DISCLAIMER: The Sentinel and its characters do not belong to me. They are owned by Pet Fly and Paramount. No copyright infringement was intended by the author.

AUTHOR'S NOTES: This story is a sequel to "Do Not Go Gentle" by Nancy Taylor. That story being an alternate ending to Kikkimax's "The Long Goodbye." It is advised to read those stories first. Kikki's story can be found at:

http://www.zirask.org/long1.htm "Do Not Go Gentle" can be found at:

http://home.attbi.com/~nat1228/gentle_s.htm For those of you without the time to savor these gems, I have recapped the essence of the stories in spoilers, placed at the end of "Rage, Rage." While these are sufficient to give you the basic background, actually reading the stories would be preferable.

ACKNOWLEGMENTS: I would like to sincerely thank Kikkimax for allowing me to dabble in her universe. For some reason, her story really grabbed my imagination, and I've since run with it. I'd like to dedicate these stories to her.

I would also like to thank Kikki for the use of her original characters: Warden Burgess, Randy Wolfe, Boo, Stratton, and Pug Fletcher. --Nancy Taylor--

My thanks, as well. She [Kikki] created a great story line to play in. Her story is one of my all time favourites. --Susan Foster--

BETAS: Kimberly, Montserrat, and Elaine. Thank you all very much. Your efforts have made this an even better story.

RATING: NC-17

WARNINGS: Rape

SUMMARY: After Blair is pardoned, killings which copycat the Manifesto Murders begin again in Cascade. Blair falls under suspicion, and while Jim works to clear his name, memories from his days in prison begin to haunt the anthropologist.

Comments welcome and appreciated!

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RAGE, RAGE

 by Susan Foster and Nancy Taylor

OCTOBER, 2002

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And you, my father, there on the sad height,

Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.

 Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 --Dylan Thomas

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His heart rate soared as they strapped him to the execution gurney. Leads to a cardiac monitor were attached to his chest. Then, as the doctor set the first needle into his arm, he couldn't help the small cry of fear that escaped his lips.

"Calm down, Mr. Sandburg," the doctor told him, smiling slightly. "We're just setting up. Nothing is going to happen for a few more minutes. I'd like to let you know how we're going to work this. First, we'll start a saline flow, and then the first drug will be administered."

"I'm aware of the procedure, Doctor," Blair said, cutting him short.

Slightly flustered, the physician continued, "I can assure you, you'll feel no pain."

"Thanks. That's very reassuring," Blair replied, an edge of sarcasm lacing his tone. He craned his neck to get a look at the closed one-way mirror. Jim sat on the other side of that barrier. Of this, he was certain. Taking a deep breath, he willed his heart rate to return to normal.

As the Pentothal began entering his system through the IV line, Blair felt a momentary spike of fear. Then, darkness settled over him like a warm blanket.

0-0-0-0-0

Soft sounds of distress wafted up the stairs to disturb the Sentinel's rest. Tossing aside the blankets, Jim rose and made his way down to the tiny storage room that had so recently become his new roommate's bedroom. He pulled open the newly-installed French doors and quietly observed the occupant of the bed. Arms and legs were hopelessly entangled in the sheets, while long hair flared out on the pillow, sticking in random patterns on the sweat-drenched face. The body writhed in its captivity, while moans escaped from the open mouth.

Jim knelt next to the bed, placing his hands on the heaving shoulders to calm the younger man. "Shhh, Blair. It's all right. C'mon -- wake up." He shook the shoulders gently, watching as glazed eyes opened to stare up at him. Slowly, the eyes focused, the struggling quieted.

"Jim?"

"Yeah, kid. It's me. You okay?" Jim asked, settling on the edge of the bed and smoothing the wild hair away from the damp face.

"Just... you know." Blair's vague reference was punctuated by his hands, gesturing meaninglessly in front of his face.

"Another nightmare?" Jim couldn't begin to fathom the demons that haunted the young man's dreams. He hadn't just been scheduled to be executed, he had been executed. Only a last minute stay, after the deadly drugs had been started, had saved his life. In the nearly two weeks since his pardon, Blair's nights were still routinely interrupted by the frightening memories.

Blair nodded. "Sorry, man. I didn't mean to wake you up again." He sat up, pulling his legs free from the twisted covers.

"That's all right," Jim soothed. "You survived hell. I'm not surprised you're still having trouble dealing with it."

"The dreams haven't been so bad lately," Blair told him, running a hand through the mass of hair threatening to fall into his face. "But Randy called this afternoon."

"Randy Wolfe, from the prison?"

"Yeah. We've kept in touch," Blair explained. "Anyway, Randy told me that Boo's execution is scheduled for next week and he wants me to be there. I guess it just sort of dredged up old memories."

"Want to talk about it?" Jim reached around Blair to the nightstand where he kept his ever-present stash of M&Ms. While in prison, the candy had been a treat administered by the nurse who dispensed the nightly medications to the prisoners, and had become a comfort food for the troubled young man. Jim offered the bag, which was readily accepted. "You don't have to attend the execution, you know," he added.

"I owe Boo so much," Blair whispered. "This is the least I can do to repay him."

"Because of what he did for you?" Jim asked softly.

Blair nodded, his mind casting back to his early days on death row.

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"Hey, guard!" Pug Fletcher called out as Stratton made his nightly rounds. "I got fifty bucks for ya if you'll put Sandburg in with Boo tonight. I think it's time the little fag learns what prison life is all about."

"Oh you do, do you?" Stratton stopped in front of Fletcher's cell and sneered. "What's in it for me besides the cash?"

"A little entertainment on a quiet night." Fletcher chuckled. "Should be fun watching Pretty Boy there getting his dues."

Stratton considered the offer. He'd had a taste of their newest guest himself, when Blair had first been processed into the prison. No chance of that again, but vicarious pleasure wasn't totally out of the question. "Pay up, or shut up," Stratton threatened, approaching the cell door.

Fletcher dug the money he'd saved from his pocket, pushing it through the bars at the guard. Stratton quickly pocketed the cash and looked up at the monitoring room. The guard on duty there gave a predatory smile and released the lock on Cell 10.

Stratton approached the sleeping Sandburg with caution. With one quick move, he had the smaller man off the bunk and firmly gripped. Blair yelped with surprise and began to struggle against the hold. "No use fighting, kid. You're the night's entertainment."

"No!" Blair yelled over the catcalls and vulgarities being shouted from the other cells on the block. He fought his captor, briefly breaking free.

Stratton whipped out his baton and leveled a stunning blow to Blair's temple. The young man collapsed, unconscious. Flinging the body over his shoulder, Stratton made his way to Boo's cell. "Back off, Boo," he ordered. "I've got a treat for you."

The big dark-skinned man stepped back, waiting for the cell door to open. As soon as Stratton crossed the threshold with his burden, the giant snapped the man's neck. Cradling Blair's body in his arms, he waited for the cavalry to come rescue his precious charge.

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"I woke up in the infirmary three hours later, with no memory of what had happened that night. Randy replaced Stratton and told me the story when I was feeling better. He said that they had to sedate Boo to get him to let me go. He was that protective of me."

"So you figure you owe Boo -- for what? For killing Stratton? For not raping you?" Jim asked.

Blair flinched at the mention of rape. The movement was no more than a tell-tale narrowing of his wide blue eyes. "All of the above," he answered, quickly recovering his composure. "He treated me well, when he could have had his way with me. Boo had a reputation to maintain and he put it in jeopardy that night to save me." Blair sighed and leaned against the strong shoulder next to him. Jim reached out and circled his arm around the slight form. "I have to do this, Jim. I have to honor his last request."

"You do what you have to do, Chief," Jim said. "I'll back you up all the way. If you'd like me to come with you, I will."

"You'd do that for me?" Blair turned hopeful eyes on his friend.

"I can't let you go there alone. Not after what you've been through," Jim asserted. "Now, do you think you can get a little sleep? We've got a big day ahead of us tomorrow."

Blair looked up at his partner, then down at the bag of M&Ms in his hand. "I'm nervous about going down to the station," he admitted. "I mean, what do all your colleagues think of you having an ex-con for a partner?"

Jim sighed. "You've got to stop thinking of yourself like that. You were wrongly convicted and wrongly executed. The Governor gave you a full pardon and assigned you to the department as an observer. The guys down at the station are just going to have to deal with it."

"Yeah, but what if they don't?"

"Screw 'em!" Jim said. Blair had pulled his legs back up onto the mattress. Jim tucked the blankets securely under his chin before continuing. "Most of the guys that I've talked to are fine with it. Those that aren't will have to answer to me. Now, you close your eyes and try to get some quality rest. I'll stay until you've fallen asleep."

"That's not necessary," Blair mumbled. He snuggled down into the warm nest of blankets, still clutching the bag of candy, and closed his eyes.

"No, it's not," Jim agreed. "But I want to." He leaned over to place a gentle kiss on the young man's temple, then stretched out beside him, a protective arm wrapped across his chest.

Blair drifted off into a dreamless sleep, while Jim remained, absently stroking the wild mane of curls spread across the pillow.

0-0-0-0-0

The elevator stopped at the sixth floor, the doors sliding open to allow its occupants to exit. Jim stepped off the car, then turned to his partner. "You coming?"

Blair peeled himself off the back wall and slipped through the doors just as they were about to close again. "You said Captain Banks wanted to see us?" he asked, catching up with his long-legged partner at the door to the Major Crime bullpen.

"Yeah. Said he had a big case and that we were the perfect team." He turned to give the young man a final check. Blair had insisted on a suit and tie for the occasion. He wanted to make a good impression. With his hair tied back in a neat ponytail and his glasses perched squarely on his nose, he looked like the young academic he had been prior to his arrest. Jim nodded his approval. "Ready?" He pushed through the door, Blair close on his heels.

All eyes followed the pair as they walked the gauntlet from the hall to the Captain's office. Quiet whispers rose and fell in a dramatic Doppler effect as they passed by. One deep voice carried to the Sentinel's ears.

"Damn murdering fag's got no business being here. He should have died when they executed him," Braddock mumbled to his partner, Mick Dawson.

Dawson put a hand on Braddock's arm, shaking his head and gesturing to the detective staring at them.

Jim had stopped midway to Banks' office, pinning the offending officer with a glare that clearly said, "Shut up, or deal with me later."

Braddock shook off his partner's arm and pointedly went back to writing his report. Once the man's attention was no longer on Blair, Jim urged him forward. They made the safety of the captain's private office, closing the door behind them with a quiet click.

"Welcome back, Jim. It's good to see you again." The tall black captain smiled at his newly-reinstated detective, then turned a disapproving gaze on his partner. "And this must be the infamous Mr. Sandburg." His voice was a low growl.

The anthropologist swallowed nervously, but straightened his shoulders and stood tall. "Blair," he said, extending his hand.

The captain took the offering and shook hands with the young man. "Captain Simon Banks," the captain introduced himself, then looked over at Jim. "I wasn't expecting a long-haired hippie kid. He doesn't seem your type," he said, ushering the pair toward the conference table.

"And just what is my type?" Jim asked, a hint of sarcasm in his voice.

Blair hastily interrupted. "I don't want to cause any trouble."

"You're not causing any trouble," Jim assured him. "Is he, sir?"

Captain Banks cleared his throat, giving the young man one last appraising look. "No trouble at all... And see that it stays that way." He turned to the conference table. "I wanted you both to look at this." He spread the case file on the table for the men to see. "I thought, considering Sandburg's background, that you would be the perfect team to work this case."

Jim examined the crime scene photos. "Aw, shit, Simon!" He scowled, looking up at his boss. "This isn't funny."

"No," Simon agreed. "It's not."

Jim tried to shield his new partner from seeing the graphic pictures of the murder victim: a young woman, strangled, with her eyes gouged from bloody sockets. A strangled cry of distress told him he had not been successful. Turning, he watched as all the color drained from Blair's face and the young man started to shake.

"No." A pause, followed by the shaking of his head and a backing toward the door. "No!" Blair shouted, bolting from the room.

Jim followed his partner out, leaving a stunned captain in his wake. He caught up with Blair in the hallway.

"Which way? Which way, man?" Blair's head turned left, then right, looking down the corridors. "Gotta get to the bathroom!"

Jim steered his Guide in the right direction, following him into the men's room. He watched as Blair barely made it into one of the stalls before he started retching. Dialing back his sense of smell against the onslaught of the vomiting, Jim followed, hovering over the distraught man until the retching quieted.

Blair looked up and swallowed convulsively. "David," he gasped.

"What?" Jim helped the younger man to stand, supporting his weight as he leaned against the cool tiles of the bathroom wall.

"David Temco," Blair elaborated. He trembled, feeling the bile rising once more. "But it can't be. David's dead."

"Yes," Jim agreed. "David's dead. This isn't David doing these killings. Blair, you're not responsible for this."

"Why?" Blair's voice was weak. "Why us?"

"Without more information from Simon, I can only guess," Jim answered. "I'd say it's because this murder copies David Temco's first assault. If this guy is a copycat and a serial killer, perhaps the two of us would have more insight into his psyche than another team."

"I don't know if I can do this," Blair admitted. "Maybe I'm not cut out for police work."

"None of us is 'cut out' for seeing death like that." Jim's voice was soothing. "It makes me sick, too."

"But you're not the one in here puking up your guts."

"No, not anymore," Jim answered. "But it's not something you get used to overnight. And if you're a really good cop, you never get completely over it." He patted the slumped shoulders of the man in front of him. "Are you ready to go back yet?" he asked gently.

Blair shook his head, still looking pale and ill. "I need a few more minutes, I think," he answered. He took off his glasses and tucked them in a pocket, then rubbed hard at his watering eyes.

"Okay. You think you can make it back to Simon's office by yourself?" Jim asked. "I'd like to go back and hear what he has to tell us about this case. The sooner we're up to speed, the sooner we're out of here." Checking to see that they were alone, he leaned in to press a kiss against the younger man's temple. "Don't worry, you're doing great," he whispered.

Blair nodded and watched as Jim walked through the swinging door of the restroom. Alone at last, he slumped against the wall, swallowing down the bile that threatened to rise once more. When he felt steady enough to walk, he went over to a sink and turned on the faucet, splashing water over his flushed face. Cupping his hands, he gathered a few drops to bring to his mouth. He swilled the water around, spitting out the first mouthful, then tilted his head to drink directly from the faucet. Finally feeling refreshed, he straightened his suit coat and tie, and walked out into the hallway.

0-0-0-0-0

Joe Braddock and Mick Dawson had received their orders to report to the Major Crime Unit. Braddock had been a police officer for ten years and made no apologies in telling anyone who would listen that he belonged in Major Crime. The Manifesto Murders had been his limelight case, the one that was going to put him and his partner in the public eye and into Major Crime. Only it hadn't happened. There had been rumors that they had bent some of the rules to get the case closed -- not all the T's had been crossed, not all the I's dotted. Now Sandburg was out; he had been pardoned. The word was that the sixth victim was the actual murderer, that they had railroaded an innocent man.

But Braddock knew different. The Manifesto Murderer was back and they already had a body in the morgue to prove it. Captain Flynn had okayed their transfer into Major Crime because of their involvement with the original case.

Joe fixed his eye on the man that had just come out of the men's room. He nudged his partner. "See him, Mick? The little shit is walking around the PD as if he owned the place. Come on."

Mick Dawson caught the larger man's arm and pulled him back. "Leave him alone."

"Banks gave us the job of running down some leads on this, while he lets Ellison showboat the deal. That entitles us to have a little chat with Sandburg."

0-0-0-0-0

Blair entered the break room and dug some coins from his pocket. Pushing them into the machine, he paused, then hit the M&Ms button. There was a small delay before the packet fell down. He bent to scoop it up, his hand shaking as he opened the bag. He looked up as the door to the room opened, then closed again. One man blocked the door, while another lowered the blinds on the window.

"Blair Sandburg." Braddock spoke the name slowly. "I think we should talk."

The blood drained from Blair's face as he recognized the detective team who had been instrumental in putting him in prison and getting him the death penalty. The M&Ms fell from his fingers, spilling across the floor.

Dawson came up from one side as Blair, his eyes fixed on Braddock's face, tried to back away.

"Jim Ellison really buys this story of your being innocent?" Braddock's smile was chilling. "What does an ex-con like you have to offer him? Of course...," he sneered. "How do you pay him? On your back, or on all fours? You got enough practice in prison, so I heard: a sweet treat had by all. They're going to love you when you go back; meet some old friends."

"I'm nobody's whore! Least of all Jim's." Blair's voice shook with anger and fear, but he stood his ground. "And I am innocent!"

"Huh," Braddock snorted. "Does this ring a bell?" He let the folder he was carrying fall open and pictures of the mutilated young woman from that morning's briefing fell out on the floor. Blair took a step back, right into Dawson, who pushed him forward. He collided with Braddock, an elbow taking him in the stomach. As he dropped to his knees, a hand tangled in his long hair, forcing him double so that his eyes were only inches from the picture of the murdered girl. Blair retched, his empty stomach rebelling at the photos.

"Filthy pig!" Dawson pulled Blair to his feet and the pair manhandled him to the interrogation room.

0-0-0-0-0

Rafe was coming out of the bullpen when he saw Dawson and Braddock marching a pale-faced Sandburg toward Interrogation Room 2. "Hey, Joe! What's up with the kid?"

Braddock paused, turning a scowling face on the young detective. "Just gonna have a little talk," he said, pulling Blair close so that he couldn't struggle. The captive turned large, worried eyes on Rafe, pleading silently for help.

Rafe nodded slightly in acknowledgment of the look. "Ellison might have something to say about that," he warned.

"Just keep your damn mouth shut," the senior detective ordered. "It's none of your business." He turned away from Rafe and signaled Dawson to follow him as he headed back down the hall toward the interrogation room.

For a moment, Rafe hesitated, then turned back. Ellison was in with Simon. He'd want to know about this.

He knocked on the door of the captain's office.

"Yes?" Simon growled the word as he looked up from the evidence board.

"Sorry, sir," Rafe apologized. Turning to Ellison, he addressed the detective. "Jim, I just saw Braddock and Dawson taking Sandburg to Interrogation Room 2." Stepping quickly to one side, he only just managed to avoid being run over by the larger man.

Ellison was a volcano about to explode, and Rafe didn't want to be in the way.

