Disclaimer: Don't own them, wish I did. :::sigh::: The only character I own here is Brian. The title is taken from an England Dan and John Ford Coley song of the same name, of which I am borrowing the refrain.
Rated PG-13 for language.
Notes: This takes place after S2P2 but before TSbyBS.
Warning: EXTREME ANGST.
I remember years ago
All the plans I had.
Now I watch the river flow.
Time has brought me here with empty hands
Three months after the memorial service and he still couldn't say the words aloud. It was like if he did, it would make them real and then he would have to curl up and die himself.
The salty ocean breeze whipped a dark curl across Blair Sandburg's face and he impatiently shoved it behind an ear. Dark clouds marched across the sky, heralding yet another spate of the rain that had inundated Cascade the last few days. He didn't mind -- the angry sky matched his own fury at the callous fates that had stolen his sentinel from him and left an emptiness rivaling a black hole in his chest. His eyes burned with unshed tears -- tears held in check for months as he hoped and prayed and searched.
What was he even searching for? The body had been identified by dental records, and Jim's badge and gun had been found with him in the twisted, blackened wreckage that had been Sweetheart, his '69 pick-up. Why couldn't he admit that Jim was dea--
"No!" Blair surprised himself when he realized he'd spoken aloud.
He glanced around, at the few people along the pier, the old man who fished there every day, rain or shine, and the homeless woman under four layers of threadbare, dirty clothing. But nobody seemed to notice. Blair was just another lost soul on the fringes of society, trying to maintain a hold on that ephemeral state of mind most people called sanity. That grip was loosening with each passing day -- each time that Blair walked into the loft expecting to see Jim pulling his homemade lasagna from the oven; each evening when he flipped on a Jags game and turned to ask Jim if he wanted a beer; each morning as he laid in bed, waiting for Jim to get up and shower first.
His stomach cramped and bile rose in his throat. He swallowed it back, convulsively swallowing again to keep the disguised sob from reaching his lips. A weight lay on his chest, forcing him to take short, quick gasps. A barge's faint horn gave him something to focus on and he wondered what it would sound like to Jim's hypersensitive ears.
Only those senses were gone, along with the special man who had possessed them. James Ellison, Detective, Sentinel, Best Friend to Blair Sandburg.
The air was so thick he could barely breath; his insides so twisted and his muscles so quivery he wondered how his bones could continue to bear his weight.
You work with facts every day, Sandburg. You put the facts together and come up with a conclusion. The facts say that Jim is dead.
"Oh, God." Blair hunched over the rail of the pier, his shoulders shaking with sobs he could no longer hold back. The tears he had held at bay for so long refused to be held captive any longer. They spilled down his cheeks, creating a burning trail across his skin. He rasped for air through his mouth in between the sobs that rattled his body and soul.
He pictured Jim wearing his Jags cap, his blue eyes sparkling with humor and intelligence, his lips turned upward with a smartass grin, and his arm around Blair's shoulders. The man had become his brother, the center of his universe and now his universe was shot to hell. The only things left to him were grief and madness.
A hand settled on his back and a voice rumbled softly. "Blair?"
For a split second, he thought Jim had returned, then he recognized the timbre. Blair used the sleeve of his flannel overshirt to wipe his eyes and face. The tears didn't stop, just the sobs.
"Simon." Blair focused on the horizon, where the ocean mated with the sky.
"I came to take you home."
Blair shook his head, his curls dancing around his face. "I can't go back there."
"It's yours. He left it to you," Simon said quietly. "He wanted you to have it."
Blair struck the wood rail with the bottom of his fist. The physical pain felt good -- it gave him something else to feel besides the shards of glass shredding his heart. "I don't want it. Not without him."
"You've been living there for three months by yourself already. Nothing's changed."
Blair spun around and the helpless fury that raged from his haggard face made Simon cringe inwardly and take a step back.
"Everything's changed! Damnit, Simon, my whole fucking life has changed!" His Adam's apple bobbed up and down as he turned away once more. "Jim is dead. Do you know what that means?"
Simon wanted to put his arms around the kid, but Blair's stiff backbone and the anger vibrating from his body told him no. Simon had dealt with Jim's death after the M.E. had made the identification of the horrible, blackened corpse. Even thinking about it now made Simon want to lose his last meal.
But Blair had adamantly refused to believe. He'd begun investigating on his own to find Jim, and Simon had allowed him to do so, thinking it would allow Blair to come to terms with the death of his best friend. Only Blair had become obsessed. He'd dropped out of college and concentrated on finding a dead man. He'd gone through file upon file -- all of the cases Jim had been involved in since he joined Cascade P.D., even those where he was only peripherally involved. Simon had tried to talk to Blair then, but he'd only put another wedge between them. Though he'd dragged his heels on pulling Blair's observer badge in the beginning, Simon had no other choice. Blair was denied access to the police computers, as well as Major Crimes, where the very people who could help him through this tragedy worked.
The last few weeks, Blair had seemed to disappear. Simon had called him, leaving message after message, but none had been returned. So he'd gone to the loft that morning, intending to talk to Blair. Instead, he'd ended up following Sandburg's old Volvo to this place.
"What does it mean, Blair?" Simon asked gently.
"It means I'm alone again." Blair's voice shook and he finally looked up at Simon. "And I don't want to be."
Simon surrendered to his paternal instincts and wrapped his arms around the younger man. For a moment, Blair remained stiff, then collapsed against him, his arms going around Simon's waist and his cheek pressed to Simon's chest. Simon held him as the emotional storm passed through his much too-thin friend.
Blair's sobs turned to hiccups and he straightened, drawing away from Simon. "What am I going to do now?" he asked in a lost child's voice.
Simon's heart tightened. "What would Jim want you to do?" he countered softly.
One last tear slid down Blair's face -- a face with too-prominent cheekbones and dark circles beneath sunken hollow eyes. The younger man raised his chin. "He'd want me to get my doctorate."
"Then that's what you should do. The insurance--"
"No!" Blair's vehement voice interrupted. "I won't touch his money."
Simon opened his mouth to tell him that it was his, as sole beneficiary on Jim's policy, but he didn't. Blair wasn't ready to accept it yet. Instead, he rested a hand on Blair's shoulder. "Why don't I treat you to lunch? I'll even go to one of those weird places you like."
Simon watched the struggle between despair and heartache on Blair's expressive face, then a small shadow of the familiar Sandburg smile graced the kid's lips. "All right. But they're not weird."
The police captain grinned and wrapped an arm around Blair's shoulders, steering him back toward their vehicles. "You'll always have friends at the station, Blair. You know that, don't you?"
Blair nodded jerkily. "I know. But... but I don't think I can go back there for a long time. Y'know?"
Simon's throat clogged with emotion. "I know, kid. I know."
Eternity had come and gone, and it had forgotten about him. That was the only explanation Jake Edwards could find as he watched the sun set over the mountains through the bars of the window in his sparsely furnished room.
As it disappeared behind a snow-patched mountain peak, the tall man crossed the short distance to his bed, but paused at the chrome pillar in the center of the room. He stared at his distorted image, trying to see what he looked like. He had no idea. There were no mirrors in the entire building. He knew because he'd spent a day searching for one.
Though his reflection was distorted, he could see that his eyes were blue, a bright blue that reminded him of the clear sky, before the clouds came over the mountains. The rest of his features were stretched across the curved surface and no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't put the puzzle together. Slowly, cautiously, he raised his hand and pressed his fingertips against the image.
"I am Jake Edwards," he whispered hoarsely, though the name was no more familiar to him than his face.
The lights dimmed, then came back up -- the signal that it was time for bed. A bubble of rebellion rose in him and he quickly squelched it. The healing marks on his back reminded him of what happened to those who talked back. He didn't want to hurt again. Not without his friend to help him, his friend B--
The name escaped him as it always did, but this time he'd found the first letter -- B. Excitement skittered through him, a strange foreign feeling. Every day in this place was like the day before, the same schedule, the same food, the same people, the same thoughts, the same... But tonight something felt different. He felt different.
He was still standing in the center of the room when the lights went out, but he could see perfectly in the blackness. That had never happened before. His mouth dropped open in amazement, then the sound of someone's voice startled him. He spun around, but nobody was there.
He searched the room, but he was alone. Ghosts? Fear flowed through his veins. There were more voices directly behind him. He whirled around again. Nobody was there. Then came the pounding of a drum, only it wasn't a drum. It was coming from his own body.
Jake pressed his palms to his ears to shut it out, to shut everything out. Even so, sounds continued to bombard him. They filled his head and punched against his eardrums until his brain was ready to explode.
"Go away!" he screamed and nearly passed out from the sound of his own voice. He stumbled back, hitting the wall and he hissed at the pain of his healing skin. Then he slowly slid to the floor, his gown bunching around once-muscular thighs.
A sickening odor struck his nose and his supper rose in his throat, but he managed to hold it back. The memory of his most recent roommate hanging from the ceiling assaulted him. The evening before when he'd returned to his room, he'd been kept outside while people in white came and went. Jake had seen past them to Joey, a sheet wrapped around his throat and the other end around a pipe fixture along the ceiling, and the horrible smell of human waste. A tipped-over chair below Joey's dangling feet told Jake that he had killed himself. Joey had wanted to escape and he'd done so.
The stink slithered through him like a snake, wrapping around his lungs. His last meal climbed up his throat and he couldn't hold it back this time. The odor brought tears to his eyes, made him gag as he searched for fresh air. But there was none to be found.
Jake curled up on the floor, his arms wrapped around his head, beside the pool of vomit. He fixated on a speck on the floor and repeated one word over and over. "Blair. Blair. Blair."
The next day, Jake sat in a corner of the community room on the floor, rocking back and forth as he stared at a monster fly climbing up the wall. Its buzzing filled all of Jake's hearing. None of the other twenty people in the large recreation room seemed to notice it, but it held Jake's entire attention. His bladder told him he should get up and go to the bathroom, but he couldn't leave. If he did, the fly might hurt someone. He had to protect the people.
"Hey, man, what're you doing?"
A low voice sounded faintly in his head, but he couldn't draw his gaze away from the fly.
Then a warm hand touched his arm and the soothing voice came again. "Hey, Jake, you all right, man?"
The fly began to fade and Jake blinked, rubbing his eyes. When he looked again, there was only a tiny fly on the wall. His giant friend had disappeared, as had the insistent buzzing in his head. He focused on the face in front of him -- a gentle, open face with dark eyes and hair.
Raising his hand, Jake touched a short curl on the man's head. "Why'd you cut it?"
The man blinked, then smiled. "I didn't. It's always been like this." He was squatting close to Jake, his expression a mixture of amusement and concern. "Isn't it a little chilly down there?"
Jake suddenly realized his butt was numb and his arms and legs chilled. "Yeah, cold."
The man lent him a hand and pulled him to his feet, then held him upright when Jake almost collapsed. "Take it easy, big guy. It'll take a minute or two for the circulation to kick back in."
Jake stared at the stranger, thinking he should know him. But the man's identity played hide-and-seek with his memory. "Who're you?"
"Brian, your new roommate," the younger man replied. "And you're Jake Edwards, right?"
"Yeah." The feeling in Jake's legs was returning, sending little needles of pain skimming along his skin. He groaned, then gritted his teeth.
"You all right, Jake?"
The genuine concern warmed Jake like nothing else he could remember in his limited memory. He nodded, unable to speak past the lump in his throat. After a few moments he pulled away from the younger man.
"So, what're you in for?" Brian asked.
Jake blinked. Nobody ever talked to him -- well, at least not like in a normal conversation. At least not that he could remember. "I-I don't know."
Brian's smile faded and his eyes filled with compassion, reminding Jake of someone. "I'm sorry, man. I didn't mean to--"
Jake placed a hand on the shorter man's shoulder, the gesture feeling... right. "It's okay. I don't remember much of anything."
The sparkle returned to Brian's face, as did his smile. "Sometimes that's not such a bad thing."
Lunch was announced and Jake fell in step with Brian. The sense of having done this before, in another life, startled Jake, and he wrapped his thoughts around the warm feeling, holding it close. Brian led the way through the line, grabbing a tray for himself and Jake.
"Thank you," Jake said quietly.
"No problem. We roomies have to stick together. Us against them, y'know?" Brian replied with a wink.
"Us against them, yeah." Jake grinned, starting to feel alive for the first time since... The thought ended abruptly and he frowned.
"Something wrong, Jake?"
He shook his head.
Brian sent him a puzzled look, but didn't pursue it. Instead, he started a running commentary on their meal. "I've seen better pig slop than this stuff." He plopped a spoonful of mashed potatoes on his plate with a dull thwump. "Enough starch in these for a drill sergeant's uniform." A dollop of overcooked spinach. "Popeye would never be able to save Olive Oyl with this crap." A burnt chicken breast. "Some poor fowl lost his feathers for this?"
Jake couldn't process everything Brian was saying, but he did understand the humor in his tone and laughed. It sounded like a rusty gate and Jake pressed his lips together, embarrassed.
Brian's hand settled on his arm. "It's all right, Jake. You have a good laugh -- you just have to use it more. I tell you what, I'm going to make it my job to make you laugh. How does that sound?"
Tears filled Jake's eyes and he impatiently swiped at them. God, nobody had talked to him like he was normal before and he liked it. "That sounds good, Chief."
"Chief, huh? So that makes you who -- the Lone Ranger?"
"I don't have a silver bullet."
Brian laughed and Jake decided he liked to listen to Brian's laugh. He hoped he did it more, too.
"Come on, Kemo Sabe. Let's go find a table," Brian said.
Five minutes later, Jake cleaned off his plate, then glanced at his new friend, who was picking at his food.
"You must have lost all sense of taste in this place." Brian dropped his fork with a clatter. "This shit isn't fit for man nor beast."
"You get used to it," Jake said with a shrug.
"Not in this lifetime, buddy." Brian leaned back in his chair and clasped his hands behind his head.
Jake copied his motions and looked around at the other patients, the only people he knew. Most of them couldn't walk, and those who did, shuffled around, shoulders hunched and never looking anyone in the eye. Except for Lydia, but she was usually talking with people only she could see and hear.
"Why are you here?" Jake finally asked.
"My parents thought I needed a vacation," Brian said, sarcasm oozing from his tone. "I agreed, only because I knew if I didn't, they'd do it for me. At least this way, I can sign myself out."
"They must care about you."
"Maybe, but I wouldn't bet on it." Brian stood. "C'mon, let's head back to the rec room and grab the ping pong table before someone takes a nap on it."
Later that evening, after the patients were ushered to their rooms, Jake sat cross-legged on his bed, plucking at a thread on his thin blanket. Brian was sprawled on the other bed, his ankles crossed and his hands stacked behind his head as he stared at the ceiling.
"You ever get to get out of this place -- take a vacation?" Brian asked.
Jake shook his head slowly. "No. This is my home."
Brian turned sharply to stare at the other man, and Jake cringed, hoping Brian wasn't mad at him. "But you came from someplace."
A bright sunny room with a high ceiling flashed in Jake's mind. Was that where he came from? "I s'pose, but I don't remember."
Brian sat up on his bed and shifted around to gaze at Jake. "What about family? Does anyone ever visit you?"
"One man, a long time ago. He said--" Jake scrunched up his face, trying to remember. "He said this was better than dead. He said that I would be here for the rest of my life and nobody would ever know."
Concern washed over Brian's face. "Geezus, Jake, he doesn't sound like a friend."
Friend. The image of a young man with animated blue eyes and long curly hair flitted through Jake's thoughts. Was he a friend? Family? He should know him -- he did know him.
Jake stared out the window at the full moon low in the night sky. The moonlight glowed and different colors danced in the moon's orbit, entrancing Jake. It was so beautiful, unlike the white room, the only place he knew. The beauty drew him, teased him, and Jake gave in to the temptation to lose himself within it.
Brian noticed the change in his roommate immediately. One moment he'd been looking out the window, the next his mouth gaped slightly and his eyes became fixed on the moon. He'd thought he'd been lucky to get Jake as a roommate after seeing the rest of the patients, but now he wasn't so sure. The man was definitely firing on too few cylinders.
"Hey, Jake, what're you looking at?" Brian asked.
No answer, not even a blink.
Brian eased himself off his bed and moved to Jake. He grasped the man's shoulder -- a shoulder that still retained hard muscle. Yeah, Bodies by Jake, he thought wryly. Brian had always been smaller, never as strong as his older brother, who had looked a little like Jake on steroids. Brian had tried to live up to his father's expectations, to be more like his brother. God knows, he'd tried. He shook his head. Dwelling on the past was something he couldn't do. Not if he wanted to get out of this place with his sanity intact. Or whatever was left of his sanity.
He shook Jake. "C'mon, Kemo Sabe, snap out of it. You're scaring me here."
Slowly, as if coming out of a trance, Jake shook his head and his gaze focused on Brian. "Chief. What happened?"
Brian smiled at the nickname -- an odd one, but it seemed natural coming from Jake. "You kinda disappeared for a while there. What were you thinking about?"
"Nothing," Jake replied vaguely. "The moon, all the colors, it was so pretty."
Brian turned to glance at the moon, but all he saw was a pale ball with vague crater shadows on the surface. Nothing very exciting there. He wondered if Jake was tripping on some kind of flashback. "Whatever, man."
Brian started to return to his own bed, but Jake's fingers closed around his wrist, surprisingly strong.
"You can't see the colors?" Jake demanded.
"No," Brian replied. "But that doesn't mean they're not there."
"Don't patronize me, Chief. I see them. They're real."
Brian blinked, startled by Jake's impatience and his suddenly mature and intelligent tone. The child-like man he'd met earlier that day had disappeared. Brian frowned. "Tell me what you see, Jake."
"There's the moon, but it's alive, light pulsing from inside. And there are arcs of color around it, kind of like a rainbow, but more vivid. Blue, red, green, orange, all the colors you can imagine, Chief. I see them all, extending out into the dark sky, until they just fade away."
Brian narrowed his eyes, trying to imagine Jake's description. His attention went back to Jake and he knew the older man was more lucid -- and sane -- than any of the other loonies in the hospital. He suddenly noticed how dilated Jake's pupils were, how they nearly covered the entirety of his blue irises, but there was no hint of derangement.
