's eyes were clearer, his muscles more relaxed; breathing and heartbeat strong and stable. He nodded to himself and then asked, very quietly, "So, does this mean you're not suicidal anymore?"
"What?" Blair gaped, flushing, looking away. "I wasn't actually, actively, suicidal, man."
"Maybe not actively, but you were wishing pretty hard for a while," Jim countered gently. "You still wish you'd died back there?" He didn't specify whether 'back there' meant the vault... or the fountain. He didn't have to. He knew his lover pretty well... and he'd heard the whispers in the dark.
Sandburg swallowed, and then lifted his chin as he returned Ellison's steady gaze. "No, I don't still wish I had died."
Jim let out the breath he'd been holding and sagged against the couch. "Well, that's good," he grunted in relief. "You hungry?"
Blair couldn't help it - he grinned at the non sequitur. "Yeah," he admitted, surprised to feel the truth of it. "I could eat."
Pushing himself to his feet, Ellison ruffled his partner's hair as he said warmly, "And that's even better."
They got through the rest of the evening by watching a game on television, hitting the next wall only when it was time for bed. Yawning, Jim stretched as he stood and held out his hand to haul Blair to his feet. "Well, I'm beat. Ready for bed?"
Blair froze, his eyes wide and dark, and then he turned his face away, as sharply as if he'd been struck.
"What?" Jim asked, uncertain about what he'd done to provoke such a strong reaction.
"I... you saw... it's stupid, but... how can you... I mean, maybe you didn't mean, but..."
"Whoa, slow down, Chief," Ellison cut into the nervous babbling. "God, I would love for both of us to go upstairs, together, but I won't push you. I saw the tapes and won't ask for anything you're not ready to give." He sighed though as his gaze fell away. "But, I want to hold you so much, babe. I... just... really want hold you."
"Why would you even want to touch me?" Sandburg moaned softly. "After... after..."
"Why wouldn't I?" Jim countered. "If whathisname, what did you call him, Igor? If Igor had done that to me, would you never want to touch me again?"
"Well, uh... no."
"You wouldn't want to touch me again? You're kidding," Jim gaped, not believing it for a minute.
"No, no, that's not what I meant. I meant that, no, it wouldn't make any difference to me, except I wouldn't want to hurt you," Blair hastened to explain, his gaze again concerned that he be clear, that Jim understand that nothing would ever change his love for the older man, and most certainly not the fact that Jim had been hurt or abused.
"Oh, okay," Ellison nodded, amicably and then continued with deceptively easy assurance. "So, you'll come up to bed with me, then."
"I..." Blair blinked and then shook his head. "That was smooth, man. You slipped that right by."
"Yeah, well, you're not the only one who minored in psychology, Einstein," Jim smiled gently. "I promise. I won't push you. And if you're honestly more comfortable in your old bed, okay. But I'd really rather have you in our bed."
Sandburg swallowed and looked up the stairs to the upper loft. He took a deep breath and nodded, getting stiffly to his feet. "Okay," he said softly. "Okay."
A lump appeared suddenly in Ellison's throat and he couldn't stop himself from moving forward to wrap Sandburg in a warm hug. "You are the bravest man I've ever known," he said hoarsely. "I love you, Chief. So much." Blair just held him, leaned into him, and Jim bent his head to kiss Sandburg's temple. "I'll just turn out the lights and be right up," he said softly, leaving the final choice to go or stay downstairs up to his partner.
Blair eased away, and mounted the steps. Jim found him in their bed, the covers pulled up to his chin as he curled along the far side of the bed. Climbing in beside him, Ellison touched his shoulder. "Will you let me hold you?" he asked, trying hard not to sound plaintive.
Wordlessly, Blair turned and rolled up against him, one arm over his chest... and that's when Jim felt the warmth and wetness of tears on his shoulder. His grip around Sandburg tightened protectively as he bowed his head to nuzzle Blair's hair. "Ah, babe," he whispered. "I'm sorry it hurts so bad."
Blair sniffed and shook his head. "Not... because it hurts," he husked and sniffed again, ashamed of his vulnerability but trusting Jim with it. "Because you... you still want... want me."
"Ah, Blair," Jim moaned as he pulled his lover closer still. "We're going to have to do some serious work on your skewed perceptions of reality, Chief. They did their absolute best to strip away your dignity and confidence. The isolation. The beatings. Stringing you up nude. The sensory deprivation and inconsistent nourishment. No way to tell time, or even if it's day or night. Weakening you physically. It's deliberate and scientific... guaranteed to erode anyone's sense of self. But none of it was a reflection on you. Even when Brackett gave you the sodium pentothal, you didn't lose yourself or your will. You got a little bent, folded and mutilated - and I could cheerfully kill the bastards for that. But you didn't break, Chief. You didn't ever break."
"I feel broken." Blair's voice was just a whisper in the darkness, strained as he admitted to his fear that he'd never be the same again.
"I know you do," Jim sighed. "And if you had broken, it still wouldn't change the fact that I love you and belong to you. Or the fact that we'd find a way to put the pieces back together again."
"What if... if I can't be put back together?"
"It takes bones, and spirits, time to heal, Chief. But both are stronger afterward. Give us time."
There was a silence between them as Sandburg thought about that and then, softly, Blair said, "I love you, Jim."
Ellison's eyes burned and he pressed them closed against the tears. "I know. And that's the greatest gift of all. The best gift anyone has ever given me," he whispered hoarsely.
"You crying, Jim?" Sandburg asked, lifting his head in concern, squinting, but unable to see in the darkness of the loft.
Sniffing, Ellison replied dryly, "Tough guys don't cry, Sandburg, you know that."
"Oh, right. So, I'm the only wuss here," Blair replied with a trace of his old, ironic, humour as he laid his cheek back down on Jim's shoulder.
"Yep, I guess so," the older man chuckled dryly and then chastely kissed Sandburg's brow, tasting him, breathing him in. "Go to sleep, Chief."
It was a small snicker, nothing like the boisterous laughter Jim hoped to hear again someday. But it was a start, and he smiled into the darkness.
