Disclaimer: No they are not mine. They belong to Pet Fly, UPN & Paramount. No copyright infringement is intended.

Thank you: A huge thank you to Bobbie and StarWatcher for your beta skills, advice and friendship and also to Debbie, as this story was originally written for her as part of Moonridge. Thanks, Deb for your support.

Note: The Yellow Rose is governed by the goddess Hestia and its sign is 'The Intertwined Rings, or True Friendship.'

Feedback: jessriley80@yahoo.com.au


Jess Riley

They say a yellow rose with long and thorny stem,
Stands for friendships of which we may not amend.

They say its flower petals collect a human dew -
One tear of gladness one of sorrow,
In a light, a sharing,
To best pronounce its hue.

They speak of gardens as long as lifetimes,
Where many yellow roses grow.
Where we tread carefully, yet graciously,
Among the myriad of friends we know.

They say the paupers' gardens,
Are where the hardiest flowers may be.
For there they grow abundant,
Both wild and free.

They also say, if I picked just one, and handed it to you my friend,
It would mean a whole new garden for me!

Poem written by : Bob Morrow


Simon Banks held his ground, anxiously watching the scene playing out only a few yards from where he stood. Ellison was pissed. There was no assumption involved there. It was a cold, hard fact. Running high on adrenaline and raw emotion, he was a man fuelled by the power of revenge. Revenge driven not only by the loss of a young life that had been taken so many years before its prime, but also by the terrifying reality that he very nearly had witnessed history repeat itself.

"Do you realise how easy it would be just to let go and rid the world of this piece of garbage for good?" Cold, steel blue eyes flicked Simon's way as the precarious grip Ellison had on Quinn's jacket became even more dangerous.

With a calmness that came from having absolute faith and trust in the character of the man before him, Banks made no move to intervene. Ellison may have been a lot of things, but judge and willing executioner was something he was not.

One hard yank and Quinn was snatched from the jaws of the mineshaft, spun around with an angry ferocity, and slammed, without remorse, into the wooden support frame. "It's over," Ellison spat.

"It's over," Banks confirmed, his relief reflected in the warmth of his deep brown eyes. "Go see to the kid, Jim."

The pent up tension that had fuelled Ellison's body over the past twenty-four hours released its spring-tight hold. "It's over," he whispered.

Trudging over the wet, sodden ground, Ellison grabbed Quinn's accomplice by the arm. "Up," he ordered. There was no compassion or sympathy as he pulled her from the muddy forest floor. With a forceful shove, he pushed her in the direction of his Captain. "You still got your cuffs?"

There was no need for words. The look of smug satisfaction on Banks' face answered Ellison's question.

With a slight nod, Jim tossed Simon the rifle he'd taken from Blair. "You gonna be alright with these two?"

Simon cocked the bolt on the automatic, his actions once again defying the need for words.

Satisfied that the scene was now secure, Jim made his way back across the slippery ground to where Blair sat.

"It's over?"

"Yeah, Chief, it's over." Squatting down, Jim reached out and pushed Sandburg's dripping wet hair away from his face. His hand lingered for a brief moment. "How're you doing?"

"Cold and wet and so ready to get out of here, man."

"I know the feeling, Junior." With his voice remaining calm and even, Jim averted his eyes from Sandburg's face and made a quick visual assessment of his partner's leg. The makeshift bandage and tourniquet he'd applied earlier had been dislodged when Blair had been thrown to the ground by the force of the explosion. His leg was bleeding with a renewed vigour, and blood now soaked Sandburg's mud-sodden jeans. In a quick move, made without warning, he adjusted and retightened the belt just above the wound, wincing in sympathy as Blair reacted to the pain with a sharp intake of breath. "Sorry, Chief," he apologised quietly.

Giving Sandburg a few minutes, Ellison turned his attention briefly toward the darkening sky. The temperature had dropped considerably over the last hour and, combined with the rapid approach of a storm coming across the mountain range, Jim knew he needed to hurry. His most immediate concern was to find some place suitable, not only to tend to Blair's wound, but to get him out of the weather. Sandburg's clothes were still damp from their unexpected dip in the river, and he knew that hypothermia and shock posed a very real threat.

Shifting around to Blair's side, Jim readied himself to help lift his partner from the muddy quagmire sloshing around their legs. "You feeling up to being vertical?" he asked.

Sandburg nodded, looping his arm around Jim's shoulders. "Have I ever told you how much I hate the mud?" he complained.

"And the rain and the snow and the cold, and..." Jim began, before Sandburg cut him off.

"...and heights... don't forget heights, man." In an effort to keep his mind off the pain flaring through his thigh as Jim lifted him off the ground, Blair babbled on, adding a few more dislikes to his list. "And jumping off perfectly good cliffs into freezing, rock-infested rivers. Hate rocks, man," he said, his voice noticeably shakier than it had been a few minutes earlier. "Not too fond of rifle butts either," he breathed out. Swallowing hard, Blair paused for a moment to try and get a handle on a sudden, spinning wave of vertigo. "But you know what I hate worst of all?" he slurred, his cheek coming to rest against the itchy wool fibres of Jim's damp sweater.

"What's that, Chief?" Jim asked, concerned by Blair's sudden deterioration.

"...vertical." With his knees refusing to lock, Blair started to slide back down toward the ground. "...think I've just developed a newfound liking for mud."

"Oh, no you don't," Ellison bit out. Tightening his grip to get a firmer hold on Blair's sagging weight, he tried to hitch his body up. "Breathe through it, Sandburg," he ordered, not for the first time that day.

"I'm breathing, I'm breathing," Blair said, still unable to stop his downward slide.

"Here, let me help." Having handcuffed Quinn and his girlfriend to an old air compressor, Simon slipped in beside them and wrapped his arm around the younger man's torso. Finding a purchase on the slippery ground, he hooked Blair's arm around his shoulder and lifted. "Up we go, kid," he said.

"Thanks," Jim replied, his eyes leaving Sandburg for a brief moment as he sought the whereabouts of Quinn and his girlfriend. Satisfied they'd been securely restrained, he turned his attention toward Simon. "We have to get him out of this weather."

Banks looked despondently back toward the mine entrance that had been partially caved in by the blast. "It's too risky to go back in there," he stated. "What about the way you got out? Did that offer any sort of shelter?"

Ellison cocked his head suddenly and held up his hand, effectively silencing his Captain. "Simon, there's someone coming."

"Can you tell who?" Banks asked.

Jim shook his head. "Not yet." Training his eyesight in the direction of the muffled voices, the sentinel struggled to see the blurred figures of two men moving slowly through the thick, tangled undergrowth. "Give me the rifle," he demanded.

"Jim?" Blair questioned, his head feeling like a dead weight as he attempted to lift it from his chest.

"S'okay, Chief," Ellison reassured. He squeezed Sandburg's hand lightly before letting go. "You got him?" he asked Banks.

"Yeah, I got him." Simon adjusted his grip to take responsibility for all of Sandburg's weight as Ellison slipped out from underneath the kid.

Blair managed to jerk his head completely up just in time to see Jim moving quickly across the open expanse of ground and disappearing into the forest. "Simon, let me go." He twisted his hand, trying to dislodge it from the Captain's strong grasp. "You have to go with Jim. He might need your help."

"You giving me an order, Sandburg?" The gruffness that Simon tried to inject into his voice didn't quite make it past the worry he had for the rapid onset of Blair's weakening condition. Steadying his own stance, he became even more concerned when his effort to reaffirm his hold on the kid's hand was met with little resistance. Blair was running out of energy fast, and barely had enough strength to keep upright.

"Simon, please," Blair pleaded. "He'll need backup."

"Blair, Jim will be fine. He's not exactly a novice at this kind of thing. You have to trust him to do what he's been trained to do, okay?" Briefly glancing over at the heavily-wooded area where Ellison had disappeared, Simon suddenly realised that the openness of their position made them vulnerable. "Come on, Sandburg, we need to move to cover. If Jim does run into more bad guys out there, we're sitting ducks here." Readjusting his grip on Sandburg, he took a few steps forward.



"Tell Jim to add spots to the list."

"What list?"

"The list of things I hate." As the last word left his lips, Blair lost his faltering grip on consciousness and sagged heavily against Simon's solid frame.

"Blair!" Simon exclaimed, barely keeping hold of the young man, who now hung completely limp and motionless against his body. With no other choice open to him, he knelt down and manoeuvred himself into the best position to swing Sandburg over his shoulder. "Damn you, kid," he ground out, struggling not only with the weight, but the slippery footing beneath him. Moving slowly and cautiously across the wet earth, he lowered Blair's butt to the ground using the old, rusted, but solid air compressor as a support for his back. Shooting his fingers straight up to Sandburg's neck, he felt for a pulse, his brow furrowing in concern as he felt it racing beneath his fingertips.

"Looks like your boy ain't doing all that well," Quinn jeered. Unfortunately for Simon, the only suitable cover within a reasonable distance from where Blair collapsed also happened to be the only place that offered a piece of equipment strong enough and sturdy enough to use to shackle Quinn and his girlfriend. Smiling, Quinn let out a malicious laugh, focusing his attention on the blood oozing from Sandburg's leg. "Got any idea how long it takes for a man to bleed out, Banks?"

The sound of a solid boot hitting flesh and a pained yelp had Simon instantly swivelling around on his haunches. "You have any idea how long it takes for a man to die of asphyxiation once his tongue is cut off and shoved down his throat?" Ellison was back and his hand was now laced in a menacing grip around Dawson Quinn's throat.

"Jim!" Surprised by the sudden appearance of the detective, Simon reacted immediately, springing to his feet at the appearance of the two new arrivals immerging into the open.

"State troopers," Ellison announced, before releasing his grip and moving swiftly over to Blair. "What happened?"

"He collapsed. One minute he was doing relatively okay, trying to convince me to go after you, and the next minute he took a swan dive."

"Chief... Blair, come on buddy, this is no time to play possum." Jim tapped the side of Sandburg's face, his actions inciting a small groan from the unconscious man. Persisting until he got the response he was hoping for, he breathed out in relief as Blair's eyelids fluttered open and recognition slowly filled Sandburg's glazed eyes. "Good boy," he said.

Letting out his own sigh of relief, Simon switched his attention to the two men Jim had brought back with him.

"Captain Banks I presume." The smaller of the State Troopers approached Banks, offering an introduction. "Nathan Tate, sir."

Simon took the offered hand. "I'm sure glad you two just happened by, Tate." Looking past the man's shoulder, he surveyed the surrounding bush. "Where are the rest of the troops?"

"Still searching the South Woods, sir. Sheriff Tenyson became kind of concerned about you fellers poking around these parts alone, so he sent us to catch up with you. We thought we'd lost your trail in that last downpour, but then we heard the explosion." Tate's eyes wandered over toward the destroyed explosives shack. "That's one way of getting a man's attention, I guess."

"Yeah, I guess it is," Simon chuckled.

"Trooper, we have an injured man here." Ellison interrupted. "When can we expect help?"

Tate shimmied his pack from his back, letting it fall to the ground as he moved in and squatted down beside Ellison. "Not until first light, Detective." With two fingers pressed firmly against Blair's wrist he took in the rapid beat of Sandburg's pulse. "When was the last time he had something to eat?" he asked

"Yesterday morning," Jim replied. "We lost all our supplies in the river."

Fishing around in his pack, Tate withdrew a small pocket-sized container and popped a straw through the foil seal. "Try and get him to drink this. It's a glucose drink. Aside from replenishing some of his fluids, it will help with his blood sugar levels." After a quick examination of Sandburg's leg, Tate nodded to his partner, who had his Remington 870 shotgun trained on Quinn. "As soon as he's up to it, we'll move him to the cabin. It'll be nightfall soon and this wound needs some tending to."

"What cabin?" Banks asked.

"'Round the other side of the mine there's a supervisor's cabin. It ain't the Hilton, but it's dry and warm and the Rangers keep it stocked with basic supplies." Tate got to his feet. "At first light I'll hike up to the ridge and radio for help."

Banks raised his eyebrows in question.

"Valley's too deep for a signal to get out," Tate clarified.

"What about those two?" Simon asked.

"Don't worry about them, Captain." Tate eyed his partner and Banks followed suit. The second State Trooper was a large, heavyset man that had a no-nonsense, 'don't shit with me' quality about him.

Sizing up the man's appearance, Banks muttered, "Kinda makes me glad he's on our side."