No, Jake Edwards wasn't crazy. But something was definitely wrong.
"I don't see them, Jake. I want to, but I can't. Maybe it's something only your eyes can see."
Jake blinked and his scrutiny returned to Brian. "Maybe."
The lights dimmed once then came back up to full brightness. Jake cringed, covering his eyes with his hands. "Turn them off. Hurts!"
Bewildered, Brian dashed to the door and hit the light switch, plunging the room into darkness. He carefully crossed the room to Jake's bedside. "Is that better?" he asked gently.
Jake nodded. "Yes. My eyes hurt though."
"Why don't you lie down and go to sleep? They'll feel better in the morning."
The immature Jake had returned, but Brian wasn't disturbed. Jake Edwards was a mystery and Brian used to enjoy a good mystery. Besides, he felt an unexplainable fondness for the confused man.
He helped Jake get his legs under the covers, then drew the blankets up to his chest. "Get some sleep, Kemo Sabe."
"Chief?" Jake spoke so low Brian almost didn't hear him.
"Could you hold my hand, just until I f-fall asleep?"
If they'd been any other place but in this hospital, Brian would've slugged him. But Jake's request was the innocent plea of a scared child and Brian didn't have it in his heart to deny the plaintive request.
He pulled the single chair beside Jake's bed and took hold of the man's larger hand. His long slender fingers curled around Brian's palm, trusting him. God, nobody had trusted Brian for a long time and it felt good to care about someone again.
Brian leaned back in his chair, content to listen to Jake's breathing pattern grow more regular until the man was finally asleep. But even then, Brian remained beside him, not wanting to lose the fragile thread of sanity that the black nightmares destroyed.
They were the reason Brian was admitted to the Mountainside Hospital for the Mentally Handicapped -- an asylum for the insane.
Blair rubbed his gritty eyes as he climbed the stairs up to the loft. His pace was slow, his feet heavy and it seemed to take forever to arrive at the third floor. Shambling down the hallway, he stopped in front of 307, turned the key in the lock and stepped inside.
"Lucy, I'm home," he called out, but the words shattered at his feet. There was nobody -- no Jim -- to laugh at them.
He tossed his keys on the small table. Even after four months, his gaze automatically searched for Jim's truck keys in the small basket sitting there. They were never there.
Dropping his backpack to the floor, he removed his jacket like an automaton, going through the motions only because it was the normal thing to do... except "normal" had ceased to exist the day Jim's body was found.
There were times at the university when he forgot, usually when he was teaching, but they only lasted a few minutes. Then the familiar depression would take over until he had to get outside and sit on the grass and try to live in the here and now. He used to be an expert at that -- living only for the moment, the hour, taking each day one at a time. Now, however, only emptiness greeted him each morning and he had to find one reason to get out of bed. Most mornings he spent a long time searching for that one reason.
Blair's shoulders slumped beneath clothes that were too large for him. He had to tighten his belt to keep his jeans up now. He plodded into the kitchen and opened the fridge. The only items on the refrigerator shelves were three hard-boiled eggs, a carton of sour milk, five bottles of Jim's favorite beer that Blair couldn't bring himself to touch and a nearly full container of Chinese food he'd ordered a week ago. He tossed the white take-out box in the garbage that hadn't been carried out in nearly a week.
With nothing edible in the fridge, he closed the door and leaned against the counter, surveying the loft. Books and papers and clothing were strewn everywhere.
"Jim's not going to be happy with you for turning his place into a pig sty," Blair said quietly. Talking to himself or to Jim while in the loft had become as natural as breathing, though if he'd thought about it, Blair would know that it wasn't normal.
No, normal was Jim yelling at him to pick up his stuff and to not use all the hot water and to not write so loud....
A knock on the door interrupted his thoughts. Who could it be? He'd had only two visitors since Jim had... left. He opened the door.
Simon, Taggart, Rafe, Brown, Megan, and Rhonda stood in the hallway, their arms laden with grocery bags, colorful balloons and a cake.
"Happy Birthday," they said, in unison.
He'd totally forgotten about his own birthday.
"Are you going to make us stand in the hall or can we come in?" Simon asked.
Blair blinked and stepped back, motioning them to enter. He noticed that everyone was looking around surreptitiously. This was the first time any of them, except for Simon, had been there since Jim...
"Happy birthday, Sandy," Megan said, then gave him a hug. "It's good to see you."
One by one, Blair shook hands with the men, then received another hug from Rhonda. As if in a daze, he watched them empty three brown bags of food and set down the cake in the middle of the table. Rafe piled beer, bottled water, and Coke into the fridge, while the others drew bowls and mixing spoons out of the cupboards.
Joel Taggart tugged Blair into the living room, away from the bustle in the kitchen. "We've missed you, Blair."
"I--ah, I've missed all of you guys, too," Blair responded, feeling the sting of tears.
"You should come by some time and go out to lunch with us." Joel patted Blair's concave stomach and concern filled his expression. "You're going to get sick if you don't start eating."
"I know, but it's just that I've been so busy."
"Even grad students have to take time to eat," Joel growled affectionately.
Blair glanced back at the busy group in the kitchen. "How'd you guys know?"
Taggart shrugged. "Simon had it on his calendar, so we decided to throw you a surprise party."
Blair noticed Simon pull on an apron and turned back to Joel, who answered the unspoken question. "He's going to make his special barbecued ribs, Rafe's got a recipe for rice and beans to kill for, Megan's putting together a salad, and Rhonda volunteered her cornbread recipe." Joel's dark eyes sparkled and he smiled fondly. "We're all worried about you, Blair."
Blair's throat clogged with emotion. These were friends he'd made through Jim, and they had become more like family than any of his academic friends. Though Blair had been an interloper when he'd first become Jim's partner, he'd slowly become accepted for himself. The closed society of the police unit had grudgingly cracked open their door and Blair had slipped inside. There were still a few who had never liked him and his long hair and unorthodox methods, but they were a minority. Everyone in Major Crimes had accepted him, made him a part of their group, and even though Blair was no longer associated with the department, they carried over their friendship.
"Hey, you okay?" Taggart asked, concerned.
"Just fine, Joel." He smiled, thinking for the first time in months that he might actually survive.
Two and a half hours later, Blair and his visitors sprawled across the couches and chairs in the living room. The Jags game blared on the TV. Blair had eaten more in the last hour than he had in the past week and his stomach protested a little, but he felt good. He noticed Rafe and Megan sitting side by side, Rhonda beside Megan and Brown in a chair on the other side of Rafe. Rafe and Brown were arguing good-naturedly about the basketball game, while Rhonda and Megan tried to play referees. Joel Taggart reclined in a chair, his head back as he snored quietly.
"Thanks, Simon," Blair said in a low voice to the police captain slouched on the couch beside him, a beer in his hand.
Simon smiled slightly, fondness glimmering in his warm brown eyes. "You're welcome. Nobody's thirtieth birthday should be spent alone. Besides, you looked like you could use a good meal. And some company."
Blair stared at the TV screen to regain his composure and fight back the tears of gratitude. "I guess I've been pretty out of it since... since Jim died."
"I never claimed to understand the relationship you and Jim had, but I do know that you made Jim a better cop, a better person. Your friendship was good for him."
"It was good for me, too, Simon. I'd never known anyone like him, and it wasn't just his sentinel senses."
Silence surrounded the two men, the basketball commentator's voice and their friends' good-natured bantering a soothing backdrop. Drops of rain struck the balcony windows and thunder rumbled in the distance.
"How's school going?" Simon asked quietly.
Blair shrugged, took a sip of beer, and turned slightly to look at Simon. "Okay." He smiled wryly. "I think that's the only thing that's kept me from going crazy."
"You know, we're only a phone call away," Simon reminded.
"I know." Blair took a deep breath and swept his hair back with a shaky hand. "I think I might be ready to pick up the phone now."
Simon reached up and gave Blair's shoulder a quick squeeze, surprising him. Simon had never been one to express his feelings openly. Unlike Jim, who often touched Blair -- a pat on the back or head, an arm around the shoulders, or brotherly fisticuffs and playful boxing. It had been easier for Jim and Blair to show their affection for one another that way than with words.
"Good. You can pick up the next lunch tab," Simon said.
Blair smiled. They watched the game for a couple minutes, then Blair spoke. "I've been considering completing my dissertation. I have more than enough notes from..." he broke off, glanced away to hide the lingering sadness.
"Jim would want you to," Simon said quietly.
"I've been putting it off. I didn't know if I could go through all my notes, reliving all those times--" He rubbed his eyes. "It'll be hard, but I think I can do it now."
Simon nodded. "Maybe it'll help."
"No pain, no gain, right?"
"You know how the grieving process works."
Blair sighed. "Yeah, I know in my head. It's my heart that's having a hard time with it."
"Give it time, Blair."
Time was the only thing he was left with.
Blair turned his attention back to the game and soaked up the first peace he'd found since Jim had died.
"Hey, Kemo Sabe!"
"What is it, Chief?" Jake asked, forcing his attention away from the basketball game on TV.
"Nurse Ratched is working tonight. What do you say we have some fun?" Brian asked in a low voice, his eyes twinkling.
Jake grinned. The stuffy old nurse had become the brunt of Brian's creative practical jokes, and Jake had become a willing accomplice. From hiding her shoes when she was on her break to putting mashed potatoes in her sweater pockets to sticking a post-it on her back that read Kiss Me -- they had done everything. Ever since the younger man had shown up three weeks ago, Jake had felt more alive than he could remember. "What's in that devious mind of yours now?"
Brian blinked in surprise. "Damn, Jake, you gotta warn me when you're going to sound like a real live adult."
Jake's smile slipped away. "I am an adult, Brian."
The younger man clapped an arm around his shoulders. "Sorry, Kemo Sabe. I forget sometimes." He eyed Jake somberly. "You've changed a lot since I got here. Have you been able to remember anything about why you were hospitalized? Or from before you were put in here?"
Jake's gaze turned inward. "Not really, just flashes of people and places."
Brian sprang off the old couch and moved to the scarred coffee table in front of him. He sat down, facing Jake and leaned forward expectantly. "Any names?"
Jake thought for a moment, then shook his head. "No, except I think one of them starts with a B."
"Like B as in Brian?"
"Yeah, but it isn't Brian."
"Can you describe any of these people you see?"
Jake turned his gaze inward. "Long curly hair, the same color as yours. Dark blue eyes. And he's always moving." The image blurred, faded, slipping away like sand through his fingers. His hands curled into fists resting on his thighs as he unwillingly surrendered the memory. "I'm losing him."
Brian's hands settled on Jake's knees. "Relax, Kemo Sabe. Lean your head back against the couch and close your eyes. Take a couple deep breaths and let them out slow-like."
Jake did as he was told, feeling like he was watching himself from above doing the same thing in some other place.
"All right, let your mind wander and just follow it. Describe what you see," Brian said, quietly.
The darkness gave way to flashes of images. "An apartment, high ceiling, stairs to an upstairs bedroom..." Jake described. "That man, younger than me, a few years older than you, same size maybe. He's a friend." He paused, a new figure swirling across his mind. "A tall man, dark, glasses--" Jake wrinkled his nose, "--cigar."
More pictures raced through him. A body on the floor, blood congealing around it. A bar with bodies scattered across tables and chairs and blood meandering across the floor like macabre rivers. His own hands, covered with scarlet and holding a gun.
Jake's eyes flew open and he bolted upright. His heart thundered in his chest.
Brian stood, resting a soothing hand on his arm. "What?"
"A gun. Blood. Dead people." Jake shuddered. "Oh, God, Brian, what if I'm a murderer?"
"No, you're not a killer," Brian said firmly. "Just relax. Take it easy."
His knees trembling, Jake sank back on to the couch. He scrubbed his face with his palms and another vision intruded. A fountain and a body facedown. Long hair floating on the water's surface. Cold water on his legs. Panic in his lungs. Heart hammering in his chest. Mouth to mouth resuscitation. Blue lips. No breath. No familiar heartbeat.
Ice formed in his veins. Lifeless body cradled in his arms. Arms pulling him away--
This can't be happening. This can't be happening.
Brian watched the color leach from Jake's face until the older man's complexion was like marble. Jake's eyes became unfocused, like the night he'd stared at the moon. His mouth gaped open and his breathing became shallow.
He gripped Jake's shoulders. "Hey, c'mon, Jake. Don't flip out on me again, man. Come back, Kemo Sabe."
He shook the man. "Wake up! C'mon or Nurse Ratched's gonna give you the shock treatment."
Desperation made Brian shake him even harder, but Jake's mind had disappeared, gone someplace where no one could follow. Damnit! He thought the change in Jake was good, that the man would remember everything from his past. He hadn't counted on these blackouts.
"What's going on here?" Nurse Ratched demanded, her hands planted on her wide hips.
"Ah, nothing. Jake is just thinking," Brian replied, keeping a hand on Jake's arm.
The nurse waved a hand in front of Jake's unblinking gaze, then shook her head. "Manny!" she bellowed, making Brian cringe.
A brawny attendant joined them.
"Get Edwards back to his room and on his bed. I'll have the doctor check him out."
Manny gave Brian a shove, nearly sending him to the floor. But his own anger was forgotten when the big man slung Jake over his shoulders in a fireman's carry, not bothering to leave him with any dignity.
Brian scrambled to his feet. "Give him some respect, would you?"
His request was ignored. Seething, Brian followed them to the room, but was blocked by a brick wall in the form of Nurse Ratched. "Go back to the rec room."
"I want to stay with him," Brian argued.
"Don't worry. We'll take care of him."
"That's what I'm worried about."
Manny re-joined the nurse and Brian could see past him to Jake lying on his bed. He looked back at Manny, whose expression reminded him of a trained attack dog. Brian held no illusions anymore -- Manny wouldn't hesitate to obey Nurse Ratched's commands.
He raised his hands, palms out and backed away. "All right, all right. I'll come back later."
Pissed off at a whole system that would treat a human being so indifferently, Brian returned to the community room. He dropped into a chair and stared at the monosyllabic people who surrounded him. Jake was the only person in this miserable place who made it bearable. Brian was more convinced than ever that Jake was a victim of some odd set of circumstances. He hadn't forgotten what Jake had told him about the one and only visitor he'd had.
Brian took a deep breath, trying to shove back the dark depression creeping up on him. He had escaped its claws for over three weeks, but now he could feel its grip. The image of his older brother made him gasp. Jumping to his feet, he began to pace. No, he couldn't think about him.
"C'mon, Jake, snap out of it. I need you, Kemo Sabe," Brian whispered and tried to hang on.
Jake's head pounded. He wished they would give him some aspirin, but he knew his request would be denied. After all, he was crazy. Massaging his temples, he felt his roommate's concerned gaze upon him.
"You sure you're okay, Jake? You were out of it for nearly eight hours," Brian said.
"Yeah, I'm all right, except for this damned migraine."
Brian smiled. "Glad to see the new Jake is still around."
Though Jake wasn't sure he understood, he didn't question him. Forming a sentence would take too much concentration.
The two men sat on their respective beds, waiting for the signal for lights out. Jake had no recollection of the trance he'd fallen in. All he knew was that when he'd awakened, Brian was sitting beside his bed, a haunted expression on his face. And even though the younger man's presence soothed him, there was a ripple of unease mixed with it. Something wasn't right, something that Jake could feel, but not express.
"You scared the hell out of me, buddy," Brian said softly.
Jake glanced at him. "Sorry. I wish I could tell you what happened, but I can't."
"What's the last thing you remember?"
Jake tried to press back the curtain from his memory. "I was thinking about water and cold." His brows furrowed. "And there was somebody, I think a friend..." Visceral fear cut through him and he flinched. "He was dead. Drowned."
Brian's face paled. "I'm sorry, Jake." He said it with so much sympathy that Jake suspected he knew exactly what the anguish felt like.
"Thanks." Jake paused. "For everything."
Brian shrugged with forced nonchalance, but Jake heard an increased pounding coming from his chest. He tipped his head to the side, listening. He slid off his bed and walked over to Brian, the pulsing rhythm growing louder. Resting his palm against Brian's chest, he felt his heart beat in time with the sound he heard.
"What're you doing?" Brian asked.
Jake withdrew his hand as if burned. "I hear your heartbeat."
"Your heart, it speeded up."
Alarm rifled through Brian, but along with it was curiosity. "Are you serious?"
Jake nodded slowly. "That's not normal, is it?"
Brian laughed. "Not exactly." He sobered. "But maybe it's normal for you."
The lights flickered.
"Tomorrow we'll talk about this and maybe we can try some tests," Brian said. "After a good night's sleep."
"Tests?" Jake grinned. "Are you going to make me run a maze with cheese at the end?"
Brian laughed. "Nah, but maybe if you do good, you'll get a doggy bone."
"As long as it's a milk bone," Jake shot back.
Chuckling, Brian said, "Goodnight, Kemo Sabe."
Jake wandered back to his bed and climbed in just as the lights went out. "Goodnight, Chief."
He lay awake for a long time, listening to his roommate's heartbeat. It soothed him, yet there was an underlying "wrongness" to it. Still, Jake harbored a protectiveness toward the younger man that felt right.
Brian's steady breathing finally lulled Jake into a restful sleep.
Jake awakened to the sound of a low moan. At first, he thought it was himself or maybe one of those mysterious voices he'd heard before. The noise came again, along with a strangled groan and a barely articulate "no."
He slipped out of his bed soundlessly, the dark not hindering him with his new eyesight, and crossed to Brian. The younger man's face was contorted, a nightmare obviously holding him in its grasp. Sweat rolled down Brian's face and Jake could hear his racing heartbeat, his too-fast breaths.
Uncertain of what to do, Jake stood there motionless. Suddenly Brian's eyes flew open and in their depths, he saw terror.
Jake laid a hand on his arm. "No, it's Jake. You okay, Chief?"
Tears created two moon-glistened trails down Brian's face and Jake gritted his teeth helplessly. He wanted to help him, take away the pain that brought such sorrow to his friend's face. Allowing instinct to guide him, he enfolded the smaller man in a hug. Brian's shoulders shook and Jake could hear the tiny sobs he couldn't muffle.