Waking in the warmth of a rare, bright patch of sunlight streaming through the skylight, Jim stirred and then jerked awake when he realized the bed was empty. He swung up and listened as his gaze raked the downstairs, relaxing almost immediately when he found Blair sleeping on the sofa, the afghan drawn up and almost over his head so only the tangled curls were visible. Pulling on his robe, Jim went downstairs and quietly started a carafe of coffee before taking a shower. When he came out of the bathroom, he found Sandburg up and pouring two mugs. He flicked on the overhead light and couldn't help but notice that Blair flinched and squinted, but the younger man didn't say anything, though his heart rate spiked briefly before settling down again.
"You sleep all right?" Jim asked as he took the mug Blair handed him.
"Yeah, really good," Sandburg replied with a faint smile. "Surprisingly well, actually."
Ellison nodded, knowing that Blair had been restless during the night, often mumbling to himself. Jim had felt both admiration and sorrow when he'd listened and realized that, though not really awake, the kid had been talking himself out of his own nightmares, reassuring himself that they were just dreams, that he was safe. And he'd heard his lover murmuring his name as Blair's hold around him unconsciously tightened and he snuggled in closer. His gaze drifting to the sofa, one brow quirked and when he looked back at Sandburg, the kid shrugged self-consciously.
"It was just really bright up there," Blair explained, gesturing to the upper loft. "You know, with the sun shining in."
"Yeah, woke me up, too," Ellison allowed. "You hungry?"
Later that day, deciding they needed some supplies, Jim called out to Blair, who was ensconced at his desk with his laptop in the back room, "I'm heading to the store. You want to come along?"
"Ah, no, Jim, if you don't mind, I'll, uh, I'm..." Sandburg called back as Ellison sauntered to the doorway of the shadowy room. Blair was sitting practically in the dark, with only the light of the computer screen glowing in the little chamber.
"S'okay, Chief, if you don't feel like going out," Jim cut into the search for excuses, his tone mild. "Don't you think it's kinda dark in here?"
Looking around as if he hadn't noticed, Blair shrugged and shook his head. "No, it's okay."
Nodding, Ellison turned away. "I won't be long," he said over his shoulder. "You want anything at the store?"
"No, thanks, I'm good."
A storm had blown in from the sea by the time Jim headed home with a few sacks of groceries. The day had darkened into premature dusk, and he had to run through the driving rain to the entrance of the building. Upstairs, he found Sandburg in the dim kitchen, making himself a pot of tea. Reflexively, after peeling off his wet coat and hanging it up, Jim flicked on the lights - and again saw the flinch and the unconscious squinting as Blair ducked his head, shading his face with his hair, his heart rate spiking and his respirations suddenly quick and shallow if only for a few brief moments.
Once they'd finished stowing away the supplies, Jim pulled a beer out of the fridge and waved toward the living room. "If you've got a few minutes, Chief, there's something I'd like to talk to you about," he said, forestalling Sandburg's return to the small, dark room down the hall with his mug of steaming tea.
"Uh, sure," Blair agreed amiably.
Once they were settled, Sandburg on the couch and Ellison in his chair, Jim leaned forward, a concerned expression on his face. "When did you first notice that light meant pain?" he asked quietly.
Blair blinked in surprise and looked around, toward the bright overhead light in the kitchen, and his lips fell open as he then shifted to gaze up at the skylight. "I... I didn't. Until now," he murmured, and then turned back to Jim. Shaking his head, shrinking a little into himself as he crossed his arms defensively, he grated, "Man... those guys really did a number on my head, didn't they?"
"It's just conditioning, Chief - learned responses," Ellison replied evenly. "I noticed it on the tapes. Every time there was light in that cell, they hurt you. When it was dark, they left you alone."
"So, what, I'm going to make like a vampire for the rest of my life and shun the sun?" Sandburg snapped nervously, raking taut fingers through his hair.
"No," Jim soothed. "Being aware of the reaction, making it conscious, is the first step in dealing with it."
Blowing out a long breath, forcing himself to relax, Blair picked up his mug of tea and held it in both hands as he sipped it, letting the warmth seep into his body. Swallowing, he nodded to himself. "Okay," he said softly, and then looked back at Ellison. "Thanks for spotting it." He paused, hesitating as his gaze slipped to the side. "You know a lot about this stuff, don't you, Jim. Conditioning. Interrogation techniques. From... from Special Ops, right?"
Jim nodded, sadness deep and dark in his eyes. "Yeah. I learned a lot about it, once upon a time."
"Were you ever... I mean," Sandburg stammered, looking at him and then quickly away. "Or, did you do stuff..."
Bowing his head, his own shoulders now tight, Ellison replied, "We were taught how to undermine our enemies and the best ways of getting information from them, but I never... brutalized anyone they way they treated you. And," he nodded slightly, "I was a prisoner once; subjected to something similar."
"I'm sorry," Blair replied, his voice oddly gentle. "Sorry you had to know... what it feels like." Swallowing, he took another breath and leaned back against the sofa. "How long did it take to, uh, get past it?"
"Some things take longer than others," Jim sighed as he looked up at his partner. "Agoraphobia is fairly common, fear of going outside? Of big, open spaces? Wears off, because it's been learned as opposed to something innate. Reaction to light? Same thing. Learning to trust again can take a little longer. Nightmares pop up unexpectedly for months, sometimes years. Not wanting to be touched, especially unexpectedly, depends on the person and what happened to them, how much touch was part of what they were taught to fear. General self-confidence? Comes back, gradually. Having the right to make choices and decisions helps. Takes time, Chief. Just time."
Blair studied him thoughtfully. "Those are general reactions, but how long did it take you to make it all the way back?"
"All the way?" Jim shook his head, shrugged; had to swallow hard. "Most of it, I got past pretty quickly. Didn't learn to really trust anyone again, though, for years. Not until... well, until you taught me how to trust again. That I could trust and not be betrayed."
Blair's eyes filled, and he again crossed his arms tightly as he blinked hard and bit his lip to stop its trembling. Uncomfortable with his persistently raw, vulnerable emotions, he bowed his head as he looked away. Jim moved quickly to sink down beside him and pull him into a warm, sideways hug, his lips in Sandburg's hair. "Shh," he murmured. "It's okay."
Sniffing, Sandburg nodded. "I'm just so lucky, you know?" he husked, swallowing the tears. "To have you."
Simon dropped by the next afternoon, a plastic sack in his hand and Blair's leather jacket, the one he'd been wearing when he'd been abducted, over his arm.
