Author's disclaimer: Nope, they're not mine. Pet Fly and UPN own any and all rights. However, I still have my lottery tickets, so when I win...
Companion". The editor has since decided to take it off the market, and so strongly encouraged me to post the story here. (Hey, Gena!) This is my first experience at posting on-line. My thanks to Nita for her patience and answers to silly questions. Any posting errors belong to me. I was also quite careful when I chose the warning labels. If, as you read the story, you decide I've forgotten an important label, all I ask is that you finish the story first before sending off outraged protests. Constructive criticism will be gratefully and humbly appreciated; gosh knows I need all the help I can get. Flames will be laughed at.
The door behind him gave a muted 'click' as it opened. Taking a deep breath, Blair Sandburg spun around angrily, prepared to deliver a verbal broadside to whichever idiot had ignored his specially prepared 'Do Not Disturb' sign. He had to get this paper done by this afternoon or forfeit any chance of receiving the grant.
The last three weeks had been hectic, indeed--trying to stretch his time to encompass taking on an ailing professor's classes, attending his own, and trying to help Jim with an unusually heavy case load, Blair had found there was a very scant amount of time available for such mundane items as eating and sleeping. There had certainly been no time to devote to the paper and now, with the imminent deadline looming before him, Blair was uncharacteristically rushed and, therefore, irritable. That morning, he had risen early after only three hours of sleep and, taking the time to scribble an explanatory note to his roommate, had then left for his university office. Since that time, his only break had been a quick phone call from Ellison just after ten. The cop had expressed total agreement with Blair's plans and griped that he, too, would be stuck with paperwork all day.
"Who the hell..." snarled Blair, only to have his mouth close over the rest of the angry words. Simon? What was he doing here? The Cascade police captain never came to his office; at least, not unless accompanied by Jim Ellison. A bolt of fear shot through him as he took in the grim visage. His growing sense of dread was not eased by the atypical behavior--Banks was noticeably ill at ease and seemed to be at a loss for words.
Unconsciously, Sandburg came to his feet, one hand gripping the back of his chair until his knuckles gleamed white. "How bad..." Low and rough, the words were barely intelligible. He swallowed hard and tried again. "How bad is it?"
"Blair," Banks began slowly, his gruff voice as gentle as he could make it. "Maybe you'd better sit back down."
"Oh, man," croaked Sandburg, his free hand coming up to rake tremulously through his long curls. "Oh, man. I-I've got to get to him. Where is he--what hospital?" Forcibly peeling his hand from the back of the chair, Blair made to push past the bigger man. Strong arms shot out, the large hands gripped his shoulders, holding him in place. Blair twisted, trying to break the hold. "What are you doing, Simon? Let me go." He squirmed uselessly again. "He needs me. I've got to get to Jim!" This last was a shout.
"No, Blair. Listen to me; just listen!" Hands tightening cruelly on the wide shoulders, Banks forced the next sentence out. "Jim doesn't need you...not anymore."
It seemed to take an eternity for his words to sink in. With his hands on the grad student's shoulders, Banks felt the jolt run through the sturdy body. Sandburg's face whitened, blue eyes going wide and fixed.
A sudden jerk, and the younger man freed himself, stumbling back against the wall. "No," he rasped. "No. That's so not possible, man. He told me he was going to be on paperwork all day. Jim wouldn't lie." Seeing the black man open his mouth, Sandburg turned away violently. Finding himself up against the wall, he struck out, both clenched fists slamming into the plaster. "Don't talk to me!" he hissed. "You're lying. I-I don't know why, but you're lying to me. No!" he yelled, feeling Simon's hands on his shoulders again.
"Blair..." Simon Banks had never felt so awkward and tongue-tied in his life. He had never wanted this day to come, but now it had and he had no idea what to do or say. During his career as a police officer, Banks had had to be the bearer of bad news more times than he could remember. It was never easy finding the words to destroy someone's world, but he had learned to do it. This time, though, it was too personal and all those years of practice had deserted him. Somehow, he would have to find the strength to set aside his own grief and deal with Sandburg's. Simon had known this task was not going to be easy, but only now, watching the fine tremors shaking the smaller man, did he begin to comprehend the bond that had existed between the long-haired, free-spirited student and his buttoned-down, stoic detective. This was going to be bad.
"We got a call this morning," he said quietly. "Some guy had gone postal in a warehouse by the docks and was shooting up the place. By the time I got there, the uniforms had cleared out most of the building. The shooter was holed up in a storage room with the office manager as a hostage. After a couple of hours, the shooter agreed to negotiate--but only with Jim. The guy said he'd seen him on TV once and he knew Jim wouldn't 'mess him around'." Simon paused, fighting the growing tightness in his throat. "I called Jim and, of course, he came down. The shooter agreed to a swap; Jim went in. It was a straightforward exchange. We still don't know what went wrong."
The shudders coursing through Sandburg didn't lessen, but slowly his fists unclenched. It was true. Jim was... Blair found he couldn't complete the thought, had to physically choke down the denials that wanted to escape. He struggled to take deep, calming breaths and blinked furiously to stop the acid stinging in his eyes. He couldn't break down, not here, not in front of Simon. Sandburg had always felt Banks' toleration of him was tenuous at the best of times. Raising his head, he turned to look the police captain in the eye. "I want to see him."
"I'm not sure that's such a good idea," countered Banks. With his whole being, he hated what was coming next. It appeared the kid had found a measure of control; heaven only knew what his next words would do to that fragile state.
"I have to see him, Simon. I-I need to see him," insisted Blair. Voice husky, only a trace of quaver present, he pleaded, "Can't you understand? It isn't...won't be...real until I... Oh, please." Seeing that Simon still looked uncertain, Blair tightened his jaw and said firmly, "I'm going to see him, Simon; I have that right. You can't stop me."
"I'm not trying to stop you, Sandburg, it's just..." Oh, the hell with it. Just blurt it out and worry about the consequences later. "Ten minutes after Jim went into that warehouse, there was another shot. Now, we don't know what was being stored in that room, but it was highly flammable. There was an explosion and the whole place caught fire. By the time the fire department arrived, there wasn't much left but smoldering ashes." Now that it was said, Simon wished he hadn't been quite so blunt. The kid had gone a peculiar shade of greenish/gray. Jumping forward, he caught hold of both upper arms just in time. Sandburg swayed, and would have fallen if not for Banks' hold. Snagging the desk chair with his foot and pulling it closer, Banks pushed the shocked man onto it.
The full mouth opened and closed, but it was some time before Blair could find a semblance of voice. "What are you saying?" he demanded shakily. "Do you mean Jim... He burned to death!?"
Simon winced at the note of horror in the barely audible voice. "We don't know that," he answered quickly, thrusting aside his own trepidation. "There was that shot, remember. Only the autopsy can tell us for sure." Oh, please, he prayed inwardly, let that bullet have killed him. Not the fire, please, God, not the fire.
The green/gray tinge had faded, leaving Sandburg's expressive face impossibly whitened and drawn. The smoky blue eyes were haunted as, ignoring the fierce trembling running through him, Blair slowly came to his feet. He stood there a minute then, taking a deep breath, he resolutely headed for the door again, pushing past Simon. Hand on the door knob, he stopped. Without turning around, he said, "I'm going to see Jim." His voice was firm, though eerily dead. "Either you drive me or I drive myself. It's your choice."
Mentally cursing the younger man's single-mindedness, Banks reached for his keys, growling, "I'll drive."
This was a mistake.
The strangled noises carried clearly down the hall. Shaking his head, Simon propped himself against the counter in the loft's kitchen and remembered his earlier foreboding. It had been bad but, admitted Banks silently, surprisingly not as bad as he had feared. Standing as straight and unyielding as a steel beam, Sandburg had barely flinched when Dan Wolf had pulled back the sheet to display the twisted, charred mass lying on the cold morgue table. Standing behind and to one side, Banks had refused to look, opting instead to remain alert and ready for whatever hysterical reaction the kid decided upon. To his ever-lasting astonishment, Blair had merely stood there for several tension-filled minutes, gazing blindly downward, before giving a brief jerky nod of his head. Then, like an automaton, he'd turned and walked out.
The uneasy silence between the two men hads remained unbroken all the way back to the loft. Time after time during the interminable drive, Banks had sneaked a look at the strangely quiet man in the passenger seat. The usually animated face was bleached of all color, eyes darkened and unseeing as he sat staring out the windshield. Only after they had entered the loft did Sandburg exhibit some sign of life. Slamming the door behind him so hard that a jacket fell off the rank of coat hooks beside the door, Blair had automatically stooped to pick it up. Then, coat in hand, he'd ground to a sudden halt and stood staring fixedly at the inoffensive garment. Heart thudding loudly in his chest, Simon had recognized the jacket as one of Jim's. He watched as the fine tremors that started out in the hand clutching the jacket intensified until Sandburg's entire body was shaking as with St. Vitus Dance. Seconds later, Blair had thrown the jacket aside and was stumbling down the hallway toward the bathroom, bouncing off the jamb as he tried to negotiate the doorway. Before Simon could follow, the door had slammed shut, followed immediately by the sound of violent retching.
Absent-mindedly, Banks reached inside his coat for a cigar and froze. Pulling his hand back out slowly, he gave a pain-filled smile, remembering Ellison's rule against smoking in the loft. But, god, he needed that cigar--that and a stiff drink. Several stiff drinks, actually. With a sigh, he relegated his own needs to the back of his mind. Blair, first, remember, he ordered himself. Don't forget your promise to Jim. Shaking his head again, he recalled that afternoon last year.
After knocking, Jim had come into his office, written report of the just finished armored truck theft case held in his hand. Simon had taken it and then, seeing that Ellison was still limping from being bounced off the hood of Unger's car, had sternly ordered the detective to see a doctor. Grimacing, Jim had turned to leave, then turned back, a determined look on his face. With no further ado, he had preceded to shock Banks to the core with his next words: "It's only bruises, Simon, but next time it could be a hell of a lot worse. I know that and so do you. So I want you to promise me something. Promise that if something happens, you'll look after Blair for me." At first protesting volubly, Banks had soon reluctantly agreed, worn down by no more than the steady regard of clear blue eyes and the stubbornness etched on the chiseled features.