"It's okay, Chief. Everything'll be all right," Jake soothed.
Deja vu filled him, halting his reassurances. He continued to hold Brian, but in his mind's eye, it was another man and another nightmare. He'd done this before, for his friend, the man with the long curly hair and blue eyes. His guide.
Guide? Where had that come from? He tried to examine the word more closely, but the memory slid away like the ocean's waves receding on a beach. Although frustrated, Jake continued his soothing words and eventually Brian's sobs faded away.
Brian pushed away and scrubbed his face. "Sorry 'bout that, Jake. Didn't mean to wake you up."
"That's what friends are for." Jake sat down on the edge of Brian's bed, deja vu whispering across him again. "You want to talk about it?"
Jake remained motionless.
"Hey, you going into a trance again?" Brian asked.
"No. I'm just waiting."
Brian dragged a hand through his hair. "You don't want to hear this."
Jake shrugged. "Maybe not, but I wouldn't be a very good friend if I didn't."
Brian stared at him, then pushed himself up so his back rested against the wall. "I told you I put myself in here. Well, there was a reason for that."
Jake tilted his head slightly, patiently waiting for him to continue.
"I, ah, don't have a very good relationship with my father. I was always too weak, too small, too different from my brother Mark." Brian paused, lost in memories. "He was everything I wasn't -- strong, good at sports, brave."
"You're brave and strong," Jake said.
Brian flashed him a smile. "Thanks, Kemo Sabe, but most people would disagree with you."
Jake frowned, but stayed quiet.
"But Mark, he never put me down. When Dad would yell at me, Mark would defend me. He was the only one who was ever proud of me. He told me I didn't have to live up to Dad's expectations, only my own. Mark pushed me to go to college and to get my master's degree in chemistry."
Impressed, Jake arched an eyebrow.
"Five months ago Mark and I went camping. We put our tent up by this river, then went swimming. An undertow tugged me down." Brian paused to swallow, his expression filled with pain. "I wasn't strong enough to get out of it alone. Mark swam over and saved me. But--" He gasped raggedly. "A tree limb hit him and he went under. I reached for him, but the current pulled him away so fast. The undertow dragged him down. The next day divers found his body." He closed his eyes and a tear spilled from between his lashes. "My father blamed me. But he can never blame me as much as I blame me."
Jake wasn't certain what to do or say. Someplace deep in his scrambled memory, he had a vague impression of an older man -- his own father? -- shaking him, ordering him to stop lying. He shook his head free of the uncomfortable image. "Mark wouldn't want you to blame yourself," he finally said.
Brian laughed, but there was no humor in it. "I tried telling myself that, but it didn't work. If I hadn't been born, Mark would still be alive."
"He was your brother. He loved you."
Brian tried to choke back a sob, but it escaped and his cheeks reddened. "He shouldn't have. I'm not worth it."
"He thought you were," Jake said firmly.
"He was wrong." Brian turned to stare out the window. "I tried to kill myself, Jake. I took a bunch of pills. All I wanted to do was stop the pain."
Though he was shocked, Jake asked matter-of-factly, "What happened?"
"My mother found me, got me to the hospital in time. That's when I had the option of coming here on my own or have a court hearing where somebody would be assigned my guardian and they would commit me."
"What did your father do?"
Brian shrugged. "Not much. Mom said he was sorry for the way he treated me, but she always says things like that. Like it's going to make a difference."
"Maybe you should give him another chance."
"He's a son-of-a-bitch. If Dad was half the man Mark had been, there might be a chance. But--" Brian shook his head. "He's not going to change. He'll only grow more bitter."
"Then stay away from him. Find your own life, make your own friends. Family isn't always related by blood."
Brian leaned forward. "Like that friend you keep remembering?"
Jake's gaze flickered past Brian to the darkness outside. Loneliness pierced him and he swallowed the anguish that rose in his throat. "Yes," he whispered.
"Someday either he'll find you or you'll find him."
"Not if I can never remember." Jake stood, then dropped a hand to Brian's shoulder. "Your brother loved you, Brian. Don't let his death be for nothing."
He returned to his bed, but the ache of aloneness filled his chest. Brian was his friend, but he wasn't his... guide.
"Thanks, Jake," Brian said softly.
"You're welcome," Jake replied.
Jake fell into a restless sleep, his dreams filled with snippets of a life he couldn't remember.
Blair rode the elevator up to the seventh floor, his heart pounding in his throat and his breath coming in short spurts. He hadn't been to Major Crimes since Simon had taken away his observer's badge and forced him to leave. Looking back, Blair couldn't blame the police captain. Blair had become obsessed with finding Jim alive. An impossible goal.
The elevator swished open and the Major Crimes doors loomed ahead of him. Memories assaulted him: leading Jim down the hallway after he'd been blinded by Golden, Jim teasing him about allowing his girlfriend to read his journals, Blair shadowboxing around Jim... God, so many images buried in his memory.
"You coming or going, kid?" a uniformed cop asked.
Blair shook himself out of his reverie and smiled at him. "Sorry, daydreaming." He stepped out and walked down the hallway, toward those looming glass doors. Pausing to gather his courage, Blair took a deep breath then pushed them open and entered.
His gaze automatically went to Jim's desk -- former desk -- and saw a younger man he didn't know sitting behind it. Blair took a step forward, intending to kick him out of Jim's chair, but memory slammed back. Jim was gone. This person was his replacement. As if Jim could ever be replaced.
Brown was the first to see him and his face lit up. "Hairboy! It's about time you come down to grace us working stiffs with your presence."
Blair found himself laughing. "Only as a study on the common working slob and his interrelationship with his environment."
Suddenly he found himself surrounded by his friends. Even though it had only been a few weeks since they'd all been at the loft for his birthday, they treated him as if they hadn't seen him in ages.
Simon came out of his office, an unlit cigar between his lips. "Hey, Sandburg, I was just going to call you."
"Sorry, Simon. I got caught up after class with a bunch of questions, then there was this one girl..." he broke off, his face reddening.
"The sheila must be pretty," Megan teased.
Blair smiled self-consciously. "We're going out to dinner tomorrow night."
"That's good," Joel said, putting an arm around Blair's shoulders.
"You'll have to let us know how it goes," Rafe put in.
"All right, all right, back to work," Simon said, waving the unlit cigar around like a marching band's baton.
Blair promised to stop by more often, then the others wandered off, leaving Simon and Blair standing alone. Blair nodded toward Jim's old desk. "Is he the one--?"
"He transferred over from Vice a couple months ago," Simon replied.
"Same department Jim came over from," Blair said quietly.
Simon steered Blair toward the double doors. "Come on. I'm starving."
Half an hour later, the two men sat across from one another in the deli frequented by many of the Cascade police department. Simon's plate was empty, but Blair's was still half full.
"Eat up, Sandburg. You can't afford to lose any more weight," Simon chided.
Blair took a bite of his croissant, then set the remainder back on his plate.
"So tell me about this new girlfriend," Simon said.
Blair drew a napkin across his lips. "Not much to tell. Chery's a new TA in the biology department." He leaned back in his chair. "It's only a date, Simon."
"Seems to me this will be your first one since Ji-- in a long time," Simon finished awkwardly.
"Yeah." Blair's gaze drifted to the window and he watched the people scurry past in the misty weather. "I haven't really felt like it."
"How's the dissertation coming?"
"Okay." He shifted his attention back to Simon. "It's been tough. Reading the words I wrote, I'm living it all over again. Then when I'm done, I look around to make some comment to Jim, and he's not there." He shrugged. "I dunno, Simon. Some days are better than others."
Uneasy silence filled the cracks between them, until Blair couldn't take it any longer. "How's Daryl doing?"
As Simon launched into Daryl's latest escapades, Blair smiled and nodded at the appropriate times. Though he enjoyed hearing about Simon's son, Blair's thoughts kept returning to his dissertation... and Jim.
His thoughts always returned to Jim.
"Nurse Ratched is telling Roger to give her the towel, but he wants to keep it," Jake said, his eyes closed and his head tipped to the side. He chuckled. "He's calling her a shameless hussy."
Brian grinned, then stood. "Wait here, I'll be right back."
The younger man dashed off and Jake listened to his footsteps, his heartbeat, and his breathing. He heard him when he turned around and came back a few minutes later. "Damn, that's right. They're in the other wing and you could hear them like they were right next to you?"
Jake nodded. "At least I know I'm not hearing ghosts now."
Brian's excitement was tangible. "Geezus, Jake, did you have these abilities before you came in here?"
Jake's expression clouded. "I don't know."
Brian closed his eyes momentarily. "Sorry, man. Now that you're so much better, I forget."
"That's all right." Jake had been remembering more and more, just little things -- a blue and white truck, more people, an office -- but the specifics remained just out of his reach. It frustrated him, but he didn't allow Brian to see it. The younger man was so enthusiastic about helping him with his super senses that Jake didn't want to dampen his spirits.
He gazed at Brian silently. It had been three weeks since his roommate's nightmare, when he'd confessed why he'd admitted himself to the hospital. Since then, Brian had opened up, telling him about Mark and the things they used to do, and how Mark had urged him to go to medical school. Jake would ache inside, feeling like he, too, had had someone -- a brother? -- he'd been close to. But again he'd kept it to himself. There was nothing anybody could do until Jake remembered his past.
"Why're you still here?" Jake suddenly asked.
Brian brought his head up sharply and Jake heard his heartbeat accelerate. "What do you mean?"
Jake shrugged. "You and I both know you won't try it again."
Brian tugged at the belt around his robe nervously. "You need me, Kemo Sabe. Maybe I need you, too."
"You don't belong here. You need to get into medical school, make Mark proud of you."
"I can't leave you in here, Jake. It's wrong." Sorrow filled Brian's eyes. "You don't belong here either."
Jake wanted nothing more than to leave, but he had no place to go. As much as he hated it in here, the unknown scared him even more. And the unknown lay outside these walls. He shrugged. "I don't have any memories. Everything before I came here is like a slate that's been wiped clean." He grinned crookedly. "Of course, that means I'm not carrying any bad habits over from another life, like cracking my knuckles or leaving my underwear on the floor."
"Just call you Mr. Clean." Brian snorted. He grew serious once more. "I can't just leave you here, Jake. It goes against everything I believe."
Jake took hold of his shoulders. "Listen to me. You have a real life out there. I don't. I'll survive -- and who knows? Maybe I'll have an epiphany where everything comes back to me. Or maybe after you get your medical degree, you'll remember your crazy friend and come back and cure me."
"You're not crazy!" Brian swallowed hard and gazed at Jake intently. "You helped me more in the two months I was here than anybody else in all the time before that."
The two men gazed at each other, hearing the familiar mutterings of the other patients and the blare of the TV in the background. Nurse Ratched's shoe soles squeaked across the shiny floor and one of the brawny attendants muttered something to Lydia, a gray-haired woman who wandered aimlessly, talking to her invisible friends.
Brian nodded slowly. "All right. I'll go, but I'm not going to like it. And I'll be back every weekend to visit."
Jake's stomach dropped and the weight of loneliness mantled his shoulders. He forced a smile, hoping Brian wouldn't see past the mask. "I suppose you'll want to keep testing me during those visits, huh?"
"And I'll even bring milk bones."
They laughed together, the sound an anomaly because it was so normal in their abnormal surroundings. Nurse Ratched glanced at them, her eyes narrowing suspiciously, but Jake and Brian only waved at her.
The next morning brought an unfamiliar awkwardness between the two men. Brian was dressed in regular street clothes and Jake remained in the gown and bathrobe he'd lived in for months now. Their lives were now taking divergent courses, one back to the real world and the other remaining in the only world he knew.
"Well, I guess this is it," Brian said, a tremor in his voice.
Jake nodded. God, he hated this. The one person he'd been able to talk to and who didn't treat him like an idiot was leaving. He was frightened, afraid he'd slip back to the child-man he'd been before Brian arrived.
"You'll be okay," Brian assured as if reading his mind.
"I know," Jake stated, relieved that his own voice remained steady. "Remember those milk bones when you come visiting."
Brian shook a finger at him. "Only if you don't forget everything you've learned about your senses."
They stood in uncomfortable silence. Jake willed his breathing to remain regular and steady. Would Brian really return or was it simply an empty promise to a crazy man? Being more like a child had its advantages -- Jake never used to think so deeply about things. Either they were or they weren't. Simple as that. Now there were so many layers to words and feelings and actions that he didn't know what to believe... who to believe.
Jake stuck out his hand. "Good luck to you, Brian."
The younger man gripped Jake's, then pulled him into a hug. "Thanks for giving me back my life, Jake. I promise I'll do the same for you, even if it takes fifty years."
Jake closed his moisture-laden eyes. "I'd appreciate it if you'd take less time than that. I'd like to leave here with at least some hair left on my head."
Brian laughed and released the older man. "I should've never let you look at yourself in my mirror. Who would've thought you'd be so vain about your looks?"
"Forget the dog bones. Bring me a ball cap when you come to visit."
Brian slapped his shoulder. "You got it, Kemo Sabe." He turned to leave, waiting for an attendant to unlock the door. "Take care of yourself."
Jake nodded, unable to speak. He watched Brian exit, following the corridor to freedom, something Jake wanted to experience someday. Only when Brian disappeared from view did Jake return to the community room. Already, despair ripped through him, making him sick to his stomach. Altering his course, he went to his room that he'd shared with Brian and lay in bed, staring at the ceiling and listening to Brian's heartbeat as it faded away.
It was the wrong one.
Jake's own heart tripped and he concentrated on the other man -- the person he saw in his dreams, both waking and sleeping. His guide. Blair.
He bolted upright. Blair was his friend's name and he was a student.
Jake racked his brain, searching for the answers that crept closer and closer, teasing him. He forced himself to breathe slowly, in and out, and allowed his thoughts to ramble. But no more clues were given.
He knew more answers would come, but only in their own time.
And time was running out.
Blair set the two inch thick sheaf of papers on his desk in his basement office in Hargrove Hall. It was done. His dissertation on Sentinels. He dropped into his chair and stared at the sum of his three years with Detective James Ellison. He thought about keeping Jim's identity secret, but what did it matter? Using his name would make his dissertation a memorial to the man he'd loved as a brother.
Raising his right hand, he laid his palm on the cover page. So much of himself and his friendship with Jim were in these pages. He referred to their trip to Peru, Brackett using Jim and his abilities, Jim saving Blair from Lash in the nick of time, all the times Jim had saved a life, or lives, because of his sentinel abilities.
The only incident that remained absent was Blair's drowning. That had been too personal. He didn't want others reading about that intimacy -- it seemed too much like voyeurism. The secret would remain with Blair until his death, when their animal spirits would meet again.
His vision grew blurry, and he quickly looked away, allowing his gaze to find something to distract his growing melancholy. His eyes fell on a framed picture of himself and Jim -- the one Simon had taken when they'd taken him flyfishing for the first time. Blair stood and his feet carried him to the picture almost against his will. He picked up the framed photograph and his gut clenched. Studying Jim's expression, Blair realized it was one of the few times his friend had been completely relaxed and at peace. Blair's fish was held between them, and the two men's heads were close as they gazed at one another with silly grins on their faces.
He dropped the picture and the glass shattered. He quickly knelt down and retrieved the picture, slicing his finger on one of the shards of glass. Assured the photograph hadn't been harmed, he lifted his head to his visitor as he stick his cut finger in his mouth.
"I'm sorry," Chery said, hurrying to his side. "Here, let me see it."
Blair stubbornly shook his head. "What're you doing here?"
Chery drew back and Blair wished he could retract the sharp words. Instead, he could only apologize. "Sorry, Chery, you caught me at a bad time."
They stood and Chery peered at the picture in his hands. "Who's that?" she asked, pointing at Jim.
"A friend," he replied curtly, the realized he'd done it again. "His name was Jim Ellison."
Blair glanced away. "He was killed in a car accident nearly six months ago."
Chery laid a soft hand on his arm and Blair eased away from her touch. Suddenly he wanted to be alone. "Did you need something?" he asked.
Her cheeks reddened. "I hadn't heard from you since our date, so I thought I'd..."
Guilt compounded Blair's gloomy mood. "I'm sorry, Chery, but I've been pretty busy." He motioned toward the stack of papers on his desk. "I finished my dissertation."
She quickly crossed the room, reaching for the top sheet of the thick stack. Blair grabbed the paper from her hand. "I want a friend to read it first, to make sure it's okay."
The wounded look in her eyes increased his guilt. "All right. I guess I'll go then," she said.
Though relieved, Blair tried to hide it so he wouldn't hurt her feelings again. "I'll call you."
She paused in the doorway. "If you don't intend to call me, don't say you will. I'm a big girl and I prefer honesty."
She held up a hand. "I also don't need any more apologies. Once you get past whatever's bothering you, then call me if you'd like."
"I will." Blair managed a smile. "I promise."
She smiled back. "See you around."
Blair listened to her footsteps fade away down the quiet hallway. He liked Chery, but the date had been a disaster. He hadn't been able to enjoy himself, thinking he was committing some crime by having a good time when Jim was dead. But his friend wouldn't want him to crawl into a hole and die. Jim had thought he was strong and for Jim, Blair would be.
He took a deep breath, then dug in his supply of band-aids in his desk and wrapped a Yosemite Sam one around his finger. After cleaning up the glass, he slipped the photograph into his Burton book on the shelf behind him. Maybe someday he could look at it without falling apart. But not yet.
He studied his dissertation. He did want somebody to read it before he turned it in and there was only one other person who knew of Jim's abilities. But would he be willing to do it?
Glancing at the clock on the wall, he picked up the phone and punched a familiar number.
"Hi Simon, it's Blair. I have a favor to ask of you."
Three days after Brian had left, Jake got another roommate, an old man who lay in his bed with glazed eyes. Jake left the room as quickly as possible every morning and stayed away until they were herded back into their rooms half an hour before lights out.
He practiced extending his senses daily, hoping to impress Brian when the young man came to visit on Saturday.
Friday found Jake sitting in the community room, listening to a conversation between two nurses on another floor. They were talking about a daughter of one of theirs who had gone to Washington state to visit her father. He lived in a town called Cascade.