0-0-0-0-0

Braddock closed the door, blocking it with his large frame. "Sit," he commanded, indicating the chairs around a small table in the center of the room. His partner, Mick Dawson, already occupied one of the Spartan wooden chairs. Blair sat, trying to contain his rising panic as he realized he was defenseless against the two larger men. Braddock advanced on him, stopping only when he reached the table. A huge fist pounded the surface, causing Blair to jump.

Swallowing his fear, Blair managed to find his voice. "Jim should be here."

Braddock circled the table, coming up behind the young man. "We only want to ask you a few simple questions. That's all," he said, his voice deceptively mild.

"I'm not answering any questions without my lawyer." Guilty or not, Blair had been through the system before and knew his rights. His voice was soft with fear, but he stood his ground.

"What do you know about the latest victim of the Manifesto Murderer?" Dawson asked, rising from his chair and advancing to stand in front of Blair. The two men now had the smaller man boxed in.

"Nothing more than you do!" Blair spat.

Dawson backhanded him, nearly knocking Blair out of his chair. "Enough of the smart talk, kid! This murder has all the earmarks of the ones you were accused of four years ago. Is it just a coincidence that the killing starts up again within a couple weeks of your pardon?"

A noise in the hall drew the attention of all three men.

The door to the interrogation room all but came off its hinges as Jim Ellison burst in. Braddock moved to block his access to Sandburg. "Get out of here, Ellison. This has nothing to do with you. The little fag killed again. You might have gotten him off last time, but this time when they execute him, he's going to stay dead."

A shove sent Braddock flying, as Jim fixed on his Guide. The younger man was deathly pale, his heart racing. He circled around and placed a heavy hand on the stooped shoulders.

Blair looked up into the concerned eyes studying him. "I'm sorry, Jim. I didn't mean to make trouble for you at the station. I shouldn't have come."

"You have every right to be here," Jim assured him. "Your knowledge will be an asset on the case." His fingers dug deeply into the young man's shoulder and he smiled encouragingly. He leveled a gaze at the two detectives. "What pisses me off, is when two cops try to railroad an innocent man."

"What makes you so sure he didn't do it, Ellison? Just because you're fucking him doesn't make him innocent." Braddock took a step back at the cold fury he saw in Ellison's eyes.

Dawson pulled his partner behind him. "Cool it, Ellison. Joe's got a big mouth. He didn't mean anything. You have to take whatever he says with a grain of salt. Nobody's accusing you or Blair of anything." He maneuvered to keep himself between the two warring detectives.

Ellison lunged at Braddock, despite the barrier Dawson put up between them. "Sounded like an accusation to me," he growled. "You'd better watch your mouth, Joe, or you'll be looking into getting dentures."

Braddock took a step forward, only to be pushed back by his more conservative partner. "Look, Ellison," Dawson explained. "We were only attempting to get a little more information. Maybe help solve the case. We didn't mean any harm."

"Before you pull my partner in next time, check your facts." Jim's voice was a feral snarl. "The coroner pegged the time of death as yesterday afternoon, around three o'clock. At that time, Blair was at the Pioneer Memorial Clinic getting a check-up and having blood drawn. He's still suffering from the aftereffects of his wrongful execution. You can check with Dr. Payton, his nurse, and the clinic's receptionist. All will verify Blair's presence there at the time of the killing. The fact that the state is covering all his medical expenses ought to tell you something, too. The government doesn't pay restitution to the guilty." Ellison's voice softened. "Come on, Chief, we're out of here."

Keeping one hand on his shoulder, Jim steered Blair toward the door. "Oh, and Braddock? We will talk."

Blair had to fight to keep his breathing normal. He could feel his chest tightening as a full-fledged anxiety attack began. Jim had a hold of his arm and was escorting him into one of the restrooms. A glare and a snarl sent the only occupants of the room fleeing.

Jim got Blair seated. "Keep your head down," he instructed, gently pushing on the young man's shoulders until his head was between his knees. Looking around, he fished a paper bag out of the trash and handed it to Blair. "Breath into this. Easy does it." As the young man slowly pulled himself back together, Jim stood by his side rubbing soothing circles across his back.

0-0-0-0-0

Kathleen O'Brien stood back from the media huddle and viewed her prey carefully. So far, any member of the press that had approached Detective James Ellison had disappeared quicker than a snowball in hell. If she was going to get the inside track on this story, she was going to have to take a different tack. Here was a story that was going to get her off the late night news, into a prime-time spot and the career she knew should have.

She looked past Ellison and caught a glimpse of another man -- smaller and younger, long hair pulled back in a ponytail, his face pale... his expression almost haunted. The Manifesto Murderer himself, Blair Sandburg. One of the few people to survive an execution. Good looking, but then looks could be deceiving. Sandburg had been cleared of the original killings in a dramatic last minute reprieve, but there were people out there, cops and relatives of the victims, that believed he had gotten out on nothing more than a slight-of-hand trick. Now, it seemed they were correct. Sandburg was on the outside and within a few weeks, they had found a body that screamed Manifesto Murderer.

Kathy watched as Ellison strong-armed his way through the cameras, bundling Sandburg into a blue and white truck, then floored it, roaring out into the morning traffic. Already her plan was forming. Ellison was going to be a hard nut to crack, but Sandburg... A smile touched her lips. If her source was right and the station was hostile, then a few soft words and Sandburg was going to play right into her hands. Meeting him without his watchdog, Ellison, was going to be hard, but her source might have a few ideas. She got in her car and pulled into traffic, following the pickup.

0-0-0-0-0

Blair rested his head against the window of the truck, feeling the nausea churning inside of him. Jim glanced over, noting the pale complexion. "How you doing there, Chief?"

"Not so good," Blair mumbled, swallowing hard. "I think I'm gonna puke again."

Jim pulled the truck over to the curb and got out, running around to the passenger side and opening the door. He held on to his partner as the young man retched, bringing up only bile from his empty stomach.

Jim quickly dialed back his sense of smell, rubbing soothing circles across the broad back as Blair rode out the spasm.

Finally, the young man flopped back against the seat, his arms crossed over his face. "Sorry, Jim," he gasped, fighting the queasiness that continued to grip him.

"Not a problem," Jim soothed. He had heard the young man's heart rate increase. "The doctor warned that you might be more physically sensitive to stress for a while. Your body has been through hell with that Pentothal overdose. Seeing those crime scene photos would count as a shock to anyone and I don't even want to start on those goons in the interrogation room." He reached into the glove compartment and took out a bottle of mineral water, knocking it gently against Blair's hands to get his attention. "Drink this, Chief."

Blair swilled the water around in his mouth, then spit it out and took a sip. "Thanks."

A car pulled up behind them and a woman got out, approaching the two men. "Is your friend all right?" The voice was pleasant, with a soft Irish lilt. She looked concerned.

"I'm okay now." Blair watched her, waiting for the look that told him she had recognized his photo from the newspaper, but she only smiled gently at him.

Jim went on the defensive, stepping between his Guide and the woman. "Why did you stop?" he asked gruffly.

The woman glanced around Jim to the man he was protecting. "I thought it looked like you might be in trouble. I wanted to see if there was anything I could do to help."

"We've got it under control." He turned around, herding Blair back into the truck.

"Jim! She was only trying to be nice," Blair complained, holding up the bottle of water. He poked his head and shoulders out the open window. "Thank you."

"You're welcome." She offered her hand. "My name's Kathy O'Brien."

Blair stuck his hand out the window, accepting the friendly gesture. "Bl..." He was stopped suddenly, as Jim pulled him back inside the cab of the truck.

"That's enough," Jim whispered to the shaken young man. He couldn't quite understand it, but he knew that he had to get Blair away from this woman. Turning back to business, he pulled the truck into the oncoming traffic.

"She was only asking how I was," Blair commented as they headed down the street.

"Then why did her heart rate go through the roof when she shook hands with you?"

"Maybe she cares, Jim. She was just being helpful."

"Yeah, and I'm a ballet dancer," Jim snapped. He sped up, needing to put as much distance between themselves and the woman as possible.

Blair curled up in the passenger seat and watched the world going past. He glanced at Jim, then shook his head and looked back out the window. There was so much about the Sentinel/Guide dynamics that he still didn't understand. David Temco had wanted only to be rid of his senses. Jim wanted to work with them to protect the tribe. But how could he do that with a Guide half the other cops thought was a convicted killer and treated like a leper?

Blair rubbed a hand across his chest. He could still feel the blow that had put him down on the floor in the break room -- a little welcome present from the cops who had originally worked his case and who had put him in prison. They disliked the fact that he was in their station and in the elite Major Crime Unit.

It was with a jolt that he realized they were back outside of the loft. He still couldn't believe that Jim had opened up his home to him, taken him in. That meant a lot to the young man who had spent the majority of his adult life in prison. He had spent the last four years in one of the state's maximum-security lockups, thinking the cold, gray walls and steel bars would be his last residence. And now, here he was, welcomed with open arms into the heart and home of one of Cascade's toughest cops. The thought caused the ghost of a smile to curve his lips.

And there was more.... When they first met that evening on death row, there had been an almost immediate bond, sparkling like electricity arcing between them. And now, that bond was evolving into something closer, more intimate. Jim came around the side of the truck and opened the door, taking his elbow to help him down. Wrapping an arm firmly around Blair's waist, he led the young man across the parking lot to the front door of the building.

0-0-0-0-0

As Kathy O'Brien watched Sandburg get out of the old blue and white truck, she slid further down in her seat. That the young man was ill had been an unexpected bonus. She had come across looking like a Good Samaritan. Now all she had to do was make contact again, make it look natural, and she would get her inside story.

She glanced at a file on the seat next to her. She needed something more to make a good story into a great story and the man whose face stared back up at her was the one to do it.

Picking up the manila folder, she flipped through its pages. Craig Andrews was the father of one of the original victims of the Manifesto Murderer. He had been there throughout the entire trial and was in the front row at the execution. She had been present at the execution as well, and could still remember his anger when the Governor's call had come, halting the execution. Andrews had been complaining loudly, to anyone who would listen, that Blair was guilty. He couldn't accept the fact that the real killer had died four years earlier, by his own hand. He had needed closure, and the pardon had taken that from him.

If she could engineer a meeting between Sandburg and Andrews, it would get her the story that would see her through to a network job. Sandburg might get hurt in the bargain, but you couldn't win the brass ring without climbing over a few bodies. She shrugged, putting the file back down on the seat. What did she care about an ex-convict? If his destruction suited her purposes, she'd do anything she had to do.

Kathy put the car in gear and pulled smoothly into the traffic. Her plan had just begun.

0-0-0-0-0

Jim coaxed Blair into the loft and onto the couch, letting his hand rest on the young man's shoulder. "It's going to be okay, Chief."

Blair looked up and nodded, trusting that Jim would take care of anything. "If you say so." His heart still hammered in his chest as he fought against the panic that had gripped him that day.

"I say so," Jim confirmed. "How about I go brew you a cup of tea? Chamomile?" Blair nodded, and Jim turned toward the kitchen to heat the water.

When he came back, Blair was missing. He swore, then turned toward the stairs. Just as he suspected, Blair was curled up under them. This was the second time this had happened -- a holdover from his time in prison when he had hidden under his bunk to hide his anxiety attacks.

Jim knelt down, his pupils opening wide so that he could see. Blair was huddled up against some of the old camping equipment.

"Sorry, Jim." The Sentinel could barely hear the words spoken by his shaking friend.

"It's okay." He held out the tea as an offering. Trembling hands accepted the gesture. Jim watched as Blair took a tentative sip. "You can stay as long as you need to, until you feel safe. I'm just going to sit over here." Jim moved to the stairs. He wrapped his heightened senses around Blair, monitoring the progression of this latest panic attack. The young man's heart raced, his breathing shallow and rapid. Slowly, he began to pull himself back together, gathering strength from Jim's nearness.

Finally, he emerged from under the stairs, coming to stand in front of Jim. Without speaking, the older man got to his feet and cocooned Blair in a hug. The young man was still trembling slightly when he eventually let go. "There's nothing you need to apologize for," he reiterated. "Those two morons who molested you today wouldn't know their own asses from a hole in the wall. You've had a rough day. Maybe I took you into the station too soon. You're not fully recovered yet."

"It's okay, Jim. I'll be fine," Blair said, moving toward the couch. About halfway to his goal, he stopped, swaying ominously. Jim made it to his side with barely enough time to keep him from hitting the floor. Scooping up the young man, Jim carried him to the couch.

"Blair?" Sitting next to the supine form, Jim slapped gently at Blair's cheeks, trying to rouse him. Dialing up his hearing, he detected an erratic heart rhythm which disturbed him. When continued efforts failed to bring results, Jim called for an ambulance.

0-0-0-0-0

"How is he, Doc?" Jim asked, snagging the physician who had finally left Blair's side after over two hours of examinations and tests.

"Not so good, I'm afraid," Dr. Mason replied. "I had his medical files sent over from the prison. Except for the rapes and the aborted execution, he's generally been quite healthy. I suspect it's the Pentothal to blame here."

"Wait a minute," Jim said, reaching out to place a hand on the doctor's arm. "Rapes?" His jaw twitched from the stress of forcing the word from his mouth.

Dr. Mason looked down at his chart. "It says here, he was gang raped by four prisoners his second day of incarceration. He claims two guards joined the inmates, but there's no evidence to support that."

Jim swallowed the lump in his throat, anger simmering just beneath the surface. "Is he all right?"

"He was regularly tested for HIV and other STDs while in prison, but always came up clean. He's a lucky young man." The doctor looked up from flipping through the file. "On the other hand, luck has some drawbacks."

"What do you mean by that?" Jim asked.

"Well, I'd have to say he's pretty damn lucky that stay order came through before they started the pancuronium bromide, or he wouldn't be here," the doctor said. "On the other hand, the Pentothal has done some damage to the heart muscle. Physical exertion, or extreme stress, can trigger an irregular heartbeat."

"How serious are we talking here?" Jim's face had become an emotionless mask, while a jumble of conflicting feelings jockeyed for position in his mind. "He passed out at home and I couldn't wake him. Could he die?"

"Loss of consciousness is the most likely symptom. Prolonged unconsciousness is not unusual, until the heart rhythm stabilizes," the doctor explained. "Death is unlikely, but possible, if the conditions are extreme enough."

"So, what does that boil down to, then, Doc? What special precautions will Blair have to take?"

The doctor made a quick glance down at the medical history in his hand, then addressed Jim. "His records indicate a history of anxiety attacks. Do you know anything about that?"

Jim shook his head. "I've seen him have them. I don't know what causes them.... Stressful situations, I guess. He had a really hard day today. We went into the station for the first time and he was accosted by a couple of cops who thought he didn't deserve the pardon he received. Blair was pretty shaken up by their reception."

"I see," Doctor Mason said. "Well, I would highly recommend keeping him away from stressful situations, or you may find him passing out on you again. I can prescribe medication for the anxiety." He scribbled on a pad and handed the prescription to Jim. "Be sure to have that filled before you take Blair home."

"Thanks, Doc." Jim tucked the piece of paper in his jacket pocket. "Any chance I can see him now?"

"He's being settled into his room. Because this is the first episode of unconsciousness, I'd like to keep him overnight for observation to see how he reacts to the medications, and how long it takes him to recover. I'll have someone let you know just as soon as he can receive visitors." Dr. Mason thrust out his hand, which Jim clasped and shook. "If you have any questions, feel free to call. I'd be more than happy to help in any way that I can."

Jim watched the doctor walk off, and resumed his pacing of the waiting room floor. Fifteen minutes later, a nurse approached.

"Detective Ellison?" Jim looked up at the sound of his name. "Blair is settled now and ready for visitors."

"Is he awake?" Jim asked, following her down a corridor and through a set of stainless steel-and-glass swinging doors.

The nurse nodded. "Yes, but he's still a little disoriented. He's been asking for you." She gestured into the room.

Jim squeezed passed the nurse and walked over to the figure lying on the room's sole bed. "Hey, Chief," he greeted Blair, picking up the nearest hand, which was resting on top of the blankets. "How're you doing?"

"Jim?" Blair's head turned toward the sound of his friend's voice.

"That's me, buddy. You okay?" He brushed his hand across the high forehead, pushing matted strands of hair away from Blair's face and leaned down to press a kiss against the cool skin.

"I dunno," Blair answered. "I feel kind of funny. What happened?"

"You passed out on me," Jim explained. "Scared the shit right out of me when you didn't wake up. I called for an ambulance and had you brought here to the hospital. Has the doctor talked with you at all?"

Blair shook his head. "Not yet. Just woke up." He gazed at Jim's worried expression and frowned. "What's wrong?"

"You've got a heart condition," Jim muttered, not really wanting to be the bearer of the news. "The doctor can explain all the particulars to you better than I can, but it boils down to the Pentothal damaging the heart muscle. You're going to have to avoid stress and anxiety attacks."

A weak chuckle sounded from the bed. When he spoke, Blair's voice was tired, defeated. "Like with my life, that's possible? Get real, Jim. Since I got out of prison, my life has been one long panic attack. I don't see it getting better any time soon."

"Well, we're going to have to work at it," Jim insisted. "The doctor said it probably wouldn't kill you, but it could, and I don't think I could stand losing you now."

"Jim, there's nobody who wants my life to be quiet and normal more than I do," Blair explained with a sigh, "but how realistic is that?"

"For one thing, you'll be staying home for a while. No going out without me at your side. No going into the station." Jim listed his conditions.

"We have a case to work on," Blair reminded him.

Jim shook his head. "No. I'll tell Simon you're off the case."

"But you need me, Jim," Blair insisted. "You still don't have a perfect handle on your senses, and you may need them to solve this crime. Simon will back you up. And the Governor. Braddock and Dawson can't do anything to me without some serious shit coming down on their heads."

"We don't need to worry about that now." Jim patted the hand he held and gave it a squeeze. "We have some stuff to talk about, but it can wait until you get home."

"What kind of stuff?" Blair turned a concerned look on the man sitting next to him.

"Nothing you have to worry about," Jim assured him.

Blair continued to gaze for a moment longer, then cracked a smile. "When do I get sprung from this place?"

"Doc wants you here overnight, to see how quickly you recover and how you react to your new medications," Jim answered.

"Medications?" The wary look was back. "I don't like taking drugs, man. What are they trying to push?"

"Just some anti-anxiety pill. Nothing heavy," Jim assured him.

"Jiiiiiim," Blair groaned out the name, "that's the same shit I was avoiding in prison! I'm not gonna take it. It makes me feel all whacked out."

"It should make you feel calm," Jim shot back.