Since then, Banks had wondered a thousand times why he had agreed to it. More puzzling, still, why Jim had thought such a thing was necessary. True, the kid seemed to attract trouble like a natural magnet, but that was usually because of his involvement in Ellison's job. Within his own world of academia and anthropology, Sandburg's biggest challenge was how to fend off the hordes of adoring co-eds in his classes. Not that he ever tried very hard, reflected Simon ruefully. Still, he couldn't imagine just why Jim had thought the kid needed a guardian. For heaven's sake, Blair had traveled around the world, lived in the most primitive of conditions while studying tribal societies, was only a piece of paper away from a PhD and, all joking aside, was not even a kid. It was only Blair's contagious enthusiasm and seemingly unlimited energy that made him appear younger than his twenty-eight years. Filled with curiosity as to Ellison's reasoning, Simon had yet held his tongue. While his concerns were not meant to be taken as a slam against Blair, Banks had been afraid that Jim would construe them as such and Ellison had proven to be strangely protective of the younger Sandburg and incredibly intolerant of any slurs, real or implied, against his partner.
A soft sound breaking into his thoughts, Simon glanced up. "You okay, Sandburg?" he asked as Blair came into the kitchen.
"Yeah," mumbled the anthropologist. "You want some coffee?"
Stomach instantly queasy at the thought, the captain shook his head. "You go ahead."
"Nah." Blair started wandering aimlessly about the loft. "What now, Simon? Everything's over...gone... I-I can't even think..." He abruptly stopped in the middle of the living room and bit his lip. "Damn you, James Ellison! Why couldn't you have done what you promised?" His voice wavered and broke.
Small frown furrowing his brow, Banks took in the slumped shoulders and clenched fists, the downbent face hidden by the thick fall of chestnut curls. He hadn't really thought the kid would become hysterical but, then again, this restrained grief didn't seem in character, either. Totally at a loss, he was still trying to come up with the right words when Blair gave a deep, shuddering sigh and straightened his shoulders. "What happens now?"
"We need to wait for the autopsy report before any arrangements can be made." Uncertain how to frame his next question, Simon eyed the younger man for some seconds. Though Blair's face was still paler than normal, the blue eyes held his steadily and the worst of the shakes seemed to have died away. Simon asked quietly, "Do you know if Jim had made any plans?"
"For his funeral, you mean?" Grimacing, Blair shook his head and began pacing once more. "If he did, he never told me. We talked a lot, Simon, talked about everything under the sun. Everything but the important stuff." Coming to a halt in front of the balcony doors, he whispered painfully, "Now we never will." A shake of his head. "Maybe his lawyer, Arthur Ghent, will know."
"It doesn't surprise me," sighed Banks. Seeing the puzzled look Sandburg gave him, he elaborated, "The funeral, I mean. Jim never did want to upset you."
"Upset me!?" Blair gave a snort of supposed laughter. It came out more like a groan. "Now, why would he think that?" He took several deep, calming breaths, then asked, "Have you told anyone else?"
"Carolyn and Stephen?" At Sandburg's nod, Banks went on, "I've left a message for Carolyn to call me. As for Stephen, I don't have his number. I'll have to contact the phone company."
"Jim has it in his book; Ghent's is in there, too. I'll get it for you." Blair headed for the stairs, then came to a halt at the foot. Gritting his teeth, he deliberately blanked his mind as to why he needed to go upstairs and forced his foot onto the first riser. Later, Sandburg, he promised himself. Deal with this impossibility later. Just get Simon that number and get him out of here. Then you can...think...about all of this. Movements jerky, he climbed the stairs. Retrieving the address book from the desk against the far wall was the work of seconds and Blair was swiftly on his way back downstairs.
"Thanks," said Banks, taking the slim book from the other man. He debated the wisdom of making a small joke about how fast Sandburg had been getting the book, but changed his mind. The kid's face was still pale and set. He was obviously not in the mood for any sort of levity. Besides, Simon admitted to himself, he was more than a little shocked to find that Blair even knew where Jim's address book was kept. Ellison was a very private man and almost fanatical about people messing with his belongings. Still, no doubt Sandburg knew that and that was why he'd been so quick. He must've hated like hell to have to invade Jim's personal space the minute his back was turned. "Uhh, guess I'd better make that call now." Again feeling awkward, he made for the door but stopped before opening it. Turning back around, he quietly surveyed the abnormally subdued figure standing rigidly beside the couch. Bereft of his usual energy, Sandburg now appeared a complete stranger. "Are you going to be okay?" he asked, hating himself for the total inanity of the question.
"You are kidding, right, man?" Another not-quite laugh. Blair gave a stiff, forced smile and collapsed with seeming insousiance onto the couch.
"Yeah. Sure." Shaking his head once more, Simon left, quickly shutting the door on the pain-wracked huddled on the couch.
Slowly, the light in the pristine loft dimmed, the hours slipping past unnoticed by the hunched figure. Caught as he was in the grip of his memories, Blair paid no heed to the passing of time. It was only when his back muscles shrieked from being in the same position for so long that he roused, glancing around, startled, at the dusk-filled apartment. Shit, he thought in automatic alarm, I didn't realize it was so late. Jim's going to be pissed when he gets home and finds supper isn't ready... Reality rushed back with the sharpness of a stiletto thrust, and a wildfire of pain blazed through him. Uncurling from his ball, he ignored the scream of tortured muscles and bolted for the bathroom. Sandburg had barely made it through the door when the violent internal convulsions began. Luckily, he'd been too busy that day to send out for lunch and, due to his earlier bout, was soon down to gasping dry heaves.
Jerkily regaining his feet, Blair staggered out the door and down the hall. Stopping beside the dining room table, he looked around in a daze at the familiar surroundings. "Help me, Jim," he whispered. "Help me get through this. Help me understand." Shaking hands slowly drawing into fists, Blair gladly gave in to the sudden surge of white-hot fury. Anything was better than feeling this agony...this emptiness. Voice cracked and raw, he roared, "Just this once, couldn't you have thought about me!? Thought about how I would feel if something... Always have to be the hero, right, Jim? Well, look at what being the knight in shining armor got you this time, man. You're nothing but a pile of god-damned ashes in a fucking morgue drawer!"
As abruptly as it had come, the incandescent rage fled, leaving him weak, drained, and shivering violently. "Oh, god, man, I'm sorry," he mumbled brokenly. "I'm sorry, Jim, I'm sorry." Legs giving way suddenly, he was vaguely surprised to feel the soft material of the easy chair beneath him. Tucking his knees up under his chin, he wrapped both arms around himself, letting his forehead come to rest on his knees. "I'm sorry, Jim," he repeated. "You know I didn't mean any of that, don't you? It's just that it hurts so much, man. So bad I can't even cry." The hoarse voice barely broke the silence of the gathering darkness. "I used to think that nothing could hurt me as much as something happening to Naomi, but, man, was I ever wrong!" A brief, weak chuckle, then the whispered confession continued. "Did you know, Jim? Did you ever realize how much I admired and respected your constant strength and unfailing courage, your sheer decency? The need you had to protect and serve; a need as inherent in you as your sentinel senses. Yet, perfect warrior though you were on the outside, on the inside lived one of the kindest, gentlest, most compassionate souls to ever walk this earth." Halting momentarily, Blair sniffed, then went on in a thickened voice. "It hurts, man. That I never told you how beautiful, how precious you were to me. How much you taught me just by the way you lived your life. I couldn't ever think of losing you; the mere idea gave me panic attacks. I made do with what I had. So I never got to say I love you, I want you, I need you. I never got to say good-bye. You know what, Jim? I think that's the part that's going to kill me."
A choked off whimper. "I never got to say good-bye."
Mid-morning the next day, Banks drove over to Ellison's loft, hoping to find the grad student there. He'd tried calling Sandburg; first at the loft and then at his office, but there had been no reply. Hoping the younger man had merely stepped out for a moment, the police captain had decided to head over to the apartment. The autopsy report on Jim had come back.
One look at the gaunt, red-eyed wraith opening the door in answer to his knock made Simon very glad he had come over. "He was dead before the explosion and fire," he said without preliminaries. "One shot to the head. Jim never knew what hit him."
Color having leached out of his face when Banks began speaking, Blair suddenly sagged against the door he was holding open. "Oh, thank god," he mumbled. There was audible relief in his voice.
Striding past him into the loft, Banks turned and looked at him critically. "You look like shit, Sandburg. Did you get any sleep last night?"
"Probably as much as you," replied Blair evenly as he closed the door. He gave Banks a searching stare of his own.
"Yeah," conceded Simon with a sigh. A thought struck him and he asked curiously, "Have you called Naomi? I know she'd want to be here for you."
Shaking his head, Sandburg explained, "I tried; couldn't find her. Finally got hold of an old friend of hers from Haight-Asbury late last night. According to him, Mom's at a retreat in Malaysia. Somewhere outside Kuala Lumpur, he thought. No phones so I won't be able to reach her for at least another month."
"Oh." Banks stood there a moment before saying awkwardly, "I got in touch with that lawyer of Jim's this morning. The funeral is Thursday."
"Something short and to the point, I'd guess." Blair gave a grim half-smile.
"You got it. No church service of any kind, and just a simple ceremony upon burial."
"Simple ceremony..." Sandburg's voice trailed off and he glanced away. After a short pause, he looked up at the older man. "Does that mean he won't get the...you know?"
"The honor guard and all that?" Shaking his head, Simon said decisively, "Simple ceremony or not, he's getting the whole works. Jim had eight years on the force and was the finest police officer Cascade has ever seen. There's no way in hell I'm letting him go without all that's due him."
Sandburg's eyes brightened with tears, though none fell. "Thanks, Simon. I know that Jim wouldn't have wanted... But he so deserved it, man."
