I reiterate: this story is intense, graphic, violent, and it contains bad language. If you are under 18 or likely to be upset by this, please go back now.

This is an AU, mostly because I wrote this before the "Spare Parts" episode. Since no family had been established for Blair at that time, I gave him one. They're not Naomi, but they're all mine.

written September, 1996





The Devil You Know

By

Susan L. Williams

The ogres were pounding at the castle gates, trying to smash them in. Blue wizard's robes streaming behind him in the wind, he watched from the battlements, fingering the bones and feathers that hung from his belt, muttering spells to strengthen the gates. They would not be enough, he knew. Soon, the ogres would break through to slaughter the guards and take the castle, and there was nothing he could do. A panther stalked the battlements beside him, eyes shining gold in the torchlight. The Ogre-King looked up at him, and laughed.

"Open up, Sandburg! Come on, Sandburg, open the door!"

Blair's eyes snapped open. Heart racing, he stared around him for a moment, seeing the familiar furnishings of the loft in place of the besieged castle of his dream. A dream, that's all it was. He'd fallen asleep on the couch. But the pounding was still going on. What was--oh, right, the door.

"Sandburg, open up!"

Blair pushed himself off the couch. Papers fell from his lap, scattering across the floor. Great. The essays he'd been grading. No wonder he'd fallen asleep. Most of them weren't worth reading. At least half of them seemed to be written by people who didn't speak English. And he had to get them done tonight. If he didn't, he'd be doing this tomorrow night, too, instead of asking Mirelle to go to that new French art film with him. Rubbing bleary eyes, Blair stumbled toward the door.

"Who is it?"

"Who do you think it is? Open the door!"

Oops. It was Jim, sounding a little irritated. He must have put the chain on the door and forgotten it. Again. Blair reached up to take the chain off: it wasn't on. So what was the problem? Shrugging, Blair fumbled with the lock, and finally got the door open.

"Sorry, Jim. I was asleep."

Jim shoved past him without speaking. His elbow caught Blair in the ribs, knocking him back into the door.

"Ow! Hey, take it easy, man. I said I was sorry."

Ellison didn't answer. Blair closed the door, and turned to find Jim surveying the area around the couch. Uh-oh. If he worked fast, maybe he could forestall the lecture. With the mood Jim was in, if he didn't, he'd be hearing about every little thing he'd ever done, from leaving the cap off the toothpaste to using the last of the milk.

"Sorry about the mess." Blair edged past his partner and went to his knees, grabbing up papers. Jim watched without moving or offering to help. Fine. Be that way, Tough Guy. "Howcome you didn't use your key?"

"I lost it."

"You lost it?" Blair sat back on his heels, laughing. "You, Mr. 'Don't forget your key, Chief'? You lost it?"

Jim didn't laugh. Jim just glared at him, his blue eyes cold. Blair's grin vanished.

"Hey, no big deal. We'll get a copy made tomorrow."

"No, we won't. I'll use yours."

"Mine? What am I supposed to do?"

"Move out."

Jim didn't even crack a smile. Blair snorted. "Right. Big joke."

"It's no joke, Sandburg. I want you out of here. Now."

Blair couldn't feel the papers in his hands. Memory flashed through his head: his father, every gray hair in place, cashmere sweater buttoned over his white shirt and precisely knotted tie, his voice cold--never hot--with anger. "If you insist on wasting your time and intelligence with this Sentinel nonsense, you are no longer welcome in my house. Nor will I support you in any way." He looked into Jim's eyes, trying to find some hint--anything--that his friend was kidding. There was nothing.

"You're serious."

"Believe it, Chief."

"But--why?"

"Why?" Ellison grabbed a fistful of Blair's jersey and jerked him to his feet. "Because I'm sick of being studied and examined like some lab rat. I'm sick of performing tricks so you can get ahead. I'm sick of your dissertation, and I'm sick of you!"

On the last word, Jim pushed him away. Blair staggered back, lost his balance, and fell. Papers flew through the air, fluttering down to the floor. Jim stood over him for a minute, looking at him as if he were some kind of disgusting insect, then turned away.

Blair climbed to his feet. Something was really wrong here. Jim had never lost control like this before. Sure, when they first met, Jim had shoved him up against a few walls, but he'd been in a state of near-panic then, not knowing what was happening with his senses. He'd gotten over that a long time ago, with Blair's help.

Jim had his back to him. Blair hesitated, afraid of provoking more violence. No, that was ridiculous. Jim was his friend, Jim would never hurt him. Not on purpose. He reached out to touch the bigger man's arm.

"Jim? Come on, man, we can talk about this, can't we? I had no idea you--"

Ellison's fist smashed into Blair's face. Hurled backwards, he collided with the coffee table, and fell over it. The corner of the table gouged his back, and he slammed onto the floor, the breath knocked out of him. Jim bent over and pulled him up, and he couldn't breathe, couldn't move to defend himself. Ellison backhanded him, then punched him in the stomach and the ribs, keeping him on his feet. His fist cracked twice more across Blair's face. Blair tasted blood, and felt it running down his chin. His mind whirled in confusion. This wasn't Jim. Jim wouldn't do this to him. Jim wouldn't hurt him. But the face above him was Jim's face, and the eyes were Jim's eyes.

Jim let him go, but his legs wouldn't hold him and he dropped to the floor. He raised his arms, trying to shield himself, but Jim slapped them down and hit him again, kept hitting him until he stopped moving.

Blair hoped--prayed--that Ellison was done, that he'd leave him alone now until he could crawl away. But a sudden smile stretched Jim's lips, and a light shone cold in his eyes, a light Blair had never seen before. Terror knotted his stomach. He tried to get up, but Jim pushed him back down.

"Your heartbeat's real fast, Chief," Jim said softly. "You scared? Or excited?"

Blair didn't understand. He didn't understand any of this nightmare, he just wanted it to stop. A nightmare, that was it. He was still dreaming. In a minute, he'd wake up, and none of this would have happened, none of it would be real.

Jim unzipped his jeans. "I'm excited."

Oh God. Oh, God, no, this couldn't be happening. This had to be a dream. Jim reached for him. Blair tried to fight him off, but Jim was so much bigger, so much stronger--Ellison flipped him onto his stomach, wrenched his arms behind his back and held them there. Blair struggled to free his hands, but Jim crushed his wrists, pulling his arms up until he cried out. Jim reached under him to rip his jeans open. One-handed, he worked Blair's jeans and shorts off, then yanked his legs apart and knelt between them.

"No!" Blair gasped. "Jim, you don't want to do this!"

"Sure I do, Chief. I've wanted to do this for a long time."

"No, man, please! Please, don't--"

A pain worse than anything he'd ever known tore through his body. Blair tried not to scream, but he couldn't stop the sound that ripped his throat. Jim forced his cock into Blair's ass, alternating hard thrusts with unrelenting pressure, working it deeper and deeper until Blair thought he'd be torn apart. Someone was moaning, and whimpering--he couldn't tell who it was. He knew only the pain, and the huge, stone-hard cock that impaled him. Slowly, almost gently, Jim began to rock back and forth, withdrawing a few inches, then sliding in again. Each time he moved, pain stabbed Blair's ribs. He could hardly breathe.

"God! Jim, stop!"

Ellison chuckled, whispering in his ear. "I'm just getting started, Chief. Come on, now, don't you want to help me use all my Sentinel abilities? This is the best one, and I've been saving it just for you."

Jim continued the motion just long enough for the pain to become bearable. Blair's muscles involuntarily relaxed a tiny fraction, but even that slight change was enough for Jim to feel. He began a series of hard thrusts, ramming his cock home until Blair cried out with the pain. Jim changed to the rocking again, then back to the pounding thrusts, slamming into him so hard that Blair could hear Jim's thighs hitting his ass. He prayed for it to stop, or that he'd pass out, but there was no mercy. It went on and on, and he was conscious for all of it.

Jim wrenched his legs wider apart. Still trapping Blair's wrists with one hand, Jim tangled the other in his hair. Ellison thrust still deeper, driving into him again and again. Blair moaned in agony, and Jim pumped harder and faster, panting. The image of a panther came to Blair's mind, and he tried to focus on it, but the pain drove everything else away. Jim jerked his head back, thrusting so hard that Blair would have screamed if he could. Semen shot into him. Jim groaned in satisfaction, pumping until he was drained, then relaxed, settling his full weight on top of Blair's body. Crushed by the bigger man, Blair fought to breathe. Pain knifed his side, and he nearly passed out, but Jim must have sensed it. Releasing his hold on Blair's hair and wrists, Ellison raised himself up on his elbows, taking most of his weight off Blair. He waited a minute, then slowly withdrew his cock. One hand caressed Blair's ass.

"Guess you don't have to leave after all, Chief."

Blair heard Jim get up, heard him zipping his jeans.

"I'll be back in a little while. I expect you to be waiting."

He heard footsteps, heard the door open and close. He was alone. It was over.

Blair lay on the floor, unable to think or move. Pain forced awareness on him, pain and the memory of Jim's last words. He was coming back. He was coming back, and when he did, it would all happen again, and Blair knew he couldn't take it. He had to move, he had to get out.

Blair worked his aching arms up to his shoulders, and tried to lever himself up. God, everything hurt. Breathing hurt. But he couldn't stay here. The ogre was gone, but he'd be back and-- No, dammit, that was the dream. This was real, and he had to get out of here. Arms shaking, he pushed himself up, slowly got his knees under him, sweating with the effort. He grabbed the couch, and had to rest for a minute before he could gather the strength to pull himself to his feet. Something wet ran down his legs, but he didn't look, he didn't want to know. He saw his black jeans, crumpled on the floor. Oh, shit, he couldn't--he had to. He tottered a few steps, bent over, and nearly fainted, would have if he hadn't lunged back to the couch and sat there with his head down, but he'd snagged the jeans, and when the blackness went away, he pulled them on. Shoes. He had shoes, somewhere. He'd kicked them off while he was reading essays. There was one, under some papers; the other one, halfway under the couch. He managed to get them on, but couldn't tie the laces, his hands were shaking too much and bending over took his breath away, threatening blackness. He couldn't let that happen. He couldn't be here, helpless, when the ogre--Dammit, Sandburg, get your brain in gear!--when Jim came back.

Blair got up, stood swaying, praying that he wouldn't fall over. He moved toward the door, stepping on papers. Damn, the essays! He wasn't done yet, he should... Jim'd be mad if he left a mess,he... Had to get out. Just get out. Leave the papers, leave his stuff, just go, before--before--God, Jim, why'd you--No. Don't think. Just get out. Just--get--out.

Blair reached for his leather jacket, grabbed his side when pain stabbed. There was blood on his hand; he didn't know where it had come from. He couldn't think about it. Couldn't. Not now. Put his jacket on, grabbed his keys from the table--car keys only, his key to the loft was gone.

"I'll use yours."

No. Not now. Not now. Opened the door, holding his breath, afraid to see-- No one on the other side. No one. Slipped out, closed the door, made his way down the hall, leaning on the wall, listening. Stupid, stupid, Jim would hear him long before he ever-- Down the stairs, outside. No one in the parking lot, except some guy he'd never seen before, grinning at him. The Corvair, waiting. Hands shook trying to get the key in the lock--Dammit, get in, please--opened the door, fell in, pulled the door shut--God, it hurt!--locked it, concentrated on guiding the key to the ignition. Start, please, God--the engine turned over--thank God, thank God. Shifted into drive, drove out of the parking lot, turned onto the street, no sign of the truck. Just let him get away, please. Please.



The campus parking lot was deserted, but Blair had expected that. Hoped for it. He parked the Corvair as close to the building as he could, and eased out of the car, trying not to jar anything. His ribs protested, and he clutched his side, feeling the bandages through his jersey. He'd been at the hospital for hours, half of them spent waiting for a doctor to see him. A dozen times, he'd been ready to bolt, when he thought about having to tell them what had happened. He'd tried finally, but his body'd had other ideas and he hadn't gotten ten feet before he collapsed. That had brought a nurse running, and then the harried doctor, a pushy guy who couldn't mind his own business. They'd cleaned him up, x-rayed him--nothing broken, but two ribs cracked--wound bandages around his ribs with the idea of squeezing the air from his lungs (until he complained), and taken a few stitches. He hadn't felt the needle, they'd given him a local, and he'd just lain there with his head in his arms, trying not to think about what the doctor was doing. He remembered that. He remembered glimpsing himself in the surface of a metal tray, seeing the bruises around his left eye, spreading from temple to jaw, the lump on the other side of his jaw, the split lip--he'd shoved the tray away then, spilling instruments on the floor, but the nurse hadn't said anything when she came in, just asked if he was okay. He didn't remember answering. He didn't remember anything he'd said, or anything they'd asked, except when they'd wanted his phone number, and he'd started to give the number at the loft, and almost lost it right there. Over a phone number. He'd tried to come up with a believable story, but he couldn't remember if he'd stuck to it, or even what it was, now. He only knew that he couldn't tell them the truth, that it was Jim who'd--who'd beaten the shit out of him.

A sliver of sun showed on the horizon. Blair opened the door, and stopped. The corridor was dark, emergency lights the only illumination. It was enough to see his way, but no more.

"Everything all right, Mr. Sandburg?"