"Yeah, calm, like the loopy drugged kind of calm," Blair returned, a weariness in his voice. "I don't want to fight you over this," he said. "But I can't take that stuff. Please don't try and make me."

"But, Chief...."

"No meds, Jim. I can't..."

Both men turned as a nurse entered the room and bustled over to Blair's bedside. "The heart monitor indicates that Mr. Sandburg is agitated," she said, adjusting the IV flow and injecting something into the line. Turning to speak directly to Blair, she scolded, "You're supposed to be relaxing. If having a visitor is upsetting you, I'll have to ask him to leave."

"Please don't do that," Blair spoke hastily. "It's my fault. I shouldn't have gotten upset over a little thing like taking meds."

"Well, you make sure you take it easy. I'll be checking the monitor," the nurse admonished as she turned to leave.

Once she was out of earshot, Blair turned once more to Jim. "I'm not taking them," he whispered.

"We'll see about that," Jim countered.

0-0-0-0-0

Home felt wonderful. It was uncanny how easy it was to think of Jim's loft apartment as home. Blair settled his meager belongings in his room and sank down onto the futon.

Jim poked his head through the open French doors. "Why don't you lie down and rest? I'll fix us a little lunch."

Blair considered protesting. All he'd been doing the past day and a half was resting. He ought to feel up to helping fix lunch, but he didn't. Mumbling his reluctant agreement, he lay his head on the pillow and pulled his feet up onto the mattress. In minutes, he was sound asleep.

The hushed sound of snoring brought a smile to Jim's lips. In the few short weeks the young man had occupied the space beneath his bedroom, the sounds he made as he slept or studied quietly had become a pleasant background noise that grounded Jim's senses and gave him a feeling of well-being and peace. He could no longer imagine not sharing his space with the longhaired hippie boy. The only thing better, he mused, would be if the kid agreed to share his bed. But he could wait. Things were already too tumultuous for the young man. Best not to add more stress, if it wasn't necessary.

He put the finishing touches on their sandwiches and then waffled over the decision of whether or not to wake his sleeping roommate. Setting the plates on the dining table, he made his choice, heading for the closed doors and cracking them open. "Sandburg!" he stage whispered. "Hey, Sandburg! Wake up!"

With a sputter and a shake of his head, Blair opened his eyes. "Huh? Wha...?" he replied with all the intelligence of a single-cell organism.

"Come on, Sleepyhead. Time for lunch," Jim informed him.

Blair swung his legs off the futon and sat up, rubbing hard at his eyes. "Did I fall asleep?"

"Sure did, Einstein. Got it in one." Jim chuckled, but offered a hand to help Blair up. "I figured that right now you needed food more than you needed sleep."

"I suppose," Blair agreed, stumbling after Jim toward the table. Sitting at his place, he picked up his glass of juice and took a sip. "Got any coffee?"

"It's brewing," Jim said, taking his own seat opposite the younger man. "Drink your juice. It's good for you."

"Yes, Mom," Blair answered, wiping the hair out of his face with one hand, while lifting the glass to his lips with the other. Jim just grunted, trying to sound annoyed, but not succeeding very well.

Jim took a bite of his sandwich and chewed thoughtfully. Swallowing, he looked up at Blair, making the decision to speak. "It's just two days until Boo's execution," he started. Blair paused in mid-bite to listen with blue eyes wide and staring. "Don't you think that given the circumstances, you ought to find a way to get out of going?"

Blair put his sandwich down, shaking his head. "Can't do that," he said.

"Why not?" Jim argued. "I can't think of anything more stressful to you right now than observing the execution of a friend so soon after your own."

"That's not the point," Blair replied evenly. "I owe Boo. I owe him."

"I know he protected you," Jim broke in.

Blair shook his head vehemently. "You don't understand. How could you?" He turned away and started to stand.

Jim rose and reached across the table to snag Blair's hand and bring him back to his seat. "Was it because you were raped?" he asked softly.

"How - how, did you know about that?" The young man's voice was trembling. He sat heavily in the chair across from Jim and turned a pained look on his friend.

"The doctor at the hospital mentioned it off-hand as part of your medical history," Jim answered. "Can you talk about it?" he added gently, aching to know, to help his friend, but at the same time worried about Blair's state-of-mind.

"I'd rather not," Blair whispered.

Jim stood and walked around the table. Pulling Blair to his feet, he wrapped the smaller man in a firm embrace. "No secrets between us," he whispered in Blair's ear, placing a kiss atop the mop of curls. Then turning, he led Blair over to the couch and sat down beside him, his arm still wrapped firmly around the trembling shoulders.

"It happened so long ago." Blair's voiced sounded softly from Jim's shoulder, where he had rested his head. "It almost feels like another lifetime, or a different person." Jim listened without comment, knowing the sordid tale would come forth at its own rate. He couldn't rush it, no matter how much he wanted the ordeal over and done. Blair took a deep breath. "I'd been in the county jail while the trial proceeded," he continued. "But once I was convicted, they moved me to the prison. I hadn't been sentenced yet, so I was put in with the general population.

"It was the first time I really regretted my looks." Blair fingered the long, spiral locks of his hair, tugging at a strand. "They let me keep my earrings, too. Big mistake. My God, I was a college student! What did I know about life in prison?" He looked up to see that Jim was watching him intently. He stuttered to a halt, trying to bring his breathing back under control.

Jim studied the face turned up to his. The wide blue eyes spoke volumes of the naÔvetť of youth, and of the feeling of overwhelming incredulity over what happened next.

Blair dropped his eyes and stared at his hands, which twisted nervously in his lap. "They called me 'Pretty Boy' and 'Girlfriend'. There were wolf whistles and catcalls as I was paraded down the hall to my cell. I had led a fairly cloistered life behind the walls of academia and the vulgarities flung my way scared the shit out of me.

"On my second day, one of the guards came to get me and take me to the showers. I didn't really want to go, but I wasn't given a choice. Do you have any idea what that feels like? To have all the decisions taken out of your hands? To have your most basic right of privacy taken away?" Blair's voice was tight with the recalled pain. "He made me strip while he watched, then he shoved me into the showers." Blair shivered, and Jim pulled him closer.

"It's okay, Blair. Nobody can hurt you like that anymore." Jim's own voice had turned husky with emotion. He felt what Blair had felt, saw through his eyes. Every angle of the lean body, the tilt of Blair's head, and the glimmer in his wide eyes spoke of the fear and humiliation he had endured.

"There were four other prisoners in the showers at the time." Blair's voice had gone very quiet. Jim had to dial up his hearing to make out the words. "They were big men. Any one of them could have easily taken me on his own." He stopped to draw in deep droughts of air to his starved lungs. When had he stopped breathing? "T-they took me. Dragged me under the shower spray. Two of them held me, bent me double.... Oh, God, Jim! They took turns. While one was taking me from behind, another would fuck my mouth. It seemed like it went on forever. The two guards just stood and watched."

Jim petted the long hair, stroking a soothing rhythm down the back of Blair's head. When the young man stopped speaking, he whispered into the silence. "The doctor said the records indicated the guards..." He didn't complete what he was about to say.

Blair took a shuddering breath and looked up at Jim, his face red with rage. "They didn't believe me! Oh, there was no doubt the four guys in the shower raped me, but the prison doctors wouldn't believe me when I told them the guards..." He broke off, gasping in more air. "By the time the prisoners were done with me, I was so battered, I had no fight left. One took my ass, the other my mouth. They used condoms, so there was no DNA evidence. They told me I was a good fuck and to look forward to more. I was almost relieved when the judgment came down to isolate me on death row. At least there, I thought I might be safe."

"But you weren't, were you, Chief?" Jim stroked the moisture on Blair's cheek away with his thumb. The young man shook his tousled curls and blinked back the tears of shame. "Stratton was one of the guards who raped you."

Blair nodded. "He's the one who took me... from b-behind," he stuttered. "At night, he'd come and stand in front of my cell, stroking himself as he watched me.

"There's no such thing as rape crisis counseling for prisoners," he continued after a pause. "My nightmares began to morph into panic attacks any time Stratton was near or I was forced to leave my cell. I took to hiding under my bunk so that they wouldn't put me on those damn meds."

"But, Blair.... If you were in so much emotional pain, why not dull it a little with drugs?" Jim asked, trying to sound reasonable.

"I wasn't brought up that way," Blair answered, his voice firming up again. "I don't pollute my body with chemicals unless there's no other way. Besides, I had no idea how long I had left to live. I wanted to live every minute of it, no matter how painful."

"And Boo?" Jim asked, bringing the conversation back to the original subject.

Blair backed out of Jim's tight embrace and squared his shoulders. "Because of Boo's big talk, everyone figured he'd rape me in a New York minute if he got his hands on me. Fletcher got bored one night, and wanted a little entertainment. It didn't take much convincing to get Stratton to agree to put me in with Boo."

"But Boo protected you," Jim filled in.

"Yeah. My rape was common knowledge on the block, although most people never talked about it. I think that somewhere deep inside, Boo really did, does, love me. He knew what they wanted, but he wouldn't let anyone fuck me, not even himself. 'No one fucks with Sandburg.' That was his motto."

"And that's why you owe him this," Jim finished.

"He protected me. Kept me safe, when everyone else only wanted a show. This is all I have to give him. My only way to say 'thank you' in a manner that will really mean something to him." He spread his hands in front of him, beseeching Jim to understand.

The Sentinel nodded. "It's really that important to you, isn't it?"

"Yeah." Blair folded his hands in his lap and watched his partner.

Taking a deep breath, Jim let it out slowly, then spoke. "Then we'll go."

Blair nodded and clasped one of Jim's hands. "Thanks."

Jim stood up, pulling Blair with him. "Think you feel up to finishing your lunch?"

"I don't think I have much appetite left," Blair admitted. "Maybe I'll just go back and finish that nap." He turned, and headed for his bedroom.

Jim followed, sitting on the edge of the futon as Blair got comfortable and closed his eyes. He reached out, smoothing the hair away from Blair's face. "Sweet dreams, Chief."

The next day:

Jim pushed the cart around the market, as Sandburg carried their shopping list. It was still very much a voyage of discovery for the detective. It was amazing the stuff Blair would consider eating. He gently nudged the young man out of the ethnic food section, as he viewed the wizened fruit in their basket -- the latest addition to their shopping -- with suspicion.

Cutting through the candy aisle, he snagged two large bags of M&Ms from the shelf. The confection had become Blair's comfort food, a treat his Guide craved. He had the feeling that he was going to need them.

Jim suddenly froze as Blair's heartbeat went ballistic. Immediately, the Sentinel was by his side, looking around for anyone that would dare threaten his Guide. It was then that he followed Blair's line of sight and swore, hard and fast. Emblazoned across the line of papers at the newsstand were the headlines:

FROM CON TO COP

CLEARED KILLER HELPS COP

MANIFESTO MURDERER BACK.

Jim rested his hand on Blair's shoulder. "It's okay, Chief. Just keep breathing."

Blair let out a shuddering breath. "I can do this."

"Sure you can." Jim ignored the pictures of Blair that stared back at him from the papers, and moved him along gently toward the frozen food section.

This time Blair kept close to him, not venturing far away. He kept his head down, frightened that someone might recognize him from the newspaper, and not having the energy to fight them this time.

Kathy O'Brien came around the corner of the frozen food aisle and watched the two men. Sandburg looked as if he was falling apart. For a moment she felt a spike of pain -- guilt -- but she pushed it ruthlessly away. Sandburg might not have been the Manifesto Murderer, but he wasn't innocent, either. He was guilty by association. It didn't soothe her conscience, but it made what she had to do easier.

She smiled brilliantly at the young man. "Hi." Sandburg froze. She ignored the newspaper he was clutching so tightly that the print was blurred into his skin. When he made no effort to answer, she added, "Are you feeling any better? You look better."

"Yes, thanks," Blair managed to choke out. He recognized the young woman as the one who had stopped to offer help a few days ago. He knew he sounded pathetically grateful, but Kathy didn't seem to recognize him, despite the blaring headlines.

He looked past her to see Jim trawling up and down the frozen food aisle, loading items into the cart. He knew that the Sentinel would be eavesdropping on him; it was the nature of the beast. A Sentinel protects, and this time Blair had one worthy of the name.

"I-I have to go," he said, edging away from Kathy. Turning his back on the young woman, he hustled over to where Jim was finishing the last bit of shopping.

"Everything all right?" Jim asked, throwing a warning glance over his shoulder at the woman.

Blair nodded. "Yeah, fine," he answered. "She's just trying to be friendly."

"I don't trust her," Jim growled, hurrying them through the checkout. He was anxious to get Blair out of the public eye. Already his heart rate was climbing and Jim feared a repeat of the swan dive he'd witnessed just a few days ago.

As they came out of the market, Jim saw the camera crew coming toward them. Catching Blair by the arm, he dragged him to the truck and bundled him inside.

"Keep your head down, Blair."

"Jim..." Blair looked around nervously at the advancing news people.

"It's going to be fine, Chief. You're the innocent here and they're just going to have to understand that."

Blair caught his arm. "Don't hurt anyone."

"You know me better than that..." Jim left the statement hanging in the air.

"You might not, but the Sentinel in you could," Blair declared, anxious to avoid a confrontation.

"Nothing illegal, I promise." Jim lightly ruffled the long curls and turned to meet the advancing news crew, his eyes flashing, ready to rend and destroy.

Suddenly, the idea of running down the former Manifesto Murderer seemed like a very bad idea. The cameraman backed off, allowing Jim to enter the truck and drive away.

As they pulled into traffic, Jim's cell phone rang. "Ellison. Oh, yeah, Simon. What's up?" He paused to listen, frowning at what his boss had to say. "Okay. We'll be right in."

"What's going on?" Blair asked.

"There's been another murder."

0-0-0-0-0

"Looks like our copycat is at it again," Simon said, tossing the file onto the table for the two men to look over. "This one was a male victim; strangled, with linen strips stuffed up his nostrils."

Blair paled as he looked at the Polaroid of the victim, but swallowed the lump in his throat, determined not to make another scene in the precinct. "Looks just like David Temco's work," he commented.

"Shit, Simon!" Jim exploded. "It's only been three days since the last one! Do you have any idea of the hell we've been going through -- that Blair has been going through -- these past few days because of this damn case?" He grabbed his partner by the arm and led him over to one of the chairs, pushing him to sit. "Take it easy, Chief," he said, his voice turning soft and reassuring.

"I'm okay, Jim," Blair answered. "Really." He turned his gaze on Simon. "So what do we know about the killer? What reason would he have to duplicate the Manifesto Murders? And why now?"

"I think the 'now' is a pretty easy one to answer," Captain Banks said with sympathy. "Your release was widely publicized. Not everyone agrees that you're innocent."

"He's not involved, Simon!" Jim said, turning in anger on his boss.

"I never said he was," Banks returned, trying to stay calm in the face of his detective's protective rage. "But he makes a convenient media target. As long as the reporters are looking at Sandburg, they aren't looking anywhere else.

"For all we know, this guy might be out there among them. A thrill seeker. Killing just to get his kicks out of seeing the media mob you and Sandburg. It's a common occurrence for the actual killer to be a part of the media mob. They love to gloat and wallow in the publicity, even vicariously."

"I realize that, Simon," Jim snapped. "But in the meantime, Blair's got a medical condition that this case is aggravating. I won't see him hounded by the press because of it."

"I don't see how we're going to avoid it, Jim," Blair spoke quietly from his seat. His fingertips brushed the crime scene photo and he pushed it back toward his partner. "How long before this leaks to the press? Two murders. Both imitating the Manifesto Murderer's style.

"You gotta admit it, Jim. There's been no closure for the families of the original murder victims," he continued. "For four years, nearly five with the trial, the spotlight was focused on me. Now the evidence says David Temco was the killer, but he's dead. He died by his own hand shortly after the fifth murder. All this time, people have seen him as one of the victims. It's hard to switch gears and believe he's the killer. I make an easy target."

"The kid's right," Simon said, trying to reason with Jim. "Doesn't mean the situation doesn't stink like a pile of manure on a hot August day, but it's the way things are." He gathered up the files and placed them back into the manila folder and handed it to his detective. "Your best bet is to get this one solved, pronto. Then Blair can finally be free of suspicion."

Jim took the folder and slapped Blair across the shoulders with it. "Let's get moving, Partner. We've got a crime scene to investigate."

"You don't have to tell me twice," Blair said, rising from his chair. "I'm so ready to be outta here." He headed for the door to Simon's office, then paused. "Um, is the press still out front? I'd rather try and avoid them, if possible."

"There's only one way out of the parking garage," Jim reminded him. "But if you keep your head down, out of sight, I think I can get us through without too much trouble." He placed a guiding hand in the small of Blair's back, ushering him through the door and out into the bullpen.

A quick trip to the elevators and down to the garage had them in the truck and moving in minutes. Blair bent double in his seat, trying to stay below the level of the windows. Reporters flocked around the now-familiar blue and white Ford pickup as it pulled out of the underground parking. Jim revved the engine and honked his horn in warning, all the while making slow, steady progress out of the driveway and into the street. A few intrepid cameramen followed a short way before giving up.

"It's okay. You can sit up now." Jim patted Blair's shoulders as the young man unfolded himself, turning to look out the back window at the crowd they had left behind.

"And to think I used to dream of being out of prison," Blair sighed. "Right now, the protection of a set of iron bars doesn't sound so bad." He fell silent, gazing out the window at the buildings that they passed.

A few miles out of the downtown area, in a quiet suburban neighborhood, Jim pulled up in front of a tan stucco two-story house. He set the brake, then looked around cautiously, extending his senses to determine whether or not they had been followed. Satisfied that they were alone, he opened his door and got out.

Blair followed the detective past the yellow crime scene tape into the house. They were met by a uniformed policeman who led them to a back bedroom where the body still lay.

"Has Forensics been here?" Jim asked.

"Yes, sir," the officer answered. "They left about ten minutes ago." He gestured toward the body. "He's all yours."

Jim walked over to the bed while Blair stood near the door, reluctant to move closer to the victim. The officer left them alone, going out front to make sure the crime scene remained secure.

"This is a good test for your senses," Blair said from where he stood. "Try dialing up sight. Do you see anything out of place? A hair that's the wrong color? Signs of blood?" Jim was shaking his head as Blair spoke, studying the corpse closely for any signs the forensic team might have missed. "Well, how about smell? Any odors that don't belong?"