"Yes, he did." A moment of silence, then, "Guess I'd better be getting back to the office. I just wanted to tell you in person."
"Thanks, Simon," Blair said again. As he escorted the police captain to the door, he asked softly, "Uh, could I ask a favor?"
"What?" responded Banks gruffly. Not that he wasn't prepared to cut Sandburg a great deal of slack just now.
"Could you drop me off at the university on your way? My car's still over there."
"We did leave in a bit of a hurry yesterday, didn't we," muttered Banks as he gestured the young man out and waited for Blair to lock the door.
In the car, Simon turned toward Rainier. "Got many classes this week?" he queried just to break the silence. Blair had developed an unnerving habit of stillness, so unlike his usual mile-a-minute chatter.
"No," answered Sandburg. He continued to stare out the window as he went on, "It's spring break, Simon. No classes for another week."
"Then what were you working on yesterday? Your thesis?"
"Just a paper that was due yesterday afternoon so I could get my grant."
"Your grant?" Now Banks was perturbed. He might not know much about student grants and loans, but he did know they had some pretty stringent rules. "Will they let you turn it in late?"
"Don't worry about it, man." Blair turned and gave him another half-grin.
Inwardly shivering at the sight of that strangely blank smile, Banks swallowed and tried to ignore the vague foreboding settling into his gut.
Some minutes went by before Blair inquired, "Did you talk with Carolyn and Stephen?" It was obvious he was forcing himself to make normal conversation.
"Carolyn was pretty upset, as you can imagine. She'll be up tomorrow evening."
"Couldn't reach him at home, so I called his office this morning. Stephen's out of the country with two others on a business trip, won't get back for another two weeks. I've left word with his secretary and on his home answering machine for him to call me immediately."
"That's not good, man." A small frown tugged Sandburg's brows. "After all that went on while they were still kids, Jim and Stephen were just getting to know one another. Now Stephen is going to miss his only brother's funeral."
A frown written large on his own face, Banks pulled up smoothly in front of Hargrove Hall. Before he could say anything, though, every thought was pushed out of his head by what the younger man slid into his hand. "What's this?" Banks glanced down and froze. It was Sandburg's police observer ID. Simon looked up, mouth agape.
"Won't need it anymore, will I, man." Blair tried to his best to give a matter-of-fact shrug, silently damning the sudden shake in his voice and hands. "Thanks for everything, Simon."
He hurriedly opened the car door and was gone, striding toward the anthro building.
Hesitating slightly, the tall blonde took a deep breath before knocking. The last few days, a person had been taking their life in their own hands whenever they disturbed the snarling ogre behind the glass door. Fighting back tears when she recalled why Banks was so upset, Rhonda quickly opened the door when she heard the snapped, "Enter." Seeing the tall man was in the process of reaching for his coat, she held out the piece of paper in her hand and said softly, "Sorry to bother you, Captain, but this just came off the fax. It looks pretty important."
Raising his head with a jerk, Banks bit back the sharp retort upon seeing the administrative assistant's reddened eyes. Way to go, Banks, he chided himself. It's very mature to take your grief out on everyone around you. Sighing, he shrugged into his coat. "Just leave it on my desk, Rhonda. I'll deal with it when I get back from... When I get back."
"Yes, sir." Stepping aside, Rhonda offered, "Detectives Brown and Rafe had left to pick up Lt. Plummer from her hotel. Captain Taggart is waiting for you by the elevator."
"Thanks." Giving a curt nod of acknowledgment, Banks set off across the deserted Major Crimes bullpen.
At the sound of thunder, Joel Taggart cast a sour glance at the cold rain falling steadily outside the tiny, beveled glass window. Typical funeral weather. Bringing his gaze back inside, he glanced around at the people packed into the small chapel. His eye falling on the man seated in the pew across from him, he still admitted to a feeling of shock. Considering Ellison's well-known views, the Bomb Squad captain had been amazed to see the mayor alighting from the limousine. Huh, good P.R., he grumbled to himself. Continuing his survey, Taggart gave a small grin at how well Simon Banks had gotten around Jim's instructions. This was more an honorarium rather than a funeral service. There was no minister, no hymns, no formal eulogies, no tears... Or, at least, not many, he corrected himself, noting that Carolyn Plummer, seated two spaces down from him, still had silent tears running down her cheeks. Jim's ex-wife was the only one openly grieving. On that thought, Taggart glanced apprehensively at the rigid figure seated next to him.
Sandburg's behavior was starting to seriously worry him. After conferring with Banks, Brown, and a couple of the other Major Crimes' detectives, Joel knew he wasn't the only one with an uneasy feeling. At first only tolerated because of Ellison brooding in the background, the quirky, bouncy anthropology grad had, over the space of the last three years, carved a niche for himself in the fiercely defended clique of police officers. Sure, there were still some die-hards left (mainly from other departments) who wouldn't mourn if Sandburg accidentally fell under a semi, but they had learned--sometimes painfully--to keep their own counsel. To the detectives and uniforms assigned to Major Crimes, Blair Sandburg was one of them. It didn't matter that he wasn't technically a cop. He was Jim Ellison's partner and so was treated accordingly after that dreadful day at the warehouse.
Brown, Rafe, Hanson, Matthews..all had called upon the surviving partner, bringing gifts of food or sometimes just themselves to help break the sudden quiet of the loft. All had then come to him or Banks, muttering words of disquietude. To a man, they had stated that Sandburg had seemed glad to see them, ushering them in with a quiet smile. In spite of the perfect host pose, trained eyes had not missed the air of exhaustion clinging to the compact form like a shroud, had noticed the gnawing desolation in sunken blue eyes. Sandburg had also developed a distressing habit of suddenly falling silent in the midst of conversation. Tilting his head, his eyes would fix on the middle distance and he would sit there, immobile, for several minutes before continuing on with the conversation as though nothing had occured. It was, Rafe insisted, as if the younger man was listening, waiting for something--or someone--no one else could see or hear. Taggart, himself, had been shocked at the fact that Blair was visibly losing weight. When he and Banks had visited last night, arranging to pick up Sandburg so he wouldn't have to drive himself to the cemetery, the rotund captain had taken him to task. Mumbling, Sandburg had just shrugged and waved a hand at his laptop sitting on the table. He'd been working on a paper, the student said, but it would be finished by that night and then he would drop it off at the university on Friday. Banks had seemed relieved at that news and, as they were leaving, told Taggart about the grant and that evidently Blair had gotten his extension.
Re-focusing in time to hear the mayor finish speaking, Taggart climbed to his feet, a hand automatically going under Sanmdburg's elbow to help him stand. A brief grin crossed his face as he noticed Banks doing the same thing on the other side. The grin faded when he intercepted the glare thrown at the younger man by Carolyn. Taggart nudged Banks gently in the ribs; when the other man glanced over, the Bomb Squad captain gave an abbreviated nod of his head in Plummer's direction and unobtrusively moved from Sandburg's side. The anthropologist paid no heed as Banks followed suit. As soon as the brief ceremony had concluded, he had been button-holed by both the mayor and the police chief and was valiantly trying to project the proper air of grateful respect. Behind him, Brown and Rafe hid their smiles.
"How are you holding up, Carolyn?" asked Banks.
"You mean I'm not invisible after all?" shot back the woman. "I'd honestly begun to wonder."
"Huh? What are you talking about?" inquired Taggart blankly, sharing a bewildered look with Banks. He'd expected Carolyn to be upset, as she and Jim had manged to become friends after their divorce, but this threw him completely.
"Nothing." Mouth compressed into a thin line, Plummer directed another hard look at the oblivious Sandburg. Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath, then smiled. "Pay me no mind. I'm upset and I've got a headache. You know how cranky that makes me."
"It's not as if you don't have sufficient cause," soothed Banks, still confused by the outburst but not willing to press for a reason at the moment. This was not the place or time for a possibly ugly scene.
"Yeah," agreed Taggart. He gave his former colleague a compassionate look. "You going to be all right to go on to the lawyer's after this?"
"I'll be fine." Carolyn's smile faltered. "I have to be. Mr. Ghent called me at the hotel last night and said my presence was imperative." She bit her lip as she twisted the handerchief she held in her hands. "I really don't want to go. I know what Jim had in his Will. He had me read it after we were married; then later, after the divorce, he said he hadn't changed it."
"Well, I still think you should go, anyway," urged Banks. He paused, trying to put his next words as diplomatically as possible. "It's been a little over four years since your divorce. A lot has changed since then." Against his will, his eyes slid over to where Blair stood talking with several detectives from Vice.
Carolyn noticed, and in the space of an instant, her brown eyes grew hard again. "Am I keeping you from something important?" she queried nastily. "Do you need to get back to Sandburg?"
"You know better than that!" protested Taggart, dismayed at the ugly tone. "You know we're your friends, too, Carolyn. It's just that Blair's had a shock..."
"I haven't?" snapped Plummer, voice low and vicious. "Since I arrived back in Cascade last evening, I've had a nice five minute phone call from you, Joel, and a socially correct ten minute visit from you, Simon. In each of these conversations, you both opened with your condolences and then, within thirty seconds, went on to say how well Blair seems to be holding up even though anyone can tell it's hurting him badly. Hell, even on the drive over here this morning, all Brown and Rafe could talk about was poor, grieving Sandburg and how worried everyone is about him since his partner's gone. Well, I have had enough!" she hissed. "I might be Jim Ellison's ex-wife, but I still cared about him. A lot. It hurts now that he's gone, and I won't let anyone take away my right to grieve for him!"
"No one wants to," interrupted a soft voice. As Blair moved up beside Taggart, Banks noted with a sense of immense gratitude that everyone else had left the chapel. There was no one remaining but the four of them.
"It doesn't matter that you weren't married any longer," Sandburg said gently, meeting the angry brown eyes. "You and Jim shared some very special moments. He still cared a great deal about you, too. You have as much right to grieve as anyone else here. Perhaps more so."