Security guards. Their patrol car was loud in the dawn quiet. Blair didn't turn around, just waved, swearing at the pain the movement caused. The car drove away, and Blair stepped inside. At least they hadn't asked what he was doing here so early. He started down the corridor, telling himself that it was stupid to be afraid. There was no one else here. No one was going to jump him out of the darkness.

By the time he reached his office door, he was sweating. The key was slippery in his hand, but he managed to get the door open and slip inside, closed it again and locked it, then checked it to make sure. He didn't bother to turn a light on. It was dim, but he knew where all the stuff was piled, and sunlight was beginning to seep through the window. He sat down carefully, settling himself as comfortably as possible. Something rattled in his pocket, and he pulled out a bottle of painkillers they'd given him at the hospital. They'd wanted him to stay--Hell, the doctor had practically ordered him to check in--but he'd refused. He couldn't stand the thought of lying there pumped full of drugs, helpless. He hadn't let them knock him out, or give him anything but the local. He hadn't taken any of these yet, because he couldn't drive while he was on this stuff. But now, maybe he could. Just one, to dull the pain and let him sleep a little. He was safe, here.





His spells were useless. He had used the best he had, but they had not stopped the ogres, and now they were inside, killing, destroying all that was good. He tried to run, but the King of the ogres trapped him in a corner, and he had no spells left, no weapons at all. The King-Ogre laughed, raising his sword, and he shrank back, knowing he would die, waiting for the pain.

"Sandburg, wake up!"

Blair shuddered awake, unsure of where he was. His office? What was he doing here? Light poured through the window; he squinted, lifting a hand to shield his eyes. Bruises circled his wrist. He stared at them, memory of how they had gotten there hitting him as hard as Jim's fists. For a moment, he couldn't breathe.

"Come on, Blair, I know you're awake. Open up."

Jim. God. Blair's eyes darted to the door. He'd locked it, hadn't he? "What do you want?"

"What do I--? I want to know what the hell last night was all about, that's what I want."

Blair's heart thudded in his chest. God, Jim would be able to hear it in the next county. He had to make this convincing. "Get out of here!" He picked up the phone. "Get out, or I'll call security."

"What?"

"Get out, dammit! Leave me alone!"

There was silence for a minute. Then, "Blair, I found blood in the loft. What happened? Come on, kid, talk to me."

Blair gave a half laugh, shaking his head. "I don't believe this. I don't believe it! You--" His hands began to shake. He put the phone down, and moved toward the door, but didn't touch it. "Look, man, just--just leave me alone, okay? Please."

"Blair--"

"Please! God, what do you want from me, man? I'm begging you! Leave me alone!"

Another pause. "Okay. Okay, Chief, I'm going. But we're going to talk later."

Footsteps, moving away. Blair pressed his ear to the door, listening as they faded. He wasn't stupid. He knew Jim could sneak back if he wanted to, and he'd never hear a thing until the door was kicked in. But he had to believe that wouldn't happen. He had to believe Jim wouldn't attack him here, where there might be witnesses. Jim couldn't be that crazy. Still, he stayed motionless for ten minutes, straining to hear any sound over the pounding of his heart. At last, he pushed away from the door and grabbed onto one of the free-standing shelves.

"You bastard," he whispered. "You bastard!"

Rage burned so hot that he screamed aloud. Summoning strength he shouldn't have had, Blair threw the shelves down. Masks and pottery shattered, books and papers flew everywhere. He didn't care. He couldn't think. He rampaged through the office, overturning boxes and files, smashing anything that would break.

"You bastard! You bastard! You're asking me what last night was all about? Asking me what happened? You son of a bitch!"

He picked up an eight hundred year old jar, his favorite of all the artifacts he'd accumulated, and raised it over his head. Frantic pounding at the door distracted him, and he froze.

"Mr. Sandburg! Mr. Sandburg! Are you all right? What's going on in there?"

It was Wilton, the old fossil down the hall. Say something, Sandburg.

"Everything's okay," he managed. "I--uh--had a little accident with the shelves. Nothing major."

"Well, try to keep the noise to a minimum, Mr. Sandburg. People are working, you know."

Asshole. "Right. Sorry, Professor Wilton."

Wilton went away. Blair lowered the jar to the floor, setting it down gently. He looked around, at the ruins of his office. He'd spent years gathering this stuff, destroyed it in less than five minutes. And none of it mattered. None of it.

Pain caught up with him, no longer held at bay by the adrenaline surge. Blair sank down beside the jar, arms wrapped around his ribs. It was all over. He'd never get his doctorate now. He couldn't finish his dissertation, and the idea of starting over with a new topic was just--impossible. He'd barely gotten the Sentinel study approved, they'd never let him switch now. How was he supposed to explain it? "Well, you see, the subject of my study turned on me. No, I don't know why. Maybe I annoyed him one too many times. Maybe he was a rotten son of a bitch all along, and I just never noticed. Either way, that makes me a pretty lousy observer, so I guess I'd just better quit while I'm still alive." They wouldn't let him teach anymore. He'd have to go home. No, not home, he couldn't face home. He didn't even know if they'd let him in. And if they did, he'd have to listen to his father. Oh, Dad wouldn't gloat, no, that was beneath Benjamin Sandburg. But he'd still find a way to make it real clear that he'd been right all along about this "Sentinel nonsense", and Blair had been wrong. He wouldn't go back to that. But he had to go somewhere. Anywhere, as long as it was out of Cascade.

Simon threw open his office door. "Ellison! In here, now!"

Jim frowned, and did as he was ordered, no sign of his thoughts visible on his face. That impassive countenance could be useful, but there were times when it drove Banks crazy. Times like now. Jim closed the door.

"What's up, Simon?"

"Why didn't you tell me about Sandburg?"

For a second, there was something behind the blue eyes, something that looked like--panic? But it vanished, so fast that Simon wasn't sure he'd even seen it.

"What about him?" Jim asked.

"What about him?" Simon echoed. "I've got a report on my desk submitted by the hospital."

"Hospital? Blair's in the hospital?"

"You don't know?"

Ellison shook his head. Jesus, the man had no idea. This wasn't going to be easy.

"You'd better sit down, Jim."

"What happened?" Jim demanded. "How bad is it?"

"Sit down!"

Jim sat. Simon seated himself behind his desk and picked up the report. "Sandburg walked into the emergency room at approximately 12:30 this morning. He'd been severely beaten; he sustained a couple of cracked ribs and a lot of deep bruising. When he'd talk at all, he told the hospital personnel he'd been mugged. At approximately 5:30, he refused any further treatment, and left the hospital."

Ellison was staring at the paper in Simon's hand. "I never should've let him go."

"What are you talking about? Jim?"

"I knew something was wrong with him. I should've made him stay in the loft. But I was so mad, I couldn't think straight."

"Are you going to explain this to me, Ellison? Or do you want to just keep talking to yourself?"

Jim shifted uncomfortably in his chair. He refused to meet Simon's eyes. "When I got home last night, Blair--"

"Yeah?"

Ellison cleared his throat. "He came on to me."

"Sandburg?"

Jim nodded, his gaze fixed on the wall.

"Was he drunk, or high?"

"Blair doesn't do drugs. And I would've smelled alcohol. I don't know why he did it. He said he wanted to see if my Sentinel abilities extended to--sex. When I said no, he started--well, I had to push him off. He got mad--Hell, he went crazy--and ran out of the loft. I just let him go. It's my fault he was out there alone."

"It's not your fault, Jim. Sandburg's an adult."

"He's a kid! He can't take care of himself on the streets. Jeez, no wonder he wouldn't talk to me this morning."

"You saw him?"

"Not exactly. He was in his office at the University, but he wouldn't let me in. Told me to get out and leave him alone, or he'd call security. I should've broken the door down." Jim shot out of his seat. "I'm going back there, and this time, he's going to talk to me."

"Jim, wait!"

Ellison paused in the doorway.

"The report: there's more."

"More?" Jim took warning from his tone. He closed the office door again and resumed his seat. This time, the blue eyes met Simon's straight on.

"Tell me."

Simon steeled himself to say the words. "According to the attending physician, Blair wasn't just beaten. He was also raped."

Jim sat still as stone, the muscle jumping in his jaw the only indication of his feelings. "Are they sure?"

Simon nodded. "Sandburg denied it. But there was tissue damage, and--semen in his rectum."

"My God," Jim whispered. "Blair."

"You've got to handle him carefully, Jim. You can't just go over there and kick his door in."

"What am I supposed to do? He won't talk to me."

Simon took his glasses off, and rubbed the ache between his eyes. "I don't know, Jim. I don't know."





Simon gazed out the window at the lights of the Cascade night. The squad room was quiet, for a change. Everyone else was long gone, and he'd personally kicked Ellison out an hour ago. Man was useless anyway, all he could think of was Sandburg. Jim'd tried calling the kid, but either Sandburg wasn't in his office or he wasn't answering his phone. Simon figured the latter. He hoped Sandburg had gone back to the loft, but he doubted it. Simon shook his head. Something weird was going on here. Yesterday, he'd've said the idea of Sandburg coming on to Jim was ridiculous. The kid was definitely one for the women, and a lot of women responded, though Simon had never been able to fathom what they saw in him. It just didn't make sense that he'd suddenly--

The door to his office opened. Simon's hand went for the drawer where he kept his gun, but he never touched it. Blair Sandburg walked in, stopped short when he saw Simon sitting at his desk.

"Uh--Sorry, Captain." Sandburg tried a smile, and winced. "I didn't think anybody'd be here."

Simon just stared. Sandburg looked worse than he'd imagined. Blood matted the brown curls. One side of his face was purple-black with bruises, his lower lip was split, and there were purple lumps on the other cheekbone and along his jaw. The clear blue eyes were dull with pain.

"That bad, huh?" Sandburg said. "Well, maybe I can model a mask after it. That'll scare away any passing demons."

Simon found his voice. "Sit down."

"No thanks. I just came by to return this."

Sandburg took something from his jacket and laid it on the desk: his Cascade Police Observers' ID. The smiling, eager-eyed visage in the photo bore little resemblance to the young man standing across from him now. Simon looked his question.

"I won't be needing it anymore." Sandburg turned back to the door.

"You're quitting because you got mugged?"

Sandburg shook his head. "I--just can't do this anymore. See ya, Simon."

"Blair--"

Sandburg turned around, trying to smile again. "That's the first time you've ever called me by my first name. Well, better late than never, I guess."

He started to walk out. Simon rose from his chair. "Sandburg! Get your skinny ass back here!"

Maybe it was habit. Maybe he was just lucky. Whatever the reason, Sandburg did what he was told. He sat gingerly, twisting his fingers together, eyes fixed on the floor. Simon pushed the ID toward him.

"Take this back."

Sandburg looked up for a second, eyes wide and blue as the summer sky. He shook his head, lowering his gaze again. "I can't."

"Sandburg, I know what happened."

The gaze flashed up again, panicked now.

"The hospital sent a report."

"Oh." The kid's fists clenched. "They had no right."

"They had an obligation. You know that. This was a criminal assault." As gently as he could. "Sandburg, did you get a look at your assailants?"

"One," Sandburg said distantly. "There was only one."

"Did you get a good look at him? Could you identify him?"

"No."

"Are you sure? Anything would help. Anything you might have noticed."

Sandburg didn't answer. Years of experience said he was lying, but Simon didn't want to press it. Not yet. He'd seen rape victims before--too many--but he'd never seen anyone who looked as devastated as Blair Sandburg. The kid belonged in a hospital.

"Why don't you go home? Jim's been worried sick."

Sandburg almost laughed. "I'll bet he has."

What was that supposed to mean? "Go on home, Sandburg."

"It's not my home!" Sandburg leapt to his feet. A mistake: he swayed, and he had to brace himself on the desk to keep from falling over. Bruises ringed his wrists, bruises in the shape of a man's fingers. Sandburg lowered himself back into the chair. "I can't go back there, Simon."

"Where are you staying, then?"

"I.... In my office. On campus."

Simon heaved a sigh, mostly for effect. Reaching into his desk, he pulled out a key and tossed it at the younger man. Sandburg caught it, uncomprehending.

"You're staying at my place," Simon said. "You remember where it is?"

Sandburg nodded. "But I can't--"

"Yes you can, and you're going to. There's an extra bedroom, Daryl uses it when he visits. There's some clothes there that should fit you--he's grown lately. But not much."

Sandburg ignored the jibe. "Captain--"

"Go on. I'll be out of here in about an hour. Can you make it on your own, or do you need a police escort?"

Sandburg bristled. "I'm fine."

"Then get going. I've got work to do."

Blair stood slowly. He paused at the door, looking back. "Thanks, Simon."

"Sandburg?"

"Yeah?"

"When you get there, take a shower. That's an order."

Sandburg smiled faintly. "Yes, sir."

He left the office, closing the door behind him. Simon waited a minute, then picked up the phone and dialed the number to Ellison's loft.





The shower felt good, better than Blair had expected. He washed his hair, trying not to see the red that swirled down the drain, and scrubbed himself with a washcloth. He wanted to go through the whole process again, but he'd taken some psychology courses and knew it wouldn't help, that the dirt was on the inside and that it would take time before he felt clean again, if he ever did. Knowing didn't make the feeling go away.