"Cascade," Jim said aloud, then repeated over and over, rolling it across his tongue. "Cascade... Cascade... Cascade... Rainier University."
Blair was a student at Rainier University! Jake jumped to his feet, startling Lydia and her imaginary friends. He ran down the hall to the nurses station to call Brian.
"I have to make a phone call," Jake said.
Nurse Ratched shook her head. "You know the rules, Jake. You aren't allowed to use a phone."
Jake blinked. He couldn't remember ever using one before, yet he knew how. He had to have used one in the past. "Please, I need to get a hold of a friend."
Nurse Ratched came around the desk and wrapped her fingers around Jake's arm, her nails digging into his flesh. He jerked away from her, taking a defensive stance that felt familiar. "I need to make a phone call. You have no right stopping me."
She crossed her arms beneath her massive chest. "What's gotten into you Jake? Before Brian showed up you were a perfect patient."
"I was dead inside," Jake stated flatly. "Now I'm alive and I don't belong here. I have to get out."
"Manny," the nurse shouted.
Desperation edged Jake and he turned to face the new adversary. Cocking his head to the side, he heard Nurse Ratched whisper for a hypodermic needle.
"No! No more shots. No more pills. I'm not crazy!"
Jake knew the louder he hollered, the more he incriminated himself, but he couldn't back down. Instinctively he knew Blair needed him, and he needed Blair -- his guide from Rainier University in Cascade.
Manny lunged toward him, but Jake sidestepped. Not expecting the move, Manny slammed into the desk.
"Shit! Damnit, Jake, now you're going to get it," Manny growled.
Jake heard Nurse Ratched lean toward him and he spun around, knocking the needle from her hands.
"Get Dennis and Leo," she shouted to one of the other nurses.
Less than a minute later, Jake found himself surrounded by three burly attendants. Helplessness and frustration raged through him.
"Why don't you believe me?" he shouted. "I don't belong here!"
"Relax, Jake, and you won't be hurt," Nurse Ratched ordered.
"Goddamnit, let me make my call!"
Suddenly the three men lunged at him and Jake got in a couple good punches, but his muscles had been weakened after all the months in the hospital. In less than a minute, he was held between Manny and Dennis while Nurse Ratched approached with her hypodermic.
"We just want to help you," she said.
"Bullshit. If you did, you'd let me make my call. It's only one fucking call!" Jake said through clenched teeth.
The needle broke through his skin and Jake felt the cool liquid surge into his vein. His limbs suddenly felt heavy and it took too much energy to hold them up. The lights doubled, tripled, then faded away.
"Blair," he whispered hoarsely as the floor rose up to meet him.
"Get him to his room," Nurse Ratched ordered.
She watched them drag Jake away, her forehead creased in worry. Then she picked up the phone and punched in a number. After four rings, it was picked up. "We have a problem," she simply said.
Jim's voice scared the hell out of Blair, and he quickly pulled his old Volvo to the side of the road. He searched the inside of his car with wide eyes, but he was alone. He gripped the steering wheel to still his shaking hands. He had heard Jim call his name. Of that he was certain.
Oh, God, he was losing it.
His eyes burned as he fought the hope that kindled to life. If Jim were alive, he'd have contacted Blair. Even if he'd been hurt, he'd have recovered enough by now to get a hold of his friends. Geezus, would the pain ever stop?
"Jim's gone... dead," Blair spoke to the emptiness in his car.
After a few minutes, his shaking abated and he pulled back into traffic. Ten minutes later he arrived at the restaurant where he was meeting Simon to pick up his dissertation. Three days ago, he'd given it to him to read and Simon had called him this afternoon, telling him he was done. He hadn't said anything else -- no comment on the material -- and Blair wasn't sure what that meant.
He spotted Simon's car in the parking lot and hurried inside. Finding him after a quick search, Blair sat down across the table from him, his palms damp and his heart racing.
"Are you all right?" Simon asked.
Blair nodded, but the word "no" slipped out.
"What happened?" Simon pressed.
Blair laughed nervously. "You're going to think this is crazy, but I heard Jim say my name on the way over here."
Simon's eyes shuttered, but compassion filled his normally gruff voice. "It only makes sense. You've been working on this dissertation and thinking about him a lot."
That did make sense, but for some reason, it didn't assuage Blair's unease. "I suppose."
Simon's brow creased. "You don't believe it might actually have been him?"
Blair shrugged and raked a hand through his unruly curls. "God, I don't know, Simon. I thought I was getting things back together, then I hear him. It just makes me wonder all over again."
"The dental records positively ID'ed him," Simon reminded gently. "We all wish Jim were still alive, but he's gone, Blair. He's been gone for a long time now."
Blair laughed weakly. "I'm surprised you haven't had me locked away in some funny farm."
"Well, the thought has crossed my mind, but it's been a couple years since I considered that option."
The waitress came and took their orders. Blair took a sip of his water, his gaze landing on the papers sitting on a corner of the table. "Well?"
Simon picked up the stack and handed it to him. He glanced away from the younger man, but Blair caught the damp glimmer in his eyes.
"I never realized," Simon said. "All those times you were riding with him, I never knew how often you pulled him back or how many instances when Jim was credited with saving a life because you were with him."
Blair shook his head. "No, it wasn't me, it was Jim."
"It was the two of you. Together," Simon said quietly, but firmly.
Blair swallowed hard. He kept the dissertation in his hands, feeling the cool smooth paper against his skin. The paper was so commonplace, but the words on those sheets transformed them into something more, something priceless.
"I don't know when I'm going to hand it in," Blair said softly.
"It's ready, isn't it?"
Blair nodded. "It's not that. I'm not sure I'm ready to share the relationship we had with the rest of the world."
Simon studied him for a moment. "Is there a deadline on it?"
"Professor Stoddard knew I was writing it. He's anxious to read it."
"Maybe it'd be best if you gave it to him right away," Simon said quietly. "Maybe it'll help."
Blair's heart raced and his lungs grew tight. He knew Simon was right, but he had to prepare himself. The subject was a large part of his soul. "I'll hand it in Monday," he finally said.
The waitress brought their drinks and Simon thankfully steered the conversation toward safer subjects, like Daryl, and Megan and Rafe's ill-fated date, and Brown's new diet, and Joel's move back to the bomb squad.
But even as Blair laughed at the appropriate times and added a few of his own comments, he could hear Jim's voice above everything else.
Brian had expected a rough week after leaving the hospital, and his expectations had been met. He'd gone to visit his parents. His mother had cried and hugged him, but his father had ignored him. Jake and Mark were right. He couldn't allow his father to make his life miserable. So he'd said good-bye to his mother and told her he'd call, and put his father out of his mind.
He entered the hospital, excited to see Jake again. He hoped the older man had fared well without him. Stopping at the desk outside the locked door leading into the asylum, Brian smiled at the nurse. "I'm here to visit one of the patients, Jake Edwards."
She glanced down her list and her finger stopped on a name. "He's not allowed visitors today."
"Why not?" he demanded.
"He had an episode yesterday."
"An episode?" Brian enunciated carefully. "What the hell does that mean?"
"It means we had to use force to restrain him."
Brian's heart leapt into his throat. "What'd he do?"
"I'm not at liberty to discuss it."
"How is he?"
"I can only share patient information with family members."
Brian's hand fisted and he struck the desktop. "He has no family. I'm his friend. I need to see him."
"I'm sorry. It's against rules."
"Damn the rules! I know Jake and he's not a violent man."
The nurse lowered her gaze as she bit her lower lip. "I never thought so either." She glanced around warily. "I'm going to let you up there, but you'll have to go to his room. Do you know where it is?"
Brian nodded. "Just give me a visitor pass so I can get out again. Put on the log that I'm visiting Lydia."
The nurse appeared surprised that he knew another patient, but nodded without comment. She handed him a pass, then flicked a switch, unlocking the door. Brian hurried through and raced up the flight of stairs to the second floor. He paused, poking his head in the doorway to see if anyone stood in the corridor. It was clear. Scrambling down the hall, he quickly found his old room and slipped inside.
The smell of stale sweat and body waste assaulted his nose and Brian almost gagged. He glanced at what had been his bed and spotted an old man lying there. Only a shallow rise and fall of his chest told Brian he wasn't dead.
He quickly stepped over to Jake's bedside and stared down at the pale face of the man he called friend. Much of the room's stench came from him. His eyes were open and his mouth agape. His gut tightened in horror at his friend's condition. How long had Jake been like this?
Placing his hands on either side of Jake's too-cool face, Brian hoped the touch of another human being would draw him back. "Hey, Kemo Sabe, I've come back. It's me Brian. Come on, big guy, snap out of it. If it's your senses, try to turn them down, like a stereo's volume. Jake!"
He continued urging Jake to come back for fifteen minutes. Finally the older man drew in a deep breath and his eyes became focused once more.
Jake pressed a hand to his throbbing head. "Oh God."
"You back among the living, buddy?"
Jake turned his head to the voice and it took a moment for recognition to return to his features. "Brian!" He drew back and glanced down at his soiled bed and gown. His face reddened. "Shit."
Brian laughed. "Good guess." He wrinkled his nose. "Think you can take a shower by yourself?"
Jake nodded. "Just help me up."
Five minutes later, the shower was running and Brian quickly stripped Jake's bed. Opening the bathroom door a crack, he picked up Jake's dirty clothing. He eased himself out of the room and slipped into the laundry room, tossing the filthy bedding and clothing in a bag. He grabbed a set of clean sheets and another blanket, then returned to the room. After making Jake's bed, Brian perched on it to wait for his friend.
The shower ended and a couple minutes later, Jake emerged, wearing a robe over a clean gown. "I'm sorry you had to find me like that," he said quietly, his embarrassment obvious.
"What the hell happened to you, buddy?" Brian asked. "The nurse downstairs told me you freaked out on them yesterday."
Jake shook his head and ran a hand over hair shorn close to his scalp. He walked to the window, crossed his arms, and stared out. "I wanted to call you. I remembered that man's name, the one I kept seeing in my head. His name's Blair and he's a student at Rainier University in Cascade, Washington."
Brian's eyes widened and he hopped off the bed to join Jake. He laid a hand on the man's broad shoulder. "Why didn't you call?"
"I tried." Jake's fingers curled into his palms, his nails biting into his skin. "They wouldn't let me. Said I wasn't allowed to make phone calls."
Brian nodded bitterly. "You can only do that if you've admitted yourself. Otherwise, you're virtually a prisoner here."
"Nurse Ratched gave me a shot. Knocked me out. Next thing I know, I wake up strapped in my bed. I tried to escape, but the straps were too tight. Then I started thinking about Blair and I must've concentrated too hard and had a blackout." He glanced at the bed and shuddered. "Somebody must've removed the restraints while I was out of it."
"What time was it when you went into this trance?"
Jake rubbed his eyes. "It was after supper -- someone tried to feed me, but I wouldn't eat."
Shock filled Brian. "So you've been lying there for over eighteen hours? Christ, Jake, I'm going to get you out of here."
Jake put a bridling hand on Brian's arm. "You won't be able to fight them."
The words were flat, without emotion, and they scared Brian because he knew Jake was right.
"Do you really want to help me?" Jake asked softly.
Brian scowled. "You shouldn't even have to ask me that. What can I do?"
Jake's blue eyes bored into Brian. "Find Blair. Bring him here. He can help. I don't know how I know that. I only know he will."
Brian nodded without hesitation. "It might take me a couple days. I'll have to fly to Washington, then go to the college and ask around."
Jake's eyebrows drew together. "Where are we?"
"This hospital is outside of Colorado Springs."
Jake turned his gaze back to the towering peaks. "That explains the mountains." Suddenly he closed his eyes tightly.
"Are you going to be all right?" Brian asked.
Jake nodded. "I always get a migraine after one of those blackouts."
"You gotta promise me you'll behave and not fall into one of those trances again." He shuddered. "You scared the hell out of me, Jake."
"Sorry." He smiled wryly. "I scared the hell out of me, too. I don't want to be the same person I was before you came."
"You won't. I promise you." Brian reached into his jacket pocket and withdrew a Denver Nuggets cap. "You said you wanted a cap."
Jake's smile damn near blinded Brian. Jake reached for the cap, took the brim in his palms and shaped it. When he placed it on his head, the brim curved around his upper face, framing his intelligent features and making his blue eyes all the more striking. "Thanks."
"No problem. You seemed to like basketball," Brian said with a shrug.
"The Nuggets are all right, but the Jags are better." Jake blinked, then added with a husky voice, "The Cascade Jags."
Brian gave Jake's shoulder a quick squeeze. "I think you're a long way from home. But with a lot of luck, we might be able to get you back there." He stepped back. "I'd best go book a flight to Cascade."
Jake's heartfelt words made Brian all the more determined to find this Blair and ask him what the hell kind of friend he was to abandon Jake in this place.
"As soon as I find him, I'll bring him here and maybe we can get some answers," Brian promised. "Hang in there, Jake."
The older man nodded, looking oddly vulnerable in his Nuggets cap and hospital robe and gown.
Brian cracked open the door and checked the hallway, then lifted a hand to Jake and hurried out. As he descended the stairs, he realized Jake hadn't once called him Chief.
Blair turned off the TV, the PBS logo flickering into oblivion. He'd tried to watch a program on the culture clash in Africa, but his thoughts refused to remain focused. The dissertation sat on the coffee table, the same place it'd been since Friday evening after Blair had brought it home. Now it was Sunday night; the day of reckoning was drawing nearer.
A part of him balked at handing it in to Dr. Stoddard on Monday, but Simon was right. Maybe it would be the final step in healing the open wound in his soul. No matter how hard Blair tried to ignore the grief, it sprang on him at the strangest times. Like when he'd been driving to the restaurant and he thought he'd heard Jim's voice. He couldn't forget that voice -- that tone he hadn't heard in six months, but knew better than his own.
Sighing, Blair pushed himself to his feet and stumbled down the hall to the bathroom. Once done in there, he turned out the lights in the loft. His gaze lingered on the moonlight streaming in to form a block of light on Jim's bed at the top of the stairs. He'd only gone up there twice since...
The first time had been when he'd done laundry a week after Jim's death and had to put away his friend's clothes. He'd ended up sitting on the floor in the middle of the upper bedroom for a couple hours, remembering and too shattered to move.
The second time had been to see if he could. He hadn't returned since.
He retreated to his corner room and mechanically stripped to his t-shirt and boxers, then crawled into bed. For a long time he lay there listening to the silence and thinking about his dissertation sitting in the living room.
Finally, he fell into a restless sleep.
Blair hadn't dreamed in a long time, unless he counted the nightmares. At first, he'd been plagued every night with the black surrealism of seeing Jim drive over a cliff while he'd stood by, helpless to stop him. But the nightmares had lessened in frequency to only once a week or so.
But this one was different. The black jaguar had appeared in it. This was the first time Blair had seen the cat since Jim's death. It sat quietly, the only movement its sides expanding and contracting as it breathed. Its eyes were unblinking, staring at Blair as if in accusation.
Blair tried to talk to it, but his mouth couldn't form words and he stood there merely meeting the jaguar's yellow eyes and drowning in their betrayal.
The alarm startled Blair and he bolted upright, his hand automatically slapping the radio off. His body was drenched in sweat, his hair was plastered to his face, and his underwear stuck to his skin. The sheets had wrapped themselves around Blair, making him feel like a bizarre mummy.
He unwound himself from the damp sheets and swung his feet to the floor. Propping his elbows on his thighs, he buried his face in his shaking hands. First he'd heard Jim's voice, then he'd dreamed about his animal spirit.
It seemed the gods were conspiring to drive him to insanity. Maybe it was the way of things -- if a sentinel dies, his guide is left with nothing to do but follow his sentinel in death or go crazy. It made as much sense, if not more, than any other reason for his inability to accept Jim's death.
Feeling like he hadn't slept at all, Blair stumbled into the shower and readied himself for another meaningless day. Except at the end of this one, he'd hand over his heart and soul to Dr. Stoddard.
Fortunately, Rainier University wasn't as big as Brian had feared. Of course, it wasn't as small as he would've liked either. He'd gone to the registrar's office to ask for assistance in tracking down Blair. They'd looked at him like he was crazy, then stated they couldn't release that information because it was confidential.
So Brian had been reduced to stopping students on the campus and asking if any of them knew a student named Blair. He'd chased down quite a few Blairs already, but none of them knew a man called Jake Edwards.
It was after four when Brian's stomach reminded him he hadn't eaten anything since a bagel at seven that morning. He found the student union deli and bought a carton of milk and a sub sandwich. Sitting down at one of the numerous empty tables, Brian inhaled his food then leaned back and closed his eyes. He'd flown out of Colorado Springs Sunday morning and arrived in Cascade before noon. After renting a car with his nearly maxed-out credit card, Brian had driven to the college, but everything had been shut down. So he'd found a cheap motel and spent the rest of the day exploring the town and wondering if Jake Edwards belonged here. And if so, where? And how had he ended up in Colorado?
Shaking himself out of his lethargy, Brian reminded himself that he had to do this for Jake. No matter how hopeless it seemed, he had to try every avenue. If he had to, he would break into the registrar's office and get the name of every Blair at Rainier University. Brian refused to consider Jake was wrong or that the mysterious Blair was no longer enrolled.
Or that he was dead, drowned as Jake had described in one of his recollections.
"Keep the faith," he murmured to himself as he stood.
After dumping his tray, he approached the first student he saw, a pretty blonde.
"Excuse me, but I'm looking for a student named Blair," he said.
The girl narrowed her eyes. "Who are you?"
"A friend of a friend. He asked me to find this Blair but he couldn't remember his last name." It was the truth, but he knew it wasn't very trust-engendering.
She studied him for a moment, then glanced at the wall clock. "I'm going to be late for an appointment."
"Do you know any Blairs?" Brian pressed.
"There's Blair Sandburg," she finally said reluctantly. "But he's a grad student."
"Where can I find him?"
She studied him for a moment. "Hargrove Hall, a basement office."