"Save your minor in psychology for somebody susceptible!" snarled Plummer. She drew herself up to her full height, overriding Banks' incipient interruption as she went on venomously, "You pushed your way into Jim's life during a weak moment using that overdone, naive schoolboy act. I've got news for you, mister: That act didn't fool me then, and it sure as hell doesn't fool me now! It wasn't enough that you made him the laughingstock of the entire police force by following him around like a lost puppy. You had to ooze your way into his home. Just like the leech you are, you've hung on and on. I tried time and again to warn Jim about you but, as usual, his misguided loyalty wouldn't let him listen. He told me that you would never hurt him or let him down. What I want to know is this: Where the hell were you that afternoon? What kind of partner would let him walk into that warehouse all alone?"
"That's enough!" bellowed Banks, outraged. "Carolyn, you have no right..."
"It's all right, Simon," muttered Sandburg. He had grown progressively paler during Plummer's tirade, only to lose all color at the last vitriolic statement. Though his voice was unsteady, he refused to back down. "I've always known you resented me, Carolyn. I just never knew why, or how much. But do you really think this is the right time for this sort of thing? Doesn't Jim deserve better than to have petty bickering break out before he's properly interred?"
"Don't lecture me on the proprieties!" snapped Carolyn. "I know better than you ever will what Jim deserved. I was his wife!"
"For one year." The statement was quiet but firm. "I was his partner for three." The implication was not lost on anyone; least of all Carolyn. Her right hand came up in a blur. The sound of the slap reverberated through the still chapel.
"Get out!" she spat. "Get the hell out of my apartment and my life!"
"Your apartment?" echoed Sandburg blankly, one hand holding his stinging cheek. "The loft, you mean? What...?"
"You heard me," Plummer said harshly. "Now that you've managed to get your meal ticket killed, your freeloading days are over. Jim told me the loft was to be mine if anything happened to him. I want you out. Sooner rather than later!"
"For god's sake, Carolyn; you can't do that!" Taggart was flabbergasted at the bizarre turn of events. He had the feeling he had somehow stumbled into a particularly nasty episode of 'The Twilight Zone'. Banks evidently felt the same way, if the way his jaw was hanging loose was any indication. "That's Blair's home!"
"Not any longer," she answered frigidly. "I don't take in pathetic, student charity cases. It's about time he got a job like a mature, responsible adult or he can face the consequences. He can apply for student housing; there's grants and loans for that sort of thing. Or he can live in his car. Where he goes is not my concern."
Gasping at the unexpectedness of it all, their attention fixed on the enragd Plummer, Banks and Taggart were slow to notice an anomaly. It was several minutes before they realized than Blair Sandburg was nowhere to be seen.
Rubbing his aching neck with one hand, Banks gave a weary sigh and tried again to focus on the paper held in his other hand. Nowadays, that seemed to be the sum total of his job--paperwork and more paperwork. Gathering his thoughts which had developed an annoying habit of straying these past few days, Banks gave himself a firm lecture. This paper was significant; it was the follow-up report to the bombshell he'd found on his desk after arriving back from Jim Ellison's funeral two days ago. Rhonda had been right; the fax had been important.
Short and terse, the fax had been from the Beech Ridge sheriff's office, detailing a car crash on a road outside that small mountain town. All four occupants had died immediately. No one had been carrying any ID, so fingerprints had been sent to the FBI. It was only after the prints were identified that alarm bells had sounded, and so the Cascade P.D. had been informed of the wreck as due 'other interested parties'.
Hector Carasco and Francisco Alconte. Banks still had to fight the flare of anger he got when, after finally getting through to the warden at Chinook Federal Prison, he'd been informed that both men had escaped over a month ago. When Banks had angrily demanded to know why his department hadn't been told of the breakout, the warden had acidly told him that Chinook was a Federal prison and so the proper government and state authorities had been notified as per law. If Captain Banks had any further questions or comments about procedure, he should call the FBI.
It was only to himself that Banks could admit that he'd been hoping for some sign of a tie-in between the two Chileans escape and the still unknown reason why the gunman had fired that last shot in the warehouse. It had been a longshot even before the final reports came in. The autopsy report made the revenge scenario even bleaker. Jim Ellison had died around 2:00pm Monday afternoon. Less than forty-five minutes later, a logging company employee had seen the black sedan carrying the two escapees and their bodyguards miss a sharp curve in the road and go sailing into a steep ravine some 200 miles from the warehouse. The time factors wouldn't mesh, and there was no indication that either Carasco or Alconte had even attempted to get back to Cascade since their escape.
No, there was still no answer as to why the gunman had fired that final, fatal shot that ended up costing him his own life, too. The mind boggling report from the Arson Squad concerning the fire in the warehouse was just one more piece of a puzzle that refused to come together.
Banks had just laid the report aside when a sudden, raucous outburst in the bullpen brought him to his feet. Reaching his office door in two strides, he threw it open. Seconds later, his jaw dropped to his feet and he clutched at the door frame, fighting to keep himself upright.
Clad in clothes that were torn and filthy with mud, short hair tousled, with a heavy beard growth covering his exhausted face, the figure standing in the middle of the milling detectives was still instantly recognizable.
"J-Jim?" croaked Banks, certain that this time he'd lost his mind completely.
Upon hearing his voice, the tall man lifted his head and gave the dumfounded captain a quick grin. "Simon, help me out here," he called. "What's the matter with these maniacs?"
Pushing his way through the crowd of cheering, laughing detectives and uniforms, Banks stopped in front of the man. "Jim? Is that really you?" he asked, a curious catch in his throat. Unbidden, his hands came up and grabbed both broad shoulders. An incandescent smile lit his face. "My, god, it is you!" Uncaring of the catcalls and applause, he pulled his friend into a fierce hug.
"S-Simon?" stammered a seriously bemused Jim Ellison. "What the hell is going on? Is something wrong? Are you all right?"
"Just fine," replied a beaming Banks. He stepped back a pace, but kept his hands on Ellison's shoulders. "I must say you're looking pretty lively yourself. For a dead man."
"What!? Who said I was dead?"
"It's a long story..." began Banks, only to be drowned out by Ellison's name being bellowed. Sidestepping neatly, the captain narrowly avoided being bowled over by Joel Taggart rushing to grab the bewildered detective. Taking a deep breath, Banks turned to the rest of the crowd in the bullpen. "Listen, people," he said. "I know it's not everday we have someone do a Lazarus..."
"Only Ellison can get away with it!" shouted Brown from the back of the room.
"Yeah," agreed Banks. "Just remember we still have other cases on the burner. Let me get the poor man a cup of coffee and find out what happened. You can pump him for all the juicy details later."
"We'll hold you to that!" someone yelled as the knot of police officers began to disperse. Grabbing Ellison's arm firmly, Banks towed him toward his office. Once in the office, he left it to Taggart to close the door while he went behind his desk to pour a large mug of coffee. Pushing the detective into a chair, Banks handed him the mug, saying, "Here, you look like you could use this."
"God, thanks, Simon," breathed Ellison, wrapping both big hands around the hot mug. "The heater in that damn sheriff's car was broken." He took a large gulp, then another, before saying, "Now, what's this about me being dead?"
"Tell us what happened in the warehouse first," urged Banks, pouring out more coffee for himself and Taggart.
"It was a set-up, Simon; from the very beginnning." Shaking his head in anger, Ellison took another sip of coffee. "I'm standing there, trying to talk that loon out of his gun, when the door opens behind me and in comes three guys. These three, and the maniac, start jabbering back and forth in high-speed Spanish, I think. One of them cuffs my hands behind my back with my own cuffs, then two of them take me out the back door to a car down the pier. I can't believe no one saw this," segued Ellison. "That warehouse was supposed to be surrounded!"
"I'm planning on looking into that," promised Banks. "Then what?"
"They shove me into the back seat of their car, and somebody slams across the head with the butt of his gun. The next thing I know, we're out of Cascade and heading toward the mountains. The one I called 'Mickey Mouse'...he had a squeaky voice," explained Ellison, seeing the puzzled looks, "...was on the phone with their boss. Now, I didn't know Mickey and his pal from Adam, but I sure recognized their boss' voice," he added in grim satisfaction. Suddenly remembering that Joel was standing there, he added quickly, "The damn bastard was talking so loud, a deaf man could have overheard him."
"Hector Carasco or Francisco Alconte?" queried Banks, following a nudge of intuition.
"You knew they were out?" asked Jim, surprised.
"I found out two days ago," answered Banks, a spark of stubborn anger roughening his voice. "That bastard of a warden told me they'd been out for over a month at that point."
"Feds," snorted Taggart in disgust. "So which one was it? Carasco or Alconte?"
"Alconte," replied the detective. "I got to know that young bastard's voice that time he took Sandburg." Intent on finishing his coffee, he missed the slight stiffening of his colleague's bodies and the taut look they gave each other. "It sounded as if they were setting up a meet, but something must've gone wrong. When we get to this little cabin in the mountains, there's no one there. Mickey and his buddy seem a little surprised at this, but they drag me in, handcuff me to a chair and we all sit and wait. By the time we'd been sitting and waiting 24 hours, Mickey and Co. are getting real spooked. By Wednesday morning, they're hysterical and shrieking back and forth at each other. Finally, Mickey just throws his hands up in the air and stalks out. His friend follows a couple of minutes later. Then, I hear the car start up and drive away."
"They just walked off and left you there?" Banks said in surprise.
"Yeah. Weird, isn't it?" responded Ellison. "Maybe they just didn't have the guts to kill me outright; maybe they didn't want to be tagged as copkillers. Who knows?" He shrugged. "It took me almost another day to get the damn cuffs off."
Belatedly, Banks glanced down and saw the thick, white bandages around Ellison's wrists. "Have you had a doctor see to those?"
"Yes, sir." Jim gave a half-grin. "When I got to Beech Ridge. Which was a 16 mile hike from the cabin...uphill...in the middle of a damn storm."
"Awww," chorused the other two men. Smiling, Banks asked, "Why didn't you call when you got to the town? Did you tell the sheriff who had abducted you and why?"