Ice shot through his body, paralyzing him. A sound. He'd heard a sound--a click. Hadn't he? Blair couldn't breathe. He forced himself to reach out, to turn off the water, and listened.

"Simon?"

Nothing. No answer, and no other sound. Must have been his imagination. He was seriously jumpy. It was just another reaction to--last night, but he was getting tired of his heart beating twice as fast as it was supposed to. Adrenaline surges were not the rush he'd once thought. He slid the door open, and reached for a towel.

A hand closed on his arm, yanked him out of the shower, and threw him against the bathroom door. Pain knifed his ribs, and he blacked out for a second. When he could see again, Jim was grinning down at him.

"How ya doing, Chief?"

No. No, not again. Blair swung at him, but Jim was faster. He caught Blair's wrists and forced them against the door. Blair drove his knee up, but Jim blocked it with his thigh and moved in closer, too close for Blair to try again. He struggled to free himself, until Jim got tired of it. Pinning Blair's wrists above his head with one hand, he knotted the fingers of the other in Blair's hair and slammed his head into the door. Blackness threatened. Blair fought to stay conscious: he couldn't pass out, not now. Jim's quiet voice penetrated the darkness.

"Don't make me hurt you again, Chief."

His vision cleared, to find Jim's face too close to his. Rough fingers travelled over his face, following the bruises.

"This looks sore."

Blair twisted away, trying to escape the painful caress, but Jim's fingers clamped onto his chin and wrenched his head around. Ellison's lips pressed hard against Blair's, trying to force his mouth open. Blair bit down.

Jim jerked back. "You little shit!"

The back of his hand cracked across Blair's face. Blair felt blood trickle from his mouth. At least Ellison was bleeding too. Satisfaction died when an iron grip seized his throat.

"You want me to hurt you, Chief? Is that it? You like it rough?"

"No," Blair croaked.

"No?" Jim began to squeeze. "Then be a good little boy. Stay still, and you won't get hurt. Understand?" The pressure increased. "Understand?"

He couldn't get any sound out. Blair nodded, and Jim's grip relaxed. Blair coughed, gasping in air. Jim waited until he recovered, lightly rubbing his throat. His hand moved up; his thumb ran across Blair's lower lip.

"Let's just test that, okay, Chief?"

Jim kissed him again, crushing Blair's already bruised lips. His tongue slid into Blair's mouth, probing the sore spots. Jim released his wrists, but Blair remembered the hand at his throat and was afraid to move. If he fought anymore, Jim would kill him.

Jim's hands cupped his face, pulling his head up while the kiss intensified. Jim's lips ground cruelly against his, his tongue thrusting into Blair's throat. The hands trailed down his neck, over his collarbones to his chest, tweaking the hair. Fingers teased his nipples, tugged gently on the nipple ring, then pinched hard.

Blair couldn't stop the sound that escaped him, or the flinching, but they only made Jim more excited. The hands left his nipples, traced his ribs, pressing harder on the cracked ones to elicit another groan from Blair. Jim's hands moved down to his waist, and his hips, then slid around to his ass, pulling him away from the door, against Jim's body. The kiss finally ended. Jim's tongue withdrew from his mouth, leaving Blair panting with sickness and fear.

"You've got a great ass, you know that, Chief?" Jim's fingers dug into his buttocks. "Fucking you was even better than I imagined."

"Don't!" Blair hated himself, but he couldn't stop the words. "Please, Jim."

Jim smiled. "Now, I know you don't mean that, Chief. You want it as much as I do, you're just too scared to admit it."

"No!" Blair tried to push him away, knowing it was useless, but he couldn't just let it happen. Not again. "Let go, you bastard! I don't--"

Jim's hand clamped over his mouth. Blair struggled, sure he was about to die, but Ellison paid no attention to him.

"Company," Jim announced. "Sorry, Chief, we'll have to finish this another time."

Jim slipped out the door, and was gone. Just like that. Gone, as though he'd never been there at all. Blair stood in the bathroom, staring at the door, water still dripping down his body. He started to shake, and he couldn't stop. He sank to the floor and curled up on his side, shivering uncontrollably. He lay there until he heard a door open and close, and Simon's voice calling him. He couldn't let the Captain find him like this. He couldn't.

Blair pushed himself to his knees. He tried to stand, but bile rushed into his throat and he lunged for the toilet. His stomach was empty, but it didn't care. He retched until he thought he'd pass out from the pain in his ribs. When it finally let up, he sat on the floor with his arms wrapped around his ribs, too sore and shaky to move. Simon knocked on the door.

"You okay, Sandburg?"

He couldn't tell him. Simon would never believe it, not about Jim. The Captain would think he was crazy, or lying. He couldn't tell him.

"Fine," he answered, and knew he didn't sound anything like it. "I'm just going to take a shower."

Hooking an arm over the sink, Blair pulled himself to his feet. His nipple throbbed. Blood had dried on the gold ring, and in a trickle down his chest. Taking the ring between his hands, Blair yanked it out and threw it down the drain. He turned on the shower, stepped inside, and scrubbed himself raw. It didn't change anything. It didn't do any good at all.





When he finally came out of the bathroom, Simon had dinner ready. Blair toyed with it for a while, to be polite, but he couldn't eat. He'd get sick again if he did. Simon watched him playing with his fork, but didn't say anything until he'd finished his own meal.

"I know I'm rusty at this bachelor thing, Sandburg, but I'm not that bad a cook."

Blair smiled slightly. "Sorry. It's not the food."

Simon leaned toward him. "Sandburg--"

Blair cut him off. "Not now, okay, Captain? I'm really not in the mood for an interrogation."

Simon sat back in his chair. He sipped his coffee, and put the mug down again, never taking his eyes from Blair. Blair controlled the urge to run, but he couldn't bring himself to meet the Captain's gaze. He'd never been alone with Simon before. He'd always figured Simon didn't really like him, just tolerated him for Jim's sake. That Blair was here now was probably more a tribute to Simon's friendship with Jim than to any feelings he might have about Blair.

"You look like shit, Sandburg," Simon pronounced. "Go to bed."

"Simon Says," Blair muttered.

Sharply. "What was that?"

"Uh--Yes, sir."

As ordered, Blair got up from the table and left the room. Banks' voice followed him out of the kitchen.

"I called Jim and told him where you are."

Blair whirled. "You told him?"

Simon raised his eyebrows. "Is there some reason I shouldn't have?"

Blair found his hand at his bruised jaw, deliberately lowered it. He couldn't tell Simon the truth. He couldn't tell anyone. "No. Good night." He moved through the living room, hardly able to focus on where he was going.

"Sandburg."

He stopped.

"You're safe here."

He wasn't safe here. He wasn't safe anywhere in Cascade. But he nodded, and Simon let him go without any more questions.

He was afraid to sleep that night. He paced Daryl's room until he got too tired, then lay on the bed for a while, but his eyes kept closing, his body wanting rest it couldn't have. Blair got up again and went to the living room. He tried to read, but he couldn't concentrate, then tried watching television, but it was all violence, or sex, and he couldn't watch either without remembering. He went back to pacing. Nothing kept the memories away. His head and ribs ached, but he wouldn't take the painkillers, they'd put him to sleep, and he couldn't sleep, he couldn't. When you slept, the ogres got you.

"Sandburg."

Simon stood in the doorway, wearing striped pajamas, squinting until he got his glasses on. "This is a small place. Quit moving around."

"Sorry, Captain."

Simon approached him. "When's the last time you slept?"

"Uh--a couple hours yesterday, I think."

"You think?" Simon grabbed his arm. "Come on--"

Blair tore free of Simon's grip and flung himself halfway across the room. "Don't touch me!"

Simon held up his hands. "Sorry. I'm sorry, I wasn't thinking. It's okay, Blair. I'm not the guy who hurt you."

Blair's face burned. "Sorry."

"My fault. My fault, Sandburg, not yours. Come on, now, get to bed."

"I can't, Simon."

"Sure you can. You're safe here, Blair. Nothing's going to happen to you. I'm up now, I won't sleep again. I'll be right out here if you need anything. Go on. And make sure you take those painkillers."

"How do you--"

"Take 'em. Simon Says."

Blair grimaced. He hadn't thought Simon'd heard that one. "Yes, sir."





The ogres had captured him. They stripped him of his wizard's robes as they had stripped him of his spells, and brought him naked before their King, a giant, misshapen creature sprawled on a throne carved with fanged monsters and ugly, leering faces. Ogres gathered near the throne to watch. A shadow caught his eye. The dark, sleek shape of a panther wove through the crowd, but the ogres did not seem to see it.

The King-Ogre left his throne, coming toward him. He struggled, but the ogres held him easily, their strength many times his own. He was a wizard without power, and the Ogre-King knew it, and laughed. The others echoed him, but their laughter could not be as cruel as their King's. As he walked, the Ogre-King changed, his form shifting to one straight and tall, well-muscled, with the harshly handsome features and cold, steel-blue eyes of a man he had known as knight and friend.

The Ogre-King laughed again, and within the open mouth he saw a tongue coiled and patterned like a snake. The Ogre-King took his face between huge, rough hands, and kissed him. The snake-tongue filled his mouth, slithered down his throat. Venom spurted from its length, spreading poison through his body.

The Ogre-King drew away, tongue slowly retracting. The poison worked within him. He could not move, could scarcely draw breath. A pit opened at his feet, the bottom lined with sharpened stakes, already stained with blood. The Ogre-King seized him and lifted him into the air. He knew he would die then, and tried desperately to think of a spell to save himself, but there was no magic left to him, there was only poison and death.

The panther paced on the other side of the pit. No one else saw. Golden cat's eyes met his. The Ogre-King swung him over the pit, and let go. He screamed, and the panther leaped.

"No!"

Blair bolted up, and grabbed his ribs, his shout changing to one of pain. He fell back onto the bed, breathing through clenched teeth while he waited for the pain to subside. Simon burst through the door, gun drawn.

"You okay, Sandburg?"

"Yeah," he gasped. "It was just--a nightmare."

"You don't look okay."

"Well--it's not a good idea--to sit up fast--when you've got cracked ribs. Shit, that hurts!"

"Try to relax. Concentrate on breathing."

"That's--what I'm trying to do. Ow!" Blair closed his eyes, trying to take shallow breaths, but his heart was still pounding from the dream and his lungs wanted deep breathing, no matter what his ribs said. "As long as--you've got that gun out--you want to do me a favor--and just shoot me?"

"Can't oblige, Sandburg. There's too much paperwork involved."

"Damn. Ow, ow, ow!"

Simon holstered his gun. "Does the word 'stoicism' mean anything to you, Sandburg?"

"Fine. I'll--suffer in silence. Will that make you happy?"

"It'll help."

The pain gradually ebbed to something bearable, and Blair was able to sit up again--slowly. It hadn't hurt this much yesterday. Or maybe he just hadn't noticed. He'd been pretty much out of it. He started to rub his eyes, realized that would be a mistake, but wasn't going to complain about his bruises, so turned the motion into pushing the hair back from his face. He was surprised to see Simon wince. It couldn't look worse than yesterday. Could it?

"What time is it?"

"About noon."

"Noon?" Guilt flooded him. Simon was supposed to be on duty hours ago. "Jeez, I'm sorry, Simon."

"Don't worry about it. You going to be okay if I go to work now?"

Blair went cold, remembering Jim's hands on his body, and Jim's voice saying, "We'll have to finish this later."

"Sandburg?"

"Yeah. I'm a big boy." "Be a good little boy." He closed his eyes, forcing the image away. "You don't have to babysit anymore."

"Are you sure?"

"Yeah. Sure. Go."

"I'll be home for dinner. Eat something before then."

Blair smiled a little. "Okay, Mom."

Simon shook his head. "Anybody ever tell you you're a wiseass, Sandburg?"

"Oh, yeah." His smile widened. "All the time."

"Figures."

Simon moved off down the hall. Blair watched him go, his stomach doing flips. He pushed himself off the bed and followed the older man. He had to know.

"Simon? Is--uh--is Jim working today?"

"Yeah. You want to talk to him?"

"No!" He saw Simon's reaction, and toned it down. "No. I just--um--wanted to know."

"You two have got to talk. You've got to work this thing out."

Blair shook his head. "It's not going to happen, Simon. I'll see you later."

"You'll be here. Right?"

"I'll be here."

Simon left him alone. Blair locked the door behind him, then went around the apartment locking all the windows. There was a fire escape outside Simon's bedroom; that must be how Jim had gotten in and out yesterday. Blair made doubly sure that window was locked, but all the locks in the world couldn't make him feel safe.

He tried to eat. Simon had left coffee, and there was orange juice, and plenty of bread. He made toast, figuring that would sit easy on his stomach, but after a couple of bites, he put it down and couldn't pick it up again. He kept seeing Jim, laughing at him, staring at him with that cold light in his eyes. Jim's tongue was in his mouth, thrusting into his throat; the snake-tongue slithered, spewing poison. He felt Jim's hands on him, caressing the bruises on his face, crushing his nipple, holding him over the pit, digging hard fingers into his ass. "You've got a great ass, you know that, Chief?"