"You're not wrong there, Captain," Tate chuckled. "We'll hole these two up in one of the old supply shacks for the night. It might be a little chilly and damp, but they look tough enough to survive."

Tate's comment brought a smirk from his so far wordless partner and Quinn's eyes flickered with uncertainty as the big man's frame hovered menacingly over him.

"Chief, try and drink a little more," Ellison encouraged. While his main focus had been on the welfare of his partner, he still had his eyes and ears trained on the activity and conversation going on around him.

Shaking his head from side to side, Blair clumsily pushed away Jim's hand. "Making me feel nauseous," he responded with slightly more clarity than before. "What's happening, Jim?"

Using his thumb, Ellison wiped away some of the sticky drink that had dribbled down onto his partner's chin. "Help's arrived, partner. In a few minutes we're going to move you to a cabin were you can get some rest for a while."

"Like the sound of that," Sandburg replied. "Tired, need to sleep."

"Hey, hey, hey, not just yet, Sleepy Joe." Before Blair's eyelids drooped completely closed, Jim patted his partner's cheek. "Stay with me for a little while longer, okay Junior?" Just as he spoke, the heavens opened up, sending large, fat raindrops splattering down and spraying up the mud around them.

"Simon, take that side."

Moving quickly, Banks manoeuvred his shoulder under Sandburg's armpit and helped Ellison shift Blair off the wet, muddy ground. "Which way?" he said, loudly.

Snatching up his pack, Tate called out to his partner. "You gonna be okay with those two while I get these folks settled?"

Big Wallace Johnson adjusted his hat, pulled up his collar against the heavy rain and smiled. "Nature's a natural cleanser." Toeing Quinn's leg with his steel-toed boot, he chuckled. "And this feller and the little missy look like they could do with all the cleansing nature can provide." He waved his partner away. "We'll be right as rain until you get back."

Tate smiled as he led the three men around the other side of the mine. If life had one certainty, it was that once Wallace Johnson had his man, that man would be had for good. Dead or alive was an irrelevant factor to the big State Trooper.

"Jim, I don't feel so good, man."

"I know, Chief, but try and hang on for a few more minutes, okay?" With Blair's heavy, rasping breaths shuddering in his ear every time they took a step, Jim knew that the kid was reaching the end of his limits. Shouldering through the cabin door, he took a quick inventory of their surroundings and began barking orders. "Simon, grab that blanket off the bed and lay it by the hearth. Tate, I'll need some water and plenty of it, if you can manage it. Simon, you think you can get that fire going?"

Spreading the blanket out on the cold floor, Simon grabbed a pillow and lay it down, just as Blair's head hit the deck. "I'm on it," he stated, already stacking wood in the grate and tending to the kindling.

"There's a pump just round the back which is fed by a natural spring," Tate interjected. "The water's pure, so there'll be no need to boil it." Digging around under the sink, the trooper grabbed a flat, steel pan and a large bucket. "Here," he said, handing the pan to Ellison. "In the bottom of my pack you'll find a medical kit. I won't be long," he said, ducking out the door.

Jim made quick work of Blair laces, pulling off both Sandburg's boots and his damp socks in one fluid motion. Moving up his partner's body, he undid the buckle on the belt that was still secured around the wound and cut through the bloodied material strips using the scissors from the first aid kit that Simon had laid out beside him. "Chief, I'm gonna have to get these jeans off you, okay? Your leg needs to be cleaned and dressed before it gets infected."

Laying flat on his back with his arm flung over his eyes, Blair simply nodded. He could still comprehend, on a basic level, what was going on around him, but the rest of his world seemed fuzzy and somewhat disjointed, and he was having trouble trying to grasp the more intricate and subtle details of what was happening. Distantly he could feel the jostle and pull on his injured leg, and the cool fingers of air on his skin as his jeans were unbuttoned and pulled down, but the pain he expected to accompany the movement never came. It was like his mind had wandered off on vacation, leaving his body behind like an empty house. Absently his thoughts wandered, becoming even more opaque and surreal, and he strayed upon the notion that perhaps this is what it was like when Jim was in a zone; a place where the driving power of the imagination is in control of all. But before he had the chance to delve further into examining his own question or postulate an answer, his private Xanadu came crashing down and a searing, hot flash of pain lashed up his leg and headed straight to his groin. Digging his heals into the hard floor beneath him, Blair arched his back and cried out.

"Shit," Jim swore urgently, stilling his actions. The ragged material around the entry wound in Blair's leg had been pushed inward, and was now stuck to skin and flesh by congealed blood and drying mud. As Jim tugged on Blair's jeans, the material tore at the raw edges of the hole, pulling and splitting further the already fragile, tender skin and muscle beneath it. Scrambling up his partner's body, Jim took Sandburg's face between the palms of his hands. "Breathe, Chief, breathe through it."

"Oh god, Jim!" Blair cried out. "My leg... it feels like it's on fire, man."

"I know, buddy, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry."

Through gritted teeth, Sandburg ground out. "Whatever it is you're doing, man, you gotta stop. It hurts, Jim."

"Chief, I know it hurts, but you're gonna have to bear with me for a little while longer, okay?" Thumbing the dark hollows beneath his partner's eyes, Jim sought contact. "Blair, your leg's caked with dirt and muck from the mine and it needs to be cleaned before an infection sets in. I know it hurts like hell, but I need you to hang tough for me. You think you can do that?"

Whatever pain radiated through his own body, Blair could see it reflected tenfold in the eyes of the sentinel. For all of Ellison's tough, macho ways and often grumbling exterior, hidden beneath the facade was perhaps one of the most compassionate souls to have ever touched his life.

Even though their initial meeting might have started out on shaky ground, as time passed Blair had found himself in the unusual position of actively developing a friendship. Meeting people and forging new relationships was a phenomenon that always just seemed to occur naturally for him; as easy as riding a bike. Easy, that is, until he came across one of the toughest rides he'd ever have to conquer.

When he'd met Jim, the easy bike ride became a trail of arduous uphill battles and heart-stopping downhill races, and falling off was proving more prevalent than staying on. But as time went by, and despite the bumps and bruises and often sheer exhaustion of trying to keep up with the illusive speed demon in front of him, he began to learn that it didn't matter how many times he fell or stumbled, there'd always be someone to turn back around to pick him up and put him back in the saddle. Sometimes it was a quick dust-off and a sturdy slap on the back, and other times it came with open arms that encircled him and held him tight until he was strong enough to stand again without falling.

As the bike ride began to take them through some greener pastures, Blair began to wonder as to the true nature of their relationship. The academic part of him had already speculated on various hypotheses and theories pertaining to Jim's protective nature, citing the behaviour as instinctual, a need that was ingrained within the soul of a Sentinel. He surmised that Jim, like the Sentinels of Peru, had their territorial boundaries and that he had become ensconced within those borders.

While his academic brain was off on its tangent, the layman inside of him could feel the germination of a tiny seed that gave life to the idea that their relationship was actually nothing more complicated than the age-old concept of friendship itself. And as much as he wanted to prove his original hypotheses to be correct, it was the layman's theory that gave him the most hope. All he really wanted was to just be Jim Ellison's friend... nothing more, nothing less.

Letting himself, for a single moment, believe in this friendship, Blair forced a stoic smile to his face. Reaching up, he shakily touched the hand that was gently stroking his cheek. "Tough is my middle name, man," he rasped out.

Jim smiled back. "I never doubted that for a minute, Junior."

Drawing in a deep breath, Blair gathered his resolve. "Let's do it."

Ellison drew in a deep breath of his own before reluctantly letting go. He cast a grateful look toward his Captain as the big man surreptitiously slipped his hands beneath Sandburg's body and lifted Blair's torso to rest against his own. He offered Blair his hand. "This hand's gone through childbirth, kid, so squeeze as hard as you like. Nothing you can inflict on it can beat that."

"Thanks, Simon," Blair replied quietly. Tentatively accepting Banks' offer, he loosely joined their hands, palm to palm. "But I swear, if you start telling me to pant and begin making faces like a constipated monkey, I'm so outta here, man."

Simon couldn't help but laugh. "Hey, I thought you natural remedy types were into panting and all that shit."

"I'll tell you what. If I ever give birth, I'll give it a try and let you know how it pans out."

"Sandburg, that's a picture I could have lived my whole like without imagining. Thanks for the nightmare."

Blair's chest heaved heavily, his leg flinching as Jim snipped away the fabric that was stuck to his leg. "...y're welcome," he rasped out.

"Tate, you got that water yet?" Ellison yelled out over his shoulder. Having freed Blair from his jeans, he got his first look at the full extent of the injury. Dirt and mud caked the bloody lesion, and the muscle around the bullet hole was already swollen and hot to the touch. The first tendrils of infection had taken hold.

The door suddenly sprang open with a bang, the force of the wind slamming it into the side wall. "Man it sure is coming down out there." Toting a large steel bucket, the trooper quickly secured the door and moved across the room. "It's cold, but it's clean." He grimaced at the sight of the uncovered wound. "How do you want to do this?"

Sliding the pan underneath Blair's thigh to catch as much water as possible, Ellison nodded to Tate to bring the bucket closer. "Pour it slowly. Concentrate as much water as you can over the wound. Once this side is done, we'll move over and do the back."

Blair flinched as soon as the cold water hit his leg. "Easy, Chief. Just relax," Jim soothed. With gentle, but firm fingers, Ellison guided the water over and around the injury, carefully removing all traces of dirt. Watery lines of diluted blood followed his actions, as the wound continued to bleed.

"You know what, guys," Blair panted as Jim continued his ministrations.

"What's that, Chief?"

"I think I've decided there's a lot to be said about the virtues of modern day medicine." Trying unsuccessfully to stifle a moan as Jim prodded and poked at his leg, he ground out, "Painkillers, in particular."

Wrapping his arm tightly around Blair's chest, Simon leaned in. "You squeeze Blair," he said. "Squeeze all you have to."

Ellison nodded to Tate. "Let's do the other side," he said quietly. Lightly placing his hand on Blair's hip, Jim momentarily fingered the damp boxers beneath his touch. "I'm gonna roll you over onto your side now, Chief."

Sandburg closed his eyes, his body offering no resistance as he was gently turned over, his head now resting in the crook of Simon's arm, their palms fused tightly together.

Working quickly, Jim repeated the procedure, removing the dirt and, this time, using his fingers to pull away the threads of fabric that had penetrated Blair's leg. Sharpening his eyesight, he zeroed in on the wound. "Simon."

It was only one word, but Banks knew that tone better than he knew his own mother. "What's wrong?" he asked anxiously.

"I need you to hold him and hold him tight." Removing a pair of long, pointed tweezers from the medical kit, he turned to Tate. "You're gonna have to keep his leg still for me while I do this."

"Do what?" the trooper asked.

"Remove the last piece of material from his leg. It's buried, 'bout an inch and half in."

"Are you sure?"

"He's sure," Blair whispered, brokenly. A cold, clammy sweat dotted his brow and he was unable to stop the shivers from wracking his body. Unconsciously, he latched even harder onto Simon's hand. "Do it Jim," he ordered. "Please, just get it over with, man."

Wordlessly, Jim proceeded. Steadying his own hand, he focused all his concentration toward the task at hand. A myriad of sounds flooded his ears and odours penetrated his nostrils, coating his tastebuds with the coppery taste of blood and sweat. No matter how much he yearned to drown them out, to shut his senses completely off, he knew he couldn't. The pounding of Blair's heart and the muffled cries as his guide tried to grapple with and hide his pain smothered him like a thick, pea soup fog. But everything in the room, every smell, every taste and every emotion reminded him of one thing. That Blair was breathing and he was feeling and he was very much alive. As the tweezers penetrated deeper, sweat broke out on his own brow. Trying to steer clear of anything else but the fabric was a fruitless exercise. The strip of material was in too deep and there was no way of extracting it without digging into muscle and tissue. Expediency and pinpoint accuracy were the only things in his favour. "I got it," he breathed, as the nose of the tweezers first nudged, then firmly grasp the denim within their hold. Like pulling an earthworm from its burrow in the ground, the foreign material soon slithered out of Blair's body.

Blair lay still, limp and unresponsive in Simon's arms, his face buried deep within the folds of the Captain's sweater.

"Jim, I think he's passed out."

Ellison shook his head. "He's still with us, Simon." He wished to hell that he was wrong, but knew with all his instincts that he wasn't.