"The phone lines were down from the storm, and their radio tower had taken a direct lightening strike. As for 'who' and 'why', how could I prove that Alconte was the one who'd had me snatched? I didn't know 'why', so I just told him the bare facts. When the storm eased this morning, he offered me one of his deptuties as a chauffeur."
"If you had told him who, you would've found out what had happened," Banks informed him. "Carasco's and Alconte's car went into a ravine about fifteen miles southeast of Beech Ridge. Both of them, along with their bodyguards, were killed. They must've been on their way to the cabin."
"Huh," was Ellison's only comment.
The curt remark was so typical of the terse detective that both Banks and Taggart had to smile. "God, Jim," blurted out his captain, "you sitting here, drinking coffee like this, is the closest I'm ever going to get to a miracle. Last thing we knew, you were in that damn warehouse and after seeing what was left of it..."
"What do you mean?" Ellison asked curiously as Taggart re-filled his mug. "Thanks, Joel," he murmured in an aside. "This is heaven."
"Ten minutes after you went in, there was another shot fired and the whole warehouse went up like a Roman candle," Banks explained. "In less than twenty minutes, there was nothing left of that place but a pile of smoking rubble and two charred bodies."
"What!?" exclaimed Jim, coming to his feet. "What the hell happened?" He paused for a moment, sitting down slowly. "So that's why you thought..."
"Yeah," agreed Banks heavily. "Wasn't enough left to get fingerprint ID and you've never had major dental work done. All we had to go on was the fact that you had gone in...the one body matched more or less with your weight and height, and he also had your gun, badge, and wallet."
"I'd noticed they were missing," stated Ellison. He rubbed his right wrist absently; the pain dial was starting to inch up again. "That explains a great deal."
"It also explains why the Arson Squad found C4 residue in the rubble," put in Taggart, perching on the edge of Banks' desk.
"Carasco and Alconte must've been trying to clean up after themselves," sighed Banks. "The gunman shoots one of the guys who came in later to make it look like you, and then the whole place goes up in flames so a definitive ID is impossible. We'll probably never know if the shooter was a martyr who set off the explosives himself, or if one of the men in the car with you did it. Either way, it fooled us all."
There was silence for a few minutes, then, "Oh, my god," muttered Jim, fingers tightening on the coffee mug. His head jerked up, cornflower blue eyes staring intently at Banks. "Blair." "We thought you were dead, for chrissakes!" protested Banks heatedly. "What was I supposed to do, Jim? Lie?"
"You told Blair I was dead," repeated Ellison grimly. "Shit. This is not good." He came to his feet in one, smooth movement and was already at the office door before either of the other two men could open their mouths.
"Jim, wait," called Taggart, exchanging another look with Banks.
"Later, Joel," growled Ellison, hand on the doorknob. "I've got to get home to Sandburg immedieatly."
"He's not at the loft," Taggart said tensely.
Ellison glanced back, the door still closed. "He's not? What's today? Saturday? What's he doing at school on Saturday? It's spring break."
"He's not at Rainier, Jim," asserted Banks.
"Then where..." Before Ellison could finish, the office door burst open, forcing him to take several hurried steps backward to avoid getting hit.
"Oh, my dear god." Mouth agape, Carolyn Plummer stood in the doorway. "W-When Hanson called, I-I couldn't believe..." Brown eyes filling with tears, she flung herself at her ex-husband. "Oh, Jimmy!"
"Shh, it's okay, honey," soothed Ellison, returning her fervent embrace with a quick hug. Taking a deep breath, he fought down the almost overwhelming urge to pull free so he could go find Sandburg. It had already been five days, after all; a few more minutes couldn't hurt and she was obvious genuinely upset. A small part of his mind was extremely gratified at this while the majority was fighting a sick dread concerning his partner. "I'm sorry."
"You're sorry!?" choked Plummer. She pulled back, wiping furiously at her streaming eyes. "James Ellison, only you could be sorry about not being dead!" She leaned forward again, a light kiss brushing his lips. At his lack of response, she pulled back once more, frowning at his evident anxiety.
"Sorry, honey," apologized Ellison hastily. He gave a half-shrug. "Too much on my mind right now. Look, can we pick this up later, Carolyn? I've got to go find..."
"Sandburg," she snarled, wrenching herself out of his loose embrace. "Why am I not surprised?"
Frowning to himself, the detective merely said, "Yeah. What hotel are you staying at? Maybe you and I could get together for dinner tonight?"
Arms crossed defensively over her chest, Carolyn replied defiantly, "I'm not staying at a hotel. I'm at the loft."
"At the loft?" He glanced over at his colleagues; the palpable air of tension surrounding them only added to his bewilderment. "With Sandburg?"
Seeing his utter bemusement, Carolyn regarded him for only a few more moments before, with a heavy sigh, she shook her head and dropped her arms. "You haven't told him, have you?" The wry question was directed at the men standing by the desk.
"No," answered Banks quietly. "We hadn't got that far."
"Told me what?" demanded Jim urgently. He stopped suddenly, the muscle in his jaw tightening spasmodically. "Something's happened to Blair. Where is he?"
"We don't know if anything's happened to Sandburg," Taggart said uneasily. He didn't have to be an expert to know that Ellison was a bomb waiting to detonate. You just didn't screw around with Sandburg. Too bad Carolyn had never learned that fact.
"Then where the hell is he!?" It was a full-throated roar.
"We don't know." Pushing back her trepidation and resentment, Carolyn met her ex-husband's glare head-on. "It's no use giving Simon and Joel the evil eye," she went on with asperity, "it's not their fault. I'm the one who threw him out of the loft."
"You did what???" Head spinning, Ellison tried to keep on top of the conversation. "How could you throw him out of his own home?"
"Well, I didn't know that at the time!" snapped Plummer. "Look, Jim, I didn't mean it, all right?" Almost stumbling over her words, she tried to justify actions she now realized were inexcusable. "It was at your...funeral...I was upset and said things maybe I shouldn't have." Flushing at Taggart's audible snort, she said hotly, "All right, all right, I'm sorry! How many more times do you want me to say it?"
"As I told you before, Carolyn," Banks said evenly, "we're not the ones you should be saying that to."
"Will somebody please tell me just what the hell is going on?" pleaded Ellison. "Where's Blair?"
Taking another deep breath, Plummer continued, "I was jealous and resentful of all the attention he was getting, how everyone hovered about him. He did his best to be polite and respectful of my feelings, but I got...angry...and told him to get out, that the loft was mine."
"Yours?" Ellison was still confused, but the anger was building steadily. No one, not even Carolyn, was allowed to treat his Guide so shabbily. "I know that's not what my lawyer would have told you, Carolyn. I left instructions that if anything ever happened to me, it was all to be Sandburg's--loft, money, the works."
"I know that now; I didn't know it then," argued Carolyn. "I said that before I saw Ghent. By the time we saw the lawyer that afternoon, Sandburg had already cleared out. You told me once after the divorce that you hadn't changed your Will. What was I supposed to do; read you mind and figure out that you actually had?"
"So, because you were feeling left out, in a fit childish pique, you kick Blair out of his own home. Do I have that correct?" Ellison asked softly. There was a fierce tension headache pounding in his temples. His jaw ached from keeping it clenched. "What did you say to him, Carolyn? Tell me."
There was no defying that order. Eyes down, Plummer repeated the whole unfortunate conversation. Afterward, some quality in the silence that follwed her confession made her glance up. She blanched and backed up a couple of steps; the frigid rage directed at her was almost a physical presence.
Banks and Taggart shared an apprehensive look. "Jim..." began Simon.
"I will be home in thirty minutes, Carolyn," Ellison said in a quiet, conversational tone. The effort to control his temper was obvious; his face was pale, the jaw muscle jumping visibly.
Unable to speak, Plummer nodded her understanding.
A large hand was held out. "I'll take the keys to the loft now. You can leave the spare set on the table. Just slam the door on the way out, and it'll lock." As trembling hands dropped the keys into his, he went on icily, "I don't give a damn if you ever come back to Cascade, Carolyn; just the stay the hell away from Blair. You're not needed, or wanted, in our lives."
Carolyn shivered, whispering, "I'm sorry, Jimmy. I didn't mean to say those things; can't you understand that? Don't be angry with me."
There was no reply. Meeting the implacable eyes, Carolyn bit her lip and, choking back a sob, turned and fled Banks' office without further ado.
Thirty-seven minutes after the scene in his office, Simon Banks was driving yet another silent passenger to the loft. It had taken longer than anticipated for Ellison to write a rough draft of his activities over the past five days. Not that Simon had pushed for the report--far from it--but he also knew when his detective could be pushed and when it was best for everyone just to leave him alone. In a way, Banks had been grateful for the downtime; shuddering slightly, he sneaked a quick look at the grim visage next to him. In the six and a half years he'd known Ellison, he had never seen the man in such an imperfectly banked-down rage. Oh, yes, he'd had run-ins with that temper of Jim's before, but never anything this intense, this scary. For one, brief moment, he'd been positive Ellison was going to physically attack his ex-wife and he had tensed, prepared to jump between them, suicidal though that would have been. Banks sighed and shook his head. It was like Joel Taggart had said; Ellison would probably have forgiven Carolyn her sins--if her victim had been anyone other than Blair Sandburg. Like everyone else in Major Crimes, Simon had come to his own conclusions long ago regarding Ellison's behavior toward his younger partner. The messy episode in his office had done nothing to change his mind.
"You can quit sounding like a leaky hose, and slow your heart rate down, Simon," Ellison said abruptly. "I'm not mad at you."
"That's a relief," joked Banks, trying to ease the tension lines in Ellison's rugged face.
On end of the long mouth twitched upward in a brief grin before vanishing. Turning toward his captain, Ellison fixed him with a hard stare and said, "I thought you agreed to look out for Sandburg for me?"
"I thought I did!" protested Banks. "It's just that..."
"He didn't act like you expected him to act." It wasn't a question.