Blair flung himself out of the chair. His ribs protested, and he clutched his side but didn't stop moving, hoping the pain would drive the other sensations away. But the pain became Jim's fingers pressing on his ribs, Jim's body crushing him to the floor while his cock rammed into him and he fought just to breathe, just to stay alive until it was over. The pit yawned beneath him, the sharpened stakes glistening red, and the panther--

No! That was a dream! It wasn't real, he knew it wasn't, but it felt real, it felt as real as his memories of what Jim had done to him. But that couldn't be. It shouldn't be, a dream shouldn't be confused with reality. My God. Was any of it real? Had he hallucinated Jim's attacks on him, the hours at the hospital?

Blair made his way to the bathroom, flipped on the light, and stared at himself in the mirror. The bruises were there, covering half his face. He touched one, and winced. It was real. The pain in his ribs was real. It had happened. Jim had attacked him--raped him. The ogres had taken the castle, and--

No, dammit! What was the matter with him? Why couldn't he separate the dream from what was real? Maybe it was the painkillers, maybe they were altering his perceptions. No, they should've worn off by now. What was it, then? Why couldn't he think straight? What the hell was happening to him?

"Dammit, Jim, why'd you do this to me?"

Blair's fist smashed into the mirror. The glass shattered, splintering his image. Pieces of glass fell into the sink, onto the floor. His knuckles began to bleed. Oh God, oh God, he had to get control.

Blair turned the cold water on and held his fist beneath the tap. Was it his fault? Had he done something to invite it? "You want it as much as I do, you're just too scared to admit it." No! He didn't want it, he had never wanted--that. All he'd ever wanted from Jim was friendship. Just--a friend, that was all. He'd never had any really close friends.

Maybe he'd done something wrong, sent out signals that Jim had misinterpreted. Maybe he should have realized. Jim was always touching him. No one had ever done that before, not even his father. Especially not his father. "Men don't touch, Blair." He remembered his father saying that, when he was thirteen. "Men who touch each other are unnatural." He'd thought his father was wrong, that Jim was his proof. Jim was straight, and Jim touched him, and there was nothing sexual about it. He'd thought. It had made him uncomfortable at first, but after a while, he'd liked it when Jim touched him, it had made him feel--secure. Had he been wrong? Had Jim been testing him, seeing if he'd welcome more? Had he just gotten sick of waiting, gotten mad because Blair wasn't responding fast enough?

No. Gay guys had hit on him before--he knew he wasn't exactly Mr. Macho--but they'd left him alone when he said no. And Jim wasn't gay. He was sure of that. Rape wasn't about sex, it was about power. Maybe the touching was a part of that. And suddenly, it hadn't been enough. Suddenly, Jim had needed to prove that he was the dominant male, that he could make Blair submit--to anything. But why now? What had set Jim off? What had he done to make Jim need to hurt him so badly? To keep hurting him? No, dammit, he hadn't done anything, he hadn't! But a small voice inside him--his father's voice--insisted that there must be an explanation, there must be a reason why Jim was doing this. And that he must be a part of that reason.

His knuckles had stopped stinging. Blair shut the water off, and started gingerly picking pieces of glass out of the sink, dropping them into the wastebasket. He concentrated on his task, trying to shut out all other thought, to banish memory and dream alike. Think of the glass, only the glass. Simon was going to kill him for this. Probably kick him out, tell him to find some other place to wreck. Where could he go? There was no point in going back to the University, they'd be kicking him out of there as soon as they found out he couldn't complete his dissertation. Maybe he should just pick a direction and drive. It didn't matter where he ended up. Nothing could be worse than here. He just had to get out of Cascade. If he didn't--Blair stared at the piece of glass in his hand. The Ogre-King dropped him into the pit. The panther leaped--If he didn't, Jim would kill him.

The knowledge twisted within him. It was true, he knew it was. The dream was a warning. He didn't know how, or who, or why someone would warn him, but he believed it. As surely as he believed in Jim's Sentinel abilities. Whatever it was, it was doing its best to save him, and if he didn't listen, he was a fool. No matter what anyone thought--and there were plenty who thought it, including his father--Blair Sandburg was not a fool.

As calmly as he could, Blair finished cleaning up the glass. He'd send Simon the money for a replacement later. Right now, he needed all the cash he had. It wasn't much. But he couldn't worry about that. He went into Daryl's bedroom and changed back into his own clothes. Simon had washed them for him--nice of him. Pocketing the painkillers, he grabbed his jacket and headed for the door. He stopped with his hand halfway to the deadbolt.

What if Jim was out there? What if Ellison was waiting for him, just waiting for him to be stupid enough to walk out the door? Blair raked his hair back. What was he going to do? He had to get out of here. But he had to know where Jim was, and he didn't have any way to--

Maybe he did. Maybe, if he was lucky. He was due for some luck, wasn't he? Blair picked up the phone and dialed Jim's number at the station. It rang twice before someone picked up.

"Ellison."

Blair hung up. Yes, Jim was there! And even if Jim left the station right now, it would take him at least twenty minutes to get here. Twenty minutes that Blair could use to get down to his car and get away.

On his way to the door, Blair passed by a window, automatically glancing out. It took a second for what he had seen to register, but when it did he back-pedaled and gripped the window frame, staring down into the street.

Jim Ellison stood in front of the house, staring up at Simon's apartment.

Blair threw himself down and huddled against the wall with his knees drawn up to his chin. It wasn't possible. Jim couldn't be here, he was at the station. Blair had heard him answer the phone. It hadn't been a recording, or someone else picking up the line, it was Jim. Jim couldn't be here.

Blair went to his knees, facing the window. He had to know. Slowly, he moved his head past the window-frame, careful to show as little of himself as possible. He darted a quick glance out, ducked back again, and repeated the process. This time, he didn't draw back. No one was out there. The sidewalk was empty, and the street in either direction.

Using the windowsill for support, Blair climbed to his feet. He hadn't heard the outside door open, but that didn't mean anything. Jim could move silently when he chose. He could be outside Simon's door right now, listening to the pounding of Blair's heart. Arms wrapped around his ribs, Blair stared at the door in terror, half-expecting Jim to kick it down at any moment. Jim couldn't be here. He thought of the fire escape, and almost ran to Simon's room, but he couldn't get his legs to move. There was nothing he could do to stop Jim from getting in, nothing he could do to defend himself from a man so much bigger, a man who'd been taught so many ways to kill. Even on his best day, he couldn't outrun him, and he was far from his best right now. If Jim wanted in, he'd get in. If Jim wanted him dead, Blair would die. But Jim couldn't be here. It was not physically possible.

Slowly, so slowly that it felt like his brain wasn't connected to his body, Blair forced himself to move away from the door, never taking his eyes from it. He backed through the living room, into the hall, and stopped outside Simon's bedroom. From there, he could see both the door and the fire escape. No matter which way Jim came in, it would give him a few seconds to try to get out the other. He was pretty sure he wouldn't make it, but it was the only chance he had. Jim couldn't be here. But he had to be. Because if it hadn't been Jim down on that sidewalk, if he hadn't been there at all, then Blair was losing his mind. And he'd rather be dead.

The sound of the door opening startled him. Shit, he'd fallen asleep! Blair scrambled to his feet in panic, grabbing his ribs when they stabbed him, and flattened himself against the wall in Simon's room. It was dark; he couldn't see a damned thing, and this was not the time to be blind. A light went on in the living room. It stretched into the hall, but didn't touch Blair. Small favors.

"Sandburg? You awake?"

Simon. Thank God. Blair remembered to breathe. He stepped into the light; it blinded him, and he made his way down the hall to the living room from memory, eyes squeezed nearly shut. It hurt, but hey, so did everything else.

"Sorry about the lights, Simon. I fell asleep again."

"Not a problem, Sandburg."

"Jesus."

A low, quiet voice, one he knew too well. Blair's eyes snapped wide, showing him Simon, keys still in hand; and behind him, staring at Blair in the best imitation of horror he'd ever seen, Jim Ellison. Blair fixed his gaze on the Captain.

"What's he doing here?"

"I invited him," Banks answered. "You two need to talk."

Talk? God! Blair shook his head, unable to reply. Jim took a step toward him, hand outstretched, and he jerked back.

"Stay away from me!"

"Blair--"

"No!"

"Sandburg, listen to me." Simon was using his reasonable voice. "What happened to you was bad. You need friends to help you deal with it, and Jim's about the best friend you've got."

Blair stared at him. "You don't know what the hell you're talking about."

"Sandburg, you've got to--"

"Don't tell me what to do!" Blair shouted. "I don't work for you! I never did." His jacket was lying on the floor, where he'd dropped it that afternoon. He snatched it up and headed for the door. "Thanks for letting me crash here, Captain. I'll see you sometime."

Jim stepped in front of him. "You're not getting out of here until we talk, Chief."

Blair looked up, meeting Jim's eyes for the first time. He saw nothing there but concern. Anger burned in him. "Get out of my way!"

"No."

"Damn you, you bastard, move!"

He tried to go around. Jim grabbed his arm, and he lost it. Rage and fear exploded in him, and he fought like a madman, kicking, punching, even biting. He screamed the whole time, but he couldn't remember what he said, he only knew that he couldn't bear any more of the lies and the pain, that he had to stop it now. He didn't plan it, he didn't even know what he was doing. His hand closed on metal, ripped it free; he wrenched away from the hands that were trying to subdue him, trying to hold him so they could hurt him again; tore away and almost fell, but kept his feet somehow, and raised the gun in both hands, pointing it at Jim Ellison's stomach. Jim held his hands away from his body, and went very still.

"You don't want to do this, Chief."

"Sure I do, Jim," Blair replied, bitterly replaying the nightmare he'd been reliving over and over. "I've wanted to do this for a long time. Two whole days."

"Sandburg." Blair could see Simon out of the corner of his eye. "Put the gun down."

"Sorry, Captain. Guess you'll have to do some paperwork."

"For God's sake, Sandburg, Jim's your friend!"

"He's not my friend! He was never my friend!" Blair knew he was screaming again, but he couldn't stop, he couldn't control anything he said or did. "Don't you get it, Simon? He's the one who did this to me!"

"What?"

Ellison was shaking his head, his face white. "No. Blair, no. It wasn't me."

"Yes it was! And you tried it again last night, only Simon came home and you had to take off before you were done. You said--you said we'd finish another time. But there won't be another time, you son of a bitch. You're never going to touch me again."

Jim looked to Banks. "Simon. Simon, I don't know what's going on, but I swear it wasn't me. You've known me for four years. You know I'd never do anything like this."

"Shut up!" Blair shouted. "Shut up, you lying bastard!"

"Sandburg." Simon began to edge closer to Jim. "This isn't the way to handle it."

"Stay where you are!"

Simon shook his head, and kept moving. "Uh-uh. No way, Sandburg. If you shoot Jim, you'll go down for murder. I'm not going to let that happen. Not to you. And not to him." Simon stepped in front of Jim. "Put the gun down, Sandburg."

"You don't believe me."

"Sandburg, I don't know what I believe. But I promise you, I'll find out the truth. If Jim did this, he'll go down for it."

"No he won't. He's a cop, and he's your friend. You'll believe whatever he tells you. You already do." Tears blinded him. Simon and Jim were just blurs. He tried not to let the tears fall, but he couldn't hold them back. He'd lost everything. Even his chance for revenge. All he could do now was put an end to the pain. "I knew you wouldn't believe me. Why should you? I'm just the kid, the pain in the ass with the smart mouth and the wild ideas, Ellison's little puppy-dog." Banks started to say something, but Blair cut him off. "No, it's okay, Simon. I always knew what you thought of me, I was just grateful that you let me hang around anyway. Now you won't have to put up with me anymore. You and Jim can go back to being regular cops, and I'll go back to...." Blair shrugged, smiling. "Wherever it is we all come from. Guess I'll find out, in a minute."

He couldn't see anything now. It didn't matter. There wasn't anything he wanted to see. Blair lifted the gun until he felt the muzzle under his chin. He'd never fired one of these before, but it couldn't be too hard. All he had to do was squeeze--

A body hurtled into him, knocking him to the floor. The gun went off, but it wasn't beneath his chin anymore, and he didn't know where the bullet went. The gun was twisted from his hands. He heard it hit the floor somewhere, then someone was hauling him to his feet and shaking him so hard that his head was snapping back and forth and his ribs were screaming at him, and he couldn't breathe.

"Goddammit, Sandburg, what the hell's the matter with you? Don't you ever do that again!"

"Jim. Jim! Let him go! He's already hurt, you're only making it worse!"

"Oh my God. Oh my God."

The shaking stopped. A second pair of hands took him from the first and led him someplace where they made him sit. That was the last thing he knew for a long time.





Blair was lying on the couch in Simon's living room. He felt the fabric beneath his hands, saw the ceiling overhead, knew he was there, but felt like he wasn't, like nothing was real. The pain was gone, inside and out. He was just--numb.

Simon was sitting in the chair across from him. He couldn't see anyone else. Panic pierced the fog, and he struggled up to his elbows, looking around wildly. "Where's--"

"It's okay, Sandburg. Jim's gone."

Blair lay down again. The numbness came back, and he didn't fight it. "You let him go." He waved a hand to stop Simon's explanation. "Don't worry about it, I knew you would. I mean, the only evidence you've got is my word, and that's worth exactly nothing against a cop's."