With a sterile wipe the only antiseptic available to him, Jim swiped over the wound and held Blair's leg steady while Tate applied a gauze dressing and bandage. Pushing the bowl to one side, he laid a towel on the ground and lowered Sandburg's leg. Moving up the length of Blair's body, he placed his hand on the back of his partner's damp curls. "Give us a minute, sir?" he asked.

Although feeling a strange reluctance to relinquish his hold on the kid, Simon conceded, carefully moving aside and letting Jim lift Sandburg from his arms. With a cough, he cleared his throat. "Tate, I think it would be prudent for us to go and see how your partner's doing."

"Thanks, Simon," Ellison whispered.

As the door clicked closed and footsteps moved away, Jim clutched Blair close to his chest. "They're gone, Chief. It's just you and me now, partner."

A sharp intake of breath and broken sob was his response.

Frantically wishing that he could transfer all the hurt that Blair was suffering into his own body, Ellison tightened his hold and instinctively began to rock back and forth. "I'm so sorry, Blair. I'm so god damn sorry I had to put you through that."

Feeling Sandburg's hands snake up his back and dig into his sweater, Jim rocked harder. "You just hold on, Chief. Hold on as tight as you need to." With Blair's hot breath tingling the hollow of his neck, Jim leaned in and rested his cheek against the kid's rain-soaked hair. "I promise I'll do the same and I won't let go till you say so."

The minutes ticked by slowly. Blair's respirations evened out and the white-knuckled grip he had on the back of Ellison's sweater lessened in its intensity. Absently, Ellison continued to rock and hold on tight.

"Jim." Blair's quiet word ghosted against Ellison's neck.

"Yeah, Chief?"

"So does this mean you think any less of me, man? I mean slobbering all over your sweater's gotta qualify for a class A spineless goober."

Jim smiled, relief flooding over him at the sound of his partner's voice. "Don't worry about it, Chief," he chuckled. "It's classic Spineless Goober behaviour. One tiny bump and they start with waterworks that could cry you a river."

Blair's hand weakly thumped Jim's back. "Hey, where's the respect Ellison? I've been shot, remember? It's always the hero that gets shot, you know."

Jim pushed Sandburg back and lightly traced his hand down the side of Blair's bruised and battered face. "Come on, hero," he said, his eyes shining with nothing but respect and admiration. "It's time for all good little heroes to get some sleep."

"Jim?" With no answer forthcoming, Simon tried again, this time adding a sturdy shake to the sentinel's shoulder. "Jim?"

Ellison jumped.

"You okay?"

Scrubbing a weary hand over his face, Jim released Blair's hand and tucked it under the blanket. "I'm fine, just tired."

"How's the kid doing?"

"Asleep, finally."

"He looks flushed."

Jim struggled to his feet with exhausted, laboured movements. It was going to be a long night and a pot of strong coffee was probably going to make the difference between staying awake or joining Blair in the Land of Nod. "He's running a temperature. I got some Tylenol down him and some more of that glucose drink, but I don't know how much good it's going to do. Not if the infection's already taken hold."

Simon patted Jim's shoulder. "Why don't you go and heat up one of those cans of stew in the cupboard and I'll clean up this stuff." Simon glanced over at the bloodied mess that still lay in front of the fire. "The guys out there have got Quinn and the girl under control, so I think that the best thing we can do is get some food in our stomachs and then get some sleep." He sponged at the blood still staining the stone hearth with a discarded wipe. "I'll take the cot in the corner and you bunk down with the kid." The bed in which Sandburg lay was large enough to accommodate Jim without causing any disturbance to Blair, but also small enough that any movement or discomfort coming from the younger man would be instantly noticed.

The concept of getting some sleep was an enticing idea and one look at Simon's haggard features told Ellison that his captain was also dead on his feet. The man had been through an ordeal of his own over the past twenty-four hours and Jim had seen a side of Simon that, for the most part, remained hidden beneath the protocol of a suit and tie. "Simon, thanks," he said sincerely. "For staying with Blair and just... well, just keeping him together out there."

Banks waved Ellison away with a nonchalant gesture. "It's nothing I wouldn't have done for any of my men. Besides, the kid did all right. He didn't panic, kept his head."

Moving absently across to the window, Jim stared out upon the cold, bleak landscape.

"Can the idea, Detective."

Jim didn't bother to turn around. "What idea?"

"Don't give me that, Ellison. I can see the wheels spinning in your head from here." He moved in to stand behind the sentinel. "Jim, even if you did manage to make it up to the ridge, there's no way a chopper would be dispatched until daybreak." He squeezed Ellison's shoulder. "He's a tough kid. He'll be okay."

"I know," Jim replied, quietly.

"Come on, let's get some food into us and hit the sack. It'll be dawn before we know it."

The logs in the fireplace crackled and hissed, drying the three sets of clothes that hung neatly perched on the rack by the hearth. The warmth and the glow of the orange flames shrouded the room in a deceptive peacefulness, while the patter of rain tinkled down upon the old tin roof, the occasional raindrop snaking its way down a rusted bolt and falling with a quite splash into the bucket below. Two men slept, unaware. For the third, sleep was far more elusive. As the clock ticked past the midnight hour, the sentinel sat, keeping watch. Blair's fever was up.

Like tributaries branching out from a swollen river, red streaks snaked from beneath the bandage around Blair's wound and charted a path up the length of the younger man's thigh. The infection had set its course.

Blair stirred, his groggy, bloodshot eyes mere slits as he struggled to focus. "Go back to sleep, Chief," Jim soothed. Without an ounce of hesitation, he continued his actions, his fingers palpating the tender region just above Blair's groin.

"Easy for you to say," Blair mumbled. He flinched a little at the touch. "You try sleeping while someone's playing pocket billiards with your crown jewels."

"Yeah, well, I guess some guys just get all the luck." Knowing all he needed to know, Jim removed his hand and readjusted the front of Blair's boxers.


"A little." The lymph nodes in Sandburg's groin were considerably enlarged. "Nothing to worry about, though." Jim pulled the sheet back up to cover Blair's torso. "Try and get some rest."



"It's hot, man."

Ellison dipped the washcloth into the bucket of cool water that sat by the bed. Wringing it out, he placed it on Blair's forehead. "I know."

Surrendering the battle he was waging against his eyelids, Blair relaxed into the soothing sensation stroking his forehead. "...'im?"

"Yes, Chief?"

"...nex' time... warm y'r han's... 'kay?"

"Say goodnight, Beaver."

"'night Beav," the young man whispered.

The patter of raindrops on the old tin roof and the quiet sound of two men sleeping once again filled the room. The Sentinel continued his watch.

"Blair, why don't you just tell me where you put it? I promise that if you give it back to me, I'll throw it away and you'll never see it again."

The thin, shaking frame drew closer to the little boy who stood with his back pressed up against the wall of the tree house. A tree house that had been built especially for him by his Grandpa Jack. "Where is it Blair? Tell me where you hid it."

Blue eyes peeked out from behind a mop of unruly curls and stared at the man with a defiance that belied their age.

"No. Naomi said it's bad and that you shouldn't do things like that. I'm not going to give it back to you."

The man sprang forward, wrapping his long, nicotine-stained fingers around the breadth of the little boy's forearm. He shook him hard and Blair's head banged, with a solid bump, into the wall behind him.

But he didn't cry. He was a big boy now and he was his mommy's protector. Grandpa Jack had told him that and Grandpa Jack was never wrong.

The sting of a hard slap landed against his cheek and the floor shifted suddenly beneath his feet. Tremor-wracked hands dragged him upward and outward, out over the railing, with nothing but the air brushing at his toes.

But still, the little boy's blue eyes stared out with defiance and he shook his head in willful determination.

Fury tainted the wild eyes, and the wiry, discoloured fingers simply let go. There was no place else for him to go but down. No place to land but the hard, brown earth below.

His mommy's screams filled his ears, but he didn't cry. He was a big boy now. His mommy's protector. Grandpa Jack had told him so.

Jim jerked awake with a sudden start. His neck cracked as his head snapped up from his chest. Blue eyes stared out at him from behind a mop of sweat-soaked curls. Eyes that burned bright with fever, but also something else... the blue eyes burned with defiance. Reaching out, Jim placed a cautious hand on Blair's chest. "Chief?"

"You can't have it." The voice was strong and it was determined.

"Have what buddy?" Jim asked softly.

Sandburg struggled to push himself off the mattress. "It's bad and I'm gonna tell Naomi what you've been doing."

"Chief." Ellison shifted from the chair to the bed, both hands now applying pressure to Blair's chest. "What's bad?"

A brief moment of lucidity flickered across Sandburg's face and his body went slack. "Jim?"

Snatching the cloth from his guide's forehead, Jim re-wet it, before trailing the soft material across Sandburg's face and down the side of his neck. "Yeah, Chief, it's me."

Sandburg's brow furrowed in confusion. Suspended somewhere between reality and the muddled confines of his vivid dreams, he struggled to make sense out of the visions that filled his head. "It hurts," he rasped.

Ellison looked at his watch. It'd only been a couple of hours since giving Blair something for the pain, but weighing the options and considering the mild dosage of the pills, he figured that it would do more good than harm. "Do you think you can manage some more Tylenol?"

Blair shook his head, his eyes clouding once again. "No... rub. Naomi rubs the pain away... rubs it from my back." His eyes fluttered. "...from my arm."

Jim sponged Blair's chest in an effort to try and cool the burning skin and lay to rest some of the confusion Blair was experiencing. With long, smooth strokes, he worked his way down the sick young man's torso.

"Jim?" Awakened by Blair's disjointed murmuring, Simon grabbed for his shirt and flipped back the blanket. "What's going on?"

"He's burning up, Simon and he's drifting in and out of delirium. Throw me that towel, will you?"

Simon plucked the towel off the rack by the fire and tossed it to Jim. "Did I hear him say his back hurt?"

"Yeah, and his arm." Jim dipped the entire towel into the bucket, soaking it completely before wringing it out. "He got pretty banged up when we jumped into the river, but he never said anything about hurting his back or his arm."

"And you took Sandburg's silence as gospel?"

"Shit," Ellison ground out. Simon was right. Sandburg usually spoke the loudest when words were absent. Laying the towel aside for the moment, he slid his hands under Blair's body. "Simon, help me sit him up."

Shifting around, Jim moved to sit behind Blair. "You got him?"

"Yeah." Simon lifted, adjusting Sandburg's head and resting it against his shoulder while drawing his body to his chest.

"Okay, Chief," Jim said, running his hand up and down the length of Blair's spine. "I want you to tell me if anything hurts when I touch it."

"It's broken," Blair mumbled, stirring slightly in Simon's arms.

"It's not broken, buddy." Blair's back was peppered with light bumps and bruises from where he'd been knocked into rocks by the river, but Ellison was fairly certain that would be the only injury he'd find. Moving outward with his examination, he concentrated his sensitive touch over Blair's ribcage.

"It is broken. The doctor said so." Blair lifted his head from Simon's shoulder and tried to reach back for Jim. "Got a white cast, see?"

Banks raised his eyebrows.

Finishing up with Blair's back and finding nothing, Jim indicted for Simon to switch positions. He wrapped his arms around Blair and drew him into his own body. "Chief, you want to tell me where you are?"

Without hesitation, Blair rested his head on Jim's shoulder and closed his eyes. "My tree house. Grandpa Jack built it for me. You wanna come up and see?"

Jim's fingers worked up and down Blair's arm, feeling for any fractures or swelling. "You sure you're in a tree house, buddy? Maybe you're in the tree you fell out of when you were a kid. Remember? You told me you broke your arm when you fell." For whatever reason, Blair seemed to be trapped in a memory of the past. Jim hoped that some gentle prodding and the reassurance that he was safe might help bring him back to the present.

"It was a tree house," Blair corrected, sounding annoyed. "And I didn't fall... he dropped me." Blair suddenly pushed back. "You won't tell him where I put it, would you Jim? You won't tell Alan?" Blair's eyes flickered with concern. "You better stay on the ground, Jim. Alan's mad. He might make you cry." Blair paused. "I don't like it up there anymore," he whispered. "It's too high. I don't like being high anymore."

With a sickening feeling creeping into his gut, Jim cupped his hand around the back of Blair's neck. "Who's Alan, Blair? Is he one of your friends? One of Naomi's boyfriends?"

"Jim," Simon intervened.