"Hey, Simon, c'mon in," Jim invited with a small grin, having opened the door before Banks had knocked, enjoying his boss's predictably disconcerted look and indulgent smirk. "What have you got there?"
"Jim," Banks said in greeting as he walked in, and then nodded to Blair in the living room. "Sandburg. Sorry to just barge in, but I had errands in the neighbourhood and thought I'd drop off your belongings. They were found in another room in the old bank."
Standing, Blair moved forward, looking awkwardly pleased. He was glad to get his stuff back, but wasn't keen on being reminded of how he'd lost them. "Thanks, man."
Ellison hung up Sandburg's coat and then offered, "Got time for a beer?"
"Sure, why not?" Simon replied, shrugging out of his own jacket. Rifling in the bag as Jim went to the fridge, Banks pulled out Blair's shoulder holster, weapon and badge. "These were with your clothes," he said, looking up at the kid, sorry to see Sandburg blanche. Uncertainly, Banks set everything on the kitchen island before accepting the beer from Jim.
"So, uh, how's it going?" he asked as he followed his best detective into the living room and snagged his usual spot on the love seat.
Ellison handed Sandburg an open bottle and then they both sat down as well.
"Fine," Jim replied.
"Not bad," Blair added with brittle tones. "I'm breathing, which is a good start, and I've stopped jumping at shadows, so that's progress," he went on, trying for humour and not quite making it. Sighing at the kind look in Simon's eyes, he pushed his hair back and shook his head. His voice tired, he admitted, "I'm getting there, Simon. Jim's being a huge help."
"If there's anything any of the rest of us can do, you know we'd be only too glad," Banks offered soberly. Then, eying Blair critically, he added, "You are looking better, putting some meat back on those bones."
Blair grinned a little at that as he sipped at the bottle. "Jim's always offering me food. It's like having my own personal Jewish mother."
"You've got one of those already, Chief," Ellison growled playfully.
"Yeah, but Naomi is SO not traditional," Sandburg chuckled with no little delight, not really aware that it was the first time he'd laughed in a long time. Scratching his cheek absently, he looked past Banks to the stuff on the island, and the amusement faded from his eyes. "Uh, about the badge and weapon," he said diffidently. "I... I'm going to be resigning, Simon. I just... just - being a cop... doesn't really work for me. I'm sorry. I know you went out on a limb to get me the chance."
Banks' lips twisted in a wry grimace, not really surprised, but not happy about it either. "There's no hurry, Blair. I won't lie to you - I'd like to have you back. But I also understand why you might, uh, be reluctant given the circumstances. But, if it's just the badge and the gun, well, we could maybe work out some other arrangement. A civilian job, maybe. Don't judge all cops on the basis of the actions of a few. A lot of people would like to see you come back."
Gazing at the older man, seeing and hearing the absolute sincerity, Sandburg's tension eased. "Thanks, Simon. I just don't know right now. But, I appreciate having the choice."
"Like I said, no hurry," Banks replied reassuringly. Looking across the room toward Jim, he went on, "But, even if you guys aren't on duty, no reason you can't still join our regular poker games, right? Tomorrow night?"
Blair stiffened again, thinking about having to leave the loft, not feeling ready for that, and angry with himself for being a wimp. Jim cut over his reactions as he said, "I don't know, Simon. It's our turn, as I recall, and well, what do you think, Chief? You up to a houseful of rowdy cops?"
"Here? Our turn?" he stammered. "Uh, sure, why not? I'd, uh, like to see everyone. Kinda miss them, to tell you the truth."
"Great," Simon smiled as he finished up his beer and stood, relieved beyond words to find Sandburg so much better than he'd been in the hospital. "See you tomorrow, around seven."
After he'd gone, Blair asked, "Is it really our turn? Or were you just giving me an out?"
"Yes," Jim replied with a small smile. When Sandburg gave him an aggrieved 'so, which one?' look, he continued, "Yes, it is our turn, and yes, I was giving you the choice of whether we went ahead with it or not."
Sandburg put the empty bottles in the box under the sink and then stood, his hands scrunched into his jean pockets. "You said the right to make choices, decisions, is important to recovery," he reflected to himself and nodded. "Gives me my power back." Looking up at his partner, he said quietly, "Thanks, man."
The evening started out with some awkwardly forced good cheer as people arrived and gazed tentatively at Blair when they thought he wasn't looking, which made him feel decidedly self-conscious. But, once the beer was flowing and the first hand dealt, everyone started to relax and get into the game. Sandburg didn't quite know what he'd expected. He'd seen them all, of course, more than once when they'd visited him in the hospital, and they were all his friends. He had missed them - more, missed this: the easy banter and give and take; the teasing and shouts of glee or dismay from winners and losers as each pot was decided. As the evening went on, he and Jim shared the duties, as they always did, of refilling the bowls of munchies and uncapping new cold ones to share around. He found himself elbowing Henri good-naturedly when they were dividing up a win and Brown was pretending to try to haul in more than his due; and laughing with the others at Megan's pitiful attempts at keeping a poker face. Sitting between H and Megan meant he was in for the usual hair-mussing routine throughout the game as they teased him back.
Didn't hurt, either, that he was cleaning their collective clocks!
By the time the evening ended, and they were sharing out cold cuts for sandwiches and coffee, he realized that no one was looking at him anymore as if he were some pathetic wounded puppy, and were just treating him like always; one of the gang, a friend they liked and were comfortable with. It felt good, really good. Normal.
God, how he'd missed 'normal'.
When it was time for the others to go, Megan and Joel hugged him, Rafe shook his hand, Henri shadow-boxed with him and mussed his hair one last time for good measure, and Simon squeezed his shoulder - the normal leave-taking routines, nothing special.
Except, each and every one of them made a point of saying how much they missed him downtown, and sure hoped to see both him and Jim back in harness sometime soon. Place was too quiet when he wasn't around, apparently. Just not the same.
And that warmed him deep down. It was good to know that he was missed, that they hoped he'd come back. Even better that it was all said lightly, with no searching or questioning looks. Just simple, straightforward affection and comradeship.
Kinda like family. A warm, loving family.
And for the first time since he'd been abandoned to the Fates weeks before, he began to think about going back. Began to believe that it could be possible to go back.