Jim paused, turning to look at his Guide who hovered just outside in the hallway. "Yeah," he said slowly. "Yeah, as a matter of fact." He stood up and circled the room, then came to stand next to Blair. "There's a scent here that I recognize."

"Great!" Blair put a hand on Jim's shoulder and smiled proudly. "What is it?"

"Tobacco," Jim muttered, lost in thought. "Some exotic blend... most likely for a pipe or custom cigarettes. Not the sort of thing you'd pick up at your local convenience store."

Blair glanced around the room. "But there's no signs the victim is a smoker," he commented. "No ash trays, no containers for the tobacco. I didn't see any as we came in, either. Where did you say you smelled this before?"

"At the first crime scene," Jim admitted. "I didn't think anything of it, then. But now... well, it's strange." He turned, guiding Blair out of the room.

"That's it?"

"For now, Chief. I need to get back to the station and fill out my report. I'll drop you by the loft first," Jim said, leading the way back through the house. He stopped short as he entered the front room. "Shit!"

Blair came up short behind him, bumping into his backside. "What is it?"

"Reporters!" Jim hissed.

"How'd they find us?" Blair wondered. "Jim, you gotta get me out of here!"

Jim approached the door cautiously. "Stay close behind me," he ordered.

Blair flinched as he came out of the house following the detective closely. He was pale, and his heart was pounding. He had needed to get out of there and Jim hadn't argued, simply acted as his shield.

He stumbled backward, away from his protector, as he saw the press. The cameras immediately swung toward him as they leaned forward across the yellow police tape, yelling his name, howling like wolves for his blood.

Blair took a deep breath. He did not want to talk with these people. His only thought was getting back to Jim, to his Sentinel, where he felt safe.

"Sandburg!"

Blair turned at the sound of his name. He never had time to duck as the fist connected with his face. His knees buckled and he staggered backward. A second blow put him down hard.

"Filthy murdering scum!" The man stooped down and began to pound at the unresisting smaller man. Even as he was being dragged away by the uniformed cops, he was still screaming. "You should have rotted in hell, Sandburg! Next time, you won't cheat death. If the state won't kill you, I will."

Then Jim was there, pulling Blair to his feet, manhandling his Guide back into the house.

Blair was shaking violently, his eyes dazed from the attack.

Jim put his arm around the young man, holding him close until he got him seated on one of the kitchen chairs. Only then, when he was sure he would not fall, he switched his hold to cupping Blair's face. He dialed up his sense of touch so that he could check for any fractures.

Blair flinched at the gentle touch, moaning a soft "Owww..." as Jim probed his jaw and cheekbones. His mouth was bleeding and his face was going to be heavily bruised.

"Who was that?" he demanded, once his initial check was finished. "He looked familiar." When he didn't get an immediate answer, he hardened his tone, trying to get through the haze. "Speak to me, Chief. You're worrying me here."

When Blair spoke, Jim had to extend his hearing to catch it. "Craig Andrews. His daughter was one of David Temco's victims. He was at my execution. He said I-I cheated death."

Jim released Blair's face and caught his shoulders, giving him a soft shake. "Blair you're innocent, don't forget that. You did nothing wrong."

"I could have stopped him," Blair whispered, referring to David Temco, the Sentinel he had nearly died to protect.

"Blair, we have been over this. You couldn't have stopped him. You acted as soon as you knew. You couldn't have done anything more."

"Different," Blair muttered. "You're so different."

Jim was concerned by the dazed look in the young man's eyes. "C'mon, Chief. You're not making any sense here," he complained.

Quietly, Blair added, "You protect; he destroyed."

Simon Banks, who had accompanied the backup team, closed the distance between himself and the younger man, being careful not to loom over him.

"Andrews has been arrested and will be charged with assault."

"No, you can't," Blair pleaded.

"Sandburg, he hit you," Simon put in sharply.

"He had reason."

Jim cut across his boss, adding his own two cents' worth. "No. He doesn't have the right to attack you like that. You're innocent and he has to learn to live with it." Then to Simon he added, "Blair won't be interfering with the arrest."

Blair opened his mouth to protest, but the look on the older man's face made him close it, his words unsaid. Jim would never listen to him like this. He was determined to protect him, and wouldn't take no for an answer.

Jim slid out of his jacket and pulled it around Blair, as he noticed the young man was shivering with shock. Blair twisted his hands in the fabric, pulling it close, taking comfort in having Jim wrapped around him.

Ducking down so that he could look up into Blair's face, Jim covered one ice-cold hand. "I'm nearly finished here, then I'm taking you home. Just hang in there, okay?"

Jim had kept his voice level, giving comfort to his shaken partner, but the anger burned deep in the core of his being. Blair didn't deserve any of this.

One question puzzled him -- how did Andrews get there so quickly? The only people who knew there had been another murder were the killer and the media, and they didn't have a live feed.

When he got the person who leaked the news to the anguished father, he would feed them their camera blunt end first.

Jim finished up quickly. He left the scene with Blair tucked up against him. As he scanned the sea of faces, his jaw twitched when he saw Kathy O'Brien. She could wait.

0-0-0-0-0

"Damn her, anyway!" Jim cursed, once they were back in the truck. "I'll lay you dollars to donuts that woman had something to do with Andrews being at the crime scene!"

"Calm down, Jim," Blair whispered. "It's all right. Really."

"How can you say that?" Jim turned incredulous eyes on the young man. "That guy knocked you down and was prepared to beat you to a pulp!"

Blair hung his head. "I may not be directly guilty of the murders David committed, but I should have known. I should have been able to stop him." When Jim opened his mouth to protest, Blair rushed on. "Ignorance may not be a punishable crime, but it doesn't assuage any of the guilt I feel over all those deaths. How could I have not made the connection?"

"Chief, you're an idealist. You were an academic in pursuit of your Holy Grail. You had blinders on. It's not the first time something like that has happened," Jim explained. "It doesn't make you the world's punching bag. You served your time, four years more than you deserved to serve. Hard time. And you were executed. What more do they want from you?"

"I was pardoned," Blair corrected.

"Not before the execution was underway," Jim huffed, still righteously indignant. "That damn Pentathol damaged your heart. I'd say that both the victims' relatives and the media have already gotten their pound of flesh from you."

"You'll never convince them," Blair sighed. "I'm a pariah here in Cascade. Heck, with all the media coverage, I'd probably have to go to Tibet to find someone who hasn't formed an opinion about my guilt or innocence."

The truck pulled into its parking space at 852 Prospect and Blair slipped out of his seat belt. "All I want is a little peace and quiet. Boo's execution is tomorrow night at midnight and I plan to be there."

Jim followed the young man into the building, reaching around him to push the elevator button. "After what you've been through today, are you sure you still want to go? I mean, it's not like Boo will know you're there."

"I'll know." Blair leaned heavily against the cold metal of the elevator wall. "This is something I have to do, Jim."

Jim wrapped an arm around the sagging shoulders and helped support Blair as they walked down the hall to their apartment. After depositing his burden on the couch, Jim raided his special store of M&Ms, bringing out a small bowl as a peace offering.

"Thanks, man." Blair's face lit up at the sight of the treat. He popped two brown ones into his mouth and chewed.

Jim settled next to his friend, draping an arm casually across the back of the couch, letting his hand rest on one shoulder. Blair turned and offered the bowl. "What some?"

"No thanks, Chief," Jim declined. He turned to look at the head of brown curls bent over the candy dish. "You're still going to let me come with you, aren't you? I'm not comfortable with you going back into that prison alone."

"Sure, Jim. I want you to be there," Blair agreed. "I have to do this. I owe Boo so much. But that doesn't mean I feel good about it. I'm scared shitless." He nibbled another small handful of candies. "Thanks."

"For what?"

"Everything." Blair set the empty bowl on the coffee table. "Thanks for believing in me, for saving my life. Thanks for giving me a home and a safe haven. Thanks for the candy," he waved a hand at the dish, "and for volunteering to hold my hand at the execution tomorrow night."

"It's called being a friend," Jim answered softly. "Everyone needs at least one." He let his arm slip from the back of the couch to settle around Blair's shoulders. "Now, I think it's high time you hightail it to your room and get some rest. I'll call you when dinner's ready."

Blair leaned over, taking Jim's face between the palms of his hands and kissed the startled man. Before the Sentinel could react, the younger man was gone, headed to his room for a much-needed nap.

0-0-0-0-0

Jim followed behind as Blair made his way through the mostly empty rows of chairs to the front, closest to the execution chamber. He settled into a seat midway down the row, centered on the observation window.

Jim settled next to him and turned to look at his companion. "Are you sure you're okay with this?" Blair's face was pale and coated in a fine sheen of perspiration. Tight lines of tension around his eyes marred his otherwise smooth complexion.

"You keep asking and I keep telling," Blair sighed. "I made Boo a promise. I'm not going to compromise my self-integrity by reneging on it now." He leaned forward to grasp the railing in front of his chair. His white-knuckled grip on the cold metal worried the Sentinel, who was keeping tabs on the racing heartbeat of his partner.

The clock ticked toward midnight. A few of the scattered reporters recognized the young man in the front row and came forward, crowding around him. "Mr. Sandburg... why are you here?" "Can you give us a statement about the recent murders?" "What can you tell us of your whereabouts on...."

Jim stood, shoving the obnoxious men and women back. "That's enough! It's none of your damn business why he's here. Leave us alone."

"And you are...?" one of the reporters persisted.

"Your worst nightmare," Jim growled.

A guard approached and broke up the confrontation. "Everyone, back to your seats. The execution will proceed in the next few minutes." He stood near Jim and Blair, waiting until the reporters had returned to the back of the room. "Sorry about that, Blair." Randy Wolfe laid a hand on the trembling shoulder. "How are you doing?"

"I've been better," Blair admitted to his friend. "I thought life on the outside would be easy, but then the copycat killings started."

"I heard about that," Randy said. "They're not blaming you, are they?"

"They're trying." Blair sighed. "If it weren't for Jim, here, I'd probably be locked away by now in some psych ward."

"Panic attacks?" The guard well remembered the nights Blair had spent under his bunk in his prison cell.

Blair nodded. "You know it."

"Wolfe!" The call came from beside the chamber. Randy looked up and saw the Warden gesturing to him.

"Sorry, Blair. Gotta go." He patted the shoulder he'd been holding. "Take care of yourself." He nodded to Jim and smiled, then headed back to where the Warden stood.

"Thanks." Blair watched the guard go then turned and looked at Jim. "Can you hear what's going on inside there?" he asked, returning his attention to the impending execution.

"The room's soundproofed," Jim reminded him. "But, yeah, I can."

"Were you listening when they brought me in there?" The question was a timid whisper.

Jim nodded. "I was proud of the way you conducted yourself," he admitted. "You were scared. I could hear it in your heartbeat, but you didn't fight. You were going to take it like a man, with as much dignity as you could muster."

"I tried. But when they put that first needle in my arm..." Blair couldn't complete the thought.

"That was nothing," Jim assured him, remembering the yelp of fear that had escaped at the last moment. "I've seen hardened criminals crying and begging for mercy. You had no business being in there in the first place and you knew it, yet you didn't proclaim your innocence, didn't try to plead or beg. That's courage, Blair. You're a strong man."

"I don't feel so strong right now," he admitted. "They should be bringing Boo into the chamber."

"Yeah," Jim agreed. "They're strapping him down now and explaining the procedure to him."

"The doctor tried to explain it to me," Blair remembered, "but I had asked the Warden about it during my twenty-four hour suicide lock down. I didn't want to hear it again." He sighed. "They'll set the needles next, then test the lines. The curtain should be opening soon."

Jim reached over and took hold of a perspiration-coated hand. "You're doing great, buddy. Just like last time. You can do this."

"I'm going to watch a man die," Blair confessed softly. "A friend."

"But he earned this," Jim reminded him. "He killed his family. He's guilty. You were innocent."

"Doesn't matter," came the quiet voice. "He's still a friend. He was good to me."

The curtain was pulled open. Blair shrank back at the sight of Boo strapped to the execution gurney, needles set in his veins, awaiting the execution order. The order came and Blair buried his face in Jim's shirt. "I can't do it," he cried. "I can't watch. Tell me when it's over."

Jim let a comforting arm wrap around the distraught young man. He watched the large black man convulse on the table as the drugs began to take effect. He stared in morbid fascination, watching the man on the table die and imagining a fair complexion instead, punctuated by wide blue eyes and cascades brown curls. He held Blair tight and felt a tear slip down his cheek for what might have been.

0-0-0-0-0

"You did it, Chief," Jim praised as he led the shaking young man from the prison.

"I-I c-couldn't watch," he sniffled.

"There's no shame in that," Jim confided. "It's hard for anyone to watch, but you've been there. I can't imagine the maelstrom of emotions that must be whirling around in that noggin' of yours right now."

"But I promised Boo."

"You promised you'd be there and you were." Jim opened the door to the truck and helped Blair into the seat. "You fulfilled your obligation. Given what you've been through, I think Boo would forgive you for not being able to watch."

"You think?" Blair asked, his voice hopeful.

Jim nodded. "Yeah, I do." He started the engine and pulled out of the parking lot into the nearly empty streets of early morning Cascade.

Blair stumbled into the apartment fifteen minutes later, hung up his coat and headed straight for his room; exhausted from the emotions Boo's execution had brought to the surface. At the door, he turned to face Jim. "Thanks for being there. It helped a lot."

Jim followed on Blair's heels, gathering the younger man into his arms. "I wouldn't have it any other way. Anytime you need me, I'm there." He placed a finger beneath Blair's chin, tilting his face upward. Leaning down, he brushed his lips across the full ones waiting for him, feeling them open in invitation. The body he held melted into his, arms wrapping around his neck to keep him captive in the embrace. A tongue tentatively probed his mouth as Jim deepened the kiss. His senses spun in heady arousal and he felt himself falling....

"Jim? Jim? C'mon, man, you're scaring me." Blair patted gently at the Sentinel's cheek, using sound and touch to draw him back.

"Blair?" Jim opened his eyes to find himself tangled with his young friend and lying on the futon.

The anthropologist sighed with relief. "Don't do that!" he scolded. "You zoned out on me, Jim. One minute we were kissing..." The most incredible kiss, his mind added. "And the next, you were gone."

"Sorry, Chief." Jim untangled himself from the arms and legs that held him pinned to the bed, and sat up. "I'm really sorry. You've had a hell of a night, and I just added to it."

"That's okay," Blair assured him, then added shyly, "It was nice."

"Would you like me to stay a while?" Jim asked quietly. "Just until you get to sleep?"

Blair squeezed Jim's hand. "Thanks, but I think I'd better try this alone. I-I'm not quite sure I'm ready to take that next step yet."

Jim stood, drawing Blair with him. He gathered the smaller man into a loose embrace, stroking his hand down the mass of chestnut curls. "You're the boss," he whispered. "We do this at your speed, or not at all."

"'Not at all' isn't an option," Blair told him. "I just need to work through my own demons first."

"We have all the time in the world, Einstein." Jim released his hold and backed slowly toward the French doors. "Good-night. Sweet dreams."

"'Night, Jim," Blair whispered back, standing quietly beside his bed where Jim had left him. He listened as the Sentinel made his way up the stairs to the loft bedroom. The squeak of springs and the rustle of fresh sheets told him his friend was in bed. He stood for a moment longer, staring at the doors, which were still cracked open. Finally, he crossed the short distance, pulling the doors shut, then stripped to his underwear and climbed into his own bed.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Stratton watched as the four prisoners took their turns with Sandburg in the prison's showers. He nudged his fellow guard. "I gotta get myself a little piece of that ass before he goes back to lock-up. What do you say?" His partner nodded, licking his lips and watching the spectacle before him.

"All right, boys, that's enough!" Stratton stepped in, breaking up the little fuck-fest. "Get your asses out of the showers and back to your assigned jobs."

As the four men left, and the water was turned off, Blair breathed a sigh of relief. It was over. Thank God. It was over. He stumbled, dropping to his knees to crawl toward his savior. He tilted his head upward, words of thanks freezing on his lips. His eyes widened as he watched the guard roll a condom down over his ample cock. "Noooo...." he begged. "Please. No."

"Hey, Peters!" Stratton called to the other guard. "Keep him quiet, will ya?"

Blair scuttled backwards into the shower stalls as Peters came forward, a condom rolled over his own erection. "Doesn't look like he's got a lot of fight left," the guard commented.

"No, but he can make a lot of racket. Make sure he stays quiet," Stratton instructed.

"My pleasure." Peters approached Blair, who had backed himself into a corner. "Come on, little man," he coaxed. "You're going to suck my dick while my friend here gets a little fuck. Then we'll take you to the infirmary where they'll fix you all up before throwing that pretty little ass of yours behind bars."

The battered man was no match for the two guards, his feeble struggles easily contained by the hands that held his head and hips while hungry cocks fucked his mouth and ass....

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Blair moaned and tossed in his bed as the nightmares continued to pound at his subconscious.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Stratton paced the death row cellblock, intent on his goal. He nodded up at Peters, who manned the surveillance cameras to the area. A simple turn of a switch and an "electrical short" kept the cameras from recording the action down below.

Approaching Cell 10 with caution, Stratton signaled his partner to release the door lock. Sandburg was sleeping. An easy target. With one quick move, he had the smaller man off the bunk and firmly gripped. Blair yelped with surprise, and began to struggle against the hold. "No use fighting, kid. You're the night's entertainment." Catcalls and obscenities were shouted from the other cells, as the inmates looked forward to a little break in their normal routine.

"No!" Blair yelled over the noise. Despite the warning, he fought with his captor, briefly breaking free.

Stratton whipped out his baton and leveled a stunning blow to Blair's temple. The young man collapsed, knocked out.

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"Oh, God!" The scream echoed through the quiet apartment. "Please... help!"

Jim knelt beside the futon, shaking the sleeping man with desperation. "Blair! Wake up! C'mon! Wake up!" Unfocused blue eyes opened and stared up at him in the darkness.

"Let me go! Don't touch me!" Blair scooted into the corner, pulling the blankets up under his chin to protect himself from the shadowy figure.

"It's me... Jim," he coaxed, softening his voice. "You were having a nightmare."

Finally completely awake, Blair slumped back onto the mattress. "Sorry." The quiet apology was laced with sadness. "I didn't mean to wake you."