Ignoring his Captain's warning, Ellison continued. "Blair, did Alan hurt you?"

"Ellison, knock it off," Simon ordered. "The kid's not with it. This is not the time."

"Simon, this'll probably be the only time."

"My point exactly," Banks hissed. "It's none of your business and if he'd wanted you to know he would have told you by now."

"So you're just going to sit there and turn a blind eye to a possible case of child abuse?" Jim asked in disbelief.

"I'm sure I don't have to remind you about the statutory limitations on child abuse cases, detective. Even if Blair was abused as a kid, aside from being none of your personal business, it's none of your professional business either."

Jim ignored Simon's rant. Be damned if he'd turn a blind eye. Not where Blair was concerned.

Blair's strength gave out and he fell forward, sinking his face into Jim's neck, "He can't make me cry, Jim," he breathed, now only barely awake. "Even when it hurts, he can't make me cry."

Simon picked up the towel and laid the cooling material across Blair's back. "Let it be, Jim," he stated. "For everyone's sake, just let it be."

This time another set of eyes shone with defiance. Wrapping his arms around Sandburg, Ellison moved back on the bed, carefully easing Blair with him, stopping only when his back hit the wall. As Blair's fevered skin burned into his own, he cradled the younger man close to his chest. But the heat that sparked between their bodies was nothing compared to the raging fire he felt deep in his gut. There's no way I'll just let it be. No way in hell.

Simon sighed, knowing full well the implication of that look. "You want me to help you lay him back down?" he asked.

"He's fine where he is," Ellison replied in a voice that was almost robotic and void of any kind of emotion.

Banks knew Ellison had just reached a point that was beyond reasoning with. Ever since Jim had hooked up with the kid he'd witnessed varying degrees of what Blair laughingly described as 'Blessed Protector Mode'. For some reason Jim had taken it upon himself to act as Sandburg's personal guardian angel. Of course, the rules of this guardianship were bound by what Ellison considered acceptable and the guidelines that the detective had taken upon himself to set, naturally didn't always apply to him. Jim was the first one in line when it came to a practical joke, or to rib the kid about some of the stupid things he seemed to get himself involved in. But for all of the laughs and the jokes, there was a definite line that had been drawn around Sandburg and god help anyone who deliberately or unwittingly crossed it.

So Banks sat, keeping his mouth shut, with his opinions placed on the backburner until the subject could be broached with more clarity; for a time when Jim would be thinking with reason.

Quietly watching the two men in front of him, Simon thought back to another moment in the not so distant past and to a scene that was reminiscent of the one he saw now. On a cold, concrete floor in the PD garage, Ellison had sat with Blair cradled in his arms, holding the kid so close to his chest it was as if they were melded together as one. And the look on Jim's face had made it perfectly clear that he didn't give a rat's ass about what anyone else in that room might have been thinking.

There was possessiveness about Jim that day, an aura that made every single man in that garage inexplicably aware that this partnership was not one to be fucked around with. Simon actually remembered praying that for Jenkins' sake it was a good thing that Jim was blind. While levelling a gun at Sandburg may have been within departmental procedure, if Ellison had of known that Jenkins had the kid trained within his sights, the uniform cop would be have been digging the police manual out of his ass for the next twenty-odd years or so.

Adjusting a pillow under Blair's injured thigh and the addition of another wet towel was the only practical thing Simon could think of doing. Every heartbeat, every respiration and probably every single drop of sweat that trickled from Blair's body was being monitored by Jim.

"At least it's stopped bleeding."

Ellison nodded.

"You sure he's comfortable like that?" Simon finally asked. Positioned in the space between Jim's outstretched legs, Blair's upper body lay nestled against Ellison's bare chest, his head tucked soundly into the hollow of Jim's neck.

"He's fine," Ellison replied.

It was a statement that Banks couldn't refute. With their bodies so close together, Simon swore they'd be able to feel the beating of each other's hearts against opposing chests. But despite the uncomfortable-looking position, Blair slept with a deepness and peacefulness that only came with complete security and contentment.

"Well, try and get some sleep, okay Jim?" Simon pulled himself off the mattress and headed toward his own bed. "Just yell if you need anything."

"I'll leave you in good hands, kid," Banks whispered.

The once desolate and abandoned mine site was now a hive of activity. The Sheriff's Department, State Troopers, the FBI and, most importantly, the paramedics had arrived. "Hey, hey, be careful with that stretcher will you! He's not a hunk of meat, for god's sake."

Wise from experience and well versed in the hazards of dealing with the partners of the injured, the paramedic tap-danced around Ellison's hostility. "Detective, I can assure you that your partner will get the very best of care."

Ellison looked up toward the helicopter hovering above. "I'm going up with him," he stated.

"Argh, that would be 'no'," the paramedic replied.

"For Christ sakes," Ellison bit back, "it's not as if I haven't been dangling under a helicopter before. It's not fucking brain surgery."

The paramedic squared his shoulders and sighed under his breath. "Detective, you may be more than suited to dangling under a helicopter, but at this point in time you're not equipped, neither are you insured."

"I'll sign a waver," Ellison responded.

"Oh, yeah, I could just see the lawyers having a field day with that one," the EMT retorted.

Jim backed off, just a little, in the hopes of reasoning with the guy. "Look, you don't understand. He doesn't like heights and I mean really doesn't like heights." Jim blanched, suddenly feeling more useless than he'd ever felt in his life. Useless at not being able to accompany his partner to the hospital, useless at not keeping Blair out of harm's way as the bullets flew from Rooker's gun and useless at being absolutely clueless about the trauma in his best friend's past.

Grabbing the swinging cable, the EMT secured it to the stretcher. "And you think that anyone who goes up in one of these things is whistling Dixie?" Bending down to check on Blair's status, he looked up briefly at Jim. "Look, I'll be with him the whole ride. I can guarantee you that I have more than enough experience in keeping my patients calm. He'll be fine."

Ellison sighed, frustrated with the futility of the situation. Kneeling down and conceding the fact that there would be no way he'd be going with Blair, he barked at the paramedic. "Give us a second, will ya?"

"Sure thing." The paramedic went about checking his own equipment and securing his own lines.

Jim laid his hand on Blair's forehead. "I wish I could come with you, Chief, but the flyboy here has got me grounded." Blair stirred slightly under his touch, mumbling words that, even to the sentinel's ears, were incoherent.

"You hang in there, tough guy, and I promise I'll be at the hospital as soon as humanly possible." A tap on his shoulder had him getting reluctantly to his feet and moving away from the stretcher. A sense of dread and hopelessness drove through him as he watched Sandburg being pulled up.

"You ready to hit the road?" Simon asked, coming to stand beside Jim.

Exhausted and physically aching with worry and stress, Jim wearily made his way towards the State Troopers' four-wheel drive truck. Spinning suddenly on his heels, his eyes searched the sky.

"What's wrong?" Banks asked, tracking Ellison's line of vision toward the helicopter.

Jim grabbed Simon's coat sleeve, dragging the man back to where they'd been standing. "He's panicking. Can't you hear it?"

Banks shook his arm out of the sentinel's hold. "No, I can't hear it." He continued to watch the sky. "What's happening now?"

"The paramedic's talking to him, trying to calm him down."

"Well that's a good thing." He waited a few more seconds. "Is it working?"

"Yeah," Jim breathed out. "He's starting to settle." He once again grabbed his captain by the arm, this time pulling him toward the Sheriff's jeep. "Come on, we have to get to the hospital."

Breaking into a run, Jim jogged toward the car. "I'll drive."

"Like hell you will," Banks muttered, breaking into a jog of his own. This assignment was becoming very long, and very old. "Sheriff, grab those keys," he barked.

Jim punched the pillow beneath his head. Tossing and turning, he flipped over for the umpteenth time that night. Having blown into Cascade General like a wind off the prairie, he'd been told that Sandburg was stable and that he was resting comfortably. Surgery to repair the damaged leg muscle had been postponed until the doctors could get both Blair's temperature and the infection that raged through his body under control. Pumped full of heavy-duty antibiotics and dosed up on painkillers, Sandburg was as close as it came to being in a drug-induced coma. With a visit that was cut short to a measly fifteen minutes, he was ordered to go home, take a shower and get some rest. Finally, albeit unwillingly, he relented. Blair was in good hands and leaving him to get complete, undisturbed rest was, as the doctor had unequivocally told him, the best thing he could do for his partner.

Using one of the relaxation techniques that Sandburg had tried to drum into his head over the past year, Ellison took a long, deep breath. Holding it for a few moments, he slowly let it escape from his lungs. "Fuck this," he said, giving his pillow one last, hard punch. Every single time he closed his eyes the vision was there, in glorious, wide screen technicolour. A stately old house in a small country town, a majestic, grand old tree that stood so tall its branches seemed to reach up and touch the sky and a little boy, with a curly mop of chestnut hair and a smile so big and bright that it was impossible not to smile back. And then a scream, a terrified scream that chilled him to his very core and lingered long after he opened his eyes.

Kicking off the blankets, Ellison reached for his jeans. "No way," he ground out. "No way in hell do I let this rest." Pulling on his sweater, he reached for his keys and his gun. It was time to do what he was paid to do. What he was meant to do. Statute of limitations be damned.

With a battered old desk lamp that had seen better days and a stale cup of coffee his only companions, Detective Jim Ellison mulled over his next option. Blair's record had come up clean with no reference at all to any police report into any form of suspected child abuse. In fact, the only mentions of Blair Sandburg within the police database were the departmental records and information required for his observer pass.

Logging off, Jim switched tactics and logged on to hospital records. Although he'd be unable to access any specific information, he'd still be able to ascertain whether or not a Blair Sandburg showed up on any hospital admissions lists. Wading through the more recent admissions that he, unfortunately knew all too well, he concentrated his efforts on the timeframe dating back to when Blair was around five. After scrolling through several pages of information, he suddenly banged the desk. "Bingo," he said. Blair Sandburg showed up on the admittance register of the Louisville General hospital. The date of admission correlated with the year that Blair would have been six years old. Scanning the page for any more information, Jim's heart sank. The next line of text would ultimately put him on the right path to seeking his answer, but it was a path he'd been praying didn't exist. Index file: Department of Child Services.

"Ellison, do you have any idea what time it is?" Bill Harper grumbled into the receiver.

"Quarter after four, going by my watch," Jim replied.

"And, shouldn't that tell you that I'm most likely going to be asleep?"

"Bill, you still friendly with Marcia Delaware?"

Jim heard the rustling of shifting sheets as the senior vice detective apparently eased himself out of bed.

"God damn you, Ellison, Jenny's asleep right next to me," he hissed. The soft padding of feet and 'snick' of a door latch suggested he had stepped out of the bedroom. "What do you want, Jim?" he asked.

"Bill, I need you to do me a favour."

"I'm listening."

"I need you to talk to Marcia about pulling the records of a Blair Sandburg. His file was referred to Child Services by Louisville hospital back in August seventy-five."

"Seventy-five as in nineteen seventy-five?" Jim could almost hear the dismissive shrug on the other end of the line. "You have to be shitting with me Ellison. One, the chances of even finding a file going back that far will be a logistical nightmare; and second, even if it has been filed in the correct place, under the correct name, in the correct year, it'll be sealed. The only way you'll get your hands on it is by a court order."

"I know that, Bill. That's why I'm calling you at quarter after four in the morning." Ellison took a sip of his cold, bitter coffee. "Bill, come on. You and I both know that Marcia and her, shall we just say, less than legitimate P.I. firm has enough pull in certain departments to get her hands on any file, in any state that she wants." Ellison paused. "Anyway I thought that, given the events of a couple years back when I generously helped the both of you, and a certain police commissioner's wife, out of a rather awkward situation, you might feel inclined to repay the favour. How is the commissioner anyway? I hear that you're in line for a promotion. Captain, I heard."

"Jim, if I didn't know you better, I'd say this conversation is leaning pretty damn close in the direction of blackmail."

"Bill, buddy, that's such an ugly, accusatory word. All I'm suggesting is that one good deed should be repaid by another, and I'm sure that once you explain the situation to Marcia, she'd be more than happy to help out an old friend."