That night, Jim woke to the feeling of small kisses being pressed against the skin of his shoulder, and he realized Blair thought he was still asleep and was trying not to disturb him. So quietly even he had trouble making out the words, he heard Sandburg saying, over and over, with a kind of desperate urgency, "I love you so much. Oh, man, I wish there was a way to tell you, to show you. God, I need you, respect you, love you... so, so much."
Pretending to still be sleeping, Ellison shifted and rolled, drawing Sandburg closer than they'd been, skin to skin, since he'd gotten his partner home, and just snuggled down, holding him like a man-sized teddy bear. Blair didn't pull away, but cuddled in closer against him, and finally drifted off to sleep.
Only then did Jim tenderly kiss his lover's brow as he whispered, "You tell me and show me every day, Chief. Every single day."
The next day, Sandburg seemed preoccupied over breakfast and Ellison asked if there was anything wrong.
"No," Blair replied distractedly as he gathered up the dishes and carried them to the sink, while Jim poured two more cups of coffee. "I've just been thinking about how you said we're still in a jungle, of sorts."
Taking his mug, he led the way to the living room and sank down on the sofa, reflexively careful not to spill the hot beverage. "You know? When you were saying that in more traditional times, everyone knew who the sentinels were - there were no secrets about the skills or vulnerabilities; it was all just common knowledge?"
Jim nodded, not sure where his partner's train of thought was going, but happy to be along for the ride.
"Well, there are different ways of thinking about your sentinel abilities," Sandburg continued with an unconsciously academic tone that warmed Jim's heart while also making him a little wary - Sandburg, talking about sentinel senses in that tone of voice, nearly always came up with new ways of testing said senses. Unaware of Jim's reflections, Blair continued soberly, "On the one hand, they help you with tracking, listening in, spotting evidence no one else can see with the naked eye. Even if the bad guys know about those abilities, there isn't much they can do to mitigate them. The whole point is that they are leaving signs that they are completely unaware of or able to discern for themselves. Right?"
"Yeah, I guess," Jim shrugged.
"Okay, so it doesn't matter if those guys know about your skills - makes no difference in the end. On the other hand, you have certain vulnerabilities that could be exploited, like sudden blinding bright lights, sharp, loud, clanging alarms, or really sickening or overwhelming scents pumped into your face. For a second, maybe a little more, you're defenceless, off balance. That's where the danger lies in having the bad guys know too much about how to bring you down."
Jim grimaced wryly as he sipped at his coffee. "So... ?" he encouraged, still not sure what the point was but now certain that his near future held new ways to test and/or control his senses.
"So, we need to work on fast recovery strategies for those kinds of situations, and I need to think about how I can better watch out for those dangers and protect you when they happen," Blair replied, as if it were obvious.
Which, when he thought about it, Jim supposed it was. He squinted thoughtfully at his Guide and groused, "You're going to make me do more tests, aren't you? With bright blinding lights and shit - do you KNOW how bad the headache's going to be?"
"Yeah, well, we need to work on this stuff, man," Blair griped back.
"Okay," Ellison grunted, resigned.
"That's it? Just, 'okay'? You're not going to make me work for this?" Sandburg shot back, feigning sarcastic amazement.
"I always take your tests," Jim muttered, rolling his shoulders to release the tension the word 'tests', when used by Sandburg, always generated in his body.
"Oh, right. Sure you do, big guy. In my dreams," Blair snorted. But then he sobered again as he regarded his partner. "You know, Jim. I'm not the only guy living in this loft who has the right to choose, or say 'no'. You don't have to humour me just to help me feel better."
Ellison bowed his head. Busted. Sighing, he looked back up at Blair, who was gazing at him earnestly. "Okay, the truth is, I hate the damned tests and you know that. But, well," he temporized, "they do work. And it makes sense to get a handle on the spikes."
"Yes, it does, especially now," Blair emphasized.
"You said you had to learn to watch for danger and protect me better," Ellison ventured then, hopefully. "What did you mean? That you'll go back to being my partner?"
"I haven't worked that out yet," Sandburg sighed. "I mean, I want to keep working with you. And I guess I should continue carrying a weapon, just in case. But I really don't want to be a cop anymore."
"So? Simon as much as said they'd work out a civilian position for you," Jim reminded him.
"Yeah, I know. But then I'd be 'on call' for other units, too, right? It would have to be some sort of forensic anthropologist position, to be legitimate - I've read some journal articles on positions like that being created in other big cities," Blair replied uncertainly. "I'm just not sure I'm ready to, I don't know, face down the jerks; not yet anyway. Someday, maybe soon - but not yet. I feel like such a wuss, Jim, but, well..."
"You take whatever time you need," Ellison stated emphatically. "You don't have anything to prove, Chief."
Sandburg shrugged. "Maybe not," he sighed. "But I need a paying job, man. I can't live off you. I guess I could go back to the University, see if I could get a temporary professorship, now that you got my PhD for me, but I don't really want to get tied down there, either."
"Actually, I was thinking that maybe I could live off you," Jim teased quietly.
"Well, I guess this is as good a time as any to give you what I hope you'll consider good news," the older man said as he stood to move into the kitchen to rifle in a drawer.
Blair followed him, mystified when Ellison pulled out the loose-leaf journal in which he kept track of the household accounts. "What're you talking about, Jim?" he pushed, curious.
Jim pulled an envelope out of the journal and, holding it, he said, "I knew you wouldn't be real happy with me for having your work published, but I used your Power of Attorney and went ahead, acting in your name. This is the contract from the publishing house."
Blair took the envelope, opened it, scanned the contents... and then his eyes grew as wide as saucers as he took in the numbers. "You've got to be kidding," he breathed, looking up at his partner, his mouth agape.
"Well, Berkshire had the offer up to three mill, right? I told this firm that if they wanted the deal, they'd have to do better than that," Ellison replied diffidently.
"We're rich," Blair gasped in disbelief, looking again at all the zeros. "We never have to work again unless we want to."
"What's with the 'we', Junior," Jim chided gently. "That's your money."
"Oh, no," Sandburg protested with moving sincerity as he gripped Jim's arm. "We're partners. Even split, man." Once again, he looked at the document and began to grin a little with joyful wonder. "Do you know what I can do with money like this? The environmental causes... the research?"
"So, you're not too mad at me, then?" Ellison asked, smiling with the pure pleasure of seeing Sandburg's surprise and delight at the new possibilities of how the money might be put to work.