Jim settled on the bed next to the frightened man. "That's all right. It's what friends are for, right?" He gathered the shaking man into his arms, pulling Blair's head down to his chest where the young man could hear the steady, reassuring rhythm of his heart. "Did Boo's execution bring this on?"

Blair nodded. "Yeah. I think so," he admitted. "I still feel guilty for not watching."

"There's no reason for that," Jim insisted. Not relinquishing his hold on the young man, he leaned forward and plucked the bag of M&Ms from the nearby desk, handing it to Blair. "After what you went through, I think it's a miracle you were able to be there at all. You kept your promise to Boo. There's nothing to be ashamed of."

Blair clutched the candy to his chest, but didn't open the bag. Despite his distress, he couldn't contain a yawn.

"Look," Jim continued. "Why don't you try to go back to sleep? I'll stay here for a while to make sure the nightmares don't come back. How does that sound?"

Blair nodded. "Thanks, Jim. I'm really tired, I just..."

"You don't have to explain," Jim assured him. "Just sleep. I'll be here." Jim tucked the covers in around him and smoothed back the wild hair from his forehead. "Sweet dreams, Chief."

Guarded and safe, Blair closed his eyes and slept. Jim kept up his sentry duty until he, too, succumbed to sleep, keeping his charge wrapped safely in his arms.

0-0-0-0-0

Simon Banks looked out of the window at the young man Jim had pushed out the door. The kid had looked as if he needed a breath of fresh air. Murders were bad enough for seasoned professionals, but these were horrific and hitting far too close to home.

He watched as a young woman approached Blair. The young man had seemed to draw himself up and then started to back away as a cameraman came around the side of the van.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Blair drew in deep breaths of the fresh morning air, feeling the oxygen revive his mind and body. He smiled when he saw Kathy, and for the first time he felt the tension seep out of him. "What are you doing here?" He looked past her and saw the camera pointed his way.

Kathy spoke into her microphone. "We have with us today, Blair Sandburg, former Manifesto Murder suspect and death row convict." With the smooth move of a professional, the reporter thrust the microphone into Blair's face. He backed up a step, shocked. "Mr. Sandburg, why are you here today? Do you have inside information on the killings? Are you..."

"Kathy?" Blair interrupted, astonished that the woman who had been kind to him was one of them, a reporter. "Please don't do this. I thought you were my friend."

Kathy put her hand over the microphone. "Do you really think that I would want anything to do with you? Just because you didn't commit the murders doesn't mean that you didn't know about them. Why else would you take the fall for them?" She removed her hand. "So, Mr. Sandburg, what's with gouging out the eyes and..."

Simon saw Blair take to his heels -- he had to get away from the reporter. She caught his arm and he gave her a shove that sent her flying into her cameraman. Then he was gone.

"Rafe, get Sandburg before he gets into more trouble."

"Sir, Ellison will..." the detective began.

"Just get him before Ellison knows he's missing," Simon commanded.

When Rafe got down to the street, Blair was already well ahead of him. He quickened his pace. Coming around the corner, he saw that trouble had already found the young man; he was pinned up against the wall by a uniform, his route cut off by a patrol car.

Rafe approached the officer. "Hi, Benton. It's okay, he's with me."

The uniform looked Blair up and down. He had manhandled the smaller man and managed to pin him, but he was more concerned with his mental state -- he had started to struggle the moment he had been touched. Benton had only pulled up because Sandburg seemed to have trouble breathing.

"He gave you the slip, Rafe."

"No. He's a police observer -- Ellison's partner. He's going to be looking for him soon." Rafe still had not formed his own opinion of the ex-convict, preferring to keep an open mind despite the circumstantial evidence that pointed to his involvement in the current copycat killings. If Jim Ellison vouched for the young man, Rafe wasn't going to argue the point.

Benton gave a theatrical shrug. "Icy Ellison, brrrr. No way." He gave Blair a brief glance. "But I'd have the doctor look at him. He's not too good on his feet."

"Sure." Rafe moved forward and took Blair by the arm. "It's okay Sandburg, deep breaths." Then to the officer he added, "Do you have any water?"

"Yeah." He reached into the patrol car and handed the detective a bottle. Rafe broke the seal, handing it to Blair. The young man accepted the offering, spilling a few drops as he brought the bottle to his lips, gulping down the refreshing liquid.

"Slow down," Rafe admonished. "You're okay, Sandburg. Easy." He spotted a small shop on the corner. "Ben, stay with him. I'll be back in a minute." It was a gamble, but worth it.

Rafe felt slightly idiotic with the large bag of the new crunchy M&Ms in his hand, but he had seen the magic the small sweets performed on the anthropologist. Jim always had them on hand. The junior detective offered Blair the bag. For a brief moment, he thought the young man would refuse, but after a heartbeat's hesitation, he reached for the treat.

"Thought you might like trying something new," Rafe commented, trying to lighten the mood. He watched Blair savor the candy, relaxing as if he'd been given some magic potion.

His cell phone sounded and Rafe pulled it out on the first ring. "I got him Captain... Ellison is on his way? Okay. Yeah, I can see him now," he said, glancing up the sidewalk.

Rafe was relatively new to Major Crime and one thing had been pounded into him right from the start -- you don't piss off Jim Ellison. The man was a legend. Looking at him now, he could believe it. He knew it was cowardice, but he stepped back and allowed Sandburg to be seen. It was like magic. Instead of steamrolling the younger man, he was gently pulled to the detective. Ellison's voice was soft and soothing. When Blair answered, Rafe could barely hear him, but Jim did and he could see his jaw clench. Blair was pulled a little closer.

"Thanks, Rafe." Jim's appreciation was curt, but heartfelt. Turning back to his charge, he spoke gently. "Come on, Chief. Let's get you back to the loft."

Jim was all too aware that Blair was going to be in for one hell of a night. He could see stairs featured heavily in his near future. But whatever Blair needed, he would give and would always give. The Sentinel would protect the Guide even from the Guide himself.

0-0-0-0-0

Jim went straight to the kitchen to put the kettle on, then opened the cupboard and took down one of the packets of herbal teas that Blair liked. His eyes kept flicking over to his young Guide. Why the hell did this crap keep happening to him? Blair was one of the kindest souls he had ever met. Even being on death row and putting up with all the shit that had happened to him, had not made him bitter. And what did it get him? Over and over again, he was forced to relive the past and what he saw as his failure.

The whistling of the kettle brought Jim back to the present. He poured the hot water and then looked around. Blair was missing. He dismissed the small bedroom... Blair didn't feel safe there, not at times like this. That left the stairs. Picking up the tea and taking a new packet of M&Ms from the cupboard, he went and sat on the stairs. The steady beating of his Guide's heart was comforting to the now over-protective Sentinel. At least this latest incident had not brought on Blair's heart condition. But it might if the kid couldn't settle down quickly.

His mind made up, Jim rose. He heard a frightened gasp from Blair and his name being called.

"It's okay, Chief. I'm not going anywhere... quite the opposite."

Putting the tea down, he went to the side of the stairs and stooped to look at his Guide. Blair was rocking slowly, his eyes wide, seeing things only he could see, locked into the past.

"I'm sorry, Jim... so sorry." His voice was heartbreaking. "I had to get away and then..."

"You made a mistake, Blair." The expression on the young man's face could have melted the hardest of hearts. "You should have run to me, not away."

Slowly, Jim reached a hand out and stroked one finger down Blair's face. He caught his chin and eased it up so that Blair was looking him in the eyes again. "Remember that: a Guide runs to his Sentinel, a police observer to his partner, and you to me."

Jim looked around the small, cramped space. Even with the sleeping bag it was uncomfortable. Keeping eye contact, he slid his hand down to Blair's and grasped it... the skin was chilled. He gave the hand a firm tug.

"No, Jim, please."

Blair knew that Jim would not take no for an answer, but the Sentinel surprised him. He was pulled firmly into strong arms that wrapped around him, his head tucked under Jim's chin. Timidly, he reached a hand up and pressed it against Jim's chest. He could feel the Sentinel's body heat coming through the material, the scent of his aftershave. With a sob, he buried his face against Jim, and for the first time really let go. He felt safe and protected. Jim would never hurt him, nor allow him to be hurt. The bond that held them together was stronger than simply Sentinel/Guide; it was love.

Jim pulled him closer, brushing his lips against Blair's nearest temple. "It's okay, Blair. It's okay."

For Jim, it had been like a bolt from the blue. Suddenly, it didn't matter that Blair was crying; the kid deserved to be able to vent, and if he cried, then so be it. Somehow, holding Blair like this felt so right. Jim had never meant for his caring to turn into love, but somehow it had happened, and he was glad. Eventually, he felt his back starting to register its displeasure.

He got to his feet, taking Blair with him. Refusing to release his hold, he helped him up the stairs.

He calmed the young man as he began to panic. "Blair, trust me. If you need to feel safe, this is the safest place in the loft. No one can hurt you here."

"Your room."

"My room; anytime you need it..."

"You mean that?" Blair couldn't believe a man as private as Jim Ellison would offer him this. He bit his lip. "What if the other officers..."

"Think you're my lover?" Jim chuckled. "So what if they do? Half of them think we're doing the horizontal tango already and, frankly, I don't give a shit. It's none of their business." To emphasize his point, he kissed Blair, hard.

When the kiss ended, Blair slowly eased away from Jim, keeping a grip on his wrist, needing to know that he was still there. He ran a hand over the comforter, disbelieving his good fortune.

"Anytime... Anytime, Chief, day or night... your sanctuary."

Still keeping his grip, Blair sat down, then leaned to look through the gaps in the rail, and shuddered.

"You won't fall. I won't let you." Jim settled next to the young man, wrapping an arm around his waist. "You'll always be safe with me."

Blair's head snapped around to see his Sentinel. There was a tone to the man's voice that he hadn't heard before, a possessive nature -- what he had read about in the Burton books -- the feeling his previous Sentinel had never had, the true connection between Sentinel and Guide. He gave Jim's wrist a tug, not able to put into words what he needed; frightened to tell the older man what he wanted.

Carefully, Jim peeled Blair's hand from his wrist and took off his shoes and jacket, placing his gun in the drawer by the bed. Then, he bent and removed Blair's shoes, easing the smaller man back on the mattress.

Before piling the pillows up, and settling himself against them, all he had to do was open his arms. Blair moved into them, safe. The nightmares of the cell on death row seemed to become distant. Sleep finally claimed the exhausted man as the Sentinel kept watch over him.

0-0-0-0-0

Samuel Peters looked at the newspaper headline: Murder Victim's Father Attacks Suspect. He threw the days-old paper down with disgust. This wasn't good enough. So far, that Sandburg brat had continued to slip off the hook. He still hung around with that damn cop, too. Circumstances were making his job all the more difficult.

Flopping down onto his battered couch, he picked up a beer and let his mind wander. He was on psychiatric leave from his job as a prison guard at Cascade's maximum-security prison. That, in itself, was Sandburg's fault. Even though no one believed his story about him and Stratton raping Sandburg in the showers, the accusation had left a cloud of doubt in the mind of the Warden. Add to that the murder of Stratton, and Peters feared for his own life. Sandburg had turned his job into a living nightmare. If he had to murder five people to set the kid up, he'd do it. He picked up the remote and flipped on the TV.

A bright, perky redhead had thrust a microphone into Sandburg's face. "Mr. Sandburg, why are you here today? Do you have inside information on the killings? Are you..."

"Kathy? Please don't do this. I thought you were my friend." The young man pleaded with her.

Kathy put her hand over the microphone and spoke softly to the man. Then she uncovered the mic and continued her interview. "So, Mr. Sandburg, what's with gouging out the eyes and..."

The coward took off running. The reporter grabbed at him, but he sent her flying into her cameraman, who continued to tape Sandburg's flight down the block and around the corner.

Kathy O'Brien righted herself and smoothed back her ruffled hair. Clearing her throat, she addressed the camera. "Sometimes, actions speak louder than words. Blair Sandburg, guilty or innocent? You decide."

Peters turned off the TV and set down the remote. The O'Brien woman had been after Sandburg recently. Her many spots on the local news stations attested to the fact that she was harassing the young man, as eager as Peters himself to see the brat back behind bars. Or better yet, dead, like he should have been weeks ago.

An idea began to form slowly in the back of his mind, lighting his face with an evil smile. Next on the list of Manifesto killings would be the cutting out of the tongue. What better victim than a chatty reporter who had recently been hounding the prime suspect? Her death would surely put Sandburg back on death row. He picked up his hand-rolled cigarette and lit it, taking a few contemplative puffs as he considered the next "Manifesto Murder."

Eventually, he stirred, getting out of his chair and rummaging in his closet. A few minutes later, the door closed softly behind him as he walked out into the coolness of the evening.

0-0-0-0-0

The story went out at 6:00 p.m. on the prime spot. The word was that it was being picked up nationwide and that was a step toward network placement for her. If she thought of Blair at all, it was only to wonder how she could use him further.

Kathy came out of the television station and looked around her. It was dark; and while she always parked under the lights, she still suppressed a shudder. It felt as if someone had just walked over her grave. She was reaching for her car keys when her phone rang. She pulled out the cell. "Hi, Frank. Yeah, I'm just leaving." She rolled her eyes; her boyfriend was such a worrier.

She broke off the conversation as she saw a man coming toward her. She frowned. "What are you doing here?" she asked, her tone scathing. "Yeah, okay -- so I used you, so what? You would have done the same, if you were in my place. Where else would I get the info I needed for the story?"

Frank listened over the phone as Kathy spoke to someone who had apparently approached her in the parking lot. He heard her scream. Then came the sound of two successive dull thuds. Kathy's screams trailed off, just before the phone was disconnected.

Without hesitation, he dialed 911.

The following morning:

Jim took the phone call and his jaw tightened. The last thing they needed now was this. Blair was going to take it hard. He had readily taken to the young woman, making her betrayal all the worse. Now he had to tell Blair she was dead -- the next victim of the Copycat Killer.

Simon called his detectives straight into his office and waved them to a seat. "Okay, gentlemen, we had another one last night. The victim this time was Kathleen O'Brien. She was murdered in the car park at the TV station. Our killer knew exactly where to strike -- the one area where the CCTV cameras had a blind spot. As you can see," he said, sliding the crime scene photos across the table to the assembled men, "he removed her tongue and replaced it with her cell phone. Communication, lies -- that's what the profile is saying. She's our third victim. If we don't catch our copycat now, then once he's killed twice more, completing the cycle, he'll most likely go underground and we won't get him until he starts again. Gentlemen, I want this person."

Turning his back on them, Simon collected up the additional paperwork and began to assign individual tasks to the detectives. Once they received their assignments, they left the office. He deliberately kept Blair and Jim until last. He sat back, eyeing the pair.

"We have a problem, Jim. The man who called in the murder was the victim's boyfriend. He'd been on the phone with her at the time she was attacked." Simon sighed, shuffling the papers in front of him. "He said it sounded as though she recognized her killer... said it sounded like she was talking to the guy she'd interviewed for her news spot last night. As of now, Blair is an official suspect in the copycat Manifesto killings."

Blair's hand tightened on the chair arm, his eyes widening. "Captain, no! I never... I...." His voice trailed off as his heart began thudding in his chest.

Jim heard the increase in Blair's heart rate and the catch in his breath. "It's okay, Chief. We know you didn't do it. Now try and breathe slowly. Remember what the doctor told you about getting upset." He placed his hand on Blair's shoulder and was pleased when the younger man calmed a fraction. He turned back to his superior. "What time of death did the coroner assign to the victim?"

"7:30 p.m."

Jim didn't hesitate. "At that time, Blair was in the Major Crime bullpen, working on Rafe's computer fixing a virus that had infected the system. He never once left the area. There are at least four officers that can swear to it."

Simon's gaze rested on the nervous anthropologist. "Sorry, Sandburg. I had to ask," he rationalized. Blair acknowledged the apology with a silent nod.

Simon turned back toward his detective. "The Chief of Police phoned and read me the riot act where Blair is concerned." He paused, then added, "You still need him for that Sentinel stuff?"

"Yes." Simon was surprised by how quickly Jim answered. He spoke without any hesitation. "I still need Blair."

"Then make sure he keeps a low profile," Simon ordered. "No more six o'clock performances." He handed them their assignment.

Jim gave Blair a tug to get him on his feet. "Come on, Chief. We have work to do." Blair stood, quietly following Jim from the office.

Rafe stopped them at the elevator. "You better take him down the back stairs, Jim," he said. "The media is out for blood. I spotted two local stations and three national out front." What blood remained in Blair's already pale face drained from his complexion, leaving him white and shaken.

"Thanks." With a hand on Blair's elbow to steady him, Jim steered him into the elevator. They got off on the second floor, then took the stairs down and out through booking.

Officer Ellwood watched Sandburg and Ellison as the pair made their way past. He noticed the grim way Ellison was almost manhandling the smaller man into booking and with a quick look around, dropped a dime into the public telephone.

"Give me the news desk." He waited for the connection. "Johnny, here's a tip for you," he said in a hushed voice. "Jim Ellison has just taken the Manifesto Murderer, Blair Sandburg, into booking. Seems the little creep did it after all. How much for the whole story?" He waited. "Make it $500 and I can get you the inside scoop." Another pause. "You have a deal." He hung up and headed in after the pair. They were nowhere in sight. Puzzled, he looked around.

"Missing something, Ellwood?" the booking Sergeant asked, his tone indicating that the officer had better things to do than be staring into space.

"Ellison was in here with Sandburg."

"Sure. They went out the back way."

"He wasn't booking him?"

"No, why?"

"Nothing." Ellwood swore under his breath. He could see his payment go flying out the window.

The Sergeant smelled a rat, but decided to give the officer enough rope to hang himself.

Ellwood pushed past the incoming officers and took the phone nearest the garage. With a sharp stabbing motion, he punched out the numbers.

"Johnny, it's me again... no," he snapped. "Just shut it and listen! It looks like they're not arresting Sandburg. The little creep must have a get out of jail free card. I still think that if you put a team on him, you'll get your story. Iíve heard some tales on the grapevine... It appears that while he was in prison, Sandburg was the main bitch of..."

A hand came down over his shoulder and the phone was cut off. Before Ellwood could even turn, he felt a grip on his collar and he was pushed head forward into the phone. Dazed, he was manhandled into the stairwell of the garage and thrown up against the wall, held in place by a forearm across his throat. He was face to face with James Ellison.