Jim waited patiently, allowing Harper to remember the debt he owed. Harper and the lovely Ms. Delaware had been having an extra-marital affair for a good number of years now and, being the adventurous couple they were, they enjoyed spreading the love with any like-minded person who cared to join them in their activities. Unfortunately, as they both found out, the path to filling one's desires is not always smooth sailing and, in the height of passion, it was very easy to mistake who was handcuffed to who and who to what. And in the height of that same passion, leaving the keys on the table by the door and well out of reach of any of the players was an understandable oversight. At the time of this unfortunate accident, Ellison had been assigned to work with him on a case and, given that there was no one else to call, Jim had come with handcuff keys a-blazing. Not only had Ellison saved Harper's and Delaware's hides from a potentially career-shattering moment, but he had also spared the commissioner's wife from being dragged through a very sordid divorce.

"You're serious, aren't you?" Harper replied, his voice signalling his disbelief at Ellison's request.

"You ever know me not to be, Bill?"

A growl of frustration indicated that Bill Harper knew he was backed into a corner. "Alright, Jim, give me the details again and I'll see what Marcia can come up with." He paused, and Ellison heard the scratching of pen on paper as he hastily scribbled the information. "But this makes us even. All debts paid."

"Full and clear." Jim cut the connection with a smile. "That dick of yours is gonna get you into big trouble one of these days, Billy boy," he chuckled.

With not much else he could do until he received the file, Jim shut down his computer and switched off the lamp. Although it was early, he intended to head over to the hospital, determined that this time he'd be allowed to sit with his partner.

The mission from the car park to the fourth floor was a success. The mission from the fourth floor down the hall to the nurses' station was also deemed a success. The mission from the station to the fifth door along on the left, however, was met with hostile resistance. "Detective Ellison, not another step." The command barked out by drill sergeant Tilley made the hair on the back of Jim's neck bristle. "I thought that Doctor Peterson gave you strict instructions that this patient was not to be disturbed." Despite her rather impressive girth, Nurse Tilley hotfooted it up the corridor with the speed and agility of an Olympic trained athlete. "I heard him say that and I know you heard him say that, so I'm a little confused as to why you're back here on my floor, Detective."

"Look, Nurse Tilly," Jim smiled, giving it his best shot at the old boyish charm. He glanced at her name tag, prepared to up the ante. "Julia. That's such a pretty name," he said. With a smile that almost hurt his face, Jim leaned in closer. "Why don't we try and be reasonable about this. See if we can work out a compromise."

Nurse Tilley narrowed her gaze and adjusted her footing, almost as if she was readying herself for a bout in a major prize fight. "Flowery words and a winning smile may work with young ladies, Detective, but if you think you can come on to my floor, flaunting your sexy good looks and playboy ways, you just better think again." Julia waved her finger in front of Jim's nose. "That boy's doctor gave strict instructions that he was not to be disturbed and on my watch, doctor's orders get followed." She poked her finger into Jim's chest, accentuating her words. "To the letter."

Jim folded his arms and leaned back against the wall. "Well, Julia, I understand that rules need to he followed, but it seems to me that your patient isn't exactly obeying them himself." He nodded toward the door. "He's awake."

"He is not," Nurse Tilley scoffed. "I checked on him not more than five minutes ago and he was sound asleep."

Ellison shrugged. "Perhaps you should check again."

Pushing through the door with an indignant glare at Ellison, Nurse Julia Tilley approached the bed.

"Told you," Jim stated, pushing past her.

With his mission now looking like a success, Jim reached for Blair's hand. "Hey, Chief, how you doing?" Blair was lying on a cooling pad that stretched the entire length of the bed. His only covering was a light sheet that was draped from his hips to just above his injured thigh. Various lines and tubes wove in and out of his body, pulsing in time with the monitor by the bedside.


Jim rested his hand on Blair's brow. "Cascade General."

With another indignant huff escaping her lips, Nurse Tilley used her considerable frame to shoulder Jim out of the way. "Yes, sweetheart, you are in hospital and you are in very good hands." Although the monitor beside the bed accurately measured Blair's temperature, she still plucked her thermometer out of her pocket and inserted it into her patient's ear. Waiting for it to beep, she then manually took his pulse. "Why don't I go see about getting you a little juice, honey?"

Blair nodded and, before he could get the word 'thanks' past his lips, the nurse had turned on her heals and was already heading for the door. "You have fifteen minutes, Detective," she cautioned.

"See you been using that ol' Ellison charm again." Blair whispered, groggily. "We really gotta work on that."

Jim smiled. "She's just intimidated by my sex appeal, Junior. You know how women get around me."

"Yeah, angry," Blair's eyes once again drifted shut. "...find out when I can get outta here yet?"

Jim dragged the chair toward the bed and took a seat. He ran his thumb over Blair's knuckles. "They haven't been able to operate yet, Chief. The doctor wants to get your temp down a little more and the infection under control first."

The drop in the monitor's respiration and heart rate told Jim that Sandburg was once again close to drifting off. He squeezed Blair's hand to try and get his attention for a little while longer. "Chief, when we were up at the cabin, you mentioned some guy by the name of Alan." The heart rate on the monitor spiked. "You don't happen to remember his last name, do you?"

The name and the question had Blair's immediate attention. "Don't, Jim," he said, his voice suddenly very clear and very coherent. "Leave it alone, okay?"

"Blair, I'm not trying to interfere, I just wanna help."

Sandburg's expression dulled, almost as if he was having trouble maintaining any level of concentration. "I don't need help," he murmured. "I just need you to leave it be... can you do that, Jim?"

Ellison didn't agree or disagree. He simply squeezed Blair's hand and laid another on his friend's brow. "Sleep, Chief," he soothed. "I'll be here when you wake."

Drifting off, Blair could feel the strum of Jim's fingers as they dusted across the top his knuckles and the weight of the sentinel's hand upon his brow. What the hell did I let slip? he wondered. If Jim did know about Alan and continued to delve into his past, then it would only be a matter of time before he'd know the rest. His only hope, Naomi's only hope, was that Jim paid heed to his request. But in the tired recesses of his mind, he knew the odds of that happening were not in his favour. When the time came, and he knew it would come, he'd have to put his faith in the hope that the small seed of their relationship had blossomed into something more. He also knew that he'd have to trust that Jim would be strong enough to put him first and, right or wrong, ignore the detective instincts that made Jim Ellison the man he was. On the edge of sleep, Blair whispered "Did it for Danny... do it for me?"

Ellison gave his partner a quizzical look. Where the hell did that come from, Junior? he thought. But there was no point asking the question out loud; Blair had already been reclaimed by sleep.

Nurse Julia Tilley lingered, watching the gentleness of the detective through the observation window. With a low whistle and a shake of her head, she placed her hand on the door. "A sexy body and a beautiful soul, to boot." She smiled to herself. Detective, if Mr. Tilley wasn't such a fine hunk of a man himself... She chuckled at the thought, before making her way back into the room.

Jim tracked the nurse's movement, prepared to do battle as she approached the bed.

"Doctor wants Blair to have nothing by mouth until he's had a chance to examine him," she informed him. Checking Blair's IV lines, she looked over at Jim. "He'll be doing his rounds at seven and will make a decision then on whether or not to operate today." She quickly checked the catheter line and readjusted the sheet. "You can stay until seven," she said, before spinning around and heading back toward the door.

"Julia!" Jim got to his feet. This time his smile wasn't forced. "Thank you," he said.

"Pish, posh," she said with a wave of her hand. "You just make sure you don't wake him up." With her last order given, she pushed through the door. "Oh, yeah, a fine catch," she chuckled.

Having been granted yet another reprieve by the nursing staff, Jim stared out the window to the busy street below. Sandburg had been taken up to surgery over two hours ago and all he could do now was play the waiting game. Another x-ray of Blair's leg had confirmed the doctor's suspicion. There was an infection in the bone. As the bullet passed through Blair's leg, it had nicked his femur, chipping off a small piece of bone at the junction of an old fracture. Jim pinched the bridge of his nose before wearily rubbing his eyes. A fracture, he thought, that was no doubt caused when Blair was dropped from the heights of the tree house. "I'm sorry, Chief," he whispered, "But I can't leave this alone."

Two hours turned into four. Four soon turned into five. On the sixth, Blair was wheeled from recovery and settled back into room 405. "Doctor Peterson," Jim stated. He shifted out of the way, letting the nursing staff and orderlies do their job. "How is he?"

Recognising the detective immediately, the doctor took Jim by the elbow and moved him further to the side. "He's doing okay. We've scraped the bone and irrigated the area and if all goes well, we shouldn't see any further development in the infection. The damage to his thigh muscle has been repaired and given that he's young and he's healthy, I don't see this causing him any permanent disability."

Knowing the risk once an infection settled in the bone, Ellison queried further. "So you're certain the infection won't come back?"

"There are no guarantees to that, detective. Infections like this can be notorious for flaring up without reason. He'll need to be vigilant with his health and take notice of what his body is telling him. If he starts to experience any unexplained aches and pains in the region, or if his knee or hip joint either swell or become tender, then he'll need to seek prompt medical attention." Doctor Peterson squeezed Jim's elbow. "But this will all be explained very carefully to Blair as part of his post-op care." He tapped Jim's arm. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to get back up to surgery. Oh, detective," he said turning back around. "I've let the day shift know that you can sit with Blair for the remainder of the day. But once the night shift starts, you'll have go. If Tilley finds you here, it won't be just your ass in a sling."

"Thanks, doc," Jim replied wearily.

"Most likely he'll sleep for the rest of the day and night anyhow."

"Yeah," Jim agreed. With the curtain pulled around Blair's bed as he was settled in by the nursing staff, Jim decided that it was probably an opportune time to grab a quick bite and a cup of coffee from the hospital cafeteria. As he stepped out into the hall, a young uniformed officer approached. "Detective Ellison," he stated. "Captain Taggert asked me to bring this file over to you. He said the guy who delivered it was adamant that it was handed over to you as soon as possible."

"Thanks, Davidson," Ellison replied, taking the file. It felt to be of average size and was sealed within a plain manila envelope. It' s not thick. That's gotta be a good sign, he reasoned. Feeling as if he was being pulled in two directions, Jim thumbed at the outer edges of the seal. On one hand, Sandburg did have a right to his privacy, a right to keep the events of his past just that -- in the past. But if a law had been broken, and if Blair had been the victim of child abuse, then, as an officer of the law, he was duty bound to bring the abuser to justice. As his mind was besieged with arguments for and against, it suddenly occurred to him that perhaps this guy, this Alan, had already paid the price. Maybe he'd already served his time for the acts of cruelty he inflicted against a young, helpless child.

And it was this last thought that sealed the fate of the file. Ripping it open, Jim made his way back into Blair's room. There was no way he could live the rest of his life without knowing the answer. It may have been Blair's demon, but it had become his hell.

Hours passed like minutes. Nurses came and went without paying him much attention. A photograph that had been taken as evidence was held within his hands and eerily mirrored the man lying on the bed in front of him. Although not quite as long, the boy in the photo sported the same mop of flyaway curls and the same big blue, curious eyes as the man on the bed. And, Jim thought, as he traced his fingers over the photograph, would sport the same mark that was, for the man lying in the bed, now nothing more than a small, faded scar.

And like the man before him, the boy in the photo was attached to the same tubes, the same lines and the same god damn oxygen cannula running from beneath his nose.

Breathing through his anger, Jim fisted his hand, unintentionally tearing at the edge of the picture. Blair was just a baby; so young, so fragile and so very, very broken. "And so unprotected," he whispered. Letting the photo fall, it fluttered to the ground, landing on the linoleum floor with the rest of the file. There was no need for him to read it again. Every description, every report, every name, was etched into his memory and held there in an unescapable steel trap. Every name except the name of the one man he so badly needed to know. The report had never discovered the identity of the man from Blair's delirious confession. Closing his eyes for the briefest of moments, Jim concentrated on the facts within the file.

'The injuries to the minor child, Blair Sandburg, were reported to the department by Dr. Dan Crothers of the Louisville General Hospital. While the injuries that occurred on August 5, 1975 may have been the result of an accident, Doctor Crothers became suspicious upon the discovery of numerous older bruises and healing contusions on other parts of the child's body.

'All members of the household were extensively questioned over the incident relating to the minor child and on information given to the case officer by several of the neighbours, an unidentified man was reported to be lodging at the home of Doctor Jonathan Weston at the time of the alleged accident. Doctor Weston, Ms. Naomi Sandburg and the minor child in question unequivocally deny any knowledge of this man either staying or living at the house. Given that the local authorities have been unable to locate anyone matching this man's description and the unwavering testimony of the child denying any knowledge of the man in question, this department has no recourse but to record that the injuries sustained to Blair Sandburg on August 5, 1975 were the result of an accident pertaining to falling from a considerable height. As such, this department has no other choice but to recommend that the minor child be allowed to remain in the care of his mother, Ms. Naomi Sandburg.'