Hargrove Hall. Brian had seen the building earlier that day. Five minutes later he paused on the science building's steps and took a moment to admire the fountain in the circular drive. Then he entered Hargrove Hall and checked the building's directory. No Blair Sandburg. But then, Brian was familiar enough with the academic world to know graduate students were often forgotten in the hallowed halls. The girl had said his office was in the basement.
Because it was so late, the building was quiet and Brian's footsteps echoed on the tile as he wandered through the basement eyeing each door. A man came out of a room up ahead and walked toward him. His dark hair was long and curly, and he was about Brian's size. He walked slowly, a thick stack of papers clutched in his hands. As they passed one another, he looked up at Brian and appeared startled that he wasn't alone. He gave Brian a slight smile, but there was a pinched look about his features.
"Excuse me, are you Blair Sandburg?" Brian asked.
The man stumbled to a stop and examined Brian a little closer. "Do I know you?"
Brian smiled slightly. "No, but we might have a mutual friend, a Jake Edwards."
Blair Sandburg thought for a moment, then shook his head. "I'm sorry. I've never heard of him." In spite of his apparent exhaustion, Sandburg smiled. "But you might want to check with the secretary upstairs. She knows everybody."
"Thanks. I'll do that."
Brian shook aside his disappointment. He'd been so certain. Jake had described his friend and that description fit Sandburg. Maybe Sandburg was lying. After all, Jake had been thrown away like a piece of garbage, with nobody caring enough to even visit him. Maybe Sandburg was the rotten bastard who'd betrayed his friend and had him committed.
He grabbed Sandburg's arm, halting him, and making him drop the sheaf of papers. "Jake isn't crazy, and if you're the one who threw him in that hospital and forgot about him, you're going to regret it."
The long haired man's dark blue eyes widened, first with startled fear, then anger. "Look, mister, I don't know what kind of game you're playing, but I don't know any Jake Edwards." He glanced down at the mess of papers on the floor, then glared at Brian. "Thanks a lot."
Something in Sandburg's haunted eyes made Brian believe him and he released him. He rubbed his eyes. "I'm sorry, Sandburg. It's just that I promised Jake I'd find his friend Blair and I'm not having a whole lot of luck."
Sandburg squatted down to gather his papers and Brian joined him to help.
"He doesn't know his friend's last name?" Sandburg asked after a few moments.
Brian shook his head. "No. He's been in this hospital for a while and doesn't have any memory of his life before."
"How'd you meet him?"
"I admitted myself to get some help. Only they didn't help me." Brian smiled wryly. "It was Jake who saved my life, gave me back my soul. He's a special man."
Sandburg's eyes clouded suspiciously. "He sounds like it."
"Anyway, I promised him I'd help him get his life back, too."
"Where is this hospital?"
"But this man says his friend is here in Cascade?"
Brian nodded. "Specifically, a student at Rainier University. The only problem is I don't know how long ago that was. Jake was so certain, though."
"There are other Blairs on campus."
"And I've talked to a dozen of them, including you. Nobody recognizes his name." Brian glanced down at the papers in his hand and noticed the phrase 'highly developed senses.' "What is this?"
"My dissertation," Sandburg replied. "I was just going to hand it in to my advisor." He sighed. "Looks like I'll have to go back to my office and put it back together in order." Sandburg pushed himself to his feet and took the papers from Brian.
Brian narrowed his eyes. It was an awfully odd coincidence that this Blair was writing about enhanced senses and Jake possessed them.
"Did you get a list of Blairs from the registrar's office?" Sandburg asked.
Still puzzling about the dissertation, Brian shook his head absently. "They wouldn't give me one. Said it was a violation of privacy rights."
"Why don't you come to my office? I might be able to get you that list."
Startled, Brian pinned Sandburg with wary eyes. "Why would you do that?"
"I feel sorry for this guy and want to help," he replied simply.
Brian shrugged and followed Sandburg to his office, an artifact closet with Blair Sandburg's name written on a piece of paper and taped to the door.
"Have a seat." Blair motioned to the one chair not overflowing with books and notes.
Brian lowered himself to the chair while Sandburg turned on his computer.
"So what's this dissertation about?" Brian asked curiously.
"Sentinels. People with enhanced senses. According to Richard Burton, the anthropologist--"
"Not the actor," Brian interjected absently, though his mind was awhirl.
Sandburg grinned and reached for an oversized book behind him. "This talks about his belief that there were individuals born with enhanced senses who had been genetically programmed to be watchmen for their tribe." He opened the book and a picture slipped out.
Brian's gaze fell to the photograph and his heart stumbled. He grabbed the picture of Sandburg and Jake holding a fish.
"What the hell kind of game are you playing, Sandburg?" Brian demanded angrily. "What did you do, run tests on him for your valuable dissertation, then when he went over the edge, you had him committed? He'd served his purpose." His voice ended with an ugly sneer.
"What are you talking about?" Sandburg's confusion was either the best acting job Brian had seen in a long time or he didn't have a clue as to what Brian was talking about.
Brian turned the picture toward him and pointed at the tall blue-eyed man. "That's Jake Edwards."
The earth tipped beneath Blair, and the air was suddenly too thick, too viscous to breathe.
"What kind of sick joke is this?" he managed to ask over the bile rising in his throat. He'd believed the man's story and had only wanted to help. Instead, the stranger turned out to be a wacko. He snatched the picture back. "That's my friend Jim Ellison. He was killed in a car accident six months ago."
The man leaned over the desk, his eyes wide, his nostrils flared. "That's Jake Edwards, though Jake isn't in as good a shape anymore. He's probably lost twenty-five, thirty pounds since that picture was taken, but those eyes. Those are definitely Jake's eyes. Don't you care that your friend is in a nut house? How can you sleep at night?"
All the months of pain and grief boiled up in Blair and he threw himself across the desk, sending himself and the stranger to the floor in a tangle of arms and legs. Blair straddled his torso, his fists aching to strike the man's lying face. Instead, his fingers twisted the man's shirtfront in tight fists.
"Jim Ellison was my best friend. I would've gone to hell to search for him if I'd believed there was a chance he was still alive. But the dental records identified his corpse." Unchecked tears spilled down Blair's cheeks to drip onto the man's shirt. "Then some fucking bastard shows up with a sick story that he's in an asylum under a different name." Blair paused to take a deep breath and despair replaced anger. "What the hell did I ever do to you?" he asked, his voice nearly breaking.
Slowly, the man's eyes softened and he nodded gently. "I'm sorry, Blair. I should've known." He paused as if gathering his own thoughts. "Jake, or Jim, didn't remember a thing about his life before he was sentenced to that hospital. It's only been in the past couple of months that he started having flashes of memories. The main one was of a man, long curly dark hair and blue eyes. His name was Blair and he was a student at Rainier University. That's all he can remember."
The man swallowed and Blair watched the movement of his Adam's apple. "He begged me to find you, to find the man he knew he could trust to help him," the stranger continued. "Even with amnesia, he remembered you and knew you would help him."
A bullet in the stomach would've hurt less than the ache in Blair's gut. He released the man and dragged himself to his feet slowly. Was it true? Was Jim still alive? He sagged against his desk, his backside resting on the desktop. Breathing was difficult and his pulse thundered in his ears. He was vaguely aware of the stranger standing in front of him.
"There's another thing," the man said quietly. "He can hear and see things normal people can't."
Blair's breath hitched in his chest and a sob bubbled up. It had to be Jim. Or an elaborate hoax.
Please God, don't do this to me. Don't give me hope only to have it ripped away.
"If you believed your friend to be dead, this must be a terrible shock. But I swear to you, I'm telling you the truth. The man with you in that picture is alive and condemned to an asylum for the rest of his life unless somebody saves him. He thinks you're the someone who can do it."
Blair stared at the man through moisture-laden eyes and recognized his sincerity. He took a deep, unsteady breath. "All right. I'll go with you to this hospital. But if this Jake Edwards isn't Jim..." Blair drew his sleeve across his eyes. "What's your name?"
"Brian Halloran." He stuck out his hand and Blair grasped it after a moment's hesitation.
"Where are you staying?" Blair asked.
"At the Seaside Motel."
Blair frowned. "That's a dive."
"It's all I could afford. I'm a student, trying to get into medical school."
Blair wanted to believe him, but he was so scared to allow himself to hope again, to think about Jim and the possibility that he might be alive. But what also troubled Blair was the fact that if this Jake Edwards was Jim, Blair had abandoned him. "I swear, if I had thought there was a chance he was still alive, I would've never given up looking for him."
Brian nodded somberly. "I believe you, Blair. Now, instead of blaming yourself, maybe you should be thanking whatever deity you believe in that your Jim didn't give up on you."
Brian's soft words told Blair that he was telling him the truth. Brian believed Jake Edwards was Jim Ellison.
Blair fairly bounced around the loft. He knew Brian was watching him with something akin to amusement, but Blair couldn't help it. They were flying out at six in the morning for Colorado Springs. He'd tried to find an earlier flight, but they were all booked, so Blair had to burn off his excess energy by pacing around the apartment.
By tomorrow at this time, he and Jim would be reunited. Doubts crept into Blair's mind, warning him this could all be a dream and when he awakened, Jim would still be dead. But the signs had been there for Blair to read: his inability to accept Jim's death, Jim's voice saying his name, and the jaguar dream of the night before. If only he'd listened a little closer.
The doorbell rang and Blair answered it. He paid the delivery man for the Chinese food, then closed the door and carried the bag to the table. "Hungry?"
Brian joined him. "Starved."
They opened the white boxes and piled fried rice, sesame chicken, and broccoli and beef on plates Blair had retrieved from the cupboards.
"Thanks for letting me spend the night here. Money's getting a little tight," Brian said sheepishly.
"No problem. There's lots of couch space. Or if you want, you can sleep in my room," Blair said.
"What about that room?" Brian pointed up the stairs.
Blair's cheeks heated with self-consciousness. "It's Jim's, but he probably wouldn't mind. I haven't been able to go up there to take care of things."
Brian's gaze traveled across the kitchen, moving to the living room and the doors leading to the balcony. "Jake remembered this place -- the high ceiling and the sunshine lighting it up."
Blair laid his chopsticks down and wiped a paper towel across his mouth. "How is he, Brian? I mean, really, how is he?"
Brian dragged his attention back to him. "I won't lie to you, Blair. When I first met him, he was sitting on the floor in his hospital gown and robe, his arms wrapped around his knees and staring at the wall in some kind of trance."
"A zone-out," Blair said softly to himself, imagining his sentinel as Brian described him. It was almost impossible. His throat tightened in anguish. He glanced at Brian to see him looking at him questioningly. "It was a zone-out. It's when he concentrates so hard on one sense that everything else shuts down. He'd reached a point where he was controlling those, though."
"Zone-out," Brian repeated, nodding thoughtfully. "That's a good term for it. Anyway, Jake was more child than man, unable to remember anything but his life in the hospital. And even that was a little fuzzy. For some reason, we hit it off. He called me Chief."
The lump in Blair's throat expanded, threatening to choke him. "That's what he always called me."
Surprise flickered across Brian's face. "After a while, he started talking and acting more like his real age, probably his real self. We tested his senses and found out he could hear and see things that were completely amazing."
Blair couldn't help but smile. "Jim Ellison, Sentinel Extraordinaire."
Brian laughed. "I suppose, but to me he'll always be Jake Edwards. A little over a week ago, I checked myself out of the hospital. When I went back to visit Jake on Saturday, he told me what he remembered about you so I jumped the next available flight and here I am."
Blair noticed a hesitation in Brian's voice and a shifting of his eyes. Unease exploded within him. "What aren't you telling me?"
Brian used his fork to make circles then squares with the refried rice. The longer he remained silent, the more the fear expanded in Blair's chest.
"When I went to see him on Saturday, he was lying on his bed in one of those zone-outs. He'd been there for hours," Brian began, his eyes glistening suspiciously. He drew his arm across them impatiently. "He had lost control of his bowels and bladder, and had been lying in the mess for God knows how long."
The sesame chicken rebelled in Blair's stomach, but he managed to force it back down. The loft suddenly seemed too close, too suffocating and he jumped to his feet. He slid open the balcony door and charged outside. He leaned over the concrete ledge and hung his head, feeling the familiar burn of moisture in his eyes, but he was sick to death of the tears. Jim was alive. He had to focus on that. They could take care of the bastards who did this to him later, after Jim was back home and safe. All that mattered was Jim.
A few minutes later he sensed Brian behind him and he straightened, but kept his gaze aimed at the lights of the city. "Some friend I am, huh? Can't take a little hard reality."
"Don't apologize, Blair. You've just shown me why Jake thinks the world of you."
Blair raked his fingers through his hair, then turned to face Brian as he leaned back against the concrete. "I was an only child with a mother who's what you would call a little eccentric." He smiled fondly. "You could say Jim adopted me, took me in as his roommate and let me into his life. I love him like a brother, Brian. When I finally accepted his death a few months ago, it was like a big part of me died with him."
"Why would anyone do this to him? What could he have done that would make somebody hurt him so badly?" Brian demanded.
"He's a cop, or he was a cop. A detective in the Cascade Police Department. I rode with him as an observer."
Blair smiled sheepishly and explained the unique history between himself and Jim. "Only Simon Banks his boss and I knew about his senses. Now you do, too." His expression faltered. "If Jake is Jim."
"He is," Brian said with so much conviction Blair almost believed him. His gaze turned intense. "Somebody went through a lot of trouble to put him in there. I have a feeling it's related to his policework."
Blair dragged his hair back from his face. "When he... died, I went through every single case he'd been involved in. I couldn't believe he was dead." He laughed, a soft, heartrending sound. "I thought somebody had maybe kidnapped him. God, Brian, the things I used to imagine he was going through -- torture, pain." Blair fixed his gaze on the younger man. "I never once thought of an asylum. I mean, this isn't like the nineteenth century where someone could be committed to one of those places for having the wrong thought."
"No, it's not, which means the person behind this elaborate plan had a serious grudge against Jak-Jim, and had the brains and computer know-how to make it happen." Brian paused. "Are you going to call his boss and let him know?"
Blair shook his head. "No, I've decided to wait until I'm sure. Simon already thinks I've gone over the deep end with Jim's death. If I tell him about this, he'll try to talk some sense into me." He chuckled. "Poor Simon. He should know me better than that by now."
"Not many people would understand, or even believe," Brian said quietly. "Jake told me something once. 'Family isn't always related by blood.' When he told me that, in some part of his Swiss cheese memory, he was thinking of you."
Blair took a deep, steadying breath, afraid to think, to hope too much. If Jake wasn't Jim, he wasn't sure if he could go through the whole process again. No, he couldn't. He'd rather...
He shook his head. Think only good thoughts... positive vibes... and a little extra karma might help, too.
"I'm going to bed." He smiled weakly. "I might even get some sleep."
"You'll see, Blair. Tomorrow morning, you and your friend will be back together."
"I hope so." Blair spoke the phrase as a benediction.
Jake managed to play his role as meek patient for the next two days and his incident with the phone seemed to be forgotten. He did catch Nurse Ratched eyeing him a few times, probably wondering when he was going to flip out again. But Jake was determined to wait for Brian and Blair. He knew Brian would bring Blair with a certainty that he'd never felt before.
By Tuesday morning, his confidence started to waver. It had been nearly seventy-two hours since Brian had promised to return with Blair and Jake was getting worried. Hadn't he been able to find him?
Or maybe the man lying facedown in the water in his patchwork memory had been Blair? Was he dead? That possibility nearly sent Jake into a blackout. He focused on his breathing, hearing a voice telling him to breathe slowly... in... out... in... out. It was Blair's voice. He wasn't sure how he knew that, only that he was as certain of that as finding the next breath of air.
Suddenly, cramps wrapped themselves around Jake's gut and he pressed his arms against his middle. Had breakfast been that bad? It had been the usual, and Jake had eaten only a mouthful of everything in spite of Nurse Ratched's admonishments for him to clean off his plate. Fortunately, Roger started hollering and her attention was diverted, allowing Jake to get rid of the majority of food, which even with his enhanced senses, was tasteless.
Another grab at his intestines and Jake sucked in a breath of air as he closed his eyes tightly. What the hell was twisting him up inside? He stumbled to his feet in the community room and wasn't surprised that nobody noticed his less-than-graceful departure. Pausing in the hallway, he leaned against the wall to hold himself upright. Did food poisoning hit this fast?
Or was it just poison?
Jake had no idea where that thought sprang from. Waves of agony shimmied through his body, causing him to double up. A groan escaped his lips.
"Are you all right, Jake?"
He opened his eyes to see Lydia. At five feet tall, she had to tilt her head back to look at him even though he was bent over. "Can you help me to my room?" he asked in between gasps.
Lydia turned slightly. "Well, what do you think, Frederick? Can we?" She tilted her head, then nodded and looked at Jake. "Frederick says we can. Come on now."
Though the woman was tiny, she had more strength than Jake would have given her credit for. He tried not to lean on her too much, but her support was welcome. Finally they arrived in his room and he tumbled into his bed headfirst, curling his knees into his chest. Agony clawed at his gut now, coiling like a cheap spring.
"Thanks, Lydia," he said, then remembered to add, "and you, t-too, Frederick."
The bird-like lady smiled and leaned close to Jake. "That's all right. Frederick isn't real, you know."
Jake's chuckle turned into a grimace, but he managed a smile for her. "I know."
She patted his arm and gazed at him, worry in her surprisingly lucid eyes. "Should I get the doctor?"
"No," he replied quickly. He remembered all too well the last time the doctor had taken care of him. "I just need to rest a little."
Lydia straightened and the familiar curtain of dementia returned. "Come along, Frederick. Jake needs some peace and quiet."
He watched her leave, shaking his head sadly. Did he look as crazy as her and the others?
Another spasm attacked him and he curled into a tighter ball, gritting his teeth so hard the cords of his neck hurt. Either he was dying or he was going to wish he was dead real soon.
Come on, Blair, where are you?
The hospital looked as forbidding on the inside as its solid weathered walls looked on the outside. Barred windows with closed shutters reminded Blair of the hotel in Psycho. All it needed was Anthony Perkins with a bloody knife in his hand to greet them.
The antiseptic smell couldn't quite cover the underlying odors of body waste and sweat. Blair's heart drummed against his ribs and he tried to imagine staying here for any length of time, like Brian had. And maybe Jim.