Blair shook his head as he dropped the document on the island and moved to give Ellison a tight hug. "You are too much, man," he murmured. "Thank you." After a moment, Sandburg pulled away as he said with evident excitement, "You know what this means, right? It means I can go back to being an observer - just as your partner. Like it used to be," he said with a bright smile. "I think I'd like that."
"Me, too, kid," Ellison rumbled, nodding, a soft, vulnerable look on his face that made him seem almost shy.
Sandburg's heart twisted poignantly at that expression on Jim's face, one so rarely given but that meant the older man was moved to the depth of his soul. Like a little boy, wanting to believe he was loved so much that he could trust in that love when he'd only been hurt time and again, but daring to risk showing how much he wanted and needed to be loved unconditionally. That look of naked trust was one that was only, ever, given to Blair and it never failed to move him and make him want to be deserving of it. Blowing out a breath, Blair looked toward the balcony. "You know, it looks like an okay day. Why don't we take a walk to the park and we can talk about how to work on those sensory spikes."
"You sure you want to go out?" Jim asked, surprised.
"Yeah, I think so," Sandburg replied. Looking up at his partner, he said, "I'm not afraid of the light anymore, Jim. Or, well," he added sheepishly, ashamed of how nervous he really did feel about leaving the safety of the loft, "at least I know if I'm with you, it'll be okay."
Touched, Ellison reached to lightly caress Sandburg's cheek. "You said the other day that fear is natural. What matters is how we deal with it," he recalled, his voice a little husky. "I've never known another man with as much courage as you've got, Chief. You just... you just keep going, no matter what."
Blushing with embarrassment and no little pleasure at the admiration in Ellison's eyes, Blair bowed his head and shrugged. "I've had a good role model," he muttered. "Two of 'em, actually. Neither you nor Naomi ever gives up if there's something that has to be done, or you want to do. You just go for it."
A week later, Ellison and Sandburg walked back into MCU and were greeted by the enthusiastic, delighted cheers of their colleagues. Blair was nervous at first, casting covert looks at the cops they encountered in the halls and elevators, at crime scenes, checking to see how they were reacting to his presence. But as the day and then the week went by, he was reassured and pleased by how very many welcomed him back and said they were glad to see him. Some, obviously uncomfortable, even ventured to say how sorry they were for what had happened to him, but that they were glad to see he'd recovered and seemed just fine. Only a few, a very few, seemed peeved or disgruntled to see him back, believing he'd never belonged there in the first place. But, after the first unfortunate few forgot about Jim's acute hearing, and made comments the Sentinel objected to, vociferously - not to say he scared the shit out of them - anyone who had a gripe about Sandburg's presence kept it to themselves.
Blair wasn't all that happy with Jim's overtly protective behaviours in those situations, but Ellison just gave him a hard look and he backed off. His partner had given him fair warning - Jim had said he'd never put up with that kind of crap again and, quite evidently, he'd meant it.
But Blair was especially relieved that there was only a handful who looked at him with a kind of pity for what he'd endured, or with contempt. He could handle the contempt, but pity made his skin crawl; he sincerely hoped those that seemed to feel sorry for him would forget it all in time, the sooner the better.
Before long, things appeared to be back to normal. Blair laughed and joked around, took delight in teasing Brown and Rafe, and kidding Joel, flirted with Rhonda and Megan and was as cheerfully insubordinate as ever he had been in his easy relationship with Simon. Both he and Jim felt good - he was back to being the Guide that he couldn't be when he carried the badge. Simon got him a permit to carry a concealed weapon, so he felt he could give Jim professional backup, if it was ever needed. One month passed, and then nearly another, and life seemed to be getting back on track.
But Jim wondered poignantly when things would get back to normal at home.
They still didn't do anything more than literally sleep together, though Blair had physically healed.
Nor had Blair even kissed him on the mouth... or kissed him at all except when he thought Jim was asleep, since he'd come home from the hospital.
But Ellison had said he wouldn't push, and he didn't. He had his best friend, his partner and his Guide back, and he was more grateful than he could ever express, especially in dark moments when he remembered his fears and grief during Blair's disappearance. Still... he really missed his lover and ached for Blair's intimate touch.
Returning from the corner store, Jim had almost reached the second floor landing when he heard the peal of a distant phone. By the time he was in the third floor hall, he could hear Sandburg's voice but it was his partner's elevated heartbeat that had him rushing to the loft door. He entered just as Blair hung up, and was standing, both hands braced on the island, his arms rigid, his whole body trembling, and his head bowed, as he panted for breath, his heart hammering a wild tattoo.
"Chief? God, Blair - what is it? What's wrong?" Jim exclaimed as he dumped the grocery bag and lunged toward his partner.
Blair reached out blindly, gripping his arm tightly enough to leave bruises. But when he lifted his face, his eyes were filled with light and wonder. "I'm healthy," he gasped. "That was the doctor - the tests were negative. I'm not HIV positive."
"Ah, babe," Jim sighed in abject relief, letting go the fear he'd also carried, buried deep but haunting. He hadn't ever acknowledged it; they certainly had never talked about the spectre hanging over them, the ghost of Igor who might have yet held the power to kill. Ellison hadn't been able to bear to even think about it. And now, it was over. The long wait. The anxious, unspoken worry. The fear.
They clung to one another, trembling as Blair murmured, "I'm free of it, finally. All of it. It's really over. Oh, God... I'm free." Lifting his head, he reached to cup Jim's face in his hands. "Free to love you. Oh, God, Jim... it's been so hard not to..."
Blair pulled his lover's face down toward his own, as he stretched up to capture Jim's lips and ravished his partner's mouth. Ellison pulled him close, as if they could meld together and melt into one another; the dam of fear that had held Sandburg's passion in check was blasted away and the floodtide that had been constrained so long swamped them both. Hands stroked and caressed, bodies writhed together, small moans of desire filled their throats, shirts were pulled up, pushed off, shoes kicked away, as they began to rediscover one another's bodies with a joy so sharp it hurt. It was almost like the very first time, clinging together in the kitchen, surprised, shocked by their desperate need for one another, by the love that burned in their souls.
Gasping, Jim finally pulled back. "You're sure?" he panted. "I don't want to hurt you, babe."