Ellison's anger was ice cold and calculating, a deadly combination in an ex-Army Ranger. "Blair, go wait in the truck," he snapped, pointing toward the door. The young man took one look at the Sentinel and scuttled out to the parking lot and the relative safety of Jim's truck.

Jim turned his anger on the police officer. "So, Ellwood, it was you tipping off our friends in the media, targeting Blair... yes or no."

"No."

"Wrong answer." Jim moved his arm. Ellwood began to panic; he could no longer breathe. Then, as quickly as it started, the pressure was released. "Try again."

"Okay, okay... yes," the police officer sputtered. "Why shouldn't I get something out of this? Sandburg struts around here as if he owns the place. You know how long I've been trying to get into Major Crime? He does it without having to do anything."

"So you decided to get even with him."

"You bet." The pressure on his neck eased some more. "I'm not the only one, either. You put in a call for assistance for him and see how fast the unit arrives. Officer down and they'll burn rubber, but for him.... Forget it, Ellison. The world is better off without his kind."

Jim shook his head, then hit Ellwood. The man doubled over. Jimís knee caught him on the chin, putting him down. Looking into the bloody face, the Sentinel snarled. "Tell your friends that if anything happens to Sandburg, I'm coming looking. And believe me, you donít want to be there. Also, if you tell anyone about what happened to Blair in prison, you'd better hope your will is in order. Understand?"

Ellwood saw the Sergeant standing nearby. "You heard him. He threatened me."

The Sergeant didnít even look at the fallen man. "Detective Ellison, you want to be careful... this floor is really slippery. You could fall and hurt yourself, just like Ellwood did here. You best take Mr. Sandburg home. He didnít look too well. Don't worry, Iíll see to the trash."

With a nod of thanks, Jim left. As he walked across the parking garage, he couldn't help a smile touching his lips. The Sergeant had made it all too clear what Ellwood could expect if he tried that crap again.

When he opened the door to the truck, Blair leaned forward, concerned by the spatters of blood on his shirt and his bruised knuckles. "Jim, are you okay?"

Jim's grin widened as he spoke his reassurance. "I'm fine, Chief, just fine."

0-0-0-0-0

"You don't have to come with me," Jim assured his partner. "I could drop you off at the loft first."

Blair shook his head. "If you're going to be using your senses, you need me there, man." His hands were trembling slightly as they rested in his lap, but his voice was steady and sure.

"At least the body is gone. You don't need to be looking at crap like that right now." Jim turned down the street that would take him to the TV station parking lot where Kathy had been killed. "Shit!" He pulled into a parking space and jumped out of the truck. "What the hell do you two think you're doing here?" he addressed Braddock and Dawson, waving at Blair to stay put.

Joe Braddock looked up, eyes blazing. "We're here to prove that little prick friend of yours is the Copycat Killer," he sneered.

Jim was on the big man immediately, fists wrapped in Braddock's collar, pushing him back. "He's innocent!" he growled. "There are witnesses to prove he was at the station at the time of the murder!"

"There's a witness says he was here, too," Braddock hissed, not intimidated by Ellison's tactics.

"A telephone witness," Jim shot back. "Hardly proof. I can give you half a dozen police officers to testify that Sandburg was working on Rafe's computer that night."

Braddock twisted out of Jim's grip and backed off a step. "It doesn't matter whether the kid did this murder or not," he spat. "He's still guilty. One way or another, I'll see Sandburg back on death row." He grabbed Dawson's arm and steered his partner away from the scene.

"Over my dead body." Jim's cold voice carried across the distance to the two departing detectives.

"What was that all about?"

The soft voice caused Jim to whirl around. "I thought I told you to stay in the truck!"

"I did," Blair reasoned, "until I saw Braddock and Dawson leaving. What was that all about?" he repeated.

"Nothing that should concern you," Jim answered. "Don't worry. I'll take care of it." He turned around, surveying the area where they stood. Crime scene tape blocked off several parking spaces, and a chalk outline marked where the body had fallen. He approached the area, slipping under the tape.

Blair was close behind, a hand resting comfortably on the Sentinel's shoulder. "Try using sight, first," he suggested. "Just remember: you're a human crime lab. You can find evidence the 'experts' missed."

Jim moved slowly around the marked off area, pulling on a pair of latex gloves as he walked. "According to eyewitness reports, the man came from that way." He pointed, moving in the indicated direction. "They said long, dark hair." He concentrated, spotting something snagged in a crack of the pavement. Bending over, he picked up a long, curling hair.

Blair blinked rapidly, trying to focus in on the slender fiber. His heart began beating a rapid tattoo in his chest, drawing Jim's attention. "Don't worry. It's not natural. Probably from a wig," he said, bagging the evidence. He looked around a while longer, finally shrugging. "Nothing more here to find," he said. "I'm going to drop you off back home, then go check out the body at the morgue."

"Do you plan to use your senses?" Blair asked quietly. "I should be there."

"I can do this," he assured, turning to face the younger man. "You've had enough excitement for one day. Come on." He turned Blair toward the truck and gave a gentle shove. "You need to rest."

After dropping Blair off at the loft, Jim made a beeline for the Coroner's office. Dan Wolfe greeted his friend. "How can I help you, Jim?"

"I need to get a look at Kathy O'Brien's body."

"I just finished with her," Dan told him. "Same as the others: strangulation and mutilation. This time, with the tongue cut out."

Jim snorted. "Seems almost appropriate somehow, considering the way she was hounding Blair for her story."

They stopped in front of a stainless steel locker. Dan opened the door and pulled out the table containing the draped body of the reporter. "She's all yours. Let me know when you're finished."

Jim just nodded and pulled back the sheet. A close examination of the body brought nothing new to the investigation. He looked up. "Do you still have her clothes?" Dan nodded. "Could I get a look?"

"Sure can," Dan answered, handing him a large evidence bag filled with clothing. "You got here just in time. I was about to send that upstairs."

"I'll just be a minute." Jim snapped on a pair of latex gloves and opened the bag, spreading the contents on one of the exam tables. Having been closed in the plastic for several hours, the odors from the discarded clothing were strong. In particular, a tobacco scent stood out. Carefully extending his sense of smell, Jim homed in on the scent, eventually picking a few small fragments of leaves from the garment with a tweezers and dropping them into another evidence bag, which he stuffed in his pocket.

He put the clothing back into the plastic bag and handed it to the Coroner. "Thanks, Dan. I really appreciate it."

"Anytime, Jim," Dan said to the man's retreating back.

0-0-0-0-0

Hours later Jim walked out of yet another tobacco shop feeling drained. Without his Guide along to help him focus, he was getting nowhere matching the scent to a particular blend. He decided to call it a day and headed back to his truck.

"Mister!" The voice rang out behind him. Jim turned, watching the shop owner hustle over to where he stood. "I forgot about the special blends, the ones we custom make for our clients."

"You make custom blends?" Jim was intrigued.

"Yes, but not many," the shop owner replied. "That's why I forgot to mention them. Come."

Jim followed the man back into the store, standing in front of the counter while the owner produced three containers. "These are all we have on order."

As Jim lifted the lid on the second container, he knew he'd hit pay dirt. "Who buys this one?" he asked.

The shop owner looked up in his records. "We have two people who order that particular blend," he said. "Maxwell Gutterind and Samuel Peters."

Jim's heart skipped a beat at the mention of Peters. He wrote both names down and thanked the shop owner. Now he had a place to start.

0-0-0-0-0

As five o'clock came and went, Jim was still searching the PD database for information on Samuel Peters.

"Time to go home, Jim," Simon said, walking past his detective's desk as he settled his coat over his shoulders. "The kid's probably worried about you by now."

"Hey, Simon," Jim said by way of greeting, looking up from his computer monitor. "Yeah. Yeah. I should call and tell Blair not to wait dinner for me."

"You got something?" Simon asked, curious.

"Maybe," Jim admitted. "There's a possible link between the latest victim and one of the guards responsible for raping Blair while he was in prison."

Simon came around the desk and studied the document Jim had displayed on the computer. "That man has some serious problems," he commented, noting the man was currently out on a psychiatric leave of absence, and had been since shortly after Blair's pardon and release.

Jim nodded. "Looks like it's time to head back to the prison and talk to a few people who knew him while he worked there."

"What it's time for, is for you to go home," Simon said in a no nonsense voice. "Blair is waiting for you. I don't think it's a good idea to leave the kid alone too long right now."

"You're right," Jim agreed, standing and stretching. "Tomorrow's another day."

0-0-0-0-0

As Jim neared the door of his apartment, he could hear the rapid and irregular beat of Blair's heart. Flinging the door open, he scanned the room with hearing and sight. He finally focused on the cramped area under the stairs.

He approached the hiding place and ducked his head into the tight confines. "Blair? What's up?"

At first, there was no answer. Then a weak, unsteady voice spoke. "T-they think it was m-me." The damaged heart beat a syncopated rhythm as Blair drew another breath. "I-I s-saw it on the news. The reporter said I k-killed Kathy O'Brien."

Jim fought the urge to break something, instead steadying his voice. "Breathe, Chief. Calm down. Nobody's accusing you of anything."

"B-but it was on the news!" Blair hiccupped -- a bad sign with his injured heart. Jim reached in to pull him out, but the young man just burrowed deeper into his hidey-hole.

"They don't know what they're talking about," Jim assured him. "We have the time of death pinpointed almost to the minute, thanks to the fact she was on her cell phone at the time of the murder. You were in the bullpen helping Rafe with that computer virus. There are a dozen witnesses -- police officers -- who can vouch for you."

"But the public thinks I did it! They want me back in prison. T-they're saying I need to - to die...." Blair's breathing grew more erratic and his heart pounded in his chest. To Jim's horror, he heard the rapid patter of atrial fibrillation just before a dull thump brought Blair's head and shoulders out far enough for Jim to reach.

He pulled the unconscious man from under the stairs and carried him over to the couch. Laying him down, he covered the chilled body with the afghan and perched on the cushions, rubbing one of the cold hands between his warm ones. He hated that Blair had to suffer like this. His heart condition made the young man more vulnerable, and now fear of returning to that nightmare had triggered the irregular heartbeat that caused him to pass out.

At least Jim now knew that the condition would right itself given a little time. He kept his hearing tuned to Blair's heart, relaxing as he heard it slowly return to the steady lub-dub of sleep. He rose and went to the kitchen, filling a candy dish with M&Ms. Returning, he set the dish on the coffee table next to the couch. When he woke, Blair was going to need reassurance and comfort.

He perched on the cushions beside the sleeping man, brushing an errant strand of hair away from his face. Blair brushed at his nose with the back of his hand as the hair tickled his skin and slowly blinked his eyes open.

"Jim?"

"Just lie still," Jim soothed. "You got a little over excited there."

"I passed out?" Jim nodded. "The heart thing?" Jim nodded again. "Oh, man..." Blair groaned. "Why me?"

Jim propped a pillow behind Blair's head and handed him the candy dish. "I wish I had an answer for you," he said, sighing. "What you have to understand here, Chief, is that I'm not going to let anything happen to you. The press is like a school of sharks scenting blood in the water right now. They're circling in for the kill, but they're homing in on the wrong guy. You can't let them get to you. You're innocent."

"I know that and you know that," Blair said around a mouthful of candy, "but as long as the press thinks I'm guilty, I can't go anywhere without a bodyguard. It sucks."

"Yeah, I know." Jim leaned in to capture a chocolate-flavored kiss. "The important thing now is for you to relax. Do you think you could get a little sleep?"

Blair shook his head. "I'm gonna have nightmares. I'd rather stay up."

"After an fainting episode, you're supposed to rest," Jim reminded him. "Do you want me to take you back to the hospital?"

"God, no!" Blair cried, sitting up and spilling the M&Ms. "Please don't do that. I'll try to sleep."

Jim looked thoughtful. "It's getting late and I've got a busy day tomorrow. I ought to be hitting the sack, too." He paused to gaze at his friend. "Would it help you sleep if I were there with you?" Blair nodded mutely. He always slept with fewer nightmares when Jim was nearby. "Come on, then." Jim stood and took Blair's hand to help him up.

Still a bit unsteady on his feet, the young man didn't argue as Jim led him toward the steps to his bedroom. He sat on the far edge of the mattress, allowing Jim to undress him down to his underwear. The Sentinel lifted the blankets and Blair crawled in, rolling to his side. "Thanks, Jim," he mumbled, closing his eyes.

Minutes later, the mattress dipped slightly as Jim crawled in on his side, gathering the young man into a protective embrace. He had to admit, he liked having Blair here, near to him. He worried about the young man when he slept downstairs alone, often staying up late monitoring his respiration and heart rate until he could no longer remain awake. This way, if Blair had a nightmare, the comfort would be immediate.

Blair was already asleep, exhausted from his ordeal of the evening. Jim prayed he would rest peacefully until morning. He closed his eyes, lulled by the slow, regular beat of his Guide's heart.

When Jim awoke the next morning, he felt more rested than he had since this whole mess with the copycat killings had begun. Blair was still cocooned in his embrace, not having moved from the protection the entire night. The lines of worry, which had creased his face since his release from prison, were smoothed out in sleep, giving him an uncannily youthful and innocent look. Long hair, tousled from slumber, spread like a fan across the pillow.

Being careful not to wake him, Jim pressed a light kiss against the soft lips, then climbed out of bed and went downstairs to put on the coffee and see about making breakfast. He had a lead to follow now, in the form of Samuel Peters, and was anxious to get in to work. He was turning the pancakes when he heard the shuffling upstairs. Minutes later, a ruffled Sandburg made his way down from the bedroom.

"Sleep well last night?" Jim asked as the sleepy-eyed anthropologist made his way to the breakfast table.

"Yeah." Blair was wearing one of Jim's robes, the sleeves at least six inches too long. Strong fingers wrapped around the cuff of the right sleeve as the back of Blair's hand wiped the sleep from his eyes. "Thanks for letting me sleep upstairs last night. I was really spooked. I probably would have kept you up all night with my bad dreams if I'd been in my own room."

"Think nothing of it," Jim said, brushing off the gesture. "I was worried about you after you passed out on me. I really think we ought to let the doctor know what's going on."

"Aw, Jim...," Blair sighed. "If we do that, he'll want me on medication. You know how I hate the way that stuff makes me feel -- all detached from myself. Brrr..."

"I know," Jim admitted reluctantly, "but it scares the shit out of me when you do that."

"I'm okay now," Blair assured him. Changing the subject to a safer topic, he continued. "You said you had a good alibi for me."

"Yes, and I'm going to make sure the reporters know about it, so they can correct last night's story." He dished up their breakfast, and sat across from Blair, muttering, "Irresponsible bastards. They have no right..."

Blair reached across the table and covered one of Jim's hands with his own. "Of course they do. It's called 'Freedom of Speech'. We don't have to like it, and they are responsible for the facts, but they were just doing what they thought was right."

"You're too damn understanding for someone they're trying to execute in the court of public opinion. Once is enough. You shouldn't have to go through this again."

Blair flinched at the mention of execution. The memories were far too fresh. "You won't let them," he said with surety. "You're my Blessed Protector."

"Your what?" Jim said, looking up from his breakfast.

"The Chinese believe when you save a man's life you become his Blessed Protector and it's your duty to do that for the rest of your life," Blair explained. "You've saved my life a dozen times over."

"And I'm going to save it again today," Jim said, grimacing over delivering the news. "I want you to stay home."

"Why?"

"I got a solid lead on a possible suspect," Jim explained, "but it means going back to the prison to interview the Warden and some of the guards. I don't want you anywhere near that place."

"Y-you gonna need to use your senses?" Blair stuttered, determined to help, if needed.

"Not this time, Sport," Jim replied, pushing back from the table to stand. As he carried his dishes to the sink to rinse, he looked over his shoulder and spoke. "It's just routine interviews. You don't have to worry about me."

"Who's your lead?" Blair asked, unsure if he wanted to know.

Jim sensed the hesitancy, his smile grim. "I'll tell you when I'm a little more positive," he answered. "I don't need you more upset."

"It's Peters, isn't it?" The question was delivered in a flat, emotionless tone.

Jim shook his head. "Nothing's certain yet. You stay home. Go back to bed." He turned to go into the bathroom.

Moments later, Blair could hear the hiss of the shower being turned on. He got up to rinse his own dishes and load the dishwasher. He felt unaccountably drained, despite getting a good night's sleep. He shuffled into the room beneath the stairs, pulling the door shut behind him and throwing his body down across the futon, memories of Samuel Peters swirling through his mind.

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Blair huddled under his bunk, hiding the remnants of his most recent panic attack from the prison cameras. A nightstick rattled across the bars of his cell and a hushed voice spoke to him.

"I don't know how you did it, punk, but you're not going to get away with killing Stratton. He was my friend. Getting Boo to do your dirty work doesn't fool me for a minute." The voice stopped for several beats of his heart before resuming on a level nearer the floor, its owner speaking directly to the frightened young man. "You've got a sweet mouth, boy. I wouldn't mind a little more. Give it up willingly and I might be able to 'forget' your duplicity in Stratton's death."

Blair backed out from under his bunk and moved to the far end of his cell, pressing himself against the cold wall. He shook his head. "No." The word was barely audible.

"Oh, I think you'll think differently when I talk to the Warden." He opened his fly and pulled out his penis, stroking the organ to fullness. "All you have to do is suck my dick and I'll keep quiet." Blair continued to shake his head, mouthing the word 'no'. "You'll spend your last days in solitary confinement," Peters threatened. "I can see to it that you don't even make it to your formal execution. Accidents happen... don't they Sandburg?" Blair shook, feeling another panic attack building. "Come here!" the voice commanded.

Reluctantly, Blair moved toward the front of his cell. Fear warred within him as he tried to consider which was the lesser of the evils. But in the end it came down to life. He didn't want to die; and the longer he could stave off the inevitable, the better. He knelt behind the bars, while Peters thrust his erect cock through the opening. Blair leaned forward to take it into his mouth.

Peters' hands wound through the bars, fingers tangling in Blair's hair, pushing him harder against the unyielding steel, forcing his dick further down Blair's throat. The young man gagged, nearly vomiting up the remnants of the meager meal he had consumed a few hours before.

"Now, now, Sweetheart," Peters crooned. "None of that. You're going to suck me off and you're going to do a good job." He thrust into the warm mouth, unable to penetrate as deeply as he wished because of the barrier between them.

Blair licked and sucked, as ordered, swallowing the bile that repeatedly rose in his throat. Peters kept pushing into him, groaning his pleasure until, finally, he came. With the cock rammed down his throat, Blair had no choice but to swallow the vile semen. When Peters finally let go of his head, he collapsed back onto the floor.