"Yeah. I mean, not that expected him to fall apart or anything, it's just that he seemed to handle it so much better than I thought he would. I figured you were just being your over-protective self."
Ellison released a sigh of his own. "Simon, when are you going to realize that, for all his chatter, Sandburg lets you see only what he thinks you want to see? He knows you've never been that happy having him around; that you consider him to be more of a nuisance than a help. He also knows you and I are good friends; there is no way in hell he would have burdened you with what he was feeling when you were upset in your own right."
Banks mulled that over for several minutes. It made sense of Sandburg's recent behavior. "Shit."
"By Wednesday, we all knew something was seriously wrong. Hell, every time one of us went over there, you could see he was acting a little strange, even for Sandburg. It was damn spooky, let me tell you. Taggart and I tried to talk to him about it, but you know the kid. One minute we're talking about how it was obvious he wasn't sleeping or eating like he should, and the next thing we'd know, we're discussing sleeping rituals among the headhunters of New Guinea!"
Ellison gave a brief chuckle. "That's Blair for you, Simon." He sobered, and went on softly, "He's had too many years of practice in adapting to everyone else's expectations. Every time he and Naomi moved, every time she got a new boyfriend, he learned very quickly what he had to do to fit in as best he could." Jim glanced down for a moment at his clenched hands resting in his lap. "He told me once, he'd learned how to belong in so many different situations, that he doubted he really belonged in any of them. When he realized what he'd said, he grinned and said that's what made him a perfect anthropologist."
"Damn," grunted Banks. He gave Ellison a troubled frown. "He doesn't really believe that, does he, Jim? About me thinking he's just a nuisance? I did at first--I admit it--but after awhile, he just sort of..."
"Grew on you?" Ellison answered his captain's grin with one of his own. "Believe me, Simon, I know what you mean. At first, it was only because he seemed to know how to handle these wacked-out senses of mine; now, I wouldn't know how to live without him." Jim seemed unaware of what he had just given away.
There was silence in the car until, pulling into a parking spot outside Ellison's building, Banks turned to him and said earnestly, "Guess I owe both you and the kid an apology, Jim. If I'd taken you seriously, Blair wouldn't be god knows where on his own right now."
"It's not all your fault, Simon." Ellison sighed again and ran a hand through his short, brown hair. "I didn't explain it very well. Didn't explain it all, really. I know it sounds as if I'm tooting my own horn here, but this is the first stable relationship the kid's ever had. He knows I need him, and that's necessary to him--he needs to be needed. Naomi loves him, don't get me wrong, but I don't think she's ever really needed him. After three years, he was just starting to relax, to believe I wasn't going to kick him out the minute I had my senses under control." Jim gave a sheepish shrug. "With me gone, I knew he'd need someone to hold on to. I was hoping he'd felt comfortable enough after all this time that he'd let it be you."
"What are you going to do?"
Ellison didn't pretend to misunderstand. "I'm going to take a shower, then start calling all his friends. They know me; maybe they'll tell me something they wouldn't tell you or one of the others. He can't just have vanished into thin air!"
Privately, Banks had his own thoughts on that, but he didn't voice them. "Just you remember you can't help him if you fall on your face with exhaustion," he threatened gruffly. "I'm going to be keeping my eye on you."
"Yes, sir." Ellison gave a flip grin as he climbed stiffly out of the car. As soon as the door to 852 Prospect closed behind him, though, the grin vanished. Jim gave in to his abused muscles and used the elevator. Brows lowered, he slammed one fist into the other. "God, Chief," he wondered aloud. "Where the hell are you?"
Although it was past three o'clock on a Tuesday afternoon, the noise level in the Major Crimes bullpen was remarkably subdued. Coming in after a lunch meeting with the police chief, Simon Banks stood in the doorway and shook his head. A cloud of loss still seemed to hover over the place; only its focus had changed. While Jim Ellison had miraculously been restored to them, five days after his abrupt disappearance at Ellison's supposed funeral, Blair Sandburg was still among the missing. They had tried, Banks knew each and every one of his detectives had tried their best, but there was no trace of the ebullient young man who had become an unofficial little brother and mascot to the over-worked, world-weary police officers. Simon had no qualms at admitting he missed the kid. As for Jim...
Casting a troubled eye on the ashen-faced, red-eyed figure sitting quietly at his desk staring at nothing, Banks shook his head again. At least the big detective wasn't on the phone verbally harassing someone or on some poor college student's doorstep threatening them physically. Banks had lost count of the number of complaints he'd received concerning Ellison's behavior the past three days. But even a Sentinel's heightened senses could find no clues if there were none to be found. For over 48 hours, since returning to Cascade, Ellison had covered and re-covered the ground his co-workers had already diligently searched. Since the university had been shut down the prior week for spring break, few of Sandburg's school friends or colleagues even knew anything was amiss. Blair was not teaching this semester, so his absence had raised few flags.
A secretary in the Anthropology Department had been the only one to have seen him since he had run out on Banks and Taggart at the cemetery. When questioned, she had stated that Blair had come into the office around 8:30 Friday morning. He'd handed her a bulky package and asked if she would give it to Dr. Elrond when he came in. The girl had explained that Elrond was Blair's advisor, so she had seen nothing unusual in the request. She'd agreed and, according to her, Blair had smiled and apologized for being in a hurry: "Things to do, some loose ends to wrap up." He had then left and she hadn't seen him since.
Unfortunately, Jim had refused to understand the concept of 'no clues'. He'd continued to snarl, push, and yell, alienating and intimidating in equal measure, those civilians he had come into contact with. By early Monday afternoon, Banks had had more than enough and Ellison was banned from the station for at least eighteen hours. Glowering, Jim had stormed out of the office; the glass in the door had barely survived the forceful closure.
To Banks' unexpressed relief, when Ellison appeared just as the captain was leaving for his appointment, it did seem as though he had gotten some sleep. Jim's noncommittal shrug when asked if he'd eaten, though, had worried at Banks during his meeting, and he'd decided he was taking his friend out to dinner that evening and force-feeding him if necessary. Just how he was going to accomplish this minor miracle was unclear at this point, but Simon wasn't going to let that stop him.
Re-focusing, the large captain's frown deepened when he noticed that Ellison was till staring blankly at a file on his desk. God, I hope he isn't zoning! Banks thought in some alarm as he hurried across the room. Never having been comfortable with the whole Sentinel idea, Banks had cheerfully admitted to total ignorance concerning zone-outs and how to bring Ellison safely out of one. During the past three days, he had become an unwilling learner, for as Ellison's exhaustion and desperation increased, so did the number of zone-outs. Several times, in the past, Banks had witnessed Sandburg gently coax Jim out of the maelstrom of his senses; the procedure was effortless and tension-free. If he'd thought that was the way it would always be, Banks was soon disabused of that comforting notion and he'd quickly learned to dodge the deadly flailing fists as the former Army Ranger jerked roughly back into the real world. When he finally got his hands on Sandburg, Banks was going to sit the kid down and demand to know his secret for handling Ellison so easily.
Jim looked up dazedly as Banks came to a stop at his side. Simon released a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding and urged, "Come into the office, man. You look like you could use a good cup of coffee."
Too drained to argue, Ellison lumbered to his feet, only to collapse onto a chair the minute he entered Banks' office. Rubbing both hands wearily over his face, he mumbled despondently, "What am I going to do, Simon? He's gone. I can't find him anywhere. I've tried and tried, but there's nothing." Wordlessly handing him a mug of gourmet coffee, Banks listened as the exhausted man went on, "My senses are going completely haywire. One minute I'm blind; the next, I swear I can see a fly from five miles away. Everything tastes like cardboard right now, and when I tried to dry myself after my shower this morning, the towel felt like industrial-strength sandpaper. I had to put on my clothes while I was still dripping wet. I'm losing it, Simon. I need Blair; and not just to save my sanity."
"Sorry, Jim," Simon said sincerely. "But don't lose sight of the fact that we're going to find Sandburg. He's going to be all right."
Banks' certainty was staggering. Part of Ellison agreed whole-heartedly. Strangely enough, it was the primitive portion of him which perversely refused to believe that he would never see Sandburg again. Sentinel and Guide belonged together, it reasoned; they could not be separated for long. Either Sandburg would come home, or Jim would find him. Nothing less would be tolerated.
The heartsick detective could find no such solace. He'd been a cop too long not to know that sometimes, despite everyone's best efforts, things just didn't always work out for the best. Murderers didn't always get caught...missing people sometimes stayed missing. Forever. His mind balked at that word and it was all he could do not to break down, to let some of the pain and fear escape. For all his frantic digging, Ellison had been unable to find the tiniest scrap of information pertaining to his partner's whereabouts. Sandburg had cleared out his checking account that Friday morning; that had been the only information the police had been able to verify. The airport, bus station, and train station had all been checked and checked again; no one answering Sandburg's description had bought a ticket out of Cascade. An APB on the Volvo had produced nothing yet. He had posted an alert on the student's credit card, but the company had reported no activity.
A soft knocking at the office door distracted Ellison from his increasingly gloomy thoughts. He looked up as Banks said, "Enter."
Rafe stuck his head in the door. "Sorry to bother you, Captain, but there's a guy out there looking for Ellison."
The detective dredged up enough curiosity to ask dully, "Who is it?"
That brought Ellison's head up with a jerk and he glanced over at Banks. "Do you suppose...?" A faint look of hope lit the tired eyes.
"Send him in," barked the captain.
Rafe withdrew, and seconds later, the door opened again as a short, portly man dressed in an expensive gray suit entered. "Detective Ellison?" he questioned in a thin tenor.
Ellison climbed to his feet. "I'm Jim Ellison," he acknowledged, shaking hands with the newcomer. "This is Captain Simon Banks."
"I'm sorry about disturbing you," apologized the academic. "But I've been away since last Friday afternoon. I only heard late last evening that Blair Sandburg was missing."
"Can you give us any idea where Blair might be, where he might have gone?" asked Ellison. He knew he was practically begging this stranger, but he couldn't seem to care. He needed his Guide.