"Oh, man, I'm very sure," Blair affirmed tremulously as he took Jim's hand and led him toward the stairs. "I just... I... let me lead, okay? Set the pace?"
"Whatever you need, Chief," Ellison vowed huskily as his hand skimmed his lover's back, lightly tracing over silvering scars Sandburg couldn't see. "Whatever you need."
Blair wanted, needed, control as he broached the last hurdle between him and a normal, healthy life and a fully intimate relationship with his partner. Once they'd stripped one another, Sandburg pushed Jim down on the bed. "I know this'll likely sound weird," he said quietly, his eyes wide, hoping Jim would understand, "but I don't want you to touch me - let me do all the work, okay?"
Solemnly, Ellison nodded as he laid back, his arms at his side, his erection already full and weeping. He didn't know how he was going to manage to not touch Blair when every fibre in his being ached for the man but, however hard it was, he'd keep his hands to himself. The last man who'd had his hands on his lover had mauled Blair, brutalized him, painted him with his own blood. If Sandburg needed a willing but passive lover, then that's what he'd have.
Blair crawled onto the bed and pinned Jim's body between his knees. Leaning forward, he cupped Jim's face as he said reverently, "I love you, James Joseph Ellison. I love you with everything I am or ever will be." And then he leaned forward to kiss Jim lightly at first, and then more deeply, his hands roaming Ellison's throat and shoulders, stroking, kneading, getting to know his lover's body all over again. Taking his time, lavishing tenderness to express his love and his gratitude for Jim's support and endless patience, compassion and love, he kissed Jim's brow and then his eyelids, nuzzled his ear and along his strong jaw, licked at his pulse point at the base of his throat and breathed the scent of him in, deeply, erotically. And then he moved lower, caressing Ellison's chest, stroking over his ribs and bending to suck at first one taut nipple and then the other. "You taste so good," he murmured with rapture. "Feel so good."
Hands swept down over Jim's hips as Blair's tongue dipped into his navel, and then he was drawing his hands over Ellison's legs, kissing his inner thighs and behind his knees, suckling at his toes before crawling back up the bed, his gaze locked on the rigid flesh. "I love you," he murmured again as he bent his head to lick up the long vein to the tip and to dip into the slit before opening his mouth wide to take Jim inside, one hand holding his lover's erection firmly, stroking slowly and then with more demand, while the other caressed Ellison's heavy scrotum.
And then he stopped, muttering to himself, "Shit, I'm SO out of practice... moving too fast."
Jim moaned with the loss of the heat and wetness of Blair's mouth.
"Sorry, man, just give me a minute here," Sandburg murmured apologetically as he reached over and opened the drawer of the bedside table to feel around for the lubricant. He squirted a generous amount onto his hand and warmed it between his palms before coating his fingers and then his own burgeoning erection. He looked up and found Jim watching him, a hungry look in Ellison's eyes. Smiling at the so blatant need for him, for his loving, he asked a little cheekily, "You mind if we take this all the way?"
His mouth and throat too dry for words, Jim shook his head and mouthed 'no', but he smiled his encouragement and spread his legs wider.
Chuckling with delight, Blair again leaned over him, his mouth covering Jim with hot, wet, demand, while one hand explored and teased and finally slipped inside, stroking.
Ellison cried out as he arced his hips, his hands fisting the sheets to keep from touching his lover, his eyes pressed closed as he lost himself in the sensations spiralling from his loins into his gut and chest.
Blair sucked him in deeply, gently at first, then with demand, bringing his passion higher and higher, even as knowing, sensitive fingers stroked and probed, circled and scissored, opening him up. Just when Jim thought he might explode, Blair pulled away and pressed down at the base of his root, slowing him down, and he gasped, panting for breath.
"Roll over, Jim," Blair whispered, and then he was kissing along Jim's spine, stroking, caressing, all down the long, lean body and then, ready, so ready, Ellison shifted position onto his knees, his brow braced on his forearms. Sandburg licked down between his buttocks and then further, his tongue circling and probing the entrance to Jim's body. When Jim moaned again and thrust back, unable to hide his need, not wanting to, Blair settled between his legs and gripped his hips. Then slowly, he pushed inside.
"Oh, man," Sandburg sighed at he held himself still to savour their union. "You feel so good."
And then he was moving, stroking in and out, angling to hit Jim's prostate to make it as pleasurable as he could for his lover. And Jim was writhing underneath him, pushing back, so that they rocked together in a primal rhythm of need and want and consummate love.
Just as he was about to come, Blair leaned forward onto Jim's back, and reached around to grasp Ellison's erection, so full and hard, weeping for him. He stroked inside and out in synchronized motion, thrusting into Jim as Jim thrust into his hand; hard and harder, faster, hotter, until they were each only aware of the passion that spiralled high and blinding in its power. And then he sharply nipped Jim's shoulder, marking him. Claiming him.
Blair felt Jim's muscles tighten around him as Ellison came hard, and it tripped him over into his own climax, so they pulsed out their seed together. Sated, they collapsed, boneless, Jim sinking into the mattress even as he relished the feel and weight of Blair's body covering his back. Sandburg eased out of his lover's body and then shifted to lie beside Jim. "Hold me?" he asked, huskily.
Only too glad to do so, Jim gathered him close; bodies pressed together, limbs entwined. When their breathing eased, Sandburg sighed deeply as he looked up into Jim's clear eyes. "Thank you," he said with aching sincerity. "For everything. For finding me. Giving me space and time and endless support. For loving me."
"Works both ways, Chief," Ellison replied hoarsely, as he stroked his fingers through the long curls. "You found me first, remember? Gave me everything I ever needed, always. You're the best part of me."
Blair's eyes lit with that glow that came from deep inside and illuminated Ellison's whole world. And smiling slowly, seductively, he asked, "Feel like touching me now? Loving me?"
"Oh, yeah," Jim groaned. "Oh, babe, I need to touch you, love you. I want you so much it hurts."
"Then take me, Jim. I'm all yours, man."
With a low, passionate growl, Jim rolled Blair onto his back, and proceeded to lavish him with tenderness and ravish him with pent-up passion, letting go of the restraints he'd held upon his need and his want for so many weeks, opening all his senses to inhale and taste, to see and touch and hear Blair respond to his loving.