"Wrong, Sandburg. We've got other evidence."

"Like what?"

Simon hesitated, then set his features in the stern mask he assumed when he wasn't comfortable with the subject. "Semen. Ellison's getting his DNA tested tomorrow, to see if it's a match. If it is, I will personally lock him up and do my damnedest to make sure he never sees the light of day."

"But you don't think it will match."

"Sandburg, I don't know. But I'm not going to lie to you, I hope it doesn't."

Blair sighed. "At least you're honest."

"What about you? How do you want it to come out?"

"Me?" Blair stared at the ceiling. "If it's a match, a man I thought was my friend--wasn't. And if it isn't, it still happened, but my mind's so warped that it replaced the real attacker with Jim." A tear slipped out of one eye, sliding down into his hair. "You tell me, Simon. What am I supposed to hope for?"







"How can I tell him, Simon? He's going to have enough trouble dealing with the results. How can I tell him that?"

Blair opened his eyes. A streetlight shone through the window, giving him enough light to see shapes and shadows. That was Jim's voice. Simon had said he was gone, but he wasn't, he--

Get it together, Sandburg. That was yesterday. A whole day had gone by since, a day he'd mostly spent sleeping, helped along by the painkillers Simon doled out to him. Simon wouldn't let him have the bottle; guess the Captain was afraid he'd try od'ing. There were no razor blades in the bathroom, either, and there'd been a uniformed officer here all day, to keep an eye on him. Couldn't blame Simon. Blair knew he'd scared the Captain last night. He'd scared himself. And the fear hadn't gone away.

Simon said something Blair couldn't catch. Jim didn't answer. No use putting it off. Blair sat up and reached for his jeans, pulled them on, and made his way barefoot down the hall to the living room. Jim stood at the far end of the room, watching him come. Simon was on the couch, nursing a cup of coffee.

"Sorry, Chief," Jim said. "Didn't mean to wake you."

Blair fixed his gaze on the carpet. "You got the test results: no match, right?"

"Right."

Blair glanced up, but he couldn't meet the pale blue eyes. Shaking his head, he spread his empty hands. "I don't know what to say."

"There's a first time for everything, Sandburg."

He almost laughed, then his eyes welled up. Oh God, he was going to cry again. Why couldn't he control himself? Why'd he have to be so--so-- Dammit, he couldn't even think of words, never mind say them! "Jim," he blurted. "I'm sorry."

"It's okay, Blair."

"No, it's not! You're my friend, and I--"

"Blair, it's okay."

"You don't understand! I know you didn't--you didn't do this. But my memory still says you did. Somehow, my mind substituted you for the one who attacked me. And I can't tell the difference. There's something really wrong with me...."

"Sandburg," Simon said quietly. "You were brutally attacked. Something like that affects your mind just as much as your body."

"But I blamed Jim. Why would I do that?" Blair looked up, to see Simon and Jim exchanging glances. "What? What is it?"

"Nothing, Chief," Jim said.

"No, you know something. Something you don't want to tell me. What is it?"

"You don't need to hear it."

"Yes I do. We're talking about my sanity here. Jim, tell me. Please."

Jim looked to Simon again. "First, I want you to sit down and tell me everything you remember about that night."

Blair perched on the edge of an armchair. For a long moment, he couldn't speak, couldn't find the words--or the courage--to tell the older men what had been done to him. Jim and Simon waited, giving him the time he needed. Finally, he began to speak. His voice was low, and toneless. It failed him several times, and more than once tears threatened, but he fought them back, staring at his hands so he wouldn't have to look at Jim or Simon. He told them all he remembered, what Jim--his attacker--had said, what he'd done. Some things, he left out. Some things, he couldn't bring himself to say, not to anyone. When he was finished, there was silence, unbroken until Blair raised his head and looked directly into Jim's eyes.

"Your turn."

"Okay." Jim sighed. "Okay, Chief. This is what I remember, same night. I got off duty, and came home. You were there, grading papers or something, I don't know. When I went upstairs to change, you followed me up to my bedroom and--came on to me."

Blair just stared, unable to speak. Turning bright red, Jim continued.

"You said you wanted to see if my Sentinel abilities extended to sex. I said no, but you didn't listen. I had to push you off. You got mad, and stormed out of the loft."

Blair shook his head. "No. No, I couldn't have--I don't--I'd remember if I--Oh, God." He bowed his head into his hands. "God. You're saying that's why I thought you did it. That I was mad at you for--rejecting me, so when I got--when I was attacked, I blamed you for it."

"It's a possibility."

Blair sat unmoving, trying to absorb what he'd been told, to make it fit with what he remembered. Was he that crazy? Had he really come on to Jim, then run out into the night and gotten himself raped? And then blocked it all out and twisted reality to blame Jim for what happened?

"No." Blair raised his head. "No, it doesn't make sense."

"Blair--"

"No, listen, Jim. When I left, did you hear me drive away?"

"No. You were on foot."

"So I ran out of the loft, got attacked, then came back and got my car to drive to the hospital? It doesn't make any sense. And what about the blood you found? When you pushed me off, did you hit me?"

"No! I wouldn't-- Wait a minute. The car." Jim closed his eyes. Blair could see his pupils shifting from side to side beneath his lids. "It's not there." Jim opened his eyes. "When I got home, the Corvair wasn't in the lot. But if you were already gone--"

"Then who was waiting for you in the loft?" Blair finished.

"And who did you let in before I got there?" Jim echoed.

"Hold on," Simon protested. "Are you actually thinking of doubles?"

"Had to be," Jim said.

"But who would pretend to be you or Sandburg? And why would they want to? And how could they be so good that you two were completely fooled? Especially you, Jim. You should've noticed something."

"Maybe you did," Blair said. "And you just don't remember."

Jim shook his head. "Whoever it was, he looked and sounded just like you."

Blair bounced to his feet and began to pace. His ribs didn't like it, but he ignored them. His mind was racing. There had to be something, some difference that Jim would have sensed, even if he didn't realize it. His pacing brought him closer to Jim and Simon, and he caught the odor of Simon's coffee.

"Smell!"

"What?"

"Yeah! Come on, Jim, everyone has his or her own scent, you know that. You should be able to distinguish between them. You can smell me now, can't you?"

"Yeah. When's the last time you had a shower?"

Blair ignored that. "So think. Relax. Breathe, you know the drill." Jim sat down and obediently closed his eyes. Blair moved closer, but still kept some distance between them. "Okay, now, remember that night. Remember--uh--the guy you thought was me. From what you said, he was plenty close enough for you to get a good whiff. Smell him again. Is it my scent?"

Jim opened his eyes. "No. No, it's completely different. It wasn't you, Blair."

"Great!" Blair pushed his hair back with both hands. "Great...."

His voice broke. Blair turned away, tears filling his eyes. God, not again! He heard Jim move behind him, but he couldn't face him. He tensed, expecting to feel Jim's hand on his shoulder, not certain what he'd do if he did. But Jim didn't touch him.

"You all right, Sandburg?"

"Yeah." God! Why couldn't he control himself? Jim hadn't hurt him. He wasn't crazy. He should be happy. "Yeah, I--um--I just haven't been real good the last couple of days, you know?" He was not going to tell Jim how scared he'd been. He wiped his eyes with a shaking hand. "Shit, I hate this!"

"It's okay, Blair," Jim said. "You've had a rough time."

"Sure. Like you've ever cried in your life."

"Me? Hell, no, crying's for sissies."

Blair looked at him. "Thanks a lot."

Jim grinned. "You set yourself up for that one, Chief."

"Yeah," Blair growled, forced to agree. He wiped his eyes again. "Um--Jim, could you not call me that for a while?"

"What? Chief?"

Blair nodded. "He--the guy who--you know. He kept saying it."

"Sure, Ch--Blair. Sorry."

Simon stood up. "When you two are done apologizing to each other, you might want to start figuring out who's behind this. The idea of exact doubles is even less plausible than you being responsible for it yourselves."

He moved toward the kitchen. Blair started to follow. "But, Simon--"

Simon whirled. "Sit, Sandburg!"

Blair's eyebrows shot up in surprise. He took the nearest chair, giving Jim a "What'd I do?" look that elicited only a shrug. He never knew where he stood with Simon. He'd been staying in the man's apartment for three days, and he still didn't know. Jim got up and followed Simon into the kitchen, and nobody yelled at him to sit down. Blair could see Simon at the stove, could hear the two men talking. Their voices were too low for him to make out the words, but he knew it was about him. If only he had Sentinel hearing....

Blair shot to his feet and rushed into the kitchen. "Jim!"

Simon turned away from the stove, scowling. "I told you to sit down, Sandburg."

"I know, Captain, but this is important. Jim, you gotta listen to me."

"Okay, Blair, okay." Jim pulled a chair out from the table, and nodded toward it. "What is it?"

Blair took the hint, and held it in long enough to sit down again. He cast a nervous glance at Simon, and decided his chances were better with Jim. "Jim, the guy. He's a Sentinel."

Jim's eyes stared right through him. "Are you sure?"

"Yes. In the loft, he said he could hear my heartbeat."

"He could've been faking."

"I know, I know. But when he--when he was here, he heard Simon coming, long before anyone else would've. Anyone but you."

Jim shook his head. "Another Sentinel. Who looks just like me. How is that possible?"

"The Sentinel abilities are a genetic thing. Maybe you and this guy are so genetically similar that you look the same, too."

"What about the other guy? The one who looks like you? How do you explain him?"

"I don't know, man." Blair pushed the hair back from his face. "I don't understand any of this. Who are these guys? Why are they picking on me?"

Simon turned off the stove. "You wrote the paper."

"What?"

The Captain put a bowl of soup in front of Blair. "Eat that." He held a spoon in front of Blair's face, unmoving, until Blair took it from him and began to eat. "You wrote your Master's thesis on Sentinels. You're doing your doctoral dissertation on Jim. If these guys are Sentinels, maybe they don't like that. Maybe they don't want anyone to know about them."

"Then why didn't they just kill me?"

"Maybe they didn't think it was necessary."

"That's an awful lot of maybes, Simon," Jim said. "I can accept--barely--the possibility of a Sentinel who's a double for me. But a third Sentinel, who's a double for Blair?"

"Maybe your double hired a non-Sentinel, got him plastic surgery."

"What for? If all he wanted was to scare Blair off the Sentinel stuff, why bother with Blair's double?"

Simon shrugged. "To destroy Sandburg's credibility? Such as it is."

Blair opened his mouth to answer that crack, but decided another spoonful of soup was safer. Now that he'd put something in it, his stomach was beginning to realize that it hadn't been fed for three days. He hoped there was more soup.

Jim ran a hand through his buzz-cut. "I dunno, Simon. There's still something missing here."

"You mean besides an explanation that we have a hope in hell of convincing a DA is the truth?"

Jim and Simon went back and forth, trying to figure it all out. For once in his life, Blair didn't offer an opinion. He concentrated on eating until two bowls of soup and a couple dozen crackers were gone--Simon wouldn't let him have anything heavier--then sat quietly watching the older men argue about why someone was trying to ruin his life. After a while, he stopped listening. They didn't have any real answers, and he wasn't sure that it mattered. He just wanted it to stop. Jim's voice penetrated the daze.

"How are we supposed to find these guys?"

"That should be easy," Blair said. "Just put an APB out on us."

Jim and Simon exchanged disgusted looks.

"Get him out of here, Ellison," Simon ordered.

"Yes, sir. Come on, Sandburg, we're going home."

Home. Blair couldn't move. Jim looked puzzled for a moment. He reached for Blair's shoulder, but Blair flinched back, and he withdrew his hand hastily. Blair stared at the table, and felt himself blushing.

"Sorry."

"It wasn't me who kicked you out, Blair."

Or beat the shit out of you. Or raped you. "I know." Stupid. Get ahold of yourself, Sandburg. "Jim, if you wanted me out, you'd tell me, wouldn't you?"

He glanced up, to see Jim nodding. "I'd tell you. Come on, kid. The loft's too quiet without you there. I'm not used to it anymore."

"Really? You missed me?"

Jim scowled. "Don't push it, Sandburg."

Blair smiled, and didn't care that it hurt.

The ride back to the loft was quiet. Blair stared out the window, or down at his hands, and didn't talk, didn't say a single word. Jim could hear his rapid heartbeat, his shaky breathing: the kid was scared, and he didn't know what to say to reassure him. He wasn't good at this kind of thing, never had been. Blair was the talker, not him. Granted, he'd talked more to Blair than he ever had to anyone in his life, but that was because the kid kept asking his damned questions all the time, and the only way to shut him up was to answer them. He'd never reciprocated. Hell, he'd never even thought about it. Blair asked the questions, he provided the answers. That was how it worked. He didn't like it, but he was willing to give the kid his answers in exchange for help with his Sentinel abilities. Blair had never needed his help before. Not with something like this. Sure, he'd saved Blair's ass a few times--more than a few--but that had always been physical, stuff he was good at. Nothing that happened to him had ever affected Blair like this. Even when that psycho Lash got him, he'd been fine the next day, just shaken it off like it was no big deal. But this was different. He'd seen Blair upset before, but he'd never seen him like he had last night. If he hadn't taken the gun away from him, Blair would be dead. He was better now, now that he knew it hadn't been Jim who attacked him, but he was still on edge, and it didn't take much to push him over. Jim was afraid to say anything to him. He wasn't sure he could deal with a hysterical Blair, knew he couldn't stand to see tears in those damn puppy-dog eyes again. He didn't have the words to help, and he couldn't touch him. He'd never realized how often he touched Blair, until Simon warned him not to do it and he kept having to stop himself. He'd had the training, he knew it was because of the rape, that Blair probably wouldn't be able to handle any man touching him for a while, maybe for a long time. But it made him feel like his line of communication had been cut.