"God damn you, Naomi," Jim hissed angrily. "How the hell could you have put your son at such a risk?" Moving over to the window, he gazed out onto a darkening city. As the bustle of daytime gave way to the frenzy of dusk, he watched the commotion as commuters hurried along the street, rushing to get home to their families and home to their lives. He wondered briefly if anyone in the harried streets below ever stopped for a moment to spare a thought for the people in the building that towered above their heads; if the strong and the healthy ever took a moment to think about those souls who were being kept alive by the mechanical hiss of a machine or the caring touch of a stranger's hand. Or if they ever, for one minute, stopped to give a thought to the hundreds of loved ones whose own lives had come to a standstill as they sat beside their bedsides, waiting... praying.

With a tired sigh, Jim moved back over to Blair. "I wonder if they know how much I care about you," he whispered. "I wonder if you even know." Not expecting or even really wanting an answer, he reached down and brushed his hand across Sandburg's forehead, needing to feel for himself the skin that was finally starting to cool. As Blair slept undisturbed and unaware, Jim's hand trailed down to the younger man's chest, his fingers ghosting across the well-defined muscles before coming to rest on a scar that he really couldn't say he'd ever noticed before. Unseen and completely overlooked for so long, it now stood out, speaking to him like a silent movie that had just been given sound. In the backyard of a large house, under a tall, majestic tree, a young boy lay, struggling for breath as he drowned in his own blood. He didn't need to read the ambulance report of how Blair's young life was saved. Or of how, on a brown patch of earth in the small town of Kentville, Kentucky, a tube was forced into the wall of a little boy's lung. The scar on Blair's chest and his own nightmares would keep that vision alive for a long time to come.

Stretching out his fingers until his hand reached of its full expanse, he place his palm flat against Blair's breast, against the beating heart that lay beneath. Slowly and unintentionally he became immersed in his partner's life force -- a force that beat in perfect harmony with his own.

"Detective... Detective Ellison?"

Like a car slamming on the brakes and tossing him headfirst into the dashboard, Jim was jolted angrily back into the real world.

"Are you okay, Honey?" Nurse Julia Tilley and her healing hands rubbed circles against the tense, taut muscles of Jim's back. "I was just about to call in a code blue on you, darlin'."

As Jim's eyes flickered with recognition, she let out an audible sigh of relief. "You really do need to go home and get some rest, detective. You're exhausted." With a final pat to Jim's back, she rounded the bed to finish her rounds. "What on earth." Her white, patent leather shoes scuffed at the file that lay scattered and abandoned on the linoleum floor. Before Jim could react, before he could snatch away the evidence of his partner's past, she scooped up the photo and the report, her eyes glinting with instant recognition and, ever alert, not failing to see the words -- 'Department of Child Services'. "Dear God," she whispered. Clutching the photo to her generous bosom, Julia Tilley struggled as her professional persona started to crack. "He was just a baby."

Jim reached for the file across the bed. "I know," he replied. Shoving the contents back into the crumpled manila envelope, he pressed down the seal. "There are a few things that I need to do." He unconsciously clenched his fist, creasing the file even more. "Some things that need taking care of." He paused, trying to find the right words. "I'm not sure if I'll be here tomorrow and I wanted to make sure that when Blair wakes, he knows that I have been here. He needs to know that I will be back as soon as I can." Jim met her gaze. "Julia, do you think that you could let him know?"

"He'll know." After a lifetime spent nursing and nurturing, there wasn't much left for Julia Tilley to witness. But the one crime, the one heinous act of human cruelty that never ceased to get past her guard, was the malicious, cowardly act of child abuse. Leaving her heart wide open to its pain and to its sorrow kept her from forgetting what god put her on this good earth to do. "Go," she said. "Do what you need to do. He's in safe hands."

Jim nodded, knowing that the woman who now shared what he alone knew was as tough as they made them -- but also as gentle and as tender as they came. "Thank you," he said.

Bending down, the detective placed a kiss on the forehead of his best friend. "I hope that one day you'll be able to forgive me, Chief. That one day you'll understand why I had to do this." He squeezed Blair's hand for a final time and gave a half-hearted smile. "If you're still talking to me then, maybe you'll be able to explain to me."

As Ellison left the room and stepped out into the empty hallway, he knew he was playing Russian roulette with a friendship that meant more than any other he'd ever known. But no matter how many times common sense told him to back off, to walk away and just leave it alone, there was a more powerful force at play. Instinct was loaded into the barrel and it was aimed straight at his head. If there was one thing he'd struggled to tame since his sentinel abilities kicked in, it was this instinct. And when Blair was involved, this force of nature was as wild and as raw as they came.

If the small town of Kentville, Kentucky ever needed a reason to woo the tourists to its tiny borders, the most alluring advertisement would be its 'picture perfect' beauty. A landscape of breathtaking meadows, blossomed with the soft tones of azure and indigo, was accompanied by historic country homes whose solid, age-old foundations sat, nestled with grace and pride on their own little patch of heaven.

On the shoulder of a country road in the heart of Kentville, a late model Ford idled patiently, its lone occupant studying the residence of Doctor Jonathan Weston. It hadn't taken the detective long to track down the good doctor. He, like his father and his father before him, had lived his entire life within the borders of this rural community. All doctors and all highly regarded.

Shifting the car into gear, Ellison pulled back out onto the road and eased the car over the potholes at the entrance to the drive. Winding his way down a long gravel path, the heavily tree lined driveway soon opened up into an expanse of beautifully cared for gardens and lawns. Although the house, which stood two stories high, obscured the view to the backyard, there was no way to hide the majestic old tree, whose powerful branches towered over the roofline. It was an oak, he saw, strong and sturdy.

The slamming of the car door coincided with the bang of a screen door as it snapped back on it hinges. An elderly lady with neatly-pinned salt and pepper hair made her way out onto the front porch. "Can I help you?" she asked.

"Yes, ma'am, I certainly hope so." Moving to stand closer to the front stairs, Jim withdrew his badge. "My name's Detective Ellison. I was hoping to speak with Doctor Weston. Is he around?"

"Oh, detective, lord no. Jonathan's been in a nursing home for the past two years." With a tight grip on the handrail, she moved slowly and cautiously down the stairs. "I'm his sister, Hillary Wakefield. Is there anything I can help you with?" Her softly spoken demeanour transformed suddenly as she preened her apron and fussed with the pins in her hair. "If it's about that old speeding ticket, Jack told the Sheriff years ago that he had no intention of paying it. I mean, how on earth can you give a speeding ticket to a man who's driving thirty miles an hour under the speed limit? Makes no sense whatsoever, if you ask my opinion."

"No, ma'am," Jim agreed. "Doesn't make a lot of sense to me either."

She huffed. "Well perhaps you'd be kind enough to tell that mule-headed man who calls himself a Sheriff."

"Yes, ma'am, I certainly will," Jim stated, suddenly feeling as though he was ten years old and being severely reprimanded by Great Aunt Sarah for peeling off the labels on the cans in her pantry and swapping them all around.

"Good day then, Detective," she replied.

"Um, Mrs Wakefield, the speeding ticket isn't actually why I'm here. I wanted to speak to Doctor Weston about a young boy that used to live here with him. Blair Sandburg. Perhaps you remember him?"

"Oh, yes," she said, her eyes filling with fond memories. "Blair, what a delightful child. Full of mischief, that little tyke, but always had a smile on his face." She shook her head. "That was until the accident, such a terrible tragedy. I was abroad with my husband, God rest his soul, at the time and when we finally returned home to Kentville, Blair's mother had taken him away. Broke Jack's heart in two to lose that child."

"Mrs Wakefield, do you think you could give me the address of the nursing home?"

"Oh, I'm afraid that won't do you any good detective; you see Jonathan is in the end stages of dementia. He can't remember what day it is, let alone things that happened twenty years ago. It's such a shame. My brother had such a brilliant mind."

Jim's shoulders slumped. "Ma'am, is there anything that you can tell about Blair's life here? Do you remember a man who may have been lodging here at the time of the accident? His first name was Alan."

"As I said, Detective, my husband and I were abroad at the time, but I find it highly unlikely that my brother would take in lodgers." Hillary turned to go back up the stairs. "I'm sorry I can't be of more help." She stopped. "But all of Jonathan's journals are stacked in the attic. You're more than welcome to go through them, if you like."

Jim didn't waste any time. Politely taking her by the elbow, he helped guide her back up the stairs. If the doctor was one for keeping journals, then maybe, just maybe, he wrote down all his life's events. Events that included the life of a six-year-old boy and a man named Alan. "Let's hope this is where you learned your journal keeping skills, Darwin," he muttered.

"So," Hillary asked, after safely making it to the landing. "Are you a friend of Blair's?"

"He's my partner, ma'am."

"Oh" she replied, somewhat disappointed "I always thought that Blair was destined for greater things than being a policeman. He was such a bright little boy, you know. Seems rather a waste."

Jim quirked an eyebrow. "Ah, yes ma'am," he said with a good dose of sarcasm. "That's our Blair. Bright as a little button."

"Tell me, Detective," she asked, squeezing his hand. "Is he still just as gorgeous?"

"Just as cute as a church mouse," Jim replied, rolling his eyes. Swinging open the door, he held it for Hillary as she slowly made her way inside. "So cute he makes you want to squish his little cheeks, lock him in a cage and stick a big fat tabby cat right outside the door," he muttered, discretely.

"Did you say something, Detective?"

"Me? No, Mrs Wakefield, not a word."

"The attic's that way." She pointed toward the stairs, unable to control the fine shakes that ran up her left arm. "Up the top and to your left." Her voice wafted from down the hall. "I'll go make us some tea. How lovely it is to have company," Jim heard her say as she shuffled down the hall.

Jim sneezed. The attic of the old house was an attic in every sense of the word and there was no disputing that the large room had been well used as a storage place for items that were no longer needed, but obviously too precious in the eyes of their owner to be given away. With the only light offered being provided by the three large dormer windows on either side of the room, Jim moved further into the cramped space, weaving his way past old pieces of disused furniture and boxes overflowing with junk.

"Where the hell do I start?" he muttered, staring at the enormous task in front of him. Trying to look at the room with some kind of logic, it didn't take him long to work out that the attic had, in fact, been stacked according to a timeline. Furniture, some of which dated back to the turn of the century, lined the furthest corners of the room, while each progressive decade was represented by pieces closer to the centre. A quick delve through some of the cartons, and it became apparent that the owners of the house had arranged the boxes in exactly the same way. With a system already in place, it didn't take the detective long to narrow down his search. Pulling a dustsheet from a velvet-covered armchair, Jim retrieved the first box and started wading through the contents.

One hour and seven boxes later, Ellison's patience was rewarded. Tipped onto the floor and piled at his feet were the personal journals of Doctor Jonathan Weston.

Staring down at the battered, leather-bound books Ellison realised that now he had to make a final decision. He could do the right thing; pack up the journals and stack the box neatly back into the row from where it came. The mystery of Blair's life and the man who attacked him all those years ago would remain just that -- a mystery, and it would be just as Blair had wished.

Or he could finish what he set out to do. What he felt, deep in his heart, that he was meant to do.

Casting his eyes over the library at his feet, Jim's attention was drawn to one of the tattered books. A dog-eared page poked out from the binding and penned in neat, careful script was the date -- '1975'. Unable to resist, he picked it up and ran his fingers down the broken spine. His decision was made.

Moving back and settling into the plush cushions of the winged Georgian chair, Jim Ellison began to read.

The journal dropped from Jim's hands, landing on the floorboards without making so much as a sound. He didn't bother to pick it back up; he'd read enough, more than enough. Etched into his memory was the name of the man who he'd been so desperately seeking, but there was no sense of satisfaction, no victory in the knowledge that had been gained.

Ellison simply felt empty -- so incredibly and intensely empty.

Wordlessly getting to his feet, the sentinel wandered over to the window and stared out into the backyard below. It was impossible to miss the old oak tree. It stood tall and proud, its one-hundred-year-old roots obviously thriving in the rich, fertile soil of Kentville, Kentucky. And nestled within its branches was a tree house, Blair's tree house. With its doorway boarded up and the ladder gone, it had been left, abandoned and forgotten, its last memory not of the joyous laughter of a six-year-old boy, but the horrified screams of a terrified mother.