"Very nice, boy. That wasn't so bad now, was it?" Blair stared up at the man with hatred and fear mingled in his eyes. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. Peters chuckled. "Yeah, that was so nice, I think I'd like it every night." He hunkered down to be on Blair's level again. "The first time you refuse, it's solitary confinement. The second time you refuse... Well, let me just say, you don't want to refuse a second time."

Peters tucked himself in and zipped up his pants, then waved at his cohort in the control room, who resumed the camera scans down to Cell 10. He reached through the bars and patted Blair's cheek. "Until tomorrow, eh, boy?"

He sat on the floor of his cell, feeling his stomach roil and toss. Before Peters reached the end of the cellblock, Blair had emptied his stomach on the floor where he sat.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

He awoke in a cold sweat, tangled in his blankets. His heart hammered in his chest as he dressed hurriedly, then burst from his room, unable to stay confined in the small area, and certainly unable to sleep. Jim had gone on to work as he had been dozing. He had to get out. Out in the fresh air. He needed to find his Blessed Protector.

Blair rounded the corner and plowed headlong into another pedestrian. He backed up a step, preparing to apologize, but strong hands grabbed his biceps, holding him in an iron grip. His blood turned to ice water in his veins as a familiar voice greeted him. "Well, well, well... my sweet little cocksucker," Peters grinned at the stricken young man, "we meet again...."

0-0-0-0-0

Jim looked up at the tall chain-link fence topped with razor wire. He had sworn, once Blair had been pardoned and released, that he wouldn't set foot inside the prison walls again. Yet, here he stood for the second time in as many weeks. Taking a deep breath, he squared his shoulders and walked through the doors. After passing through the security checkpoints, he found himself greeted by Warden Burgess.

"Good to see you again, Jim! How are you doing? How's Blair?" the Warden greeted him.

"That's why I'm here, sir," Jim answered. "Have you seen the news recently?"

Burgess shook his head. "With the crazy hours I keep here, there isn't time for trivial things like TV. I have gotten wind of the Copycat Killings, though. Got any leads?"

"The press wants to pin it on Sandburg," Jim said with disdain. "I can't tell you the number of cops who think he's guilty, too."

"That's rough," Burgess sighed. "He's a good kid. I never did believe he was guilty of the original murders. Figured he was covering for someone."

"He was... for David Temco." Jim shook his head. "He's taking this really hard. The reporter who was his biggest adversary was just killed. Makes it look really bad for Blair. Fortunately, he has an air-tight alibi."

"Good." Burgess nodded. "So... what can I do for you? I'm sure you didn't stop by just to catch me up on the news."

"No, sir," Jim agreed. "Actually, I have a possible lead I'm checking out. What can you tell me about Samuel Peters?"

"Peters?" The Warden grimaced. "I always suspected he was dealing dirty. Never had any evidence, though."

"What do you mean, exactly?"

"Come into my office," Burgess said, guiding Jim through the door and indicating a seat. He settled behind his desk, folding his hands in front of himself. "There were rumors circulating that he was involved in some 'extracurricular' activities with the prisoners."

"What sort of activities?"

Burgess frowned. "Sexual. Several prisoners complained of Peters extorting sexual favors from them, down to outright rape. There was never any evidence or witnesses to corroborate the claims."

"What about Sandburg? Did he ever say anything?"

"The kid was raped in the showers right after his initial confinement. He claimed two guards worked him over after the prisoners were through with him."

"And he named Peters and Stratton, right?" Jim probed.

"Yeah, he did," the Warden agreed. "But there was no DNA evidence to prove it and the prisoners who had raped him had been sent away before the alleged attack."

"Alleged?" Jim rose out of his seat and leaned across the desk. "That kid couldn't lie about something like that if his life depended on it!"

"I know. I know," Burgess soothed, waving Jim back. "It's just that there wasn't any proof."

"Any other incidents reported by Sandburg?"

"No." Burgess shook his head sadly, his eyes cast down at his folded hands. "I suppose he figured there wasn't much use."

Jim jumped at the implied confession. "There were other times?"

"There was the incident with Stratton and Boo," the Warden said. "But otherwise... nothing but rumors."

"What kind of rumors?" Jim was leaning across the desk again, but this time he stayed in his seat.

"Some of the death row inmates talked... Guards overheard. Nothing you could call substantial evidence...."

"What kind of rumors?" Jim repeated, getting steadily more upset with the circumspect conversation.

"The talk was that Peters would see Sandburg had an 'untimely' fatal accident, if he didn't give the man regular blowjobs." Burgess studied his fingernails. "He must have had an accomplice on the cameras, because there's absolutely no proof that anything happened."

"And Blair never said anything?"

"Not a word."

Jim sat back in his chair, placing his hands in his lap in a non-threatening pose. "Did Peters smoke?" he asked, turning the conversation a neat one-eighty.

Startled by the sudden change of topic, Burgess, too, sat back and relaxed. "Yeah, he had a habit. Rolled his own. Some custom blend. Stank like Hell's kitchen."

Jim nodded knowingly, a small grin tugging at the corners of his lips. "Can you tell me anything about his state of mind after the death of Stratton? They were friends, right?"

"Partners," the Warden confirmed. "He was pretty upset. I remember he kept raving on and blaming Sandburg, even though it was Boo who killed Stratton, and Stratton who put Blair into that situation in the first place. It got so bad, he was given the choice of going into counseling, or losing his job here."

"Did he go into counseling?"

"Yeah, for a couple months. Then he just dropped out. I was forced to put him on a psychiatric leave of absence."

"When was that?"

Burgess thought about the question carefully, tapping at his chin as he reflected. "I think it was right around the time of Sandburg's pardon; shortly after. It was like Peters snapped. He couldn't stand to be here any longer."

Jim rose and held out his hand. "Thank you very much for the information. May I call you if I have any more questions?"

"Absolutely." The Warden rose and shook the proffered hand. "I'd hate to think it was one of our men on a killing spree, but whoever is doing this, I hope you catch him. Sandburg's too sweet a kid to be going through this hell."

"I agree," Jim said with feeling. "Don't worry. We'll find who's doing this."

0-0-0-0-0

Blair sat, bound and gagged, on the filthy sofa in Peters' ramshackle apartment. His heart thudded in his chest, making him feel giddy. He was afraid he might pass out, but he didn't want to lose consciousness. He needed to be in control as much as possible, if he intended to survive.

Peters was nowhere to be seen, but Blair was certain he was still in the apartment somewhere. He ducked his head against his shoulder, trying to rub the gag away from his mouth. Unsuccessful, he tried using the back of the couch. Slowly, the bandana used to keep him quiet began to slip up the back of his head, until he was able to shake it free and spit it out. "Help!" he yelled at the top of his voice, continuing to scream until Peters stood in front of him.

Peters grabbed Blair's jaw, sinking his fingers into the tender flesh of his cheeks. "I wouldn't be so ready to scream, if I were you," he growled. "There's more than one way to shut you up." His free hand went to the zipper on his jeans. "It's been a long time since I fucked that pretty mouth of yours."

Blair swallowed hard; the sound issuing from his throat was a strangled gulp. "Please. No..." he whispered.

Peters shoved him back against the cushions. "It doesn't matter much, anyway," he said, prowling around the couch. "You don't have much longer to live. You should've died by lethal injection, but that cop got you off. Now, you get to be Victim Number 4, strangled and flayed. How does that sound?"

Blair just looked up at him, his eyes round with fear. He had no doubt this madman would do as he said. The better he behaved, perhaps the longer he would live. The longer Jim had to find him. He had to survive at all cost, no matter what he had to do to achieve that goal. He had to survive... for Jim.

0-0-0-0-0

Jim stormed through the doors of Major Crime, breezing past a shocked Braddock and Dawson, walking straight through the bullpen and into Simon's office.

The captain looked up, startled by the abrupt intrusion. "What can I do for you, Detective?" His voice reflected his irritation.

"I need a warrant to seize the psychiatric records of Samuel Peters," Jim told him, coming to stand in front of the captain's desk. He rested both hands on the smooth surface and leaned in toward his boss. "This is important, Simon," he pleaded. "I need to get my hands on those files ASAP. Every nerve is telling me this guy is bad news."

"You think he might be our Copycat Killer?" Simon asked, all sense of anger gone in the wake of his detective's earnest request.

"I can feel it," Jim stated firmly. "The longer we wait, the closer he comes to taking a fourth victim."

Simon picked up the phone and dialed. Jim waited impatiently, shifting from foot to foot as the captain talked, pulling strings, calling in favors. Finally, he hung up and looked up at Jim. "You've got your warrant. A court officer will meet you at the doctor's office with the document."

"Thank you, sir." Jim was out the door as abruptly as he'd entered.

Fifteen minutes later, he stood in the offices of a Dr. Harvey Benson, Psychiatrist, papers in hand. "Dr. Benson can see you now." The receptionist beamed a practiced smile on the detective.

As Jim approached the door, it opened. An older man, mid-sixties with white hair and wire-rimmed glasses, greeted him. "Welcome. I'm Dr. Benson. What may I do for you?"

"My name is Jim Ellison. I'm with the Cascade PD," he said, holding out his badge for inspection.

"Come in, Detective." Benson waved toward a comfortable upholstered chair. "Why are you here today?"

Jim declined the seat, standing in front of the doctor's desk. He passed over the papers. "I've got a warrant to seize your files on Samuel Peters."

"I'm quite sorry," the doctor apologized, "but patient files are strictly confidential. I can't turn them over to you."

"This says you can," Jim insisted, pointing at the document in Benson's hand. "Mr. Peters is a suspect in a current murder investigation."

"I see," the doctor murmured, skimming over the warrant. "Well, I guess I have no choice in the matter." He turned to the filing cabinets behind him and sorted through the folders until he came to one marked "Peters, Samuel J." He handed it to the waiting detective. "I hope this helps," he said with sincerity. "Mr. Peters is a troubled young man."

"Thank you very much. I'm sure it will be a great help." Jim took the folder and shook the doctor's hand. His whole body thrummed with excitement as he drove back to the station. He was certain he now held a precious link in the chain of evidence that would put Peters on death row.

0-0-0-0-0

"I tell you, Simon, Peters is our man." Jim paced the captain's office.

Banks looked over the psychiatric file of the suspect, nodding. "Between this file, your talk with the Warden, and the tobacco evidence, I'd say you have a pretty good case."

"I know I do, sir." Jim stopped in front of Simon's desk, leaning on his hands to put himself within his boss' personal space. "I need a warrant to search his place."

"You'll have it by morning," Banks assured him. "Why don't you go home, Jim? It's been a long day. You're going to want to be fresh."

Jim straightened and looked at the captain, then relaxed. "Yeah, you're right. Blair probably has dinner waiting for me."

Simon smiled, waving his detective out of his office.

Jim hurried down to the parking garage and slipped behind the wheel.

Minutes later, he had pulled up in the parking lot outside 852 Prospect. Dialing up his hearing, he focused on the third floor apartment. Although the balcony doors stood open, he could hear no reassuring heartbeat. Quickening his steps, he headed across the lot to the building.

On the corner, a familiar scent captured his attention. He stopped in order to locate the source of the smell; it was at his feet. Stooping, he picked up a charred cigarette butt with his handkerchief to avoid contaminating it. Hand rolled. Bringing the fragment of tobacco to his nose, he sniffed it appraisingly. Alarm bells went off in his mind, as he wrapped it in the handkerchief and stuffed the evidence in a jacket pocket.

He bounded up the stairs two at time, unwilling to wait for the old elevator. The door to 307 was locked. That, in its own way, was a relief. Still, there was no sound from inside the apartment.

Once in, Jim scanned the entire loft with his senses. Blair had been here today, but wasn't here now. There was no sign of struggle. Perhaps he'd just gone for a walk.

But Blair wouldn't do that. Not now. Not with his face on every tabloid in the city. He fingered the cigarette in his pocket. No. Something more was going on here and he didn't like the implications. Turning around, he left the apartment, heading back down the stairs and out to the parking lot.

0-0-0-0-0

Samuel Peters gazed down at his captive, admiring the smooth, pale skin. Blair lay on the bed, bound and gagged, stripped down to only his boxer shorts. Round blue eyes followed every move of the madman who had put him here. His heart thudded rapidly in his chest.

Peters stroked a hand down one sleek side, smiling wickedly. "It's going to be a great pleasure, flaying you inch by inch," he said. "Too bad you'll already be dead." Blair struggled in his bonds, attempting to scream obscenities through the muffling gag. His captor chuckled. "Now, now... None of that. There's nothing you can do, you know," he continued conversationally. "You really should have died in that execution chamber; died for killing a good man." His hand continued to stroke over Blair's body in a possessive manner. "Stratton didn't deserve to die. All he wanted was a little entertainment." Blair's muffled cries continued to fill the room. "But you wouldn't give it to him. All you had to do was give up a little ass. But, no.... You had to kill my... friend." To emphasize his words, Peters grasped Blair's genitals through the soft cotton cloth and twisted.

Blair screamed at the top of his lungs, the sound muted by the gag shoved into his mouth. His eyes watered, sending tears streaking down his cheeks. He squirmed in his bonds, unable to free himself.

"It's time for a little pay back, Baby," Peters sneered, picking up the yellow nylon rope that lay on the nightstand next to the bed. "I'm going to enjoy watching you die." He wrapped the rope around Blair's throat and began to pull.

Blair's eyes bulged as his oxygen was slowly cut off. His struggles against his bonds became frantic in an effort to escape, but gradually lost strength as he felt his life ebbing away. "Oh, God, Jim!" he thought. "I'm so sorry. So sorry. So sorry...."

0-0-0-0-0

As he roared his way through the streets of Cascade toward 2173 Cleardale Road, Jim got on the radio and called for backup. Moments later, the radio crackled to life again.

"Jim? What the hell do you think you're doing?"

Swerving through the traffic, Jim caused more than one near-collision and a myriad of honking, angry drivers. "Blair is missing and there's evidence that Peters was at the apartment building." Jim's voice was clipped as he ran a red light, dodging the oncoming cars.

"Sandburg's been kidnapped?"

"Looks that way, sir," Jim answered. Pulling up in front of the apartment building, he didn't even bother to park properly. "Gotta go, Captain. Light a fire under that backup, will ya?"

"We'll be there in five." Banks told him.

Jim dropped the microphone, climbing out of the truck and up the stairs to Apartment 417 as fast as his feet would carry him.

Not waiting on the niceties, he kicked in the door, leading with his weapon as he swept his senses over the front room. Nothing. Then, heartbeats from further back. Cautiously, he made his way down the short hall to the bedroom.

Peters had heard the precipitous destruction of his front door and ceased his efforts to strangle his captive. It didn't matter anyway. The young man had stopped struggling over a minute ago. He picked up the gun he kept stashed in the nightstand drawer and waited.

The scene before him as he entered the room, stopped Jim cold. He could only spare a quick glance at the still form on the bed. His attention was wholly focused on the slender barrel of polished metal pointed at his head. For several moments, the two men were frozen in time, guns locked on each other in a deadly standoff.

"Put the weapon down and move away from the bed," Jim demanded.

Peters shook his head. "You'll have to kill me... before I kill you," he threatened. "It's already too late for your friend here."

The mention of Blair drew Jim's attention for a fraction of a second. The utter stillness of the body caused his heart to sink into his shoes. A slight flicker of movement in front of him drew his attention back to the man with the gun. Focusing on the barrel, he aimed and fired, sending a bullet straight away down the metal shaft, knocking the weapon from Peters' hand. In the flurry of activity that followed, Jim made his way to the bed.

Backup had arrived just as Jim fired his shot. Simon took charge, seeing that Peters was cuffed and read his rights.

Jim pulled a blanket over Blair, then began a thorough sensory mapping of the young man. The sound of faint respiration could be heard over the clamor of activity, but only by trained Sentinel ears. Gently, Jim unwrapped the nylon cord from around Blair's neck, grimacing at the angry red welts that rose in its place.

Jim's hands brushed lightly over the damp cheeks as he removed the sodden gag. "Oh, God, Blair. I'm sorry. So sorry," he whispered in unconscious duplication of Blair's silent prayer. He listened to the birdlike flutter of the damaged heart and prayed the paramedics would arrive quickly.

0-0-0-0-0

"How is he?"

Jim looked up from the magazine he was reading. "Oh, hey, Simon." He turned to the quiet figure in the bed, reaching out to squeeze an unresponsive hand. "The doctor says he's doing pretty well, considering. They want to hold him for a couple days' observation. His trachea was bruised and they're treating the rope burn on his neck. He's going to be sore, but there's no reason he can't come home."

"What about his heart condition?" Simon pulled up a chair next to Jim's and studied the peaceful features of the sleeping man.

"No better. No worse. The strangulation triggered the condition, but there doesn't seem to be any additional damage. They ran an EKG and are keeping him on the monitor as long as he's in the hospital." Jim reached up to brush an errant lock of hair from Blair's face. The young man's nose twitched at the touch, but he didn't wake up. "They've got him under heavy sedation for now. He should wake up later this evening."

Simon nodded, relieved that the young newly-instated police observer was going to be all right. "Peters is behind bars, awaiting arraignment. A search of his place turned up souvenirs the bastard kept from all his victims. There's no doubt in the D.A.'s mind that we have our Copycat Killer."

"That's good news." Jim breathed a sigh of relief. "Maybe this nightmare can finally come to an end. Blair's suffered enough for ten lifetimes. It's time he got a break."

"I reassigned the case," Simon added, shocking Jim. Before the detective could react verbally, the captain hastened on. "You'll get the credit for collaring Peters, don't worry. And Blair will get good press as an innocent victim. I'm only turning over the post-case work. I thought you might like a little time off to spend with your partner here."

Jim didn't respond immediately. He turned to watch Blair sleep and smiled. "I'd like that. Thanks, Simon." Then, turning back to his captain, he asked, "Who's taking over the case?"

"Brown and Rafe."

Jim nodded. "What matters is, the case is finally solved and Blair's going to be all right."

"You take care of the kid, you hear me? I don't want to see you back in the bullpen for at least two weeks." Simon rose, resting a hand on Jim's shoulder. "And take care of yourself, too."

"Thanks, Simon. I will." Jim turned his attention back to Blair as the captain let himself out of the room.