"Excuse me, we'd like to visit Jake Edwards," Brian said to the burly attendant at the station.
"He can't have visitors," the man stated in a bored voice.
Blair's head came up sharply. He hadn't come all this way to be turned away. He had no intention of going back to Cascade without his friend, if indeed Jake Edwards was Jim.
Brian held up his hand to Blair, obviously knowing Blair was going to object.
"That's all right. We actually came to see Lydia Jones. We promised her we'd stop by to visit Frederick." Brian leaned over the desk and whispered conspiratorially. "I know he's not real, but Aunt Lydia thinks he is, so I play along to keep her happy." He winked. "I think the old girl has some money and I'm hoping I get a part of it."
The orderly grinned, revealing a broken front tooth. "All right." He glanced past Brian to Blair. "What about him?"
"He's a friend from college. Never been in one of these places before. Thought I'd give him an education."
The man laughed, like it was a big joke. He handed Brian two passes and motioned to the clipboard. "Sign in. When you leave, remember to stop back here and drop off your visitor badges and sign out."
"We will," Brian assured.
Blair took a pass from Brian and watched him write their names on the list. The burly man opened the door with a flick of a switch and Brian and Blair hurried through.
"What was that about?" Blair whispered hoarsely when he caught up to Brian.
"Some of the people who work here have the compassion of an ant, and the brains to match. You gotta be able to tap dance around them if they throw you a curve," Brian replied.
Blair laughed lightly. "I call that obfuscation."
"That'll work, too."
The two men took the elevator to the second floor and emerged warily. Jim was here someplace. Blair could feel his presence. His palms began to sweat and his chest constricted, making it hard to breathe. Black dots danced in his vision and he had to pause a moment to pull himself together.
"You all right?" Brian asked.
Blair nodded, swallowing the dryness. "Yeah, I just need a minute, man. If Jake is really Jim, I-I just--"
Brian smiled in understanding. "Hey, I'll hold you up so you don't embarrass yourself by fainting or something. C'mon, your friend's waiting for you." He took Blair's arm and guided him down the hallway to a room.
Blair could hardly hear over the heartbeat pulsing in his ears. He was trembling so much he figured he'd puddle to the floor like the wicked witch of the west. I'm melting... melting.
Come on, Sandburg, pull yourself together.If this is Jim, he's going to need every bit of your strength.
Brian tugged Blair into the room where they stopped. There was only an old man lying on one of the beds.
"He must be in the rec room," Brian said.
Blair followed Brian mutely. His mind was chattering too much to try to hold a conversation with anyone. Brian led him into a large room with a console TV that had an advertisement for a home gym blaring. Men and women dressed in thin faded robes and gowns with half slippers sat and walked around. A few of them were mimicking the muscled man from the ad, pretending they were lifting weights. Some of those who sat appeared to be completely out of touch with their surroundings. Those who scuffed about weren't much better, though they did manage to go around obstacles in their path.
He tried to imagine Jim among these people, living as one of them these past six months. He couldn't do it. The Jim he remembered was strong and vital and brimming with self-confidence. But Jake Edwards was a man with no recollection of his past. Jim Ellison with his memory wiped clean. Blair's heart tripped into his throat. It was an image he didn't want to see, but knew he would. Soon.
Blair searched the faces for the one he hadn't seen in six months. Unless Jim had changed completely, he wasn't there. He glanced at Brian questioningly.
Brian threw his hands in the air helplessly. "I don't know. Unless they took him someplace," he paused and added quietly, "or something happened to him. Let's go back to his room. Maybe we just missed him."
As they walked down the hallway, a disturbance at the other end made them turn. A man in a gown was hunched over, struggling against a behemoth nurse. She appeared to be trying to drag him, but he was resisting.
"There's Jake," Brian exclaimed.
His heart thundering, Blair followed on the heels of Brian as they raced down the corridor. The nurse glanced up in surprise, but the patient's neck was bowed, as was his body. Blair didn't do more than give the nurse a cursory look. His entire being was centered on the man.
"Admitted yourself again, Halloran?" the nurse demanded caustically.
Brian shook his head. "We came to see Jake."
Her fingers tightened on the older man's arm. "He can't have visitors. Doctor's orders."
Blair took a step closer to the hunched figure and his breath rasped in his throat. His heart drummed against his ribs. If this man was Jim, he'd definitely lost at least thirty pounds from his once fit frame. Blair's stomach curled into itself with horror and outrage.
"Jim?" he said softly.
The man's body froze, then slowly, he raised his head. Confusion and pain swirled in blue eyes almost as familiar to Blair as his own.
Nearly petrified with shock and disbelief, Blair's world winked in and out of focus. His breath hitched in his suddenly tight throat, then he reached out toward Jim with a trembling hand. "Oh God, I'm sorry, Jim. I--" his voice broke and his eyes burned. "I thought you were dead."
Jim stared at him, a myriad of emotions panning across his face. "Blair... Chief?"
At the sound of the nickname only Jim called him, Blair could only nod. He took another step toward the man he'd mourned for, his arms outstretched. Keeping his voice low, he spoke soothingly. "I'm here for you now, Jim. I won't leave you again. I promise."
Weariness and relief filled Jim's angular and much too thin face. "I knew... you'd come."
Overjoyed at finding Jim, but appalled by the condition he found him in, Blair managed a shaky smile. "Always, buddy."
Suddenly Jim grimaced, squeezing his eyes shut and his jaw muscle jumped. He pressed his arms against his stomach and a groan escaped his colorless lips.
Fear spiked in Blair's chest and he crossed the remaining distance between them, wrapping his arms around Jim, who collapsed within them. Unable to keep him upright, Blair dropped to his knees, easing Jim down with him. He cradled his friend in his arms as Jim's head rested in the curve of Blair's neck and shoulder. Jim's body, curled into a tight ball between Blair's legs, shuddered, and his warm breath cascaded across Blair's neck.
Blair glared up at the nurse, whose nametag read Simpson. "What the hell did you do to him?"
She met his glare without flinching. "Nothing. Jake's sick, so I was trying to get him into a room where the doctor could examine him."
Blair felt Jim move against him and he glanced down. "What is it, Jim?" he asked quietly.
"She's... l-lying. Made m-me sick. Breakfast," he stammered in a husky voice.
Fury like he'd never known pulsed through Blair. He was torn between striking the nurse and holding his friend. Blair tightened his grip on Jim. Now that Blair found him, he wasn't going to risk losing him again.
"Brian, we have to get him out of here," Blair said, knowing he sounded desperate and not giving a damn.
"You can't check him out," the nurse said. "Only the person who committed him can have him released."
"Listen, lady, this man is not Jake Edwards," Blair stated. "His name is Jim Ellison and I'm the only person who can sign any type of medical papers for him."
"I only have your word that he's Jim Ellison and that isn't worth anything."
Blair's stomach churned and he could barely speak. Air seemed difficult to find and even more difficult to draw into his lungs. "I'll prove it to you. I just need to make a phone call."
"Go make your phone call," the nurse said, waving a hand. "Meanwhile, I'll get the doctor to see Jake."
"Don't let her take him, Blair," Brian said, his face an angry mask as he stared at the nurse. "You don't know what she'll do."
Fingertips bit into Blair's arm. "D-Don't leave me, Chief," Jim said hoarsely.
Blair leaned close to Jim and his expression softened. "I'm not going anywhere," he said quietly.
The nurse stepped toward him and Jim whimpered. Blair's heart leapt into his throat at the plaintive and uncharacteristic sound. He'd never seen Jim so frightened, so helpless, and Blair's protective instincts for his sentinel told him not to let Jim out of his sight, no matter what.
"If you care about him, you'll let the doctor check him out," the nurse said.
Jim clutched Blair's arm almost painfully and the panic in his eyes made Blair's gut ache. "He hurt me... strapped m-me down in b-bed."
Unable to bear the anguish and fear in Jim's eyes, Blair laid his cheek against the older man's short hair. "I won't let them hurt you ever again." His voice trembled.
Blair struggled with his overwhelming emotions. He'd accepted Jim's death more or less and to find him alive was almost too much for his mind to grasp. He gained control of his careening thoughts and raised his head to spear the nurse with a piercing gaze. "You're not taking him," he stated firmly. He glanced up at Brian who was eyeing the nurse like she was an ogress. "Brian, I need your help to get Jim to his room."
"Jake's delusional. He needs--" the nurse began.
"No!" Blair cut her off sharply. Rage pulsed through him. "Get the hell away from him. You're not going to hurt him anymore."
She narrowed her eyes, but took a step back. "If he dies, it'll be on your conscience."
Blair's heart stumbled in his chest. His gaze flickered down to his friend and his breath caught in his throat. What if Jim really did need a doctor?
"D-Don't let her scare you, Chief," Jim said, his voice so quiet only Blair could hear him. He clung to Blair's arm, which was wrapped around the older man's chest. "I trust you."
The soft-spoken words brought a lump to Blair's throat. He didn't deserve Jim's unquestioning faith. He had given up on him, even when he'd felt that Jim was still alive. He'd fought it for weeks, but the physical evidence had overcome his gut feeling. If only he'd kept searching, maybe Jim wouldn't be merely a shadow of the man Blair remembered. He swallowed. Hard. "Come on, Brian, let's get him to his room."
Working together, Blair and Brian got Jim to a standing position. The bigger man leaned heavily on Blair, but Blair welcomed his burden. It was proof that Jim was real, not a figment of his imagination. As they moved down the hall, Jim seemed to gain more strength and was shuffling his feet by the time they got to his room. They eased Jim down on the bed and he lay down, curling his knees to his belly, but he kept one hand fastened to Blair's arm. It was as if Jim needed that physical connection, and Blair wasn't about to argue -- he needed it just as badly.
"You have to make a call, Brian," Blair said.
"All right, but don't let Ja-Jim out of your sight. I trust Nurse Ratched as far as I can throw her."
Blair smiled at the nickname Brian had given Nurse Simpson, but sobered quickly. He believed the same thing. "Don't worry. I'm staying right beside him. I want you to call Simon Banks at the Cascade Police Department." Blair gave Brian the number. "Tell him Jim Ellison is alive and that he needs to come down here as quickly as possible. Tell him to bring proof of Jim's identity."
"Okay." Brian jogged out of the room and down the hallway.
Blair turned to gaze down at his friend's pale, sweat-coated face and worry twisted his stomach into a knot.
"Stay here?" Jim asked quietly.
Blair sat down on the edge of the bed, his hand covering Jim's. He managed a smile. "You've got yourself another shadow."
Jim's lips curved upward and his blue eyes shown gratitude.
"Hang in there, buddy. We got the cavalry coming," Blair said.
"John Wayne?" A shadow of the familiar twinkle lit Jim's eyes and Blair's own vision blurred.
"Simon Banks," Blair said. "Do you remember Simon?"
Jim's brow furrowed, then he wrinkled his nose. "Smelly cigars."
Blair laughed and a tear slid down his cheek, but this time it was from joy, not sorrow. He wiped it away before Jim could see it. "He's going to be so glad to see you."
The pain that lined Jim's face began to ease. He stared at Blair, as if memorizing his features.
"What is it?" Blair asked softly.
"I couldn't remember you, Chief." His lips thinned. "I couldn't remember anyone, not even who I was." He paused. "I'm Jim Ellison, not Jake Edwards."
It wasn't a question, but Blair nodded. "That's right. You disappeared about six months ago." The despair that filled those months crushed down upon Blair and he glanced away to hide his remembered agony. "We all thought you were dead."
"I was," Jim whispered. "I-I didn't know anything about my past. When I finally started to remember, it was you I saw."
Blair's heart tripped and he shifted his attention back to Jim, then gave his hand a squeeze. "It's all right now. I found you and everything's going to be fine."
A man in a white coat entered, followed by the ogress.
"What's the problem here?" the doctor demanded.
Blair stood, but didn't relinquish his hold on Jim. "We don't need you."
"Who are you?"
"I'm Jim's partner."
"Jim? This man's name is Jake Edwards."
Blair shook his head vehemently. "His name is Jim Ellison and he's a detective in Cascade, Washington. How he got here is what I plan to find out." He scowled at the nurse.
"Easy, Chief," Jim soothed in a low voice. "Both their heart rates shot up."
Panic slid through Blair, but it was replaced by cold determination. "You should leave now, before you get in this any deeper."
Fear flickered in the doctor's eyes, but Nurse Simpson merely glowered at him.
At that moment, Blair wished he had Jim's abilities to read their bodies' reactions. What were they going to do?
"I have other patients to attend," the doctor murmured and slipped away.
The nurse remained for a few moments longer, then she also retreated.
Blair sighed, but his relief was short-lived. Jim groaned as another spasm ripped through him. He pressed his arms into his stomach, releasing his hold on Blair.
"Breathe through it, Jim. Turn down the dials, you can do it," Blair intoned in a low voice as he grasped his friend's shoulder, giving his sentinel a physical connection to his guide.
Slowly, Jim's body began to relax and uncoil. He opened his eyes and Blair saw fondness in their blue depths. "Thanks, Chief."
"You're welcome," Blair said affectionately.
Brian returned to the room, halted in the doorway and stared at them a moment. "I told you things would work out." He smiled warmly. "For both of you." He moved farther into the room. "I got a hold of Captain Banks."
"What'd he say?" Blair asked, returning to his perch on the bed beside Jim.
Brian shrugged. "At first he thought I was crazy, then he said to tell you both he'd be on the next plane here." He frowned. "He also said to tell you he felt like he was back in the Sandburg zone."
Blair laughed and gazed at Jim whose puzzled features told Blair his memory still had some missing pieces. "I'll explain later."
"Something tells me I may not want to know." Jim's accompanying half smile was so Jim-like that Blair couldn't draw his gaze away from the familiar sight.
"You okay?" Jim suddenly asked in concern.
Blair knew without asking that Jim had detected his increased heart rate. He smiled widely. "Couldn't be better, Jim."
Brian cleared his throat and shifted awkwardly. "I hate to do this, but I checked my messages. I've got an interview in two hours and with the snow coming down..."
Blair turned his gaze to the window and saw huge snowflakes swirling outside. "When did that start?"
"Just a few minutes ago." Brian shrugged. "Springtime in the Rockies. I don't want to leave you both here, but if I don't make it to this interview, I might blow my shot at medical school."
"Go on, Brian," Jim said gently. "Mark would want you to."
Brian's eyes shimmered suspiciously. "Yeah, he would."
"We'll go over to your place after I get Jim outta here," Blair assured.
"If you're not there when I get home, I'll come back and check on you." The worry in Brian's tone touched Blair.
"Thanks, man. I don't know how to thank you for... everything." Blair glanced down at his friend. "Without you, Jim would..." He licked his suddenly dry lips and swallowed. He turned to Brian again. "Thank you."
"Seeing Jake back where he belongs is all the thanks I need." Brian shook hands with Blair, then Jim. "I'll see you later."
"Good luck with the interview," Jim said.
Brian nodded and left.
"God, Jim, if it hadn't been for Brian, you'd..." Blair choked on the words. "And I'd still think you were dead."
Jim reached out to give Blair's arm a squeeze. "Don't think about it, Chief. Now that you're here, everything'll be fine."
"I wouldn't bet on it."
Blair glanced up to see Nurse Simpson holding a gun and flanked by a burly orderly. It looked like Jim may have spoken too soon. Blair instinctively placed himself between the gun and Jim. "What's going on?" he demanded.
"Somebody doesn't want Jake to ever leave the hospital, unless it's in a body bag," the nurse said. "Too bad you didn't eat all your breakfast."
Red hazed Blair's vision. "You did poison him!" He took a step toward her, but Jim's grasp halted his motion.
"Easy, Chief," Jim's low voice cut through Blair's rage. "I don't think she'd have a problem shooting you."
Blair evened out his breathing, forcing his tense muscles to relax. He wouldn't be able to help Jim if he was dead. He looked at the orderly beside the nurse. "If she kills Jim and I, you're going to be an accessory even if you didn't squeeze the trigger."
The man laughed. "I doubt it. Besides, your bodies'll never be found."
Blair trembled with the certainty in his voice, then he felt Jim sit up behind him, and the presence of his partner gave him strength. "Not everybody. We have friends who won't give up."
"Just like you didn't give up on Jake?" the nurse taunted.
Blair flinched as if he'd been sucker punched. He felt a hand rest on his back.
"You never gave up on me, Chief. Never," Jim said with unwavering faith. "I always knew you'd find me."
Blair suddenly felt sick to his stomach. How could he tell Jim he had given up?
"Come on, let's go." The nurse motioned toward the door with her revolver.
Blair turned and helped Jim from the bed. Although Jim could navigate on his own after Blair had helped him turn down the dials, he kept an arm around his shoulders, comforted by his friend's real and solid presence. It would also give their captors the mistaken impression he was still helpless.
As they moved down the hallway, Jim kept part of his attention on Blair's heartbeat. He had to force himself not to zone on the sound. He hadn't realized how much he'd missed it until this very moment. It seemed a lifetime ago that he and Sandburg had been together like this... and maybe it had. God knew Jim felt like he'd been dead and had been brought back to life again.
Large chunks of his memory were still missing, but he remembered enough to know that he and Blair were supposed to be together as sentinel and guide... as brothers. The past months skimmed through his mind like a bad movie. And the writer of the script was damn well going to pay for what he'd done.
He glanced at Blair and caught his concerned dark blue eyes. Blair had thought he was dead. Jim's gut clenched for his partner. The circles beneath Blair's eyes and the hollowed cheeks told Jim he'd had a tough time. If their roles had been reversed, Jim had no doubt he would've been consumed with sorrow. Would he have been able to survive without his guide -- without his friend?
Jim could smell the fear emanating from Blair. But he also knew his friend was doing his damndest to hide it from him and that thought warmed him more than anything else in the past months.
"We're not out of this yet," Jim said softly.
Blair brought his head up sharply to look at Jim, and after a few moments, the lines in his brow eased and an achingly familiar twinkle returned to his eyes. "Damned right we're not."