Jim's hands tightened on the steering wheel. He was going to find the sick bastard who'd done this to Blair, and when he did, he was going to smash the guy's face into the dirt. As long as he didn't kill him, Simon would look the other way. It might not help Blair, but it would sure as hell make him feel better. He only hoped that this guy got in prison exactly what he'd given Blair, and worse.

Jim parked the truck, and got out. Blair jumped out the other side, wincing when he hit the asphalt. He started to grab his ribs, and stopped, letting his hand fall to his side. They entered the building together, and started up the stairs.

"Hey, Tough Guy," Jim said. "You're allowed to acknowledge that it hurts."

"You wouldn't," Blair countered.

"What am I, your role model all of a sudden? I told you my arm hurt, that time that Angie Ferris shot me."

"Only after I pulled it out of you."

"Consider yourself pulled."

"Okay, it hurts," Blair snapped. "Happy now?" He moved up the stairs ahead of Jim, muttering. "Simon wants me to be a stoic, he wants me to whine. Hold it in, Sandburg. Let it out, Sandburg. Why can't they make up their minds?"

Jim shook his head, grinning. Blair knew damn well he could hear every word. Sandburg waited for him to open the door, and followed him in. Jim tossed his keys onto the table, hung his jacket on a hook, and held his hand out for Blair's. The kid didn't even notice. He walked forward a few steps, and stopped, staring at the floor beside the couch. Brown curls hid his face, the face that was so badly bruised there was hardly an inch of skin that wasn't purple or black. He didn't move or speak; he just stood there, heart pounding, with God knew what going through his head. Jim reached out to put a hand on his shoulder, remembered, and clenched his fist.

"I'm sorry, kid. I should've been here."

Blair looked at him, and there was something missing from his eyes. "Don't try to take this on, Jim. It's not your fault."

"I'm a Sentinel."

"So? I'm Jewish. Does that make me responsible for every crime committed by a Jew?" His gaze went back to the floor. "You know, my father doesn't believe there is such a thing as a Sentinel. He thinks it's just another story Burton brought back, like the Arabian Nights." A smile ghosted across his face. "He can't stand the sight of me. I'm the only failure he's ever had. Guess he'd be even more proud of me now, huh?"

"You have a father?"

Blair's eyebrows rose. "No, Jim, I was created in a lab."

Jim controlled the urge to smack him. That wouldn't help right now. "You never mentioned him before."

"You never asked."

"He sounds like an asshole."

The smile again. "Yeah, well. He is." Blair turned away finally, and headed toward his room. "I'm going to bed."

"Blair." Jim called after him, and he stopped. "We'll get this guy."

"He's a Sentinel."

"So am I."

"He's smart."

"So are you."

Blair looked at him then, azure eyes wide. "You really think so?"

"I wouldn't work with you if I didn't. We'll get him, Blair."

"How?"

"Easy. We'll put an APB out on us."

Shaking his head, Blair disappeared into his room. His voice floated back to Jim, quiet, but well within Sentinel hearing range. "That's the dumbest idea I ever heard."





Jim was standing at the kitchen counter eating breakfast when Blair wandered out of his room, barefoot, wearing only rumpled silk boxers, a bandage wrapped around his ribs. He pushed his hair out of his face with one hand, and stifled a yawn, wincing, with the other.

"Why didn't you get me up?" he asked, padding to the refrigerator for juice.

"What for? You're not going anywhere."

Blair frowned, still not quite awake. "You said we're going to get this guy. Does 'we' mean just you all of a sudden?"

"Breathe, Sandburg."

"Huh?"

"Come on, a nice, deep breath. You know the drill."

Blair gave Jim an "And he thinks I'm weird" look, but did as he was told. As his lungs filled, Jim watched his jaw clench, and his face go pale under the bruises, but he didn't make a sound. When he let the breath out, Blair was shaking. Jim looked him straight in the eye.

"When you can do that without hurting, then you can come with me. Until then, you stay here and rest."

"But I want to help," Blair protested. "How am I supposed to do that here?"

"You just keep thinking, Sandburg. That's what you do best," Jim told him, adding in an undertone, "God help us."

"I heard that."

Jim hid his grin behind his coffee mug. He heard footsteps approaching, then a knock at the door. Blair froze, terror flashing through his eyes. Jim pretended not to see.

"That'd be Connelly," he said, moving to the door. "He'll be--"

"My babysitter," Blair interrupted.

"Yep. And you'll have one every day until this is over, so get used to it, Junior." He opened the door, and motioned the uniformed officer inside. "Come on in, Steve. You know Blair Sandburg?"

"Yes, sir." Connelly nodded at Blair. "Mr. Sandburg."

Blair gave Jim a pained look. Sandburg and Connelly were about the same age, but Connelly was an ex-Marine, still real military in outlook. He and the neo-hippie anthropologist ought to see eye to eye on just about nothing. Jim hoped Blair had more sense than to spend the day playing "make fun of the stiff and see if he notices". It wasn't real smart to antagonize the guy who was supposed to be keeping you alive.

Damn, his watch. Jim ran upstairs to get it. To his surprise, Blair followed him. The incident of four days ago tugged at his mind, but he forced it out with a shake of his head. That hadn't been Blair. Sandburg was looking around the room, taking everything in. He was sure Blair--the real Blair--hadn't been up here more than twice since he first moved in.

"What's up, Ch--Blair?" Jim prodded, cursing himself when Blair flinched at the nickname.

"I need to tell you something."

"And you don't want Connelly to hear?" Blair nodded. "Go ahead."

"You're going to think I'm crazy."

"Sandburg, I already do. Come on, spill it."

"I've been having these dreams."

"Nightmares? Blair, that's natural."

"No. I mean, I know, but these are different. I had the first one right before it happened."

"Before? Are you sure? You've been on those painkillers, maybe you're confused."

"No, man, I'm sure. I was dreaming, and he woke me up, pounding on the door. The dreams are all the same. They're these medieval, fairy tale things where I'm a wizard, and these ogres are storming the castle, and they capture me, and-- In the last dream, the King of the Ogres turned into you. And then he killed me."

Jim thought he understood. "Blair, nothing's going to happen to you. I know you're scared, but I'm going to find this guy."

"No, listen. Jim, I think the dreams are warnings. I think someone--or something--is trying to communicate with me."

Jim nodded. "What makes you think that?"

"Don't humor me!" Blair snapped. "I knew you'd think I was crazy. You're just like--" Blair raked his hair back, pacing. "Forget it. Just forget it, okay?"

Jim wanted to grab him, knew he couldn't. "Blair, I'm not your father."

Blair stopped, hands in his hair, staring back at him like he'd let out some terrible secret. He closed his eyes, sighing. "I know, man. Sorry. Sometimes I just get tired of nobody taking me seriously."

"Sandburg, I'm listening. Tell me why you think these dreams are warnings."

"It's the panther."

The Peruvian jungle filled Jim's vision. The jungle, and a panther behind Blair, golden eyes meeting his. "Panther?"

"Yeah, it's been in every dream, looking at me. And when--when the other guy was--when he was here, I saw it. Not for real, I mean, it was just in my mind, but it was there. Remember the panther you saw in Peru? I think--I think it's the same panther, but now it's trying to communicate with me, to warn me about this other Sentinel, and--" Blair checked himself, shoulders slumping. "And now you really think I'm crazy, don't you?"

Panther shifted, became a man, told him he had to choose. He'd never told Blair about it. It was too personal, too private. And there had been the fear that Sandburg would think he was nuts. "No. I don't think you're crazy. I think you're right."

"You do?"

"Yeah. Look, Blair, if you see this panther again, do what he tells you."

"You're serious. You really believe me?"

"I really believe you."

"Why? I mean, no one else would."

"No one else has seen the panther. Trust him, Blair. He's on our side."

Blair nodded. "Okay, man."

"Good. I've gotta get to work. You going to be okay with Connelly?"

Blair rolled his eyes. "Mr. Military? Yeah."

Jim started down the stairs, Blair on his heels. "Take it easy on him."

"Sure."

"I mean it."

"Okay, okay. You know, Jim, sometimes I think you don't trust me."

"Sandburg--" Jim shook a finger under the younger man's nose. Blair met his glare with wide-eyed innocence. "I'm going to work."

Jim grabbed his jacket and keys, and left the loft, mentally wishing Connelly good luck. He was going to need it.





The Ogre-King fingered his earrings. Held by the other ogres, he jerked his head away, trying to avoid the King's touch. The Ogre-King chuckled, and spoke to him with the voice of his friend.

"Where is your magic now, little wizard?"

"Gone." Taken from him. As the Ogre-King had taken the form of his friend. He looked beyond the ogre, to where the panther prowled. Golden eyes locked on his, imparting courage. "The form you wear is not yours. Show me your true face. Or are you afraid of a wizard with no power?"

"Afraid? Of you?"

The Ogre-King laughed again, and brushed a hand across his cheek. The King's features shifted, melted, stretched and lengthened, became a face that was both like and unlike that of the knight his friend. The eyes were brown instead of blue, deeper-set, and cruel. The cheeks were hollow, the bones more prominent, the mouth wider. The hair was black, tied at his neck in a short tail. The Ogre-King smiled.

"Now you have seen, little wizard. Now you must die."

The Ogre-King held in his hand a knife, the blade as long as his forearm. His struggles were useless. The Ogre-King took him by the hair, pulled his head back. He could no longer see the panther. He could see only the eyes of the Ogre-King, dark now with the joy of death. The blade slashed across his throat, and he saw his own blood spatter the Ogre-King's face.

Blair gasped awake, clutching his throat. It was whole, he knew it was, but he could still feel where the knife had cut, still see the blood spurting. He sat up, careful of his ribs, and tried to calm himself, slow his breathing and his heartbeat to something approaching normal. God, he hated these dreams. Sure, they were interesting, in a purely academic sense; maybe they were even useful. But if the panther was trying to communicate with him, couldn't it let him wake up before he died? And why didn't it ever do anything to help him? Jim seemed to have a lot of confidence in it, but he wasn't sure he did. Jim had said that, in his dream of the panther, Blair was gone. Maybe the panther didn't want to help him at all. Maybe it wanted to get rid of him.

Maybe he didn't want to think about it. He definitely didn't want to go to sleep again. He was sick of sleeping. He'd only retreated to his room because six hours cooped up with Officer Steve Connelly, the man who lived, breathed, and ate the book, had been more than he could stand. He'd tried to get along because Jim asked him to, but he could only take so much thinly-veiled contempt before the urge to show Connelly what a thick-headed jerk he was got so strong that he either had to get away from him or explode. Connelly might be a good cop, but he was a lousy babysitter. He also ate enough for three men. Not that it showed. He probably spent five hours a day working out. Not something Blair Sandburg would ever do.

"Want some coffee, Officer Connelly?" Blair asked, pouring himself a mug. "How about a donut?"

"You got any?"

"No." Blair grinned. "I just wanted to see if you'd go for it."

Connelly scowled, and muttered something under his breath. Blair's grin widened, but he left it alone. It was dark; Jim would be home soon,and Officer Steve would go back into his box, or wherever they kept plastic policemen at night.

The sound of a key in the lock stopped the mug halfway to Blair's mouth. Connelly stood, reaching for his gun. The door opened, and Jim walked in.

"Everything okay, Connelly?"

"Yes, sir." Connelly visibly relaxed. "All quiet."

"Good. You can go now."

"Yes, sir."

Connelly went to the door. Jim tossed his keys onto the table. A flash of color caught Blair's eye, the rainbow strands of woven cord that trailed from his keyring. His keyring. Not Jim's. "I'll use yours."

"Oh my God."

Jim held the door open for Connelly. "Something wrong, Chief?"

The panther leaped. The mug fell from Blair's numb fingers, shattered on the floor, coffee splashing everywhere. "You're not Jim Ellison. Connelly--"

Connelly started to turn, to go for his gun. Jim's double smashed the door into Connelly's face. He staggered, and the double clubbed him down. Connelly hit the floor and lay still. The double shut the door, and smiled.

"I've missed your ass, Chief."

The double moved toward him. Blair stood his ground, knowing he couldn't outrun Jim. But this wasn't Jim. Maybe he was slower, maybe--too late, he was too close now. Do something, Sandburg! Don't just stand here and wait to die.

Blair grabbed the coffeepot and flung the contents into the double's face. Screaming, the double clutched at his eyes. Blair dropped the coffeepot, and ran for the back door. Footsteps pounded behind him. A hand tangled in his hair, yanking him back, and an arm snaked around his neck, lifting him off his feet, cutting off his breath.

"Nice try, Chief," the double said in his ear. "But the coffee wasn't hot. Too bad."