But... he hesitated, not sure how far Sandburg wanted him to go, and Blair felt his care and concern. Gazing up at his lover, his eyes wide and dark with passion, he smiled as he spread his legs and lifted his knees to give Jim access. "I want you, Jim. I want to feel you filling me. I need you inside."
Still, Ellison hesitated. Shaking his head, he swallowed hard. "There's scarring, Chief. It'll be tight. I don't want to hurt you."
Blair smiled serenely at him and shook his head. "Nothing you could ever do would ever hurt me. I want you, Jim, all of you. Please. Fill me."
Jim gazed into those beautiful, brilliant eyes, so full of trust and love for him and he nodded, his throat too full to speak. Mirroring Blair's earlier actions, he slicked his fingers and his once-again fully erect and throbbing penis, and then, taking his time as he licked and sucked at Blair's equally aroused cock, he opened his lover.
Sandburg gripped his head, moaning with desire as he thrust up into Ellison's hot mouth, and pushed back on the long, slender fingers that stroked him inside, inflaming him. "Now, Jim," he grated, aching with emptiness. "Take me now."
Jim shifted Blair's hips onto his thighs, and closed his eyes for a moment to relish the feeling of Blair's legs gripping his body and the heels pressing into the small of his back, urging him forward. And then, he took a deep breath and eased himself inside, slowly, watching Sandburg's face to be sure he wasn't causing pain - to be certain Blair was ready for this and wasn't freezing in sudden panic, caught in the horrific memories of Igor's rough and wanton abuse.
But even as he hesitated, Blair shifted his weight onto his elbows and thrust himself forward, smoothly with deliberate intent, until Jim was fully sheathed inside him. His head arched back, his throat bare, as he absorbed the pleasure/pain, and he dragged in a deep lungful of air... and then he relaxed and brought his gaze back to Jim's anxious eyes. And that smile, that glorious smile that never failed to twist something deep inside Jim and fill him with tenderness and joy, the smile Ellison had been afraid he might never see again, blossomed and Blair's eyes sparkled with very obvious delight in their union. "Love me," he whispered with hoarse urgency. "I want to feel you need me and want me. I want you to lose yourself in me."
Jim's jaw tightened with the emotion that burst in his chest, and he had to press his eyes closed against the sudden burn, as he gripped Blair's hips and began the ancient rhythm, the joining, to merge their bodies and their essence of life, even as their spirits were merged as Sentinel and Guide. When he next opened his eyes, he found Blair watching him, smiling at him and then Blair arced to meet him thrust for thrust and they cleaved to one another, losing themselves in the union of who and what they were, until there was only their need, and their want and their love. Knowing he couldn't hold on much longer, Jim leaned forward, covering Blair's body with his own as they thrust against one another, and then he felt himself coming...
"Oh, God, JIM! YES! YES!" Blair exclaimed as he climaxed and felt the hot burst as Ellison came deep in his body, crying out in his own inarticulate passion. And then, still joined, Jim wrapped Blair in his arms and held him as they kissed passionately before cuddling together.
"Ah, man," Sandburg sighed in utter contentment. "You don't know how good you feel." Snuggling closer still, enjoying the play of Jim's fingers in his hair, he murmured, "Remember, the first night I was home - you said you belong to me?"
"I didn't say it at the time, but that was... nice, you know? Subtle. Not that I belong to you, like you owned me... but that you belong to me," Blair mused. "After... well... I needed to hear that. 'Cause, Jim," he added, as he reverently kissed the pulse point at the base of his lover's throat, "I like SO totally belong to you."
I peeked in to say good night
When I heard my child in prayer
"Send me, God, some scarlet ribbons"
"Scarlet ribbons for my hair"
All the stores were closed and shuttered
All the streets were dark and bare
In my town no scarlet ribbons
Not one ribbon for her hair
Through the night my heart was aching
Just before the dawn was breaking
I peeked in and on her bed
In gay profusion lying there
I saw a ribbon, scarlet ribbons
Scarlet ribbons for her hair
If I live to be a hundred
I will never know from where
Came those lovely scarlet ribbons
Scarlet ribbons for her hair
The Gift of the Magi
by O. Henry
One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one's cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty- seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.
There was clearly nothing to do but flop down on the shabby little couch and howl. So Della did it. Which instigates the moral reflection that life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating.
While the mistress of the home is gradually subsiding from the first stage to the second, take a look at the home. A furnished flat at $8 per week. It did not exactly beggar description, but it certainly had that word on the lookout for the mendicancy squad.
In the vestibule below was a letter-box into which no letter would go, and an electric button from which no mortal finger could coax a ring. Also appertaining thereunto was a card bearing the name "Mr. James Dillingham Young."
The "Dillingham" had been flung to the breeze during a former period of prosperity when its possessor was being paid $30 per week. Now, when the income was shrunk to $20, though, they were thinking seriously of contracting to a modest and unassuming D. But whenever Mr. James Dillingham Young came home and reached his flat above he was called "Jim" and greatly hugged by Mrs. James Dillingham Young, already introduced to you as Della. Which is all very good.
Della finished her cry and attended to her cheeks with the powder rag. She stood by the window and looked out dully at a gray cat walking a gray fence in a gray backyard. Tomorrow would be Christmas Day, and she had only $1.87 with which to buy Jim a present. She had been saving every penny she could for months, with this result. Twenty dollars a week doesn't go far. Expenses had been greater than she had calculated. They always are. Only $1.87 to buy a present for Jim. Her Jim. Many a happy hour she had spent planning for something nice for him. Something fine and rare and sterling - something just a little bit near to being worthy of the honor of being owned by Jim.
There was a pier-glass between the windows of the room. Perhaps you have seen a pier-glass in an $8 flat. A very thin and very agile person may, by observing his reflection in a rapid sequence of longitudinal strips, obtain a fairly accurate conception of his looks. Della, being slender, had mastered the art.
Suddenly she whirled from the window and stood before the glass. her eyes were shining brilliantly, but her face had lost its color within twenty seconds. Rapidly she pulled down her hair and let it fall to its full length.
Now, there were two possessions of the James Dillingham Youngs in which they both took a mighty pride. One was Jim's gold watch that had been his father's and his grandfather's. The other was Della's hair. Had the queen of Sheba lived in the flat across the airshaft, Della would have let her hair hang out the window some day to dry just to depreciate Her Majesty's jewels and gifts. Had King Solomon been the janitor, with all his treasures piled up in the basement, Jim would have pulled out his watch every time he passed, just to see him pluck at his beard from envy.