Jim's arm tightened instinctively around Blair's shoulders and the two of them shuffled down the corridor. The nurse used her key to open a back stairwell door and they were prodded down the stairs, past the first floor and down even further. Another key turn and they were in the basement. Dusty lightbulbs cast dim shadows down the seemingly endless hallway, and the stale odor of mold permeated the air. Closed doors with peeling paint and small, square dirty windows told Jim this area hadn't been used in a long time.
The bulky nurse unlocked one of the nondescript doors and Jim's eyes widened. A cell complete with mildewed padded walls. The muscled man gave Blair a violent shove, making him tumble against the far wall.
Jim's temper erupted at Blair's rough treatment. He grabbed the bully's arm, belatedly remembering how much strength he'd lost. The man shook him off as if Jim were a pesky fly, then wrapped his meaty fingers around the back of Jim's neck and pushed him into the room. Jim crashed into Blair who was trying to rise and the two of them ended up in an inelegant heap on the fetid pad on the floor.
The overpowering stench imbedded in the years-old padding filled Jim's lungs and his stomach roiled in response. He struggled to find the dials he had known so well six months ago. Blair's worried voice broke though his agony. The soothing tone and the solid body he rested on did more to ease Jim's stomach than any medicine.
"Hey, Jim, c'mon man, you back with me?" Blair asked.
The odor faded to the background and the pain in his gut became a dull ache that he could ignore. He opened his eyes and found Blair's apprehensive expression set in a pale oval beneath him. Tuning up his vision, he could make out the fear in his eyes. He smiled reassuringly. "It's all right, Chief. I got it back under control."
Blair's relief was almost tangible. "You took a helluva time to fall back into Blessed Protector mode."
Jim searched his memory for the meaning to Blair's words, but came up blank. "Blessed Protector?"
"Long story. Someday I'll get you a t-shirt with the short version," Blair said with a grin. "Now, you gonna get off me so I can breathe, big guy?"
Smiling slightly, Jim shifted so Blair could escape. He began to push himself up the rest of the way and Blair helped him to a sitting position, his back against a fetid wall.
Jim looked around their prison and noticed the door was closed. "They're gone?"
Blair nodded. "All the nurse said was we'd be having a special visitor later."
Jim ground his teeth. "The bastard who put me in here."
Blair's jaw tightened. "I'd like a crack at him myself."
"Get in line, Chief." Jim paused. "Think they forgot to lock the door?"
"Doesn't hurt to check." Blair stood and Jim saw him extend a hand as he made his way through the murky darkness to the door. The rattle of a doorknob answered his question. "No such luck." Jim watched his friend as he examined the door and frame with his hands. Blair sighed in frustration. "Nothing."
Blair stumbled back toward him and Jim grabbed his hand when he got close enough, guiding him down beside him. For a long moment, they were silent.
"At least Brian got away," Blair said softly.
"Yeah." Jim turned to his friend. "He was the one who triggered my memory into starting to remember. At first, I thought he was you. I thought you'd cut your hair." He smiled fondly. "But I'm glad to see you didn't."
"And here I thought you wanted me to get a brush cut like yours."
Jim chuckled, but a stomach spasm cut it short. He crossed his arms, resting them against his belly and leaned his head back. "Naw, just about eight inches off the bottom."
Blair snorted, but Jim could hear the hammering of his heart and the higher respiratory rate. "I didn't know if I could do it," Blair suddenly said.
His friend switched gears faster than Jim could keep up. "What?"
Blair shrugged. "Keep going with everything -- school, teaching, the doctorate... my life."
Jim's heart missed a beat, but before he could speak, Blair pressed onward. "Nearly half my life I searched for a sentinel, then I strike the silver lode. I find you and all I can think of is that I finally have my subject for my doctorate, only you stopped being just a subject a few hours after I met the real James Ellison. My life revolved around you, Jim. I never realized -- the research, the partnership, the friendship -- I took it all for granted. But when I thought you were dead, everywhere I turned, you were there. When I was in my office, I pictured that first day when you showed up there and all the times later on when you'd have a cup of coffee, waiting patiently--" he grinned "--and sometimes not so patiently, for me to finish whatever I was working so you could give me a ride home. Every time I passed a Wonderburger, I thought of you. I couldn't go to the station without getting physically sick from all the memories. But the loft, that was the toughest. When I'd get home, I'd look in the basket, but your keys were never--"
"Blair," Jim interrupted as he clasped his arm. He spoke quietly, but his voice was charged with emotion. "I'm here now, buddy. Right beside you."
He felt Blair take a deep, shuddering breath. The younger man scrubbed his face in his palms, then raked his fingers through his curly hair. He looked at Jim, and the anguish in Blair's eyes pierced him.
"I have to keep checking, man, to make sure, y'know?" Blair said hoarsely.
A gentle smile tilted Jim's lips upward. "I know, Chief. I know."
Blair shifted closer to Jim, until their shoulders pressed against one another. "The dental records matched, and your badge and gun were found with the body," Blair began in a low, angst-laden voice. "Everyone believed it was you. Except me. I couldn't." He took a deep shuddering breath. "I guess I went a little crazy for a while. Simon finally pulled my pass and I didn't have access to your files anymore."
The pain in his friend's voice cut so deeply, Jim didn't know what to say.
"I think everyone thought I'd gone off the deep end, and they were probably right. It's just that I figured I'd know if you were dead." He smiled weakly. "And I was right."
The cool air penetrated Jim's thin gown and robe, and a shiver passed through him.
"You okay?" Blair asked in concern.
"Just a little cold, Chief. What I wouldn't do for a pair of jeans and a sweater." He paused thoughtfully. "All I've worn in this place is this get-up."
Jim heard Blair's heartbeat increase. "I'm sorry."
The guilt wrapped around those two words pierced Jim. "Hey, don't worry about it, Chief." He forced a laugh. "It wasn't like I had a lot of social engagements."
Blair's head came up sharply. "That's so not funny."
Jim knew the anger in Blair's face and voice weren't directed at him. There were a lot of holes in Jim's memory, but Blair Sandburg wasn't one of them. Not anymore. His friend -- his guide -- blamed himself for believing Jim was dead and not finding him earlier.
The link between sentinel and guide had been strong enough to allow Jim to remember Blair. Jim would bet that the bond had also teased Blair with doubts about Jim's death, but eventually Blair had gone with the odds. It was that surrender that fed Blair's guilty conscience. Once they were back home, Jim and Blair would have to sit down and work out that misplaced guilt.
Jim's breath caught at the image of his loft apartment that he shared with Blair. He wanted his old life -- his past -- back. All of it. And he'd be damned if Nurse Ratched, Manny the muscle man, and the person behind the entire scheme would succeed where they'd failed once already.
With Blair's warm body pressed to his, Jim felt exhaustion tugging at him.
"Don't fight it," Blair said softly. "You need the rest."
Jim shook his head, dispelling the cobwebs in his mind. "Can't afford to until we're out of this mess."
"We can't do anything now."
"I'm not going to let them do to you what they did to me," Jim said savagely.
"You're not going to be able to do anything in the shape you're in now."
Jim's pride wanted him to argue, but common sense intervened. "All right, but if anything happens, you wake me." He held up a finger. "Anything."
In spite of their situation, Blair's eyes twinkled. "Right back to giving me orders, huh?"
"Right back to arguing with me, huh?"
Jim and Blair grinned at one another, their past camaraderie returning like they'd been separated only a few days, rather than months.
"Come here." Blair raised his arm, allowing Jim to huddle closer for warmth.
Jim let the familiar smell and touch of his guide ease the tension that knotted the muscles at the back of his neck and between his shoulder blades. With Brian's help, Blair had been found, and now Jim had to save his energy to protect him. Blair's life was in jeopardy now because of Jim.
With Blair's arm around his shoulders and his heartbeat a soothing rhythm, Jim closed his eyes. Everything would be all right. Blair had found him.
Brian heaved a sigh of relief as he entered his small apartment. He'd made the interview with only seconds to spare and he had a good feeling about it. They promised to give him their decision some time in the next few days. If they accepted him, he'd be starting medical school in two short weeks. Pride filled him and he felt the presence of his brother Mark, approving and supportive.
He glanced at the clock on the microwave -- half past three. Frowning, he crossed the small living room to his answering machine, but there was no message from Blair and Jake. It had been over five hours since he'd left them at the hospital. A chill swept through him and he knew with certainty that something had happened to them.
"Damn," he swore aloud. He shouldn't have left them with Nurse Ratched.
Feeling as if he were on a carnival ride gone bad, Brian jerked his door open, intent on braving the spring blizzard to find his new friends.
A tall dark man stood framed in the doorway, his eyes wide behind gold-rimmed glasses and his shoulders covered with snow.
"Brian Halloran?" the man asked, the authority in his voice unmistakable.
"Yes," Brian replied warily, remembering his concerns about Jake and the person who'd had him committed.
"I'm Captain Simon Banks, Cascade PD." He held up a police shield.
Brian closed his eyes momentarily and sighed in relief. "Come in," he said, motioning for Banks to enter.
The tall man strode across the threshold and Brian was aware of his astute gaze cataloguing the small apartment.
"I just came from Mountainside. They said Jake Edwards was released this morning," Banks said without preamble.
Panic flared in Brian. "Damnit! They got both of them."
"Who? What are you talking about?" Banks demanded in frustration.
Brian took a moment to compose his chaotic thoughts. His wall clock ticked loudly in the reigning silence and a neighbor sneezed, the sound clearly audible through the thin apartment walls. "Ja--Jim was sick when Blair and I got there this morning. Jim said that somebody did it to him, but the nurse denied it. Blair and I got him to his room and Blair told me to call you. I did." He faltered, guilt burdening him. "I had to leave for an entrance interview for medical school. I shouldn't have left them!"
"So they were in, uh, Jim's room when you left?" Banks stumbled over Jim's name, as if still not believing that he was alive.
"Yes." A sense of urgency galvanized Brian. "We have to get back there. Either Blair and Jim are still there or somebody must've seen them leave. Their lives are at stake, Captain." Banks appeared torn, but the fear in his eyes told Brian he cared deeply for the two men. "Please. It's their only chance."
Suddenly Banks nodded curtly. "I'll call the local police and have them meet us there." His dark face grew stern, but in his eyes Brian saw confusion and concern. "But if you've fabricated this entire story..."
"I haven't," Brian said impatiently. "Let's go. It's going to take us a while to get across town in this snow."
With the intimidating police captain beside him, Brian left the apartment. As Banks maneuvered across the weather-slicked roads in a rented car, Brian couldn't help wondering if he'd helped Jake find his identity, only to have him lose his life.
With his arm around his friend, Blair couldn't see his watch but he figured they'd been sitting in the rank cell for a few hours. He had dozed off and on, but now his buttocks were numb and his legs and arms stiff, but he didn't want to shift his position and risk waking Jim.
He glanced about their tiny padded cell, imagining the deranged souls who'd been condemned to this hell on earth. Blair could almost hear the echoes of their screams long past. If Jim with his sentinel senses had been born fifty years earlier, he could have been one of those lost souls deposited here. His sanity would've been leached away in this place until his world was so filled with sensory overload that insanity would've been a welcome release.
Blair's heart leapt into his throat. He'd glimpsed a piece of that scenario when he'd found Jim miraculously alive. What if he hadn't found him? What if Brian had never come into 'Jake Edwards' life? Blair would've continued his hollow life back in Cascade, never truly coming to terms with Jim's supposed death. Blair, too, would have had his sanity slowly leached away.
Jim moved against Blair. "Chief?"
"Right here," Blair said, his voice husky.
"You all right? Your heart's doing double flips."
"I was just thinking about how things could've turned out." A tremor passed through Blair.
He could feel Jim's scrutiny, the power of his clear blue gaze upon him. "That's part of the past now, Chief," Jim finally said. "Let it go."
Though Blair wasn't certain he could do that, he would try for Jim's sake. "How did you sleep?"
Jim eased himself up, away from Blair who lifted his cramped arm carefully off his friend's shoulders. Jim drew a hand across his face. "All right, but I had these dreams. Full of people I should know, but didn't."
His frustration didn't surprise Blair. "It'll all come back to you. Just be patient, Jim."
Blair could almost feel his struggle to press his impatience back. The old Jim Ellison was returning in leaps and bounds.
"How does your stomach feel?" Blair asked.
"Better. It's a good thing I wasn't very hungry this morning." Jim shuddered.
"So why didn't they just kill you before?" Blair blurted out, then realized how that sounded and his face grew warm. "Not that I mind--"
"I know what you mean, Chief. I've been wondering the same thing. I had one visitor the whole time I was here -- a man, blond, maybe a few years older than you. He said me being in the hospital was worse than being killed. It almost sounded like he knew what it was like to be in one of these places." He closed his eyes tightly as he rubbed his temples. "I think I know him, but I just can't remember...."
"I have a feeling we'll find out soon enough who was behind this whole thing," Blair said as a chill swept through him.
"Brian said Simon was on his way. If we can just hold on until he gets here."
"And when he doesn't find us, what then?"
Jim shrugged. "I don't know, but even with my less-than-perfect memory, I don't think Simon will be so quick to leave it at that."
Blair smiled. "He'll probably tear the hospital apart to find me just so he can chew my butt out." His smile faded, remembering how Simon had helped him these past months. He wouldn't have thought it possible that the hard-assed police captain could be so solicitous. "Simon took your death pretty hard. After they identified what they thought was your body, he got totally wasted. Taggart and I had to take him home that night."
"God, Chief, this whole thing sounds like a bad soap opera. Only it wasn't and good people were hurt."
"You were hurt, Jim," Blair exploded. "I can't even imagine what you went through, living in an asylum when you weren't crazy."
"But I was," Jim said quietly. "For a long time, before Brian showed up, I was a lot like everybody else. I didn't know anything different." Agony shimmered in his eyes. "They must've given me some kind of drug to completely screw up my head."
Blair nodded. "But with your sentinel senses, you were able to overcome it, and start to remember."
They were silent a moment, then Jim spoke. "You said my body was identified?"
Blair recognized where Jim was going with this. "If it wasn't you, who was it?"
"Probably somebody who wouldn't be missed."
The banked anger in Jim's voice brought an answering indignation in Blair. "The bastard killed some innocent person to make everyone think you were dead, then got you put here under a different name where no one would find you."
"He went through a lot of trouble to turn my life into a living hell." Jim glanced at Blair, his expression softening. "Yours, too."
Blair didn't want to think about it. Instead, he put his mind to the problem at hand and stood to pace back and forth in the small cell. "So someone who has a helluva grudge against you planned this entire thing. It had to be somebody who knows computers. He would've had to alter your dental records, come up with a new identity for you, get you into this hospital with fictionalized papers." The enormity of the plot boggled Blair's mind. "He must've had a lot of time to plan this. Maybe someone who was in prison and just got out, but then he'd have to have connections on the outside to get this set up. But I didn't find anyone like that when I went through your files."
Jim held up a hand. "Whoa, slow down, Chief. You went through my--" he paused, his brow furrowing, "--arrest records?"
Blair hunkered down in front of Jim. "You do remember you were a cop, don't you?"
"Yeah, I guess. I mean, I kept having these visions of blood and guns and dead people." His face appeared pale even in the dim light. "I thought I was a murderer."
Blair laid a hand on Jim's knee. "No way, man. You're one of the good guys -- the best good guy I know. It's in you to protect and help people, not hurt them."
Jim smiled and Blair saw his relief. He hadn't believed it until Blair had reassured him. The extent of Jim's faith in him frightened the hell out of him.
"So you didn't come up with anything?" Jim prompted.
"There were four people you'd arrested who were released in the two months before you disappeared. None of them had the brains for this elaborate of set-up."
Jim pushed himself upright and took Blair's place, pacing back and forth in front of the younger man. Blair watched him, his gut twisting at the physical changes in his friend -- the loss of weight from his tall frame and the harsh angles in his thin face. Jim had always seemed invincible, but now he looked... vulnerable. Yet the familiar fire was back in his eyes and his fingers kept clenching and unclenching at his sides. The old Jim was reasserting himself more and more with each passing minute.
"You have to help me here, Chief. I still have holes in my memory," Jim said. "How did I 'die'?"
Blair's breath caught, but he managed to keep a lid on the horrible memories. "Your truck went over an embankment, fell about a hundred feet and exploded. There wasn't much left." Blair's heart skipped a beat. "Just blackened bones."
Jim stopped in front of Blair. "I know this is tough, Chief, but I have to figure it out. I have to remember."
Blair gazed into his friend's anguished blue eyes. How would he feel if he'd had his life ripped away? He nodded and continued. "The remains of your badge and gun were found, too. Since it was your truck, they checked your dental records and found they matched. Nobody even considered they may have been tampered with. Everything pointed to you as the victim -- even the body's general size."
Jim frowned and brushed a hand across his nose. "You're right. Someone sure as hell has it in for me." He tipped his head to the side. "I hear voices."
Blair jumped to his feet. "Who is it?"
"One of them is Nurse Ratched. The other--" He frowned. "--familiar, but I can't place it."
A key turned in the lock and the door swung open, revealing a man in an expensive suit and a cold smile. Blair's eyes widened.
"I should've known you wouldn't give up," Frank Rachins said, eyeing Blair like a snake eyeing a mouse. "Ellison didn't give up on you in that elevator."
Blair found his voice. "You're supposed to be in a hospital."
Rachins shrugged. "I escaped. Not very difficult once I figured out the routine and had access to a computer. Amazing what a person can do." He brushed his palm across the front of his jacket. "By the time I got out, I had everything I needed. Except revenge."
Jim took a step closer to Rachins, eyeing him intently. "Galileo?"
Rachins frowned. "I was assured you'd never remember your name, much less anything from your past." The computer genius sighed. "Oh well, it was fun while it lasted. The great James Ellison reduced to a mere shadow of the man he was." He turned to Blair. "And his loyal cohort consumed with grief."
"You son-of-a-bitch," Jim erupted and charged at Rachins.
Two burly men stepped forward and caught Jim's arms before he could a land a punch. Blair surged to Jim's side, determined to help, but the nurse leveled her gun at him.
"Don't try it," she warned.