Blair fought, but the double ignored his struggles, increasing the pressure on his throat. Fireworks burst in front of his eyes. He clawed at the arm, fighting now to breathe, heart slamming in his chest. He couldn't get any air, couldn't loosen the vise around his neck. The world went gray, edged with red. Then everything was black.

Jim flipped his cell phone open. Okay, so he'd already called the loft four times today; he might as well let Blair and Steve know he was on his way home. From what neither of them had said, he knew they weren't getting along. Connelly would be glad to get out of there, and Blair would be just as glad to get rid of him.

His own voice came across on the answering machine. Damn! Jim flipped the light on, and floored the accelerator, weaving through traffic like a madman, narrowly missing half a dozen civilian vehicles. If Simon found out about this, he'd be in it, but he didn't care, not now. Dammit, he should've known one uniform wouldn't be enough. It wouldn't be enough to stop him, why had he thought it would stop another Sentinel?

The truck screeched to a halt in front of the apartment building. Jim leaped out and through the door. Gun drawn, he crept up the stairs, trying to focus as Blair had taught him, to extend his hearing as far as the loft. There was nothing, no sound at all. The door was open. He could see Connelly lying just beyond, hear his heartbeat, his breathing. Nothing else. There was no one else in the loft. No one alive.

Not-quite trusting, Jim kicked the door open all the way, and flattened himself against the wall. Nothing happened. He surveyed the room before entering, following procedure despite what his senses told him. There was coffee all over the kitchen floor, the coffeepot and a mug smashed. Coffee footprints led toward the back door: two sets, one small--Blair's--the other larger, about his own size. They didn't get as far as the door. About six feet away, they jumbled together, then the larger prints went back, fading as the coffee dried. There was no sign of the smaller prints.

Jim searched the rest of the loft because he had to, because he had to make absolutely sure that Blair's--that Blair wasn't here. He came out of Blair's room, and black streaked across his vision. He blinked, and shook his head. God, don't let it happen. Don't let his senses go out on him now, when Blair needed him. He had to find the kid before his nightmares came true. But how? Where could he look? This guy could have taken Blair anywhere, even out of Cascade. Sentinel abilities were useless in a situation like this. Dammit, what was he supposed to do?

Black again, the gleam of a sleek coat, the flash of a golden eye. Then it was gone. He waited, but it didn't reappear.

"Listen," Jim said aloud. "Listen, I did what you wanted. I made the choice, I took that step. I'm going on with this thing. But I can't do it alone. I need a Guide. I need Blair Sandburg. Help me find him." Nothing. "If he dies, this is over. You hear me? Whatever you want--I won't do it anymore! Damn you, help me!"

A black tail disappeared through the door. Connelly stirred, moaning. Jim helped him to sit up. "You okay, Steve?"

"Yeah." He rubbed the back of his head. "I mean, yes, sir."

"What happened?"

Connelly thought about it, and frowned. "I think maybe I got hit harder than I thought, sir."

"Just tell me, Connelly."

"It--it was you, sir. You came in, and Sandburg freaked. He said it wasn't you. Then something hit me. That's all I remember. Sorry, sir."

"Get to the phone. Call Captain Banks and tell him what happened. Tell him the double's got Sandburg."

"Yes, sir. Where are you going, sir?"

Jim glanced into the hall. The panther paced, tail switching impatiently. "I'm--following a hunch. Tell the Captain I'll call him if it pans out."





Blair woke with a deep breath, and wished he hadn't. He coughed, and his ribs knifed him, and his throat felt like someone had lit a torch in it.

"Here," a familiar voice said. Jim's voice. "Water."

He felt a plastic cup against his lips, and obediently opened his mouth. Water slid down his throat, soothing some of the burn. Some of it spilled down his chin, and he started to wipe it off, but pain shot through his arms when he tried to move, pain that reached to his cracked ribs and squeezed the air from his lungs.

"Take it easy, Chief."

Jim wiped the water from his face. His fingers trailed over Blair's lips. No! Blair jerked his head aside and opened his eyes, stared into a blue gaze lighter than his own, one he knew and didn't know. Fear twisted inside him.

"Good boy," the double said. "Just in time."

"For what?" Blair croaked, barely audible to anyone but a Sentinel.

Jim's lips stretched in a smile. "To die."

Oh God. Blair looked around him, the movement straining muscles in his neck. He was naked; even the bandage around his ribs was gone. His arms were stretched overhead, tied with some kind of cord that looped over a beam in the ceiling. His feet weren't touching the floor. He couldn't feel his hands, but the least movement sent red-hot wires through his arms directly to his ribs, making it hard to breathe. He couldn't tell where they were. It was just an empty room, with a low ceiling and a wooden floor. He could see stairs at one end, going down. An attic, maybe?

The double stood right in front of him, his eyes on a level with Blair's. "Seen enough, Chief? I'd give you a tour, but there isn't time."

Anger mixed with the fear. "Stop calling me that! I know you're not Jim Ellison. Who are you? Why are you doing this?"

"Questions. Always questions." The double spread his fingers on Blair's chest and pushed. Blair swung back and forth, clenching his jaw against the pain, fighting to breathe, until the double gripped his waist and jerked him to a stop. He couldn't suppress a cry, and the double smiled. "Your curiosity got you into this, Chief. Are you sure you want the answers?"

He had to stall, give Jim time to find him. If Jim could find him. God, please let Jim find him. The panther's eyes gave him courage. Are you afraid of a wizard with no power?

"What's the matter?" Blair sneered. "Afraid to tell me?"

Fingers knotted in his hair and yanked his head back. Jim's face pushed close to his. "Attitude? From the boy whose ass I fucked four days ago?" Jim's features melted, and Blair stared at his own face, heard his own voice begging. "Don't! Please, Jim." Jim's eyes bored into his again. "Where was your attitude then, Chief?"

Blair's voice was a whisper. "You're a shapeshifter."

"Right the first time." The double let go of his hair and patted his cheek. "I knew you were a smart boy."

"But--how?"

"There's a lot you don't know about Sentinels, Chief." The double smiled. "Guess you never will."

The pat turned into a caress. Blair tried to twist away, but he couldn't escape the hand on his face. The double traced his jaw, ran a thumb over his lips.

"Pretty boy," the double whispered. "I wanted to keep you alive. I tried, but you wouldn't follow the plan."

Blair swallowed bile. He was not going to be sick in front of this psycho. "What plan?"

"My plan. You were supposed to leave, abandon Ellison and your research."

"Why?"

"Let's just say I don't like competition. Or notoriety."

"Competition? You mean Jim? This whole thing is about him? It has nothing to do with me?"

"It has everything to do with you, boy. Without you as his Guide, Ellison's nothing. Easily taken care of."

"So you're trying to eliminate every other Sentinel in the world?"

"Not all of them. Whatever's left in the jungle--they can have. But this is mine."

"This? How big is your territory? Cascade? All of Washington? Just how much do you think is yours?"

The double's hand crushed Blair's jaw. "I don't 'think' it's mine, boy. It is mine. All of it. 'From sea to shining sea.' It's all my hunting ground. And you and your kind are my prey."

The second it came out of his mouth, he knew he was going to regret it. "You are one sick bastard, you know that?"

A fist smashed across his face, set him swinging. He couldn't breathe. Blood filled his mouth, and he spat it out, straining to draw air into his lungs. His vision went black, but he fought to stay conscious, terrified of what would happen if he didn't. Jim, God, Jim, hurry up. Please.

The swinging stopped. When Blair's vision cleared, the double had moved. He stood behind a camcorder mounted on a tripod, fiddling with something.

"What are you doing?"

"Oh, come on, now, Chief, that's obvious," the double replied. "I'm going to record your death."

"Why?"

He grinned. "I knew you'd ask. Curious right to the end. It's so the whole world will know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that you were murdered by Lieutenant James Ellison of the Cascade PD."

Blair shook his head. "They won't believe it. They know you're not Jim."

"Who knows? Banks? Ellison himself? Who'll believe the murderer and his long-time friend when they've seen the tape? No one. No, once they've seen this, seen with their own eyes the way Ellison butchered you, the public will want his head. And they'll get it. Believe me."

There was a small table next to the tripod, covered by a white cloth. Knives of various sizes were laid out neatly on the cloth, along with other instruments Blair didn't want to think about. The double picked up the biggest knife, its blade a foot long, reflecting the light of the bare bulbs overhead. Taking a red scarf from his pocket, he walked toward Blair, twisting it into a narrow rope.

"I'm afraid this is going to make it harder to breathe, Chief, but I can't have you telling people I'm not the real thing, can I? I'll take it off later, when you can't do anything but scream."

The blade slashed across his throat, and he saw his own blood spatter the Ogre-King's face. Stall, Blair, stall. You're supposed to be good at talking, say something before he gets that gag on.

"Wait!"

The double paused, the same half-smile on his face that Jim used when the older man was humoring him. "What is it, Chief?"

Show me your true face. Blair bit his lip. Let this work. Please let this work. "Let me see your face. Your real face."

"Why?"

This called for a shrug, but he couldn't manage that. "Curious right to the end. Come on, who am I going to tell?"

The double studied him for a minute, then shook his head. "Sorry." He lifted the gag toward Blair's mouth.

"Fine," Blair said hastily. "Forget it. I've already seen it anyway."

The double laughed. "Sure you have, Chief."

The gag touched his face. He twisted away from it. "Brown-eyes-black-hair-in-a-ponytail," he said in a rush. "Sound familiar?"

The gag dropped to the floor. Metal gleamed, and the knife pricked Blair's throat. "Who told you?" the double demanded. "Who?"

Blair tried not to swallow. "The panther showed me."

The double looked around in alarm. The knife turned, the edge of the blade slicing into Blair's skin. "When?"

Blood trickled down his neck. "Just before you showed up."

"No! No, dammit! He can't be here!" The blade cut deeper. "You're lying!"

"I'm not! I swear! How else would I know what you look like?"

The pressure of the knife eased. Blair remembered how to breathe. The double walked away from him, and came back, wearing his own face. His eyes dark with the joy of death. Oh shit. Oh no. Jim, please--

"This changes things," the double said. "No time to play now, Chief."

The knife flashed toward his throat. Blair closed his eyes.

"Hold it!"

"Jim!"

Jim stood on the top step, gun out, aimed at the double. The double shook his head.

"Impossible. I didn't hear you coming."

"I had help," Jim said. "Drop the knife. Now."

The double ducked behind Blair. One arm wrapped around his waist, the other pressed the knife to his throat. "I don't think so, Ellison. You wouldn't want to lose your little Guide here, would you? Drop your gun and kick it over here." Jim hesitated. The knife bit, and Blair tried not to flinch. "He's already bleeding, Ellison. Do you want to watch him die?"

"Jim, no--"

Jim's gun hit the floor. He moved his foot, and Blair heard the gun scrape across the boards. No. God, no.

"Come up here," the double ordered.

Jim stepped off the stairs, moving closer.

"That's far enough."

Jim stopped. "Let him go. You've got no place to run."

"Let him go?" the double echoed. "So you can have him? Of course, you've never really 'had' him, have you, Ellison? Living with him all these months, and you never once fucked his tight little ass. I had to do it for you."

Blair closed his eyes. Oh God. Oh God, just let him die, right now, so he'd never have to face Jim again.

"Let him go!"

"Did he tell you all about it, Ellison? How I fucked him, and he thought it was you? Did it make you jealous? Or did it give you a hard-on just thinking about it? Too bad you missed your chance."

A muscle twitched in Jim's jaw, the only visible sign of his anger. "Backup'll be here in a minute. You can't get away."

The double laughed. "Sure I can, Ellison. They'll think I'm you."

Jim shook his head. "Not without Blair, they won't. You'd better take him with you."

"Jim," Blair gasped. "What are you doing?"

"He's trying to save your life," the double stage-whispered. "Won't work, though. I can't let you or your guide live, Ellison. Boy goes first. Say good-bye."

Darkness leaped from the shadows. Blair glimpsed white claws, white fangs in a red mouth. The double shrieked, and fell back, releasing his hold on Blair. The knife flew from his hand, skittered across the floor. Blair craned his neck, but he couldn't see the double or the panther. Something heavy slammed into his legs, and his body swung forward until he thought his arms had been torn from their sockets. Pain crushed his ribs, and he cried out.

The double dove past him, going for the knife. Jim lunged to stop him, caught his leg, and dragged him back, but he was too late. The double twisted up and landed a punch on Jim's jaw. Jim rocked back, and the double jumped him. The knife plunged toward Jim's chest. Jim grabbed his wrist, straining to keep the blade away. They rolled, struggling for control of the knife, hit the stairs together and went over, crashing down to the level below.

Blair swung, helpless, fighting to breathe, to stay conscious. His vision kept going in and out, and his heart was hammering so hard that it hurt. He could hear the sounds of fighting below, but he couldn't see anything. Jim would win. Jim had to win. God, please, let Jim win.

A cry chilled him. Jim. Oh God, it was Jim. There was nothing else, no sound but his own shaky breathing. Then footsteps on the stairs. Blair fixed his gaze on the stairs, praying. Jim. Jim. Oh please, it had to be Jim.

Jim's head came into view. He climbed the last stairs, bloody knife in hand, and stepped out onto the floor. Blair nearly fainted with relief.