Forcing himself from his morbid thoughts, Jim drew his attention back toward the journals. With slow, tired movements, he retrieved the box and bent down in order to pack them all away -- all except one. The journal that contained the information he needed would be accompanying him on his journey back to Cascade. Neatly stacking the books back in their carton, a particular journal caught his attention. The front cover and half the pages were completely torn away. As he opened it up to take a look at the date, a single leaf fluttered loose. Catching it before it dropped to the floor, he glanced at the words.

Jim closed his eyes, physically sick to the stomach. If the feeling of total and complete emptiness could be measured on a scale from one to ten, his would have just blown the scale apart.

With his internal autopilot the only thing keeping him functioning, Ellison finished stacking the books and quietly left the room. He made an excuse to Hillary about catching an earlier flight and apologised for not being able to stay for tea or cake. He thanked her for her help and also her permission to let him borrow her brother's journal.

As Jim steered the rented car back up the driveway and onto the road, he had to distance himself from the emotion of his discovery. His first and foremost consideration was getting home -- home to Cascade and home to Blair. The secret he carried with him would have to wait for a time when the kid was again healthy and fit. It had, after all, lay dormant for over twenty years; another couple of weeks would not make an iota of difference.

Although the parts of the puzzle were slowly coming together, there was still an elephant-sized hole right in the middle and Jim knew the chances of filling it were pretty damn slim. Trying to track down Alan Matheson by name alone could be like looking for a needle in a haystack. Unless, he thought, I can convince Blair to talk to me. But trying to get Sandburg to open up about things he didn't want to talk about was the perfect oxymoron -- met with deafening silence.

The kid knew about Alan, but how much he knew was the million dollar question. And if he did, by chance, know the man was his father, then how much did he know about his mother? And how much did Blair know about Naomi Sandburg? With his mind awash with questions and no real answers, Jim turned onto the connecting road that would take him through town and onto the highway to Louisville. Whatever he did decide to do, he'd have to do it carefully. His actions to date weren't exactly indicative of a true and trusted friend. All he could do was wager on the strength of their friendship and pray that the friendship would be strong enough to weather the approaching storm.

"Hey Julia." Jim lightly tapped the top of desk at the nurses' station. "Don't you ever go home?"

Peering over the top of her glasses, she took in the dishevelled appearance of the detective. "Home! I've been home, detective, which is obviously more than I can say for you." Her expression softened. "He's awake."

"Thanks," Jim replied with sincerity.

Making his way down the corridor to room 405, Ellison eased opened the door.

"Hey, man," Blair said, immediately. "Where've you been? I was starting to feel like an orphan."

Uncertain as to whether Blair's comment was just a coin of phrase or whether the grad student was putting his anthropology skills to the test, Jim approached the bed, keeping his expression neutral. "You're looking a little more human," he said. Gone was the cooling pad, oxygen cannula and catheter, leaving Sandburg attached to a single IV port. Uncovered from the waist up, he also no longer had a sheet draped across his lower body, but was instead wearing a thin pair of hospital boxers. His leg was heavily bandaged and raised with the aid of a padded support. "You still look flushed." Jim brushed his hand across Blair's forehead as he studied the two plastic IV bags that hung by the bed.

"You do realise how many lethal nasties are running into my veins from those bags," Blair stated. His voice was tired and strained and Jim could easily tell that Sandburg still felt pretty ill. When Blair was sick, Blair was cranky. "Who knows what the long-term side-effects could be," the grad student whined.

"Yeah well, you know what they say, Chief, sometimes the cure is worse than the disease."

"Oh, that's great Jim, really reassuring. Thanks a whole bunch."

Jim smiled, taking a seat on the mattress. "Chief, somehow I don't think you're going to die from antibiotic and saline poisoning." He patted Sandburg's hand. "Why don't you fill me in on your day, Junior?"

"My day," Sandburg huffed. "Well that's a barrel of laughs right there," he grumbled. "First off, I was rudely awakened by a lunch-wagon lady barrelling through the door at a million miles an hour, who then had the gall to try and feed me some reconstituted creamed turkey glop that looked like more like the remnants of road kill after a heavy rain than actual food. Then," he continued, after pausing for a moment to catch his breath, "Then I was forced to endure a very intensive sponge bath given by the lovely nurse, Marion. And when I say intensive Jim, I mean intensive. You wouldn't believe the places I still had mud."

"Little bit too much information, Sandburg," Ellison smiled. Giving Blair a gentle nudge, he winked. "You know, Chief, sometimes those intense sponge baths have great potential."

Blair's expression got even more depressed. "Yeah it would have, except the potential kind of died when Marion turned out to be a guy."

Ellison raised his eyebrows.

"His parents were huge John Wayne fans."


"You should have seen the size of this dude, Jim. He was built like a brick shithouse and twice as rough. I swear I've got gravel rash covering half my ass from his sponge."

Jim burst out laughing and it didn't take long for his mood to transfer to Sandburg. For the first time since he'd walked into the room, the kid actually had a smile on his face.

"I'm serious," Blair said, waggling his eyebrows. "You could tar a major highway with all the gravel I've got embedded in my backside."

"Drama queen," Jim responded, giving Blair a light tap on the forehead.

The conversation dulled briefly and so did Blair's mood. "So, Jim, you never answered my question. Where were you today?"

A hundred obfuscations paced frantically through Ellison's mind before he decided to settle upon honesty. "I had a witness turn up on an old case and I had to go make a few enquiries."

"So, anything I need to know about?" Blair asked cautiously.

"Nothing for you to worry about at the moment, Chief. You just concern yourself with getting back on your feet, okay?"

The lights in the room dimmed and the large form of Nurse Julia Tilley hovered on the other side of the observation window.

"Guess that's my cue."

"Guess it is," Blair replied.

"You want me to bring you in anything from home?"

Blair shrugged. "I'd say my laptop, but somehow I can't see that happening."

"Can't see it either, Darwin. Rest, no work, Sentinel's orders." Jim eased off the mattress. "I'll bring you a couple of books to read. That should keep you outta mischief for a while."

"Thanks," Blair muttered.

"And if you're really good, I'll swing by the deli tomorrow on the way in and bring you a turkey on rye."

"And a latte?" Blair asked hopefully.

"Sure thing, Chief. One extra large chocolate milk to go."

"Jim," Blair whined. "Nobody's said I can't have coffee."

Ellison patted the younger man on the leg. "And nobody's said you can." He gave Blair's uninjured leg a squeeze. "You get some rest and I'll see you in the morning."

"Jim?" Sandburg paused briefly, giving a moment's thought to what he was about to say next. "How close were you to Danny Choi?"

Ellison's brow furrowed. "Where is this coming from, Chief?" he asked.

Sandburg picked at a loose thread on the leg of his boxers, his eyes avoiding the detective's gaze. "I dunno. I've just been thinking about him today." He shrugged, "Thinking about how you reacted after his death." Blair raised his eye's to meet Jim's. "How you completely ignored everything to get Tommy Juno -- the law included."

You're too smart for your own good sometimes, Einstein, Ellison thought. Reaching down, he ruffled Blair's hair. "You think too much, Chief," he said quietly. "Look, I better get a move on before Nurse Tilley calls the cops." Breaking contact, Jim made his way to the door. He and Blair needed to talk, he knew that, but there was a time and place for everything, and now was not either. How could he possibly explain his actions to Sandburg when he didn't even know how to explain them to himself? Reaching for the handle, Ellison turned around. "Danny Choi was like the brother I never really had," he said. "I loved the kid." Pulling on the handle, Jim hovered in the doorway with uncertainty. Finally he spoke. "But he didn't mean half as much to me as you do."

As the door drifted closed, Blair felt as if he'd just had his heart ripped out of his chest. "That's what I was afraid of," he whispered. How much do you know Jim? How much do you know about my mom?

"Jim, man, will you quit your fussing?" Blair had been home from the hospital for the better part of a week and Ellison had a terminal case of the 'Nightingales'. "How many times a day are you going to check my leg?" he asked, brushing away the sentinel's hand.

Jim retaliated, batting away the hands that were batting his. "I'll check as many times as need be," he answered. He replaced his hands on Blair's thigh. "You heard what the doctor said. Bone infections can flare up at any time. You need to be vigilant."

This time Blair pushed Jim completely away and struggled to his feet, pulling up the sweat pants that were hovering around his knees. "I am being vigilant," he replied, "just not paranoid and compulsive."

Ellison got to his own feet, choosing to ignore his partner's comments. "Your thigh still feels warm to me," he countered.

"Of course it feels warm, man," Sandburg grated in frustration. "It's still got fourteen stitches tacked into it."

"And it's also got an old fracture that could cause drastic complications if you're not careful," Jim added.

Hopping around Ellison on his good leg, Sandburg placed a hand on the detective's chest. "The only drastic complications that I can foresee, Jim, are the ones you've created." He gave Ellison a firm push. "Sit," he ordered. "We need to talk."

"About what?" Jim questioned warily, falling back into the sofa cushions.

"How about Alan Matheson, for starters?" Now is as good a time as any, Blair thought. They'd been tiptoeing around each other like they were made of glass for the past week, each one hoping that the other would broach the topic, but neither wanting to be the first one to step up onto the starting block. It had to stop and, since Jim had brought up the subject of an old injury, an injury that he wasn't even supposed to know about, Blair decided that enough was enough. "We can move on from there," he said.

Jim's body went ridged, his face blank.

"So," Blair began, easing down to sit on the edge of the coffee table. "Have you found him yet?" He studied Jim's expression, or rather lack of expression, before continuing. "I gather it wouldn't be an easy task, given that the only details you had on my father was a name." Still no expression. Okay, Blair thought, so he obviously found out that the guy was my old man. "How about I make it a little easier on you, detective? Why don't you give the Lakeview Lawn Cemetery in Alabama a whirl and see how that pans out. I'm sure it won't take you long to find the grave. It's right at the back among all the other vagrants and itinerants."

Sandburg still received no reaction. "Don't tell me you're stuck for words, Jim?" He feigned surprise. "How about I start for you, then. How about something along the lines of 'Hey, Sandburg, sorry that I stuck my nose into your business, even after you specifically asked me not to', or 'I'm sorry that I didn't think that you were capable enough to handle your own past'." Blair ran his hand through his hair in frustration. "Might not make it okay, big guy, but it'd be a good place to start."

Feeling as though everything was spiralling madly out control and that the only way to stop it would be to confront Blair with the truth, Jim wordlessly got to his feet and brushed past his partner. Without explanation, he walked over to the front door and lifted his wallet from the basket on the side table. Reluctantly, he pulled out a neatly-folded piece of paper.

"You're right, Chief. I am sorry." The next few steps back toward Blair were the longest the detective could ever remember walking. He handed over the note. "I'm sorry for a lot of things, but finding out about your father wasn't one of them."

Blair looked at the piece of paper being offered, recognising it immediately. His heart skipped a beat when the realisation of how Jim must have come upon it sank in.

"Take it, Chief," Jim said, softly.

Reaching out with a shaky hand, Blair took the note. Slowly and with infinite care he unfolded the paper as if it were some ancient scroll or a long-lost artefact. And then, he read. Read the page that had been missing from his life since the day he was old enough to really comprehend Grandpa Jack's journal.

Biting back the tears, Blair ran his fingers across the words, embracing them like they were an old friend. "Not stolen," he whispered. "Saved."

Running a rough hand over his face, Sandburg pulled himself together and levelled his gaze at Jim, steeling his voice. "I'm a little disappointed in you, Jim."

A lump formed at the base of Ellison's throat, feelings of shame racing through him like a herd of wild horses. Before he could respond, before his words could find a voice, Sandburg got to his feet and hobbled to his room.

Wanting to explode, needing to hit something, hard, Ellison clenched his fists. He wanted so badly to go to Blair and tell him how god damn sorry he was. How it would all be okay, that he was there for him and that everything would be all right. But he couldn't. Aside from the fact that his feet had grounded him to the spot, he knew that he'd already done enough. The most precious gift he could give Blair at the moment was space. Some time and some room to process what must have been a hell of shock.

A cluttering and a bang from the room beneath the stairs had Ellison swivelling around on his heel. "Boxes?" He surged forward. No, way! he screamed, silently. You're not leaving, not like this.

