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
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,
"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."
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
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.
"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?"
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
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."
"There's a problem, though."
"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
"Don't look so surprised, Sandburg. You know Simon never takes anything you say
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?"
"She's left about a dozen messages on the answering machine. Something about a
"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,
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?"