"It's okay, Blair," Jim said. "It's me. The real me. Are you all right?"

"Yeah," he managed, ashamed of the way his voice shook. "Just get me down, okay?"

"You got it."

Jim swung the knife like a machete, slicing through the cord. Blair dropped, but Jim caught him, steadying him until he could stand on his own. Jim cut the cords that bound Blair's hands, and stuck the knife into his belt. Blair's arms fell to his sides. It hurt like hell, but he was determined not to make a sound. Tingling feeling began to return to his hands, and he knew that would hurt in a minute, too. At least it was easier to breathe.

Jim grabbed one of his hands and started rubbing it, trying to restore the circulation faster. Fear pulsed through him, and Blair almost pulled his hand away, but he forced himself to leave it in Jim's grasp, to let him help. Jim was his friend. Jim had just saved his life.

"Thanks for coming, man. I was--I was afraid you wouldn't make it."

Jim shook his head. "You kids today. No faith."

"Um, what about the--the other guy?"

"He won't be bothering us anymore."

"You killed him?"

Jim glanced up. "You got a problem with that?"

"No."

"Good." Jim let go of his hand, and caught the other one, giving it the same treatment. "He was right about one thing, though."

"What?"

Jim smiled. "Fucking you, Chief. I do get a hard-on just thinking about it."

Oh my God. Oh my God, no! Blair wrenched his hand out of the bigger man's grip, backing away. He stepped on something hard, and fell. Jim's gun! Blair scrabbled for it, snatched it up in shaking hands that could barely feel. He rose to his knees, trying to keep the gun steady.

"What'd you do to Jim?"

"Ellison's dead."

"No!"

The double slid the knife from his belt. "Come on, now, Chief, you don't have to die. You can be my Guide."

"Get away from me! I'll kill you, you son of a bitch!"

"You? Little Blair Sandburg, boy-anthropologist? You couldn't kill anyone. Give me the gun, Chief, before I have to hurt you."

Blair shook his head. The double lunged at him. Blair threw himself back, his finger squeezing the trigger. The gun went off. The double flew back, and slammed to the floor. Blair dragged himself up to sit with his back against the wall, watching him, the gun still in his hands. The double didn't move.

"Blair?"

Jim came up the stairs, one hand clamped to his side. His shirt was soaked with blood. Blair watched him come, afraid to speak, afraid he'd somehow been wrong, that he'd been out of his head and shot the real Jim, and this man was the double.

"Blair, are you okay? Dammit, Sandburg, answer me!"

"I shot him." Blair couldn't think. "He said you were dead, and I shot him."

Jim knelt, and put a bloody hand to the man's neck. "He's alive. Backup's here, with an ambulance. You didn't kill him, Blair. You did what you had to do, to stop him. If you hadn't, he would've killed us both."

Jim held out his hand. "You can let go of the gun, now."

Blair just stared at him, afraid.

"It's okay, Blair. I'm the real thing. Look." Jim backed up, and pulled up the unconscious man's head. It wore the face he'd seen in his dream, the face the panther had shown him. "He can't hold it when he's unconscious. You shot the right man, Blair. It's over. He can't hurt you anymore." Jim dropped the double's head, and moved toward Blair, hand outstretched. "Come on, Blair, give me the gun."

Blair couldn't move. Jim reached out and took the gun from his hands. A massive shudder shook Blair's body, then turned to trembling that wouldn't stop. His teeth chattered, and he was afraid he'd be sick, and he didn't want to do that, not here, not in front of Jim. His eyes closed, and he sank back against the wall, holding his ribs. He was so cold, and he hurt so much. He felt a touch, and stiffened, but he was too tired to fight anymore, too tired even to open his eyes. Arms went around him and pulled him away from the wall, against a body that was warm and solid. He feared pain, but none came. The arms held him, warming him, and fear dissolved. Blair relaxed, feeling safe for the first time in what seemed like years.

"It's okay, kid," a voice said softly. "It's okay."

He was vaguely aware of other people, and movement. The arms wrapped a blanket around him, but he didn't know where it had come from. After a while, the shaking stopped, and the arms let him go. Blair roused enough to open his eyes, looked around for Jim, and found him close.

"Jim. You're hurt, man. You need a doctor."

"I'm fine, Blair."

"But you're bleeding."

"Not much. A couple stitches will take care of it. There'll be another ambulance here in a minute, for us."

"What happened to the first one?" An image flickered in his mind, of the double lying unmoving on the floor. "Oh."

"You did good, kid. You saved both our lives."

"Who, me? Blair Sandburg, boy-anthropologist?"

"Nope. Blair Sandburg, my partner."

Blair digested this for a moment. "So, you could say I'm an invaluable asset to the department, huh?"

Muscles twitched while Jim worked to keep a straight face. "Sandburg."

"Yeah, Jim?"

"Don't push it."

The school bus jounced over the dirt road, creaking its slow way along. Perched on the first seat, Blair held on with one hand and clutched his duffel bag with the other, straining to see what was ahead of them. There it was, right where it was supposed to be: Jim's truck. Jim remembered. Of course he remembered, Jim never forgot anything. Nothing anybody said, nothing anybody did. "Did he tell you all about it, Ellison? How I fucked him, and he thought it was you?"

The bus clanked to a halt, and Brother Michael opened the door. Jim swung down from the truck, waiting for him. "I've wanted to do this for a long time."

No! This wasn't the double, it was Jim. Jim didn't want to hurt him, Jim was his friend, dammit. The only interest Jim had in his ass was saving it, and he'd done that more times than Blair could count. He was not going to do this. He was not going back to the fear. Ponytail was not going to win.

"Are you all right, Brother Blair?"

"Yeah." He stood up and moved toward the stairs. "I'm going."

"You know, you're welcome at St. Sebastian's for as long as you want. You don't have to go now."

"Yes, I do." Now or never. "Thanks, Brother Michael."

He stepped off the bus. The door closed, and the bus rattled off, leaving him alone with Jim. Jim walked toward him, and he tensed, running one hand up and down the shoulder strap of his duffel. Dammit, he was not going to do this! It wasn't fair to Jim. Jim smiled at him, and he did his best to return it.

"How you doing, Sandburg?"

"Okay," he said, knowing that wasn't enough. "Better. Thanks for picking me up."

"No problem."

Jim reached for his duffel bag. Blair flinched back, and ducked his head, feeling his face go hot.

"Um--thanks, I've got it. The ribs are healed." He raised his arms and took a deep breath. "See?"

Jim nodded. "The bruises are gone."

Blair tossed his bag into the truck and climbed in. Jim started the trip back to Cascade. They rode in silence. Jim was never much for talking, and Blair didn't know what to say, how to start. When he'd last seen Jim, he'd been a shaking, hysterical wreck. After Jim rescued him, they'd kept him overnight in the hospital, then let him go home, to the loft. He'd been there for three days. Three days of constant nightmares and flashbacks, of flinching every time Jim came near him, jumping whenever he heard Jim's footsteps. It had gotten so bad that he'd been afraid to come out of his room, afraid that he'd see Jim and it wouldn't be Jim, afraid that Jim's face would melt into one with brown eyes and black hair in a ponytail.

Jim had talked him into going to St. Sebastian's. It hadn't taken much. He'd been so glad to get away from the loft--away from Jim--that he'd have gone almost anywhere.

"So, what did you do for three weeks?" Jim asked.

"Meditated. Talked to Brother Marcus. Thought about things." Tried to get my sanity back. "You know."

"Yeah. I know."

The silence returned. He had gotten his sanity back. Most of it, anyway. He didn't have nearly as many nightmares now, and he hadn't had a flashback for a week. Until he saw Jim. He'd get over those. They'd stop, and he'd be okay. Talking to Brother Marcus had helped a lot. Ex-mobster or not, the grandfatherly monk always gave him a sympathetic ear and sensible advice. His mind wouldn't heal as fast as his body, but it would heal. And to help it along, he had an appointment with a counselor in two days. That was Jim's idea, too.

"Did I miss anything good?" he asked. "Gang wars? Jewel thieves? Anything really cool?"

Jim laughed. "No, Sandburg. Nothing really cool. Just the usual stuff."

"Oh."

God, this was awkward. He'd never felt this way around Jim before, and he hated it. Jim was his friend! And now he couldn't even talk to him. All because of that bastard he'd privately dubbed Ponytail.

"So, what's happening with--um--the case? Any idea when he's going to trial? Or did he plead guilty?"

Jim's jaw-muscle jumped. Uh-oh. "He's gone, Blair."

"Gone?" He couldn't breathe. He couldn't-- "They let him go? They can't have let him go! The tape--"

"The tape is why he's gone. The Feds took him."

"Took him where?"

"We don't know. Some guys in suits and dark glasses viewed the tape, saw the--the shift--and the next thing I knew, he and the tape were gone. Officially, neither one exists."

Blair couldn't stop shaking his head. "They can't do that!"

"They did it. I'm sorry, Ch--" Jim hit the steering wheel with his fist. "I'm sorry."

"He was supposed to go to prison!"

"Blair, believe me, he's in prison. A life sentence."

"You don't know that!"

"Yeah, I do. I worked for guys like that, remember? He won't get out. Ever."

Blair pushed his hair back and held it there. Breathe, Sandburg. Nice, deep breaths. You know the drill. Just breathe, and try to let go. Try to forget that the man who tried to ruin your life and then kill you is going to be a government guinea pig instead of a convict. Maybe it's better this way. They'd have let him out of prison, eventually. Now he'll never get out. Jim says so. Jim wouldn't lie to you. Jim's your friend. Just let go. It's over. It's all over. You'll never have to see Ponytail again, never have to testify about what he did to you. Let it go. God, let it go!

Silence, for a while. For a long while. Blair looked out the window, trying not to think, not to remember. Jim kept his eyes on the road for the most part, but every so often, Blair felt the gaze of the ice-blue eyes. He wanted to say, "Now who's giving concerned glances?" He wanted to say it, but he didn't.

"Are you okay with this, Blair?" Jim asked.

He shrugged. "I'll have to be." A question came to his mind, one he'd been wanting to ask since Jim rescued him. There'd never be a better time. "Jim, that night--how'd you find me?"

"The panther."

"For real?"

Jim nodded. "He led me to the house."

"You keep calling the panther 'he'. How do you know?"

Jim hesitated. "You'll think I'm crazy."

Blair grinned. "Ellison, I already do. Come on, spill it."

Jim shook his head, and told him all about the panther. How it had haunted him when they were in Peru, and finally turned into a man, a man who had demanded that Jim make a choice: to go forward with the Sentinel thing, or give it up. It was fascinating, but the more Blair heard, the more hollow he felt. This was important. It was important to Jim's development as a Sentinel, and important to Blair's studies, and Jim hadn't bothered to tell him. Hadn't trusted him. He had to know.

"Why didn't you tell me?"

"I couldn't talk about it."

"With me, you mean."

"With anyone. Come on, Blair, you know stuff about me that no one else knows. I haven't told anyone else about this and I don't intend to. It's just too weird."

Blair accepted that. He had to. He went back to staring out the window, wishing the ride was over.

"You coming to work tomorrow?" Jim asked.

Blair froze. "I should check in at the U, clean up my office--but yeah, I guess so. If you want me to."

"I'm working on a case. Smuggling. It might be just small stuff, but my gut tells me it's big. I could use your help."

Like he believed that. But it was nice of Jim to say it. "Sure."

"I'm serious. The stuff's coming in from Kenya, Mombatu artifacts. You lived with them for a while, didn't you? You'd know if these artifacts are real or fakes?"

"Yeah." He couldn't believe it. Jim really did need his help. "Yeah, I could probably tell you that."

"Great."

"There's a problem, though."

"What?"

"I--um--sort of quit. I gave my ID back."

Jim took something from his pocket and tossed it to him. Blair caught it, and stared at the plastic rectangle with his picture on it.

"Simon kept it in his desk," Jim said. "He thought you might want it back."

"He did?"

"Don't look so surprised, Sandburg. You know Simon never takes anything you say seriously."

Blair opened his mouth to reply to that, but couldn't think of anything to say.

"By the way, Sandburg," Jim said, "who's Mirelle?"

"Mirelle?"

"She's left about a dozen messages on the answering machine. Something about a book?"

"Mirelle!" Blair smacked himself in the forehead, and faced Jim, ignoring the grin on his partner's face. "Images and Light in French Films of the 1950's! Oh, man, I was supposed to give that back to her a month ago! Jim, you should see her, she's--"

Reality hit. Blair stopped his babbling and turned away, staring at the dashboard. Who was he kidding? Mirelle would never want to have anything to do with him. A man who'd been raped, who couldn't defend himself. Who wasn't a man. She'd look at him and, somehow, she'd know, and he couldn't bear to see the disgust that would transform her features, the revulsion. He couldn't call Mirelle, he couldn't go near her. How could he be with any woman, ever again?

"Are you okay, kid?" Jim asked.

Blair met Jim's eyes, because Jim was his friend and all he had, all he might ever have for the rest of his life, and he needed someone. Someone who knew, and didn't despise him for it. Someone who wouldn't kick him out of his life, no matter what. Someone who wouldn't hate him.

"Jim," he whispered. "What am I gonna do?"

The End