Elrond looked at him sympathetically; whenever Blair had talked to his advisor about his roommate/friend, the affection had fairly poured from the younger man. It was gratifying to know Ellison returned it full measure. "I know you spoke with Ms. Lansing in the department office. The only thing I can tell you is what was in the package he left for me. I'm just unsure how helpful the information will be."
"Sometimes the smallest thing breaks the case," put in Banks. "Anything you tell us will be appreciated."
"Well, I must say I was shocked when I saw what was in the envelope. He'd given no warning..." Shaking himself, Elrond said, "The package contained Blair's finished dissertation."
"D-Dissertation," echoed Ellison blankly. "You mean, it's done?"
"Completed, down to the last footnote," confirmed the professor. "I was going to turn it into the review committee today, but I'm uncertain now that Blair's missing."
"Guess that wasn't his grant paper he was working on last week," mumbled Simon to himself. He looked worriedly at his friend. He didn't have to be a mind reader to know what Jim was thinking. If Sandburg had finally turned in the dissertation, he was cutting the last ties to his Sentinel... Blair didn't ever plan on returning to Cascade. "Thanks for coming in, Dr. Elrond," he said as he opened his office door. "We'll let you know if anything comes up." Banks knew he was being a bit abrupt, but he was more concerned about Ellison right now than propriety. Closing the office door behind the anthropologist, Banks gave a heavy sigh as he turned around. "Now what?"
Fighting off the numbing paralysis Elrond's words had brought, Ellison rubbed his tired eyes. "I don't know, Simon," he whispered. "I just don't know anymore."
Flipping over onto his back for the umpteenth time, Ellsion finally sat up, tiring of the charade of sleeping. The luminous numbers on his bedside clock showed one forty-three am. His whole body ached with the need for sleep, yet his exhausted mind would not shut down. The scene with Elrond replayed itself unceasingly: Blair had filed his thesis, the Sentinel Project was over. He wasn't coming back. Almost accustomed now to the stab of pain that always accompanied that thought, Jim reminded himself of his ace in the hole. Naomi. There was still a little over two weeks before she returned from Malyasia, but Jim had already left a message with her friend for the woman to call him immediately. Surely Blair's mother would know where he might hide out when he was hurting.
Padding heavily down the stairs to get a cup of coffee, Ellison repeated that to himself. Naomi would know where Blair was...she must. The next few weeks were going to be hell on earth, but he would get through them, somehow. This wasn't finished yet.
Jim froze on the last step. Finished? Dr. Elrond had said Blair's dissertation was complete and ready for review. But Blair had told the girl in the anthropology office that there were 'loose ends to tie up.' A synapse abruptly crackled in Jim's mind, and he bound across the room, grabbing for the phone. Hands shaking, he dialed the number for long distance information. Three minutes later, he was dialing the first of the numbers he had requested, waiting with bated breath for the phone to be picked up on the other end.
"All right, all right!" bellowed Simon Banks groggily, rolling out of bed in answer to the insistent pounding on his door. A bleary eye caught the clock and he swore under his breath. Four o'clock! This had better be damn good. Muttering imprecations under his breath as he belted his robe, Banks came up to his front door. "Who the hell is it?" he demanded.
"Open up, Simon. It's me." Ellison's voice was clear.
Cursing, Banks twisted the lock and threw open the door. Almost trampled as the other man rushed in, he growled, "Do you have any idea what time it is, Ellison? I thought you promised you'd get some sleep!"
"I know where Blair is."
The calm words stopped the police captain in mid-yell. Reaching for a light, he switched it on. Blinking a little in the sudden brilliance, he asked quietly, "Where?"
That answer not one he'd been expecting to hear, Banks blinked again, then gestured for his detective to take a seat. Dropping down onto the couch, he said warily, "That's kind of a far stretch, don't you think?"
Undismayed by his captain's disbelief, Jim forced himself to go slowly so he could make Banks understand. "Remember what that secretary told us--Blair said something about loose ends?" At Banks' nod, he went on, "But Elrond said the dissertation was complete. So what was Blair talking about? If the thesis is complete and review ready, there should be no loose ends. But, completed or not, there was still something left to be done, in Blair's viewpoint, and so he's gone off to finish it."
"But why Peru?" protested Banks.
"Because that is where this whole Sentinel thing started. I supressed and ignored them when I was a kid; that time is useless. It was only after the helicopter crash that I came fully on-line and used my senses. Sure, they went dormant again for five years until that business with Veroncia Saris kicked them back up, but that was because I was instinctively waiting for my Guide. And it was in Peru that I affirmed to the spirits my committment to being a Sentinel that time you and Daryl were kidnapped by the drug smugglers. He's gone back to the birthplace of the Sentinel Project."
Hating to burst the other man's bubble, Banks said evenly, "Let's say I buy that; we still know he didn't fly out of Cascade. How's he going to get there? Drive the whole way?"
To Banks' shock, Ellison actually laughed at that. "No, not the whole way, Simon." He sobered, leaning forward in the chair he was sitting in. "I checked with the airport in San Francisco an hour ago. Security found the Volvo parked in the Long Term Parking lot." Grinning at his boss' slack-jawed expression, he added, "Here's the clincher: Air Mexico confirmed he'd got aboard a direct flight to Mexico City. From there, he booked a flight on Aeroperu. Our old friend, Captain Sandoval, reports that Blair cleared Customs in Lima mid-Sunday morning."
"But...But..." stammered Banks, slowly coming to his feet. He shook his head to clear it, then eyed the grinning man opposite him. Ellison was still gray with fatigue, but ten years seemed to have fallen away and the familiar sparkle was back in the blue eyes. Heading for the bedroom so he could dress, he shouted, "What made you pick San Francisco of all places? Why did he go to Peru?"
"I didn't just 'pick' it, Simon; I also called Seattle and Portland. San Francisco was third on my list. As for why he went, I have no idea. But I intend to find out." Ellison's voice was grimly determined.
"But why drive all that way to fly out of the country?" Confusion was clear in the deep voice. "Why not just fly out of Cascade?"
"The oldest reason in the world."
"Huh?" Banks appeared in his bedroom doorway, still buttoning his shirt.
"Money, Simon. Blair didn't have the extra $475 needed for an international flight. He had to drive to an airport where he could afford to catch a plane."
Ellison grinned again at the expressive silence emanating from the bedroom.
Making a face at the brackish taste of the water in his canteen, Banks hurried his step to ensure he wouldn't lose sight of Ellison. Even though he knew his jungle skills were minimal at best, the Cascade police captain had adamantly refused to let his friend make this journey on his own. They might know Blair had come here, but they were still uncertain what they would find at the end of this trail. If it went badly, Banks wanted to be there for Jim; god knows, Ellison had been there enough times for him.
Simon hastened along the (to his eyes) nonexistent path, the hairs on the back of his neck continuing to stand up. They were being watched. When he had tentatively brought this observation to Ellison's notice, the Sentinel had just nodded and said, "We're in Chopec territory, Simon. Of course we're being watched."
Dropped that morning by Peruvian army helicopter into the jungle, Ellison had preceded to set a fast pace. Winded, hot, and aching in places he didn't even know he had muscles, Banks nonetheless kept his silence. An experienced Ellison watcher, he had no difficulty in recognizing the increasing tension, the building fear his detective was striving so hard to hide.
Engrossed in his own thoughts, Banks literally walked into the back of Ellison before he realized the other man had stopped, and was staring off to his left. "What is...?" he began, only to break off as a rustling noise heralded the appearance of an Indian. Wiping the streaming sweat out of his eyes, Banks watched warily as Jim and the newcomer commenced a high speed conversation in Quecha.
Several taut minutes went by, then Ellison said over his shoulder. "Sandburg's here. He's staying in what's left of my old hut."
"Is he all right? Is this guy going to take us to him?"
"I remember the way, Simon; but, yeah, Ani's going to take us."
Taking in the pale face and the impossibly-clenched jaw, Banks put a restraining hand on the broad shoulder as Ellison went to turn away. "You didn't answer my question: Is he all right?"
Shrugging off the hand, Ellison started off. "I don't know," he replied tightly. He paused for a minute, then went on in a clipped tone, "It doesn't really sound too good."
Ani's replies to his queries had only increased Ellison's fears. "Yes, Sentinel, your Guide is here." Sensing something amiss, Jim had pressed for clarification. Reluctantly, the native had elaborated, "His body dwells in the hut you left. As for his spirit..." The Chopec had merely shrugged. "Who can say for sure where a Shaman's spirit goes? We offer him food and water--most times it is as if his spirit is wandering for he does not seem to be aware of us. Other times, he thanks us though he barely eats and drinks."
Fighting to stay in control of his mounting worry, Ellsion burst into a small clearing, coming to an abrupt halt as though he'd hit a brick wall. He dimly heard Banks' horrified, "Oh, my god!" from behind him.
Without taking his eyes from the nightmarish figure sitting tailor-fashion in front of the dilapidated hut, Ellison said hoarsely, "Go with Ani, Simon. He'll get you something to eat and drink." He absently switched into the native tongue; the warrior agreed to take care of his captain. Banks' reluctance to leave was obvious; it was several minutes later before the sound of his footsteps vanished.
Ellison waited until the usual noises of the jungle filled the steamy air, only then did he shakily approached his former home. "Oh, god." Voice a raw whisper, he helplessly fell to his knees. "Oh, my god, Blair--what have you done to yourself?" Studying the shivering, disheveled figure through suddenly misty eyes, he reached out a trembling hand to hesitantly touch the week-old beard growth on the gaunt face. "Chief?" His voice breaking on that word, Ellison swallowed, hard.
It seemed an eternity to the waiting man before the sunken eyes opened; there was a flutter of long lashes as the translucent lids lifted, revealing reddened, glassy eyes. Several minutes went by while the widely-dilated pupils fought to focus, then the cracked, peeling lips broke into a broad smile. "Jim." Sandburg's voice was rusty with disuse, but there was no disguising the joy shining out of the blue eyes. A creaky laugh, then, "Took your time getting here, didn't you, man? Been waiting forever."