Before Jim was able to breach the threshold of his partner's private domain, Blair stepped out into the living room. There was no bag, no duffle, not even a backpack slung over his shoulder. The only item that Blair had in his possession was a book, a missing half of a journal that Ellison recognised instantly.

"I thought you were better than that, Jim." For once, looking at the detective without the aid of his rose-coloured glasses, Blair tossed the journal in Jim's direction. "You of all people should know that you can't solve a puzzle until you have all the pieces." Walking over to the front door, Sandburg reached for his coat.

"Where are you going?" Ellison asked, not even trying to hide his worry.

"I just need some air. Some time to process a few things." Blair shrugged on his jacket and reached for a single crutch that rested against the wall. "Read, Jim," he said. "Read and get a tapestry of my whole life before you make a decision that could very well destroy it."

Blair pulled open the door and disappeared into the hall, the heavy green door clicking closed behind him.

Ellison listened, tracking the sound of Sandburg's weighted steps, relieved when he heard the fire door to the roof squeak open. At least Blair was staying within arm's length.

"Some detective," he spat, cursing the evidence of his own failing. Evidence which he now held within his hands. Resisting the compulsion to toss the journal through the balcony doors and distance himself from his own guilt, Ellison flopped down onto the sofa. This much, at least, he owed to Blair.

This time the journal did hit the balcony door.

"So," Sandburg asked. He stood leaning against the railing, his back to the stairwell, staring at the city landscape below. "You learn anything interesting?"

"How long have you known?" The old metal door banged shut with a clatter, shattering the tranquillity of the mild, star-laden night.

"About Alan, or about my mother?" Blair asked, flatly.

"Both," Jim answered.

Blair braced his hand against the metal railing. "I had a fair idea about Alan when Naomi didn't send him packing after the first time he hit me. There was something about him, something that scared her... and not just in the physical sense. It was like he was holding some kind of ransom over her." Blair stumbled for a minute, trying to get his thoughts together. "I was always a pretty intuitive kid and it didn't take me long to work out that the ransom was me."

"And Naomi?" Jim asked, edging closer. "How long have you know about her?"

Blair shrugged. "After the accident..."

"After the crime," Ellison corrected, abruptly. He knew was digging himself a grave, but just couldn't seem to stop.

"After the incident," Blair said, not bothering to turn around. Jim's face was not a face he was particularly interested in seeing just yet. "After the incident, mom and Jack told me everything. Man, I'll never forget that day. They were both scared out of their wits. I mean, I've seen Naomi go through some pretty intense stuff over the years, but I don't think I've ever seen her as scared as she was then."

"I'm sorry," Jim blurted. He stopped instantly in his tracks. For a man so used to being in control of his emotions, he had absolutely no idea of where to go from here, but sorry seemed the best place to start.

Blair's shoulders tensed. "Sorry for what, Jim?" he asked, his back still to the detective. "Sorry that I was born addicted to drugs, sorry that the woman who gave birth to me was too stoned to care whether I lived or died? Sorry that the man who was supposed to be my father beat the shit out me because it was a hell of a lot easier than trying to break a habit?" Sandburg let out an inane laugh. "Actually, I guess you can't blame the guy. He was usually pretty strung out when I used to hide the stuff on him. I could be fairly obnoxious when I wanted to be." He laughed again. "Articulate as well, if you get my drift."

The words bolted from Ellison's mouth before he had a chance to shut the gate. "Where the hell was Naomi when all this was going on?"

Blair swung around. His normally understanding, compassionate eyes glared at the detective. "Where the hell was my mother?" he asked. "I'll tell you where she was, man. She was right there, standing in front of me, receiving every single belting and beating with more anger and fury than that bastard ever managed to throw my way." Every muscle in Sandburg's body tensed. "I'll take a lot of things from you, Jim, but one thing I won't take is you accusing my mother of not being there for me."

Ellison stood there like a man who had just been stripped naked and placed on display for the whole world to see.

Blair swung back around, struggling not only with his own anger, but shocked and totally unprepared to deal with the raw hurt he saw shining from the eyes of a man who he considered to be his best friend -- a hurt that he knew was there for him, not because of him.

Breathing out slowly, Sandburg wrestled not only to get a fix on his own emotions, but also to put Jim's into some kind of perspective. Jim Ellison was a complexity, and he'd long ago realised that he was not even close to unravelling all the layers that made up the man. At times Jim could be more intricate and detailed than the workings of a meticulously crafted Swiss watch, but at other times -- at times like these -- he was as fundamental and predictable as time itself. Although it would be fiercely denied, at times like these Jim thought with his heart, not with his head.

Grabbing hold of the railing again, Blair took in another deep breath. "I don't know how far you got into Jack's journal, but a year after I was born, Jennifer, my birth mother, was found dead. She'd overdosed, died in an alley and was most likely just picked up with the rest of the garbage and taken away. I don't even know if she had anyone to grieve for her."

Ellison remained silent, but Blair knew exactly what was on the detective's mind. "Alan apparently died not long after we left Jack's house. Methylated spirits and a smoking habit's not a good mix, I guess." Blair's voice held a touch of irony. "Do you realise that I spent the better part of my childhood running from a ghost?" He tapped the rail with the palm of his hand. "But you know what? I wouldn't have had it any other way. I had a mother and an adopted grandfather who would have given me the world if they could have. I got to meet people who most kids would give a right arm to meet and I experienced more cultures and visited more places in nine years than most people get to see in a lifetime. And," he added, quietly, "I always had a place I knew I could call home." Blair finally turned around. "I went back there, you know. The year before I started at Rainer, I went back and lived with Jack. He was such a great man... still is a great man." Blair looked intently at the sentinel, who was now no more than a few feet away. "Just like Naomi is a great woman." For a man who'd spent half his life observing and studying people, Blair was now clueless, just like the expression on the face of the man before him. "The ball's in your court now, Jim. It's up to you to decide how you want to play it."

Silence hung in the air as Ellison stood perfectly still, surrounding and absorbing himself in the sights and sounds of the city of Cascade. His city, a sprawling urban metropolis that he'd claimed responsibility for -- not only in his role as a detective, but as a Sentinel. And, standing right in the middle of his territory, taking precedent over all else, was one man -- Blair Sandburg. And it was this man who stood there distinct from all others, because this man stood there as the others did not. He stood there as a friend... his best friend.

Ellison drew in a heavy breath. "I'm sorry that I haven't given you enough confidence in our friendship that you couldn't have trusted me with this, Chief." He added softly, "I'm sorry that you still see me as a cop first and a friend second."

Drawing his eyes away from the twinkling of the city lights, Jim wandered over into the middle of the roof. He knew in his heart that this was his failing, not Blair's, and it was time to come clean.

It was time to shake off the macho facade that he'd built around their friendship and openly admit that were was room in his heart for love. It was time to let Blair know exactly how he felt.

"I had a friend once," Jim said, perching himself on the edge of an old deck chair that at some point must have been dragged up to the roof by a tenant. "His name was Danny Choi. He died, shot dead by a sniper's bullet." He stopped for a minute. "But you already know that because you were there. You were there when the kid died in my arms; you where there when my world came shattering down. You were there when I broke the law in the name of revenge." Ellison's voice was cold. "Revenge, Chief, not justice," he stated without an inkling of guilt. "And you where there when I killed Tommy Juno."

"I was there," Blair replied.

"I have another friend," Jim continued. "Maybe you know him. His name's Blair Sandburg. He got shot once. He was put in a situation he never should have been put in. He could have died and I should have known better."

Not quite following Jim's train of thought, Blair inched closer to the deck chair. "Funny," he said. "That's not the way I heard it. I heard that this guy was your backup and he was there because it was his place to be there, beside you." Leaning heavily on his crutch, Blair moved to stand directly in front of the detective. "And I also heard that this guy lived."

"Yeah, he did," Jim said, quietly. "But a part of me didn't."

"Damn it, Jim," Blair hissed, now understanding exactly in which direction the dark confines of Ellison's mind were headed. He let go of his crutch and knelt down on the hard, grey, concrete surface, "Why does everything always have to be your fault, your responsibility?" Ignoring the pull on his stitches and the dull ache in his thigh, Sandburg reached out and touched Ellison's arm. "I wasn't blind to the risks involved, man, and it was me... my decision as to whether or not to take that risk. My being shot was not your fault."

Jim's sorrow-filled eyes bore straight into Blair's soul. "Then why, Chief?" he asked, in a voice that sounded like a man who was profoundly lost. "If I'm so blameless, why the hell have I been walking around for the past two weeks like a guy who's been gut shot? I can't eat, I can't sleep, and I've got a fire in my belly so intense that it takes my breath away." The moonlight bounced off the detective's intense blue eyes, the shimmering rays getting lost in the unshed tears glistening on the surface. "I'm a cop, Blair. I'm a cop and I so badly wanted to get hold of him and kill him for what he did to you."

Blair fingered the material of Ellison's jacket. "Somehow, I get the feeling that we're no longer talking about what happened in the mountains, are we?"

Ellison shook his head, his eyes never leaving Blair's face. "Your father," he whispered. "I wanted to kill your father."

"Oh, man." Blair cupped his hand firmly on the back of Ellison's neck, struggling to comprehend the amount of hate that Jim held against a man for a crime that was committed more than twenty years ago. "Why?" he asked. "Whatever happened in the past is just that, and it's where it should stay. I let go of it a long time ago, man." While he had long ago purged the demons of his childhood, it was obvious that Jim had only begun to struggle with his. "You have to let it go, Jim. Let it go before it consumes you."

"I can't," Jim rasped. "Every time I close my eyes, I see it. I see your body lying crumpled and broken and I know there's not a damn thing I can do about it. This feeling I have of wanting revenge is so overwhelming, I can't get it out of my head. It just won't disappear, Blair. No matter how hard I try, it just damn well won't disappear."

"Jim," Blair began, rubbing his hands up the sentinel's arms. "You remember how everything went haywire after Danny was killed. The sensory problems, your overwhelming need for revenge, how you became so wrapped up and focused on bringing Juno down that you didn't seem to care what law you broke... well, maybe this is the same kind of deal, man." Sandburg paused, knitting his brow together in thought. "Well, except for the problem with your senses," he said, thinking out loud. "But maybe that's got something to do with the level of anxiety and stress you're feeling now compared to what you felt when Danny was killed. I mean, seeing Danny die has..."

"Stop!" Jim shouted. "This is not some scientific experiment where you can just dissect and examine my feelings until they fit neatly into the little space that you've pigeon-holed and labelled 'Ellison's primitive instincts'." Jim averted his eyes in a desperate attempt to rein in his temper. "You just don't get it, do you?"

Sandburg felt numb; numb and insensitive, and incredibly and severely stupid.

Jim swiped his hands roughly over his face; the tears that had rimmed his eyes may have been wiped away, but they had not been erased. His whole body felt so close to the breaking point that he swore it would be just a matter of time before he shattered into a million pieces. "When Danny was murdered, it was like someone had punched a hole right through my heart," he said, barely loud enough for Blair to hear. "A hole which I thought would never close... but it did. After the whole thing with Juno was over, I grieved and I mourned and as time went by the hole became smaller and smaller until it was nothing more than a pinprick."

For the first time in his life, Sandburg had run out of words. He just sat there like a mute idiot, waiting in turn for his own soul to shatter.

Unable to resist an overwhelming need to connect, Ellison reached out and, with a nervous hand, he cupped the cheek of the one man who he cared for more than anyone else in the world. "Maybe you're right," he whispered. "Maybe I'm no longer a man. Maybe I am just some instinctual being who's no more in control of his need to protect than a wild animal." With his thumb he wiped away a single tear that trickled down the younger man's face. "All I know for certain is that if you die, I die. No grief, no healing, only death. You leave and my heart and my soul leaves with you."

The stone was flung; its aim was true and Blair's soul shattered into a million pieces. And it was at that very moment that he realised that he wasn't just a part of a Sentinel's territory, he was a part of Jim's territory. The tiny seed that had been planted on the day they had met now flourished, blossoming into a single yellow rose.

As the moon drifted behind the clouds, two men fell apart, collapsing into each other's arms, both seeking the comfort and forgiveness and truth that only the other could give. Although they may have been shrouded in veil of darkness, neither man cared, for they both now knew that, as long as they had each other, their paths would always be paved with light and the flower would always be in bloom.

The End

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