Hours later, Jim's light doze was interrupted when a seeking hand came in contact with his hair and stroked him lightly. Lifting his head from the mattress, his eyes connected with those of his best friend and Guide. "Hey, Jim," came the rough, sleep-drugged voice.

"Hey, yourself," he responded with a smile. "How're you feeling?"

"Okay, I guess. Sore." Blair's hand drifted downward as he waved it over his crotch.

Jim captured the roving hand, clasping it tightly between both of his own. "That'll go away in time," he assured Blair, trying not to grimace with sympathy pain. "The doctor said there was no permanent damage; just some bruising and a little swelling. There are some rope burns on your neck, and your trachea is bruised as well, but other than a sore throat, you survived."

Blair's eyes grew glassy with the memory of Peters and his kidnapping. "You caught him?"

"He's locked up tight, Chief," Jim assured him, squeezing the hand he held. "You've been cleared of all suspicion in the copycat murders, and you'll never have to worry about Peters again. The D.A. wants to throw the book at him, including the death penalty."

"Do I get any say in his sentencing?" Blair croaked. Jim spooned some ice chips into his mouth, and Blair sucked gratefully on the small pieces.

"I'm sure that if you have a statement you'd like to make, considering your circumstances, the D.A. will most likely take your suggestions seriously." Jim studied the man in the bed. Blair was frowning. "What is it you'd like to go on record as saying?"

Blair took a deep breath, then blew it out slowly before answering. "I'd prefer he got life in prison without parole," he whispered. "I don't believe in the death penalty. The state already nearly killed one innocent man."

"Peters isn't innocent," Jim reminded him. "He deserves whatever he gets."

"And he'll get what he deserves with a life sentence," Blair stated, his voice firming as he spoke. "As an ex-guard, he won't be popular. His life will be a living hell in the general population. I guarantee it."

"An eye for an eye, Chief?" Jim asked, skeptical that his gentle friend would want revenge.

"Biblical justice; do unto others as you would have them do unto you," Blair paraphrased. "It sounds reasonable to me. Death is too easy for the likes of Samuel Peters."

"I'll have someone from the D.A.'s office stop in tomorrow for your statement... after you've rested," Jim told him.

Blair gestured for the cup of ice chips again. Jim fed him a spoonful and waited until he had swallowed. He offered another spoonful, but Blair began speaking. "How long do I have to stay here?"

"A couple days," Jim answered. "The doctor wants to make sure everything's okay. You had another heart episode at Peters' place," he explained. "Nothing to get upset over, but between that, your throat and..." he gestured over the lower portion of Blair's anatomy, "...he wanted to hold you for observation."

Blair nodded and settled back into his pillows. "Will you stay?"

"As long as you need me," Jim answered sincerely. Blair smiled and closed his eyes. Jim clasped Blair's hand and listened as the young man's heart rate and respiration leveled out into sleep.

0-0-0-0-0

Blair hobbled into the loft with the air of a man returning home after a long enforced absence. Jim hurried up behind him, taking him by an elbow and guiding him over to the couch. "You just sit and rest, Festus. You're hobbling like an old gimp."

The young man in question looked up at his tormentor with a grimace. "You try having your gonads twisted by some psycho and see how you walk!" he shot back, his voice still raspy and hoarse.

"Point taken, Chief," Jim said, settling next to Blair on the couch. Picking up the remote, he turned on the TV, surfing until he found a replay of the previous night's Cascade Orcas' hockey game on one of the cable sports channels. The two men watched in silence, enjoying being home together. At the commercial break, he turned toward Blair. "How about some orange juice?"

"Sure, thanks." Blair's gaze followed the Sentinel as he got up to walk into the kitchen. "Got any of those crunchy M&Ms?"

Jim chuckled, then looked in the cupboard, considering the options. "Let's see, I've got plain, peanut, crunchy and some pink and white ones left over from Valentine's Day."

"You ate all the red ones?" Blair asked with bemusement.

Jim looked sheepish as he brought over a packet of the crunchy M&Ms, a glass of juice for Blair and a beer for himself. He shrugged off the question, asking one of his own. "You sure those things go together? I mean, chocolate and orange juice?" He glanced over at Blair who was about to pop some of the candies in his mouth. "Don't answer that; you shouldn't be talking."

It wasn't long before he felt a warm weight pressing against his side. Blair leaned against him, resting his head on Jim's shoulder. His hand rose to finger the bandages around his throat. "It's not going to be that easy, you know?" he said, his voice a hoarse whisper. "I've still got a lot of baggage."

Jim tightened his hold. "We'll work through it, together," he insisted. "From now on, you're sleeping upstairs with me. No arguments." He interrupted the sharp intake of breath before Blair could get started. "We move at your pace, remember? However long it takes. For now, we just do what feels good, and sleeping with you cuddled in my arms feels really good. Just so long as there's no more sleeping under the stairs. Here me?"

"I hear you," Blair answered softly.

The older man grunted, shifting slightly so that Blair's head nestled on his chest, beneath his chin. "And don't you forget it," he mumbled over the blare of the announcer's voice.

As the game droned on, Jim felt the weight resting upon him intensify. The compact body pressed against his began to shift, sliding down into his lap. Focusing his hearing, he noted the slower heart rate and shallow breathing. Blair had fallen asleep. He shifted, sliding out from under the young man and lowering him carefully to the sofa cushions. Rising, he headed upstairs to his bedroom.

As he slowly turned down the comforter and fluffed the pillows, he considered the young man sleeping in the room below. Blair had suffered a lot in his short life: wrongfully accused of serial murders, imprisoned, raped, executed.... Then under suspicion again and, finally, the kidnapping. It was way more than anyone deserved. Despite having his innocence ripped from him, Blair had avoided becoming cynical. Instead, he chose to live and let live; to forgive.

Jim descended the stairs, determined to put the kid to bed. He leaned over the supine form, shaking a flannel-clad shoulder.

"Hey, Chief... Blair, wake up," he said softly, not wanting to startle the young man.

Sleepy eyes blinked open and focused up on him. "Jim...?"

"Yeah. It's time to go to bed. You're exhausted." He slipped a hand beneath the nearest elbow and helped to lever Blair to a sitting position. "Need some help?"

"Nah, I'm fine," Blair answered, pushing up to his feet. He wavered a moment, finding his balance, then took a step toward the stairs. "Ah! God!" He stumbled, grabbing for the back of the couch.

Jim was on him immediately. "Blair? What's the matter, kid?" He wrapped an arm around Blair's waist and steadied him.

"Forgot," came the succinct reply. "Hurts."

Jim winced in sympathy. Despite the fact his injuries had happened two days ago and were not considered serious, the wrenching of Blair's balls had left bruises, which still caused the young man a world of pain and misery. Without comment, he steadied his friend and helped him to the stairs. Blair hesitated at the first step. "Anything I can do to help?" Jim asked.

Blair shook his head. "Just watch my ass, so I don't fall." He carefully raised one foot and set it to the bottom step. One after another, he made his way slowly to the top, Jim following behind with a steadying grip on his waist.

It was just a few steps to bed from the top of the stairs. Blair stumbled over and collapsed on the mattress.

"Need some help there?" Jim knelt beside the bed, carefully removing Blair's shoes and socks, setting them off to one side of the room. Blair rolled over, fumbling with his belt buckle.

"Don't know what's the matter with me," he complained. "I'm all thumbs tonight."

"You're exhausted," Jim explained. "Here," he said, batting the useless hands away, "let me do that." Blair started to protest, then relaxed, knowing he had nothing to fear from the older man. Jim quickly had the belt undone, the fly unzipped, and was tugging on the tight jeans to get them off. "How did you ever get into these things, anyway?" Blair chuckled hoarsely. "Don't answer that," Jim admonished, holding up a hand to stave off a reply. "Save your voice... and your throat."

Five minutes later, he had the young man stripped to his underwear. He pulled back the heavy down comforter to reveal a towel-wrapped hot water bottle.

Blair crawled into the center of the bed. "What's this?" he asked, reaching out to feel the gentle warmth of a temperature selected by a fussy Sentinel.

"What do you think, Einstein?" Jim teased. "That's to rest your weary balls. I'd give you the special Ellison massage, but I have a feeling that even my extra-sensitive touch would be too much for you right now. The doctor said a little heat would ease the ache."

"Wow, thanks. This is great!" Blair eased himself down onto the mattress, spreading his legs slightly to let his throbbing testicles take full advantage of the comforting heat. "Are you coming to bed?"

"Are you sure you want me to? You've had a pretty rough day. I don't mind sleeping on the couch."

"Of course, I want you to," Blair insisted. "This is your bed, too. Besides, you've spoiled me. I like sleeping in your arms."

Jim climbed into the bed, snuggling close to his young Guide. Blair twisted slightly so that his upper body faced the older man, while his lower anatomy stayed in contact with the soothing heat. "Jim?"

The Sentinel gathered the hurting man into his arms, placing a quick kiss on the parted lips. "Yes?"

"Love you," Blair whispered, opening his heart.

"Oh, God, Blair," Jim murmured back fervently. "I love you, too."

0-0-0-0-0

A muffled cry broke the stillness of the loft. Jim was startled awake by the sudden sound and the thrashing limbs of his bedmate. A quick glance at the clock showed the time to be just after three in the morning.

Blair managed to tangle himself in the blankets before Jim could get him calmed. "Chief?" He put a hand out tentatively, afraid of startling the skittish young man.

"Don't touch me! Go away! Leave me alone!" Blair sobbed, still not completely awake. He attempted to move away from the gentle touch, but was too twisted in the bedclothes to get out of Jim's reach.

"Blair! Blair, calm down. It's me, Jim." Jim kept up a soothing litany as he wrestled with the blankets, trying to free their captive.

"Oh, God, Jim!" Blair finally turned comprehending eyes on the man trying to help him. "It was awful!" He threw himself against the Sentinel, who cocooned him in a warm embrace.

"Another nightmare?" Blair nodded. "Want to talk about it?" Blair shook his head. Jim petted the long hair soothingly. "Was it about Peters?"

The head against his chest nodded again. "H-he was g-going to kill me." Blair's voice came in rough gasps. "T-then f-flay me..."

Jim pictured the nearly-naked body of the young man, bound helpless and vulnerable on the bed, Peters kneeling over him with the yellow nylon rope. "You're safe, now, Blair. Peters can never hurt you again. He's locked up, and the Governor is throwing away the key."

Blair's sobs became louder. Jim could feel the wetness spread across his shirt, as he smelled the salt tang of the tears. Broad shoulders shook beneath his hands. He began rubbing soothing circles between the tense shoulder blades, whispering quietly into an ear. "Shh, shhh, Blair. It's all right. Everything is going to be okay. You're safe now. I'll always protect you. You're my Guide. I'm your Sentinel; your Blessed Protector. Remember?"

Blair pushed away slightly, but not completely out of Jim's embrace, and looked into the sincere blue eyes. "You mean that?" His voice faltered; his injured throat hoarse from his tears.

"Of course, I do. I love you." He kissed Blair tenderly, then tucked the young man's head beneath his chin. "Go back to sleep, you need your rest. I won't let anything happen to you. You're safe."

Blair snuggled into the welcoming embrace, his voice muffled by the strong chest he nuzzled against. "Love you, too."

0-0-0-0-0

The next morning, Blair awoke to find himself alone in the large bed. Smells of breakfast cooking wafted up from the kitchen. Moving slowly, in deference to his injuries, he pushed the comforter aside and scooted to the edge of the bed.

"Stay put!" The command came from the kitchen. Blair looked through the open railing to find the Sentinel looking back up at him. "I'm bringing breakfast to you this morning." The anthropologist settled back beneath the covers and waited.

Jim came up the stairs with a bed tray laden with a bowl of warm maple oatmeal, a side of scrambled eggs and a glass of milk. "Where's my toast?" Blair asked, looking at the offering.

"With that throat?" Jim shook his head in surprise. "Nothing but soft foods for a while."

"Coffee?" came the plaintive request.

"And nothing hot," Jim admonished.

Blair scooted into a sitting position and Jim placed the tray across his lap. "Aren't you eating?" he asked.

"I had my breakfast an hour ago," Jim said, smiling. "I couldn't wait for you to wake up."

There was an awkward silence while Blair took his first few bites of food. Swallowing was difficult, even with Jim's choice of menu. Eventually, he looked up, capturing the intense blue eyes with his own. "Thank you."

Jim smiled and shook his head. "Not a problem, Chief. You have to eat to keep up your strength."

"Not the food," Blair explained, his voice still tired. "For last night. For being there when I needed you."

"It was the least I could do." Jim cupped Blair's chin in the palm of his hand. "I promised you sanctuary up here, and you still had a nightmare. I didn't deliver on my word."

"That's not your fault," Blair protested. "I'm the one that's screwed up here. I know I'm safe with you. There was no reason for me to have a nightmare."

"I guess this means my room isn't your safe haven anymore." Jim looked disappointed. He did not want to wake in the middle of the night to find Blair huddled beneath the stairs.

Blair swallowed, then took a sip of milk to moisten his sore throat. "It never was the room," he explained. "I know this sounds incredibly sentimental, but my security doesn't reside in a place, it resides in a person... you." He reached out to place his palm flat against Jim's chest, over his heart. "You're my Sentinel; the one I was meant to find. I felt it the first night we met, at the prison. It was like a spark of something that passed between us. You felt it, right?" His hand dropped back onto his lap.

Jim nodded. "Yeah, I did. You know, I never wanted to get involved. I was determined not to like you."

Blair nodded, as if he had expected that all along. "What made you change your mind?"

"I couldn't stop thinking about you. It's like there was some -- I don't know -- psychic connection between us." Jim looked embarrassed by the confession.

"That's okay, Jim," Blair assured him, reaching out to clasp a hand. "Go on."

"I knew you were innocent; that you were covering for someone. Whether I liked you or not was irrelevant. I wasn't going to let an innocent man die."

"But...?"

"But, I couldn't not like you," Jim admitted. "It was like there was some invisible connection between us, even though I didn't understand it at the time."

"The Sentinel/Guide bond," Blair muttered, nodding.

"Maybe, at first," Jim agreed with a wave of his hand. "But it grew into something more, even though I was too busy at the time to notice." He stroked a hand down Blair's cheek, pausing to brush his thumb across the full lips. "Given how things worked out, I wouldn't have it any other way."

Blair looked up as the morning sun shone through the skylight, lighting his face in a golden glow. Slowly, a smile creased the corners of this mouth. "Given how things worked out, I'm glad." His hand brushed against Jim's. "A real sentinel...," he murmured. The grin turned impish. "You know, you could be the subject of my doctoral thesis when I start back to work on my degree." Even hoarse, his voice conveyed his excitement. "I could set up tests.... We could see just how far we can stretch your senses...." His eyes sparkled at the thought.

"Hold up there a minute, Chief," Jim interrupted, raising a hand in a "stop" gesture. "I don't know..."

"You could use your senses on the job. Just like you've been doing, but more so," Blair barreled on. "You'd need a guide in the field, though. I could..."

Jim smiled and listened as the excited man rambled on. One thing was certain: after a token resistance, his Guide would get his way. There was no use in fighting against a force of nature as strong as the man who sat next to him... so the Sentinel did the next best thing. Gathering Blair into his arms, he silenced him with a kiss.

THE END

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Spoilers for "The Long Goodbye":

Blair Sandburg is in prison on death row for a series of grisly killings known as the Manifesto Murders. The evidence against him consists of a document in his own handwriting describing the murders in vivid detail. After nearly four years in prison, he now faces execution in just thirty-four days due to his refusal to appeal the conviction.

Blair's congenial personality has won him the favor of the warden and most of the guards on death row duty. They regularly talk with him, play chess, bring treats and other small offerings. Each cell is monitored with cameras.

In comes James Ellison, the new night prison guard. A hard-nosed ex-detective, Ellison left Major Crime before he could be fired. His senses had begun to spike wildly. The doctors he visited said there was nothing physically wrong with him, and he knew he wasn't crazy. The relative quiet of the night watch on death row was just what he needed at this time in his life.

Determined to follow orders, but not be sucked in by the friendly inmate in Cell 10, Jim finds himself under Sandburg's spell before the first night is over. Their friendship begins to grow, and Blair slowly begins to realize that the newest guard may well be a sentinel. As his date of execution grows nearer, Blair puts Jim on his visitation list, and begins to tell Ellison his sentinel theories.

One night, a month out from the execution, Jim finds Blair huddled under his bunk after being put on suicide watch. He coaxes Blair to explain himself, and finds out that the young man suffers from panic attacks. He didn't want anyone to know, because he didn't want to spend what was left of his life medicated and in a stupor. So he hides under the bunk, where the cameras can't see.

Jim finds himself drawn to the young man, and is flustered by Blair's refusal to appeal. Desperate, he delves back into the old case file and trial transcripts, searching for what had to have been overlooked at the trial. Unable to find what he needs quickly enough, he suggests staging a prison break to free Blair. This announcement upsets the young man, who has a panic attack on the way back to his cell. Medicated and in the infirmary, Blair babbles enough information for Jim to fill in the blanks from his research.

Breaking into the Governor's mansion at night, using his sentinel skills, Jim convinces the Governor, through documentation and demonstration, that Blair's theories were correct, and that the real killer, David Temco, another sentinel, committed suicide. The Governor pardons Blair, and he is released.

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Spoilers for "Do Not Go Gentle":

This story is not set after any specific scene in Kikki's story, but assumes that Jim's efforts to date have failed. It's the day before the execution, and Blair has a last request of Jim. They have grown close over the course of the month. Blair has taught Jim as much as he can about how to control his senses. He now wants only one thing: that Jim be present at the execution.

Jim is shocked and dismayed. He does not want to see his good friend put to death, but understands Blair's reasoning. They have developed a sentinel/guide bond, and that bond will keep the younger man from having a panic attack during the set-up for the execution.

Jim agrees to be there. But first, he makes a mad dash to the state's capital to see the Governor, who is perversely back in Cascade at a conference. Jim brings him the case files and the evidence, and later shows up in the Governor's motel room to demonstrate his sentinel abilities. Then it's simply a matter of waiting for the Governor to make his decision.

Blair spends his last night in the company of the warden and a chaplain, and is taken to the execution room at the appointed time. As the first of the deadly drugs begins to flow into his veins, the Governor's call comes through, granting a full pardon.

Blair is rushed to the hospital, where he manages to survive after some close calls. Jim brings him home to the loft, and they start their lives as Sentinel and Guide.