"Hasn't been forever, Chief," argued Ellison automatically. "You've only been here four days. Here..." Upon spying a clay jug full of water, he held it up to his partner's mouth. "Drink some of this. Slowly, slowly," he cautioned, steadying the fiercely shaking hands. "That's better." When Sandburg went to hand the jug back, Jim shook his head, urging softly, "No, you drink some more. You need it more than I do." While Blair was sipping the water, Jim subjected him to a full Sentinel scan.
Malnutrition and dehydration were the most obvious of Sandburg's woes. Waxy, cold, peeling skin was stretched tightly over his cheekbones, accentuating the hollows beneath; lank, dull curls framed a skeletal face. The grimy tee-shirt and jeans hung loosely about the emaciated figure. Focusing on the familiar heartbeat, Ellison frowned at the too slow, irregular beat. The concerned frown deepened as he caught a whiff of acrid body toxins on Sandburg's skin. He had to get the kid to a hospital quickly--kidney damage was setting in. Belatedly aware of being watched, Jim lifted his eyes to find himself under serene scrutiny.
"I knew you'd come, Jim," offered Blair quietly. His voice was still hoarse, though improved. "I knew if I just waited long enough, you'd come back. I'm sorry I took so long to get here; I should've known better than to wait in Cascade. I mean, this is where it all began for you, isn't it? Sorry for being so stupid."
"You weren't stupid, Chief," denied Ellison. Carefully feeling his way through the conversational minefield, he ventured, "Though I don't know why you were waiting for me?" He lifted one eyebrow in query.
A stricken look came into the hazy eyes and Sandburg glanced down. "Had to wait," he mumbled. "Had to tell you..."
"Tell me what, Blair?" asked Jim softly. He gently lifted Sandburg's face.
There was not enough moisture for tears, but the younger man blinked rapidly. "I had to tell you good-bye!" he burst out, bony shoulders starting to shake with dry sobs. "It wasn't fair! Didn't see you that morning 'cause I left early, and then you go and..." Trembling violently, Sandburg glared at his partner. "Why did you lie to me and tell me you were going to be on desk work? Why did you d-die..." Voice cracking, he struggled on, "...without waiting for me?"
Speechless with shock, Ellison realized that Blair still believed his partner was dead. He thought he was speaking with a ghost. "Chief, no; you don't understand..."
"I understand you went and left me alone!" A faint remnant of the Sandburg fire lit the rough voice. "I understand that, after all this time, we never got around to talking about the important stuff. That I never got to say I love you!" He bowed his head once more. "Oh, Jim, I don't know how to be alone any longer. "You've got to tell me how to do it. Help me."
"Oh, Blair, baby." Ellison reacted instinctively. Reaching out, he gathered the trembling figure into a possessive hug. "Shh, baby, it's all right," he crooned. "I love you, too; you're not alone. I love you," he repeated softly.
Time passed. Then, with a sudden jerk, Sandburg tore himself out of Ellison's arms. Confused, several seconds went by before Jim registered the frantically racing heart and shallow, panting breaths. Taking in the over-wide eyes and blanched face, he grabbed for the thin shoulders as Sandburg swayed.
"C'mon, Chief, take a deep breath," the cop instructed sharply. "Damn it, Blair...breathe!" He shook the smaller man.
Gagging and choking, Blair attempted to take a deep breath. "You're... You're..." he gasped. With an effort, he sucked in a lungful of air. "You're alive!"
"I know that!" snapped Ellison. "I tried to tell you, but you wouldn't let me finish!" One strong arm supported Blair against the broad chest, while the other rubbed large, comforting circles across his back.
"Oh, Jim!" forced out Sandburg. He took another shuddering breath before sagging, limply, against Ellison.
From somewhere far-off came the jangling sound of a ringing telephone and rapid, imcomprehensible speech. Man, this is some wacked-out dream, Blair thought drowsily. Who put the magic mushrooms in the stew last night? Grimacing, he reached out to pull the blankets over his head, but stopped when a large, familiar hand covered his. "Jim?" For some unremembered reason, he knew it was vital he see his partner, so he forced his heavy lids open, blinking rapidly to focus.
"Yeah, Chief, it's me. C'mon, now," coaxed Ellison's deep voice. "Open those baby blues. You've been asleep long enough."
Frowning, Sandburg mumbled, "How long?" Finally able to see clearly, he took at good look at the Sentinel. God, did I do a Rip Van Winkle, or something? he wondered in amazement. Jim looks like he hasn't slept in a month! A scowl spread as various hazy memories tried to come to the fore.
"How long have you been sleeping?" questioned Ellison. When the younger man nodded, he said simply, "Just about three days, now."
"Three days!?" Abruptly wide awake, Blair stared dazedly at the tired figure sitting in a straight back chair next to his bed. What the...this wasn't his room at the loft! Bemused blue eyes took in the cool, green walls and the heavy, industrial furniture sparsely scattered about the room. "Where the hell are we?" he demanded in confusion, taking in the silver crucifix hung near the plain wooden door.
"Santa Francesca Hospital in Inquito."
Memory surged back like a tidal wave and Blair gasped under the onslaught. Bolting upright, he made a desperate lunge for Ellison, only remembering to breathe when the strong arms gathered him close. "Oh, god, Jim! I thought...I thought..." He couldn't complete the sentence, hanging onto the muscular body for dear life.
"Yeah, I know, Chief," soothed Jim, rocking the smaller man slightly. "I'm so sorry for scaring you like that. Believe me, I didn't plan on doing it." He pulled back just enough for Blair to see his grin. "But, you got even in your own, inestimable fashion. You took about twenty years off my life when you disappeared like that!"
"Sorry," sniffed Sandburg. "Didn't mean to come all over-emotional on you, man," he apologized wanly, stiffening slightly and attempting to ease out of the cop's embrace. "Made a fool out of myself, huh? Don't really remember much after Simon came to my office. Things got pretty hazy fairly quick." He tried once more to wriggle free.
Ellison wasn't having any of that; tightening his arms, he said quietly into the nearest ear, "You weren't hallucinating, Chief. I love you."
Giving a soul-deep sigh, Sandburg melted against Ellison, burying his face against a powerful shoulder. "I love you, too, Jim," he whispered hoarsely. "When Simon... Thought I'd lost my chance to ever tell you."
"It's all right, baby," reassured Ellison, reveling in the freedom to hold Blair as tightly and as closely as he'd craved. "I understand; had a few thoughts like that myself after you passed out on me back at the village. Luckily, Captain Sandoval was standing by the radio and was able to send a helicopter for us. You really had us both seriously worried."
"Both?" Tilting his head up, Sandburg frowned the question. "You and Sandoval?"
"No. Me and Simon." Smiling widely at the poleaxed expression, Jim explained, "He came with me to the Chopec village."
Bewildered, the anthropologist asked, "But why would he do that? Oh." Interrupting himself, Blair speculated, "He was worried about you, wasn't he? You don't look so hot, man."
"I'm fine, Chief," answered the older man firmly. "Unlike some people who shall remain nameless, I didn't manage to starve myself fifteen pounds lighter in ten days."
Effectively silenced, Blair just blinked at him.
"Yeah. The lack of water bit wasn't any too bright, either." Ellison gave a mock-scowl before continuing, "As for Simon; yeah, he was worried about me. He's a good friend. But the main reason he acocmpanied me may have had something to do with the fact he was worrying himself sick over you."
"Me!?" It came out as a squeak.
"You," confirmed the detective. "You scared him shitless vanishing into thin air like that."
"Oh." Mulling that over silently for a few minutes, Sandburg apparently decided to file it away for review later. Looking at his partner out of the corner of his eye, he said tentatively, "I suppose he told you about..."
Letting the still-exhausted man relax back against his pillows, Jim kept a tight grip on one capable hand. "No," he denied. "Carolyn told me herself." Seeing the tension in the too-thin body, he joked, "I didn't lay a finger on her, Chief. You can ask Simon and Joel when we get back to Cascade. That's not saying I wasn't tempted, though." As Blair visibly relaxed, Jim stated, "We'll talk about all that later, once you're out of the hospital and feeling better."
"Okay." More than willing to let the subject be, Sandburg nodded. "But, you've got to tell me what happened to you, man!"
Aware that Blair was fighting against falling asleep once more, Ellison attempted to give an abbreviated version of the bizarre happenings. Sandburg was persistent, however, and had soon wormed all the details from the cop, including the news of Carasco's and Alconte's deaths.
When Sandburg had remained silent for several minutes, Ellison queried, "You all right?" He frowned slightly, uncertain how the younger man would take the deaths of the two Chileans due to his past involvement with Maya Carasco.
"Hmm?" Blair looked up pensively, then broke into a reassuring smile. "Yeah, I'm fine, Jim." The smile was quickly spoiled by a massive yawn. Giving an apologetic shrug, he complained, "I can't believe I need more sleep!"
"Listen to your body. It knows what it needs to get strong," ordered the Sentinel.
"Yes, Mom," grumbled Blair under his breath. Fully aware that Ellison had heard him, he gave the other man a bright beam before saying firmly, "You go get some sleep, too, man. You look like you're about to fall over."
Giving him a narrowed-eye glare, Ellison suddenly swooped and pressed a thorough, possessive kiss to that tempting mouth. Peeling himself away only when breathing became absolutely mandatory, he reluctantly let go of Sandburg's hand and got to his feet. "I'll be back tonight," he promised huskily. "Then, we can plan on getting home. Dr. Himosha said you could probably leave the day after tomorrow, Friday for sure, as long as your blood work continues to improve. You also need to start eating again."
Coherent thought scattered to the four winds, Sandburg just nodded. Infuriatingly, his eyelids began to droop once more and he forced them open long enough to say, "See you tonight. Love you, Jim."
Ellison's tender smile and his whispered, "Love you, too," were the last things Blair was aware of before the approaching slumber enveloped him in its warm cocoon.