So now Della's beautiful hair fell about her rippling and shining like a cascade of brown waters. It reached below her knee and made itself almost a garment for her. And then she did it up again nervously and quickly. Once she faltered for a minute and stood still while a tear or two splashed on the worn red carpet.
On went her old brown jacket; on went her old brown hat. With a whirl of skirts and with the brilliant sparkle still in her eyes, she fluttered out the door and down the stairs to the street.
Where she stopped the sign read: "Mne. Sofronie. Hair Goods of All Kinds." One flight up Della ran, and collected herself, panting. Madame, large, too white, chilly, hardly looked the "Sofronie."
"Will you buy my hair?" asked Della.
"I buy hair," said Madame. "Take yer hat off and let's have a sight at the looks of it."
Down rippled the brown cascade.
"Twenty dollars," said Madame, lifting the mass with a practised hand.
"Give it to me quick," said Della.
Oh, and the next two hours tripped by on rosy wings. Forget the hashed metaphor. She was ransacking the stores for Jim's present.
She found it at last. It surely had been made for Jim and no one else. There was no other like it in any of the stores, and she had turned all of them inside out. It was a platinum fob chain simple and chaste in design, properly proclaiming its value by substance alone and not by meretricious ornamentation-as all good things should do. It was even worthy of The Watch. As soon as she saw it she knew that it must be Jim's. It was like him. Quietness and value - the description applied to both. Twenty-one dollars they took from her for it, and she hurried home with the 87 cents. With that chain on his watch Jim might be properly anxious about the time in any company. Grand as the watch was, he sometimes looked at it on the sly on account of the old leather strap that he used in place of a chain.
When Della reached home her intoxication gave way a little to prudence and reason. She got out her curling irons and lighted the gas and went to work repairing the ravages made by generosity added to love. Which is always a tremendous task, dear friends - a mammoth task.
Within forty minutes her head was covered with tiny, close-lying curls that made her look wonderfully like a truant schoolboy. She looked at her reflection in the mirror long, carefully, and critically.
"If Jim doesn't kill me," she said to herself, "before he takes a second look at me, he'll say I look like a Coney Island chorus girl. But what could I do - oh! what could I do with a dollar and eighty- seven cents?"
At 7 o'clock the coffee was made and the frying-pan was on the back of the stove hot and ready to cook the chops.
Jim was never late. Della doubled the fob chain in her hand and sat on the corner of the table near the door that he always entered. Then she heard his step on the stair away down on the first flight, and she turned white for just a moment. She had a habit for saying little silent prayer about the simplest everyday things, and now she whispered: "Please God, make him think I am still pretty."
The door opened and Jim stepped in and closed it. He looked thin and very serious. Poor fellow, he was only twenty-two - and to be burdened with a family! He needed a new overcoat and he was without gloves.
Jim stopped inside the door, as immovable as a setter at the scent of quail. His eyes were fixed upon Della, and there was an expression in them that she could not read, and it terrified her. It was not anger, nor surprise, nor disapproval, nor horror, nor any of the sentiments that she had been prepared for. He simply stared at her fixedly with that peculiar expression on his face.
Della wriggled off the table and went for him.
"Jim, darling," she cried, "don't look at me that way. I had my hair cut off and sold because I couldn't have lived through Christmas without giving you a present. It'll grow out again - you won't mind, will you? I just had to do it. My hair grows awfully fast. Say `Merry Christmas!' Jim, and let's be happy. You don't know what a nice - what a beautiful, nice gift I've got for you."
"You've cut off your hair?" asked Jim, laboriously, as if he had not arrived at that patent fact yet even after the hardest mental labor.
"Cut it off and sold it," said Della. "Don't you like me just as well, anyhow? I'm me without my hair, ain't I?"
Jim looked about the room curiously.
"You say your hair is gone?" he said, with an air almost of idiocy.
"You needn't look for it," said Della. "It's sold, I tell you - sold and gone, too. It's Christmas Eve, boy. Be good to me, for it went for you. Maybe the hairs of my head were numbered," she went on with sudden serious sweetness, "but nobody could ever count my love for you. Shall I put the chops on, Jim?"
Out of his trance Jim seemed quickly to wake. He enfolded his Della. For ten seconds let us regard with discreet scrutiny some inconsequential object in the other direction. Eight dollars a week or a million a year - what is the difference? A mathematician or a wit would give you the wrong answer. The magi brought valuable gifts, but that was not among them. This dark assertion will be illuminated later on.
Jim drew a package from his overcoat pocket and threw it upon the table.
"Don't make any mistake, Dell," he said, "about me. I don't think there's anything in the way of a haircut or a shave or a shampoo that could make me like my girl any less. But if you'll unwrap that package you may see why you had me going a while at first."
White fingers and nimble tore at the string and paper. And then an ecstatic scream of joy; and then, alas! a quick feminine change to hysterical tears and wails, necessitating the immediate employment of all the comforting powers of the lord of the flat.
For there lay The Combs - the set of combs, side and back, that Della had worshipped long in a Broadway window. Beautiful combs, pure tortoise shell, with jewelled rims - just the shade to wear in the beautiful vanished hair. They were expensive combs, she knew, and her heart had simply craved and yearned over them without the least hope of possession. And now, they were hers, but the tresses that should have adorned the coveted adornments were gone.
But she hugged them to her bosom, and at length she was able to look up with dim eyes and a smile and say: "My hair grows so fast, Jim!"
And them Della leaped up like a little singed cat and cried, "Oh, oh!"
Jim had not yet seen his beautiful present. She held it out to him eagerly upon her open palm. The dull precious metal seemed to flash with a reflection of her bright and ardent spirit.
"Isn't it a dandy, Jim? I hunted all over town to find it. You'll have to look at the time a hundred times a day now. Give me your watch. I want to see how it looks on it."
Instead of obeying, Jim tumbled down on the couch and put his hands under the back of his head and smiled.
"Dell," said he, "let's put our Christmas presents away and keep 'em a while. They're too nice to use just at present. I sold the watch to get the money to buy your combs. And now suppose you put the chops on."
The magi, as you know, were wise men - wonderfully wise men - who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.