Blair halted, but he frantically darted glances from Jim to Rachins. Fear for Jim filled him, making him sick to his stomach. "Let him go. Haven't you done enough?"
Rachins chuckled evilly. "Not nearly enough, but I'm afraid it's come to an end. A pity. I was enjoying the thought of Ellison in a place like this." His expression hardened and madness entered his eyes. "I wanted him to know how I felt, have him suffer like I did."
"You're crazy," Blair shouted, then realized how accurate his words were. Frank Rachins had been found innocent by reason of insanity to his extortion attempt. Blair had never understood how the court could allow him to get off that easily, but Jim had insisted he'd be in the hospital for the criminally insane for a lot of years.
But the system had failed again. And why hadn't the department received notice when Rachins had escaped?
"Bring them along," Rachins ordered.
He started walking down the dim, empty corridor. His muscle men gave Jim a shove down the hall, making him stumble to his knees. Blair hurried to his side and helped him up. Jim clung to Blair's arm, but Blair suspected it was more for comfort than assistance.
"He's going to kill us, isn't he?" Jim asked between clenched teeth.
"We're going to have to make a break for it."
"How? They've got the guns and muscle."
"But we got the brains." Jim managed a grin and wink at Blair. "Keep your eyes and ears open, and be ready to move."
Blair nodded even as his heart pounded in his chest. Less than a day back together and already they were in deep trouble. Simon was right -- back to the Sandburg zone. He stifled a smile. Some things never change. He glanced at Jim's profile, noting the high forehead, aquiline nose, and lips pressed firmly together. No matter what happened in the next few minutes, Blair breathed a prayerful thank you to whatever fates had brought he and Jim back together.
They climbed the concrete stairs and the nurse unlocked an exit door. A burst of frigid air and swirling snow struck Blair and he shivered uncontrollably. Damn, he hated being cold. Jim caught his eyes and nodded in understanding.
They were shoved out into the snow. At least Blair had on shoes and real clothing; Jim had only his thin gown and robe with thin half slippers that offered no protection against the elements. He noticed Jim shiver.
"Turn down the dial, Jim," Blair said in a low voice. "That way you won't feel so cold."
Jim nodded. He and Blair stumbled through the snow blanketing the back parking lot. Rachins stopped at a van and opened the sliding door.
"Get in, gentlemen," Rachins ordered.
Stubbornness brought sharp relief to Jim's face and Blair tensed. His friend was going to make his move.
"Now," Jim shouted.
Blair brought an elbow back into the nurse's belly and she stumbled, dropping the revolver. He dived for it, but missed when Rachins kicked his arm. Pain exploded then tingles shot up to his shoulder, numbing that arm. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Jim was being overpowered by the muscled men and rage coursed through his veins. Rachins forgotten, he launched himself at one of them and managed to get a good punch to the man's jaw. Jim twisted out of the other man's grasp and kicked him in the crotch, sending him to the ground.
Blair grabbed Jim's arm. "C'mon!"
Blair and Jim dashed for the nearest cover, an equipment shed. Just as they reached it, two shots rang out and Blair was punched forward to the snow-covered ground.
Panic sliced through Jim when Blair dropped. A red stain was already obliterating the pristine whiteness of the freshly-fallen snow. He leaned over and grabbed Blair's arms, then dragged him back behind the shed, out of the line of fire, and left behind a trail of blood. Falling to his knees beside his friend, Jim fought the hysteria that crowded his mind.
"Blair, Chief, c'mon, talk to me," Jim said, framing Blair's cold-reddened face between his palms. Ignoring the snow's cold against his bare legs, he concentrated on Blair's heartbeat. "Damnit, don't you die on me!"
Blair's long dark lashes fluttered against his cheeks and his eyes opened. "J-Jim, what-?"
"Take it easy, Chief. You were shot."
Blair laughed weakly. "Situation normal."
Jim didn't see the humor and glowered. "Can you move?"
Blair tried to sit up, but a low groan escaped him and he fell back in the snow. "Sorry, Jim, but I think... I'm d-down for the count." He raised a hand and gripped Jim's arm. "Go, get away before they get you, too."
Jim shook his head vehemently. "No way, Chief. I'm not leaving you."
Blair coughed and Jim lifted his upper body into his arms, cradling him against his chest. He tried to ignore the blood seeping from his friend's shoulder. The snow continued to fall, sprinkling white flakes in Blair's dark hair and dotting his face and clothing. Jim gently brushed the snow from the younger man's pain-etched face. "Forget it, Blair, I'm not going."
Blair closed his eyes. "Stubborn..."
Jim smiled sadly. "A lot like a certain anthropologist I know."
"Isn't this touching?"
Jim glanced up to see Rachins and his hired help. He'd been concentrating solely on Blair and hadn't even heard them approach.
"You won't get away with this," Jim growled.
"Don't be so sure about that. Do you know how easy it is to create a new identity?" Rachins laughed. "Look at you -- Jake Edwards."
"James Ellison," Jim stated, then smiled ferally. "That's twice you've failed now, Rachins. Strike three and you're out."
Rachins' humor fled, replaced by anger. "It's you and your buddy who are on your way out."
Jim felt Blair's muscles tense, then heard a hiss of pain. Helpless anger coursed through him. He could handle his own death, but Blair's...
"Leave Blair alone. It's me you want," Jim argued.
Blair's fingers tightened around Jim's wrist. "No, don't want to be alone. I c-can't do that again... thinking you were d-dead."
Rachins shook his head. "No loose ends. Kill them both," he ordered his cronies.
The two men raised their weapons. Jim turned his gaze to Blair and found his calm dark blue eyes centered on him. The strength of their bond flowed between them and Jim squeezed Blair's hand gently. "Together."
"Together," Blair echoed faintly, and he tightened his hold on Jim.
Startled, Jim raised his head sharply to see a dark man and four uniformed policemen approaching with guns leveled at Rachins and company.
"Simon," Blair said, his voice faint.
Jim blinked and more memories flooded back -- flyfishing with Simon, searching for him in the jungles of Peru, saving him at that hotel during his class reunion. And his stinky cigars.
Rachins gave in without a fight and his followers took his lead. As they were handcuffed by the uniforms, Simon hurried over to Jim and Blair. He hunkered down beside them and laid a hand on Jim's shoulder, as if assuring himself he was real.
"I never expected to see you again, Jim," Simon said, his voice strained.
"It's good to see you, too, Simon," Jim said warmly, but his attention was drawn back to Blair. "Sandburg needs an ambulance."
"We got one coming and I expect to see both you get into it." Simon pulled his hand across his eyes, then looked down at Blair. "You were right all along," he said gently.
Blair could only smile as his eyes closed.
Brian appeared beside them, his expression fearful as he gazed at Blair. "Is he--?"
Jim shook his head. "He'll be all right." Gratitude and fondness filled him as he looked at the man who'd given him back his life. "Thanks to you, Brian, everything will be all right now."
Brian's face flushed with embarrassment, but Jim could tell he was pleased.
Simon removed his long coat and draped it over Jim's shoulders. "It's good to have you back, Jim." The captain's voice trembled and nearly broke.
Jim swallowed the lump in his throat, but found he couldn't speak. Emotions were coming too fast to handle; and even on his best days, he wasn't very good at dealing with them. Maybe later, after they were back home...
An ambulance entered the parking lot and Brian stood to direct it over to them.
"Hang in there, Chief," Jim said, his voice husky. "We got a lot of catching up to do."
Jim was grateful Simon had gotten the hospital personnel to put him and Blair in the same room. If they hadn't, Jim would've ended up spending all his time in a chair beside Blair's bed instead of resting in his own. Now all he had to do was turn his head to see Blair, but more often than not, he merely closed his eyes and concentrated on his guide's breathing and heartbeat. The familiar rhythms soothed him, reassuring him that the six month nightmare was finally over.
Of course, he knew Blair was just as grateful to share a room. In the three days they'd been there, he often caught the younger man merely watching him and Jim could only guess at the memories that continued to haunt his friend. They hadn't talked much, and had merely enjoyed the comfortable silence and camaraderie that each had missed.
Blair jerked and Jim's heightened senses heard his quick intake of breath.
"You okay, Chief?" he asked.
Blair turned his head to gaze at him, the last vestiges of a nightmare fading from his sleep-tousled features. He smiled, relief flowing across his face. "Yeah, I'm fine, Jim. Just fine."
Jim detected familiar footsteps and knew it was Brian before the young man appeared in the doorway.
"Hey Brian," Blair greeted.
"Hey yourself, Blair," Brian replied. "How're you feeling?"
Blair glanced at his slinged arm and grimaced. "It hurts like hell."
"John Wayne never let a little shoulder wound bother him," Jim said with a straight face.
"And I don't have toilet paper with my name all over it either," Blair shot back.
Brian laughed, then turned to Jim. "Guess what?"
Jim grinned as a feeling of contentment flowed through him. "You were accepted."
"Damn, you're good," Brian said as he came to stand between the two hospital beds. "I start a week from Monday."
"Congratulations," Blair said sincerely, his eyes shining.
"Thanks," Brian said almost shyly.
Jim extended his hand and Brian shook it firmly. "Good luck, though I have a feeling you won't need it."
"I'm not sure about that. It'll be tough, but I'll get through it." Brian smiled self-consciously. "This may sound funny, but I have a feeling Mark will be right beside me the whole way."
Jim shook his head. "It doesn't sound funny at all." His gaze sought his guide's and Blair met it squarely, understanding in their dark blue depths. "Not at all," he reiterated quietly.
Awkward silence filled the room, broken by the arrival of Simon.
"I'd better get going. I'm meeting my dad for lunch," Brian said.
"That's great, Brian," Jim said.
The younger man shrugged. "It's a first step. We'll see what happens."
"It'll work out," Jim assured. "But if it doesn't, it's not the end of the world. Call me if you want or need someone to talk to, no matter what time it is."
"I will." Brian brushed a hand across his eyes. "So long, Kemo Sabe."
"Thanks for giving me my life back," Jim said quietly.
"You're welcome." Brian glanced at Blair. "Take good care of this guy, okay?"
"You got it," Blair promised.
Brian nodded, then hurried out, giving Simon only a quick nod as he passed him.
Simon came to take Brian's previous place, standing between the two men. "The doctor's releasing both of you tomorrow morning," he said. "I've already made reservations on the eleven a.m. flight out of the Springs. By tomorrow at this time, you'll be home." Simon smiled gently. "Both of you."
Jim closed his eyes, picturing the loft clearly. Opening his eyes, he found Blair's gaze upon him. "I hope you kept it clean."
Blair glanced away guiltily. "Well, it might need a little..."
Simon shook his head. "It's clean and the refrigerator is restocked, courtesy of your friends in Major Crimes."
Blair's eyes widened. "Thanks, Simon, I've been wondering how I was going to get out of this one."
Jim sent a mock glare at his friend. "Maybe it's time we went over the rules again."
Blair rolled his eyes. "Wouldn't you know it? He forgot everything but the rules."
Simon's grin grew. "Nice to see you two are back to your sweet selves." His smile faded as he gazed at Jim. "Rachins escaped from the hospital seven months ago. Through some paperwork snafu, we didn't get notice of it. I guess he bribed a guard to let him use a computer in the evenings after everyone else was gone." Simon sighed heavily. "We tracked down the dental records switch and the creation of your new identity to that computer. The man killed in your place had been living on the street and had the bad fortune to have your basic body build. Rachins won't see the light of day for a long time."
Jim rubbed his brow. "What did he use on me, to make me forget?"
"An experimental drug and deep hypnosis. I guess he didn't count on your sentinel abilities to shake off the supposed permanent effects." Simon shuddered visibly. "I can't believe how well he succeeded. Sandburg was the only one who didn't believe you were dead."
"Not in the beginning," Blair said, then added quietly, "But I accepted it later." Jim heard him swallow nervously. "I gave up on you, Jim. I know you said I didn't, but I did. I even wrote my dissertation. I thought it would be a memorial to your life. If Brian hadn't shown up when he did, I would've handed it in, too. I'll understand if you can't forgive me."
Jim smiled gently. "Forgive you for what? For writing your dissertation as a memorial to me? Geezus, Chief, you did everything you could. Simon told me how you spent days going through my files, trying to figure out what had happened. He said you even dropped out of school." Jim sent him a scolding look. "We'll talk about that later."
Blair shifted like a little boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar. "You told him everything, Simon?"
The captain shrugged, but his eyes twinkled. "How would you define 'everything'?"
Jim laughed, then Simon joined in. Blair finally gave in, and his laughter joined his friends'.
"What about Rachins' accomplices?" Blair asked a few moments later.
"Simpson, the nurse, was paid to keep an eye on Jim, to let Rachins know if anything happened. Manny Brewster didn't know the whole story, only that Jim was a special patient. They're already working out a deal with the DA," Simon replied, then shook his head. "Rachins may have had the computer know-how, but the only loyalty he had was how much he could buy."
"I guess nobody ever told him that true loyalty can't be bought," Jim said softly, his gaze encompassing his friends.
Blair fumbled with his keys and Jim took them from him, though his fingers trembled. After a few moments, the door was unlocked and Jim stood frozen, his thirsty gaze drinking in the sight of the loft -- his home. His and Blair's.
He mentally shook himself and ushered Blair in with a light hand against his back. After closing the door behind them, he helped Blair take off his jacket, then hung it up. "Go and sit down, Chief. I'll put your bag in your room."
Blair smiled and did as he said.
Jim removed his new coat and hung it on a hook next to Blair's. Simon had picked up some clothes for him while he and Blair had been in the hospital. The blue jeans and flannel shirt had at first felt strange against his skin after months of only wearing a light gown and robe. He removed his Denver Nuggets cap, stared at it a moment. He smiled as he thought of Brian, then hung the cap beside his coat.
He turned up his senses as he carried Blair's backpack into his room. Blair's scent was the most powerful, but beneath it were layers of other familiar scents -- disinfectant and cleaning solutions, musty books, Blair's favorite tea, lasagna. He tuned his hearing to Blair's steady heartbeat, smiled, then turned to the other sounds -- a water drop dripping from the kitchen faucet, the refrigerator's purring motor, the rasp of the old furnace in the basement, a bird chirping on the balcony. He walked across the hall to the bathroom, noting the shiny sink and mirror with no long dark strands of hair littering the floor, but he knew it wouldn't stay that way for long. Of course, he wouldn't have wanted it any other way.
He wandered into the kitchen, running his fingers along the table and countertops. A note on the refrigerator read, 'Welcome home, Jim and Sandy! There's lasagna in the fridge. All you have to do is heat it up. Megan.' Jim pictured the auburn-haired Aussie detective and smiled to himself. His memory was coming back to him slowly. The doctors assured him he would probably remember everything given a little time.
Opening the refrigerator, he pulled out the pan of lasagna and turned on the oven. The simple task brought a lump to his throat. A month ago he never would have believed he'd find his real life. Yet here he was in his home that was both sweetly familiar and achingly foreign. A dichotomy that would work itself out, though now it only gave Jim an odd, unbalanced feeling.
As he returned to the living room, the sun shone through the large windows, settling on his shoulders. Closing his eyes, he lifted his face to the rays and warmth spread through him, dispelling the chill left over from his months in the sterile, cold asylum.
Aware of Blair's gaze upon him, Jim opened his eyes to meet Blair's. "How're you feeling, Chief?"
Jim frowned. "We should've stayed in Colorado a couple more days, until you felt better."
Blair smiled and shook his head. "Seeing you back here where you belong makes me feel better -- a whole lot better than a hospital and pills could."
Jim took a deep cleansing breath and joined Blair on the sofa. "It feels so strange, Chief. Like I'm home, but I'm not."
"It'll take a little while, Jim. Don't try to force it. You have a lot of things to get used to again. This place, your job. Hell, your whole life."
"I know, but I feel like I'm not quite in step with the rest of the world." He drew his palms across his face, then turned to face Blair. "The only thing that feels right is you."
Blair glanced down at the sling that his left arm rested in. He lifted his gaze to Jim. "As long as you want me, I'll be right beside you. You know that, don't you?"
"Yeah. It's the one thing I do know for certain. I can trust you."
Shadows darkened Blair's features. "I let you down. I gave up on you even when a part of me knew you couldn't be dead. How can you still trust me after I did that?"
Jim smiled gently. "You may think you gave up, but you never did."
"How can you be so damned certain of that when I'm not even sure?" Blair demanded.
Jim studied the helpless frustration in his young friend's expression. As smart as Blair was, sometimes he could be pretty dense. "Answer me this, Chief. When Brian told you I was still alive, why didn't you have him arrested? Why did you fly all the way to Colorado if you believed I was dead?" he asked.
"Because I--" Blair broke off and his dark blue eyes lit with stunned astonishment. "Because I never gave up."
Jim nodded and smiled a little smugly. "Bingo."
Suddenly Blair laughed. "Damn, you're good, Jim."
"It's about time you admitted it."
Blair settled back against the cushion, his uninjured shoulder resting against Jim's. They sat in comfortable silence for a few minutes.
"It's real, isn't it?" Jim asked quietly.
"The bond between sentinel and guide."
Blair nodded. "We both experienced it to different degrees." He grinned. "That'll be something else to put in my dissertation."
"I thought you had it done."
"Just the first draft." He turned to meet Jim's gaze. "I have a feeling we've just scratched the surface of the sentinel and guide relationship. I'm going to have to observe you a little longer."
"How much longer?" Jim asked.
Blair's eyes sparkled with mischief. "At least twenty, thirty years. Think you can put up with me for that long?"
Jim groaned even as he choked back his laughter. "I suppose sacrifices have to be made for the sake of science."
Blair shook his head, his expression sobering. "No, not science. It's all for the sake of friendship."
Contentment flowed through Jim as his eyes stung. Blair had risked everything for him, including his life. Yet Jim knew he would willingly do the same for Blair. In this day and age, a friendship like theirs was a rarity, too precious to risk losing. "In that case, yeah, I think I can put up with you for a while longer. Maybe even a lifetime."
Blair's eyes glistened. "A lifetime -- I like the sound of that, Jim."
Jim gave Blair's cheek a light tap and smiled at his guide -- his best friend. "Me, too, Chief. Me, too."
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